Them's Fightin' Words!

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Election season is upon us, and that means it’s time for the candidates to duke it out on the campaign trail, vying for victory via votes. While the candidates figuratively engage in fisticuffs, some of their supporters inevitably end up slugging it out for real. This year’s latest episodes involve (1) septuagenarian poll workers in Ohio who had to be separated when the female Democrat allegedly leapt onto the male Republican’s back and began buffeting him with her fists after he had accused her of ballot tampering and (2) two men arguing over the election in a Florida restaurant, one of whom took it seriously enough to slam the other’s head into the wall, "causing a minor laceration and bleeding to the back of the victim’s head," according to the police report.

Meanwhile, millions of people disagree with each other over whether Coke is better than Pepsi, whether the Beatles are better than the Rolling Stones, and whether Ginger is better than Mary Ann; yet, oddly enough, one never hears of Stones supporters getting satisfaction from making Fab Four fans see Starrs. Give those same people a political disagreement, however, and at least a handful of them will find it necessary not merely to argue the point with each other but to use physical force to drive home their arguments. Why? What explains the difference between Coke versus Pepsi and John McCain versus Barack Obama?

The answer is that the soft drink (or music or actress) debate is resolved in the marketplace while the political debate is resolved by coercion. Coke drinker John Smith can peacefully coexist with Pepsi drinker Jane Jones because each one voluntarily purchases and consumes the product that he prefers, and neither is forced to imbibe the other’s beverage of choice. Beatles fans can choose to buy only Beatles recordings while shunning Stones songs, and likewise Stones fans can buy only merchandise bearing the image of Mick Jagger’s tongue — and those who happen to like both can buy some of each. Ginger partisans can turn off the TV if a Gilligan’s Island rerun doesn’t feature enough Tina Louise, while Mary Ann lovers can stay glued to the set for every bit of Dawn Wells footage. (For those with more sophisticated tastes, there’s always Mrs. Howell.) More importantly, the alternatives themselves are not mutually exclusive. Both Coke and Pepsi can exist and be made available to the consumer simultaneously; he is not forced to accept one or the other.

Politics, by contrast, is an all-or-nothing proposition. If, for example, McCain wins, Obama loses, and all those who voted for Obama (or any other candidate besides McCain) are forced to live under McCain’s rule for the next four years. Furthermore, if someone who voted for McCain changes his mind a year from now, he’s still stuck with McCain for another three years, whereas if John Smith decides he no longer prefers Coke, he can simply switch to Pepsi or even choose not to drink cola at all. The only alternative is for those who prefer the rule of a particular candidate to secede and form their own country, installing their preferred leader, and we all know how kindly Uncle Sam looks upon such things. Remember Jefferson Davis?

In short, politics is about power: who gets to wield it, how much he gets to wield, and over whom he gets to wield it. This is only natural since the state itself is nothing but organized, self-legalized violence. Governments come into existence via violent means, they claim a monopoly on violence in their respective domains, and they retain their power through violence or the threat of violence. (If you don’t think the U.S. government stays in power through violence, try not paying your income tax.) The government outlaws its competition, whereas the Coca-Cola Company, much as it might like to do so, cannot force PepsiCo out of business; it can only attempt to defeat it in the marketplace by satisfying more consumers. No one living within the geographic area claimed by a government has any choice about obeying that particular government, no matter how much he may detest it, while his neighbor, who is happy with the government, frequently uses state power to enrich himself at the expense of the government-hater.

Suppose, however, that instead of the monopoly government we have in the form of the state, various institutions were allowed to spring up in the marketplace to perform the same functions as the state. Of several things we can be certain: (1) There would be a great variety of such institutions rather than the one-size-fits-all approach of the state. (2) These institutions would be cost-effective because they would be forced to compete for business and would go under if they failed to turn a profit, which they could only do if they satisfied consumers’ wants. (3) Individuals would be able to choose which means of protecting property and resolving differences they wanted and for which they were willing and able to pay. (4) No one would be forced to fund any particular institution. (5) These institutions would not likely engage in warfare or in violations of individuals’ property rights, for as private institutions dependent on voluntary payment they would truly be our servants rather than our masters, unlike the tyrants who claim to be "public servants" today.

With individuals free to choose how they will be governed — genuinely free, not simply permitted to vote for a candidate who will rule everyone regardless of his wishes — disputes about politics would go by the wayside. While differences regarding property rights would still be more significant than differences regarding soft drinks, rock groups, or TV shows, they could be resolved in a similar fashion. There would be no cause for people to come to blows over issues of power since person A could not rule over person B without B’s consent, unlike the current system in which McCain, Ralph Nader, Bob Barr, Chuck Baldwin, and Cynthia McKinney voters — not to mention all those who stayed home or wrote in another candidate’s name — may be forced to submit to the will of Obama voters come next January.

Would this be a perfect world? Of course not. No such thing exists this side of heaven. But it would be a far, far better world if most of our differences could be resolved in a peaceful fashion rather than by state coercion. Which argument would you rather have: McCain versus Obama or Coke versus Pepsi? One thing is for sure: You won’t end up with a fat lip for telling a member of the Pepsi Generation that Coca-Cola is the Real Thing. Who knows? If we got rid of the state, the cause of most of the intractable conflicts on this planet, we might even teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.

Michael Tennant [send him mail] is a software developer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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