By Graham Peterson
Jainist monks sweep as they walk so as not to accidentally step on ants because they believe in a universal form of non-violence. Imagine if they preached that doctrine with prayer beads in one hand, and a rifle in the other.
And yet that is essentially the message libertarians seem to send when we claim our vision is of a nonviolent utopia, but support gun ownership, and even cheer on militias when they stand up for cattle ranchers. Now, I find red neck militias and gun fanaticism a little frightening. But I find the fact that the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Education both have paramilitary forces terrifying.
From our perspective, it seems perfectly reasonable to support the armament of the population whence we are totally convinced of the inevitability of violent government tyranny. Our bet is that a bunch of gun enthusiasts and a few paranoid reactionaries embedded in a world of mostly peace loving people will be (and currently are) under any circumstances much less violent than a government that would fight cancer with flash grenades, or at least fines with threats of jail time, if it could blame cancer on someone.
But we libertarians have to understand why our message seems so comical. Most people are decidedly not convinced of the position that government is a tyranny. Indeed, most people see governments like we see markets — a highly imperfect system that is, on balance, better than any other alternative. That shrugging, popular support for government comes from what Bryan Caplan has intelligently labeled Indirect Coercion.
The government will find the cheapest channels through which to harass people. So it focuses on harassing businesses, rather than consumers, when it wants to stop people from doing deals with one another. So too, I have added, it focuses on transportation networks where people are conveniently herded together, like roads and airports. Or it focuses on minorities.
Since the government selects its opportunities for harassment and exploitation intelligently and economically, few people are prone to see it as a giant harassment and exploitation machine. The net effect is that people largely support a giant, violent tyranny: “it’s no skin off my nose.” Indirect. On the other hand, the prospect of everyone around you having a gun is pretty direct. And the idea that such people are the harbingers of peace sounds like a joke.
I realize that libertarians talk a lot more about individual rights and guns than they do charity work and the social cohesion that comes out of markets. Maybe we can change that, and we won’t look so much like gun-toting Jainist monks.