Most people… At least most people in modern western democracies… Seem to have a fundamental and unconscious assumption about the nature of law and government, that goes something like this:
Law and government, are or should be, the expression of the will of the majority, for the purpose of making collective decisions, taking collective actions, fixing problems and righting wrongs.
If I gave that definition to most people as what government “should” be, or even what it is, I’d guess they would agree.
But that’s not what law and government are at all. In fact, that notion of the nature of law and government, is not only wrong, it is extremely harmful.
What are law and government?
Government, is the instrument of collective delegation of the legitimate initiation and use of force against others.
Law, is the body of rules by which that force is administered and applied.
The only legitimate purpose for which, is to secure and protect the rights of individuals governed by them.
So, what’s the other thing, and why is this a problem?
The other definition, is more properly that of society (as distinct from culture).
Government is NOT Society, and Society, is NOT Government
This conflation of government, and society, is a very serious social and political problem because those who hold it… and I firmly believe it’s a large majority… believe that law and government, should be used for “doing what’s good, and stopping what’s bad”.
They naturally wish to see government do what they think is right, or best, and stop that which they think is wrong, harmful, or wasteful… And not just in areas where force should be applied.
They conflate “legal” with “good” and “illegal” with “bad”, and try to make laws against things which they think are bad, or mandating things which they think are good.
They often even conflate “legal” or “attempting to make legal” with “approving and supporting”, and “dissapproving and opposing” with “illegal” or “attempting to make illegal”.
This is incredibly harmful
We have allowed… even encouraged people… to deeply hold the fundamental notion, that they get to vote on other peoples opinions, choices, and behavior; and if their “side” wins the vote, that it is legitimate to make those things legal or illegal.
It also means that these people automatically and reflexively try to solve personal, moral, social, or societal problems, with government and law, when it is entirely inappropriate, even harmful, to attempt to do so. Most of those problems cannot be solved by the use of force;, or at best can only be solved inefficiently, ineffectively, and while violating the rights of others.
In encouraging this misapprehension, we have in fact made the personal, the political, and the political, the personal.
How do we stop the harm?
We must correct this critical error in peoples fundamental apprehension of law and government.
People need to understand, at the most fundamental level, that government is force, and that law is how that force is directed and administered. No more, no less.
If we don’t correct this misapprehension, then we will continue to simply seesaw back and forth between majoritarian tyrannies, as social changes dictate.
Rights will continue to be violated and abrogated as the opinions of society fluctuate.
The favored, will continue to be privileged over the disfavored at the expense of the disfavored’s rights, until the pendulum swings again and the roles are reversed.
Yes, I realize, that is largely how it has always been… But never has law and government had such a depth and breath, had so great a reach into our personal lives, as it does today, and this unfortunately shows no sign of receding.
The absurdity of this reach… and overreach… is finally becoming apparent to many people, on all ideological “sides”; be it the “war on drugs”, the “war on terror”, privacy and surveillance, or gay marriage and wedding cakes.
So, we have to take action, now
Use this growing awareness of the overreach, to help people understand.
We have to show people these aren’t just outlying excesses. That they result from the way we think of, look at, and attempt to use, government.
We have to get people to understand, that if they can say “there ought to be a law”, and then get a law made banning something that they don’t like; then their worst enemy, can get a law made banning something they love.
We have to return to the notion that fundamental rights matter, and that the only legitimate purpose of law, and government, is to protect those fundamental rights.
That’s up to individuals, and to society as a whole, NOT GOVERNMENT.
Voluntary collective action. If it’s really what people want, then they’ll work for it, without the threat of force. If it’s not really what they want, then we shouldn’t be forcing people to do it.
With what’s going on in Baltimore, we’re beyond simple deja vu. What we’ve been witnessing is a sickeningly predictable process. Police beat the shit out of a black guy, and he dies. People get mad. Protests turn to violence. Everyone views the incidents through their own prisms, and assigns blame and praise as their worldview permits them. We have been repeating this process for some time, but in recent times it was the death of Michael Brown that instigated what has become a nationwide movement.
In order to fix the mess that’s currently being made, we need to see what got us here in the first place. Simply sticking our fingers in our collective ears while hauntingly saying “well, don’t riot!” is like someone whose answer to sexual assault is to tell men “well, don’t rape!”. It’s condescending and unhelpful. We need to investigate how we got to where we are, both in Baltimore and other communities such as Ferguson, MO.
Do the protesters have legitimate complaints?
Only a partisan fool would argue that the protesters in Baltimore don’t have legitimate reasons to be extremely angry.
The flash point for this community was the death of Freddie Gray, who was taken into police custody on April 12th and somehow came out of it with a broken spine the likes of which usually happen in car accidents. The incident sprung from Gray seeing a police officer and taking off running. It’s unknown exactly what happened inside the police van that he was taken into, which is different from the case of Walter Scott, who was taped being gunned down from behind by a police officer.
In addition, police brutality is a major issue in Baltimore, and with so many payouts – of taxpayer money, mind – for brutality cases, keeping in mind that these are just the ones that got caught, a reasonable person can draw one of two conclusions: either the Baltimore Police Department is so incompetent that they can’t even get away with one of the easiest things for an officer to get away with, or police brutality is so prevalent in the BPD that it’s skewing the numbers.
So it’s a race thing, right?
That’s not cut-and-dried. Baltimore’s a bit different in that they have a black mayor, a heavy black population within their police force, and their minority population is mixed race, with Latinos and other ethnic groups mixing in and creating an eclectic mix. This isn’t Ferguson, whose white police force regards their black population as walking ATMs.
But at the same time, race is heavily tied to class in all of the cases that have sprung up. This goes back to decades old debates on the poor economic straits of black people in America, owing to hundreds of years of slavery, followed by Jim Crow laws, enhanced by racist mindsets throughout America. Those are different articles altogether, but the economic plight of black people in America, on a bird’s eye level, contributes heavily to the crime rate, which causes police to react disproportionately, and perpetuates a never-ending cycle of distrust. The chicken vs. egg debate of which came first – the black inequality or black crime – is irrelevant to this context. What’s important, right now, is that in many cases, the police – even black cops, like the one who covered up for Michael Slager – have not helped, for years, due to outright profiling.
Wait a minute. You just said blacks commit more crimes. In fact, most of the people who have been killed had rap sheets as well! That kind of justifies at least some action, right?
Ever hear of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Because that’s what’s happening in most cases. Yes, in many cases, as reported by the press, the individuals who have been victimized recently had prior run-ins with police. Despite consternation by some that this is a ploy to prove that black people are all criminals, it would be irresponsible journalism to omit those facts.
But this issue isn’t just affecting poor blacks with a record. CNN’s LZ Granderson on Twitter yesterday pointed out the reality:
The first time an officer pulled a gun on me I was 12 carrying a gallon of milk home from the store. Notice I said "the first time".
There’s also New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who’s son was stopped at gunpoint at Yale University, where the son is a student. It was a black cop that detained that young man, but ultimately, it’s the colour blue that matters more. As Mr. Blow notes in his piece, all that matters is how you look.
So what does this have to do with someone that has a “rap sheet”? There’s a huge difference between LZ Granderson and some random guy in the projects, right? Well, let’s extrapolate this to its logical conclusion:
1) Man is stopped for superfluous reasons. There are provable statistics that show blacks are far more likely to be stopped than whites. This is often called “walking(talking) while black”.
2) Man is ticketed or arrested for a meaningless crime. This is partly the fault of overlegislation – chances are good that due to the addition of “regulatory” crimes, you are breaking the law while reading this – but it’s also a problem for black people, so often pulled over by officers needing to justify themselves, especially if there’s a financial impetus.
3) If that person is later the victim of brutality, reasonable doubt can be cast on the victim by referencing “previous run-ins” with police. This not only affects criminal and civil trials, it doubles as a character assassination.
4) The general public – still overwhelmingly white, mostly conservative, and educated with a strong belief in law, order and the police as a force of protection instead of oppression – are quick to label the action reasonably justified, unable – or unwilling – to personalize the problem. The spectre of police brutality is so foreign to most white people that even well meaning individuals simply cannot understand what it’s like to walk around with a constant fear of police reactions. It’s literally not in our realm of thinking.
My partner, who is white, did not know the siege some blacks live with until he saw me surrounded by police in my own driveway.
Whatever, you bleeding heart liberal. So the police occasionally thump a guy too hard. But I don’t wanna hear this stuff about poor people! They have just as many chances as we do! Just look at others who made it! Look at guys like Herman Cain!
First off, if you’re poor, you don’t have as many chances as you think, as is easyenough to prove. I grew up poor, and it took an immense amount of work, four years of the military, and a lot of luck just to make it into the middle class, and if something goes wrong now, I’m largely screwed.
Now, go back to that Ferguson report, know that that report could be written for entirely too many communities – particularly in the South, where blacks are still fighting the ghosts of Jim Crow, slavery, and a significant number of people who feel the Confederacy was justified – and imagine how hard it would be to “come up” under those circumstances. It’s hard to climb the social ladder when it keeps getting kicked out from underfoot.
This is the major reason why so many communities are protesting, fighting, attacking, you name it. They see no way out of the hell they’ve been born into, and the people that are supposed to be protecting them are inflicting further injustice. The minutia of how we can get poor people out of their plight is a political debate for another time.
OK, maybe I understand that. But that doesn’t justify rioting! Looting isn’t helping! In fact, it’s taking away from that community!
Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, looting and rioting are bad, m’kay? Looting is not protesting. It is naked theft, brought on by a simple-minded materialism that some could argue is a major reason why the poor are poor. And flies are said to be more attracted to honey than vinegar. This is all true.
But in light of everything that’s happened in the past two years, it’s hard to argue that the “nice” way of doing things has worked at all.
The above argument is the one that The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates made recently, stating that calls for order are only made with no other solutions in mind.
Now, tonight, I turn on the news and I see politicians calling for young people in Baltimore to remain peaceful and “nonviolent.” These well-intended pleas strike me as the right answer to the wrong question. To understand the question, it’s worth remembering what, specifically, happened to Freddie Gray. An officer made eye contact with Gray. Gray, for unknown reasons, ran. The officer and his colleagues then detained Gray. They found him in possession of a switchblade. They arrested him while he yelled in pain. And then, within an hour, his spine was mostly severed. A week later, he was dead. What specifically was the crime here? What particular threat did Freddie Gray pose? Why is mere eye contact and then running worthy of detention at the hands of the state? Why is Freddie Gray dead?
When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.
As for the stealing, it’s bad. It’s wrong. It hurts the moral standing of the protesters. But if we’re talking in terms of scale, it’s worth noting that the City of Baltimore has a bad history of using civil forfeiture as a form of revenue enhancement. If we put the scale of that in a bar graph next to some assholes stealing some kit from the electronics department, the first bar is going to be astronomically higher.
Well… I still think what they’re doing is wrong. Win some elections and make change the right way.
It’s OK if you don’t care about the protests, and their resulting riots. It’s OK if Freddie Gray is just one more name on the news. If you want to mention some white guy somewhere that didn’t get this kind of attention – here, I’ll even do the work1 for you – then sure, even if you’re kind of being a dick.
But to sit there and assume that this is a problem caused by those in the streets is irresponsible, insensitive, and flat-out wrong. The people out in the streets right now aren’t nobodies, doing this for fun; they are citizens who think they have been getting a raw deal for years, decades even, and the death of one of their own, unjustified, by the people tasked with their “protection”, was finally the straw that broke the camel’s back. This isn’t the inane ramblings of a “social justice warrior” claiming that all sex is rape or some other crap. There are cold, hard, verifiable statistics showing that the poor and the black – too often synonymous terms – get an extremely raw deal all over America, and if it doesn’t change, what we’re seeing now will continue to be the new normal.
Note: In the time between this piece being written and being edited for release, six police officers have been charged with crimes ranging from false imprisonment to murder.
1 – Before reading that WT link – if you can get past all those damn surveys – go back up and read that Census link from before.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the situation in Baltimore and the very state of our culture. This Facebook status update I came across yesterday is very worthy of repeating here.
I really wish people would stop posting Freddie Gray’s criminal record, as if that makes him deserving of having his spine broken while in police custody, killing him. You can’t claim to be a supporter of constitutional rights, yet care nothing of Freddie Gray’s rights. This brother was no less deserving of his life than any white collar criminal. I don’t support rioting & looting, but I also won’t support those who think his life was worth less than the next person, or that he got what he deserved. He was the victim in this case, and his record is irrelevant… – Talitha McEachin
Agreed. Unless Freddie Gray presented a presented a threat to the lives of the police officers while he was in custody*, the police had no right to use the force they used that ultimately ended his life. Whether he was arrested one time or a thousand has nothing to do with how Gray was treated.
*Of course at this point, we don’t really know what happened while Gray was in custody. This is yet another argument for the notion that each and every moment the police are interacting with a suspect that these interactions should be recorded and made available (eventually) to the public. There’s simply no excuse for this not to be the policy of every police department in 2015.
Anticipating Sommers would use the occasions to speak words in freely exited auditoriums no one was required to enter, tomorrow’s greatest minds concerned students at Oberlin and Georgetown rallied to face the psychological trial of…hearing words in freely exited auditoriums no one was required to enter.
Of course, they could have just not attended.
That would seem an ironclad way to avoid being subjected to the dangerous trauma of this shaming, violent, misogynistic, rape-y…uttering of words.
Instead, they wrote a “love letter” to themselves in the Oberlin student newspaper calling Sommers a rape “denialist,” referring to her upcoming speech as “this violence,” and evincing an odd fixation on Sommers’ Twitter followers.
“Christina Hoff Sommers & OCRL [Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians] support rapists.”
“RAPE CULTURE is REAL and YOU are a PARTICIPANT.”
These were obviously thoughtfully and carefully crafted to help rape survivors who might be attending the speech to feel safe and avoid being “triggered” as they entered.
The objecting students also created “alternative safe spaces” for anyone who felt triggered by Sommers’ words (but not the signs). These were in addition to the “alternative safe spaces” of: 1) one’s own dorm room or apartment; 2) the library; 3) the coffee shop; 4) the entire rest of the world; 5) just not going; 6) doing whatever one would have done if Christina Hoff Sommers had never been born; and, 7) hiding under the bed at mommy and daddy’s house.
The existence of the “alternative safe spaces” (the special ones with the vapors and fainting couches, not the seven I listed above) was announced ahead of the speech. This was to help the adult college students who, despite being old enough to vote and go to war, otherwise might not have known they could get up and leave the unlocked auditorium they had voluntarily entered to hear a non-mandatory speech.
Despite their insistence that listening to Sommers speak words was so fraught with peril it required trigger warnings and alternate safe spaces, many of the objecting students nevertheless attended the speeches.
Is anyone surprised?
At Oberlin, they interrupted, booed, and mocked a professor who asked them to be civil. Well, that is, except for the ones with the duct tape over their mouths…
As anything more, it is at best dead on arrival. Such mindset cannot empower its adherents to compete with women like Sommers, capable of confronting auditoriums of angry protestors, engaging in unfettered debate, examining deeply held beliefs, considering contrary evidence, and revising paradigms and refocusing energy where appropriate.
Deep down they know it.
The echo chamber is guarded so shrilly precisely because of how deeply its occupants fear subjecting their beliefs to scrutiny. But choked off from sunlight and oxygen inside those rigid walls, their ideas wither into limp and lifeless shades of ideas.
At worst, they have become bullies. They are the ones suggesting that rape survivors are participants in the “rape culture” if they attend the wrong sort of speech. They are the ones trying to stifle disfavored speech. They are the ones making people feel unsafe.
They are the reason Oberlin College gave Sommers a two-man police escort.
After the speech, some of them followed her to the restaurant where she was having dinner in order to confront her.
Is that how we do safe spaces? Or is it that Sommers is not entitled to safe space because she’s the wrong sort of woman?
Some women just deserve what they get, I guess.
Students who think they see something dangerous in speakers like Christina Hoff Sommers should consider the possibility that what they are actually looking at is their own reflection.
Humans. We think we come up with our political positions through reasoned analysis, and then join the political party that’s aligned to our beliefs. We’re ideologically honest and consistent. We’re dispassionate referees looking at evidence and argument and making informed choices.
The truth is that this is all a bunch of bull. We’re pack animals. Human reason has done amazing things for us as a species, but we’re still pack animals imbued with an “us vs them” mentality, and that continually trumps the weak “reason” we rely upon.
I was struck by this by two posts I’ve read recently. The first, of course, was Kevin’s post from yesterday. It was a great post about the cultural and religious differences between the South and the rest of America. Two passages are directly relevant to what I want to discuss today:
Another interesting thing about Southern culture is how it tends to leave its mark on surrounding cultures. There are reasons why in particular heavily Catholic south Louisiana, pre-dominately Catholic Hispanics in Texas, and the Catholic Cuban-American community in Miami are more conservative than Catholics in New England and the Midwest. Those Southern values of individualism, hard work, personal responsibility and family values have rubbed off on those communities.
Here’s an exit question: do you think many secularists replace religion with a belief in the state and social justice and that’s why they’re hostile to limited government? Let us know in the comments.
In the first passage, he points out that seemingly disparate groups (Catholics in the South vs Protestants in the South) frequently find themselves having more in common that what should be clearly defined allegiances (Catholics, regardless of location). To me, this suggests a more fundamental principle at work–we align our beliefs to feel comfortable with those around us, not based upon objective reason.
His second passage suggests the hubris of human reason. He’s asking whether secularists “replace” religion with belief in the State, and this explains why atheists tend to fall on the left side of the spectrum.
As for that second passage, let me quote Warren @ Coyote Blog, about how political forces must align opposite to each other–highly polarized, in fact–by simple explanations of group dynamics:
So here is my theory to explain many party political positions: Consider an issue where one party is really passionate about something. The other party might tend to initially agree. But over time there is going to be pressure for the other party to take the opposite stand, whether it is consistent with some sort of party ideological framework or not. After 9/11, the Republicans staked out a position that they thought that Islam as practiced in several countries was evil and dangerous and in some cases needed to be subdued by force of arms. In my framework, this pushed Democrats into becoming defenders of modern Islam, even at the same time that domestic politics was pushing them to be critical of Christian religion as it affected social policy (i.e. abortion and later gay marriage). Apparently, the more obvious position of “yeah, we agree much of the Islamic world is illiberal and violent, but we don’t think we can or should fix it by arms” is too subtle a position to win elections. I fear we have gotten to a point where if either party is for something, they have to be in favor of mandating it, and if they are against something, they have to be in favor of using the full force of government to purge it from this Earth. And the other party will default to the opposite position.
Expecting most partisans to be ideologically consistent is expecting pack mentality to be trumped by reason. The fact that it rarely is suggests that being a member of a pack is such as strong emotional evolutionary drive that people will reason themselves into other positions rather than fight the orthodoxy.
You see this consistently in politics. When Bush was in power, Republicans dismissed concern over warrantless wiretaps as the ravings of civil libertarians who were more worries about the feelings of terrorists than the safety of our nation. Put Obama in the White House, and suddenly it’s government spying on our most treasured private secrets! When Bush was in power, the anti-war left was in the streets, demonstrating about our illegal war. Put Obama in the White House, and the left goes silent while suddenly the right slams Obama for his actions on Libya.
In these cases, we’re more worried about solidarity with our pack than adherence to ideological consistency. Now, that’s not everyone. There are outliers. There are still hawks on the right that want Obama going into the Middle East guns a-blazin’. There are still those on the left more willing to cheer Edward Snowden than Obama on government intelligence. But it’s amazing how quiet those folks are today.
Most people, however, are blind to this inconsistency. They find rationalizations to change their position to become consistent with the position of their pack. They smooth out outlying positions by segmenting themselves into one part of their political party (i.e. they’re a Conservative, not a Republican, or they’re an Environmental Democrat, not a class warrior). But over time, it’s amazing how closely their beliefs tend to mirror those of their party.
So, back to Kevin’s question: do secularists replace religion with the State?
I think they do, but not consciously. Going back to Coyote’s point about people defining themselves in opposition, what you’ve seen in the Republican party is that Republicans have become “the party of the religious conservatives”. Secularists look at that party and say to themselves, “I am not like them. I am not a member of that pack.” They seek out alternative packs. For some, who are much more stridently in favor of small government, they end up in the libertarian camp. For most, though, they end up falling in with Democrats. Democrats seem so much more like themselves.
Why are Democrats the secular party, despite the fact that they’re overwhelmingly Christian just like the Republicans? Well, as Coyote states, when the other party tries to own religion, you take the opposite position. Republicans are loudly the party of the “traditional Christian values”. Democrats may still be Christian, but they don’t wear religion on their sleeve quite so heavily.
So those who are turned off by religion jump in with the Democrats. From there, the cognitive dissonance of identifying with leftists on religious grounds works its magic until they slowly start coming around on other issues. They start seeing Republicans as not as compassionate as their new comrades. They start believing that because their new friends view “compassion” as being in favor of government redistribution of wealth, they start to believe in redistribution. In short, they start aligning with the people who surround them and actively distancing themselves from those against them. To quote Kevin, those leftist values have “rubbed off on them”.
The same thing happens the other direction. After 9/11, there was a serious rift in the Democratic party between those who were more security-oriented and those who weren’t. Republicans already owned the “strong national defense” brand, and many Democrats started to break with their old party on that front. What happened? You end up with people like Dennis Miller, who was a leftist prior to 9/11, ended up on right wing talk radio. Was he always a conservative in disguise? No. But the issue of high importance to him [fighting terrorists] caused him to change pack, and he couldn’t handle the cognitive dissonance of not accepting the pack’s other beliefs as well. Christopher Hitchens is another good example. He broke with the Democrats over Islam, and over time started finding himself more and more in agreement with Republicans on other matters. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing.
Even libertarians are not immune. We like to believe we’re free-thinkers, and we certainly consider the circular firing squad to be our favorite pastime. But the libertarian purity tests have the aggregate effect that we end up defining ourselves as far to the extreme as possible to distance ourselves from “the Coke/Pepsi parties”. As a result, people end up describing themselves as “small-l libertarians” or “libertarian-leaning Republicans” because we’ve defined our brand to be so extreme that many are not willing to associate with our pack. I was once told–by Eric, the founder of The Liberty Papers, no less–that I seemed “too normal” for libertarianism.
Going back to Kevin’s points about religion, this is also the case with atheism. So many people who don’t believe in god call themselves agnostics or “spiritual”. Atheism as a brand has a reputation defining itself as anti-religious, and that brand’s reputation is heavy on defiance, non-conformity, and anger. People are scared of that brand, don’t see themselves as part of that pack, so they shy away from the label entirely. Niches, whether political or religious, tend to become insular and more extreme as they define themselves opposite moderation.
So, what’s the takeaway? Well, it’s first and foremost to recognize who and what we are. You can’t solve a problem unless you identify that it’s a problem at all. Pack mentality is one of the key attributes of confirmation bias. It’s one of the key reasons we engage in appeal to motive in arguments–we fundamentally see “them” as being motivated by everything that’s evil and wrong with the world while excusing our side as well-meaning even when wrong. And when we follow Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment, we are explicitly allowing pack allegiance to trump ideological consistency. We value “our side” winning more than we value the truth.
We have natural tendencies towards pack mentality. This is part of our evolutionary biology. But it’s dangerous, and doesn’t have any place in the modern, multicultural, globally interconnected world in which we live today. We need to recognize it and guard against it. Because when you actually sit down and break bread with the people who seem so different to you, you find out that we’re really not as different as we seem. We need to come around to a world that’s not “us vs them”, because when it really comes down to it, it’s all just “us”.