Brutes in Suits

Coercion Doesn't Gain Legitimacy When Carried Out by Politicians

Statists on the left habitually congratulate themselves on their humanity. They croon on endlessly about peace, harmony, cooperation, community, mutual understanding, tolerance, and diversity. They profess to abhor violence and cruelty. They apparently regard candlelight vigils—featuring dozens of people swaying in unison and singing about love—as the most transcendent form of self-entertainment.

Statists on the right don’t get teary-eyed at the mention of “peace” or “diversity,” and most are as likely to attend a candlelight vigil as Bill Bennett is to model fashions by Dennis Rodman. But statists on the right nevertheless profess a high regard for peace and a hatred of violence.

But while their particular goals may differ, all statists are hypocrites. Their distinguishing mark (whether they realize it or not) is that they all advocate government-as-thuggery. Statists, whether on the left or on the right, advocate that government unleash its coercive powers in various and sundry ways, most of which would be criminal if done by private people.

The thugs in question happen to dress well, are well-coifed, and are (usually) articulate. But what makes someone a thug is not how he looks or what he proclaims to be his ultimate motive, but, rather, what he does. And most of what politicians now do is sophisticated thuggery. They’re brutes in suits who sell to the highest bidders their willingness to coerce innocent people.

Here’s an imperfect, but useful, way to test whether or not some government activity is thuggery. Ask: Is the activity one that ordinary people could ethically do on their own, either individually or in a group, in the absence of government? If the answer is yes, the government activity isn’t thuggery. If the answer is no, the government activity is thuggery.

Consider, for example, a police officer directing traffic. This activity is legitimate; it isn’t thuggery. It’s legitimate because there is nothing inherently unethical about a private citizen directing traffic on a busy street. The same is true for government efforts to nab murderers, rapists, thieves, and arsonists. Depending on your view of government, you might or might not trust government to perform these tasks effectively. You might also believe that even these tasks are best left to the private sector, or, instead, you might believe that it’s prudent to assign these tasks to government exclusively. Either way, none of these tasks would be considered criminal or illegitimate if carried out by private persons in the absence of government. (Even legitimate activities arguably become illegitimate if they are funded through coercive means, such as taxation by government. No private citizen can ethically confiscate resources from others even if these resources will be used in ways that nearly everyone approves. Recognizing that I am skipping blithely over a fundamentally important issue, I ignore here the problems created by taxation.)

Regrettably, the overwhelming bulk of what government actually does today–even apart from using taxation to fund its efforts–would be (correctly) considered criminal if private persons did these things.

Examples are legion. Here’s one: minimum-wage legislation. Suppose your neighbor offers to hire at $3.00 per hour someone to work in his supermarket. Would it be moral for you to stick a gun to your neighbor’s head and order him not to hire anyone for less than $5.15 per hour? Of course not. Would it be moral for you to round up several of your friends into a mob and threaten to lynch your neighbor if he insists on hiring workers for less than $5.15 per hour? Of course not.

So what makes it legitimate for government to threaten people with violence if they insist on hiring workers at less than the government-stipulated minimum wage? Nothing. Nothing at all.

Consider other activities currently pursued by government. Would it be morally acceptable for the president of Bethlehem Steel to stand on the wharves in Seattle and threaten to shoot anyone who dares to unload steel made in Asia? Obviously not. It follows that import restrictions are immoral; only thugs promote and implement them.

Would it be morally acceptable for you to burgle your wealthy neighbors’ home and then give the funds to a poor family living across the tracks? Obviously not. It follows that government’s efforts to redistribute wealth are illegitimate.

Would it be morally acceptable for you to imprison your neighbor and confiscate her property if she refuses to install a wheelchair ramp at her place of business?

Would it be morally acceptable for you to storm into your neighbors’ house and tote them off to a jail in your garage if you find that in the privacy of their own home your neighbors smoke marijuana or Cuban cigars?

Would it be morally acceptable for you to inflict violence on Americans who refuse to obey your command that they not hire Mexican or Filipino workers?

None of these activities enjoys any legitimacy when pursued privately. Indeed, they are all considered criminal.

So why should government be allowed to do these things?

Most statists respond by intoning that democratic governments carry out the will of the people. If it’s the will of the people that, say, no worker be paid less than $5.15 per hour, then the few selfish reprobates who would violate the collective will should be prevented from doing so.

Numerous problems afflict this response, not least of which is the fact that democratic government at best carries out only the will of the majority. One of the most pernicious myths that today plague the popular political mind is that the appetite of some mysterious phantom called “the will of the people” is justly satisfied if as few as 50% of voters plus one acquiesce in schemes concocted by a cabal of politicians who are beholden to specialinterest groups.

Sadly, the very logic of modern politics is that politicians and bureaucrats use the coercive powers of the state to transfer wealth from politically unorganized groups (for example, sugar consumers) to politically powerful groups (for example, sugar producers). But whether the state is coercing the minority to bow to the will of the majority, or coercing the majority to bow to the will of politically potent interest groups, such coercion is wrong—and it gains not a smidgen of legitimacy when carried out by telegenic talking heads who work in marble-domed buildings and are dressed by Armani.

Beware of brutes in suits.

Donald J. Boudreaux