Flag.Blackened.net | OBJECTION #10: Some libertarians have defined libertarianism as based on the premise that it is illegitimate to engage in aggression against non-aggressors. As far as it goes, this is fine, but you can do all sorts of damage as well as intolerable annoyance without any physical aggression whatever.
Suppose my neighbor didn’t enjoy having me for a neighbor so he held meetings outside my door making as much noise as possible at all hours of the day and night. In this case there is no physical aggression, an so I assume that in a libertarian society I would have to put up with the annoyance. Or suppose a young lady is approached by a man who persistently desires to engage in sexual adventures with her, but she has no interest in such doings. He has a right to free speech and he keeps pestering her with his solicitations, much to her displeasure.
Where would you draw the line? When does one person’s behavior, which in moderation may be offensive, become something you can reasonably defend yourself from?
William J. Boyer
ANSWER: You are right, of course. There are all sorts of “aggressions” such as you suggest in your objection.
One of the homes in my neighborhood, for example, is peopled by college kids who on occasion enjoy sharing their music with everyone within a 100-mile radius. Again, the other day when riding the bus to work one woman got on who was proudly displaying a grossly pornographic magazine. Some of us whose sexual interests don’t lie in such directions could have been offended by the picture.
In the first case, where does the pleasure these college students get from being deafened by their music end and my love for tranquility begin? In the second, where does the woman’s pleasure in pornography end before it begins infringing on my desire not to look at such material?
Obviously, in the cases cited both in the question and above, there is conflict. Whether it’s resolvable or not is another matter. In beginning our consideration of this issue it will be helpful to recognize a couple points.
1) These problems exist today in a world full of government. They will exist in an anarchist world, too. But let’s not suppose that they will in any way be peculiar to an anarchist society. The objection’s implication is that today there are ways to deal with these problems – effective ways – that will not be available in an anarchist setting. Which brings us to a second point.
2) Since these problems will always exist, how are they to be handled? Herein lies the difference between the anarchist approach and the approach taken by those who choose to use coercion.
The statist argues that coercion is the only historically tried and proven method available for resolving problems arising between people. Because coercion is used and because it “works” (someone eventually is clubbed into submission), no further defense of their position is required, the argument goes. By implication they assume that the argument for or against their position is closed and that the only things about which there need to be discussion are the proposals offered as alternatives to coercion. No other method has been tried, they argue, and so those who propose other ways must satisfactorily (to their satisfaction, that is) prove that those other ways “will work.” It’s interesting to note here that the statists who raise this point will often insist that a libertarian be able to prove beyond question that in a free society any and all possible problems will be settled perfectly to everyone’s complete satisfaction. Furthermore, these problems must be able to be settled before they ever arise – that is, we must have a patent perfect answer for “solving” every imaginable hypothetical example thrown at us. If we are unable to do so – to their complete satisfaction – then our approach toward dealing with social problems is discarded out of hand as “useless,” “idealistic,” “unworkable.” Ask their “system to withstand the same rigid interrogation and they will cry that we are being unreasonable. Certainly their system has flaws, they answer, but it’s better than something that hasn’s been tried, isn’t it they ask rhetorically.
It’s not without reason that statists have long employed this line of argument. By so doing they can put their position beyond dispute and throw the whole weight of the argument on the shoulders of their opponents.
Since some social problems by their very nature are unsolvable to all parties’ satisfaction, then, given the conditions the statists impose on the argument, whatever anarchists suggest as ways to approach handling such problems will be vehemently criticized as “impractical” and discarded as “idealistic.”
In due course we will consider what, if anything, might be done in anarchist societies to deal with difficult social conflicts, but first we must consider the prevailing notion that coercion is a useful method for settling social problems.
One of the first things to note is that state-administered coercion doesn’t settle social conflicts, as its proponents would like us to believe. Rather, it causes these conflicts to smoulder as the parties to the disputes chafe under the injustice they feel has been done to them, and it creates a whole new set of conflicts as the disputants struggle to control the state mechanism itself. This latter fact is something statists wish us to ignore because herein lies the real cancer of their system. The struggle for power, for the opportunity to dominate and dictate what shall and shall not be done lies at the heart of our condemnation of their whole system. It is precisely this struggle for power that leads to the major social ills we face today.
Conflicts between individuals or small groups of people historically pale in comparison to the massive social disruption the state has caused. The statists cannot deny the wars, concentration camps, and torture that have been such an ugly part of history, but they attempt to put the blame for them on “human nature,” a bogey man they for centuries have carried in their closet of arguments against freedom. They say that it is an evil human nature that causes these terrible things and that it is government that really holds this perverse nature in check. Without government we would all fall on each other in an orgy of theft, slaughter, and mayhem, or, at any rate, so their litany goes.
Anarchists reply that it isn’t “human nature” that is responsible for these ills. Rather, it is the very system of government that creates the worst of the problems and perpetuates them and provides a “justification” for them.
Blatant personal use of violence (murder, theft, extortion, etc.) is recognized by the common mass of human kind as wrong. It’s an undesirable and unwanted part of life and in our everyday life we would no sooner think of using it than we would wish that it was used on us. The bully, that is the person who resorts to coercion and violence in his dealings with others, is recognized for what he is. There is no moral justification for a bully’s acts and, given the opportunity, no one would have the slightest qualm of conscience about resisting a bully’s aggression.
The above is obvious. Obvious, that is, until the bully is the government. Government claimsa special moral legitimacy for its existence and its actions. All too sadly for human history, people traditionally have been trained to support these claims.
Rudolf Rocker describes this process in Nationalism and Culture:
Thus gradually a separate class evolved whose occupation was war and rulership over others. But no power can in the long run rely on brute force alone. Brutal force may be the immediate means for the subjugation of men, but alone it is incapable of maintaining the rule of the individual or of a special caste over whole groups of humanity. For that more is needed; the belief of man in the inevitability of such power, the belief in its divinely willed mission. [“We’re on a mission from Gad!” – Elwood BLues.] Such a belief is rooted deeply in man’s religious feelings and gains power with tradition, for above the traditional hovers the radiance of religious concepts and mystical obligation.
Over the centuries the rationale for this legitimacy has changed, but it’s there nonetheless. From being the will of the gods, to being something sanctioned by divine right, form an expression of democracy to the product of an historical dialectic, governments have grasped onto whatever fashionable political theology was current to excuse and defend their existence. Particular governments might fall, but government itself as an institution stood bedrock-solid.
Anarchists, however, challenge the whole structure of government itself, recognizing in it the chief cause of the principal ills facing human society. Our position strikes at the roots of the whole system, not just at the people who temporarily hold power. We know that power corrupts and that the solution is to eliminate the power structures that breed social discord, not to find perfect humans who will be immune to the tempting spell power casts over people.
Anarchists recognize that when coercion is used to settle disputes, the conflicts, as often as not, expand, they don’t contract. Force by its nature generates an excuse for more force. Whether the wielder of the force be the individuals immediately involved in the dispute or whether it be the government (through its police), the nature of force remains the same and eventually the outcome of its use is disastrous.
While coercion, no matter who uses it, is destructive, there is a crucial distinction between the private use of coercion as it is wielded by the state. To illustrate this fact, let’s return briefly to one of the examples cited earlier.
Suppose that my patience with the loud music coming from a neighbor’s home has reached its end and I physically restrain them from playing the music. Whether my other neighbors agree with what I did or not, they would recognize my action simply as a violent reprisal for which I am accountable. The rightness or wrongness of my action will be judged on the merits of the case itself.
Suppose, instead, that I call on a policeman to do the coercing for me. Once the uniformed coercer intervenes, the public will no longer judge the issue solely on its merits. Rather, it now becomes a question of “was the law broken?” As a result, people become more interested in controlling the lawmaking and interpreting machinery than they are with establishing systems for justly settling their conflicts.
Law relieves people of the need to find ways for peacefully negotiating solutions to their problems. It gives them a club with which they crush their neighbor into submission, and having the club, they use it. In the name of the “law” government can do all sorts of legally attrocious things and with confidence proclaim, “we had a right to do what we did.”
Because government exists, my college-age neighbors and I can struggle to dominate each other behind the shield of the policeman. We can deal with each other violently and righteously and that’s a fact that has far broader implications than statists wish to recognize.
Among those ignored consequences of state-administered coercion are these:
1) By using the policeman we can remain anonymous in our acts of violence against our neighbors. No one ever need know who “complained” to the police and, consequently, all the neighbors become suspect in the eyes of the one accused of violating the law. It’s hardly a way to foster strong community bonds.
2) By resorting to the government we mask the nature of coercion behind a shield of respectability. We have hidden from ourselves the genuine brutality of the act itself. We ignore the essential nature of the act, uncritically excusing it as something the government has a right to do simply because it is the government.
3) We give to the political machine a power and “right” to act under a set of moral guidelines quite unlike any that are applicable to the rest of the human community. Where it would be blatantly wrong for an individual to use force and violence against another, the wrongness of that violence is obscured when it is used by the state. For me to steal from my neighbors is wrong. Without exception I couldn’t find a neighbor who would disagree with me on that. But if I “authorize” a third party (the tax collector) to do my robbing for me, my neighbors become confused about their right to defend themselves from the thievery. This whole mental subservience makes us perfect targets for most anything the government wants to do to us.
In conclusion, then, I argue that coercion, and in particular institutionalized coercion administered by the state, is a socially destructive way of handling disputes. I also challenge the idea that legislated violence is a time-tested means for achieving peace among people.
But having argued that, the original question still remains unanswered: “in anarchist societies can people protect themselves from offensive behavior?”
Let me answer this in two ways. First, by referring you to an article that appeared in Liberty, an American anarchist journal published by Benjamin R. Tucker. The article appears at the [at this location]. The article is an exchange between Wordsworth Donisthorpe and Tucker. It covers the same issue we are discussing here and in outline form presents Tucker’s answer to this objection.
Second, in addition to Tucker’s answer, let me add that the foundation on which an anarchist society will be built is toleration. There will be no anarchist world unless people are genuinely tolerant of the things that make their neighbors different from them. Sometimes these differences are offensive to us, but unless we are willing to bear with them until they become threateningly oppressive, we will never see a world built on peace through a respect for individual freedom. This doesn’t mean that we can’t let our neighbors know we don’t appreciate their quirks or outrageous behavior, but it does mean we will first search for every means other than coercion to deal with the conflict. If we become totally frustrated, having exhausted every peaceful means we could, and, we finaly resort to coercion, we must recognize it as a collapse of a better way of dealing with problems and not, as it is today, as something we have a “right” to do.
When there really is no socially sanctioned alternative – when people can no longer rely on the police to do their bidding – then people will begin dealing with problems personally and peacefully.
Being an anarchist, I had to respect my neighbors’ wish to listen to loud music. I can assure you I didn’t enjoy it. Fortunately, those neighbors have since moved and the problem resolved itself. But if the problem had become unbearable my first responsibility would have been to talk with them about it. If that had failed, then I would have had to look for other, non-violent means of handling the situation. I could have suggested to their landlord that he ask them to turn their music down, or I could have bought some earplugs and shut the noise out totally. There are other things that could have been done before I ever turned to coercion.
The point is that when people are committed to finding non-coercive means of dealing with the things that annoy us, then we will have made our first major step toward a peaceful world. Violence may still erupt sporadically, but it will not be the institutionalized violence so widespread today. In a libertarian society it will no longer be a matter of trying to minutely define and determine where our “rights” end and another begin. The emphasis will be on toleration and it will create an entirely different approach to dealing with problems.
When violence does flare up I suggest that one means of trying to handle such situations would be through community juries. Such juries would have a full range of responsibility for dealing not only with whether the parties to the confLict were justified in resorting to violence, but also what if any punishment should be inflicted for a wrongful use of force. Lysander Spooner detailed the powers and responsibilities such juries might have, so I refer you to his An Essay on the Trial By Jury for further reading.
But community juries are only one possibility. Free people have been ingenious in finding ways for overcoming their problems – and they will be equally ingenious in this area of administrative justice. It would be foolish for us to define and limit those possibilities now. The future must be free to make itself. There is no single way for handling all problems and I trust that in a libertarian world people would discover many effective ways for peacefully and constructively dealing with the social difficulties they encounter.
Since government-dominated society has led us repeatedly to gross injustice, to wars, and to other massive violence, the libertarian alternative is certainly worth considering. Read Entire Article
by Michael E. Coughlin
Objections to Anarchism – The Principles of Anarchism are Timeless Truths was originally published in serial form in the dandelion between Summer 1977 and Summer 1979.