All Commentary
Saturday, December 1, 1973

Rx for Political Peace: A Quiet Internal Revolution


Mr. Foley, a partner in Souther, Spaulding, Kinsey, Williamson & Schwabe, practices law in Portland, Oregon.

The myth that the United States enjoys a consensus sheltering its public men from violence during the electoral process shattered a decade ago in Dallas, Texas, when President John F. Kennedy fell under a hail of gunfire. Prior to that onslaught, the nation smugly prided itself on a distinction from violent neighbors where political disputes find settlement in firepower and plastic explosives. Yet in late November, 1963, a saddened and shocked nation gnashed its collective teeth and searched its collective souls for an explanation.

The succeeding years witnessed no slackening of excesses. A litany serves only to emphasize the dark and the macabre. Such diverse public personages as Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Rev. Martin Luther King, and Governor George C. Wallace have crumpled at the hands of equally diverse assailants who, for varying shadowy motivations, have determined that the nation (or their concept thereof) will best survive without their particular target. Add to this spectacle a host of attempts upon the lives of less well-known officials and a truly grievous problem confronts the perceptive observer and disturbs those who advocate the peaceful life.

The fable of unprecedented freedom from violence in the domestic politics of the United States suffers the malaise of disharmony with empirical fact. For starters, Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley died violently in office, and numerous other chief executives, including both Presidents Roosevelt, provided targets for assassins. Murder of lesser officials pocks our history. While the first one hundred seventy-five years of our Republic did not completely resemble the reign of Lucretia Borgia, neither did it match the folktale of an extended peace. Perhaps the nation avoided the number of confrontations, kidnappings, and murders which permeated elections in Latin American nations, but its smugness ignored the existence of a very real problem.

A Plethora of Theories

Analysts have advanced various theories concerning the causes of attempts upon the lives of political men and potential cures for this miasma.

One school of thought explains we live in a violent age. Yet in truth, man has never been fully insulated from coercion practiced by his predatory neighbors. Although it may be destructive of our dreams, no one has witnessed Utopia.

Another school of thought, having recently discovered that not all men produce equally, attributes political violence to unrest bred by poverty.

This answer ignores the fact that the “poverty classes” constitute the real beneficiaries of the voluntary exchange market system. What passes for poverty in present-day America only slightly resembles the short, cluttered and brutish life in other nations and in other times. By this measure, if poverty breeds unrest and political violence, the present-day United States should bear witness to a peaceable life. Indeed, poverty seems notably absent from the lives of the best-known political assassins of recent vintage.

A third voice suggests that easy access to firearms results in harm to political men, and advocates implementation of strict “gun control” laws. These theorists overlook the fact that inanimate objects are never controlled — gun control really means people control.

Firearm control resides a short step away from other, more disturbing, types of controls normally associated with a totalitarian society. Furthermore, advocates of gun control cannot assure us that political bloodshed will cease if their views receive implementation. While the best-known political crimes of recent date have involved the use of firearms, reason does not restrict the terrorist to this means. Indeed, the use of explosives might not only accomplish the identical task but also slay numerous other persons who fortuitously happen to be in the vicinity. More pertinently, the criminally inclined seem unlikely to register their weapons, or to comply with other prophylactic norms; indeed, we can mainly count on them to secure guns illicitly when no one else discovers a source.

A fourth observer suggests stricter application of the criminal laws and, with varying degrees of reason and irrationality, the cry for “law and order”  peals across the land. Stripped of excess verbiage, purveyors of this concept (which often amounts to a thinly veiled attack on the entire court system), suggest harsh penalties for those convicted of crime, more restrictive appellate procedures, and minimal emphasis upon the rights of an accused as embodied in the Federal Bill of Rights. Yet destruction of the rights of the criminally accused may result in final analysis in destruction of the liberties belonging to all of us.

A fifth suggestion advocates increased protection for political figures in their public appearances. History demonstrates that even a monumental undertaking, such as protection for the President of the United States, cannot guarantee success. How much greater the cost in energy and resources and how much greater the likelihood of failure if the community attempts to protect each public figure from all conceivable man-inflicted harm! If society cannot afford to safeguard each politician fully, how shall we choose which ones will be protected and which ones will be left to the mercies of attack?

Furthermore, this assertion suffers from a more fundamental malaise: ultimate protection for the political man further removes and insulates him from society at a time when too great a wall exists between electorate and representative. First, time and again, particularly at the local level, effective political campaigning demands maximum personal confrontation. More and more office seekers are ringing doorbells and haunting supermarkets, bringing their case to the constituency. Few are likely to forego what they believe to be a potent electoral tool for the sake of protection. Second, individuals in society feel a consuming and increasing sense of alienation from the political processes, a frustration and contempt for government and its apparatus. Greater insulation can only heighten this discontent.

Prescription for Political Peace: A Silent Internal Revolution

An antidote exists for the virulent strain of political slaughter rampant this past decade: individual freedom and a personal recommitment on the part of each of us to a belief in the sanctity of life. Each of the theories encountered heretofore offers assistance in this endeavor, yet each suffers from inherent limitations. I propose that violence will diminish if we limit political force to the administration of common justice, the prevention of external aggression, and the sanctioning of internal uses of force and fraud, and if each of us, citizen and politician alike, will rededicate his life to this libertarian principle.

Man, a questing, acting, purposive being, is capable of voluntary association to improve his lot and that of his neighbors. He is likewise capable of banding together with his fellows to inhibit the voluntary action of other individuals. He is finite and mortal, capable of outward improvement but incapable of perfection because of his finiteness. He is set apart from other creatures by his ability to choose: to observe, measure, test, evaluate, and select from alternatives. Because of his finity and imperfection, man’s nature possesses a dark side, a predilection to violence, a tendency which must be externally or internally stifled ere society degenerate into civil chaos.

The anarchist and the libertarian possess common grounds, but they split asunder regarding the propensity of man to violence. For example, one thoughtful editorial recently asserted:

Since any individual is utterly incapable of preventing another person from killing him, if the other person is really determined and is willing to bide his time, and since governments have proved themselves incapable of providing such protection, the only real protection we know of exists in the principle of non-provocation: that is, in trying to so live one’s life that no one will want to harm us.

And that, may we further suggest, means relying on the voluntary market place, rather than government force.

But, it also means more. It means that, through a process of re-education, the peoples of the world must be shown that the people of a country and their government are not the same thing. So long as the faulty idea is generally held that peaceful people on the one hand, and their squabbling, bickering bureaucrats on the other, are one and the same entity, atrocities against peaceful, unoffending people, such as happened at Munich, will occur again and again.

If we want peace, if we want security from aggression, to the greatest degree possible in an imperfect world, we must break the mental chain that binds us to bickering governments and to the consequences of THEIR actions. Since that chain exists in the mind, it is in the mind where it will have to be broken; with ideas, never with force.

Let us, individual to individual, proclaim to the world that “Freedom is self control. No more. No less.” No Arab grasping this truth could have acted as did the terrorists at Munich.¹

The concept of nonprovocation2 utterly fails in the presence of a terrorist or a bully — ask anyone who has tried to reason with such people — for man’s shadowy nature may overcome.

The anarchist tenet crumbles under the philosophical hammer of Dr. Ludwig von Mises in “A Perfect System of Government” who succinctly puts the case:

Government as such is not only not an evil, but the most necessary and beneficial institution, as without it no lasting social cooperation and no civilization could be developed and preserved. It is a means to cope with an inherent imperfection of many, perhaps of the majority of all people. If all men were able to realize that the alternative to peaceful social cooperation is the renunciation of all that distinguishes Homo sapiens from the beasts of prey, and if all had the moral strength always to act accordingly, there would not be any need for the establishment of a social apparatus of coercion and oppression. Not the state is an evil, but the shortcomings of the human mind and character that imperatively require the operation of a police power. Government and state can never be perfect because they owe their raison d’etre to the imperfection of man and can attain their end, the elimination of man’s innate impulse to violence, only by the recourse to violence, the very thing they are called upon to prevent.³

On the other hand, the statist who looks to the government as the source of all problem-solving wisdom likewise misapprehends man’s true nature. Like the anarchist, he views man as perfectible, as able to create Utopia or Heaven on Earth, if only the mass will emulate the social engineer. Yet the statist exhibits a certain ambivalence for he treats the average individual as unable to know his own mind — a consumer cannot rationally choose which brand of soup or soap to buy — yet when that same average individual comes to the polling place, he is suddenly qualified to choose the social architect who will lead him from the wilderness. Of course, the statist never concedes that the leader derives from the mass and partakes of the identical finity and fallibility with his peers.

Because finite man possesses a violent nature, his appetite for violence must be curbed by the state. To this extent the answer of those who favor strict criminal law enforcement as a response to political violence appears meritorious, just as are the paeans of the apologists of the “violent age” argument, which recognize that a stated number of frustrated individuals will give vent to their distrust by violent action. Yet the very real frustration with political life and the beings which inhabit that world deserves consideration, for in that frustration and discontent may repose a partial reason for cruel attacks on political men. The solution: neutralize that frustration by restricting political action to its proper sphere: prevention and punishment of force and fraud, provision for the common defense and establishment of a system of justice whereby disputes may be fairly adjudicated. Leave the management of the rest of men’s lives to each individual, giving free reign to creative powers in any direction chosen by free people seeking their own destiny. The twofold result: (1) an outpouring of creative energy, unpredictable in direction but in final analysis bound to produce the goods and services most desired by mankind, and (2) a release of tension and an inhibiting of the darker side of man as each person recognizes that he is no longer a mere pawn in the hands of superior forces lacking rights and control over his life, but rather possesses the ultimate obligation responsibly to live his own life and to seek his own ends. Concomitant with the latter result: a recognition that force or the destructive use of energy will not effectively gain desired ends and perception that free men can best secure their goals by willing exchange and peaceful human actions.

Wanted: A Reverence for Life

Respect for human life under-girds the freedom ideal. The libertarian concept of freedom derives from the belief that each individual has the right to self-determine his existence, to the extent permitted by his finite nature, absent any man-concocted restraints,’ save those necessary to assure an equal right to every other person. Each man forms an end in himself, not an object to be used or engineered by other beings possessing a monopoly of force. It is the acme of arrogance to suggest that A is better suited by nature, talent, or motivation to live B’s life for him in even the most minute particulars. From this fundamental right we can discern the transcendent rights of liberty and property: a man cannot chart his life’s course if he is not free to choose among the widest range of alternatives, and if he is not free to keep, donate, exchange or destroy the value (property) which he has created or acquired from others in willing exchange.

Contemporary society not only witnesses a gradual erosion of this reverence for life but also participates in that destruction. Elected representatives seriously considered legislation permitting what is euphemistically termed euthanasia or “mercy killing.”5 The right to life certainly encompasses the right of the individual to cling to, or to terminate, his own earthly existence; it cannot logically include the right to destroy another human being.6

Again, the judiciary has exhibited a singular ambivalence toward human life in recent years. How can one square the right to abort a human life7 with the declaration that the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in contravention of the eighth and fourteenth amendments? 8

Political men must thus bear partial responsibility for their own condition. True, rational beings cannot justifiably destroy the life of a political figure. Nevertheless, when the victim participates in a system which denigrates human life, chains men to unwise policies, and panders to their base desires, he cannot escape the natural consequences of his acts, consequences which include the likelihood that some of his victims —men robbed of their liberty and essential humanity — will react violently toward his person. Thus a presidential candidate who supports the continuance of a system of conscription which recruits men to die in battle, a congressman who votes for looting the populace by subsidizing one group at the expense of another, or a senator who campaigns on divisive emotions in his community to secure election should not exhibit surprise when an assailant from the mass haunts them.

That Internal Revolution

A revolution need not be coercive or violent; the most effective ones take place in the hearts and minds of mankind, slowly, almost tediously, but with certainty.

Each of us, statesman and citizen alike, must partake in this quiet personal rededication to the principle of the sanctity of life and the postulate of freedom. Each must accept the fact that he bears full responsibility for the moral consequences of his choices. The statesman must respect the citizen’s need for full responsibility for his life; the citizen must respect the statesman, who comes from the populace, as entitled to equivalent treatment.

How to effect this revolution from within forms a salient inquiry.9 Generally, man may induce action by other men through two means: force and persuasion. The free man must discard force as a respectable alternative inasmuch as it denies the essence of the freedom philosophy. “I cannot force free choice upon you, for your liberty lies in choosing. It is a contradiction in terms to “force people to be free.”  Likewise, I cannot deny you the opportunity to assassinate a political figure by prior restraint consonant with a respect for individual liberty. I can only persuade you not to perform such a deed.

If persuasion provides the key, how can anyone of us effectively dissuade our fellow men from misdeeds? One can seldom substantially persuade another without two-way communication; the listener must desire to hear and must want to take action. Otherwise, according to the homily, “good advice falls on deaf ears.”  Preaching, ranting, raving, offer small effect. The answer — light a candle in yourself. Act as a free man, respectful of human life and dignity in a world of illiberal darkness. Few of us truly conduct ourselves in harmony with these principles. We may utter the appropriate cliché and think the proper thoughts, but our actions belie our words and manifest a disrespect for the essence of life in others.11 If your actions are meritorious, they will be emulated by others who see your light.

A slow and laborious process? To be sure, but it harmonizes with the principle underlying action —respect for the individual and his capacity to choose. Instead of concentrating on improvement of others, each of us must engage in that silent little revolution within, dedicating his life to improvement of self and understanding of man’s amazing gift of free action and its concomitant responsibility. To the extent that each person in society achieves the ends sought in his personal revolution, limited only by his finiteness, political men will achieve personal safety.

 

—FOOTNOTES—

1 Grove, Cecil, “Let Us Break the Chain,”  Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph (September 14, 1972).

2 See also, regarding non-provocation and the market response to violence, LeFevre, Robert, “Deducing to Morality,”  Ramparts College Newsletter (Santa Ana, California, December, 1972) stating the anarcho-capitalist view, see further, his provocative article “Justice on Trial,”  Reason (Vol. 3, No. 11) February 1972, page 18.

³ Mises, Ludwig von, “A Perfect System of Government,”  The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science (Princeton, New Jersey: Van Nostrand, 1962) pages 94-101; reprinted in 22 The Freeman No. 12 (Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, December 1972) 747-752, at pp. 749-750.

4 See Read, Leonard E., “Justice Versus Social Justice,”  Who’s Listening? (The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, 1973) 93 et seq. from whom I have borrowed this phrase.

5 The Oregon Legislative Assembly debated this measure: See (Oregon) Senate Bill 179 (1973) enacting a “Voluntary Euthanasia Act.”

6 Destroyers of life often overlook the axiom that each choice made by man in his lifetime is a moral choice, and that the actor must bear full responsibility for the consequences of his choices. He cannot improve his lot by the alibi that he acted under “legal sanction”  or as part of a claque — moral principles break but do not bend, and evil is not less evil when performed by an association. See Harper, F. A. “Morals and Liberty,”  21 The Freeman No.7 (Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, July 1971) 426, 430.

7 See Roe v. Wade, U.S.,93 S.Ct. 705, 35L.Ed.2d 147 (1973).

8 Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S.238, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 33L.Ed.2d 346 (1972).

9 A comprehensive analysis of the methodology of freedom reaches far beyond the scope of this essay which, by its nature, must be restricted to the most conclusory of statements. For those interested in the most exciting in-depth analysis of liberty’s mode of growth, I respectfully suggest the writings of Leonard E. Read, e.g., Read, Leonard E., Talking to Myself (Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on-Hudson, New York 1970) 9 et seq. to See Read, Leonard E., Let Freedom Reign (The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on-Hudson, New York 1960) 78-86. See also Note 6 op cit.

11 I discard my principles and demonstrate my disrespect for the right to life of my fellow man on every occasion when I seek to do good for him, or for someone else, with the property of my neighbor (without his consent), no matter how gracious or pure my motives. Likewise, I disparage the right to life of my colleague when I attempt to coercively order his life for his own good. These simple little predations, while possibly less odious than the felonious taking of life, in fact offer small copies of the same germ which infects the thinking of the political assassin. Remember Emerson’s dictum: The end pre-exists in the means. It applies here, as elsewhere. See Read, Leonard E., Let Freedom Reign, Note 10, op cit, 78-86; Harper, Note 6, op cit.

 

***

The Value of Freedom

Throughout history orators and poets have extolled liberty, but no one has told us why liberty is so important. Our attitude towards such matters should depend on whether we consider civilization as fixed or as advancing…. In an advancing society, any restriction on liberty reduces the number of things tried and so reduces the rate of progress. In such a society freedom of action is granted to the individual, not because it gives him greater satisfaction but because if allowed to go his own way, he will on the average serve the rest of us better than under any orders we know how to give.

H. A. PHILLIPS, “On the Nature of Progress”  


  • Ridgway K. Foley Jr. is a litigation lawyer who is passionate about individual and economic freedom, and has authored numerous scholarly articles on related subjects.