Most social and political debates in America today can be boiled down to just a few key fundamentals, a choice handful of disagreements that resonate in countless contexts and disputes over particular issues and policies: is the individual sacrosanct in his rights or subservient to the will of the collective? what are those rights? what is the proper purpose of government in society? how can we define its proper limitations in broad principles? is absolute liberty practical as well as just? From his answers to these sometimes challenging questions one can generally derive a man’s views of taxation, regulation, the freedom of speech, the right to contract, the justifications for war, and a litany of other issues. From the discrepancies between them one can observe his degree of consistency.
While the aforementioned questions are no doubt some of the most primary in the development of a political philosophy, some other, more conversational questions can be beneficial even when discussing seemingly technical issues (like, for instance, the proper income tax rate or the rationale behind an antitrust case). In a few simple questions, a defender of capitalism can bring a policy discussion to the level of basic principles–where the real battle for freedom can be fought and won. The following are a few key questions to ask the next time you are in a discussion about regulation with a leftist or debating same-sex marriage with a social conservative. Remember: the key is not to combatively debate but to constructively discuss while hopefully challenging them to think about basic principles in the process.
Would you take it by force individually? If so, by what right?
It is a tragic symptom of our political culture that so many have forgotten the most essential nature of government itself. Government is force. At its most essential level, the quality that distinguishes government from all other institutions in society is a monopoly on the use of institutionalized, physical force. In a healthy, rational society, that force is exercised in an exclusively retaliatory fashion. Politics, the fourth branch of philosophy after metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, is the branch devoted to defining the proper principles of a social system. From principles in political philosophy, man is able to conceptualize an ideal society and to realize the proper nature, purposes, and limitations of the state in that society. Thus, if the state is defined by its possession of institutionalized force and politics is devoted to defining a proper social system, which leads naturally to conclusions about the role of the state, then politics consists primarily of inquiring into the morally proper adjudication and regulation of force in society.
Most leftists and many conservatives are reluctant to accept this. After a century of progressive thought in America and the legacy of socialism abroad, they are inclined and instructed to think of government as a provider, there to fill in the gaps and meet the needs of its people in every aspect of social and economic life. This writer has been told countless times in speaking with students, “I just don’t like to think of it in those terms! I don’t think of it that way. That’s not what it is to me,”–all as if wishing made it otherwise. No matter one’s preferred phrasing or presentation, the fact remains that all government programs come from somewhere; they are not, as many in socialist countries like to term them, “free”; the unnamed source of those programs is tax dollars; and tax dollars are exacted by force under threat of imprisonment. No matter how it makes one feel to acknowledge it in such terms, this is the nature of government.
The question thus arises: would an advocate of social welfare programs support taking the same money by force without the intermediary of the state to do it on their behalf? Would they threaten to restrict another person’s freedom through physical force to pay for their own healthcare and retirement, to protect their business from competition, or in the name of equality? I am confident in saying that of course the vast majority would never do such a thing. So why, we must ask the advocates of social welfare programs and redistribution, do they adopt a different moral standard for the state? One would think, on a cursory glance, that with progressives’ belief in the collective guilt of classes and races being so fervent, they might hold society at large and its representative, the state, to a higher moral standard. Their outrage is nowhere to be heard.
Rather, the statist conviction– held with varying consistency by leftists and conservatives alike– is that by virtue of the state’s claim to represent the whole of society, all of its actions are thereby sanctioned. The statist is at root a collectivist who believes that individuals live in service to society, paying their whole lives a debt that was theirs simply for being born. At its greatest extremes, this belief has led to history’s most heinous atrocities, but it need not go anywhere near such magnitudes to wreak injustices every day in even the most apparently peaceful of cultures.
Thus, when a person is heard arguing for the redistribution of wealth he should be asked if he would take that wealth by force if the state did not do it for him. When a leftist demands that the state should provide his healthcare and insurance he should be asked if he would have the right to force another person to pay his bills or else hold them as prisoner for refusing. When a conservative argues for higher tariffs to protect domestic businesses he should be asked if he would have the right to go down to the ports himself to seize or destroy the wares of traders as mobsters used to do to those who refused to pay ‘protection’. If they hesitate or refuse, they must be asked why and must be made to justify what makes the same principles any more just when practiced by the government in the name of society at large. Few will have an answer; no answer will be rational.
- If not, why accept the same actions in your government?
The American people cherish their right to vote, whether or not they always use their votes in the wisest of ways. By going to the ballot box, they reflect their support for certain policies and ideas through the candidates who have pledged to uphold them. That members of the US Congress bear the simple, unceremonious title of “Representative” is as honest a statement of that relationship as one could ask for. While there is considerable merit to the idea that a politician is more than an impartial conduit for the views of his constituents, he nonetheless represents them in his every action by reflecting the values of a country, a state, or a district– by being the best that they had to offer.
If a politician is a representative– a reflection, even– of his constituents, then his actions are likewise reflections of their values. Granted: he may deceive them or change his policies after he is elected, but if it is on matters of true significance to his constituents he should only last until the next election. To the extent that he acts in accordance with the values he presented when his constituents voted him into office, they are to credit or to blame for the justice or injustice of his policies. He is their voice in Washington or in their state’s capitol, and he is their connection with the governing process.
This leads to a litany of deeply interrelated question that a collectivist of any stripe must be held to answer: if a participatory, elected government is the natural expression of each office holder’s constituents and their values, why should a different moral standard ever be applied in policymaking than individuals apply to themselves? Why are actions that are roundly condemned when practiced by individuals suddenly pardonable when conducted through government, in the name of society as a whole? Why should any individual accept the initiation of force by government against its citizens for any purpose if he would morally object to performing such actions himself? What about the state subjects it to a different moral standard than the people it is erected to defend? Again, few will have an answer; no answer will be rational.
- What makes collective action morally distinct from individual action?
Though they may falter to explain the philosophical underpinnings of their own ideology, the reason for statists’ acceptance of the initiation of force by government against the individual is their fundamental rejection of individual rights. Both left and right often pay lip service to individualism, but progressives today and, too often, conservatives call for the common good above the individual good– as if the two were contradictory. A functioning society demands sacrifice, they proclaim, ignoring the legacy of capitalism in proving that the greatest gain to individuals and society at large is through trade–the exchange of value for value by mutual consent, to mutual gain.
Collectivism, by establishing the group as the primary unit of political consideration and the object of the good, defines all actions and entities as good or evil to the extent that they benefit or harm that collective body. Though various forms of collectivism may conceive of that group in different ways– a race, ‘ethnicity’, class, ‘nation’, or society as a whole– they all agree on one basic premise: the collective is an entity that is greater than the sum of its parts and constitutes a higher good toward which individuals are or should be subservient.
What statists do not answer, however–what they cannot answer– is why the performance of an immoral act in the name of the collective or on its behalf is any more pardonable than the same act performed on behalf of an individual or a minority. If they would not condone the use of force to achieve ‘equality’ or ‘social justice’ between two individuals– say, robbing someone at gunpoint, but only taking half of his money so as to make the victim and robber equal–what about performing the same act en masse on behalf of society at large makes it acceptable to use physical force toward the achievement of a given economic outcome? What entitles the whole to that which is denied to its constituent parts? Does acting on behalf of the collective or society at large pardon the state from all moral standards or only some? What limits are there to what the state can acceptably do in the name of ‘society’ or ‘the nation’? By what standard? Toward what end? Blank out.
Collectivists cannot rationally answer these questions because their standards are entirely subjective. By accepting the initiation of force by the state against its citizens and by denying the right of the individual to the products of his labor, they have surrendered the ability to negotiate after the fact the limitations on that power. Observe the left’s superficial arguments against racism today that can never be made complete until they relinquish the collectivist premise and embrace a belief in individual rights. Witness the contradiction of many Republicans’ objections to NSA spying without objecting to the Patriot Act, which still remains on the books and threatens Americans’ fourth amendment rights as much as the data collection program. Statists who support these policies often oppose infringements by the government in other areas of Americans’ private lives. They should be pressed to define the precise standard against which such infringements should be measured, whether in economic policy, privacy law, or any other area of government action.
- What limit should there be on majority rule and by what standard?
The lie of collectivism is that its policies are ever on behalf of ‘the whole.’ Neither the wealth and prosperity of a country nor its security can ever be improved by taking them from some and redistributing them to others. In reality, such policies always amount to the sacrifice of some to others–a minority to a majority. That gives rise to our fourth question, that of the proper limitations on majority rule.
The particular brand of statism prevalent in America today–in the collectivist elements on both left and right–is not that of pure socialism in the traditional sense nor communism nor, in fact, European-style social democracy. It is rather a nascent and adapted form of fascism. Under fascism, unlike pure socialism or communism, the goal is not for the state to assume ownership of private property, but rather to leave it in the hands of private citizens until such time as the state deems fit to seize and use it to suit its needs. Many fail to recognize fascism as the particular form of American statism, believing fascism to always come in the form of a dictatorship or with a racial component. Those features have undoubtedly been present in fascist countries throughout history– it could be argued that they are the greatest natural extent of a fascist system should it continue to develop– but they are, ultimately, only incidental features rather than the essence of the political theory itself. The fact that a country has an elected government and chooses class, ethnicity, occupation, or any other social feature as its dividing line does not negate or diminish the fascist quality.
On the left, this nascent statism in American political culture takes a particularly democratic quality–that is: one that operates on an ideal of unlimited majority rule. American leftists pay lip-service to the Constitution and Bill of Rights, but in practice their policies and actions consistently defer to purely majoritarian calculus. Speech is considered free because of its benefit to ‘society as a whole’ and not because of an individual’s right to express himself. The right to property is protected only by the limitations of politicians’ imaginations in coming up with yet more goods and services in society to which every individual is entitled at another’s expense. The right to privacy is extolled in public while government agencies indiscriminately collect the private communications of citizens and political dissenters who make too much noise are singled out for IRS audits and baselessly accused of connections to violent activities. And in all areas of politics and the law, the philosophy of positivism runs rampant, with judges and legislators around the country operating on the belief that rights are not objective but rather doled out by government to its people, subject to majority approval. Even utilitarian notions about ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’, once animating American socialist thinking, have, over the decades, given way to the more philosophically consistent, nihilist view of the New Left: the greatest number, good or not.
Unlimited majority rule, however, is incompatible with man’s rights. They are distinctly either-or. If we properly define a right, using Ayn Rand’s wording, as “a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context”, then we understand rights to be exclusive: either individuals’ rights to their own lives and the products thereof are protected from infringement or the state, as a representative of ‘society’ as a whole, is granted the power to abrogate them in the name of a ‘greater good.’ Either rights are objective, determined by man’s nature and belonging to each individual or they are viewed, in the positivist tradition, as allowances doled out by the state. Either man is autonomous or he lives by permission. No compromise is possible between these two absolutes.
Thus, yet again, any answer that a statist offers to this question is rendered entirely subjective and baseless by their denial of or attempts to evade individual rights. To define a proper limit on majority rule requires a standard– some objective benchmark that would clearly circumscribe the limits on state action against individuals. That limit is, under a rational political philosophy, individual rights. However, since collectivists, operating on Rawlsian notions of social justice, have inverted the definition of rights to mean not a freedom of action but an entitlement to economic and social states (“the right to healthcare”, “the right to a living wage”, etc.), and since they seek to obtain those states for some by taking from others, their notion of rights means ultimately that some people have the right to the lives and labor of others. The result is a political system of not simply unlimited majority rule but unlimited gang warfare in which groups coalesce in hopes of using their political weight to protect their own interests while taking from others. It is the advanced stage of a redistributive economic system and, despite all of the collectivist lip-service to unity and brotherhood, it results in a culture of heinous envy and divisiveness in which the first victim is the smallest minority– the individual.
In truth, the collectivist cannot define a clear and objective standard to limit majority rule. If he did, he would cease to be a collectivist.
The questions listed here are not exhaustive. One can certainly push against the beliefs that underlie statism in so many different ways, finding a seemingly endless number of ideas to challenge and refute. This is only meant to offer a solid starting point for anyone intending to oppose it and to help them push the conversation into the realm of basic principles. Though some may find them too abstract, too esoteric at a time when crises seem to be knocking at the door of our country on a daily basis, it must be remembered that no discussion of politics can ever truly evade basic principles– only ignore them. In our every policy prescription and advocacy; in every soundbyte, editorial, living room debate, or piece of legislation, certain underlying beliefs will always lay the basis for the particulars that follow.
Refuting another’s particulars often involves tracing them back to a core belief and cutting it off at the root– not ending the discussion, but leading someone down a different path of thought. And, in the end, that is the ideal. Only one who senses that his beliefs cannot stand the test of rational inquiry seeks to silence the discussion of ideas. So be confident in the knowledge that, as a defender of individual rights, reason is on your side, embrace the discussion, and open someone’s perspective where you can. Hopefully these questions will provide you with a valuable point of departure.