The key principle of liberalism is peace. Some would say peaceful cooperation is the key. But in a free society one is also free peacefully not to cooperate.
Many would say the core principle of liberalism is freedom, and since the word liberalism is derived from the Latin liber, which means free, that is a reasonable conclusion. But underneath this is the principle of peace. Or perhaps it is better to say nonviolence.
If I wish to gain a value I can do it peacefully or violently. Liberalism eschews the use of violence in gaining values. Only peaceful methods are permissible.
The violent methods are often obvious. We can simply knock someone over the head and take what we want. If the value we seek is not material, but some other form of satisfaction that depends on others acting in ways we prefer, we can pull out a whip or a rifle and force them to do as we wish.
Throughout history many have sought to gain values by such means. And for a few it worked, or worked well for a time. It does not work when such violence is practiced wholesale, nor does it work well for the vast majority of people.
Violence fails over time because it is inherently destructive. It produces nothing. At best it merely rearranges the existing pool of goods to satisfy those who hold the whip. Worse yet, violence destroys existing wealth.
Wealth, broadly construed to include nonmaterial values, tends to be consumed and destroyed when violence is exercised. Imagine the theft of a television. The criminal may break down a door of a home or smash a window. He may terrorize the owner, before successfully walking off with the television.
He has redistributed the existing pool of goods more to his favor. But in the process he has also destroyed. The owner is not only out a television but a window or door as well. And even if the criminal has managed to steal the television without destroying a material aspect of life, he has destroyed something valuable to human beings: their peace of mind, their sense of security, their ability to feel at home in the place where they live.
While it may redistribute some material wealth, violence usually does so at the expense of other material wealth and almost always at the expense of immaterial wealth.
The more violent a society is the poorer it tends to be. That’s because violence or the threat of it discourages the production of wealth. When productive people realize that the fruit of their efforts is for naught, they tend to make less, or no, effort. The man who tills the field diligently only to have harvest after harvest confiscated for the use of others ceases to till. In this sense random violence is far less harmful than systematic violence.
And that brings us to the state. Unconstrained government engages in the threat of violence and does so systematically. This is an efficient way to keep people frightened enough to comply “voluntarily” with the state’s requirements. It conserves the resources of those making the threats, while effectively confiscating wealth.
But such systematic and pervasive threats have negative consequences as well. Taxation is an obvious example. It rests on the threat of force, but it is not the violence of the petty criminal who says: “Your money or your life.” His violence is random and often fleeting. He may confiscate what money his victim is carrying. He may make his victim fearful and angry, but the victim won’t have to endure the experience again the next day, the day after, and for as long as he can anticipate.
I have been mugged and I have been taxed. The mugger took far less, showed up only once, and didn’t try to persuade me he was doing it for my own good.
The tax man is entirely different. His threat of violence is imposed on everyone. Some people do not regard this as violence, but all they need do to see their error is watch what happens if someone refuses to comply. It is well documented that taxation leads to the results mentioned above. It redistributes existing wealth, making some people worse off; consumes wealth, making the entire society poorer; and discourages the production of future wealth.
A great liberal author, Felix Morley, wrote, “The state, in short, subjects people, whereas society associates them voluntarily. . . . State and society . . . are naturally and continuously in opposition.”
As Morley pointed out, the moralist who wants vice—behavior which, though perhaps morally objectionable, does not violate the rights of others—prevented violently may argue that such violence “may be utilized to forward morality, and to oppose immorality.” But “since the State has no conscience, and is primarily a mechanism of material power, the human welfare side of State activity should blind no thoughtful person to its underlying menace. And the potential of the State for ‘The Abolition of Man’—to use the telling phrase employed by C.S. Lewis—is the greater because Man himself has created and directs this juggernaut that rolls over him.”
Morley argued that the advocates of coercive methods “exaggerate the potential of the state for good [and] underestimate its capacity for evil.” When one understands that government produces nothing, but merely rearranges existing wealth while consuming vast amounts of it in the process, you understand that such power is almost always destructive. Morley, like Albert Jay Nock before him, noted an increase in state power comes at the expense of society. This is why attempts to promote civil society through the violence of law, as in the suppression of vice, does not enhance civil society but ultimately undermines it.
“The State, in the last analysis, has absolutely nothing to offer that it has not already expropriated from its subjects,” Morley said. “So, in worship of the State, men sacrifice their souls to a false god that can give them in return only what has already been placed by the worshippers themselves on this sacrilegious altar.”
Health of the State
What is true domestically is also true internationally. War is the ultimate expression of force. The World War I critic Randolph Bourne said, “War is the health of the state.” That is because government power expands during war. In 1949, with World War II fresh in mind, Morley reminded his readers that “the strength by a victorious State through war is in large part taken not from the enemy but from its own people. All the private elements in Society—the family, the church, the press, the school, the corporation, the union, and other co-operatives—are subject to special discipline by the State in wartime. . . . And it is scarcely necessary to emphasize that once an emergency control has been established by the State, all sorts of arguments for making it permanent are forthcoming.”
It is well known that in collectives individuals can lose moral restraint. A lynch mob will kill, although as an individual each member would be horrified at the thought. Likewise, state power is a collective power in which the individuals who participate in decision-making lose their normal sense of responsibility for their actions. In fact the law often explicitly denies individual culpability in those who wield power.
None of this implies pacifism. To reject violence as a means of gaining values does not require the renunciation of self-defense to protect one’s values.
In the end it matters not the intentions behind the accumulation of power, for good intentions do not determine results. The nature of state power is such that whether it is expanded in the name of welfare, state security, or morality, the results ultimately are the same. Social power is diminished, and the restraints of common morality are reduced.