Wednesday, September 20, 2006

There's A Gun In the Room

(With due props to Stefan Molyneux for the analogy…. - LJ)

I received a comment today regarding something I said in my last post. When I stated, “the State’s only method of action is the initiation and propagation of violence”, I was accused of making sweeping generalizations and, presumably, guilty of profound intellectual naïvete. As I reflected on the ensuing conversation, it dawned on me just how strong the desire exists for people to rationalize the State and all its works into being something other than what it really is, namely, an institution which operates not through voluntary and cooperative means, but by coercion and force. To paraphrase Stefan Molyneux of Freedomain Radio, pointing out that there’s a gun in the room makes people very uncomfortable, and thus moves them to make rationalizations, advance strawmen arguments, change the topic of conversation, or simply engage in denial about what is ultimately and objectively true - ie. that the gun exists. Now, while I could simply encourage everyone to go download all of Molyneux’s marvelous and enlightening podcasts, or to read Murray Rothbard’s masterful essay, Anatomy of the State, I will rather attempt to shortly explain in a logical and concrete fashion what is so plainly obvious to libertarians, but so horrendously ignored by Statists.

As I attempted to explain to my critic, the State works by one means and one means alone: violence (or at least the threat thereof). Anytime the State levies a tax, passes a law, or issues a regulation, obedience is mandatory. It is completely irrelevant whether or not you agree that the law, tax or regulation is for a good cause. Failure to comply will result, eventually, in the arrival of men with guns (aka police, SWAT teams, FBI agents, IRS agents, ATF agents, the military forces, etc.) at your door to apprehend you, and forcibly relocate you to a jail cell to await more proper punishment. If you resist, these agents have the authority to use the weapons they armed with, and shoot you dead on the spot.

For example, let’s say the government passes a law that says, “All people over the age of 21 must dye their hair red.” What are the real effects of this? Do you have the free choice in this matter? Are you free to simply ignore this weird request? Are you free of any adverse consequences for non-compliance? Of course not. You must dye your hair red, or else. Now, maybe at first you’ll just get a ticket. A cop pulls you over and writes you up for not having those fiery locks. Now you face a court date. If you ignore the summons, then the men with guns will hunt you down. If you go to court, maybe you get a fine. Well, if you ignore the fine, again…armed men hunt you down. Anyway you slice it, the State will get compliance out of you or you will be punished in a variety of ways. And whether or not it actually turns to violence is measured only by the degree to which you obstinately refuse to acquiesce. Nowhere in the logical progression of this string of events, beginning with the initial demand to dye your hair red, are you simply free of escalating harassment for non-compliance.

Now, let’s say instead of the government, Procter and Gamble issues a press release saying the exact same thing: “All people must dye their hair red.” How is this different? What happens if you ignore Procter and Gamble’s demand? Why nothing, of course! Procter and Gamble has no such power to force anyone to do anything. All they can do is exhort, persuade, negotiate, plead, and beg for you to do something. Procter and Gamble cannot send men with guns to your house to apprehend you. If they do, is virtually indisputable that you would be completely justified defending yourself with whatever means necessary.

So what is the lesson here? Anytime we ask government to do something – anything at all – we are asking that violence, or the threat thereof, be employed in affecting some stated goal. It matters not whether the goal is frivolous, as in my offered example, or something noble, such as helping the poor or liberating Iraqis. The irrefutable fact of the matter is that government works only by violent, coercive means. It works no other way. The private sector, by contrast, is peaceful and civilized. The free market recognizes the moral integrity of every individual, recognizing that we each retain control over ourselves, and we interact with each other with dignity and respect. If I don’t like what you do or think or have, I can only seek to persuade you to change. Forcing you to change because I am stronger is how the State works, and which is why politics brings out the most barbaric elements of humanity.

So the counter to all of this is that old view of the State as a social engineer. We vote for people who set policy on all things ranging from war making, foreign policy, infrastructure, domestic issues, and the torturing of dark-skinned non-Christians in gulag-like prisons located in Third World countries. We achieve miraculous things through the State, because Democracy creates community, and political action is the highest expression of society’s values. The State marshals society’s resources to provide things that will improve humanity, and elevate us to Utopia.

Honestly, I have to say that it’s refreshing to hear someone actually admit that they view the State as that entity which is responsible for molding them into a better person. Granted, a bit shocked that someone actually believes that politicians are better capable of managing their lives, and those of their loved ones, then they are - but hey, Statism is a profoundly powerful faith. The argument seems to go, without government, many of the things government provides – like roads (why is it always "the roads" with Statists?) - would simply up and vanish. We’d all be riding horseback to work through 20 feet of snow that isn’t plowed by government employees. So, logically, we are to assume that because we need roads, then government must take $2.7 trillion away from the productive sector, wage war around the globe, ruin our education and health care systems, systematically destroy our currency, encourage the criminal underworld with its gun control laws and the War on Drugs, enslave the poor in a cycle of welfare state dependency, block economic expansion by squashing entrepreneurship and free enterprise, and a whole slew of other catastrophic effects manifested by State action. All of these things, you see, are for the betterment of mankind. Because one can point to one or two arguably nonobjectionable government services, we must keep the entire apparatus because its all the “price of civilization”.

Yes, yes, I know…. I’m blowing it out of proportion. (Well, not really. ) But in relation to the need for roads as justification for the entire State, is it ridiculous for me to make the claim that someone who worries about whether or not we’ll have roads, while a whole slew of monumentally bigger problems plague civilization is putting the cart before the horse just a bit? Even if the aforementioned “necessary” government services were to disappear without a State, wouldn't it be worth seeing if alternative methods of delivery of these services weren’t possible, while simultaneously abolishing all of the other evils of the State? Forget “the baby and the bath water”; what we are looking at is tossing out a penny at the bottom of a vat of toxic waste!

But back to the objection at hand. Does the State create “community”? And whose values are ultimately expressed in a majoritarian system? Well, the last time I checked, it seemed to be in the area of politics where people have the most vitriolic conflicts. For example, take the whole teaching evolution vs. creationism debate. No matter what your opinion of the particular topics, the fact is, because education has been politicized, ordinarily inane topics such as curriculum content elicit the most virulent disputes, spawning huge industries of talking heads whining and complaining about a culture war. People who want their kids to learn evolution and not creationism, are at odds with their neighbor who wants something different, and only one side can win the argument (and force their views on the loser). So tell me…what “community” exists when such conflicts arise from politics? When 51% get to make 100% of the decisions, and the other 49% might as well have stayed home. Whose voices are raised, and whose are squashed?

Sorry, Virginia… The State destroys community. It does not foster it. Majoritarian democracy censors and represses minorities, and breeds conflict. It does not mitigate conflict and elevate society.

Is it surprising? Philosophically considered, do we really experience fulfilling, nurturing, joyful relationships with those around us when we interject violence into our interpersonal dynamics? When it’s pointed out that there is a gun on the room, who should feel the most uncomfortable? The one who points out the gun, or the one who’s reaching for it?


Blogger doinkicarus said...

Jason - a very cogent argument! It is refreshing to see such well-thought out, logical arguments in defense of liberty.

I'm reading Omnipotent Government right now (which is a nice follow-up to Road to Serfdom, which I read some time ago), I think Mises (like many great men before and since) erred terribly in the assumption that the state is a necessary evil. That they implicitly recognize that the state is "evil" ought to have raised the question: "Why necessary?"

10:35 PM  
Anonymous Libertarian Jason said...

Doink -

Admittedly, I am beginning to rethink my views of the State. I've been a minarchist for as long as I've been libertarian (possibly longer)....but if truth be told, I may be evolving into an Anarcho-capitalist. I'm not there yet...but I can feel my intellectual momentum heading that way.


7:14 AM  
Blogger The Libertarian Guy (tm) said...


Well-done. Mind if I print hard copies of this for distribution at our local LP candidate functions?

7:54 AM  
Anonymous Clawg said...

It's true, but keep in mind that 'violence' is not necessarily 'evil'. The violence involved in the case you are physically assaulted (or robbed, defrauded etc.) is 'evil', true. But is self-defense 'evil', too?
Sure, I can hire my own private police force, but who decides what 'self-defense' is? Each of us individually? At some point you need a respected institution with an (more or less) objective point of view, with a monopoly on the initiation of force for self-defense, i.e. a police force, a judical system and a legislative body, let's call it 'government'.

But I agree with you that the temptation for that institution to go beyond their actual rights (i.e. the right for self-defense) is great, its boundaries have to be unmistakenly defined in a constitution and watched closely by its citizens.

9:52 AM  
Blogger doinkicarus said...


It is a fallacy to suggest that mortal, fallible men can draft an unmistakably perfect constitution, and that such a document would be sufficient to restrain calculating, misled, or purely evil individuals who are largely unconstrained by an ignorant, disorganized population. The citizens simply cannot watch the government, which ought to be reason enough to question its necessity.

Regarding your question about the etymology of the word violence: It is the initiation of force, its application, or the threat thereof that constitutes "violence."

Self-defence is emphatically not violence, it is a moral obligation to anyone who believes in freedom. Self-defence is never an "initiation" of force, as you describe the necessary condition of government monopoly, it is always and everywhere a retaliation to a preceding violation.

11:34 AM  
Anonymous Mindmesh said...

Great argument. I'm going to send it to a few people I argue with and see if I can provoke a response. Great Job!

11:51 AM  
Anonymous Libertarian Jason said...

Lib Guy...

Be my guest!

Where are you from?


12:03 PM  
Anonymous Libertarian Jason said...

Clawg -

What Doink said....


Doink -

Thanks for the assist.


12:05 PM  
Blogger Stefan Molyneux, MA said...

Thanks for the kind words, and very nicely written - can I read it out in a podcast?

Stefan Molyneux

9:01 AM  
Anonymous Libertarian Jason said...

Stef -

I would be honored!!


10:02 AM  
Anonymous Clawg said...

Is it also a fallacy to suggest that mortal, fallible men can create systems like mathematics?
Drafting a constitution is of course much more difficult as there are many unknown factors and there isn't much research done in that direction as it is in e.g. natural science.
But just because so far every single constitution had serious problems doesn't mean that it can't be done.

I agree with your second point, a simple document (which is basicly just an 'idea') has no power itself, the power basis always is and always has to be the population.
But your argument works in both ways, in a system without a government there is some sort of 'constitution' (that says that there is no government), too.
By creating local governmental structures (e.g. Mafia) people can corrupt that system.

The question is which one works better and is more stable? The idea of 'no-government' is of course much easier to understand and to apply than a complex form of constitution, balance of power etc..
On the other hand there are constitutions that are based on a well defined system (e.g. Objectivism) that also provide a clear understanding whether the current form of government / an action of the government is according to the constitution / the underlying principle or not.

Anyways, when it comes to the point in time where the majority agree that most actions of a government is evil and only argue whether they want to live either with a minimal government or in anarchy, the world already is a much better place ;)

7:40 AM  
Blogger Libertarian Jason said...

Is it also a fallacy to suggest that mortal, fallible men can create systems like mathematics?

The difference is that mathematical systems are things that can be tested and retested for validity and accuracy, and through rigorous logical examination proven to be true.

Furthermore, men did not make 2+2 equal to 4.... 2+2 IS equal to 4. Man did not make mathematics anymore than he made the laws of gravity.

1:22 PM  
Blogger doinkicarus said...

mathematical systems were "discovered" by man through the scientific method that LJ outlined above. They were not created ex nihilo.

2:20 PM  
Anonymous Clawg said...

Well, if you want to call it that way...
Mathematics is based on Axioms and everything derived from these Axioms is 'true' by definition.
You can do the same with a constitution, except that your Axioms need to be according to reality, as the constitution has to act within the system of reality.

Social structures can be scientifically examined, tested and validated, too. It's just much more difficult if you examine a whole system than by deriving it step by step from axioms. A complex differential equation is much more difficult to examine if you haven't defined yet how to correctly add.

Maybe Anarchy IS the only the system that is true according to reality, but you would have to prove that first. Not by example or discussion but by deriving it from Axioms.

9:49 PM  
Blogger doinkicarus said...

No, clawg. The the burden of proof lies with the party making the positive claim; i.e., that Statism is justified. He must prove and justify calls for violence, threats and coercion. Once the burden of proof has been fulfilled, and it has not, then and only then is the burden shifted to the anarchist.

Anarchy is the radical idea that other people are not your property.

11:52 AM  
Anonymous Clawg said...

"Once the burden of proof has been fulfilled, and it has not, then and only then is the burden shifted to the anarchist."

Are you familiar with Objectivism and/or their justification of Government monopoly of force?

"Anarchy is the radical idea that other people are not your property."

How would you put that in practice?
You can't just individually decide whether one action does or does not harm another individual. You have to prove your case in front of others of the society.
If I beat you, how can't you be sure that it wasn't self defense on my part?

You see, I agree with the goal, i.e. that the system should be constructed in a way so that other people are not one's property. The question is who should decide if someone used force?

PS: Statism is radical, not anarchism ;)

2:49 AM  
Anonymous Libertarian Jason said...

You can't just individually decide whether one action does or does not harm another individual. You have to prove your case in front of others of the society.

Well, aside from the fact that it IS fairly obvious to determine whether someone has been harmed or not...if someone has a claim of damage against another, and seeks restitution, there are ways to resolve disputes that don't involve government. Have you ever heard of arbitration, mediation, etc?

Again... I fail to see why government _must_ provide dispute resolution services.

7:33 AM  
Blogger doinkicarus said...

"You have to prove your case in front of others of the society."

You've got it backwards again. It is not my responsibility to prove that my actions don't harm you. In the event that you feel you've been harmed, it is your responsibility to prove that my action or negligence was the proximate cause thereof.

7:38 AM  

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