September 1, 2016 | by Dr. Tom G. Palmer

This is the fourth part of a new blog series from Dr. Palmer on the topics featured in his new book Self-Control or State Control? You Decide, which can be downloaded for free here.

Isn’t it interesting how often government leaders use passive voice to refer to their bad decisions? “Mistakes were made,” “The intelligence was flawed,” “Things got out of control,” etc., etc. And even when they say “I take responsibility,” they almost never actually take responsibility by, say, resigning or reimbursing or even apologizing to the victims of their decisions; they just go on about their business with nary an apology or a look back. Any American politician who says “I take responsibility” is really trying to tell us all to “Move along now ... nothing to see here.”

Politicians, however, are very eager to hold all the rest of us, as taxpayers and citizens, responsible for obeying them and paying our taxes. If taxpayers and common citizens fail to obey, the politicians are likely come down on them like a hammer.

The phrase “I take responsibility” has been heard in connection with a U.S. presidential candidate, so I’ll avoid taking on what could be seen as a partisan issue and instead reach back some years to another official whose decisions led very clearly to the deaths of 26 children. After the incineration of children at a compound in Waco, Texas, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno stated of the cause, “I made the decision, I’m accountable, the buck stops with me, and nobody ever accused me of running from a decision that I made based on the best information that I had. I don’t do spin stuff, and I’m not distancing anybody from anything. I’m telling you exactly what happened.” And then? Nothing happened. Reno did not go to prison for the deaths of those children, nor for the deliberate lies told under oath. Nor did anyone else, other than the survivors of the attack.

This pattern is repeated over and over. Common citizens may be fined, imprisoned, and even killed for disobeying, either willfully or mistakenly. Violation of a law, or even of an unlawful command, will yield merciless punishment for common citizens — and no repercussions at all for state officials. State officials are rarely held accountable for quite deliberate violations of the laws that govern them, or of the oaths they take to uphold them. That must be changed. Everyone must be accountable, and no one should be above the law.

The rule of law does not entail unquestioning submission by citizens to commands issued by state officials — not at all. Rather, the rule of law is an essential ingredient, not in servile submission, but in freedom. Each person, including government agents, bears responsibility for observing the rule of law, which is not the same as the issuance of commands or edicts backed up by force. The rule of law is about general rules. As Nobel laureate economist Friedrich A. Hayek explained in The Road to Serfdom:

under the Rule of Law the government is prevented from stultifying individual efforts by ad hoc action. Within the known rules of the game the individual is free to pursue his personal ends and desires, certain that the powers of government will not be used deliberately to frustrate his efforts.

No law can be enforced merely by violence. All laws require at least some degree of voluntary compliance. That is far more true of the rule of law than it is even of edicts and commands, for the rule of law requires that government agents — who hold power — voluntarily submit themselves to the rules, from which they might be able to escape by lawless exertion of their powers. Responsibility and self-control is a key requirement for the enjoyment of liberty, no less among politicians, police, and bureaucrats than among citizens. In fact, more so.

Responsibility: It’s not just for taxpayers and citizens.

This is the fourth part of a new blog series from Dr. Palmer on the topics featured in his new book Self-Control or State Control? You Decide, which can be downloaded for free here.

Dr. Tom G. Palmer portrait
Dr. Tom G. Palmer is the executive vice president for international programs at Atlas Network and is responsible for establishing operating programs in 14 languages and managing programs for a worldwide network of think tanks. Learn More about Dr. Tom G. Palmer >