Does Freedom Come With Responsibilities?

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When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

~ Attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller, re: Wikipedia

Just in time for Independence Day, or whatever you want to call it, I have returned to a theme that periodically troubles me. As a staunch anarcho-capitalist (market anarchist, radical libertarian, [place your favorite phrase here]) with more than a little affinity for the "black protest" movement, I sometimes wonder if I am doing all I can for the future of freedom.

This curiosity is fueled, in no small way, by the kinds of questions that I suspect many a libertarian (among others) periodically asks himself. When will we see an end to the coercive state? When will a critical mass of society embrace what Rothbard called "methodological individualism"? Maybe even more importantly, am I doing all I can to bring us closer to that point, sooner versus later?

That last question springs from my history in activism, the tried-and-true belief that one can do something, that one should do something, to help the process along. No one wants to find himself repeating Pastor Niemöller's lament! At the same time, no one is under any obligation to become a martyr. As a colleague and fellow LRC essayist told me recently:

"Obviously, as a libertarian, I personally have a passion for some degree of u2018activism' and u2018involvement,' of thinking about these matters [of how to create change in our society.] I even think there is some duty to educate yourself so that you can’t plea ignorance as a defense — u2018I didn’t realize that when I advocated taxes it meant stealing!'  I do admire people who are willing to fight hard for liberty. Such people are essential. On the other hand, there is no obligation to be a martyr. I see no problem with keeping one’s head down and making do within the rules of the existing system, to try to eke out the best life possible to oneself and one’s family given the current system."

Indeed he is correct. One's first responsibility must be to one's family and one's own survival. Any other action could rightly be construed as foolhardy.

That point accepted, at what point does one move away from simply "keeping one's head down" and toward turning a blind eye to that which is obvious? Is there some point at which one must realize that keeping his nose clean only prolongs the abuse? I wish I had a definitive answer to that question. As I mentioned in a previous essay, either way, remaining silent is just about the last thing I'd be comfortable doing.

It is relatively obvious that we here in Amerika benefit from the policies of our gubmint, even while we are simultaneously ripped-off by that same gubmint. (Two for the price of three?) It is also relatively obvious, nearing the point that even Ray Charles could have seen it, that our government takes part in some rather despicable activities, both here and around the globe, without even our tacit approval. Certainly this is, or should be, unacceptable. Nothing brings these rather esoteric points home like a little personal experience.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Outside

Very recently, on the way back from a trip home to North Carolina, my kids and I were traveling on Route 87 toward Fayetteville, NC. It was typical of North Carolina roads, long stretches of asphalt in the middle of nowhere, with corn or tobacco on either or both sides. Up ahead I saw a roadblock. It was just a couple of sheriff’s patrol cars, stopping every car in both directions. As the car ahead of me pulled up, I figured I’d get a jump on the game and pulled out my wallet, taking out my license and planning to have it ready.

The officer motioned for me to pull up. I stopped next to him and he said, in one of those typical, "Smokey and the Bandit" voices, “License please sir.” I gave it to him, and he examined it in the way I’ve seen so many times before. He studied it slowly, as if he just knew a Negro like me, driving a late-model car in the middle of nowhere could only be up to no good. (A line from Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” is appropriate here, but I’ll save it for another time.) After this brief pause, he says something along the lines of, “Mr. Alston…is it not…law in New York State that everyone…must wear their seat belt?” I was, at first, puzzled. Huh? What the heck was he talking about?

It suddenly dawned on me that I had taken off my seat belt to get out my wallet! So I told him so, my daughter and I actually saying, “get out his wallet” at almost the same time. He was unimpressed. He just waited for my answer. I said, “Yes.” (I don’t recall if I said “sir” or not.) He then said, and I kid you not, something along the lines of, “Well…then I suggest…you put yours on then.” He continued to hold my license and gaze at me with an “I’m in charge of you, n*&ger” look on his face. I put my seat belt on, and he handed my license back. We drove off. My kids then heard a line of curse words come out of my mouth that I hope my wife never finds out about. (I suspect though, that my Dad would be proud!)

Was he trying to make sure I was safe? Of course not. That pompous so-and-so was only trying to make sure, darned sure, that I knew he was in charge of me. That’s the same crap that the TSA pulls every time anyone goes through an airport checkpoint, and it viscerally, negatively, affects me to even think about it.

Hey, I realize that I may be over-reacting. (I even heard from another libertarian that it was my choice to get upset. I could have selected another response. Maybe I'll whistle a happy tune next time, probably "Dixie" or the theme from "Deliverance" or something.) We should not be confused about one thing however, and that is simply this: We’ve got people with barely the qualifications to handle valet parking at a pig picking acting like they are members of some kind of elite Special Forces unit, all because the State — itself only a collection of men — says they can. Certainly this too is, or should be, unacceptable.


So where does all this leave us? There was a time, back in the damn-the-torpedoes days of my youth that I'd have openly talked about revolution. (Does anyone else remember that lunacy?) Those days are gone, replaced by wisdom and "playing it smart" and "going along to get along" and other versions of mental and emotional salve that we apply when we are humiliated, as I was on that lonely stretch of North Carolina highway, or as that Secret Agent was by the TSA. Discretion is the better part of valor and all that.

As a student of Spooner, but someone who agrees with Shaffer, I long ago eschewed voting as a viable alternative. I am therefore unlikely — quite unlikely — to re-embrace that activity. (I did come up with a modest proposal to legitimize voting though. I don't think I'm the first one to think of the idea, but it's a start.) Instead, leaning upon that old saw, "the pen is mightier than the sword", methinks a clue to my (our?) on-going responsibilities resides in the words of a few thinkers of the past.

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

~ Benjamin Franklin

"If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or your arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen."

~ Samuel Adams

"He knew in advance what O’Brien would say. That the Party did not seek power for its own ends, but only for the good of the majority. That it sought power because men in the mass were frail cowardly creatures who could not endure liberty or face the truth, and must be ruled over and systematically deceived by others who were stronger than themselves. That the choice for mankind lay between freedom and happiness, and that, for the great bulk of mankind, happiness was better."

~ George Orwell, from 1984

"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will. Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they have resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they suppress."

~ Frederick Douglass

My endurance is waning. How about yours?

Wilt Alston [send him mail] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.

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