One of the obfuscating features of sociological discourse, whether this is in academic tomes or in journalistic articles, is the tendency to describe their subject matter in terms of vast, overreaching abstractions. “The market” does X, “the government” does Y, “companies” do Z and so on. Such categorisations are not, of course, unimportant; the use of shorthand is needed to quickly and clearly identify particular groups of individuals who each bear a common feature; however, that is precisely what is lost – that all of them are nothing more than nouns for “groups of individuals” – when use of these abstractions is taken too far. Such use becomes particularly meaningless when one starts to ascribe to these groups particular characteristics that are independent of those of the individual participants, as if the group itself is some kind of living, thinking entity. So we are always told that “markets” are “wild”, “capricious,” “erratic”, “reckless”, “selfish” and imbibed with, what is quickly becoming a clichéd term, “irrational exuberance”. “The government”, on the other hand, is always “wise”, “prudent”, “far sighted”, “selfless” and “serving”. But both of these groups are still populated by the same type of human – living, breathing, thinking, desiring, choosing and acting. Only an examination of the precise motivations and the outlets for their expression that individual humans gain from becoming a member of one of these groups can one hope to understand their true nature.

One of the most serious misunderstandings to which this type of thinking – in terms of bland abstractions – leads is the idea that “government” is somehow endowed with a different set of moral rules from every other group. We all know that theft is wrong, whatever the circumstance. Whoever you are in life, rich, poor, fat, thin, smart or stupid, every person can only gain the property of another by offering him something that he values in voluntary exchange; in short, he must offer him a valuable service. Taking property that belongs to another person is almost universally condemned as immoral. Members of the “government” however do not have to follow this rule, at least when acting in their “official” capacity. These people not have to offer anyone a valuable service in return for its revenue, they can simply take what they need to fund their ventures, i.e. whatever they want rather than what the person from whom they are taking the money wants. No private citizen is morally permitted to kill another humans being, whether this is for either personal or political gain. In the first instance he would be called a “murderer” and in the latter a “terrorist” (another very opaque abstraction). Yet those who populate the government, when they launch their foreign wars of imperialism, when they kill thousands of innocent civilians in drone strikes, when they blockade “rogue” states and starve its children to death, are permitted to do this with seemingly little question. Whether it is a good idea for the government to do these things is, of course, hotly debated but the moral right of the government to carry out these acts if it so decides is something that receives far less attention.

To further obfuscate the criminal nature of government we apply different names to everything that it does from that which private criminals do. So whereas private citizens “steal” and “rob” in order to gain “booty” (or the more formal “stolen goods”), the government “taxes” in order to gain “revenue”. Whereas private citizens are, as we have said, “murderers” or “terrorists”, the government is a “peacekeeper” or “spreader of democracy”. Yet what essentially is the difference between the clearly immoral acts that are committed by private citizens and the supposedly “moral” acts that are committed by members of the government? If you are an innocent civilian does it really make much difference to you whether you are killed in an armed robbery or whether you hit by a drone? Both groups – the private citizenry and the government – are populated not by devils and angels respectively but by humans endowed with the same qualities of rationality, intelligence and emotional disposition. All actions are initiated by one of these individuals or by individuals who choose to act in concert. An action that is therefore immoral for a private citizen is, therefore, immoral for a government citizen. Theft is the deliberate appropriation of property belonging to another without that person’s consent. How are “taxes” to be distinguished from this? Taxes are deliberately taken; the property belongs to another; and it is certainly taken without that person’s consent. For if taxes are truly voluntary then refusal to pay them would not land one in jail. Launching any kind of offensive, foreign war (that is already paid for with tax loot) that kills innocent civilians is indistinguishable from murder. Why does the fact that those who commit these atrocities in the government’s name, wear government-issued costumes, have a clear hierarchical structure, and wave and salute flags with pomp and circumstance, let them off the hook? The SS had all of these things – why are they considered a criminal organisation yet modern armies, navies and air forces are not? It appears that this question is hardly unique to our time, as St Augustine penetratingly reveals:

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor”.1

The idea that all of these immoral, government acts are legitimated by democracy is no justification. For what is true for the one is, in general, true for the many. If no one person can, alone, steal or murder then it does not follow that a group of people may, together, steal or murder. Further, if I have no right to steal or murder then neither can my so-called “representative” derive this right from my endorsement of his candidacy in an election.

If all of this, the whole division of morality in society, this separation into two distinct moral castes, wasn’t bad enough, it is made far worse by its sickening decoration and honour with the rhetoric of “public service” and “selflessness”. Theft and murder makes little difference to the victim whether it’s done by a saint or sinner, by a Samaritan or sadist. The whole cloud of altruistic verbage is designed to, again, obscure the fact that government is populated by exactly the same type of human being as the rest of society – they will attempt to further their own ends with the means available to them, and if immoral means are legitimated then they will most certainly take advantage of them. Even if we assume that they genuinely seek “good” ends and are thoroughly convinced of the “morality” of their position, it has often been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions; indeed, the Soviet Union, the political system that butchered tens of millions, was created and fostered by those who believed that what they were doing was right. But this is before you get into the very convincing argument that government – the sphere where it is permissible to behave immorally – attracts the very people who relish to behave in such a manner for its own sake.

Libertarians believe in a basic morality that is uniform to all people – that all people, King or subject, employer or employee, rich or poor, fat or thin, are subject to the same cardinal moral rule, namely that you can do whatever you want with your own person and property so long as it does not inflict violence on the person or property of anyone else. No exceptions. The actions of all human beings need to be examined in regard to this moral truth and no excuses are derived from being a member of a certain caste. The basic fact that individual humans, their motivations, choices and ends are central to everything that happens in this world, cannot be hidden by abstractions, sociological inventions, metaphysical nonsense, traditions, ranks, ceremonies, patriotic songs, flags and so on. Libertarians need to do the best they can to unmask the truth behind these illusions.

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1St Augustine, City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4.

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