There are no end of commentaries on the recent murders in Arizona, resulting in the usual debates. Pundits argue over whether there should be stricter gun laws, whether talk radio, the movies, or “extremism” contributed to the tragedy, and, most obtusely, what the government should do to prevent a similar incident from occurring again. What is lost is the fact that this tragedy provides yet more proof of something that has been demonstrated to Americans repeatedly over the past decade. The government cannot protect you from the harsh realities of life.
Most people are good people, most of the time. Under normal circumstances, most people would rather cooperate with their fellow human beings in order to achieve their goals rather than steal from them or kill them. However, some people, at least some of the time, do not “live and let live.” During every moment that we are alive, someone somewhere is committing a crime. Someone is experiencing hardship, whether due to their own bad judgment, laziness, or just plain bad luck. Worst of all, someone is planning to commit an act of violence. These truths are confirmed by all of human history.
What is unique about the time that we live in now is the extent to which people believe that the government can shield them from these challenges. Never has a society had such high expectations of their government to ensure their security – both personal and economic security. The early 21st century is truly a high-water mark in terms of belief in government to eliminate all risk from the game of life. Over and over, we are offered proof of how foolish this misplaced faith is.
On 9/11/2001, a group of insane fanatics defeated what was at the time the most sophisticated security apparatus in human history and perpetrated heinous crimes against thousands of innocent civilians. The government failed to prevent this crime. The one set of murderers that was not successful was thwarted by private citizens acting on their own. They did not save their own lives, but saved the lives of hundreds, possibly thousands, of others. Our response to this outcome was to give the government more power and private citizens less liberty and privacy.
A few years later, another unbalanced individual tried to blow up a plane with explosives concealed in his shoes. He, too, had defeated the by that time even more powerful government security apparatus and was thwarted by private citizens. Our reaction to that incident was identical.
Last year, the pattern repeated with the so-called “underwear bomber.” The government failed and private citizens thwarted the killer. Again, more power was given to the government and more liberty stolen from the people. We are now allowing ourselves to be photographed naked and physically violated by the government in the hopes that the next time the results will be different.
In 2002, a deranged man walked into the Appalachian School of Law and began shooting students and faculty. There were no police on hand when the shooting started. This is not meant as a criticism of the police. It is unreasonable to expect that there will be an officer present whenever a random act of violence occurs. In any case, when the shooting started, two private citizens ran to their cars and retrieved their firearms. They confronted the shooter, forced him to drop his weapon, and tackled him to the ground. He was eventually arrested and prosecuted.
However, the fact that private citizens bearing firearms had prevented further bloodshed was omitted in the media coverage of the incident. Following the familiar pattern, the government was given more power and private citizens lost more of their liberty. Stricter gun controls were enacted in Virginia. A few years later, with campuses forced by law to be “gun free zones,” the victims at Virginia Tech were powerless to resist.
Luckily, this latest incident in Arizona did not take place on a college campus, an army base, or any other “gun free zone.” The brave man who tackled the shooter in Arizona said that he was not afraid to do so “because I was armed.” More importantly, this was another example of private citizens defending themselves and their neighbors. The police arrived after the shooter was subdued and fulfilled their proper function in a free society – to arrest the person who had committed the crime.
The repeated failure of government to protect us from the uncertainties of life is not limited to violent crimes. Over and over again, we have looked to government to provide us with economic security and have been similarly disappointed. We sanctioned its war on poverty and got more poverty. We allowed its central bank to loot our wealth in the hopes that it would prevent recessions and inflation and we got more severe recessions and more rampant inflation. We let the government bail out corporations to save jobs and restore economic growth and we got higher unemployment and less new businesses.
As with personal security, our reaction is to reward these failures with more power for the government. More wealth redistribution. More power to the central bank (but I repeat myself). More bailouts. Consistent with the pattern, the only economic security we get comes from private individuals cooperating voluntarily with each other to create new products, new industries, and new opportunities for those seeking work.
In a free society, the government should never be charged with preventing anything. The very definition of the word “prevent,” when used in relation to government, is a repudiation of liberty. Since government is nothing more than the societal use of force, it cannot prevent anything without initiating force against the innocent. The whole idea that someone is “innocent until proven guilty” assumes that the government is not allowed to act until after a crime is committed. Force must be initiated by one party or the other. Until a criminal commits his crime, he is innocent. To apply force against him at that point is a crime itself. Moreover, since we do not know who will commit the next crime, the government can only attempt to prevent it by initiating force against everyone. This is the trap we fall into by relying on government to prevent hardship in our lives.
If liberty and the state can coexist, the state’s role must be a retrospective one. It must only be allowed to act when one human being has committed aggression against another. This applies to crime, economics, safety, and foreign policy. At one time, the United States did not go to war unless the president could convince Congress that direct aggression had already been committed against the United States. If you doubt that, read the requests for a declaration of war made by Madison, Polk, McKinley, Wilson, and Roosevelt. Read the subsequent resolutions by Congress to declare war. In each case, those documents demonstrate the principle that military action by the government is not justified until aggression has been committed by the other nation.
This might prompt some to respond that in order to be free, we must relegate ourselves to being victims, or “sitting ducks,” able to act only after it is too late. This is a false assumption, rooted in a failure to recognize one undeniable fact of our existence. As far as the preservation and security of our lives is concerned, we are all on our own. No government, no matter how powerful, can assume the responsibility we each have to defend our lives and determine our own destinies. We can allow the government to rob us of our liberty, our property, and our privacy. We can create the kind of police state previously relegated to dystopian fantasies like 1984 or V for Vendetta. Even then, the government will fail - and then ask for more power as a reward for its failure. Must it come to that before we acknowledge the obvious?
© Thomas Mullen 2011