Bear with me. We need some background before I get to my point.
In the article, “On Violence, Government, and Self-Deception”, I offered three possible philosophical stances on violence. Those were,
1.) Pacifism: No violence under any circumstances; 2.) Non-Aggression: Defensive violence is allowed, aggressive violence is not; 3.) The end justifies the means. Aggressive use of violence is allowed, “for the right reasons”.
I also noted that,
In order to develop a personal philosophy about government, one of the first requirements is to come to an understanding of one’s beliefs about violence. When is it OK to use violence and when is it not? This understanding is necessary because at it’s core, all of government is violence.
At the time, I described my own personal philosophy towards violence as “non-aggression”. My understanding of that phrase is similar to how it is stated by Tom Woods, here, “nobody should initiate aggression against anybody else“. Alternatively, wikipedia describes it, thusly, “In contrast to nonviolence, the non-aggression principle does not preclude violence used in self-defense or defense of others“.
Of course, taken to its conclusion, strict adherence to the non-aggression principle requires elimination of the state because taxation is a form of aggression. Knowing that, I have been aware of the contradiction between my actions and my beliefs when I promote state level legislation and adherence to the US Constitution at the same time as believing in the principle of non-aggression. I don’t like it when there is inconsistency between my beliefs and actions, so the attempt to resolve this conflict has been a frequent area of thought for me during the last few years.
Eventually, I came up with this simple thought experiment:
Imagine that I am walking along a path and I encounter a man in the process of physically abusing a child. I try my hardest to reason this man out of his violence, but he will not be persuaded. What is the principle that allows me to initiate violence in order to defend that child?
I have only found four ways to answer this question. Here are three – all of which I have found to be unacceptable, or incomplete.
Non-aggression says that I cannot interfere.
Any principle which would prohibit me from protecting a defenseless child from an abusive man, to me, is a non-starter. In such a situation, I would certainly initiate violence against that man in order to defend the child. I would feel no guilt or reservation.
Collectivism says that as a member of, “the community”, I can protect another member of “the community”.
This is how wikipedia resolves it, sneakily slipping the words “or defense of others” into their description of non-aggression. One of my favorite liberty videos, the Philosophy of Liberty, also silently supplements non-aggression with collectivism (if green attacks blue, yellow may initiate violence against pink. Really.)
Note, however, that by including “defense of others” in the non-aggression principle, it can be used to justify nearly any government action. “I’m taxing you to defend him from cancer“, for example. Even if constrained to “defend others from aggression”, this is still prone to abuse in the form of disproportionate response by nanny-state aficionados.
The end justifies the means says that I can use violence because defending a child is a noble purpose.
Collectivism is actually a special case of this one (and surprisingly, so is the non-aggression principle). In other forms, it is even more prone to abuse than collectivism as a governing philosophy, because it begins to include preemptive violence. “It’s for a good cause” has been the rallying cry of tyrants throughout history..
This is where my thoughts were stuck for many months. All possibilities I could imagine were unsatisfactory. Non-aggression is too limiting and non-aggression supplemented by collectivism is too expansive.
In an essay about climate science, one of my favorite authors, Freeman Dyson, writes,
“The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds.”
and computer scientist, L.A. van de Snepscheut, is quoted as having said that, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.“ Yet here I sit, constructing models in my head and expecting them to apply to the real world, which is muddy and messy. Maybe philosophy works the same way as these other disciplines. Maybe the search for a one size fits all principle on violence is a fool’s errand, but even if such a thing can’t be found, I still think the search is an important way to shape our beliefs and understand ourselves.
Eventually, I came at the thought experiment from a different angle – a fourth possibility. In my articles, “Fail Safe“, and “Securing the Blessings of Liberty“, I applied principles from computer science to the ideas of constitutional government. It has occurred to me that there is another principle from computer science which might be adapted for this thought experiment. I don’t claim that this is a complete or final answer, just that it is the current state of my intellectual evolution on the topic.
In information security, computer science, and other fields, the principle of least privilege requires that … every module must be able to access only the information and resources that are necessary for its legitimate purpose.
So, modeled after that concept, I now propose for discussion, a principle of least aggression (POLA). i.e. non-aggression, supplemented by collectivism and constrained by its overall effect on the system. “Aggression can, morally, be initiated in defense of self without limit or in defense of others provided that it is intended to reduce the overall level of aggression in the system.” (note: I hadn’t read this, but Google says that someone got here before me.)
In other words, I have an unlimited right to use force to protect my own life, liberty, and property from aggression, but my right to defend those rights for others is limited by the requirement that I can only do it if my intent is to reduce the overall level of aggression in the community.
So, that brings us back to the title of this essay. If following a constitution allows the use of force (i.e. in the form of taxation), how can it be morally justified and why do we need it?
First, how can it be justified? If we were starting from a full voluntary society, imposing a constitution could not be justified under the POLA. It would be an imposition of force on others that increased the overall level of coercion in the system. But that’s not where we are. We have to consider the current state of society and the state of society if a constitution were being followed. We are in a society where the cost of government currently conscripts somewhere around 53% of our productivity. If we insist on strict adherence to a constitution, would that level of coercion be increased or decreased? If the overall level of coercion would be reduced and if it is intended to protect life, liberty, and property of the citizenry then the coercion involved in enforcing a constitution can be justified under the POLA.
Second, why do we need one? Arguing against the Constitution, people are fond of quoting Lysander Spooner, who said:
“But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.”
But this is an error in logic. The first sentence is a tautology. The second is nonsense. You could fill in any noun you like in place of “the Constitution” and the phrase would be, essentially, unchanged.
“But whether _my_pet_cat_ really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.”
— What? —
As our legal director, Benjamin Gross, recently noted, “the Constitution is not a self enforcing document”. The reason we have the government we have is because of human action, or lack thereof. A constitution provides a basic, agreed set of principles which the people can act upon. Without a constitution, the people will never agree on a consistent set of limiting principles which can be imposed upon government. We have no hope of implementing anything like the non-aggression principle or the POLA if the people don’t have something like the Constitution to unite behind.
In short, our present condition is a symptom of misinformation, apathy, and inaction by the American citizenry. With a constitution to unite behind, those factors can be changed and the overall level of coercion in the system can be minimized. Without one, they cannot.
Steve Palmer is the State Chapter Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Tenth Amendment Center.
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