The Libertarian in First Grade

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I remember only one event from first grade. It happened on the first day of school, a time of excitement and new challenges for all of us, I’m sure. I was excited to be a "grader" — that is, to be in a grade which ends with "grade." The school had a milk program, where parents could pay each week for their children to receive a pint of milk at snack-time. My parents had paid, and so I was to receive milk at snack.

As the school day began, the teacher settled down the class and taught us the basic rules for the classroom. Some were familiar from previous years — don’t hit each other, don’t put your finger into the pencil sharpener, don’t put your finger into the door — in fact, most rules seemed to revolve around keeping our fingers out of places. However, one was new and unusual — if you have something to say, raise your hand, don’t just shout or jump out of your seat.

In earlier years, shouting and jumping out of our seats had been the normal way to get the floor in order to speak. Now we were introduced to this new idea of "raising the hand." The teacher would then recognize each student in turn, and each would get a chance to talk. I have never been one to respect authority all that well, particularly as a child when I didn’t yet have the discernment to differentiate legitimate and illegitimate authority. Nonetheless, this rule immediately struck me as wise and worth obeying. I was quite clear that any reasonable person would choose to follow this rule, given that the consequence would be that all others would follow it too. Even lacking universal assent, it would work unilaterally too — those who choose to follow it can simply ignore anyone jumping around and screaming to get his point across. I resolved to follow it immediately and flawlessly.

Such was my state of mind when snack time came around, and the teacher asked, "Who has a milk account?" I responded the way I considered proper — by raising my hand. My fellow milk-drinkers, though, immediately began to jump out of their seats and shout. Having just learned of the alternative to such behavior, I considered their actions atrocious and quite unsuited for polite society. I kept my own counsel, and kept my hand raised.

You can probably figure out where this all led — I didn’t get any milk that day. My response to injustice was then, as now, a combination of surprise, resignation, and shame. I don’t know why injustice should make its victims feel shame, but it does always seem to — and this, by the way, is a fundamental principle on which the state feeds. My feelings, though, were that I had been cheated out of milk, yet had remained true to the rules. The others may have had their milk, but had surely lost some portion of their education.

When my mother came to pick me up, I was ashamed to mention the milk incident, but she questioned me about the milk situation persistently, perhaps already sensing, at that young age, that I was more inclined to do what I considered right than to demand that which was mine. Finally, I broke down and admitted that I had not gotten any milk. She had me wait outside while she went into the school to find out the whole story. Returning, she told me that the teacher had said that she had no idea that I had a milk account, since I hadn’t identified myself. As a side note, it immediately struck me what an absurd system that was, to have no independent record available to the teacher, who doubled as milkwoman, of who had paid for milk. Nonetheless, I responded with what seemed to me an obvious answer — "I raised my hand."

Libertarians often find themselves in a similar position. We support principles that we know everyone else has learned, and it seems that most people in polite society believed in them at some point. We were taught as children about not hitting other people, and we still believe it. Sure, we have more developed philosophies now, stronger arguments for why we ought not to hit people, but the basic principle remains. There are basic rules, like not hitting people, without respect for which no human society can function.

Even the rules regarding self-defense find themselves expressed in elementary school terms. The only viable defense, when caught hitting another child, is "he started it." Any just teacher will recognize that, even if the response was not quite proportional, the child who hit the other first deserves at least more blame. So, libertarians grow up understanding, along with everyone else, that the only time it might ever be acceptable to use force is in response to an aggressive attack. Then we find our neighbors advocating all kinds of force — wars of aggression, taxation, imprisonment for non-violent crimes. It seems as unfathomable to us that people would promote such things as it did to me that the only way to get milk was to break the hand-raising rule. No parent allows their children to take toys away from other children, but rather they encourage their children to share their own toys. Yet the children grow up to think that they can take away people’s property to give it to others, and to not share their own wealth.

As a result, we libertarians often find ourselves tongue-tied in debate. We can address all the economic issues, and point out the utilitarian benefits of liberty, but that’s not what we really want to do. We want to point out the morality of freedom, the evil of coercion — but we are unable, precisely because it is so obvious to us. We cannot effectively answer those who say "We must imprison drug users because it’s the government’s job to protect people from themselves," because it is so unbelievable to us that anyone would think it acceptable, nay, obligatory, to hit someone who has not hit someone else himself. I am often reduced to looking at such a person with a mix of horror and incredulity, and wondering how someone can think such a thing.

We make what seem to us completely obvious points — that we ought to follow our basic moral codes, and the necessary rules for civilization. We think that this ought to work, just like I expected raising my hand to work. We are puzzled by those who proudly and arrogantly proclaim that they are above the rules for civilization, just as I was puzzled by the fact that the children who broke the rules got their milk.

Consider the masses who laugh at libertarianism. Ask them just what, exactly, they oppose. Is it the idea of private property? Is it opposition to theft, or to murder? These are the fundamentals of our position, are they not? Or do they challenge the application of the position to specifics? Would they maintain that it is something other than theft to take away money from Peter to give it to Paul? What word is more applicable?

You’ll quickly find that most don’t oppose anything specific at all. They just think libertarians are weird, kooky — and to a certain extent, we are. While the diversity of the movement continues to grow by leaps and bounds, we remain a somewhat eclectic bunch. How could it be otherwise in a world with a public education system, where "normal" folks are taught never to look behind the curtain? Yet, this is no argument against our positions. In an insane world, only those who appear out of step with the rest will be sane. I appeared weird to my classmates, too, when I sat quietly, following the rules, and raising my hand. When breaking important rules is profitable, why not join those who break them? Look around you — success is in the government sector! Why not join in? Why not indeed. How about — because it is wrong to hit people?

Yet, in the end, we will succeed. In the end, a world run by a system based on hitting people cannot function — which is precisely why we have rules against hitting people in the first place. As the violence becomes more obvious, and it must, such a system loses supporters. People come to realize, too late perhaps, that the libertarians had a point after all. No society can exist if its members don’t believe in the basic rules, it will simply crumble. So society has a choice — to cease to exist at all, or to accept these rules. Our society has widely accepted them. Yet the government only has power because people believe that it is good to break these rules. As the contradiction becomes more obvious, the power of government will be diminished.

I am not counseling apathy or inaction. For the contradiction to be fully understood, there must be faithful guardians of the message present. The idea of non-aggression, together with all its beautiful philosophical and economic clothing, must be presented and kept on view at all times. Then, when the contradictions become too much for an individual to bear, that person has somewhere else to turn, knows of an alternative. That’s where we come in. This is the value of this very website, of the Mises Institute, of the Ron Paul rEVOLution, and of anything which exposes more people to the libertarian alternative. Most people will not spontaneously become libertarians when they become aware of the contradictions, but if libertarian ideas are in view when they are made aware of it, then they are likely to be persuaded. This is how our movement will grow. So, our goal must be outreach and education. We must remember, though, never to beat anyone over the head with our message — we need only to put it out there, to present it well, and they will come, just as supporters from all communities have flocked to Ron Paul. That government is violence institutionalized has become more painfully obvious in recent years, with taser incidents, loss of habeas corpus, and wars started on lies and continued despite the opposition of the people. The result has been more interest in libertarianism, and in particular the Ron Paul campaign.

Our message, although dressed up and more cogently argued, really is nothing more than the kindergarten creed. But adults cannot embrace what they learned in kindergarten, they fear they will look foolish. So we must argue for it through economics and through philosophy, but the message is still the same — don’t hit people. Go forth and spread the word.

Joshua Katz, NREMT-P [send him mail], is the Libertarian Party of Connecticut’s candidate for State General Assembly in the 23rd district. He is on the mathematics faculty at the Oxford Academy, Westbrook, Connecticut. He has studied philosophy of mind, logic, and epistemology of economics from an Austrian perspective, and is a former graduate student in philosophy at Texas A&M, as well as holding a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He still holds the title of Chief of EMS for the Town of Hempstead Department of Parks and Recreation, and will return to full-time service there in the summer. He enjoys a glass of port and a wedge of Brie, but has discontinued this practice on a regular basis, due to the sugar content of the port.

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