THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 556, February 7, 2010
"It is worth everything you are to think for yourself."
Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise
For many of us the principles of libertythose principles which define libertarianismare elementary. They are the things we learned in kindergarten. There are really two basic lessons that I learned in kindergarten (and I think most children know these things intuitively). The first is that you don't hit other people and the second is that you don't take things that don't belong to you. Aren't these really the basic lessons of libertarianism? Don't these represent the non-aggression principle in a nutshell? No hitting and no stealing? And don't the vast majority of us take for granted these proscriptions as just and good and obvious? Of course "no hitting" and "no stealing" are unsophisticated expressions of the basic libertarian viewpoint, but it is easy enough to extrapolate these ideas to the world in general and to virtually every aspect of human interaction. It is easy enough for the vast majority of us to agree with the elementary notions of no hitting and no stealing except, apparently, when it comes to government.
Now, I have been trying to figure out where the disconnect comes from in so many people's minds when it comes to "hitting" and "stealing" with respect to government. For a libertarian it is axiomatic that a government should not be allowed to do anything with respect to hitting and stealing (aggression) that any one of us is not allowed to do that, at the very least, government should be held to the same standard that you and I are held to in terms of our behavior toward others. The obvious question becomeswhy should any collective group of individuals (say, a abstraction such as government) be allowed the right aggress against others that each of us does not have individually?
Of course, it is argued that government derives its power from the governed, but here's the sticky point: If you and I as citizens do not have the right to aggress against others, how on earth are we able to bestow that right, that power on our government? If I am not allowed to aggress against others and the property and liberty of others, why should representatives, those individuals who constitute what we call government be allowed to do so on our behalf? How do they derive that right from you and I when you and I don't have that right ourselves? It's not ours to give. Of course, I will be accused by some of having an unsophisticated view of government. If they mean by that that I am not inclined to engage in the sophistry and intellectual contortions necessary to justify aggression by the state, well, thank God for that.
And, of course, the argument is made that the aggressions of government are different because they are committed, we are told, for the greater good and on behalf of "society" whatever that really is. Society, again, is a complete abstraction and yet somehow, for some, it seems to be more tangible and real than actual individuals are. If you accept the argument that government can aggress against the rights of an individual because it represents the will and desires of the people it represents, you can just as accurately argue that any aggression (and by aggression I do not mean self defense to which we are all entitled.) committed on behalf of others, for the greater good of others is justifiable.
By that same logic, if I were to steal fifteen goats from my neighbor who owns many goats and then redistribute them to fifteen other neighbors each of whom have no goats, this in order to ensure that every one has a goat, that would be a justifiable, right? If I were to attack another neighbor on behalf of a group of a dozen of other neighbors, handcuff him and lock him in my basement for not doing something my neighbors think he should be doing or for doing something they think he not should be doing (this, independent on whether or not he is harming them or interfering with their lives or liberty) that would be justified, right? No?
What if a thousand of my neighbors got together and made some law dictating how this troublesome neighbor should conduct his personal affairs, gave me a title and some fancy costume with a shiny badge, told me that I could use whatever force is necessary and appointed me to compel this same neighbor to behave in a way they approve of? Would that be okay? What about ten thousand neighbors? A million? Certainly, modern society is vastly more complex than the example of my neighbor with the goats, but does it mean that the principles of non-aggression are no longer applicable because society is complex? Don't those basic lessons we learned as children apply everywhere and all the time? Does being elected to public office exempt you from these tenets of basic decency? And aren't those principles involved in not stealing and not hitting true everywhere and all of the time? Isn't that what makes them principles?
The late and brilliant physicist Richard Feyman has argued that there is nothing that is true that can not be described in ordinary language. Of course, he was referring to the scientific principles, but doesn't that apply just as well to the principles of moral and political philosophy? Of course, then we get into the sophistry aspect of justifying hitting and stealing by the state. The argument goes that my bad neighbor's behavior, regardless of whether or not he is interfering with the persons or property of my other neighbors, contributes to their unhappiness because it offends their sensibilities (or something) and personal sense of morality and thereby has the effect of diminishing their quality of life.
It is also frequently argued that certain behaviors are associated with other behaviors which do interfere with the lives and rights of others. This amounts to rationalization and self justification for trespass in our lives by the state which we would never tolerate from each other as individuals. I am referring to what is generally called victimless crimewhich is an oxymoron if I ever heard oneor vice. A vice is a behavior that some other people don't approve of. Gambling laws, drug laws and gun control laws are examples of this type of thinking. Non-crimes (if there is no victim, there is no crime) become crimes ostensibly because they are associated with or may "lead to" genuine crimes with genuine victims, but this, again, is rationalization which is used to justify using the power of government to compel some to live as others believe they should.
Certainly there is no harm to you and your property if I choose to gamble on the internet or to self medicate with the drug of my choice or if I choose to own a warehouse full of "assault weapons". Yet, for some people, because of the bad things associated in their minds with gambling and drugs and guns and the things these could "lead to" it justifies interfering in the lives of others who have done nothing to harm another human being. Never mind that government is directly responsible for virtually all the harmful behavior associated with gambling and drugs and guns through prohibition and, in the case of guns, war.
This same dynamic applies even on the broadest scale and with the same sort of justifications. "The Bush Doctrine" (with apologies to Sarah Palin) comes to mind, with the notion of "pre-emptive war"the idea that some other nation, however puny and toothless, may someday have the inclination and capacity to attack us so we had better attack them first. Mind you, there doesn't have to be an actual, credible threat. There only needs to be the convenient suspicion and remotest possibility that another nation could plausibly have the means and inclination to attack us at some future date.
If you have ever gone to business meeting with more than a few people you know that there is almost invariably at least one person involved with an hidden agenda and that agenda generally involves obfuscation of and distraction from central issues in order to prevent a common understanding and to hinder progress and consensus. They seek confusion because this is the environment in which they can thrive. In this way, no one can pin them down with respect to what they may or may not be contributing toward the ultimate mission and they can gratify themselves with notion that they are stirring the pot and can impact the world without actually contributing anything of value. If you look at government and society you will see that this same dynamic permeates our public life and politics. Aren't our public lives all about confusion and about distraction from the central issues which plague us? Don't a significant number of our leaders and government bureaucrats also thrive in this environment?
There is another dynamic at play in public life which contributes to an atmosphere which justifies government/bureaucratic interference in our lives which we would never tolerate from each other as individuals. It is the elimination of the idea of personal responsibility. Since, it is claimed, these people are not acting in their own interests, but rather in the interests of society or the country they then feel relieved of personal responsibility for their actions. How often have we heard, in the wake of some horrendous government debacle or breach of the public trust that pathetic excuse for a confession that "mistakes were made"? No individual person actually made them and no one takes any but the most generalized and meaningless responsibility for them, but mistakes were made. Or it's the old "I'm in charge so I take responsibility (although I, certainly, didn't really do anything wrong and you can't really blame me)" routine. We all know this is just a way to avoid any real, personal responsibility and to defuse any notions of individual culpability. I can't think of a single well known high government official in my life time who has not been willing to hide behind this sort of false and meaningless contrition.
We all know people who refuse to take responsibility for their actions and choices. In real life people, sooner or later, suffer the consequences of such behavior. For some reason people in public life are exempted from these consequences to a bewildering degree. These are the people who should be held most responsible for their behaviors and their choices since they often deeply impact the rest of us. It wasn't enough that, say, John Edwards was obviously a self serving, venal, unprincipled politician whose only concern was for his own ambition. No, he had to be revealed to be slimiest possible, most bottom dwelling sort of creature to ever crawl out from under a rock on a personal level for him to finally become well and truly politically persona non grata.
You see this sense of a lack of personal responsibility at all levels of government. You see it with the policewho are really bureaucrats with licenses to kill. In their official roles they exhibit behaviors we would never tolerate from them as mere, individual citizens. How many stories have we read here on Lew Rockwell and how many Youtubes have we seen of the police assaulting and harming other citizens who have done nothing and are doing nothing to harm another person? And how many instances have we seen where these cops are officially exempted from personal responsibility and are often rewarded with administrative sanctions such as extended, paid leave of absences (vacations)?
I have to believe that most cops are decent people and have known some who are and while I do hold those who unjustly abuse fellow citizens personally responsible, I put the bulk of the blame on a system that relieves "public servants" at all levels of personal responsibility for their actions in course of their duties. Since this has gotten pretty long I won't go into it, but another sickening example of this sort of thing is the idea of prosecutorial immunity. Again, it takes someone as blatantly corrupt and dishonest as a Mike Nifong for there to be any real consequences for bureaucratic corruption and even then it takes rich defendants with high powered lawyers to root it out.
It all comes down to personal responsibility of the sort most of us learned in kindergarten. When have you heard a single government bureaucrat take responsibility for pushing through ridiculous legislation with horrendous consequences? When has the answer ever been to admit they were wrong and to eliminate the legislation? How many bureaucratic initiatives have been undertaken in order to address a problem that would not exist in the first place if not for previous initiatives promoted by those who feel qualified to meddle in the lives of other and to stir the pot? The war on poverty has given us more poverty. The war on drugs has given us more drugs and on and on. We have sunk hundreds of billions into these sink holes only to make things worse. Is the answer to rethink either of these and to consider a different approach? Of course not. The answer is to do more of both and to throw even more money down the same sink holes.
And how much contrived and confusing complexity has been infused into our lives? You can't even open a hotdog stand without getting a dozen licenses and permits. It has gotten to the point where it is turtles all the way down. And just as you can be sure that any new government program to address previous failed programs will fail in turn, creating new problems and unintended consequences which will require new government programs, you can be sure that there are bureaucrats who love and thrive on this. They think that this is what civilization is. They don't want people to be able to reduce all of this morass down to the basic principles involved. If people did that, they might see that our problems are not as insoluble and complex as they need us to believe they are.
They want us distracted by this or that meaningless debate or this or that false crisis. What would we need bureaucrats for without the morass of bureaucratic complexity to try to fight our way through? What if people figured out that in order to make for a mostly just and tolerable world all you need to do is apply a handful of basic principles? And what if we already knew those principles because they were among the first things we learned in kindergartenno hitting and no stealing. Their great fear is that we will figure out that we don't need them, so it is in their interest to confuse and obfuscate and to pretend that we need their expertise to navigate through this complex existence. Their great fear is that maybe we could figure out how to get along and share this world without harming or exploiting each other by applying principles that even a five year old understands.