Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Gun in the Room Part 2 (Part 1 below)

Compliance is not Freedom

First of all, thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts with me about my last article – “The Gun in the Room.” In general, responses tended to fall into two rough categories:

  • Great article!
    - and
  • You’re insane!

Naturally, I do not wish to take issue with the first assessment, so let's have a look at the general objections contained within the second.

Overall, my sanity was questioned because many people thought I believe that the moment a man breaks the law, the government shoots him. In my world, apparently, the moment your speedometer creeps over the speed limit, state snipers blow your head off.

This, of course, would result in a largely unpopulated planet, and therefore I would like to clarify my position on the correlation between breaking the law and being aggressed against by the state.

If you fail to file a tax return, you are not immediately dragged before a kangaroo court, and shot after a speedy and Stalin-esque trial. That takes time. ; ) Rather, you will get a letter – often a rather polite one – asking if there may be some kind of problem. If you do not respond to this letter, very little will happen.

For a while, anyway.

If you fail to file a tax return again, you may get another letter. Or, you may not. Tax authorities will sometimes leave you alone for several years, to bolster their eventual prosecution by showing a pattern of intentional tax evasion.

However, the day will come when you receive a letter that is not quite as polite. In this letter, you will be told to file your tax returns, or face the consequences, which will decidedly not involve just another letter. If you still do not file your tax return(s), you will get another letter detailing the actions will be taken against you if you do not file your tax return(s) immediately. If you continue in your course, you will receive another letter – decidedly un-polite at this point – with a court date, and a list of penalties that will be assessed against you when you are found guilty of tax evasion. Initially, these penalties will be largely financial – back taxes, fines etc. If you show up at the court, you will be found guilty, and large fines will be imposed upon you. If you do not pay the fines – or do not show up in court to begin with – sooner or later, the police will come to arrest you.

When the police come to arrest you, you will be severely discouraged from acting in self-defense, despite the fact that their actions are identical to a “home invasion.” When the policemen break your door down, if you pull out a gun to protect yourself, you will very likely get shot. Even if you do not get shot, your prison stay will be greatly extended because you have now threatened the police in addition to not paying your taxes.

If you attempt to escape from the custody of police – or, later, the prison guards – you also will very likely get shot, and will certainly receive harsh punishment. If, after you are released from prison, you still refrain from paying your taxes, you will very likely spend the rest of your life in prison. (We need not go into the horrible details of what happens in prison – let’s just say that, after your first night, you may have a new appreciation for the legal victims of the “war on terror.”)

The fact that months or years can pass between breaking the law and being violently punished – combined with the reality that most people do obey the state, and thus do not incur such punishments – often confuses people as to the true nature of the society they live in.

To take a parallel example, let’s look at the institution of slavery. Most slaves did not try to run away, and neither did they aggress against their masters. If they worked hard, and obeyed the rules, they were even unlikely to be beaten or deprived of food (though rape was another matter). In other words, a slave could live most of his life without being directly aggressed against. Does that mean that slavery was not enforced through violence? Of course not! Compliance to violence only obscures it, it does not eliminate it.

Let’s take another example. Most people will give up their wallets at gunpoint rather than risk of getting shot. In most robberies, then, no actual violence occurs – only the threat of violence. Do we then believe that no violence occurs unless someone actually gets shot? If a man approaches you and hints that if you do not pay him protection money, your house just might get burned down at some point in the future, is that immoral intimidation?

Mentioning public schools also confused some people. They understood my point about the Iraq war – that you cannot be said to have any right to oppose it if you are forced to fund it – but they could not make the leap to public schools. Let me clarify. If you do not pay the taxes that pay for public schools, the sequence of events that starts with a letter and ends with you getting shot or thrown into the rape room of a government prison also occurs. Not one single aspect of state finance or activity occurs outside the realm of violence. Even the Federal Reserve is based on violence, because if you attempt to duplicate its capacity to counterfeit, or set up your own currency… Well, you know what happens.

I certainly understand that the simple reality of universal state violence makes many people very uncomfortable – and they are quite right to feel uncomfortable! Once you really get this idea under your skin, your life will change irrevocably. You will no longer be tempted to base your arguments on tedious and complicated abstractions. When talking to people about freedom, you will cut to the core of the issues very rapidly. This will have enormous effects on every single relationship in your life. You will very quickly discover the true moral natures of those around you – and this can be quite shocking. So I certainly understand why people are hesitant to accept this idea, and why they prefer to label me as an “extremist” rather than to begin exploring the reality of state violence in their own hearts and with the people around them.

Of course, there is also an empirical method by which the existence of “the gun on the room” can be tested. It’s really quite simple, although I certainly don’t recommend it.

Stop obeying the law.

If you are right, you have just saved yourself enormous amounts of time and money. If I am right, though, we may never see you again – which would be a real tragedy, because libertarianism needs all the supporters it can get!

If, however, you hesitate to flout the rules of the state, then it is important to examine why. If you’re honest with yourself, you will find, as I did, that you tremble in fear before the guns of the state, and that the humiliation of being ordered around for your entire life is almost unbearable.

The solution to the humiliation of forced compliance is, however, to reject the force, not to imagine that compliance makes it vanish. Such magic is beyond us. We must face the reality of the violence we live under. The fact that you have not been arrested does not mean that you are free.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Gun in the Room

“Put down the gun, then we’ll talk.”

One of the most difficult – and essential – challenges faced by libertarians is the constant need to point out “the gun in the room.” In political debates, it can be very hard to cut through the endless windy abstractions that are used to cover up the basic fact that the government uses guns to force people to do what they do not want to do, or prevent them from doing what they do want to do. Listening to non-libertarians, I often wish I had a “euphemism umbrella” to ward off the continual oily drizzle of words and phrases designed to obscure the simple reality of state violence. We hear nonstop nonsense about the “social good,” the “redistribution of income,” the “education of children” and so on – endless attempts to bury the naked barrel of the state in a mountain of syrupy metaphors.

It is a wearying but essential task to keep reminding people that the state is nothing but an agency of violence. When someone talks about “the welfare state helping the poor,” we must point out the gun in the room. When someone opposes the decriminalization of marijuana, we must point out the gun in the room. When someone supports the reduction of taxes, we must point out the gun in the room – even if one bullet has been taken out.

So much political language is designed to obscure the simple reality of state violence that libertarianism sometimes has to sound like a broken record. We must, however, continue to peel back the euphemisms to reveal the socially-sanctioned brutality at the root of some of our most embedded social institutions.

I was recently involved in a debate with a woman about public schools. Naturally, she came up with reason after reason as to why public schools were beneficial, how wonderful they were for underprivileged children, how essential they were for social stability etc etc. Each of these points – and many more – could have consumed hour upon hour of back and forth, and would have required extensive research and complicated philosophical reasoning. But there was really no need for any of that – all I had to do was keep saying:

The issue is not whether public schools are good or bad, but rather whether I am allowed to disagree with you without getting shot.

Most political debates really are that simple. People don’t get into violent debates about which restaurant is best because the state doesn’t impose one restaurant on everyone – and shoot those trying to set up competing restaurants. The truth is that I couldn’t care less about this woman’s views on education – just as she couldn’t care less about my views – but we are forced to debate because we are not allowed to hold opposing views without one of us getting shot. That was the essence of our debate, and as long as it remained unacknowledged, we weren’t going to get anywhere.

Here’s another example. A listener to my ‘Freedomain Radio’ show posted the following comment on the message board:

If you say “Government A doesn’t work,” you are really saying that the way that individuals in that society are interacting is lacking in some way. There are many threads in this forum that address the real debate. This thread’s counterarguments all focus on government vs. free market society. The rules defining a free market are all agreed upon interactions at some level, just as a government is. Don’t debate that a government is using guns to force others, when it’s really individuals with guns, instead show how the other way will have less guns forcing others or how those guns could force others in a more beneficial way.

I responded in this manner:

But – and I’m sorry if I misunderstand you – government is force, so I’m not sure how to interpret your paragraph. Let me substitute another use of force to show my confusion:

“If you say that rape doesn’t work you are really saying that the way that individuals in that society are interacting is lacking in some way. There are many threads in this forum that address the real debate. This thread’s counterarguments all focus on rape vs. dating. The rules defining dating are all agreed upon interactions at some level, just as rape is. Don’t debate that a group of rapists is forcing others, when it’s really individual rapists, instead show how the other way will have fewer rapists forcing others or how those rapists could force others in a more beneficial way.”

Do you see my confusion?


It is a very helpful sign for the future of society that these euphemisms exist – in fact, I would not believe in the moral superiority of a stateless society if these euphemisms did not exist! If, every time I pointed out to people that their political positions all required that I get shot or arrested, they just growled: “Sure, I got no problem with that – in fact, if you keep disagreeing with me I’m going to shoot you myself!” – then, I would find it very hard to argue for a stateless society!

In more than 20 years of debating these issues, though, I’ve never met a single soul who wants to either shoot me himself or have someone else shoot me. I take enormous solace in this fact, because it explains exactly why these euphemisms are so essential to the maintenance and increase of state power.

The reason that euphemisms are constantly used to obscure “the gun in the room” is the simple fact that people don’t like violence very much. Most people will do almost anything to avoid a violent situation. Even the most bloodthirsty supporter of the Iraq invasion would have a hard time justifying the proposition that anybody who opposed the invasion should be shot – because it was to defend such freedoms that Iraq was supposed to have been invaded in the first place! But how can I have the right to oppose the invasion of Iraq if I am forced to pay for it through taxation? Surely that is a ridiculous contradiction, like arguing that a man has a right to free speech, and also that he should be arrested for speaking his mind. If I have the right to oppose the invasion, surely I cannot be forced to fund it. If I am forced to fund it, then any right I have to “oppose” it is purely imaginary.

In essence, then, all libertarian arguments come down to one single, simple statement:

Put down the gun, then we’ll talk.”

This is the core morality of both libertarianism and civilization. Civilized people do not shoot each other when they disagree – decent people do not wave guns in each other’s faces and demand submission or blood. Political leaders know this very well – I would say better than many libertarians do – and so constantly obscure the violence of their actions and laws with mealy-mouthed and euphemistic weasel words. Soldiers aren’t murdered, they “fall.” Iraq wasn’t invaded, but “liberated.” Politicians aren’t our political masters, they are “civil servants,” and so on and on.

Although libertarianism is generally considered a radical doctrine, the primary task of the libertarian is to continually reinforce the basic reality that almost everyone already is a libertarian. If we simply keep asking people if they are willing to shoot others in order to get their way, we can very quickly convince them that libertarianism is not an abstract, radical or fringe philosophy, but rather a simple description of the principles by which they already live their lives. If you get fired, do you think that you should hold your manager hostage until he gives you back your job? No? Then you already hold a libertarian position on unions, tariffs, and corporate subsidies. If you find your teenage son in your basement smoking marijuana, would you shoot him? No? Then you already hold a libertarian position on the drug laws. Should those who oppose war be shot for their beliefs? No? Then you already hold a libertarian position with regards to taxation.

Like the scientific method, libertarianism’s greatest strength is its uncompromising simplicity. The enforcement of property rights leads to an immensely complex economy, but the morality of property rights is very simple – would you shoot a man in order to steal his property? The same complexity arises from the simple and universal application of the non-aggression principle. It’s so easy to get lost in the beguiling complexities and forget to keep enunciating the basic principles.

So forget about esoteric details. Forget about the history of the Fed and the economics of the minimum wage. Just keep pointing out the gun in the room, over and over, until the world finally starts awake and drops it in horror and loathing.