Through Thick and Thin: Ahoy!
Column by Mark Davis.
Exclusive to STR
Mini-statists love to use lifeboat analogies in an effort to reveal a weakness in the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) and/or in respect for property rights (self-ownership). But what is revealed? These lifeboat situations are, of course, not even close to being universal experiences. These analogies are used by statists to make the case that state monopoly-imposed law enforcement is required to keep people from killing and robbing each other, yet they show how obviously impotent state law is in these situations. Finally, assuming that acts of violence against others are justified by survival instincts reveals more about the person assuming this premise than it does about organizing society.
The gist of a lifeboat situation is to show that men sometimes must compete, indeed battle, with others for scarce resources in order to survive and thus necessity is used to justify acts of violence which violate the NAP and property rights. The libertarian philosophy based on property rights first looks to who owns the boat for decisions pertaining to its use; if the boat is not owned (abandoned), then homesteading or the idea of first-come-first-served is used to establish ownership. The purpose of these rhetorical scenarios (I can’t call them arguments) is to supposedly render considerations of property rights and the NAP moot, but don’t they also then undermine all other potential codes of social justice in the process, voluntary or not? If you promote the principle that men may use violence to take what they themselves determine is “needed,” then doesn’t that destroy the entire ideal of civilized behavior, including obedience to authority?
I find it amusing that people suggest examples of extreme desperation as a context for “real life,” yet obviously don’t examine the probability of such scenarios; just consider how many times how many people are stuck in a sinking life boat or similar situation? People are mostly good, by a long shot, yet the elite are allowed by a majority of society to institutionalize violence in order to contain a small percentage of the population. Seeking enslavement to avoid disaster is sure setting the bar pretty low for potential social organizations. The potential for coming to harm in life is certainly significant, be it from sinking lifeboats, starvation, hurricanes, car accidents, fires, sharks or a million other things. Risks are part of life, the rest is how we deal with and react to what comes at us.
What sets humans above other animals is our intellectual ability to overcome basic physical urges, fears and desires in the heat of the moment as well as day to day. Surrendering to these natural exhortations reveals one of the primary character weaknesses in supporters of the state: cowardice. This is how it becomes “okay” to torture, invade, occupy, maim, steal, rob and kill; especially when clothed in official garments bearing the seal of majority approval. The degree of elite control over the institutions brokering these deals using peasants/workers/soldiers as chips in order to influence the use of that seal, typically by gaining majority approval, is significant, but not decisive. This is because aggressive violence is universally recognized as just plain wrong, therefore popular support for violent institutions is unsustainable in the long run.
Just because most people seek peace and cooperation, this does not mean civilized people are docile victims waiting to be exploited by some mean and nasty boogeyman de jure. The desire to protect family, self and property is universal; this includes both those people who prefer to peacefully cooperate and those who prefer to institutionalize violence as the organizing principle for society. Chaining society to a central authority because the elite are able to successfully cultivate an overdramatic fear of the psychotic few among the many is not rational.
After disasters, most people in most neighborhoods don’t go around looting their neighbors. I’ve been through some hard blowing, window breaking, tree clearing, power outing hurricanes, and after every single one had passed (some before) my neighbors all came out and we checked on each other. Then we worked together to get tree limbs cleared, emergency repairs made and extension cords run from neighboring generators to defrosting refrigerators full of food. The human capacity for goodwill when faced with emergency situations is enormous and spontaneous. So when someone in a desert needs a drink of water or someone fleeing a sinking ship needs a seat on a lifeboat or perhaps someone needs food to keep from starving, in real life most people will typically immediately respond with kindness, if not enthusiastic help. Promoting borderline fears using dubious hypothetical prognostications of the future in order to impose a monopoly authority on the use of force is the essence of the statist argument. Call them on it.
People can take turns hanging onto the side of a boat or hold on to a rope if it is sinking under too much weight, they don’t have to resort to violence. Is that really so hard to figure out? There is no compelling rationale that precludes human cooperation under seemingly overwhelming odds facing mortal danger. Survival and fellowship are both instinctual desires that influence people to want to work together, not kill each other. And assuming someone did resort to violence, what good are words written in faraway law books? Does the threat of punishment by law enforcement even get considered by people lost on the ocean or in the middle of a desert facing life and death decisions? Indeed, aren’t the violent acts men are purportedly compelled by nature to commit in these desperate situations against the law in most states? So, why do statists use such a dubious, self-defeating method to promote the state?
It becomes increasingly frustrating when discussing the state with those who oppose the state, yet support the state in the name of pragmatism. Hard core statists who honestly believe that the state is actually good at providing products and services, that obedience to central authority will keep them safe and majority rule conquers all individual problems, are easy to dismiss with a few simple facts demonstrating the opposite is true. Of course, many hard-core statists will cling to their delusions of state grandeur as they openly discard facts, logic and reason for emotional platitudes, making it is easy to disregard them as immature or foolish and not worth any more time. On the other hand, mini-statists who, using facts, logic and reason, recognize the state for the evil institution that it is then turn around and argue that this evil institution is necessary for society to survive, require a more patient and deliberate process to reveal the fallacies of their position.
Mini-statists are eat-up with cognitive dissonance because when they are faced with a logical argument against the state, they must eventually choose between questioning core beliefs held since childhood (worshiping state authority and violence) and ignoring the obvious (a free market, property rights-based society provides superior incentives to cooperate and prosper for all). Enlightenment is thus forsaken in the quest to avoid an admission that quaint emotional attachments overrule their reasoning capabilities. In order to challenge the noble simplicity evident in the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) and the importance of respect for property rights, statists reveal their contempt for virtue and their disdain for strong character. That they “throw the baby out with the bathwater” trying to find exceptions to the NAP is apparently lost on the hypothetical question-begging mini-statist.
Now on the small chance that someone may be stuck in a sinking boat with a coward who resorts to violence under duress, I would suggest such a situation says more about one’s personal choice of boat mates than about how society should be organized. Good men need not fear bad men, just deal with them, like we deal with tornadoes, snakes, hunger and sickness: with purpose and dignity, not instinct and cowardice. This is both natural and logical, the state is not.