Civil Disobedience and the Libertarian Division of Labor
Having witnessed first hand the fruits of brutal libertarian in-fighting, I think it is important to examine the roots of such needless, yet casualty producing conflict. Libertarians believe in a legal theory based upon non-aggression--that is, a respect for the rights of others. We oppose the idea of a monolithic, ever-present state wielding arbitrary and capricious power over subjects. Where so-called libertarians deviate by endorsing some form of aggression, we should, no doubt, ferret out the incorrect position so as to prevent anyone from confusing it with a libertarian one. The evil sell-outs and the misguided retreatists, as Rothbard called them, ought to be battled on philosophical grounds. Not all inter-libertarian conflicts arise from such principled disputes, however.
Wilt Alston has previously addressed the problem here with his posited categories of "pre-lib" and "pre-con" libertarians. I think that one's previous political disposition that may be inculcated by parents, or by some other means, may color our libertarian lens like Wilt suggests. I think, though, that the way many libertarians focus their indignation may be even more obvious and primal than mere prior team affiliation. When dealing with the government itself, we each see the face of the state in the areas where we have best tasted of its evil effect.
For those of us who are successful businesspeople, the taxing power of the state that has so many times inhibited the growth and success of vibrant enterprises is the arm of the state that must be attacked. For those of us who are parenting young children and are required to jump through legal hoops to home educate them, the specter of centralized, regimented, state regulation of education is the usurpation that ought be battled first. For those of us who have a friend or relative who has been imprisoned for self-medication outside of the bounds of state approval, on the other hand, the War On Drugs is the tentacle most in need of a chopping.
It is obvious, and to be expected, that one would hate the part of the state with which he has had the misfortune to wrangle most often. Yet, it isn't obviously right to say--speaking as a libertarian strategist--that any of these branches of the state apparatus is necessarily the right one with which to start. This is because they all are. An individual soldier must defend the front that he occupies. So too must we libertarians defy the state's grasp where it reaches for us personally--an activist division of labor.
It is some small satisfaction, no doubt, to moralize about the wrongs committed against others, and to voice opposition to their oppression. This is itself praiseworthy, and can be helpful in popularizing a movement, and in guiding its participants. Yet, when we look for the heroes of any revolution that casts off one tyrant or many, we must look first for the individuals who simply stood their ground. The most lauded heroes--and thus the most effective figures for the purposes of fomenting revolutionary ideas--are those who did not seek out a fight, but rather stood steadfastly and refused to yield when assailed by the usurper.
The search for libertarian heroes is made more difficult, though, by the fact that while we libertarians nearly universally recognize an individual's inherent freedom to do with his body as he wishes, we don't necessarily find the use of intoxicants or other acts of carnal indulgence praiseworthy. For example, take the massive act of civil disobedience staged by ten thousand students and activists in Boulder, Colorado on 4/20/08. Some libertarians may find this sort of behavior foolhardy, even without the risk of arrest. With that view of the underlying drug use, they then find it difficult to praise the act of resistance to the state, even though they advocate the abolition of all drug prohibition. Yet, these college students are heroes. Whatever a libertarian may think of the wisdom of smoking marijuana, it cannot be denied that these particular pot-smoking college students--who were presumably not picking up the habit solely for this event--were engaging in what can only be called anti-state activism. Rather than cowering away from the state, hoping to be overlooked, they risked arrest in an act of defiance that brought one of the state's more ridiculous laws into greater disrepute. And what may be helpful to libertarians who are apprehensive about fully applauding such behavior is the fact that they did it without engaging in anything more or less moral than what they already do anyway.
Likewise, regardless of what one thinks of Wesley Snipes' acting abilities, his battle against the IRS is more heroic than Susan Sarandon's speeches against the war. After all, while Ms. Sarandon's antiwar position--insofar as it is a consistent one--is laudable, it is only a matter of words. Wesley Snipes acted to defend his property from federal usurpation--he stood his ground, and paid heavy consequences for it.
Now, I do not mean to say that each and every libertarian must subject himself to a scourging by the state to show his devotion to resisting it. I agree with my friend Manuel Lora that libertarianism is not an altar call for martyrs. I do not think that most libertarians ought to pull up stakes and abandon their gainful employment only to throw their bodies into the cogs of the state. However, when the state comes roaring towards your home, it is heroism to dig in, stand firm, and resist for as long as possible. Likewise, those students in Boulder were already part of a legally vulnerable class of citizens--recreational drug users. By taking their resistance outside, where others could see some indication of the strength of those in defiance, they are to be praised as having made a contribution to the cause of liberty.
Just as atheist libertarians should applaud the sentiment of Daniel's pious disobedience to Darius, so too should socially conservative libertarians applaud the revolutionary sentiment expressed by those tie-dyed students in Boulder.
(Also published at LewRockwell.com.)