State Aggression and Defensive Action

A candidate for the Republican nomination for California’s 11th Congressional District, Brad Goehring, is taking some heat for having posted in his Facebook status—yes, we’ve come to that—that if he could, he would issue hunting permits and declare “today opening day for liberals. The season would extend through November 2 and have no limits,” he continued, adding: “we desperately need to ‘thin’ the herd.”

There ensued the by now perfunctory “Are you suggesting violence?” with the implied but unstated as we know you people in the radical right wing agenda are just this close to committing. Whereupon the perfunctory apology, and the claim that, of course, we do not condone violence in any way.

The claim, or worry, that some people on the right are inching closer and closer to unhinged violence has occupied a lot of media attention recently, especially as the Tea Party movements began gathering steam. As others have pointed out, however, the Tea Party rallies have been remarkably civil and peaceful—in contrast, for example, to many of the recent demonstrations sparked by Arizona’s new immigration law.

But this leads me to ask a serious philosophical question: Is there a point at which state encroachment on individual liberty is properly viewed as aggression, thereby justifying defensive force?

I presume there is widespread agreement that defensive force is justified if one is under violent attack from, say, a mugger or rapist. I presume the same holds if one’s family is under attack. Most people would also agree that violent response to someone breaking and entering into one’s home would also license the use of defensive force. Moreover, I presume few would fault communities that are targeted for violence because of their race or ethnicity from organizing and defending themselves, even with violence. Numerous historical examples of all these cases spring readily to mind.

But I am interested in non-violent encroachment on liberty. So put aside for the moment cases like what happened at Waco or what the Columbus, Missouri police department did recently. Can non-violent encroachment on liberty ever rise to the level of aggression that justifies defensive, even violent defensive, action?

Let me offer a concrete scenario. Suppose Sam A. is the head of a household that includes several dependent children. Suppose moreover that Sam A. believes that the fiscal policies of his federal government, including in particular the enormous and rapidly growing public debt, are, unless dramatically reversed, unsustainable and will lead to significantly declining standards of living both for himself and for his children. Suppose Sam A. believes that to address the debt problem, his federal government will dramatically raise taxes and inflate away the value of our wealth, both of which will contribute to substantially declining economic performance. Suppose, further, that he recognize the clear empirical connection between growth in wealth and prosperity, on the one hand, and between declining wealth and misery and suffering on the other.

Now let us connect the dots: By this chain of reasoning Sam A. concludes that the fiscal policies of the federal government pose a clear and growing danger to his prosperity and standard of living, and an even greater danger to that of his children and grandchildren, who will be obligated to spend the majority of their productive years working to pay for government programs and government debt they played no part in creating and from which—he is convinced—they will not benefit. This would be a form of (massive) taxation without representation. And if that justified action before, well, perhaps it might justify it again.

So you see the import of the question I am raising. If one takes seriously one’s obligations to protect and defend one’s family and children, and if one accepts the reasoning I sketch above, it seems one might be led to believing that some government action that is not in itself violent can nevertheless justify defensive, even possibly violent resistance.

Has Sam A. gone wrong in his reasoning? Where? The response that he had the right to vote or agitate (non-violently) against the policies he now abhors, so he can now raise no objection, does not, I think, cut any ice. Suppose he did vote against the policies and suppose he did agitate (non-violently) against them—and they nevertheless proceeded apace. Surely his having been on the losing side of the vote does not entail he must submit to whatever the winning side decides.

Many people in Greece seem ready to engage in violence to protect what they see as threats to their prosperity. I think their thinking is misguided—they have been living at others’ expense, which is an altogether different animal from what our Sam A. is facing—but I wonder whether the principle is plausible (even if misapplied in Greece’s case).

Perhaps, then, violent defensive action can be justified in response to non-violent government action. If so, the next question, of course, is: When?

10 thoughts on “State Aggression and Defensive Action

  1. If you think that the American Revolution (really, American Secession) was justified, then you really have to accept that the tyranny of taxation can get to a point at which violent resistance is justified.

    Are Americans more or less taxed, regulated, policed, stamped, catalogued, and surveilled today than they were in 1776?

  2. Jim, it seems to me that there are really multiple questions about Sam A’s situation that might be worth distinguishing. The background assumption is that Sam A normally has reason not to engage in violence with others; in fact, he has a conclusive reason not to. But we know there are conditions in which, not only can that reason evaporate, but he can have reason to try to impose his will on them through force — when, for example, they begin to do so to him. Then the question is: can government through the kinds of policies you describe be seen as changing Sam A’s reasons in this way?

    I’m inclined to think they certainly can. At the very least, once the fundamental justification (if there is one) for the government’s moral monopoly on the imposition of coercive force ceased to be a constraint on government policy and action (a bridge we crossed long ago), I think the reasons that we might have for not resisting violently pretty much disappeared. It’s hard to see a moral reason for him not to do so, then.

    But that doesn’t mean that Sam A has no reasons not to do so. Two come to mind right away. First, Sam A might (and probably does) have powerful prudential reasons not to do so. But that’s a matter of logistics and tipping-points, with others who believe they too have lost their moral reasons not to resist.

    The other big question is what follows from resistance. After all, unless there is some prospect of a social order in which there is less of the sort of coercive incursion which undermines Sam A’s reasons not to engage in violent resistance, it’s hard to see the point in his doing so. And, in fact, he might have a moral obligation — not to government, but to himself, his family, and others — not to substitute a worse condition for a bad one. That’s a powerful moral reason in itself, until either things get so bad it’s hard to imagine them getting worse, or a path to a different kind of social order opens itself up.

  3. Another relevant distinguisher: who would the violence be directed against? In responding to violent crime (I include the breaking-and-entering scenario), there is a clear aggressor. But what should Sam do here? It certainly doesn’t seem morally justified to blow up a federal building or IRS office, taking innocent lives in the process. I suppose he could try to assassinate a major government official, but that implicates Mark’s point: if the action is unlikely to achieve the ends which ostensibly justify it, it’s hard to see where the moral claim lies.

    I think mdb finds the crucial line: if Sam A. is free to leave the country in question, doing so would seem to be his most moral option. And, conversely, if that path were foreclosed, or even “merely” obstructed, I think that would suggest that violent resistance might be morally appropriate.

    1. I agree that sometimes moving may be the best response, all things considered. Maybe it’s even possibly a moral requirement in some ways. But it’s clear, I think, that others wrong us (perhaps in ways we are entitled to resist forcibly) in imposing on us a choice of “going along” or getting out. That’s every bit as coercive as the choice between “going along” and going to jail.

      Moreover, that option for Sam A is more plausible if we think about problems as comparatively local. The larger the scale of the offending institution, (i) the higher the costs Sam is being coerced to absorb to avoid the policies in question, and (ii) the less clear it is that there are freer alternatives for him to move to. So it seems to me far from a panacea, or a universally morally-better alternative.

  4. In 1776, the claim was that violence is justified because the colonists were taxed without representation. In 2010, Sam’s objection is to taxation with representation that doesn’t adequately represent his views. In a nation of 300 million + people, that can happen. It does happen. A lot. If citizens can take up arms every time it happens, we will have anarchy, not civil association.

    1. One question is whether the slogan is a figleaf for other grievances, another is precisely what grievances would have justified rebellion/secession.

      But I would disagree with Damon on a further point: it’s not a civil association that subordination to the government provides, but a political one. Civil association thrives in myriad ways without any coercive structures at all. In fact, it is precisely the argument that civil associations cannot provide the goods/services that a political association can that is thought to justify political associations. Politics, as we now know, marks the failure of civility.

  5. It seems to me that taxation without representation was really secondary to the specific abuses mentioned in the Declaration. After all, would giving the colonists representation in the House of Commons really have assuaged their demands? Doubtful – they still would have been outvoted by the British Isles MPs. Taxation without consent is actually one of the least of the concerns listed in the DoI, mentioned almost offhandedly.

  6. Sam A. could move? Well, I am not a scholarthat’s what the colonists did, isn’t it? But, of course, they also had a rather violent conflict. And, where exactly would he move now? And, why?

    Isn’t there a point at which when we are justified in saying enough is enough? Dr. Otteson’s question as to when violent defensive action can be justified in response to non-violent government action is eerily cogent: how long, exactly, should people wait? Until the government’s action becomes violent? History tells us that it can and will if individuals are not properly compliant.

  7. Sam A. could move? Well, I am not a scholar, and have only simple views, but that’s what the colonists did, isn’t it? Of course, they also had a rather violent conflict. Where exactly would Sam A. move now? And, why?

    Isn’t there a point at which when we are justified in saying enough is enough? Dr. Otteson’s question as to when violent defensive action can be justified in response to non-violent government action is eerily cogent: how long, exactly, should people wait? Until the government’s action becomes violent? History tells us that it can and will if individuals are not properly compliant.

    Isn’t it easy to ignore (or give minimal lip service) to peaceful protesters, so long as they do what you want?

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