XLIII – The Indecent Nature of Political Society

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

While
out walking the other evening, I observed one of my neighbors confronting
a small group of boys, perhaps twelve years in age, on the sidewalk
next to a government school playground. It appeared that the boys
had taken trash from two school dumpsters and strewn it around the
playground. As they were walking away, my neighbor — who lives across
the street from the school — politely yet firmly insisted that they
clean up the mess they had made.

This
man's persistence must have paid off, for upon returning from my
walk, I noticed the trash had been put back into the dumpsters.
I also noticed that my neighbor had an American flag flying from
the front of his house, from which I infer his support for the "war"
against the Iraqi people. I wondered if the thought might have crossed
his mind that these young boys had only been doing to the school
playground what the Bush administration has been doing to Baghdad
and other Iraqi cities: trashing the property of others.

Upon
returning home, I watched a television news report of an incident
at the United Nations headquarters in New York. As the result of
an impromptu strike by cafeteria workers in the building, the building's
restaurants and bars had been locked and left unstaffed. Not to
be deprived of food, a top UN official directed the cafeteria doors
to be unlocked. Food, bottles of liquor, silverware, even furniture
were taken, without payment, by UN diplomats and other employees
in a literal feeding frenzy described by an executive of the food
service company as "chaos, wild, something out of a war scene."
Time magazine reported witnesses saying that people were
"taking everything in sight; they stripped the place bare."
Another snack bar and lounge in the building was also looted, with
one observer stating "I stopped counting the bottles"
of liquor that were stolen.

It
continues to amaze me that so many people are surprised by this
kind of behavior. Why? What other kind of conduct should people
expect from political systems, given that all are grounded in violence,
disrespect for the lives and property of individuals, and other
forms of behavior which, if engaged in by our friends or neighbors,
would cause us to cut off all relationships with them?

The
US disregard for the lives and property of Iraqis was evident from
the continued, heavy bombing of Baghdad. Why, then, were Americans
shocked to see Iraqis looting museums, libraries, banks, and other
businesses, or American journalists and soldiers allegedly partaking
in the plunder of Iraq? The state set a destructive example that
was easy for others to emulate. The young boys I observed on the
playground were doubtless familiar with the reporting of such events,
as well as viewers of the endless newscasts glorifying, as "heroes,"
the American pilots and soldiers who had been responsible for the
massive destruction inflicted upon Iraqi cities.

It
should come as no surprise to any adult that political systems are
inherently disruptive of people's lives; that government regulation
inhibits creativity, production, and the exchange of goods and services;
that war, the greatest abomination of all, is essential to
the well-being of the state, while the lives of millions are routinely
sacrificed to the power interests of those who profit from political
behavior. Thomas Hobbes observed that a stateless society would
render our lives "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,"
a proposition that is part of the catechism of every dedicated statist.

But
history and current events have refuted Hobbes. It is the state,
not its absence, that threatens the well-being of us all. I have
frequently observed – in response to those who dismiss my views
on the virtues of a stateless society – that political systems,
in the 20th century alone, killed some 200,000,000 human
beings. How many were killed by anarchists? The very existence of
the United Nations — functioning as a super-political system
– is the clearest admission of the failure of governments to
control the violence and disorder generated by politics. When the
"best and the brightest" of the UN can so easily emulate
Baghdad looters, Hobbes' bromide loses its sedative effect.

But
the wounds inflicted upon people in a civil society go much deeper
than the wartime casualties and economic dislocations with which
we are most familiar. Political thinking and systems generate a
fundamental sense of indecency among people, which we are
inclined to act out in our dealings with one another. The more politicized
we become, the more vulgar we are not only toward others,
but in our own characters. As we accustom ourselves to being threatened,
lied to, coerced, plundered, and even killed, we transform our individual
sense of what it means to be human. Having accepted the propriety
of such disrespectful behavior upon our own lives, we are easily
persuaded to apply it to our dealings with our neighbors. As a consequence,
we lose all sense of personal integrity — in the sense of
being integrated and whole persons.

Thoreau
expressed the dehumanizing nature of all political systems when
he observed: "men are degraded when considered as the members
of a political organization." Lord Acton's observation about
the corrupting nature of power has its corollary in the realm of
character: the greater the degree of control to which we are willing
to submit ourselves, the more degraded do our lives become.

Such
degradation fosters both a sense of indecency and loss of
perspective in our lives. I find it curious that so many
people — largely conservatives — can work themselves into a self-righteous
lather over movies and television programs that portray fictionalized
violence against actors, but proudly wave their flags and shout
"hurrah!" at the real violence inflicted upon men,
women, and children who have their bodies torn apart in the wars
upon which they insist. A greater sensitivity to the genuine
suffering of warfare can be had by reading Robert
Higgs' essay of May 2nd that appeared on LewRockwell.com
.

The
institutionalized disrespect we have for both ourselves and one
another derives from our failure to insist upon the ownership of
our own lives and other property interests. The private ownership
of self and property, on the one hand, and the existence
of the state, on the other, are diametrically opposed concepts.
"Government" is defined as an agency enjoying a monopoly
on the use of force within a given geographic area. But the exercise
of force requires something upon which it is to act,
and this "something" consists of the lives and property
interests of individuals who are to be forced.

As
I pointed out in an earlier article, every political system is defined
in terms of how property is to be owned and controlled in any society.
Whether we think of a given system as communist, socialist,
fascist, feudal, or a welfare state, all governments
forcibly confiscate legal title or control of property
that had hitherto been owned by individuals. If one plays out any
action of a government — or any other victimizing criminal! — one
discovers a taking of some individual's liberty to control the decision-making
over his or her own life or other property. You need not take my
word for this: just think through what every tax, zoning regulation,
imprisonment, restriction on your business, prohibition of your
personal conduct or what you may consume, or act of eminent domain
amounts to. War, of course, is the deadliest way in which governments
disrespect the lives and property interests of others.

At
the very least, a decent society is premised upon a mutual respect
for the inviolability of one another's property interests, be they
of our physical bodies or those material and abstract extensions
without which we could not act in the world. We are decent toward
one another to the degree we do not transgress the boundaries of
each other's interests. But political systems cannot function among
people with such a disposition, and so we have been conditioned
in the belief that our "property rights are not absolute."
(Please note the word "our": the state insists
that its "property rights" are absolute,
a proposition you can test by trying to enter a military installation
or any other government facility! Governments insist upon the inviolability
of their interests with the absoluteness of a feudal lord!)

With
our minds so conditioned to accept the necessity of our own despoliation,
most Americans proudly watch the televised return, from Iraq, of
the government-defined "heroes." But upon close examination,
what did their actions amount to other than the infliction of death
and suffering upon men, women, and children who posed no threat
to any American? Where is the "heroism" in the bullying
of harmless people, or the maiming of small children? Iraqis, whose
lives and property had been despoiled by one gang of despots, must
now accustom themselves to a new gang with new symbols, new rituals,
a new pretext for their continued subjugation, and a "new order"
before which they are expected to prostrate themselves.

In
the interim between the subsiding of this brutal attack, and the
next "war" being planned by savage thugs in Washington,
how many of us will take the time to reflect upon what we have made
of ourselves? How many of us will recall more distant voices, now
reduced to barely a whisper, that spoke of human society as communities
held together by the kind of mutual respect that arises only from
an integrated centeredness of the individuals within? How many of
us will ever see the connection between cheering the demolition
of foreign cities and young boys trashing a schoolyard?

Next
Chapter
                               Table
of Contents

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare
  • LRC Blog

  • LRC Podcasts