Civil Disobedience and the Libertarian Division of Labor

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Having witnessed
first hand the fruits of brutal libertarian in-fighting, I think
it is important to examine the roots of such needless, yet casualty-producing
conflict. Libertarians believe in a legal theory based upon non-aggression
— that is, a respect for the rights of others. We oppose the idea
of a monolithic, ever-present state wielding arbitrary and capricious
power over subjects. Where so-called libertarians deviate by endorsing
some form of aggression, we should, no doubt, ferret out the incorrect
position so as to prevent anyone from confusing it with a libertarian
one. The evil sell-outs and the misguided retreatists, as
Rothbard called them
, ought to be battled on philosophical grounds.
Not all inter-libertarian conflicts arise from such principled disputes,
however.

Wilt Alston
has previously
addressed the problem here with his posited categories of “pre-lib”
and “pre-con” libertarians. I think that one’s previous political
disposition that may be inculcated by parents, or by some other
means, may color our libertarian lens like Wilt suggests. I think,
though, that the way many libertarians focus their indignation may
be even more obvious and primal than mere prior team affiliation.
When dealing with the government itself, we each see the face of
the state in the areas where we have best tasted of its evil effect.

For those of
us who are successful businesspeople, the taxing power of the state
that has so many times inhibited the growth and success of vibrant
enterprises is the arm of the state that must be attacked. For those
of us who are parenting young children and are required to jump
through legal hoops to home educate them, the specter of centralized,
regimented, state regulation of education is the usurpation that
ought be battled first. For those of us who have a friend or relative
who has been imprisoned for self-medication outside of the bounds
of state approval, on the other hand, the War On Drugs is the tentacle
most in need of a chopping.

It is obvious,
and to be expected, that one would hate the part of the state with
which he has had the misfortune to wrangle most often. Yet, it isn’t
obviously right to say — speaking as a libertarian strategist —
that any of these branches of the state apparatus is necessarily
the right one with which to start. This is because they all are.
An individual soldier must defend the front that he occupies. So
too must we libertarians defy the state’s grasp where it reaches
for us personally — an activist division of labor.

It is some
small satisfaction, no doubt, to moralize about the wrongs committed
against others, and to voice opposition to their oppression. This
is itself praiseworthy, and can be helpful in popularizing a movement,
and in guiding its participants. Yet, when we look for the heroes
of any revolution that casts off one tyrant or many, we must look
first for the individuals who simply stood their ground. The most
lauded heroes — and thus the most effective figures for the purposes
of fomenting revolutionary ideas — are those who did not seek out
a fight, but rather stood steadfastly and refused to yield when
assailed by the usurper.

The search
for libertarian heroes is made more difficult, though, by the fact
that while we libertarians nearly universally recognize an individual’s
inherent freedom to do with his body as he wishes, we don’t necessarily
find the use of intoxicants, or other acts or carnal indulgence
praiseworthy. For example, take the massive
act of civil disobedience
staged by ten thousand students and
activists in Boulder, Colorado on 4/20/08. Some libertarians may
find this sort of behavior foolhardy, even without the risk of arrest.
With that view of the underlying drug use, they then find it difficult
to praise the act of resistance to the state, even though they advocate
the abolition of all drug prohibition. Yet, these college students
are heroes. Whatever a libertarian may think of the wisdom
of smoking marijuana, it cannot be denied that these particular
pot-smoking college students — who were presumably not picking up
the habit solely for this event — were engaging in what can only
be called anti-state activism. Rather than cowering away from the
state, hoping to be overlooked, they risked arrest in an act of
defiance that brought one of the state’s more ridiculous laws into
greater disrepute. And what may be helpful to libertarians who are
apprehensive about fully applauding such behavior is the fact that
they did it without engaging in anything more or less moral than
what they already do anyway.

Likewise, regardless
of what one thinks of Wesley Snipes’ acting abilities, his battle
against the IRS is more heroic than Susan Sarandon’s speeches against
the war. After all, while Ms. Sarandon’s antiwar position — insofar
as it is a consistent one — is laudable, it is only a matter of
words. Wesley Snipes acted to defend his property from federal usurpation
— he stood his ground, and paid
heavy consequences
for it.

Now, I do not
mean to say that each and every libertarian must subject himself
to a scourging by the state to show his devotion to resisting it.
I agree with my friend Manuel Lora that libertarianism is not
an altar call for martyrs
. I do not think that most libertarians
ought to pull up stakes and abandon their gainful employment only
to throw their bodies into the cogs of the state. However, when
the state comes roaring towards your home, it is heroism to dig
in, stand firm, and resist for as long as possible. Likewise, those
students in Boulder were already part of a legally vulnerable class
of citizens — recreational drug users. By taking their resistance
outside, where others could see some indication of the strength
of those in defiance, they are to be praised as having made a contribution
to the cause of liberty.

Just
as atheist libertarians should applaud the sentiment of Daniel‘s
pious
disobedience to Darius
, so too should socially conservative
libertarians applaud the revolutionary sentiment expressed by those
tie-dyed students in Boulder.

April
22, 2008

Dick Clark
[send him mail],
a native Southerner, currently lives in exile in the People’s Republic
of Cambridge, MA. He is a first-year law student at Suffolk University
Law School in Boston.

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