Politics is Force
Why is political debate such a volatile affair? It usually seems pointless and even counterproductive. Rarely does anyone convince anyone else of anything. Even worse, these discussions tend to become quite emotional and heated; they seem to end with everyone more solidified in their existing opinion, except now they are also angry with the opposition. For these reasons many people simply opt to avoid political conversation altogether. What is the point if we are just going to create conflict and perhaps even damage relationships?
Consider that we can debate almost anything else (except maybe religion) relatively safely. We make arguments for our musical taste, the merits of a particular film, the best city in which to live, fashion, etc. People may have strong feelings about these things, but all except the most intolerant recognize that everyone is different and that we simply aren’t going to agree on these things. We may even good-naturedly tease each other for the “silly” music or movies our friends like, but it is highly unlikely that we will become angry over any of this.
But what if I argue that a particular movie isn’t just great, but that it is so great that everyone should have to watch it. It’s not just that the themes the film explores are relevant and well developed through the plot, it’s that the message is so important that people (including you) should have to watch it whether they want to or not. Whoah! All of a sudden our conversation assumes a very serious tone. You may very well be in a state of shock or disbelief at this assertion. What do I mean that people should be required to watch a movie that I like? This is craziness! What gives me the right to forcefully impose my will on people that way?
We may roll our eyes or shake our heads in disgust when we see another subscribe to, or do something that we perceive as absurd, but that is usually the end of it. However if that person attempts to impose their viewpoint on us, we rightfully become defensive. “You can do what you want, but count me out,” would be our response. But if a man corners us in an alley and tells us to, “watch this move or else”, this is no longer a simple matter of differing opinions about a movie; we are now dealing with the use of force. Who wouldn’t feel violated in this situation? This is clearly an injustice, and every sane person knows that it is.
So what does this example have to do with political debate and angry conflict? This is what:
The political debate is the process of determining against whom, and for what reasons force will be used.
Even if the tone of the discussion seems civil and cordial, beneath everything said is the implicit threat of force. Our brains are wired to engage the “flight or fight” response when we perceive a threat. So it is impossible not to get angry during political debate.
The Nature of Political Debate
Politics is about what government is to do. And how does government do what it does? It compels compliance. It makes us do stuff. Now some of the things that we are compelled to do are undeniably just. If we enter into a contract, we are required to fulfill our commitments. If we rear-end another car because we are distracted sending text messages, we should be compelled to make restitution for the damage we caused. We shouldn’t get away with murder or rape. In these situations the government will demand that we make good on our obligations—either those from our commitments, our negligent behavior, or our malicious behavior. If we refuse to comply, the government will proceed to use force against us. They may seize our assets, or arrest us. The point stands that the government is in the business of wielding and utilizing force.
In fact does it not make sense to define government by its force? What is government if it is not a monopoly of force wielded over a particular plot of territory? The fact is that if it lacks a unique privilege to use force on others, our entire concept of government breaks down. Government is force; this is something that we assume and we accept. Without the military, the police, and the prisons, government would be nothing but a debate society.
Is Force Justified?
Setting aside the topic of government for a moment, let’s consider this idea of force. Is it ever justified? Virtually everyone would agree that if someone is throwing his fists into your face that you are justified in defending yourself—you will use force in return in an attempt to compel the aggressor to cease the violence he has initiated. This seems justified by most people’s standards.
But what if I wish to initiate force against another who has committed no aggression? Why might I do this? Perhaps out of spite. Maybe I want something that belongs to someone else, so I just take it. I could just be a sadistic person and enjoy harming others. All of this seems unjustified according to most people’s standards.
But what if I wish to take something from another for something that I perceive as a worthy cause? Let’s say I start a film production company and I create films in order to educate people on critically important topics. What if I struggle to fund my project? What if the only way I can put together the money to produce my films is by breaking into your home, taking your television, stereo and computer, and selling them. I happen to believe that my films are of greater value than the televisions and stereos and computers that I take and sell. Does this justify my theft?
What if I use the money I have earned from the theft of your property to fund the search for a cure of a fatal disease? What if I use it to fund the work of a particular religious organization? What if I pick your pocket and use the cash to buy toys for poor children on Christmas? Do any of my good intentions justify my theft?
I have to assume that before I used force to seize your property, you were not going to contribute toward all or any of the causes I listed above that I believe in—even though I might have asked nicely. This means that you do not completely agree with me regarding the way that you wish to allocate your resources. Do my good intentions override your right to use your property the way that you see fit? I believe that most people would agree that they do not.
If it is not justified for me to pick your pocket for a good cause, we have to assume that it is not justified for me to pick the pockets of other people either. And if it’s not justified for me to steal for a good cause, we have to assume that it is not justified for you to steal for a good cause either. The bottom line is that people should not initiate force against others, even if it is for a good cause. If we did allow this, we would have chaos due to people’s conflicting ideas of what constitutes a “good cause”.
But what if it’s not simply a matter of what I believe your resources should be spent on. What if I convince both of your next door neighbors that you need to fund my movie making? Is it now okay for us to take your money? Or what if I convince everyone on your block that contributing to me is the right thing to do, all of them contribute, and they all insist that you contribute as well. Does it become wrong for you to refuse simply because 30 neighbors insist on your participation? Does it remain wrong for your neighbors to use force on you?
What if only 51% of your block believes in funding my movies, but they also believe that the other 49% who disagree (including you) need to fund my movies as well? What if they appoint a few of their people to carry clubs and go door to door to provide incentive to the uncooperative 49%? Would this display of force be justified? After all, the majority of the block believes in the fund. Does not the will of the majority rule?
At what point does the rule of the majority justify forcing your compliance? When 51% of the neighborhood wants you to do something? How about when 51% of your city demands it? Now we are hitting on a real-life scenario. If 51% of the people in your city decide that you need to contribute money to a cause—any cause—they will in fact hire some guys with guns and clubs to compel you to participate. Of course we are talking about the government. Amazingly, at this point people change their attitudes altogether. Whereas at the block or neighborhood level, the hiring of men with weapons to compel compliance, even for a good cause, was clearly unjust, at the city level it becomes just.
Government and Force
Why do we so abruptly change our attitude regarding the use of force as long as it is taking place at a city level or higher and it is called “government”? Why does that label make the force legitimate? What if the 51% of your block demanding your cooperation elected a “block government” and appointed “officers” to enforce the “laws” that were voted for by the majority? Would justice demand that you comply?
Is the legitimacy of government rooted in anything other than the assumption that society cannot function correctly without it—that a foundation of justice cannot be maintained any other way? Maybe this assumption is true. Maybe it isn’t. But even if it is, how is our recognition of the injustice of initiating force against another invalidated? It isn’t. If it is not OK for an individual or a mob to initiate force for a “worthy cause”, why in the world does the initial force of a mob appointed “government” become OK? So then how can we conclude that a necessary government is anything but a necessary evil?
And if we see government, the monopoly of force wielded over a particular territory, as necessary but still evil it becomes obvious why we cannot agree to disagree in most political dialogue—we are actually engaged in debate over which evil measures will be taken against each other. Even if you continue to see government as a mystical exception to this universal sense of disgust we all feel toward the initiation of force, as I mention in the beginning, we are still debating against whom and for what reasons force will be used. Now that is a pretty volatile conversation.
Given that initial force is at least bordering on what we already know is evil, if it is ever used at all should it not always be the very last resort? Shouldn’t we feel uneasy with every additional measure that is backed by force? With every dollar that we forcefully extract from another, every regulation with which we demand compliance, every behavior that we punish, and every territory upon which we forcefully encroach, shouldn’t we be considering very carefully and solemnly what, if any of this is truly necessary to uphold justice?
When people see others willing to employ initial force against them they become afraid. Who wouldn’t? When others threaten us, we naturally see them as the bad guy. How can we possibly agree to disagree with people, tolerate each other’s differences and live peacefully when we see those differences as threats? And when we feel threatened by other people we are inclined to think about what we need to do to protect ourselves—we have to retaliate, or better yet, strike first. In time paranoia creeps into everyone’s mind, those with whom we disagree become enemies, and force becomes, rather than the last resort, the preferred option.
This means that disagreements that imply the threat of force lead us to see people with differences as enemies. This can only stir up feelings of paranoid suspicion and animosity. Inevitably we feel compelled to initiate force against others before they get the chance to do something to us first.
We are so acclimated to the existence of this stage of political theatre that we kind of get used to being angry and fearful of others. Rather than discuss differences of opinion, we try to steer government policy in the direction of using force against “the other side” in order to weaken or restrain them. Rather than persuade, we legislate. Rather than living our lives as we see fit while allowing others to do the same, we intervene. And regardless of where you find yourself on the current left-right political spectrum, you know that the other side wants to stop you first. Who can blame you for desiring to impose a bit on them first?
Do unto others before they do it to you.
Has addiction to force as a solution left us hopelessly trapped in a cycle of escalating suspicion and resentment toward those with whom we disagree? Is there a way out of this? I think that there is, and it all boils down to differentiating rights from values.
Rights or Values?
Broadly speaking, our behavior is driven by our rights (what we believe is just for us to do—more on that in a minute) and our values (what matters to us). We see an array of options available to us according to our rights (we have the right to do far far more things than we could ever actually do), and from that we determine what matters most to us (perhaps in the now or maybe in the long-term) and then we act. Let’s first see what values look like.
What are values?
From our buffet of rights exists a plethora of seemingly good and bad choices, both healthy and dangerous, useful and wasteful, beautiful and perverse, and promising and detrimental. How we evaluate the choices that our rights present is determined by our individual sets of values. As is the case with everyone, a number of things to which I have the right to do don’t impress me as interesting, pleasant, safe, or wise. On the other hand, many will differ with me on what they consider to be interesting, pleasant, safe, or wise—their values are not the same as mine—and so they will exercise their rights in different ways.
I may disagree with another over a question of values, perhaps even vehemently. Such a disagreement might even lead to a heated exchange, (perhaps over the merits of a particular piece of music, the tastefulness of an article of clothing, the most loving way to treat a significant other, or even the amount of risk one ought to take in life) but we can ultimately agree to disagree over these things. We might even decide we don’t like someone over a difference in values, and so we may agree not to associate with each other. While this is regrettable, it is still perfectly just. In any case, we do not have to feel threatened by differences in values, and that is good because these differences are inevitable. There will always be someone who does or likes things that we consider disgusting, dangerous, wasteful, or foolish. But as long as others keep their choices and the consequences of those choices to themselves, it remains a mere question of values. In these cases we are relieved of the responsibility to enforce our perspective of right living on people because they are not enforcing their own perspectives on us either. Now if we care about another it is appropriate to offer advice and make suggestions, but whether or not we persuade them, we don’t have to feel responsible for or threatened by their choices.
The vast divergence in value judgements makes sense when we recognize that our values are actually the ingredients of our individuality and personality. Every personality trait, behavior, habit, or inclination can ultimately be broken down into a set of values. People are just as different as their values are different. Once we accept that this is normal, we can stop feeling threatened by “the different people” who are really, to perhaps a greater or lesser degree, every person other than ourselves.
What are rights?
Rights get to the root of this entire series. They are tricky confusing things. While they are frequently confused with each other, rights are a very different thing from values. Values are individualistic; rights are universal. Values are fuzzy; rights are binary. It makes sense to say that a particular behavior is is very wise, somewhat wise, somewhat foolish, or very foolish. It makes no sense to say that you somewhat have a right; you either have a right or you do not have a right. Yes or no. On questions of value, we will inevitably disagree. But as will be shown, with questions of rights we all basically agree, and in fact, we all have to agree.
Let me define a “right” a few different ways. A right is a thing that is right for one to have, or an action that is right for one to do. Another way to think of this is to consider the opposite. That for which you do not have a right to have is the thing that is wrong for you to have. The action that you do not have the right to do is the action that is wrong for you to do. We could easily substitute the words “correct” and “incorrect” for “right” and “wrong”. A right is a thing that is correct for one to have, or an action that is correct for one to do. Conversely, having or doing that for which you do not have the right is having or doing something that is incorrect. There is no gray zone here. We have rights and wrongs, and corrects and incorrects. And we are not making value judgements, do not confuse the two! I am afforded the opportunity, according to my rights, to do all kinds of things that, according to my values, are really bad ideas. A couple of examples will illustrate:
If I leave cheese out for a week, and it spoils, I have the right to eat it (it is right; it is not wrong), but according to my set of values, particularly the ones related to my sense of taste, and my enthusiasm for my own health, it is a very bad idea. But it is not specifically wrong. And since it is not wrong—it is merely unhealthy and disgusting (in my mind according to my values)—it is right to eat it; it is my right to eat it. Rights say that I may, but my values say that I won’t.
Consider a table Mr. A has purchased from a carpenter. Mr. B has stolen this table from Mr. A. Mr. B sets up the table in his dining room and proceeds to eat dinner on it. Is it right that Mr. B has the table? Is it right that Mr. B is using the table? No. Mr. B has not the right to have or to use it. We might say that it is incorrect for Mr. B to have and to use it. It would be correct for Mr. A to have and to use it. Mr. A. is the rightful owner, which is another way of saying that his ownership, possession, and usage is correct. This is an objective truth. These are not value judgements, they are determinations of rights. Do you disagree with these straightforward scenarios? No, you don’t. The fact is that virtually no sane person does. And almost nobody sees them as a “matter of opinion”. There is something objective about it. We are talking about right and wrong, correct and incorrect. Just as another example to contrast rights and values: while it may be right for Mr. A to use the table for dinner, if the table is too small to accommodate eight hungry people comfortably it may very well be foolish to use the table. It is a correct action, in terms of rights, but it is a bad decision in terms of value—it will make the guests feel cramped and uncomfortable. While we can debate the appropriate amount of elbow-room necessary for a pleasant meal, there is no debate as to whose usage of the table is right/correct and wrong/incorrect.
Let’s reconsider this idea of force. Because Mr. B’s possession and usage of the table are wrong/incorrect, is it just to use force to restore justice/rightness/correctness? Yes it is. Mr. B initiated force against Mr. A in the theft of his property, and so retaliatory force, for the purpose of restoring rightness to Mr. A is absolutely justified. Forcefully entering Mr. B’s home, removing the table, and returning it to Mr. A restores the original state of rightness. Things are correct again. That things were incorrect and are now correct is a verifiable objective truth. There is no debate!
In a debate over rights we are discussing what people ought and ought not to be allowed to do. To the extent that we do not tolerate a behavior, we are denying others the right to do it.
This all leads us to a critical realization: The one who says to another that he has not the right to act in a particular way is actually saying that given the power, he would prevent others from acting this way—even against their will. In some cases, as we have demonstrated, this use of force is justified. We just have to keep in mind that questions of rights imply the question of force.
Where do we get rights?
Some say that we get our rights from God. Others say that our concept of rights is the product of evolution. And others say that rights are simply a product of our imagination. But regardless of the ultimate origin, we can say that rights are natural for us to recognize. And while it may not satisfy the philosophers, the most down-to-earth answer is that we get rights from ourselves and everyone else. We have rights because we expect to have them, and so does everyone else. Rights “work” only because everyone else makes them work. It is similar to the “trust circle” game we played as children where everyone holds on to a central object and leans back. Stability is maintained as long as everyone holds on. Rights are the same way. With rights, we have an implied agreement between everyone that is always in place until someone “breaks the pledge” and violates another’s rights.
How old were you when the concepts of “mine” and “yours” occurred to you? Did you have to be taught to feel encroached upon if someone took something that was yours? Did you have to be taught to feel angry if someone broke something that was yours? Did you have to be taught to feel violated when you were physically abused by a bully? No, no, and no. We instinctively intuit our rights to our property and to our person and we defend them vigorously without anyone instructing us to do so. In fact “mine” is something so core to our being that we have to be taught not to be overcome with it—we are taught the values of compassion, sharing, and helpfulness. “Mine” comes to us quickly. As we mature a bit “yours” comes to us as well. This is not to say that as children we all respected each other’s rights. In fact, we frequently did not. But the point is that when we would hit someone else, or take something from someone, we knew it was wrong. We knew it was incorrect. We knew we were violating another person’s rights and we opted to do it anyway. We knew that we would be angry if we received the same treatment. And when the person against whom we have committed a violation recognizes what has happened, we expect retaliation. We know all of this naturally.
You have rights because you, along with everyone else, were born expecting to have them.
Can we agree to agree?
I mentioned that on the question of rights we have to agree. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds!
It logically follows that in order to demand of and reasonably expect others to respect our rights, we have to grant the same to everyone else. Unless we suffer from some type of a narcissistic disorder bordering on sociopathy, we know that rights only make sense if the rights that we defend as our own we grant to everyone else. As we mature, the requirement that we treat rights with consistency becomes more evident. We realize that we have no right to get angry when our rights are violated if we ourselves violate the rights of others. That makes no sense.
So what are these rights on which we all have to agree? We have to do the things that we promise to do, and we have to not encroach on other people or their property. So conversely we have the right to expect others to live up to their promises, and we have the right to use our bodies and our property as we see fit free of the threat of others forcing their will on our bodies or on our property. And that’s it! When we stop and think about it, we recognize that everyone basically does agree on these things. It doesn’t matter what a person’s religion, philosophy, value-set, race or gender is, everyone agrees with these rights. We realize that anybody who does not agree on these points is a scary person! They are probably a sociopath!
Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. —Thomas Jefferson
Even though virtually everyone already agrees on these simple ideas, most people make a lot of exceptions. And what we realize is that those exceptions are all based on values, not rights. And every single time we inject our values into the political debate we are saying that the government should force people to live according to our values. And while we all agree that neither an individual, nor a mob of people, has the right to make us do anything with ourselves or our stuff, we are taught to believe that if the mob is really really big (like half the population) then the mob can vote for people who will act on their desire to make other people do what they believe. But what’s the difference? Why does a majority of the population suddenly have the right to do something that an individual does not? There is no real answer to this question, a moment of reflection will show—it’s just an assumption we are conditioned to adopt from a young age.
If we stick to these simple basic rights on which virtually every sane person agrees, the political debate, and all of the conflict, dread, and loathing that accompanies it, evaporates. We can stop fearing different people, and they can stop fearing us.
It can’t be emphasized enough that rights and values are very different things When we see behavior of another that is different from our own (it may even be something that we perceive as foolish), but that we tolerate, we have observed a difference in a value while also recognizing a right. Value differences naturally result in peaceful disagreement. But escalating value differences to the point that they become an issue of rights means we are attempting to justify forcibly modifying or limiting another’s behavior. There is nothing peaceful about this. We are conditioned to see government as a tool to force social reform. Supposedly we can use it to purge bad attitudes, enforce fair outcomes, enforce moral living, or create entirely new societies from the ground up. The fact is that force does none of these things. People resent forceful meddling and intrusion. Force doesn’t change minds. It fosters resentment, rebellion, and hate.
A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned – this is the sum of good government. —Thomas Jefferson
Once we start looking at force as something that should only be used to maintain our foundational rights, and as a last resort (to have agreements enforced and to ensure that our rights to ourselves and our stuff are not violated) we can start focusing on real stuff. No longer afraid that others will forcefully impose their vision on us, we can get to the real work of seeking, and persuading others of, truth and goodness. We can now have meaningful conversations free of the fear that the other is going to force us to cooperate. Relieved of this burdensome anxiety, we can actually talk. We can actually make progress. It is no longer a battle. It is a discussion. It is a marketplace of ideas. We can now engage in conversation regarding the goodness of our individual expenditures of time and money.
To disagree with another without forcefully stopping him/her is to acknowledge a right. We can disagree without using the government to express our disagreement. We realize that saying “the government should not stop this behavior” isn’t the same as saying ” I advocate this behavior”. We can say that an action is a right while expressing vehement disapproval. Many actions that are rights are very bad ideas. We should peacefully advise people of their foolish behavior.
We should not forcefully prevent them from acting foolishly. When we realize that we all do something that someone will perceive as foolish we can only conclude that this forceful imposition of values upon everyone else is an incredibly dangerous idea!
Liberty—What Everyone Wants
When we disapprove of how another uses his/her body, property, or money, but we don’t use force to stop the behavior, we have embraced liberty. Liberty is what we all want for ourselves. To get it, we have to first grant it. And to keep it, we have to resist the urge to use force on other people, whether that be direct force or indirect force through the government. If we give in to the temptation to see government force as the preferred solution, and we use it, we set a precedent for the use of government force. And now that the precedent is set, people with whom you disagree now have a reason to use government force on you. This is a condition of perpetual escalation. It is what we have today. Republicans and Democrats: two groups that believe in using government to solve problems. On this they agree. They merely disagree on what problems the government should solve. They are enforcing more than rights. They are enforcing values.
They have shunned liberty.
Liberty is not a way of life, rather it is a foundation on which you make your way of life. Liberty isn’t a picture. Liberty is a blank slate with all the colors at our disposal. Liberty will look very different when exercised by different people.
People are so different. They hardly agree on anything. But that’s why deep down, people want liberty. They know they are different. They don’t mind being different. They want to be allowed to be themselves. People will allow liberty for others as long as they believe that this accommodation is mutual.
We should stop arguing about how to use force on other people. Instead we should choose liberty. We should choose it for ourselves and for everyone else. It is what we all want.