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An upcoming miniseries by Paramount about the 1993 Waco massacre has kicked up some fresh discussion of the events. If you are unfamiliar with the story, a recent episode of the Scott Horton Show will fill you in. Sadly, Waco is not a totally isolated incident. It is only one of the better-documented cases of federal abuse of power. The facts of the Waco case, involving coverups, destruction of evidence, intimidation, propaganda, and exceptionally disproportionate use of force, show an ATF and FBI completely run amok.

Until Murray Rothbard made the case that the state was an unnecessary evil, classical liberals and other free-marketers held that the ideal governing system was a minimalist, “night watchman” state. Many still do. There is strong evidence in the debates surrounding the United States Constitution that the founders thought they were creating this kind of restrained night watchman.

How did the minimalistic federal machinery designed in the 1780s become the militaristic imperial force that slaughtered an oddball religious sect in 1993 and remains rampant to this day? Thomas Jefferson said that the cost of a free society was eternal vigilance, but can the size and capriciousness of these federal institutions be explained just by a lack of vigilance?

The Rothbardian analysis of the state says that the state differs from everything else in civil society in that it does not have a profit-and-loss feedback system rooted in voluntary exchanges. With the powers to tax and to create money, there is no mechanism for the state’s “customers” to withdraw their consent for anything that it does. Elected politicians eventually get negative feedback by getting voted out of office, but since the beginning of the 20th century the federal government is constituted more and more by a permanent bureaucracy whose budget rarely shrinks and is mostly unaffected by elections. Theory would predict these institutions grow and grow while their interests diverge farther and farther from those of the Americans they ostensibly serve, and that is exactly what we see in grisly federal escapades like Waco.

Without any mechanism in place for legitimate resistance, vigilance doesn’t seem to matter. Americans who were vigilant to the abuses in Waco are merely cursed to watch in horror as similar crimes are repeated ad nauseam. The terror will continue until these agencies are abolished, or replaced by something resembling private security forces.

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