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A Society of Criminals

Mises Daily: Friday, February 26, 2010 by

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Recently, a friend of mine complained about a spate of burglaries that had occurred near her newly bought home. A house down the street from hers had been burgled in the weeks before, and her next-door neighbor had been burgled not long afterward. In the latter case, the thieves had made off with a large-screen plasma television set and a laptop computer, apparently having walked out of the house with them in broad daylight.

My friend was evidently disgusted by this thievery — as well she should be — and seemed to have difficulty comprehending how the people responsible could bring themselves to break into a home and take what did not belong to them. "How dare they!" she said. "What makes them think they have the right to do this?"

That is a fair question. What does make them think they have a right to do this? Well, perhaps they know they have no right to do this, but they do it anyway because their desire for the unearned has more weight to them than their respect for the property rights of others. Perhaps they rationalized their crime on the basis of some purported need, brought about — no doubt — by having been "marginalized" by society.

On the attitude of these particular thieves we can only speculate. But more generally, we may ask, why is it that a criminal feels comfortable taking property that he has not earned?

After hearing my friend's story, I reassured her that the burglars who had plundered her neighbors (there had to have been more than one of them to carry the large TV set) had no right to take this property that did not belong to them, and that she was right to be angry. However, being always on the lookout to spread libertarian good cheer, I also made it a point to inform her that the burglars' conduct was not fundamentally any different from the conduct of most people in our society, who routinely advocate or acquiesce to the taking of property that is not theirs.

But surely not! Surely only a scoundrel of the lowest order could believe that they are entitled to steal the property of others! No "law-abiding" member of the public would accept such a thing! Would they?

Well, let's see: Suppose a person makes the judicious insight that some people don't have as much money as other people, and it would be nice if they had more money than they do. To remedy this problem they propose that a group of kind-hearted benefactors create an agency whose job is to forcibly take other people's money without their permission (i.e., steal it), and give some of it to those they deem to be "in need." The group would use the rest of the funds to stir up the recipients' sense of entitlement to this stolen money, fund propaganda that tells the world what a great job their agency is doing, and gradually build a nice, profitable little business empire for the staff in charge, who make out like bandits — earning far beyond what they could in other jobs, all the while being lauded for their "public service."

Are people outraged? Do they call the police to report this criminal racket? Do they flood the offices of their elected representatives with calls and letters, demanding that this abominable agency be shut down? No, they don't. In fact, quite the opposite occurs: people fall over one another to voice their support for this system, being careful to drown any critiques of its excesses in reassurances that they really do "care" for "the poor" and that they are not "free-market extremists."

The litany of examples of widespread criminality and the widespread support for — or at least acquiescence to — its programs is far too long to do justice to it here. But in this environment, it is hardly surprising that burglars feel few qualms about taking property that does not belong to them. The reason for their sentiment is probably very similar to the reason that the vast majority of people in our society feel entitled to the property of others: we live in a society of criminals.

But how could this be right? Don't most people comply with the law? Don't they fill in their tax returns and their driver's license applications like good little "law-abiding" citizens? Don't they comply with labor regulations, environmental regulations, tax rules, and all the other things that their elected representatives tell them to do?

Well, yes — to the extent that it is possible to comply with this enormous and often vague or contradictory litany of rules, most people generally do. But this is not compliance with law; it is compliance with legislation. It is merely compliance with the edicts of the powers that be.

In fact, the only rules of conduct that can properly be called "laws" are the rules of natural law— those objective rules of conduct that are necessitated as morally proper by the nature of man.[1] These rules consist essentially of the nonaggression principle and the rules of homesteading and trade of property that underlie the libertarian theory of justice. In his discussion of natural law, the great legal theorist Lysander Spooner set out the conditions of this law:

These conditions are simply these: viz., first, that each man shall do, towards every other, all that justice requires him to do; as, for example, that he shall pay his debts, that he shall return borrowed or stolen property to its owner, and that he shall make reparation for any injury he may have done to the person or property of another. The second condition is, that each man shall abstain from doing to another, anything which justice forbids him to do; as, for example, that he shall abstain from committing theft, robbery, arson, murder, or any other crime against the person or property of another.[2]

How then, do people do when assessed in their conduct against this law — against the law? They do not do well. In fact, when assessed in this manner, the vast majority of people are supportive of criminal acts.

People are often surprised by the mentality of "common criminals" (i.e., criminals of the recognized-as-criminals variety) because they think that these criminals' sense of entitlement for the unearned and disregard for the rights of others is a relatively scarce defect. But it is not. In fact, the vast majority of members of the public feel perfectly entitled to the property of others. They demand that the property of others be taken away through the tax system and other "public policies," or forcibly interfered with through "regulation" as a matter of routine.

Even if they are not net beneficiaries in this system, even if they fork out much more in taxes than they ever get back from the racket, they are nonetheless likely to support many "public policies" that amount, in practice, to burglary or to other trespasses against person and property.

And how do they see those people who disagree with this entitlement mentality, who disagree with this lust for coercion and this mass criminality? Well those people are just downright uncharitable! They have no social conscience! They are dangerous ideologues and impractical extremists!

Heaven forbid that they should ever exert more than a marginal influence on "public policy." Sure, such extremists may have a point here or there about certain excesses of the welfare state. They might get us to reign in some of the problems when the politicians and bureaucrats get really out of hand, but most of the time they just go too far! No taxes? No regulations? Inviolable property rights? Why, that is madness!

But in fact, it is not madness at all. For the only difference between the recognized-as-a-criminal burglar and the not-recognized-as-a-criminal member of the public is that the burglar does his own dirty work. He does not obtain his television sets, stereos and jewelry through that form of theft called "public policy." Instead of recruiting his local politicians and bureaucrats to steal your property for his own use, he saves them the trouble and goes and gets it himself.

In doing so, he is not able to fall back on rationalizations for his crimes on the grounds of democratic process, political mandates, and other statist notions. He may of course have his own rationalizations, but they are far more half-hearted than the zealous lust for the unearned that is exhibited in the political realm by lobbyists, politicians, and statist media commentators. In any case, it is hardly surprising that he feels entitled to take property that does not belong to him. This is the least of his differences with ordinary, "law-abiding" members of society.

The most common rationalization for those crimes committed under "public policies" is the notion that these policies are the "will of the people" expressed through their elected representatives. But even if some aggregated expression of will could indeed be established by this process — and this is extremely dubious — there can be no such thing as the capacity of a group of people to change the content of law or vote away the rights of people. Here we can again turn to Spooner, who notes that

if justice be a natural principle, then it is necessarily an immutable one; and can no more be changed — by any power inferior to that which established it — than can the law of gravitation, the laws of light, the principles of mathematics, or any other natural law or principle whatever; and all attempts or assumptions, on the part of any man or body of men — whether calling themselves governments, or by any other name — to set up their own commands, wills, pleasure, or discretion, in the place of justice, as a rule of conduct for any human being, are as much an absurdity, an usurpation, and a tyranny, as would be their attempts to set up their own commands, wills, pleasure, or discretion, in the place of any and all the physical, mental, and moral laws of the universe.[3]

What then do I mean when I say that we live in a society of criminals? I mean simply that the vast majority of people in our society are supportive of criminal acts committed against others. These so-called law-abiding citizens support robbery, assault, trespass, and sometimes even murder when these crimes are disguised in the respectable cloak of "public policy." The scorn with which they view common criminals is truly laughable when one examines the mass criminality that they do support.

Of course, this is not to say that all members of the public are the moral equivalents of burglars and other criminals. Their moral culpability may be diminished to some degree because they are bamboozled by statist propaganda, which encourages them to see themselves as entitled to "a say" in how others use their property.

There may indeed be some members of the public who have not realized the connection between coercion and "public policy" and who are completely unaware that there are any parallels between these policies and the actions of "common criminals." If this is an honest error, then it is an error of knowledge, not morality. However, it can scarcely be said that this error of knowledge is widespread — in most cases, members of the public are well aware of the coercive nature of the policies they support. Moreover, it is no caveat to their wrongdoing that they did not go out and take the loot themselves as would a common criminal — that it was merely "given" to them by their benevolent political masters. For it is this very bulk of members of the public who support the "redistribution" that is occurring.[4]

The attitude of the public toward the "common criminal" begs an obvious question. What possible reason do you have to complain of the actions of these criminals when you support or even advocate criminal actions on so much larger a scale?

There is a lesson in all of this for libertarians. If we are to successfully present our views to a large audience, we must learn from the fact that ordinary people routinely support robbery and other crimes committed by the state, but stand aghast when they observe the same crimes being committed by "common criminals" (who are actually the more uncommon kind). Advocates for a society of law must endeavor to draw attention to the contradiction inherent in this attitude.

We must draw attention to the parallels between the "public policies" of the state and the acts of "common criminals." We must learn to present statist policies to the public for what they are — criminality writ large. And we must learn to convince people that their support for these policies is support for crime.

In doing this, it is not enough to talk about free-market this and deregulation that. To do so is to fight the battle on the statists' turf, by presenting the issue as a clash of competing "public policies." But the actual battle, the real issue at the root of the political debates, is not about choosing between this policy or that — it is about choosing between committing crimes and not committing crimes.

In fact, what is called "the free market" is just the absence of socially sanctioned theft, assault, robbery, etc., in the context of the relevant market. What is called "deregulation" is actually just the removal of policies allowing socially sanctioned trespasses against person and property. What is called "decentralization of power" is actually just the breaking down of one big criminal agency into lots of smaller competing criminal agencies, with the goal of ultimately making them small enough and competitive enough (with each other) for us to escape from their clutches altogether.

At root, the libertarian position is very simple and must be communicated in this way. It holds that people should not be allowed to commit crimes against one another. All of the talk about free markets versus market intervention, capitalism versus socialism, regulation versus deregulation, and so on, is just a disguised way of presenting the basic dichotomy between a society of criminals and a society of law. This is the essence of the battle.

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A battle between the free market and its antipodes, when presented in the garb of political philosophy, is an esoteric battle. It is a battle that can be perverted and misrepresented. A straightforward battle between criminality and law is easier to understand and far more powerful. Libertarians should not shy away from presenting "policy issues" in terms of their actual meaning — in terms of criminality versus law.

Many have been cowed into avoiding this approach by the idea that this "strong language" will put people off, or make libertarians seem unreasonable. But it is precisely this confrontation with the basic fact — that libertarianism supports a society of law — that is the most powerful weapon for its advocates. There is nothing wrong with telling people that taxation is robbery, that regulation is trespass, that drug laws are assault and robbery, that politicians are criminals, and that the state is a monstrous criminal agency.

Notes

[1] A good definition of natural law is put forward by Edwin Patterson, who defines it as

Principles of human conduct that are discoverable by "reason" from the basic inclinations of human nature, and that are absolute, immutable and of universal validity for all times and places. This is the basic conception of scholastic natural law … and most natural law philosophers. (Patterson, E.W. (1953) Jurisprudence: Men and Ideas of the Law. Foundation Press: Brooklyn, p. 333.)

The present author does not see the need to put quotation marks around the word "reason" in this definition, but nevertheless, if reason is itself understood as an objective concept then this definition captures the essence of natural law. The idea of natural law is opposed to the doctrine of legal positivism. The latter doctrine holds that laws are made by human beings and that the validity of laws has no necessary connection to ethics. Interested readers can find extensive discussion of natural law and the deontological basis for libertarian theory in Rothbard, M.N. (1998) The Ethics of Liberty. New York University Press: New York.

[2] Spooner, L. (1992) The Lysander Spooner Reader. Fox and Wilkes: San Franc isco, p. 11.

[3] Ibid., Spooner (1992) p. 16.

[4] In case there is any hint of a suggestion to the contrary, it is worth pointing out that choosing to take money and other property from the government, through whatever criminal redistribution schemes it offers, is not morally wrong, so long as one opposes the coercion that is occurring (and which would occur even if someone else was the beneficiary). Indeed, it is positively beneficial to take all the money that one can from the government, since this is the very criminal agency whose power one should be attempting to diminish.