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?