State Violence and Limited Government

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The American right has long dedicated itself to the promotion of limited government — limited to its key functions of cracking skulls, caging sinners and leveling cities. Helpful to this program of state violence is the fact that most people, left, right, center and libertarian, believe that protecting people’s rights to life, liberty and property against foreign and domestic threats is the one unquestionable purpose of government. People tend to consider organized force a legitimate means to defend the innocent against violent criminals, terrorists, and the like.

It is along these lines that the most universally accepted government programs are its most explicitly coercive, and that conservatives tend to go overboard in their enthusiasm for the "legitimate" functions of "limited" government. Liberals and leftists generally favor the soft-and-cuddly side of the state. They want it to feed, clothe, nurse and instruct those in need. They look forward to a utopian future in which the state manages to care for the environment, level the economic playing field, and distribute wealth to the less fortunate. Surely, this political program taken to its extreme can lead to disaster, even mass starvation or totalitarianism. But it is not the nakedly coercive part of the state most exalted by the left. It is the free lunch, not the theft of taxation and the violence of regulation, which drives most liberals in their socialistic designs.

Conservatives, on the other hand, may very well envision a state smaller than do the liberals. But they also celebrate the state’s open violence with far greater fervor. They seek a state that has few laws, including any number that are anathema to the libertarian, and which enforces those laws mercilessly and relentlessly. The construction of prisons should commence and accelerate. The death penalty should be preserved and extended as punishment for a widening class of crimes. Even the gun laws already on the books should be enforced without prejudice. Imprisoned drug dealers and small-time thieves should be forced to suffer their unwritten punishment of submission to their bigger cellmates. In a skirmish with a citizen, the police should get the benefit of the doubt.

There arise many troubles with accepting everything that the state does in the name of protecting "its" citizenry. The state, like any protection racket, has always advertised itself as an organization concerned with defending people from injury. This has always been its main trick, and millions have died at its hands believing it. Inevitably, the list of actions that qualify as proper means of defending people from crime becomes ever longer. Drug prohibition is sold as a way to stop miscreants from becoming violent addicts. Gun control is packaged as a preemptive strike against rapists and murderers. Assaults on due process are described as pragmatic necessity in a dangerous world where the Bill of Rights cannot be a suicide pact. War — the largest and least limited of all government programs — is advanced as righteous self-defense.

When the most prominent government projects involve the iron fist and not the velvet glove — most especially, at wartime — the right will defend and glorify state authority and power over individual sovereignty and liberty in ways that make all but the most collectivist elements on the left appear Jeffersonian by comparison. Many of those who regard the state as enemy on tax day or when it hands out food stamps come to see the police and military as extensions of their own personalities.

On this sixtieth anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we hear all sorts of excuses for those acts of mass terror. The Rape of Nanking justified it. The Japanese were unwilling to surrender. The bombings saved a million American lives and even more Japanese. The specific rationalizations have all been thoroughly debunked, but what is most striking is the eagerness of some people to believe that anything at all could justify nuking two cities filled with innocent people, including countless little children. It takes a special kind of ideology, and not one at all individualistic, to defend the war crimes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, as the case may be, to lament the epidemic of abortion in the next breath. To praise Truman for "saving lives" by murdering hundreds of thousands, and to do so at a time of solemn remembrance of those atrocities, must require a bold certainty in one’s view. Being wrong about Hiroshima is worse than being wrong about a tax cut.

Yet people, especially rightists, err on the side of state slaughter all the time. For another example, let us reflect on the recent shooting in the London subway. Police officers, in accordance with what Prime Minister Tony Blair later called a "shoot-to-kill-in-order-to-protect policy," held a wholly innocent Brazilian man down on the floor and filled his head with seven bullets. The victim’s family disputes some of the officially described details of exactly what happened beforehand. Whatever happened, it is hard to imagine why shooting the man so many times would have been proper even if he had a bomb at the time. If there were a fresh corpse, dead by your first three bullets, lying atop a bomb, would you think it best to continue shooting in its (and the bomb’s) direction? Only a conservative would defend this as standard operating procedure.

The right-wingers assume that the police version of the story is correct. They assume that the dead twenty-seven-year-old got what he deserved, probably because he didn’t do what he was told. They assume that when the police tell someone to do something, it is always best to comply, and compliance will always ensure your safety. They champion a low-tax government that has all the powers and resources necessary to straighten up society, battle evildoers, and defend the homeland against all threats everywhere, and they see social failings, evildoers and threats wherever they look. They want limited government and the total state at the same time.

Unfortunately, due to the circumstantial overlap of the libertarian and conservative movements in years and decades past, a good number of authoritarian rightists continue to mislabel themselves as "libertarians," and too many genuine libertarians occasionally adopt the conservative avenue on police and military power. Now there are those few cultural conservatives who have some deviations from libertarianism yet who reliably oppose the very worst excesses of state activity. Generally speaking, however, the difference in ideology could hardly be sharper.

Libertarians believe in the supremacy of the individual over the abstraction of the coerced collective. We believe in the radical separation of economy and state, leading to a free market grounded in private property, voluntary cooperation and exchange, all for the betterment and liberation of workers and entrepreneurs everywhere. We detest the state’s attempts to cultivate morality as much as its projects to spur equality. We distrust the government even in its conduct of criminal justice policy. We hate war as the total negation of civilization and the most destructive of all state works. Don’t we?

Consider torture, another foul policy lionized by conservatives and tolerated by all too many libertarians. A policy of torturing people who have not even received any due process rights has no place whatsoever in a decent society, however "limited" its government might be. Libertarians should oppose the detentions in Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq at least as strongly as the radical left denounces them — and at least as strongly as we denounce the radical left! Libertarians would have presumably cheered as the writ of habeas corpus became enshrined in the Magna Carta in 1215. Yet today a horrifying number of free marketers and alleged individualists have swallowed the conservative line that as long as you’re fighting terrorism you can repeal any and all ancient strictures on power.

It is fine for libertarians to debate the status of the state as either a necessary or an intolerable evil. Merely believing that a state should be confined to protecting life, liberty and property, however, is not enough to be a libertarian. These laudable ends boasted of the state cannot cancel out the evils of the means used. Indeed, this is the principal argument against the welfare statism of the left. Charity and healthcare are not ideas that libertarians oppose. Nor do we object to clean air or water, an educated populace or higher wages for workers. What we reject, for both practical and ethical reasons, is the use of aggressive force against innocents as a means of achieving these ends. In welfare statism, it is not the giving side, but the taking side, with which we have the most problem. Conservatives also advocate the coercive instrument of taxation, but tend to want the money used to fund schemes violent and objectionable in themselves — to lock up drug users and other outcasts, to clobber and abuse prisoners, to bomb cities. The model rightist state might be smaller than the leftist ideal, but it is no less coercive. It is violent in its funding and even more so in its ends. Libertarians must reject the "limited" government of the right as readily as the nanny state of the left. The conservative attachment to state violence is no small issue.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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