The nature of the state cannot be unseen
At some point in time, every libertarian realizes a fundamental truth about their government: underlying every law, every regulation, and every tax, no matter how well intentioned, is violence.
Governance is a rule structure to regulate behavior. Governance exists in families, clubs, corporations, and more. Unlike these other voluntary organizations, government can resort to force or violence to coerce people into obeying these rules.
Now consider Max Weber’s definition of a state as an organization that claims the legitimate use of violence over a territory.
Ever wonder what happens when a government is still working to establish that legitimacy? Check out this article from the NYT called “Predatory Islamic State Wrings Money From Those It Rules.” It talks about how ISIS demands various fees for travel, fees for doing business, and taxes for anyone within their territory. They’ll arrest people, pull their guns out on them, and hurt anyone who doesn’t comply. The NYT and other news sources are rightly appalled by this behavior.
However, using violence to develop obedience and acquiescence in a territory is an ancient and widely used political tool of statecraft. For governments that are new or that have lost the consent of the governed, those violent conflicts take place in the open. [i]
In more mature and stable governments where few people question their legitimacy of law, the state rarely turns to such naked acts of aggression. Most of the time people willingly obey the law, respect the rights of others, and accept the consequences of breaking a law. Citizens assume that their taxes are providing some useful services and laws are designed to protect them in some way. Even so, the threat of force is always present.
If you want someone to follow a law and they refuse, how will you make them comply? We’ll break down one example: paying taxes.
Let’s say you decide not to pay your taxes. It could be that you’re taking a principled stand about how your tax dollars are used or you just don’t want your money taken. Good for you, we all need some Civil Disobedience every once in a while. What happens when you don’t pay the tax man?
- First, the IRS will demand that you pay. You’ve already decided not to do that. They may add fines to increase your burden.
- If you refuse to pay your taxes and fines, the IRS will attempt to seize your property. They could garish your wages or just steal your stuff.
- If the IRS is unable to seize your property or damage you financially, they’ll try to arrest you and send you to jail.
- If you decide to resist arrest, the agents of the state have the option to hurt or kill you.
You can go through these steps with any tax, law, or regulation and come to the same conclusion: if you refuse the orders of a government, they can hurt you if you resist being detained and accepting the government’s prescribed punishment.
This isn’t to say that every law, tax, or act of government is immoral, but it does beg the question of how far you’re willing to let go to control someone’s behavior.
How another example like paying a paying a parking ticket? If it doesn’t get paid, are you willing to send someone to jail for that? Is it okay to fine and possibly jail someone for not mowing their lawn like they do in Missouri? What about wearing saggy pants? Is it fine to use a SWAT team to stop the sale of raw milk?
When we think about the war on drugs, substances like marijuana undeniably have some negative consequences. But are you really willing to kidnap someone and throw them in a cage because they’ve voluntarily bought, sold, or used a product? Was it just to kill tens of thousands of people, jail millions of non-violent offenders and spend trillions of dollars in a failed attempt to curb drug use?
How about stopping a murderer?
Yes, we may need to use violence to stop someone from hurting another person. In The Law, Fredrick Bastiat called the government “the collective organization of the individual right of lawful defense.” We use the police to socialize the defense of life, liberty, and property for individuals.
The good of having the police to enforce laws against assault, theft, or fraud outweigh the bad of ceding some judicial authority to a state in certain instances. The difficult part is developing laws that maintain peace and order without violating the fundamental rights of individuals. Even in some situations where police are trying to prevent harm to others, they should take measures to deescalate the situation non-violently before resorting to force. Some taxes may be necessary to provide police to enforce those laws and provide other basic government services.
This article hasn’t scratched the surface of the waste, unintended consequences, and compliance costs of government dictates. We haven’t talked about whether punishments within a lawful system further justice nor have we touched unjust laws or abuse of state power. We’ve only talked about the legitimate laws that could come out of the normal legislative process under any state.
But if you can get someone to understand that enforcing every single law may require violence, you’re forced to be honest about what you’re really willing to do to enact your vision for society. Most people, realizing the violent nature of this system, will conclude that many laws just aren’t worth the damage they’ll cause. If we can get someone to understand that single unforgettable truth, there’s a good chance they’ll be libertarian too.
[i] Let me clarify that the Islamic State is an awful situation where terrorists are using draconian rules and a disproportionately brutal system of punishment to solidify their particular brand of Islamic fascism over territory in the middle east. This thought process is musing on the fundamental political technology of a state regarding compliance and police detention in a system of law. Legal rights, court systems, and proportionality of punishments for convicted criminals are a different matter.