Ask Yourself What You'd Kill For
Musings about the nature of government and politics.
It will probably not come to anyone’s surprise that I’m a Libertarian. If you follow me on any form of social media or have any in-depth discussion with me about current events in person, it’s generally pretty obvious.
I travel in circles of minarchist and anarchist leanings, and my friends and allies often explore labels like “anarchist”, “volunaryist”, “ancap”, “classical liberal”, or any number of subsets of libertarian philosophy, like “georgism” or “agorism”. Some even use modifiers like “left” and “right” libertarian. I’m occasionally asked “what kind” of Libertarian I am, and I generally explain that I’m one without qualifiers or subcategories. I’m just a libertarian. I’m a lifelong and lifetime member of the Libertarian Party, though my activism extends far beyond the boundary of my political party.
Many of my friends and online followers, however, are not Libertarians of any stripe, and will occasionally ask why I came to this ideology. Many have heard me reference (or heard me described in bios) as a “second generation Libertarian” - both of my parents were actively involved in the party from its founding (1970s) on, and I certain found it because of them.
That doesn’t really answer why I’m a Libertarian, and even more so, it doesn’t make my political perspective understandable.
I could reference a dozen books that you could read to find out what Libertarianism is, why people come to the philosophy - many of them obscure, esoteric, and downright inaccessible. I could reference some easier reads, or try to explain the non-aggression principle (commonly called “the NAP” in Liberty circles), but lately I’ve found myself trying to simplify the articulation of how I think the way I do about politics into something much easier to understand, and as a result easier to apply - whether or not you agree with me, it can be helpful to understand what filters I use to process information, and then more easily see what conclusions I’d draw from a given situation and why.
Some people use terminology like “fiscally conservative and socially liberal”, but I minimize my use of them, as none of those terms are well defined.
When asked about my views in a sentence, I tend to say “I believe we should strive to make the world as voluntary as possible”, or sometimes I say “I believe in consent culture: applied to everything”, or “don’t tread on anyone”.
But sometimes I am asked for some further explanation, and I don’t want to quote dead philosophers - I want to make my beliefs really easy to think about and consider.
So, here are two concepts that illustrate my view of the world of politics and government. Neither of these is exclusively original to me, but I use them a lot, and I’m sure I’ve customized some of the descriptions, but I don’t always know who I could properly credit each concept to, so just know it’s not exclusively my idea - I generally arrived here semi-independently, but as I’ve encountered more people who think this way, it all melds together into something shared.
First, let’s go to a restaurant. You, me, and a bunch of people who have potentially nothing in common besides happening to live in the same general area. Let’s all sit down at the tables, and each order a meal. These menus are very simple. There’s hamburgers, there’s pepperoni pizza, and some of the menus have an option of some tofu curry dish.
Each of us tells the waiter which we want. Personally I’m going for the tofu curry dish - I’m a vegetarian, and though my option is less popular, it’s the only one I’m willing to eat. The waiters take our orders, tally up the numbers, determine that pepperoni pizza was ordered by the largest number of guests, and therefore the restaurant will now be serving us all pepperoni pizza.
Even though I’m a vegetarian and cannot and will not eat pepperoni pizza, I will be served it regardless of my preferences, and forced to pay for it, whether or not I eat it. People who ordered hamburgers are in the same boat. Leaving is impractical, and for the next four years, that restaurant is serving pepperoni pizza, and we have to eat there.
This is how I feel about politics generally. Not just presidential, or local politics - I actually feel this way about elections in smaller organizations (such as the internal elections of the Libertarian Party, though to be fair they don’t force me to pay them). But it’s my view of electoral politics generally: we show up, we choose our preference, and we’re all stuck with whatever the majority chose.
As a result, my opinion is that I’d like to resort to this method of choosing anything as little as possible. There may be situations where a majority-rules vote is just how it has to be, but it is my goal for that to be as rare as possible, and to minimize those situations for myself and others.
This brings me to believing that government, that pesky thing managed by those elected, should be making decisions for the rest of us as rarely as possible.
The second concept that I use to think about my political philosophy is thus:
Would I be willing to kill for this?
You see, every single law comes down to being enforced with a gun. Now, I’m not saying that every law comes down to capital punishment - speeding clearly does not lead you to the electric chair. However, any law, no matter how small, can lead to violent enforcement.
This is obvious in big ways, like grand theft auto may lead to a car chase and a shootout on the streets, or a rape or a murder may lead to violent enforcement from police brutality to capital punishment. This is also relevant in small ways. A minor, seemingly harmless, regulation or law can lead to violent enforcement if you go far enough down the line.
A speeding ticket, which generally results in a fine, can result in a court summons if you fail to pay the fine. A court summons can result in an arrest warrant if you fail to appear in court. An arrest warrant can result in a cop shooting you when they pull you over for an unrelated offense and you resist. We’ve seen stuff like that happen before.
Nearly every case of police brutality can be linked to the over-criminalization happening in America right now, for completely victimless crimes like drug use, or even selling loose tax-free cigarettes.
Eric Garner is an example of this. He was murdered by police on July 17th, 2014. He was allegedly selling “loosies” - single cigarettes not in a pack, with no tax. One might argue he resisted arrest (or rather, was non-compliant) - but the point is that a simple law taxing cigarettes meant he was a criminal, and a fine can lead to an arrest can lead to a resist can lead to a chokehold can lead to death.
Any law that is passed must ultimately be enforced at the point of a gun, somewhere down the line, and therefore I ask myself this question every time I’m faced with a proposal of a kind of law:
Would I kill for this?
Now, this is a moment to explore what I would kill for.
If someone was attempting to rape, murder, assault, even rob a family member or friend of mine, would I fight them off, perhaps even to their death (or even my own)? I’d like to believe the answer is yes.
This doesn’t mean I’m in favor of capital punishment for rape, murder, assault or robbery. However I’m willing to accept laws to prevent those things, and though I think rehabilitative justice or some other form of punishment will suffice in those instances, if a rapist resists arrest and the cops ultimately gun them down, that may be a shame, but it’s worth it, to prevent rapes.
Would I kill for anything else? Every single thing is worth thinking about - and trust me, it’s a wild ride when you start filtering every news story about a proposed law through this particular mental question.
It’s a basic concept - and many people find it too simplistic. But it’s the simple base of my thinking about the justification of use of force - when I’m considering a proposed law or policy, I consider who would violate it, how, and at what point will they see the point of a gun, and is it worth it?
I’m actually grateful that this concept has been explored in public writing, relatively recently: Stephen L Carter is a professor of law at Yale, and wrote a piece articulating this concept in Bloomberg back in 2014.
The problem is actually broader. It’s not just cigarette tax laws that can lead to the death of those the police seek to arrest. It’s every law. Libertarians argue that we have far too many laws, and the Garner case offers evidence that they’re right. I often tell my students that there will never be a perfect technology of law enforcement, and therefore it is unavoidable that there will be situations where police err on the side of too much violence rather than too little. Better training won’t lead to perfection. But fewer laws would mean fewer opportunities for official violence to get out of hand.
The legal scholar Douglas Husak, in his excellent 2009 book “Overcriminalization: The Limits of the Criminal Law,” points out that federal law alone includes more than 3,000 crimes, fewer than half of which found in the Federal Criminal Code. The rest are scattered through other statutes. A citizen who wants to abide by the law has no quick and easy way to find out what the law actually is -- a violation of the traditional principle that the state cannot punish without fair notice.
In addition to these statutes, he writes, an astonishing 300,000 or more federal regulations may be enforceable through criminal punishment in the discretion of an administrative agency. Nobody knows the number for sure.
Husak cites estimates that more than 70 percent of American adults have committed a crime that could lead to imprisonment. He quotes the legal scholar William Stuntz to the effect that we are moving toward “a world in which the law on the books makes everyone a felon.” Does this seem too dramatic? Husak points to studies suggesting that more than half of young people download music illegally from the Internet. That’s been a federal crime for almost 20 years. These kids, in theory, could all go to prison.
Seriously, please read the whole article. It’s definitely one of those “wish I’d written it” examples.
The other person I really appreciate who articulated this concept beautifully was Penn Jillette. In a transcript of his remarks at the 2016 Cato Benefactor’s Summit, he described the concept:
I started thinking that one really good definition of government is that government is supposed to have a monopoly on force. The government is the guys with the guns, and we are the people who tell the government what they can do. So in my morality, I shouldn’t be able to tell anyone to do something with a gun that I wouldn’t do myself.
Now I want to add here that I am incompetent and I am a coward, so this is all theoretical, what I’m about to say — but if you asked me: Would I use a gun to stop a murder? Yeah! Would I use a gun to stop a rape? Yeah! Would I use the threat of a gun to stop a robbery? Yeah, I think you kind of have to. Would I use a gun to protect our country and our way of life? Yeah!
Would I use a gun to build a library? No!
Now, these two concepts are merely the base. There’s plenty of interesting and complex ideas to consider and discuss and debate, and goodness knows I do plenty of that.
However, this is the start. To know how or why I feel the way I do about electoral politics, and proposed “well-meaning” laws, I like to think hearing these two concepts are probably the most accessible and easy way to truly understand it.
This is my Libertarianism.