The barrel of a gun

The barrel of a gun February 28, 2008

The United States has a massive nuclear arsenal and the best-equipped, best-trained military the world has ever seen. It is an awesome, fearsome machine that can rain down inexorable death from the heavens.

But that’s not why I drive on the right side of the road.

I drive on the right side of the road for a whole host of reasons — practical, prudential, even moral I suppose. (Prudential and moral often overlap where safety is concerned. Plus Not Being an Asshole is a kind of moral reason.) All of those reasons precede the merely legal reasons for doing so. I’m certainly aware of those legal reasons as well. And in some vague sense I suppose I’m aware that there could be legal consequences for driving on the wrong side of the road and that those legal consequences, if it came to it and if I somehow survived to face them, would ultimately be enforced by armed agents of the government.

But it has never occurred to me that the possibility of violent coercion on the part of the state was among the most important, relevant or meaningful reasons for driving on the right side of the road. Nor has it ever occurred to me that such basic traffic laws are an undue restriction on my personal liberty — or even worse, a kind of “taking.” (If I can only drive on half the road, then my car is only worth half as much — it’s theft I tell you, theft of my car’s full potential value!)

This is something I just don’t understand about my libertarian friends here in cyberspace. For them, the menacing threat of armed government tyranny seems to be the only reason they can conceive of for complying with any law, rule, regulation or — heaven forfend! — tax.

And that’s just, well, odd.

The good news is that I’m fairly sure they don’t really mean it. The trajectory of their slogans forces them to argue some odd things, but most of them don’t really seem to live that way. “Taxation is theft,” they’ll shout, and thus they wind up arguing that the only reason they pay their taxes is because the jackbooted thugs from the IRS have pried it from their hands at gunpoint. But that’s not really the case any more than it’s true that the only reason they send their kids to school is because the jackbooted truant officers have forced them to do that at gunpoint. Or that the only reason they do not embezzle, default on loans, defraud their neighbors or prey on the weak is fear of legal reprisal. If the state and the police and every coercive mechanism for law enforcement were to evaporate overnight, they would not take to the streets in a lawless rampage of rioting and pillaging.

Not most of them, at least.

They’re not really the Nietzschean little sociopaths their arguments are always trapping them into claiming to be. If they met such a person, in fact, they’d probably do just what you or I would do — call the police.

Participating in civilization — particularly in a democratic civilization, a civil society — requires accepting certain rules, regulations, mores, laws, and, yes, taxes in your own best interest and the best interests of others, i.e., for the common good. It also requires that we constantly and vigilantly question every rule, regulation, more, law or tax to evaluate whether it is necessary, fair, wise, efficient, effective, useful, proportionate, etc. But once we accept that as our task — evaluating each on its merits and demerits in accord with the common good rather than dismissing them all, categorically, as by definition illegitimate — then we become liberals and not libertarians.

And one of the nice things about being a liberal is that you never need to pretend that you’re actually a barbaric hoodlum who only behaves civilly due to fear of punishment from the 101st Airborne.


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