by Mack Tanner
As we approach the end of the Twentieth Century we look back on the bloodiest century in human history. Two world wars, the massacres of Stalin, the Holocaust of Hitler, the disastrous Great Leap of Mao, and dozens of less grandiose human tragedies in Eastern Europe, Korea, Vietnam, Africa, India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Latin America, and Bosnia killed millions of humans and inflicted extreme suffering on hundreds of millions more. The killing continues as we move to the Twenty-first Century.
Why did things so wrong?
The Twentieth Century was ushered in by intellectuals and political philosophers who promised a brave new world in which humans would use reason, ingenuity, and science to solve social problems and build a world of justice, peace, prosperity, equality, and personal freedom.
The vehicle which they chose to implement their plans for a better human existence was democratic government by majority rule. Calling themselves by a variety of labels such as liberals, progressives, humanists, and social democrats, the political philosophers assumed that the voters in democratically government countries would live by the proposition that it was in everyone's best interests to serve the common good by adhering to the social compact in which communal decisions are decided by democratic majority rule with the losing minority peacefully abiding by the will of the majority, even if that requires personal sacrifice.
However, the liberal intellectual leadership never adequately examined a critical question. What happens when a minority refuses to abide by the decision of a majority?
Liberal intellectuals failed to understand that democratic rule can only work if it never makes important decisions. Important in this context means anything so important to significant numbers of individuals that they will do what they want to do, even if they must break the law to do it. When the majority makes an important decision that adversely affects a large minority, the peaceful covenant of democracy breaks down. Those in the minority either evade compliance, openly rebel, or seek to corrupt the democratic process so that it serves their own moral need or selfish desire.
Most liberal intellectuals recognize that no matter how big the majority, it can not expect a minority to peaceably give up a belief in God or a form of worship. It was for this reason that religion was placed outside the bounds of government control in the U.S. Constitution. The founders knew from historical example that people will die for their religion and they will kill others to defend their religious rights.
What the liberal intellectuals failed to understand is that minorities can just as vigorously resist a majority decision even when the minority has no moral justification for wants that are driven by selfish desires. Humans will refuse to obey laws governing desired sexual practices of limits on mind altering drugs just as quickly as they will insist on the right to perform a bizarre religious ceremony.
We all have a few things we will never voluntarily give up no matter how large the majority that demands that we do so. It may be an unpopular religious belief, a specific sexual practice, a desire for a mind altering drug, an addiction to gambling, a need to hoard gold in the ground, the right to abort a child, a desire to make and keep wealth, a drive to write and read forbidden thoughts, or the insistence on owning weapons to protect access to any of the above desires.
When a majority makes laws that compel what a minority thinks are decisions too important to be decided by a majority vote, the majority must then impose it's will by using force.
Government is not about logic and reason, it is about force and violence. We organize governments for one reason only, to marshal force in order to achieve a perceived common good. If we can persuade people to act in the service of our moral vision or our selfish desires, there is no reason to look to government to force people to do the right thing.
In choosing government, even democratic government, as the means of achieving humanistic political goals, liberal intellectuals chose to use force to achieve the intellectuals' ideal of a just, fair, economically successful society.
For most liberal intellectuals, the decision to use violence rather than reason to achieve political goals was not a conscious decision. They instead assumed that humans would peacefully accept the will of the majority in all things that the majority chose to decide. Even today, most intellectuals never consider the cost in increased violence when proposing social legislation in such areas as drug prohibitions, the education of children, family welfare laws, business and commercial regulation, environmental laws, and the entire tax structure. Because they refuse to admit that such a majority decision inevitably leads to increased social violence, they also refuse to accept the moral responsibility when the violence does occur.
Laws have no meaning if the majority is not willing to round up and imprison or otherwise punish those who refuse to abide by the law. The larger the minority that determines to evade the impact of majority rule, the greater the cost in violence.
The threat of violence does work, at least some of the time. All of us give up things because we deem those things less important to us than the risk of the violence that will be inflicted on us if we break the law. We drove for more than twenty years at 55 miles per hour on highways designed to carry us along at eighty miles an hour rather than risk a hassle with highway patrol officers, lost time in court, and fines. We pay our taxes rather than risk the confiscation of our property and bank accounts.
A majority can impose a lot of burdens on the minority by threatening the force of the law without actually having to inflict violence, provided the burdens are bearable. The minority will endure the unwanted burden, but only for so long as it is easier to bear the burden than it would be to risk the violence of the law. However, when the majority demands that a minority bear too heavy a burden, people begin to resist and the violence steadily increases as more and more people choose to break the law. The more laws a government makes that intrude in the personal lives of individuals, the greater the chance that some people will choose to break the law.
The experience of prohibition provides an excellent example of how a law that is imposed with the best of intentions can lead to a spiral of increasing violence within a society. Make the issue something more important than taking a drink of whiskey and the violence explodes.
There are situations in which a majority has no choice but to force a minority to conform to the majority vote. In an imperfect world, every society has a criminal population that the government must either kill, imprison, or frighten into submission. However, we best serve domestic tranquillity by keeping the disgruntled population that can only be suppressed by violence as small as possible by tolerating undesirable, but non violent behavior.
When the international intellectual community chose majority democratic government as the means to build a more rational, peaceful and prosperous society, they committed a critical error by failing to understand that no matter how noble the political goal, government always produces a spiral of violence when democratic leaders must marshal force against a sizable minority who refuse to comply with the will of the majority.
The most obvious and bloody failure of the liberal intellectual ideal has been the proposal that a democratic government could achieve economic equality by marshaling force to redistribute wealth. Liberal scholars and philosophers have never admitted that the inherent violence that developed in every socialist experiment was the inevitable result of imposing socialist principles by the application of government force. In every country where a government imposed socialism, there were significant minorities whom the state had to force into compliance.
Stalin didn't kill so many million Russians because of some evil inherent in his nature but because he had to eliminate those who refused to voluntarily turn over property and wealth to the state. Thus, the intellectuals who designed and supported the communist ideology are as responsible for the death of those millions as Stalin because they failed to understand that such violence would be the inevitable result of the political system they endorsed. As Jean- Francois Revel points out in his book,The Flight from Truth: The Reign of Deceit in the Age of Information, the tragedy is that liberal intellectuals continue to refuse to recognize their responsibility for the slaughter their idealistic schemes have produced in the Twentieth Century.
Forcing people to do the morally correct thing when they don't find that in their own best interests doesn't always produce a violent reaction. Minorities can also frustrate the will of a majority by corrupting the democratic political process. The rich donate massive sums to politicians who then ignore the will of the majority once they are inside the committee rooms of Congress. Business enterprises surreptitiously take over regulatory agencies established to control those very enterprises. Single issue political groups provide swing votes that force politicians to pay attention to their demands in order to win reelection. If all else fails, those with wealth bribe politicians and enforcement officers, if not with direct payments, then with fancy schemes such as opportunities to purchase initial stock offerings or guided advice for turning a quick profit on volatile commodity markets.
Thus, in the real world, government never serves the common good, but only serves the selfish desires of those who most cleverly manipulate government for their own benefit.
While liberal intellectuals express horror at how government is continually corrupted, they refuse to understand that such corruption will always be the inevitable result when they use government to force an economically endowed minority to obey laws and regulations that work against that minority's own best interest. Indeed the only available alternatives to violence such a minority has are either corruption of the government, or corruption of the political process. Once we accept the principle that a majority has the moral right to make important decisions against the interest of a minority, we lose all claim to the moral high ground when we lose the majority of the voters. Liberal intellectuals express surprise and horror at the effort of the religious right to take over the American public school system. How did they expect the religious minority would react when the government forced their children to go to schools to be taught things parents considered to be immoral and anti-religious while forcing the parents to pay for the pain through their taxes?
Such situations in which a narrow majority imposes a set of laws on a minority, then watches as the minority grows to where it can reverse the law can result in the so-called one vote-one time style of democracy. A popular political leader implements a social program requiring major sacrifices by some citizens. Those unhappy citizens organize and grow in number to a size where those in power fear that the next election will toss them out of office and undo the progressive legislation they put into effect. Rather than allowing such a moral disaster to occur, the leader calls off the next election and rules forevermore by fiat.
Every tyrant of the Twentieth Century, including Adolf Hitler, whether taking power through an election or through revolution, started off by promising to give the citizens equality, justice, prosperity, education, opportunity, and democracy. When the minority who objected to the price they were forced to pay grew to a size where they might win an election, the political leader used guns to make sure it didn't happen.
We are debating these days a lot of social issues that are too important to too many people to be decided by a majority vote. The differences that divide us over such issues as freedom of speech, property rights, health care and who pays for it, drug prohibition laws, Second Amendment rights, educational curriculum, personal association rights, and a whole host of family issues are too important to many of us to let the majority rule us. With each of these issues, there are large minorities who will not accept majority rule and who will ignore the laws the majority passes, corrupt the system to weaken the enforcement of those laws, actively engage in violence in an effort to frustrate government attempts at enforcement, and organize politically in an attempt to reverse previous majority opinions.
If we continue to use government force authorized by narrow minorities to attempt to achieve social goals, we will continue to feed the spiral of violence that has created so much human misery through the Twentieth Century.
So what can those who want to use logic and reason to build a better world do, if they can't use the power and violence of the state?
All of the major human problems we face can and do respond to voluntary action and private efforts. Just about any social goal that government can strife to achieve by marshaling force, individuals can achieve just as well, and more often, much better and more effectively through voluntary, cooperative effort. So why haven't we been trying to built a better world that way, rather than relying on government violence to do it for us?
The plain fact is that liberal intellectuals are lazy and selfish when it comes to expending their own fortune and energy to build a more humane society. Having decided they know what is best for humanity, they prefer to turn the task over to bureaucrats and cops while they get on with their own attempts to live the good life. They assume that it will be easier to let the government force people to do the right thing than it is to cajole, educate, explain, and bargain with people. If one can get government to marshal force, then why bother using reason and logic which often doesn't work any way?
We don't make society better when we shoot down people who won't send their children to a public school, who won't pay taxes to finance welfare programs that create a permanent under class producing generations of welfare dependents, who smoke natural herbs like marijuana, or who chose to have sex with a loving partner a few months short of the legally determined age of consent.
Of course, most people who breaks such laws aren't shot down in the street. Most offenders aren't even caught. But those who are caught, go to jail and they sometimes lose their property and even their children. If they dare to resist and try to flee or fight back, then they are shot down.
In the Twentieth Century, governments claiming to be dedicated to achieving humanist goals have shot down millions of people because they wouldn't pay their taxes, send their kids to government schools, give up their homes, businesses, and family farms to the common good, or because they refused to do work the government insisted they do, worshipped as they chose, or refused to give up their right to self defense. As long as we insist on marshaling the force of government to achieve humanistic social goals we insure that the same tragedy will keep happening over and over again.
If socialism is indeed a superior method for producing and distributing wealth, why must we marshal government force to it work? Why aren't the intellectuals who claim that socialism is a superior economic system already living in a voluntary socialist community in which the members share all they produce on the socialist principle of "to each according to need, from each according to ability"?
There have been examples of such experiments in the past such as the Oneida community, the Shakers, the Mormon's United Order in Utah, and more modern attempts at communal living by the counter-cultural groups of the Sixties. None of those attempts succeeded for very long nor ever grew very large, but they didn't use violent repression to keep them going.
If socialism can't work as a voluntary association in competition with other free enterprises, then it can't work at all. Any kind of human cooperative good which can not be achieved in a voluntary association, will not be achieved by marshaling the force of government.
In the Twentieth Century, the nations of the world elected leaders or followed revolutionaries who promised that once they governed, they would build a great society based on the ideals of equality, peaceful cooperation, and a rational, scientific search for the common good. What we got was a cycle of violence, death, and destruction.
If we want the Twenty-first Century to be better for humanity than the Twentieth Century, we must give up the idea we can marshal government force to build a brave new world and recognize that we should only use government when we must kill or forcibly immobilize someone to protect ourselves or in order to achieve some goal so important that it is worth killing people to achieve. With that exception, we must chose a political methodology in which we seek a voluntary consensus through debate, free speech, scientific logic, and a willingness to tolerate those who choose not to participate in our endeavor to build a more humane existence. If we insist on depending on government to achieve a better world, we will guarantee that the Twenty-first Century will be every bit as bloody as the Twentieth Century was. It will be our fault that it is.
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Copyright 1996--Mack Tanner. This original work is protected by copyright law. The work can not be copied and distributed in any format without the specific consent of the author.