While in England recently I visited Buckland Abbey in Yelverton, Devon, the home of Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596). As every English schoolboy knows Drake is famous for successfully raiding Spanish ships loaded with treasure from the New World, being the first man to circumnavigate the globe, and helping to defeat the Spanish Armada. Of course, the Spanish see things differently, so every Spanish schoolboy knows that Drake (whom they call ‘El Draque’ or ‘The Dragon’) was a merciless pirate who made away with much of the gold being legitimately transferred to Spain. A little less well known by both sides is the fact that Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was personally involved in these buccaneering ventures, often loaning her own ships and/or owning shares in the ships of Drake, Hawkins and other merchant adventurers.
When Drake returned from one of his expeditions in 1579 after capturing the Spanish treasure ship, The Cacafuego, Elizabeth closeted herself with Drake for a six hour private meeting in which she agreed to allow Drake to amply reward himself and his crew from the booty. Drake used a small part of his share to purchase Buckland Abbey while the Queen reserved for herself an amount that, it is estimated, exceeded a full year’s expenditure for the entire realm.
It is difficult for us moderns to comprehend that, at the time, no distinction was drawn between the public and private capacity of the Queen. Elizabeth was expected to ‘live off her own’, to finance government from crown lands, feudal dues and customs. It was virtually impossible to draw a line between official naval expeditions and private commercial enterprises, which as described above, were frequently synonymous with buccaneering. In addition to the Queen, virtually all of her ministers invested in such enterprises and benefited significantly in terms of their personal fortunes. Of course the Queen of England could never admit in official circles that this was the case so, lying and propaganda were routinely used to provide ‘cover’ and ‘legitimacy’ for the crude fact that the State was being used as an institutional machine of plunder.
Historians and political theorists will argue that by 1714 all this had changed and Parliament had wrested complete control of finance, the executive and all its actions – including foreign policy, which both the Tudors and Stuarts had regarded as their private preserve. While this is true it does not necessarily mean that the State had changed in substance as opposed to just form. Indeed, I want to suggest that the modern State, despite all the changes that have taken place over the last 350 years, is still, at its core, an institutional machine of plunder. There are only two ways to meet ones needs. One is by the voluntary production and exchange of wealth, as when one starts a business, goes to work for someone or simply exchanges a good or service. This is the economic means. The other way is by forcibly taking the wealth that has been produced by others. This is the political means. The State is the institutionalization of the political means.
Instead of Elizabeth and her ministers plundering civil society to pursue their own ends, the modern State plunders its citizens at the behest of a diverse and ever changing slew of interest groups ranging from congressmen, banks and unions, to corporations, environmentalists and the military. However, the State continues to employ the political means and so remains at its core an institutional machine of plunder.
President Obama recently attempted to deny this by claiming that the State was an essential ingredient of the American success story. He said:
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all the companies could make money off the internet.”
What he didn’t mention was the fact that the entire bloated edifice of the State is only made possible because productive members of society are forced to labor 147 days of the year to pay for it. Furthermore, it is ludicrous to claim that if the State did not provide them we would not have teachers, roads, bridges or the internet. The truth is that civil society is being bled dry by an overweening State that threatens to kill the hen that has, until now, laid the golden egg of American prosperity.
“The state is that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else.”
“But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.” Frederick Bastiat