A common meme in the liberty movement is that if we can’t achieve liberty by the ballot box, then we’ll get it by the ammo box. I say neither will work since both strategies have failed for more than 200 years. That being the case, let’s examine why violence against the state will never usher in an era of liberty.
Empirically, violence has always bred more government and more taxes. Contrary to the popular notion, Americans actually paid more in taxes after the revolution than they had as British colonists. When the hidden tax of inflation is calculated, Americans were burdened far more greatly by government than they had before. The so-called Civil War is another history of this. The first income tax was imposed to pay for the war, and the federal government’s first fully fiat, non-redeemable currency was issued. In ever conflict since then, government has grown and liberty has waned. This is not something libertarians don’t already know.
Robert Higgs attributes this predictable growth to the “Rachet Effect.” When an emergency or crisis ensues, the government seizes additional powers until the threat is neutralized. After which, only a portion of those new powers are relinquished. It sets a precedent for future, presumably legal, actions that the government can then build on. It’s called the statism jig. Go three steps forward and take one step back. It doesn’t always have to be a war that leads to the ratcheting. Times of severe economic turmoil also provide an excuse for government to expand. It is just as important to remember that not all the expansions can occur simultaneously. Each precedent builds on the past and then justifies the next expansion to correct some new dilemma created by previous government meddling. Again, libertarians already know this.
I understand the sentiment that government is in a constant act of coercion against us, so it would be just to reciprocate in kind. The fault I see is on the exaggerated importance of the self-defense principle. In everyday practice, self-defense is of almost no importance in most people’s lives. If you’ve got someone bearing down on you with the intent to do harm, OK, I see how someone might react to defend him- or herself. When violence is taken against someone who has a perceived sense of legitimacy, that person is going to attract the sympathy of his or her supporters. When terrorists attack the government, no one who believes in the legitimacy of the government is going to side with the attackers, even if their grievance is legitimate. The government can justify garnering more power in order to protect against “the extremists.” Power will increase and liberty folds. For illustration, imagine a scenario where a family is killed by armed intruders. Everyone would recognize that is wrong. Just recall how that feels to hear about a story like that and how justified you think the family would be to act in self-defense. But what if I said those who broke into the home were police officers there to enforce a law that violated their rights? I do not think that the vast majority of people would support that family firing back at the police even if the law they were enforcing was unjust. I think that is because the vast majority of the population views the government, and by extension the police, as legitimate. The thought of firing back at the police makes even me uneasy, a regular reader of William N. Grigg’s blog on the abuses of the police state. So if war is the health of the state, then police shootouts are its recommended daily allowance of credibility.
But what if we could smash the state entirely with a swift uprising? That will take leadership and a command structure. Odds are, that leadership would just take command of the existing government infrastructure and enact even tighter controls.
If the revolution comes by violence, and in advance of light, the old struggle will have to be begun again. — Benjamin R. Tucker
Force cannot solve problems. It can delay the inevitable, like another hit of heroin delays an addiction withdraw. The longer one waits to address the root of the problem, the more costly — and dangerous — it will be to correct course. What it does is entrench opinions and create animosity for future conflicts. This is electoral politics. Ludwig von Mises proved axiomatically of the vital importance of individual liberty in “Human Action” in 1940. Conventional politics could not deliver when government was 20 percent this size. Inadvertently, electoral politics spreads the state. It corrupts its supporters and softens their impact because their ends and means are in conflict.
If Voting and Violence Have Failed, What Are We Left?
We have to be willing to make the hard choices to live in liberty — today. That begins by correcting the mentality that made authoritarianism possible. Then we will begin to see those changes in philosophy reflected in those currently hegemonic institutions. That is the hard work before us, removing the veneer of legitimacy. It does not offer quick gains like a revolution. We have to evolve past the cycle of violence of regurgitating inadequate solutions.
I recall a story from Brian Doherty’s “Radicals for Capitalism,” which I deeply recommend reading. I think it was William F. Buckley who would criticize libertarians for sitting around discussing the deontological conclusions of libertarianism, like why sanitation disposal should be marketized. He asked what good their philosophizing did in a time when the nation is staring down the Soviet Union in the Cold War, which he compared to a close combat gun battle. Someone responded, I don’t recall who, that you can’t make mistake after mistake and avoid negative consequences by just making one correct decision by following your principles. But nevertheless, it is important to know why sanitation disposal should be marketized so that everyone else in the future doesn’t make those same mistakes. That’s how I remember the story, anyway.
Libertarians are already considered “out there” for believing in the silly idea of individual autonomy. Don’t make it easier to marginalize us. Uphold your agreements, honor your peaceful neighbor’s choices, and provide restitution for any damages you inflict.
Here is an excerpt from Mary J. Ruwart’s “Healing Our World,” to reinforce the point.
Like our country’s founders, we don’t need to choose between the ideal and the practical. Since the means used dictate the ends attained, only non-aggression can give us a peaceful and prosperous world. Since aggression results in poverty and strife, it is neither ideal nor practical. Non-aggression will eventually become the norm because thankfully it is both ideal and practical.