Discussing the Compassion of Violence

What follows is an e-mail discussion stemming from a quote I posted on my Facebook profile. The exchange serves as a proxy for the merits of participating in a system, namely governing others by force, that you fundamentally oppose. I was reading some Rothbard, as I am apt to do, and I came across this Frank H. Knight quote.

The probability of the people in power being individuals who would dislike the possession and exercise of power is on a level with the probability that an extremely tender-hearted person would get the job of whipping master in a slave plantation.

Challenging the premise that one who opposes torture should not practice it, Tarrant County political activist and adviser Chris Howe responded.

How does this quote square with this advice?

That while the probability of a tender-hearted person getting the job of whipping master is low, that should the job be offered, the tender-hearted person should reject the job of whipping master? Instead they should gather around with other tender-hearted people and from a distance complain among themselves: “Oh that new whipping master, he shouldn’t be beating and shackling those men with inalienable rights. It would be far more economical to offer to pay those men a wage and let them come and go from the plantation as they saw fit. The plantation owner would then realize that they wouldn’t need a whipping master to ensure the work got done. Think of the savings”?

I completely understand the limitations on personal resources argument. There is only so much leisure time and only so much of that time to expend toward liberty causes. I know this well as I’ve stretched myself thin. But to leave the bounty of a field that you have sown to rot in the sun strains reason.

If there are other fertile fields available that your skills are better suited, certainly pursue those instead. Just make sure there is someone qualified to offer your arguments on that board. [Note: I made a few punctuation edits to each of Chris’ original e-mail to conform to the style on this site. The board referenced in his last sentence is a committee a resident had the opportunity to serve on in a local city.]

I can certainly see Chris’ point about the desire to minimize the immediate harm inflicted. It should also not surprise us, especially Bastiat readers, especially when the means conflict with the ends, that short-term benefits may have unintended consequences. TANSTAFL! [Interestingly, the hypothetical has present-day implications as many libertarians view the current social construction as a form of enhanced slavery.]

I responded.

I think the quote is addressing the corrupting nature of power as much as anything. That is, for a person to become a master whipper, he or she must have taken several steps to be awarded that position, like practicing as an apprentice and proving him- or herself as an effective torturer. So that, even if that young apprentice was at one point a kind and gentle person, all that has been sapped from him or her by leading this contradictory life that on one hand sanctions violence and on the other feels mercy. In the pursuit of greater power, the master whipper most likely would have rationalized in favor of the slave master’s opinion that slavery is proper, and or necessary, to rule others by force.

In a sense, I agree that it would be silly and dumbfounding to just complain amongst ourselves about the violent nature of government. I believe that the most powerful forces in the world are ideas, but they must be expressed to have any effect. Yet those who find value in controlling others are more concerned about votes, money, and staying in power to care about such esoteric concepts.

What I would suggest is that rather than playing damage control, we should go on the offensive, presenting and practicing consistently the ideas of complete liberty, reason, and objective morality (and probably join the Free State Project) to demonstrate to others the practical benefits of our ideas by working together to thwart the arbitrary controls others seek over us.

From The Market for Liberty:

We can bring about a laissez-faire society, but only through the tremendous, invisible power of ideas. Ideas are the motive power of human progress, the force which shapes the world. Ideas are more powerful than armies, because it was ideas which caused the armies to be raised in the first place, and it is ideas which keep them fighting (if this weren’t true, political leaders wouldn’t have to bother with their tremendous propaganda machinery). When an idea gains popular support, all the guns in the world cannot kill it.

In addition, I feel reluctant to compel political independence upon others. If it reassures some to be ordered about and commanded on high, then that is their wish. A great source of antagonism people have with libertarians is they feel they are being “forced” into this mysterious new world without a safety net. Fortunately for them, I am certain that there will be no shortage of people willing to tell others what to do. That I am certain of. And the safety net of the state will not be necessary as we will live in greater peace and abundance.

Chris then responded.

You’re conflating.  The quote is referencing a whipping master, not a master whipper.  It’s a position, not a skill set.  He even mentions “get the job.” He’s referencing that it is an anomaly for an individual who does not like power to seek a position of power.

While the economics of that is true, it’s not the result of a moral people who are capable of governing themselves.

I feel it is a semantic difference. In any case, I think that these various forms of institutionalized oppression are the products of people’s misunderstanding of the necessary conditions for human flourishment. We can probably agree that statism is the most apparent form of oppression, but it is by no means the only one. Even if solid libertarians were to somehow capture control of the government apparatus and sabotage its controls, people would just transition their ideals of how society should function to another vehicle. Meanwhile, our efforts are diverted and principles abandoned (by making political payoffs) to maintain that hold on government. The state is only the current means. It is only the most convenient vehicle for delivering oppression because others grant its legitimacy on some fragile hinges called national security or free riders. Statism is the pretext, an excuse for controlling others.  So long as the notion prevails that one person’s benefit is another person’s loss that pretext will exist. I’m afraid that by confining this individualism philosophy to one aspect of human interaction, in politics, we have diminish the explosive impact of what a society or the bounds of human nature could achieve.

An approach I’ve been trying to develop in my own mind is something of an inside-out approach that focuses on personal development and self-improvement for ourselves and those around us. I think we can realize the benefits of these concepts (emotionally and materially) in a real concrete way. I also think this is more consistent with the principles of individualism because it focuses on changing individuals’ opinions primarily and institutions secondarily, if at all. A certain type of individual will flock to the message of liberty because our message is clear, consistent, and conforms to their own experiences and understandings. If you ask me how this will play out, I can’t say. I agree with Nathaniel Branden that now is the time to showcase the dignity of our volitional nature and exemplify the heroic nature of our accomplishments. I don’t think either is possible with a whip in your hand.

This discussion has been a benefit for myself, because I have been thinking of how to reconcile practicality and principles. Ayn Rand spoke to this better than I could. Those insights continue to bloom in my own mind. I guess I should stress that I don’t think participating in government, through electoral politics for example, is unprincipled. I’ll save what I think those standards to engage the government should be for another post. Also, I want to thank Chris, whom I consider as righteous and politically aware as anyone I know, for letting me share his comments on the site.