The Culture of Force

by Carl Watner

From Number 127

I recently had occasion to explain to a customer that very few people understand how the stealing commandment (“Thou shalt not steal”) applies to taxes. Since our “contributions” to government are not voluntary, that means they are coerced. If they are coerced, that means that taxes are a forcible taking. Q.E.D.: taxes are theft. However simple the logic, since most people view government as a legitimate and necessary institution, whatever “taking” the government performs must not be classed as “stealing” because that would contradict their assumption that government doesn’t steal property, but (in their minds) protects it.

I also explained to the same customer that even though government does a horrible job of spending the money it “collects,” the question of “how” it spends the money (wisely, foolishly, etc.) is really not the issue. The moral question (Is it right to steal?) is the fundamental concern. Once the government has the money, “collected” from millions and millions of people, argument will necessarily follow as to what the money should be spent on; and then having agreed the money should be spent on a given project, arguing over how it should be doled out to achieve its intended purpose.

Anyone who has listened to the news knows there is endless bickering among politicians, among constituents, and among lobbying groups about the government’s budget. Such squabbling represents the attempt to spend “other” people’s money on projects to which they would not ordinarily contribute. Whether the division of the spoils is decided by majority vote, or a political bribe, or a threatened veto, the point to understand is that the rightful owners of the money being spent no longer have authority over it. Some other person or group of persons has taken control. Thus, while politicians, pundits, and media commentators regularly question how the money is spent, they rarely – if ever – questions the “moral” authority under which the government demands it, and, which if the money is not paid over, they imprison the protester and/or confiscate his property.

Our whole culture is permeated with this sub-stratum of force. For example, in a December 2004 “Evenings at FEE” speech, Harry Browne noted that From beginning to end, public education is organized on the concept of compulsion. By means of the property tax, sales tax, and state income tax people are forced to pay for schooling whether they have children or not, whether they agree with what the schools are doing or not. The illusion of having influence through elections, PTA meetings, parent nights, or other legal avenues doesn’t change the truth: we are forced to send our children to particular schools where they are educated and indoctrinated in a particular way. While these points are correct and substantiate my claim that we have a culture of force, it ought to be duly noted that children who are “forced” to go to government schools, are taught and (most) accept that government should be responsible for “guiding” and “directing” what happens in society. How many government (or even non-state) school students do you know that have ever been exposed to the idea or could imagine a stateless society where all education was conducted on a private, voluntary basis?

Another event illustrating the abundance of force infecting our society is the government orchestration of relief efforts for victims of the December 2004 tsunami. Not only did domestic governments of every stripe and color get involved, but even the United Nations had to take a hand. Now don’t get me wrong. If people want to voluntarily contribute to disaster relief that is all well and good with me. But on what basis should government(s) coercively monopolize (or even have any role, whatsoever) in spending taxpayers’ money on relief aid (either here or abroad)? Some miserly folks might never contribute a penny to charitable relief; but obviously some people contribute even after having “paid” their taxes. The point I am trying to make is that most people (by far the large majority of the population in every country) have lost any concept of what it means to respect other people’s property. They regularly use the political means to steal, and never give their actions a second thought. They assume that is the way things “ought” to be.

The fact is that force abounds throughout our society. Consider the operation of most of our roads, post offices, libraries, police protection, judiciary services, and monetary system. They are overwhelmingly funded, controlled, and operated by some level of government. My point is not that we should not have these services (at least if people desire them, and are willing to pay for them) but that neither should government be responsible for them, nor its coercive powers be directed toward supporting them. It is not the ends, such as the schools, roads, libraries, etc., that people who believe in a voluntary society are opposed to, ‘per se’, but rather to the means, that is, the manner in which these activities are paid for and supported.

The fact of the matter is that the use of force destroys morality. The two are incompatible because where force exists, the opportunity no longer exists to make a “right” or a “wrong” decision. One’s choice is reduced to submit to the government dictates, or risk the wrath of its enforcement agents.

Look at the increasing amounts collected by taxation. Look at the numbers of people killed by government, either domestically or abroad in foreign wars. Is there not some connection between the increasing use of government force in our society and the amount of crime perpetrated by individuals? If it is right for the government to “steal” and “kill,” then isn’t it right for individuals to pursue the same actions on their own? My suspicion is that the amount of dishonesty, thievery, mugging, kidnapping, etc. in our society, is directly tied to the increasing societal reliance upon governmental force.

Governments help set the moral tone in society, and the corruption we find there is often mirrored in the personal behavior of its citizens. Thus, there is reason to believe that most of the problems (criminal, environmental, economic, political, etc.) we encounter today stem from the injection of force into our social relations. The use of compulsion by governments among peaceful people is wrong; it is a violation of their right not to be molested by others; and its results are always unsatisfactory. Or as Harry Browne concluded in his speech, “Force never works.”

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