The Indecent Nature of Political Society

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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?

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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