Sunday, September 20, 2009

Government: The Gun Is Always In the Room

I appreciate that many of us have a very practical nature, and a problem-solving bent. But I going to take a stab at demonstrating that as Christians we need to be thinking about means, and not just ends. Or to put it another way, we need to examine some of the core methods that undergird the operation of all "worldly government", and then based on what we find, to decide if the oft-posed question as to the "appropriate role of government" is in fact moot. I particularly would like to request that my “left-leaning” or “social justice” friends bear with me and read through this little thought experiment.

We all agree, I'm sure, that a lone man pointing a gun at me and demanding that I hand over a specified amount of money, is evil. And I'm also pretty sure that we agree that if he gives a reason for his demand, that involves the supposed welfare of a third party, he is still evil. If you do not agree that in the second case, the man is evil, please note that in a comment on the post, but for now I will assume that you’re with me, and will proceed from there.

So the lone guy, pointing a gun at me, demanding money, to be used to benefit another person who is not present, is evil. Then let's add a wrinkle: instead of a lone man, he is a man who has been hired by a group of 10 families, to come to the door of each house in this 100-family subdivision, point the gun, present the humanitarian cause (really, it doesn‘t matter what it is) adopted by the 10 family consortium, and request the specific donation. And now, the “cause” is not the mere fulfillment of the need of a single person or family, but is a project that will benefit all the families of the subdivision--say, a new park area open to all in the subdivision. The 10 families are contributing that same amount, voluntarily. Evil? I don't see how you could say no. (Gun-- remember?)

Ok, now instead of a 10-family grouping hiring the man with the gun, it is a 90-family grouping, in the same 100-family subdivision. Everything else remains the same. Evil? Again, what has changed, that would allow you to say no?

What if, instead of a man with a gun, the 90-family consortium just sends a letter to the 10 other families, informing them of the decision of the 90 families, and saying we hope you comply willingly? 8 of the 10 families decide to send in the money. Follow-up letters are sent to the 2 remaining families, informing them that this is a cause that was adopted by 90% of the families of the subdivision, and that 8 of the other 10 families agreed voluntarily to comply with the decision, and that if they don't comply, there might be "unfortunate consequences"? 1 of the 2 families now sends in their check, leaving just one holdout family.

A series of increasingly menacing letters are now sent, but the holdout family does not budge. A final letter is sent, informing that family that as they have demonstrated a brazen disregard for the good of the whole subdivision, they have forfeited their ownership of their house, to the Subdivision Family Well-Being Organization, and now have 60 days to find somewhere else to live, and vacate the house. 60 days pass, and the family still has not vacated the house. The SFWO hires several men to go to the house with guns, and evict the family from the house. The family refuses to open the door. The men break open the door, and physically carry out the members of the family, who still refuse to leave under their own power. The SFWO auctions the house off to a new family, from outside the subdivision. From the proceeds of the property sale, they deduct the contested family donation, plus the extra costs incurred due to the seizure of the house and the auction, etc. etc., and remit the rest to the evicted family.

Evil? Yes? (Again, I still don't see what has changed, that would make it not evil.) Ok, then expand "subdivision" to "township" or “state“ or “country“, and increase the number of families, and provide for regular elections for officials who will administer the "family cause organization" by collecting the regular donations, and seeing that the money gets spent efficiently on the cause.

Add to the mix, that "this is the way it has been done for 200 years", and that resisters to the plan are extremely few and far between. (Why would you expect them to be numerous? Who likes being evicted from their own home, that they purchased fair and square from someone else, and which they may have invested years of their lives in?) Add what many consider to be the coup de grace: “By your residence/birth in a specific area, you are implicitly a party to a ‘contract’ that requires your sharing in the costs of administering the area.”

Do you see the point? Even if *no one* refuses to pay their demanded share, and therefore incurs the forceful penalty, it *does not remove the fact* that it is a system that *relies on unprovoked force*. Without the threat of force, it *cannot exist*.

This is not the way God’s kingdom works. The way God’s kingdom works is demonstrated by the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19), who, upon seeing the light of the Kingdom of God, voluntarily, *joyfully* even, pledged to give large amounts of his wealth (ill-gotten or no) for the benefit of the poor, and to make multiple restitution for any ill-gotten wealth. It is also demonstrated by “Lazarus and the rich man” (Luke 16:19ff), in which the rich man “goes to hell“, for a reason that is left implicit-- but which a reasonable person would conclude was, that he did not show compassion toward the wretched man who begged at his gate. Fine, he goes to hell, but I still know of no paradigm, in the Kingdom of God, calling for forceful seizure of wealth from the wealthy, on behalf of the poor, or on behalf of the “public good”.

In my next post I’ll address the two biblical passages that seem most strongly to advocate for a taxing government, or at least to give consent to it.


Blogger Susannah said...

I appreciate your work into taking the micro-example of coercion to a more macro-level in this post (even if personally I think that the analogies are not quite complex enough). However, the biggest question I am left with after reading this is that even if your reader agrees that each of these interactions is evil, what makes this evil more than just _an_ evil and the primary evil that you seem to make it?

10:48 AM EDT  
Blogger Joel Laramee said...

Thanks for the comment, Susannah.

I am not trying to establish that government is "the primary evil", in a world full of evil. I am trying to establish that a) evil is woven into the fabric of our supposedly enlightened system of government, b) individuals have a choice regarding whether or not to lend support to, and add luster to the legitimacy of, our government, and c) Christians have a moral obligation to choose the way shown to us by the spirit of God, rather than the way that relies on violence to work.

What I think I have always known deep down, but which took me a long time to get clear in my mind, is that this is the "serving two masters" dilemma posed by Jesus. You cannot *serve* them both, as masters. I am trying to address the tendency of people of faith to cherish and boost the function of government they like, and to spurn and deprecate the other functions.

What this allows, is the "Mexican standoff" of government that we know so well-- each side holding the other side hostage. People of faith should not be a party to this violent standoff, in my opinion.

11:06 AM EDT  
Anonymous Josh said...

I think you are arguing around the real issue here which is whether or not pointing a gun at someone *under any circumstances* can be considered good. An argument about how many people hired said gunman is beside the point of morality of the act, as you have demonstrated. This is not where most people would disagree with you. There are circumstances where someone pointing a gun at you (say a police officer) on behalf of a third party (say me) demanding a sum of money would be seen as good and just by most people. Say, for example, if you had stolen the money from me. Most people are ok with some degree of force or violence if they see it as counteracting an injustice or evil. If you believe, as I do, that the immense disparity of wages in this country and the world is evil and unjust, you can follow that line of reasoning to support taxation. This is the belief that ends will justify the means which you have not disproved. This is not to say that you are not right.

In order to prove your point, as I have said, you have to prove that pointing a gun at someone is evil in all circumstances including when attempting to right a wrong. This is, on some level, the argument that Gandhi and MLK made. However, from what I know of voluntaryism and libertarianism, this position is not supported by either. Members of both groups seem to take great pride in exercising their second amendment rights. And not just for subsistence hunting.

11:38 AM EDT  
Blogger Christina said...

i have to admit that i'm not convinced that if a gun is pointed at me and money is demanded for someone else with an explanation given that the gunman is necessarily evil. i will admit that pointing a gun is not necessarily the best method of getting me to give him money.

this makes me think of the differences between a friend and myself. he is politically conservative partially based on the fact that as christians "welfare" should be distributed through the "church" so he is anti big-government. i on the other hand tend not to be politically conservative as I believe that "morals" (i.e. abortion) should be regulated by the "church." for me, it's more that if someone makes anti-abortion a major part of his platform, I am immediately turned off. from my training i probably have a slight bias also to err on the side of public good so I also tend to be more amenable government involvement--especially for funding projects like transportation and energy. i'm not sold on the idea of unfunded mandates though.

12:23 PM EDT  
Blogger Joel Laramee said...

Josh, thanks for the comment. I think you are saying two very different things here. One has to do with the legitimate use of force, the other has to do with inequality and "social injustice". I want to take a look at the second one, first.

There are two biblical things that come to mind when I think of inequality of wealth and income. The first is the drumbeat in the Hebrew prophets: "Stop abusing the poor." The second is a concept that Jesus touches on, which is "To him who has much, more will be given, and from he who has little, even the little he has will be taken away."

Let's look at the example of the industry of "payday loans", which thrives in the inner cities. You have two parties here: one who has a pile of cash ready to lend out, and another who is facing an crisis of not being able to fulfill all of his immediate financial obligations. They are already unequal. The lender proposes terms of a loan, which he knows (because he knows math) will amount to a staggering APR of interest. The prospective borrower looks a paper swimming with figures and complicated words, which he doesn't understand, and which he doesn't know how combine to arrive at the same answer that the lender already knows. But what he does understand is that if he signs this paper, the man sitting in front of him will hand over $X in cash, right this instant.

If the borrower signs the contract, and the lender hands over the money, what has happened? It was a bad deal, because neither of the parties was acting in his own *rational self-interest*. It is not in one's rational self-interest to agree to terms that one does not fully understand. And neither is it in one's rational self-interest to engage in business with someone without the *capacity* to act in his own rational self-interest.

I will be writing more in the future about what Robert Linthicum teaches about building power in people; it comes directly into play here. But a short version is that Jesus saves by imparting knowledge to those who do not have it. The Jewish elite of his day were able to keep the masses slaving away, forking over their produce continuously, based on their teaching about God and what God wants. Jesus debunked that false knowledge. The way of Jesus is to build real power in people, by imparting the ability to understand what is going on around them, so they can behave differently, and experience different results.

So to come to the corner Payday Loan store, point a gun at the manager and obtain a few grand from him, then go around and distribute that money to various neighborhood people who had given a lot of interest to that store, would be stupid and depraved. First, you have committed the crime of theft (because the money was not originally *stolen*, by force, from the borrowers), and second, not only have you not enlightened the former borrowers to whom you distribute the cash, but you are actually perverting their minds further, by calling theft a moral good.

Well, maybe more on that later. On to guns... (continued)

12:38 PM EDT  
Blogger Joel Laramee said...

Gandhi and MLK eschewed the use of guns in their campaigns, that is true. And voluntaryists do believe in the moral use of guns. The difference has to do with the emphasis taken by different people, and the nature of the action you are taking against the oppressor.

If you are taking the initiative, such as with the marches of MLK and Gandhi, guns are clearly out of the question. However, if government is taking the initiative, such as when a child is being forcibly removed from a home, because the parents have refused to obey a court order demanding that they send the child to a government school, a gun may be hoisted in self-defense, inside the property, against the initiated violence. Tactically it may not make sense to hoist the gun, because you will die as a result. But it is perfectly moral to do so.

It all has to do with the initiation of force against someone else. If I have a contract with you to protect your car from theft, and someone steals your car, it is my moral obligation to use force in an attempt to regain the car from the thief. That's what I am under contractual obligation to do. And I am exercising *your* right of self-defense, on your behalf, as your legally designated agent.

This, in my opinion, is the proper use of Romans 13:1-7. The passage both prescribes, and circumscribes, the legitimate use of force. But I haven't written about Romans 13 yet, have I? :-)

12:40 PM EDT  
Blogger Joel Laramee said...

Christina, thanks for your comment.

I would simply ask you to think about the definition of "theft". Unfortunately, the definition of theft immediately requires a solid and precise definition of "property". I think a rough and ready definition of property is: all that I have produced by my own labor, or acquired through a completely voluntary (i.e. unforced) trade with another person.

If someone is trying to motivate me to part with my property, by threat of force against me, their motivation for doing so is irrelevant. When it is my own property that is being requested, it is more *my* motivation for handing it over that is important for determining the morality of the scenario, than the motivation of the threatener. To request that someone hand over something that belongs to them, with a threat of force against them, is morally wrong, period.

12:48 PM EDT  
Anonymous Josh said...

From you're second response, I take two points:

1) That the ends do, in fact, justify the means. If I hire someone to point a gun at you and demand that you hand over money, it is moral, if the force was initiated by you.

2) This invalidates your original argument, since it is not evident that pointing a gun at you and demanding money is evil and you have not proved it.

Now onto the post about social injustice.

First, you quote the Bible at me for no reason, which is annoying.

You then go on to make an argument about empowering people. I actually have no objection to this, but it does not explain why stealing is different from predatory lending. Again, from my perspective, both are immoral and evil.

Then you go on to say that pointing a gun at a predatory lender and demanding money is immoral. My response to this is the same as to the argument about empowering people. It is beside my point that theft and predatory lending could both reasonably be considered immoral and evil.

1:59 PM EDT  
Anonymous Josh said...

To sum up, because I don't think I made this clear. The crux of your argument, seems to me to be that there are certain actions that voluntaryists, in agreement with most people, see as a crime like theft. There are other actions that voluntaryists, in disagreement with most people, do not see as a crime live predatory lending. Or, at least, it's not viewed as a crime in the same way.

Your burden then is to prove that the two are different. As such, the initial argument in this post is a red herring.

2:11 PM EDT  
Blogger Susannah said...

Let me clarify, and this was what I was trying to get at in my question about primary evil, that it's a question of emphasis. Even if I were to be convinced that taxation under threat of coercion is evil, why should I consider it more evil than racially and gender-based violence, or systems of profit that exploit underclasses of people. In a world of evil, I am not concerned enough about taxation to spend a lot of time and energy fighting it. It feels like a distraction from issues more worthy of my energy. Maybe it's because I'm not convinced it's evil (we've talked about this before--making coercion a primary evil in and of itself is predicated on the individual will as a primary good which is a position I find very's not necessary to understand pacificism as an anti-coercion movement). I do believe that our government is complicit in systems of oppression and that we are called to fight it in the ways that it does, but I do not believe that removing it would remove those systems of oppression that could use voluntaryist forms of society just as easily.

Also, btw, referring to your response to property a primary good? If it is not, then would the scenario of someone taking a portion of it through the threat of force have the same meaning? Perhaps I have misunderstood your intent and you do not wish property to be understood this way, but the metaphor includes property as a primary good in order to work. I feel like you have seen resonances with pacifist thinking in the voluntaryist metaphor of taxation as coercive, but that the larger picture of voluntaryist thought is more about protecting me and mine than about laying down one's life for the lives of others in the name of peace.

2:44 PM EDT  
Blogger George Donnelly said...

Joel, this is very good. The only suggestion I would make is to either leave the biblical references out or weave them more tightly into the narrative; or at least link them back to the narrative more tightly.

I don't know about MLK but Gandhi said that anyone unable to muster the soul-force necessary to perform satyagraha should defend himself with weapons, including firearms. He was a practical man I think.

Why is it immoral to initiate force or fraud or make a credible threat of aggression against someone? Here's my off-the-top-of-the-head chain of reasoning:

- we are faced with a basic choice: to live or die.

- if you choose to live, you must use your body to survive. you must calculate your rational self-interest and act on it to sustain your life.

- aggression is the substitution of someone else's decision for your own.

- aggression negates your ability to calculate your self-interest and act on it.

- therefore, aggression is not compatible with the choice to live.

- that which is not compatible with life is evil.

- therefore, aggression is evil.

The difference between theft and predatory lending is that the former is involuntary and the latter is voluntary.

5:03 PM EDT  
Anonymous David Zolotarevskayev Brown said...

Frequently, in violent conflict, aggression is ostensibly justified as self-defense. In reciprocal violent conflict, both people (or groups) are responding to their fear of the other. This harmful fear, based on misconceptions, is misguided and the underlying cause of the problem.

One may carry a hunting knife for defense against wolves, cougars, pit bulls. If attacked by such a wild animal, one might take that attack as a sign from God that this is the time to leave this world, or, alternatively, to respond to the fear with aggression, in self-defense, typically killing a living creature. If I take as your meaning of "aggression" as unilateral initiation of violence without any notion of justification, of course it seems to me harmful and misguided. But I don't see any behavior (or phenomena generally)as not being caused by anything, or as being simply caused by the devil. (I don't like the term "evil"). I tend to view behavior in terms of cause-and-effect relationships. An understanding seems helpful as guidance for the interventions that can bring peace.

Sorry if I'm getting off the subject. For me to stay on topic, I need self-government, but that inherently inovlves social government. Am I on topic now? :)

10:15 PM EDT  
Blogger Joel Laramee said...

I've given it some thought, and have come to the conclusion that the "other" anarchists (many of whom are Christian) are right-- the mere withdrawal of government force from the picture is not enough.

Rand herself stated the removal of a threat is not a reward. Or to put it another way-- yes, you DO need to put forward a positive plan of action, to go with your assertion that the State must go.

I believe that the clues toward that positive plan of action are to be found in the bible. (I also believe they are to be found elsewhere, but the bible is the text bound to the community to which I am bound.) The book of Nehemiah, the story of Zacchaeus, and the description of the practice of the early Christian church, all point the way.

Nehemiah actually shows that it is not a question of government: good, or government: bad, because Nehemiah's mission to rebuild Jerusalem's defenses and the temple was supported strongly by the Persian king, and it was a combination of "private" and "government" enemies, at the local level, that opposed Nehemiah's work with intimidation and violence. Nehemiah's people met the aggressive threat of violence, with armed defense of the work sites.

I believe it is God's will that wealth be redistributed via the wealthy freely giving of their wealth, to the efforts of the poor to be free economically. I believe that it is pretty much inevitable that there will be those who will oppose the freeing of the poor, and I believe that the poor should have a right to defend themselves with force, when they are attacked.

5:57 PM EDT  

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