When Is Violence Justified in Response to Totalitarianism?
The answer is tougher than it seems…
In response to yesterday’s post (When Totalitarianism Comes, Will You Do the Right Thing?), Max Borders ofposed the following question:
When is it appropriate to use counter-violence? Or, is counter-violence ever the right thing?
It is an essential question.
Peace lies at the very core of our philosophy. The peace of the nonaggression principle. The peace of the principle that all forms of governance, and all transactions, must be consensual. The peace of allowing people to do their own thing.
We believe that the initiation of violence has no place in human interactions. Yet we are placed in a difficult position: the initiation of violence has been systematized by every government across the globe. The only thing that varies is the amount of violence, and the degree to which the government allows a legal system that restrains its own violence.
What’s more, each government can vary the amount of violence it commits against the people over whom it claims dominion. This all depends on whether it has those restraining systems, and the degree to which it decides it would like to overbear or ignore them.
Tyranny, you see, is not an on-off switch. There is a continuum of tyranny. Or, if you prefer, there is a volume knob—the amount of it can be turned up and down. And unless you’ve been living under a rock (or you are one of those govern-me-harder types), you know that tyranny is increasing across the West.
You don’t need to know the philosophical reasons why tyranny is tyranny. Once tyranny reaches a certain level, everyone knows that they are being oppressed. But the more you come to understand those philosophical reasons, the more you realize just how much of it is built into our daily lives.
This leaves us with Max’s entirely legitimate question, and all of its corollaries: How much totalitarianism is too much? What is the right way to act in response? Is there a line that can be crossed such that the tragedy of violence becomes appropriate?
Max noted, and I of course concur, that we don’t have hard-and-fast answers. But I did do some on-the-fly thinking about it in the comments, and I would like to share that with you here (entirely unedited, save for some formatting and links).
First, I look at things as they are now:
Oh goodness, this is indeed a difficult question. I can at least entertain arguments across a spectrum…
Let us begin by acknowledging what I believe to be a baseline view we share: that what we have now, by forcibly violating the consent of the human person, is somewhere between deeply morally problematic and entirely morally impermissible.
Let us also make a terminological distinction between coercive force and the protective force that must be deployed in response to the initiation of coercive force. I believe that we also share the view that protective force is justified in response to coercive force.
I have done philosophical calculus elsewhere that I think justifies (to my satisfaction, at least) these as baseline presuppositions.
If we are correct about these, then the next essential questions are these: does what we have now rise to the level of coercive force, and if it does not now, when would would it? And then…if and when it does, would protective force be the most effective or most moral option in response?
Let us take one aspect of what we have now and unpack it. How about payroll taxes and Social Security? Thinking it out on the fly…
1. You did not consent to this entire system of governance. It is imposed upon you by force and you are not allowed to opt out and create your own system. They will kill you if you try. This is clearly a violation of human self-ownership. It is violence. BUT…the conservative view rightly notes that this is the way things have been done for a very, very long time. Is it right to just start blowing stuff up based on a philosophical objection—even a correct one—to such a longstanding human institution/phenomenon? Probably not. But then…
2. You did not consent to have such a huge chunk of your earnings taken from you by force in the form of payroll taxes.
3. You did not consent to the fact that you are prevented from earning interest on that money. If the amount taken in payroll taxes were invested in indexed stock accounts over the typical adult working lifetime, even lower-middle-class workers would retire as millionaires. Instead, they get back some pathetic portion of what they had taken from them. That is a direct assault on the property and quality of life of the human person. It is not okay.
4. You did not consent to how the government uses the money while it is “storing” it for you. You did not consent to the warfare, the welfare, or the waste. You did not consent to have people murdered with your money, in your name.
5. You did not consent to be given back a pittance at the end of your working life, on their terms, at ages they determine.
6. And you certainly did not consent to have that pittance taxed a second time before they so generously dole it back out to you.
All of this is a clear moral crime. In one strict philosophical-moral analysis, the whole system is worthy of being burned down to the ground. The system is arguably that repugnant. This is the case even before we get to full-blown totalitarianism.
But at exactly what target ought such ire, however morally justified, be directed? The IRS agent, who is just doing his job? The politicians, who inherited this system from politicians who inherited it from still more politicians going back a century? The cop with the wife and kids who comes to take you away for not paying your taxes? It's such a mess.
I think we can do better than violence…though violence does certainly get more justified the more the totalitarianism screws get tightened.
Though even there… look at how it got solved in Poland (the Pope and millions of people pouring into the streets). Estonia—through song. The USSR in 1991, in the (almost) bloodless collapse of the regime, which I witnessed with my own eyes.
Peace can work!
Next, I consider the path forward.
Here, of course, is the path envisioned by many minarchists, anarcho-phylarchists, market anarchists, etc. Thus, it might not seem fully cogent to those who are still holding out hope that we can fix the system or return to some “original vision” of the Founders. Even if you fall into the latter category, however, please read on. We’re going to need to win you over eventually. 😉
My working outlook for dealing with things as they are now is this:
We begin making the arguments, laying the groundwork, and then negotiating with legacy governments for both territorial and non-territorial opt-out. (None dare call it ‘secession’!)
We make the case morally. We make it legally if possible. We proceed always with care, kindness, and, in the words of H-H Hoppe, “diplomatic tact.”
We begin acting on it in any way we can. We build momentum, numbers, and legitimacy. We begin approaching critical mass.
It may take five years or 50 or more. All of these actions are our fundamental right as human persons.
At some point, the ball is in their court. What do they do when hundreds, thousands, millions of people express a clear preference? Do they act with violence? Such action would be entirely unjustified.
In other words, we work towards these goals always with a peaceful approach. And if, at some point, violence is initiated by them such that a response is needed, that would be entirely on them.
But I don't think it is going to come to that. I think they are going to collapse, and all we need to do is be ready.
These are, of course, my thoughts on the fly, based on my current thinking. I am open to arguments in any direction on this topic.
Max then rightly asks the when question. When is enough enough? Is there a trigger that justifies reacting with protective force?
All I had to offer in response was to posit the following:
In the gradual-secession scenario…
When we (or our descendants) formally announce sovereignty and independence and they come to club us??
In the creeping-totalitarianism scenario…
When we peacefully resist and they use violence in response??
Another commenter,, added the following:
The gentle approach is better when getting around tyranny because the petty tyrant is expecting opposition.
That seems a wise and practical observation.
We consider protective force justified in response to rights violations, and our rights are being violated now. But we are fundamentally opposed to violence.
This sort of leaves us right back at the beginning, with no clear answers, and a whole lot of wishing that they would just let us live in peace. But the discussion itself has value.
So please chime in and add your views to this essential question!
As Cicero rightly observed, ‘there are two ways of contending—one by discussion, the other by force.’ Help me win with words—upgrade today!