Aristotle’s remarks in his Politics struck me as quaint and almost silly when I first read them in college: The statesman or legislator must mold his subjects like a potter molding a vase (book 7, part 4), and must shape future citizens by prescribing their education, even down to what kind of music they should be taught (book 8, part 3). The goal of politics is to perfect virtue (book 7, part 1) according to the constitution (monarchy, aristocracy, democracy) that is best suited to the basic temperament of the citizens (book 3, part 7). At the time I laughed, thinking that the state was just an impartial referee. It caught criminals and fought our enemies. Boy, was I wrong, on both counts: The legislator of course is not an impartial referee, and the laws do shape citizens, down to their very character.
The American character
Coltishness, and not suspicion, is the typically American characteristic. Anyone who has traveled to the poorer parts of the world, or who has merely flipped through National Geographic for that matter, is familiar with that pinched, distrustful frown of those on the edge of life who want to know: Are you a threat or a benefit? We are different.
In 1989, a friend and I were walking through the village of Eisenach, visiting the birthplace of J.S. Bach, in what was then East Germany. Approaching us on the sidewalk in the distance was a young man: Smiling, swinging his arms, and bouncing up on his toes with each step. I turned to my friend and said, “Twenty dollars says this jackass is one of ours.” And so it was.
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Our readiness to smile and wave, and our genial impulsiveness, may make us the butt of European jokes (famously: Otto von Bismarck‘s “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and Americans”), but at the same time they earn us a kind of admiring indulgence. Even when we are held in the very fist of power in a strange country, this character, this indulgence, are evident. Consider James Stewart, playing the American doctor Ben MacKenna (and Doris Day as his corn-fed, wholesome wife) in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), dressing down a Moroccan police inspector at about 6:45 in this clip. He thinks that he can just state the truth and walk out! What a puppy! Or consider Patrick Swayze, playing the American doctor Max Lowe, getting up in the face of the Indian landlord who threatens to shut down his free clinic, in this clip from City of Joy (1992). Gawd, doctor, don’t you know this man can crush you like a bug? Hundreds of examples like this could be provided, starting from Twain’s The Innocents Abroad.
The point of these foreign comparisons is not for contrast-gaining against other nationalities, but to better illustrate ourselves. As Santayana says, travel forces philosophical reconsideration upon us. The contrast can provide a present-day direct reference for bringing our national character into focus.
Another, indirect, way to do this is to compare ourselves to the past. Look into the faces of these merchants from the dawn of capitalism: Drer’s merchant Oswolt Krel; Holbein’s merchant Georg Gisze; Gossaert’s merchant; Petrus Christus’ goldsmith; and finally Jacques Coeur. There is a ferocious caution in the eyes of these men, any of whom could have been crushed and their wealth confiscated at any time, given the precarious status of property at the time. Especially poignant is the story of Jacques Coeur, whose financial genius and fortune held fifteenth century France together until he was destroyed by the envious courtiers of Charles VII. (And where is the historical novel telling his story? And — up until a few years ago at least — where was his biography? Lost in that great chronicle of neurotic kings and bloodthirsty warriors.) Now, compare those faces with these portraits in the Great Hall of the New York Chamber of Commerce. True, most of them are not the material of great biographies. But the very fact that they are commonplace and still exude the image of power and confidence in property is a testament to the triumph of capitalism not too many generations ago. Will this last? How many millionaires of today would think the title of “captain of industry” a sneer instead of an accolade? Or try this simple test: Draw up a list of the ten greatest biographies from the United States of 200 years ago and compare it to a similar list from the present. Is the moral seriousness of George Washington found in any man alive today? Does the character of Huck Finn still live in us?
And more to the point of our discussion here, what the heck do the laws have to do with it?
The shaping power of the law: direct power is unnecessary
The “general and permanent” laws of the federal government that are codified as positive law are a subset of the 50 “titles” of the U.S. Code. And this Code is a subset of the entire chronological list of laws, staggeringly enumerated in the United States Statutes at Large. In addition to these, and just as valid, are the rules issued by the agencies of the federal government, collected in the Federal Register, which is over 80,000 pages in length. Naturally, laws and rules often overlap, most conspicuously in the Tax Code, which may be over nine million words, though nobody knows for sure. In none of this is there any statement so bald and indiscreet as to suggest that you and your goods are owned by the state. But some threat of force must stand behind all these myriad laws and rules.
Examples of jackbooted use of force by the police at every level of government are depressingly abundant on the Internet, and victims do find their activity and very likely their characters “shaped” by this encounter. But such ham-fisted methods are otiose when the IRS, at the direction of any official, can reinterpret the rules to threaten your property, or when routine encounters with the police result in preemptive “takings” of your property. Examples of the former: The Western Journalism Center, whose tax-exempt status was threatened after its criticisms of the Clinton administration; Paula Jones, who was audited after revealing Clinton’s assault on her in 1997; Katherine Prudhomme, who faced an IRS audit after embarrassing Gore and Clinton at a town hall meeting in 2000; the NAACP, whose tax-exempt status was threatened when its Chairman Julian Bond criticized George Bush in 2004 — not to mention the master in using this tool, Dick Nixon. The stress of these threats are sometimes enough to drive their victims to suicide: For example, Bruce Barron, Mitch Snyder, Denise J. Simon, and Finn Caspersen. As for “takings,” consider the IRS’s power of jeopardy assessment, or more generally, see Richard A. Epstein‘s eponymous book.
The shaping power of “social engineering”
“Social engineering” often means government manipulation of public education, not to impart knowledge, but to shape the attitudes of children. Sheldon Richman’s Separating School and State and others give ample evidence of that, as do the originators of the phrase, Josef Stalin and Deng Xiaopeng. Here we begin to approach the modern version of Aristotle’s “legislator as demiurge.” The freely admitted purpose of shaping attitudes for democracy by the AFT, by the NEA, and by other teachers’ unions, which are all very much agencies of the state, not just because of their union power but because they make up a good block of all delegates to the conventions of the two largest political parties, sound very much like Trotsky’s ranting for the “New Socialist Man,” when he proclaimed that under his system “the average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx.”
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The most critical tool for “shaping” mass democracies
Subtler than the foregoing in molding the very personalities of citizens of mass democracies is the division of “public” and “private” morality, a tool which works in three ways.
When I raised questions (swiped from Henry Hazlitt’s The Failure of the New Economics) in my first “macroeconomics” class in college, I saw how most students became bored or indifferent to the entire subject of economics because it made a frontal assault on their common sense. So, you’ve been taught that thrift is virtuous? Sorry — doesn’t apply here. You think that government indebtedness is a vice? Sorry, that doesn’t work in this field. Often teachers of this new wisdom — starting with Keynes himself — made a point of ridiculing those who espoused such bourgeois views. In nearly every other field, your common sense is fundamental to crossing the bridge from ignorance to knowledge. But not in the science that is most critical to the defense of freedom. Conversely, it is its basis in common sense that makes Austrian economics such a breath of fresh air to those who are jealous of their freedoms.
In the first application of this tool, the division of public and private morality enrolls all those adolescent dreamers as patriot arms of the state. Those who are willing to submerge their “private” sense of morality to the needs of the state create the pilots to firebomb cities, the killers to do “black ops” for the CIA, and the personalities like Gordon Liddy, who admitted he would have had no problem murdering journalist Jack Anderson, who was an inconvenience to the Nixon administration. Such people are not like those who espouse the “Auschwitz prison guard excuse” of “just following orders.” They are different in that they feel a mystic union of themselves with the power of the state. Typical of them are the (largely male) readers of Tom Clancy novels, whose (unintentionally) hilarious plots feature one man’s ability to single-handedly turn an entire bureaucracy to do right, as he dreams it to be.
In the second way, the division of public and private morality cuts off the natural ascent of men of virtue into public office. Under this division, holders of high office do not have the conspicuous integrity and honesty that mark a community leader — traits which Aristotle specifically emphasizes for his contention that politics is the culmination of ethics. They are Kennedy’s “best and the brightest,” those who know better than the rest; they are the Charlie Wilsons who steal tax dollars to arm the mujahedeen because they know what’s “right for America.” The addiction to womanizing so common among this caste is not so much a forgivable failing that should not greatly interest us, as an expression of their aloofness from conventional rules of behavior.
Finally, through this ethical bifurcation the virtue of tolerance is elevated above all others in order to prevent arguing our deepest convictions in the public forum. Those convictions are forced into the status of belief, which “tolerance” places off-limits to debate, when they should be forced into the status of principles, which should be subject to the most public and vigorous debate. Thus a principled man like Ron Paul is made to seem like a religious crank. Thus the courteous argumentation that builds mutual respect and a common passion for the truth never takes place. Tolerance so-called creates a “truth” for your gated community, and another one for mine. It directly defies any imperative to will your standard of right and wrong as a universal law.
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All of the minutia of controlling education and the arts — Aristotle’s dreams for soul-shaping curricula, like all dreams of this ilk, including Plato’s eugenics for the benefit of the state, and Tommaso Campanella’s soul-shaping art in The City of the Sun — are swept aside by this thrifty dichotomy. As long as morality is private, all art becomes purely decorative. A preference for Vladimir Tendryakov is no better than one for Chuck Palahniuk; Dali is no better than Andres Serrano; Aristide Maillol is no better than Joseph Beuys. Any serious discussion of their merits would put the (bourgeois and commonsensical) individual mind on equal footing with “experts” in the state-sanctioned universities. With a strategic investment in education and patronage that equivocate real merit, resorting to detailed, hard-to-enforce prescriptions is unnecessary. The simple linchpin idea, based on a misconception of tolerance, is etched repeatedly in the mind by nearly every TV show, movie, and novel.
The last refinement in the lawgiver’s shaping of the soul
When Charlton Heston gave an address to the NRA on December 7, 1997, he conducted an interesting thought experiment. He first innocently asked how many own a gun. Then he paused and asked how many did own a gun, but thought better of revealing this in public. He drew an eloquent lesson:
You have been assaulted and robbed of the courage of your own convictions. Your pride in who you are, and what you believe, has been ridiculed, ransacked, and plundered. It may be a war without bullet[s] or bloodshed, but there is just as much liberty lost: You and your country are less free.
The application of the law in, say, a speeding ticket, is fairly random. Not all speeders are ticketed, and some very minor speeding offenses are. But the law which forces the driver to be alert to the possibility of such a ticket is very different from laws which are multitudinous and which intrude on behavior formerly regulated by custom and convention. Is there a working man anywhere in a modern democracy who doesn’t know that one politically incorrect word to the wrong woman in the workplace can get him sued? Because the law stands athwart an area that used to be monitored by mores and ordinary courtesy, it enforces a self-monitoring in its subject citizens, who must be alert to the many directions from which countless ill-defined laws may strike. No forced, government-mandated implant in the brain is necessary: The subject citizen, without firing a shot in opposition, without murmuring a word in public debate, is unconsciously enslaved by his own will. Our public faces may not yet be unconsciously stamped by the Deutsche Blick of several generations ago, but in a very significant way we have already lost many freedoms, which no radio talk show blather can recover.
What is the tool for withdrawal?
In a nation where government exacted about 5% in import taxes, when laws were clear and few and aspired to be the culmination of common-sense notions of right and wrong, the customary shapers of our character ruled: Our parents, our teachers, our literature, music, and sports. This is no longer the case. We are no longer the free people who are unafraid to speak up for the right, who are jealous of our freedoms.
Violent self-defense is a reflexive response to tyranny. But even if an exasperated citizenry were forced to this legitimate last recourse, it may very well fail to undo the insidious influence of the laws as described above. Also, a violent response is a frontal assault against the state’s greatest point of strength. To illustrate: Many of the swelling ranks of the domestic armies will be Iraq-Afghanistan veterans. They have returned, miffed that they couldn’t get their hands on America’s enemies; but now you’re here: surly, uncooperative, with a family in tow. Who’s gonna win that one? Violence is a tar baby: It will further entangle you in a system that knows the language of violence very well. Furthermore, it’s unnecessary.
tienne de La Botie, the philosopher of the nonviolence of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, clearly demonstrated that all governments, no matter how brutally in control they may be, must have the support of their subject citizens to stay in power. All that is required to topple them is to simply withdraw that support. The key question is: What twenty-first century tools will make this happen, tools which are just as effective as nonviolent confrontation was in the last century?
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The limitations of voluntaryism
One response contends that almost any peaceful civic activity, such as voting, is almost as counterproductive as violence. It says that there is little that we can do to improve public matters, that, like Voltaire’s Candide, we can only “cultivate our garden.” This is also the response of “voluntaryism.” It holds that all coercion, especially that of the state, is immoral, and that we must withdraw our support. Yes, certainly, but how specifically? Voluntaryist John A. Pugsley provided a list of 15 ways to withdraw support from the state. Among the more practical of these suggestions: Don’t buy government debt, (legitimately) avoid taxes, create or at least patronize alternatives to government services like the post office, and educate by personal example. Others seem very problematic: Don’t patronize businesses which have contracts with the government, don’t use public libraries, engage in civil disobedience, and become an expatriate. In spite of this, Pugsley’s voluntaryist article is at least right in asking the absolutely critical question: What specifically are the tools for withdrawal of support from the state?
Conversely, one might arrange it so that the government doesn’t want the support of people like you. Do the equivalent of a union shop slowdown: Courteously obey the laws with the intent to turn the laws against themselves. Always drive 10 miles per hour below the speed limit. (You can leave early and listen to Murray Rothbard on audio tape or get him on iTunes.) Make the traffic cameras an expense to the state, instead of a cash cow. Go as slowly as possible through airport security (“Gosh, five times through the scanner, and it was that darned money clip!”). Send 10 pages of useless documents with your census report and give a muddled reply to every question.
But the foregoing highlights the weakness of voluntaryism: It is essentially peevishness, orneriness. And it will stay that way until we discover a tool for withdrawal of support that will be as effective as nonviolent confrontation.
The tool within the self
Lila Rajiva describes five responses of intellectual self-defense that are a kind of jujitsu, a side-stepping of those charging at you with ill intent. While she doesn’t describe her approach as a philosophy, it certainly does rest on a consistent general outlook, and it is not at all voluntaryist.
A reconsideration of how we are to mold our own characters is the best antidote against the state’s insidious efforts to do so. This approach must avoid the doctrinaire aspects of voluntaryism, which not only would keep you out of the public libraries but would preclude any effort to promote Ron Paul or anyone like him in the public arena. This begins with a principle of non-activity: Our resources are limited, and most activity will only entangle you in the institutional web of defeat. I am thinking of the wu-wei of Daoism. But if you like, find your first principle in the prohairesis of Epictetus: Nothing can truly disturb you except that you will your assent to it; and for the most part this assent is not given; it is not acting.
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In any case, think that you carry with you a small crowbar: What can you possibly do against the armor of the state? For the most part, nothing. But your apparent lassitude protects a vigilant mind that will one day see the crack in this hardened armor. The opportunity will come naturally, effortlessly. And you will know how to pry it apart.
How is that applied, specifically? Not by wasting time and resources in unfocused activity, but by working only the chinks in the armor. Stand fast in “the thicket of the law” while we still have a remnant: Support groups like the Oath Keepers, who instill an awareness of the Constitution in those who wield the force of the state; the Second Amendment Foundation; the Internet Freedom Coalition; the Center for Constitutional Rights. Or think how an inexpensive seed will grow to split concrete: Give to open one student’s eyes through Birthright Unplugged.
Again, what is the tool for withdrawal?
“But look!” you say. “See how you yourself have been molded by the very laws you complain of! I don’t want to be like that — I don’t want to hide myself, I want to say out loud that congressman Blodgett is an ass. I want to get up in the face of the clerk frisking me at the airport. I won’t back down!”
That is exactly what we all aim for. We are not about to give away the coltish, impulsive, brave character that is our birthright as Americans. But: It is a long-term project. It is a project that fails if it stops at some kind of stoic conditioning of the self. But we do not yet know the tool that will make this a civic, a public, project. I hope that it may be you, or someone like you, who, while standing in line to check out groceries, or while driving to work, suddenly discovers it. — It will be so simple that everyone will wonder how they never saw it.
March 6, 2010