Mises Daily Articles
Ideas and the Culpability for Violence
The violence perpetuated by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway unleashed the usual torrent of blaming anyone who might have influenced the murderer's thought. He was first described as a right-wing Christian — a description designed to put a certain community on notice. As more evidence rolled in, he has been more accurately described as an anti-Islamic nationalist, but the tendency to pin this violence on any nonleftist is still there.
There were footnotes in his 1,500-page manifesto to many dozens of books and articles — including a few published by the Mises Institute. Looking at the balance of his citations, however, it's clear that his main influence had nothing to do with libertarianism. His inspiration was a point of view reminiscent of American neoconservatism. He cited articles in this tradition — particularly on the fear and hate of Islam — far more often than any other.
So, does this violence discredit neoconservatism, as when then-president Clinton tried to blame libertarians and the "militia" movement for the Oklahoma bombing in 1995? The point of this game is to silence the opposition, shut down debate, and fundamentally discredit the body of ideas on which the violence can be blamed.
It's pretty much been this way since the ancient world. Governments can perpetuate violence in war and against the civilian population every day, but when a private person does the same for political reasons, a struggle ensues to see which line of thinking will pay what price.
The truth is that every political point of view can be twisted into a rationale for violence. If you think that the rich should be expropriated, there are generally two ways to bring this about: you and your friends can steal from the rich directly — maybe killing some fat cats in the process — or you can lobby Congress to do it for you.
The second method is preferred in a democratic society. When violence against person and property operates under the cover of the law, it is rarely called out for what it truly is. It is only when the legal cover is removed that the violence shocks and alarms us. But what about the morality of it all, whether we are speaking about private violence, the redistributionist state, or the war-making imperial state? In moral substance, they amount to the same thing.
One of the least reported biographical details of Timothy McVeigh, executed for the Oklahoma bombing that killed so many innocent people, is that his own disregard for life was cultivated during his time as an American soldier from 1988 to 1992. He was awarded the bronze star for service in the first war on Iraq, where he killed civilians and teenage conscripts under the cover of law. It was here that he learned how to suppress the whisperings of his conscience, and to harden his heart. As he said, "If there is a hell, then I'll be in good company with a lot of fighter pilots who also had to bomb innocents to win the war."
Let's try a thought experiment that is not entirely implausible. Let's say that in the future, some psycho kills innocent people and blows up buildings. But this time, he is directly influenced by libertarianism, and was driven to desperate measures in the interest of overthrowing the state.
This could happen. It hasn't happened, but it could. The question is whether this person's intellectual influences would discredit the libertarian tradition. That would certainly be the attempt of the mainstream media. Even after 9/11, the pundits were screaming that this event alone was enough to discredit libertarianism, that the destruction and the aftermath offered positive proof that we need a gigantic state. So, yes, I think we can be confident that if some violent person had libertarian influences, libertarianism would catch the blame.
In the event of such a thing, what should be the response of libertarians? It wouldn't be that hard. Libertarianism is the one political theory extant that consistently preaches nonviolence in every way, condemning all aggression against person and property, whether it is done by a private party or under the cover of law.
Libertarianism posits a belief that is not widely held today, but is nonetheless true: namely, that society can organize itself without violence (no theft, no murder), but only using that blessed institution of mutual cooperation among individuals. The use of violence in any form is not only contradictory to libertarian theory; libertarianism stands alone as the only political outlook that makes nonviolence its core tenet.
Of course, this implies an antigovernment stance, because government is the organized, consistent, relentless, large-scale center of violence on earth. It enacts this violence for a huge range of reasons: to bolster economic growth, to protect us from invasion, to prevent the population from being exploited by business, to keep the culture pure from alien influences, to protect us from our own bad decisions, to grant us health and income security from birth to death, and much more.
But in doing all these things, it has only one lever to pull: aggression against our lives and property. This is because government cannot do anything on its own; it exists entirely in a parasitical relationship to society.
What if a person who sees this point is driven to desperation and acts in a way that is contrary to the fundamental ethics of libertarianism? In other words, what happens if a person influenced by an antigovernment theory undertakes actions that are more of the character of what governments do every day? That would not and could not damage the credibility or integrity of the libertarian idea.
Keep in mind that we are alive in an unprecedented moment. The state in all countries in the developed world is working its mischief as never before in world history. It taxes more, regulates more, manipulates more than ever. The state has never been more pompous, arrogant, and ambitious than it is today.
The police state has visited the developed world in a manner none of us have seen in our lifetimes. The local police reflect that ethos. They disregard their heritage of wearing a civil mask and now bully people openly in a way contrary to freedom. The United States in particular has erected a giant prison state that exists outside the observable sphere of social life. The state has cut off employment opportunities for an entire generation, looted the savings of older people, and even made it nearly impossible for people to provide for their own savings.
Public opinion is increasingly aware of the problem and the source of the problem, and so the public anger at the political and bureaucratic elite is intensifying, especially as the economic depression deepens. The nation-state is growing ever more fierce even as it becomes more decrepit in the digital age. It would hardly be a surprise to see this anger turn violent in the coming years.
There is a very easy answer to the problems that afflict us today. The nation-state needs to civilize itself and bow to the realities of our times. It needs to dismantle its apparatus of control, call off the dogs of war, rein in its police and armed bureaucrats, and permit society to develop and flourish on its own. It's not complicated. Why won't the state take this path? Because it thrives off violence, domestic and international.
These are fundamental truths, and they are becoming more obvious by the day. No amount of propaganda can wish them away. The only real means of achieving peace is to reject violence as a means of social control or political activism. We must withdraw our consent to violence, the consent that is the basis of all government. What the great theorist Etienne de la Boetie wrote in the 16th century remains true today:
Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.