Have you ever wondered that somebody you know can justify the government doing something that he personally would never do? More importantly, have you ever been surprised to find that some of your friends allow the government to do things they do not think anybody else ought to be able to do? Finally, have you ever found that you or anybody you know has judged something to be "wrong" simply because it is illegal? The fact that I can answer "yes" to all three of these questions has bothered me for some time, but only recently have I come to understand why this is the case. It is my contention that many people allow the laws of government to become a surrogate morality. Instead of synthesizing their own moral code, people are willing to allow the law to determine what is moral and what is not. Furthermore, the illusions created by democratic government reinforce this confusion of laws and morals, making it virtually impossible for many people to conceive of a moral society existing without the rule of law.
I always think that illustrating a principle with an example is the best course of action. The best example that springs to mind is that of drug laws. I cannot speak for those from earlier generations, but I am quite sure that every person of my age and younger has been bombarded almost since we could read with anti-drug propaganda, ranging from elementary school DARE programs to commercials on television. Many of these campaigns focus on the dangers of drug use and especially of drug addiction, but many others use scare tactics, tossing around terms like "mandatory minimum sentencing", "intent to distribute" and many others that focus on the fact that drugs are against the law and violators of drug laws are subject to harsh punishment.
Leaving aside for the moment whether these drug laws are valid applications of law enforcement (they are definitively not), it seems indicative to me that some people I know have the attitude "Well drugs wouldn't be illegal if they weren't bad". In fact, I know several people that drink alcohol and smoke tobacco with what would probably be considered unhealthy frequency, yet look down on people that occasionally smoke marijuana as low-lifes. Most are willing to "live and let live", but their disdain for illegal drugs is clear. When confronted with the seeming hypocrisy of this perspective, I find that many times their justification boils down to nothing more than "Well, marijuana is illegal, booze and cigarettes are not". This indicates to me that these people have formulated their moral positions relative to drugs based on nothing more than the laws of the government.
Other examples abound, whether you want to consider stock market analysts who consider certain legally shady tactics to be the sign of an astute businessman while considering others to be "stealing" (the difference between the two is often determined by whether these tactics result in a conviction or not) or the average conservative hawk who thinks of Palestinian suicide bombers as murderers while condoning the dismantling of Iraq under the auspices of a "legitimate defense operation". In each instance, the difference between a moral and an immoral action is defined, more than anything, by whether the government and its laws sanction the action.
So why do people allow the government to determine their morality? In large measure, I contend, because people think of government as an extension of themselves. Part of the reason for this is that "government" is an artificial word. It is useful to think of the set of all nouns as being divided into two non-intersecting classes, natural and artificial. Natural words are words that have a correspondence to a concrete object, whereas artificial words are words that are based on natural words but have no concrete correspondence. "Banana" is a good example of a natural word, because whenever one sees the word "banana" one thinks of the tangible piece of fruit that the word signifies. On the other hand, words like "State" and "government" are good examples of artificial words, because they refer to something that is, above all else, an idea. The concept of government has no physical reality. People who ascribe the idea may cause physical manifestations that are often said to be the products of the idea, but it is vitally important to remember that these objects (like roads or prisons) are the products of men.
Since government has no physical reality, people have to extrapolate from words that do have a physical reality in order to visualize it. Hence the reason that the government is often identified with the president, or with the Congress or the court system. People can watch the president or the members of congress talk on television or even in person; people enter courtrooms all the time. The idea of government is the idea that attempts to tie together innumerable physical objects, from the Capitol Building to the road that runs by your house, from the senator from New York to the county clerk.
People often ascribe a humane demeanor to the government, in large part because they think primarily of people who work for the government when they think of the idea of government. This seems like a pretty valid substitution, since there could be no idea of government without people who worked for it. The dangerous part of this substitution is that people are human, government is not. When someone has conceived of the idea of government in terms of people, it is impossible for that person not to ascribe a human aspect to the government.
If you do not believe that this occurs, I challenge you to examine any of the myriad examples of what I have heard called "personality dictatorships". Is not the government of modern Cuba defined in terms of Fidel Castro's personality? Can you imagine Nazi Germany without Hitler? Is it a coincidence that we think of Stalinist Russia? Was the JFK assassination more troubling because of the human tragedy (Kennedy's death) or because it shook the faith of Americans in their government?
I think it is quite clear that many people visualize government in terms of other people. When one starts to think of government as being human instead of theoretical, it becomes necessary to think of its rules as human(e) rules, its punishments as human(e) punishments. However, I do not think that this alone is enough to enable so many people to allow legal and illegal to determine right and wrong.
It is the idea of democracy that makes it possible for people to view the government as a moral body. Democracy creates the illusion that the government one is ruled by is the government one has created. When one accepts the idea that it is acceptable to vote (either directly or by proxy) for the laws that one must abide by, one implicitly accepts that the laws are determined by oneself. In this way, people not only conceive of other people when they try to imagine government, but they project themselves into the government.
Language has a tendency to make this projection extremely easy. I find that, especially in democracies, government is not just government for many people, but our government. When the government does something good or impressive, we did it. For example, I have heard people say things like "Wasn't it amazing when we landed on the moon?" or "That really turned the tide when we stormed Normandy on D-Day". Except in extremely rare cases, the people speaking neither landed on the moon nor stormed Normandy. Nonetheless, they have identified themselves with the actions of others via their seeming vested interest in the abstract idea of the United States Government. After all, doesn't the document that created the idea of the U.S. government state that "We the people" established it?
When I do something stupid or wrong, I am far more likely to rationalize it to myself with excuses ("I was tired", "I wasn't paying attention", "I didn't know any better", "I was drunk", etc.) than I am to examine my moral principles and, finding them lacking, change them in some way. Experience tells me that I am not alone in this rationalization. In fact, I would guess that the overwhelming majority of people do much the same most of the time. Usually, this tendency is at worst annoying and is only rarely dangerous or destructive.
Unfortunately, since people tend to project themselves into the government within the context of democracy, they tend to use the same rationalizations for the stupid or wrong actions of the government. This is certainly not a universal phenomenon, but it is widespread.
This argument does not fall apart when faced with the reality that many people criticize various aspects of government. I think the analogy with a sports team works well. I am sure almost everyone has heard some fan exclaim "We played great today!" after the team they cheer for has won a big game. Many sports fans mentally project themselves into the team (or teams) that they support. This does not mean that aspects of the team do not get criticized. Fans are eminently likely to question the upbringing of a player, the sanity of a coach or the humanity of an owner just as citizens are apt to question the conduct of a president or the agenda of a bureaucrat. In some senses, projecting oneself into a team or a government makes it easier to criticize certain aspects of the team or government because one wants the team to win, the government to succeed.
The analogy carries even further, though. After all, we need look no further than the fans of the Minnesota Twins during the proposed contraction of the team; because the fans projected themselves into the team, in part defined themselves by the team, they view the attempt to dismantle "their" team as an attack on themselves. In the same way, we need to look no further than various terrorist attacks to see that people view an attack on the government that rules them as an attack on themselves.
If we carry this argument to its logical conclusion, we see that most people will necessarily view with suspicion any plan to radically change the government. So many people have projected themselves into the government, so many have allowed the laws to define their morality that, in a sense, an attempt to change the government more than cosmetically becomes an attempt to change the people ruled by that government. As such, the people will demand absolute perfection from any system that supposes to supplant the government.
Unfortunately, no system can promise perfection. Anarchy is no exception. Although people acknowledge that occasionally the innocent are convicted or the guilty go free under the current government, they will not accept these things from a competing system. Even though people apologize for the government's inability to eliminate poverty (in fact condone many of the methods by which the government creates poverty), they are unwilling to even listen to the description of a system that cannot promise the elimination of poverty.
So, what does this all mean for those who oppose the State? First and foremost, they must avoid projecting themselves into the State. Second, they must constantly remember that rationalizations of the State are often self-rationalizations. Someone who has defined himself by the State, has conceived of the State in terms of himself, cannot argue rationally about the abstract concept of government.
The negative dialectic is a powerful tool in this instance, for it allows the State apologist to cloak himself in a facade of rationality. Tempting as it is to blame the dialectic on thinkers like Marx and Hegel, it dates back at least to Plato and Socrates. Dialectic is the method used to test alternative viewpoints by questioning their premises and their conclusions until a contradiction is discovered. Unfortunately, the dialectic does not permit of informal guides. Guiding principles (which I define as principles that serve as good general guides, but whose use should always be moderated by common sense) have no place in the dialectical universe. Neither Socrates nor any other dialectician can pinpoint the role of a guiding principle in a formal (but human) system. The closest parallel is that of an axiom, so dialecticians often confuse guiding principles with axioms.
An extremely edifying example of this quality of the dialectic occasionally arises in arguments about guiding principles like the Non-Aggression Principle. The Non-Aggression Principle is rightfully a guiding principle. It is a generally good principle that leads to morally correct action, but one must always be careful to use common sense when applying the NAP. The NAP is not an axiom, for one can easily conceive of situations where the NAP and common sense come into conflict.
Unloaded handguns are an excellent example. An unloaded handgun pointed at my head cannot in any way be considered a threat to my well-being (other than as a common projectile) so, without significant circumlocutions, it cannot be considered a violation of the NAP to point an unloaded handgun at my head. However, common sense dictates that, especially if I am unsure the gun is actually unloaded, I ought to use whatever force is necessary to prevent the gun from being pointed at my head. As such, we see that the NAP should not rightly be considered the final arbiter of morality or even of the justified use of force.
I imagine many will object to my decision that pointing an unloaded handgun at someone's head is not a violation of the NAP; after all, the person at whom it is pointed is unlikely to know whether the gun is loaded or not. Suppose, then, that we stipulate that the NAP prohibits pointing guns (unloaded or not) at someone's head. On the other hand, we can conceive of situations where it might not be prudent for me to use force to prevent a gun from being pointed at my head--perhaps this gun-pointing is part of a play or movie in which I have a role. Even under this looser definition of the NAP, we still encounter difficulties if we try to apply the NAP as an axiom.
Dialecticians, however, tend to view principles like the NAP as axioms because their worldview is constrained by the framework of first-order predicate logic. Either a proposition is true or false, either it can be derived from first principles or it can't. There is no middle ground. Unfortunately, political theory is not mathematics, so deriving a so-called "contradiction" does not mean one can simply discard the assumptions upon which it rests. More concretely, just because the anarchist thinks the government is evil and therefore ought not exist because it violates the NAP and some smarmy dialectician demonstrates that there are cases in which the NAP fails to hold does not mean the anarchist is wrong about the evilness of the state nor that he is "right, but for the wrong reasons". The dialectical framework which asserts this conclusion is simply inadequate to the task of analyzing reality.
As such, anarchists ought not perpetuate the false authority of the dialectic in their arguments against the state, either. The following is probably not an atypical example of an anti-statist dialectical argument:
Anarchist: "You think that freedom is a good thing, right?"
Even if we agree with the sentiment of the argument, agree with the idea that the draft is slavery, etc. I contend that anti-statists must avoid this type of argument, for it only legitimizes pro-State arguments which take advantage of certain ambiguities or contradictions in the anti-statist conception of society (and these ambiguities are bound to happen; again, political theory is not mathematics). Instead, anarchists must synthesize their society, both in the abstract and in the concrete, creating a better alternative rather than simply attacking what already exists.
I use the phrase "both in the abstract and in the concrete" in reference to this synthesis because I think both the abstract theorizing of a Bob Murphy and the creation of black-market alternatives propounded by the likes of Warren Tilson and Carl Rose (to mention just a few examples from this site alone) have their place. Theories are useful in softening people up to the idea that maybe a given alternative is not so bad as it might seem. Earlier in this essay I tried to demonstrate that people react badly to attacks on what they consider to be "their" government, but experience shows us that people are much more open to change if they are changing to something that seems better, rather than just eliminating the status quo. The practical, economic solutions of the more agorist-minded are useful in that they both demonstrate to people that the principles behind them do hold water in the real world and chip away at the fundamentally economic power wielded by the State. When used in concert, these strategies are much better bets for converting the masses (if that is your goal) than all the dialectical nattering in the world.
Of course, all of that stuff is really, really hard, so our best bet is probably just to get the hell off this planet and as far away from established governments as possible.
Clay Shonkwiler is a graduate student in mathematics and incorrigible cynic. More of his writing can be found at selling waves.