Can Liberty Be Advanced Through Violence?

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We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

~ Albert Einstein

A Republican candidate running for Congress in Texas has set many minds and mouths atwitter with his suggestion that, should state tyranny ever become a problem in America that could not be resolved by political means, the use of violence, while "not the first option," would be "on the table." There is a deep-rooted frustration and anger among millions of Americans directed at the entirety of a political establishment that is forever employing lies, deceit, contradictory reasoning, violence, increased regulatory and taxation schemes, Federal Reserve monetary policies, wars, expanded police and surveillance powers, and other practices that advance corporate-state interests at the expense of ordinary people. Those upset with such behavior have tried resorting to the politically-acceptable means of bringing about change. They have gone to voting booths to support candidates who promise to "get the government off your backs," or "no more taxes," or to not engage in "nation-building." With but a handful of exceptions, those elected turn around and violate such promises, leaving the disenchanted voters to seek out other political saviours at the next election.

The current "Tea-Party" movement began as yet another expression of popular disaffection with our politicized society. It was, however, quickly co-opted by the same right-wing franchise of the political establishment that participated — in bipartisan efforts with its left-wing branch — in the construction of the modern empire. Just as in the 1994 Republican Party’s congressional victories, persons of libertarian sentiments will discover that dressing a Tea-Party candidate in a three-cornered hat will not change his fundamental character as a pimp for the prevailing order.

When the futility of using institutionally-approved methods for making change become increasingly evident to people, it is not surprising that many might look to violence as the only effective solution. Students of social psychology often speak of the "frustration/aggression" hypothesis, wherein a repeated interference with goal-directed activity may result in a resort of violence. As Fred Berger expressed it, where

certain segments or groups within the population are systematically exposed to these weaknesses in the ability of the legal system to provide or protect security, those subjected to such treatment come to feel “left out” of the social process, come to regard themselves as the “victims” of the social and political scheme, rather than full participants in it. . . . Such conditions tend to foster counter-violence and retaliatory disorder. . . .

In a world in which it has become evident to so many that the institutional order exists to promote the interests of the few at the expense of the more numerous, is it so remarkable that such an awareness would be responded to with anger and violence? To regard oneself as being endlessly at the mercy of increasingly malevolent forces that one is otherwise unable to control or resist, can produce a sense of hopelessness that may lead to violence directed against its perceived source.

How is one to respond to the systemic violence that is the lifeblood, the very essence, of the state? Society has always been a struggle between the "invisible hand" of a peaceful and productive order that arises, without direction, as the unintended consequence of people pursuing their own interests, and the "iron fist" of institutionally structured violence we have been conditioned to equate with "social order." I have defined "government" as "an institution of theft, predation, rape, destruction, and mass murder, the absence of which, it is said, would lead to disorder."

To understand political systems, and to learn how to protect oneself when dealing with them, one must cast aside all of the illusions and lies in which we have been trained to see them. They are defined, even by students of government, as agencies "enjoying a monopoly on the use of violence within a given territory." There is nothing, nothing, that the state ever does that does not derive from a presumed authority to employ whatever amount of deadly force its officials deem necessary — or just convenient — to achieve its ends. Contrary to the mantle of "public servant" in which they like to cloak themselves, government employees — from the president on down to janitors — insist upon their power to compel obedience by force.

The mainstream media and high-ranking government officials have been feigning righteous indignation over the city officials in Bell, California, who paid themselves gargantuan salaries — one as high as $800,000 per year, and with retirement pay nearing $1,000,000 annually. What is most upsetting to such critics, however, is not the enormity of their racket, but that these local officials failed to conform themselves to established methods for the looting of taxpayers. Like the Claude Rains police chief in the movie, Casablanca, who informs Humphrey Bogart that he is "shocked to discover gambling" going on in his business — as he receives his gambling payoff from the croupier — the town government of Bell will receive a selective criticism of its behavior. Government defense contracts; hundreds of billions of dollars in "stimulus" gifts to favored business interests; the refusal of the Federal Reserve system — or of Congress — to reveal the beneficiaries of its monetary policies, these and other politically-correct forms of looting will pass without significant comment from right-thinking people. Nor, in contrast with the Bell racket, will much be made of the fact that a current candidate for governor in California has spent $141.5 million of her own money in an effort to get elected. Why? As one who understands that people act in order to be better off after acting than they would have been otherwise, what returns does this woman expect from her investment? Who is insisting upon an explanation from her?

I have long been of the view that parents have a moral obligation to keep their children from living under tyranny. As such, how do I go about the task of helping to make their world one in which they may enjoy the conditions of peace and liberty? My experience convinces me that participation in electoral politics is more than futile: it only adds energy to the system; it confirms the central premise of all political thinking, namely: important change can occur only within the halls of government. Besides the fact that the electoral process is unavoidably rigged in favor of the status quo, it also assures that, no matter who you vote for, the government always gets elected. Voting is designed to give people the false sense that they are in control of the machinery and the policies of the state. Emma Goldman got it right when she said that "if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal."

My opposition to voting arises from the same sense as my opposition to other forms of violence. Implicit in efforts to persuade the state to act according to your preferences — whether through voting, lobbying, or threats of force — is the idea that, should you prevail, others will be compelled to abide by what you have chosen for them. Voting is anything but the peaceful alternative to violence: it is premised on the coercive machinery of the state being employed on your behalf should you prevail in amassing a greater number of people on your side than do others.

More direct forms of violence — as some suggest to be the ultimate solution to statism — is likewise inconsistent with a condition of liberty. Violence is an expression of reactive anger, born of unrequited frustration. Violence is the very essence of the state: can one expect mankind to free itself of political destructiveness by adopting its very essence?

We will not become free when the state goes away. Rather, the state will go away once we are free. "Freedom" is a very personal quality, wherein the individual enjoys a centered, integrated life, free of the conflicts and contradictions that make up our normally neurotic lives. We must learn to respect the inviolability of one another’s lives and other property interests if we are to enjoy this inner sense of being free. A need for liberty is what we have in common with one another, but we will only grasp this fact when each of us is free of the inner forces that keep us divided and in conflict.

We have conditioned our minds to think of ourselves in conflict-laden ways, be they nationalistic, religious, racial, gender, or other forms of separation. Our political masters have trained us to think of one another in "we/they," "us" against "them" categories, divisions that are — like the scapegoats upon whom we play out our conflicts — changeable to suit the political needs of the moment. The fear of unseen "communists" that helped fuel the Cold War, has morphed into the concealed "terrorists," with each serving the same purpose: to expand the power and plundering of the state. Only by our individual ending of such divisive thinking and discovering the inner sense of non-contradictory wholeness that respects the inviolability of our neighbors’ lives and interests, can we become free.

"Liberty," on the other hand, is the condition in which free men and women can live together in society. Trying to twist or manipulate unfree people into social systems — even those grounded in a verbal support of liberty — will never foster liberty. This is why the Constitution was doomed from the start: there was too much conflict and contradiction in the minds of most people to allow for the assemblage of free men and women. It is also why, once we have discovered the inner meaning of freedom, constitutions — and the governments they create — will be wholly unnecessary for a condition of liberty. This is part of the meaning of F.A. Harper’s observation that "the man who knows what freedom means will find a way to be free."

How can a person whose mind and conduct is grounded in a divisive thinking that considers violence as a means to wholeness, be regarded as "free"? Free of what? Is it not evident that resort to violence can never be a means to liberty; that such methods presume a fundamental separation of interests that would reduce society to the Hobbesian dystopia of "all against all"? If a group sought to dismantle the state by violent means, is it not clear that it could accomplish such ends only by amassing coercive powers superior to the state itself; that it would have to become a super-state? And if this group were to be successful, it would dare not dismantle its own machinery, lest another group sought to recreate the previous apparatus; it would have to remain diligent in policing the thinking and actions of others who might be inclined to favor a more structured society.

One can no more advance liberty through violence than he can regain sobriety by embracing an alternative brand of alcohol. The state is a system that enjoys a monopoly on the use of violence. It is no answer to this destructive menace to introduce a competitor who employs the same means and seeks the same ends, namely, to construct society on the principle of the power to compel obedience to authority.

Albert Einstein got to the essence of the problem when he declared that "force always attracts men of low morality." I understand how being frustrated by others as we pursue interests we are entitled to pursue can generate intense feelings of anger. But it is not out of reactive rage or desperation that we can discover our individual freedom and the resultant liberty we can share with our neighbors. It is such divisiveness that keeps us enslaved to the state. We need to discover what we share with one another, namely, a respect for our individuality that can arise only from the integration of our rational and emotional energies into a focused intelligence. If mankind is to avoid the fate of being the first species to intentionally make itself extinct, we must transform our own minds, and abandon our ageless and contradictory efforts to force others to be free!

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.

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