[Author's note: I intend to be at the Valley Forge Convention Center this coming Saturday morning, milling around outside the "Campaign for Liberty" event, handing out printed copies of the following article.]
The Meaning of "Please"
Imagine a slave who, while being whipped, cries out, "Please, massa, no more!" What message does such a plea for mercy convey? Obviously, it conveys a desire for the beating to stop, but it also conveys another message—albeit an unstated one: "Master, I accept that it is up to you whether I am to be beaten or not."
The word "please" is short for "if it pleases you." In many contexts it is a polite thing to say, implying that it is up to the listener (not the speaker) to decide whether to do something or not. "Please pass the gravy" is a request, not a demand. "Please donate to this charity" is an invitation, not an order. Such uses of the term are both polite and proper. However, the term is not appropriate when the listener has no right to be the one making the choice to begin with. For example, someone confronting a purse-snatcher who just robbed a little old lady should not say, "Please give the lady back her purse." Rather, the message should be, "Give it back or else!" In most situations, deferring to the listener's pleasure (implied by the term "please") is civilized and charitable, but it is not appropriate when the listener is about to harm an innocent person. Then, what’s called for is a command.
Begging for Freedom
The point of this linguistic lesson is this: The majority of what the "freedom movement" does essentially consists of the victims of tyranny saying to the tyrants, "Please stop oppressing us!" Whether one is lobbying for "legislation," or trying to get a certain candidate elected, a dual message is being sent to those in power: A) “We want government to stop doing this to us,” and B) “we accept that the choice of whether to stop doing it is government's (not ours) to make.” Consider just two examples (out of hundreds that could be used):
1) When one lobbies for lower "taxes," it conveys a two-fold message: A) "We'd like to keep more of our money," and B) "We accept that it is up to you, the politicians, to decide how much we can keep." (Contrast that with what was done at the "Boston Tea Party.")
2) When one lobbies against so-called "gun control," both messages are again implied: A) "We'd like to keep our guns," but B) "we agree that we need 'legal' permission from you politicians in order to have the right to do so." (Contrast that with what happened in Lexington, with the "Shot Heard 'Round the World.")
While such requests certainly appear, on the surface, to be pro-freedom in nature, in a very real sense they are not. The underlying implication of all such petitions to those in government is that it is up to them, not up to the people, what "rights" the people will have. But such an implication completely contradicts the entire concept of individual rights.
The Declaration of Independence expresses the idea that an individual's right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is not derived from any man-made law or any government, but is intrinsic to all people, having been "endowed by their Creator." The very term "unalienable" implies that such rights cannot be taken away by any "legislation," or any other act of man. (Such rights can, of course, be violated, but they still do not cease to be rights.)
Nonetheless, much of what is done by those claiming to be pro-freedom advocates consists merely of asking the politicians to either support or oppose this or that legislation, thereby giving their "legal" permission for the people to be free. In doing so, even some of the most ardent, well-meaning freedom activists are inadvertently conveying one message loud and clear: "We do not believe in unalienable rights!"
To request that one's "rights" be honored by those in power is to concede that it is up to the discretion of "government" whether to allow the rest of us to do something or not, which in turn implies that we have no rights at all. (A "right" is, by definition, something that one does not need "government" permission to do.) On the other hand, to demand that one's rights be honored, whether those in "government" want to or not, and whether "the law" allows for it or not, is perfectly consistent and in keeping with the concept of "unalienable" rights. But how many people dare to make such a demand?
An Uncomfortable Position
The reason so many liberty advocates end up doing little more than begging for freedom is quite simple, and quite understandable. First, it is a scary thing to demand something from any large, heavily armed gang ("government" or otherwise), especially when that gang thinks it has the right to run your life. To engage in resistance against such a gang—whether by forceful or passive means—is a very dangerous undertaking. But there is a deeper issue as well.
Almost all of us, since back before we can remember, have been trained to respect and obey "authority," and to obey whatever commands "authority" may give us. As a result, most people have a very hard time, for example, disobeying a police officer, not only due to fear of being arrested, tasered, etc., but also because, as a result of our upbringing and authoritarian indoctrination, it feels very uncomfortable, and even immoral, to not "do as you're told." As a result, and as odd as this may sound, most people have a very hard time viewing "the police" as mere mortals.
Most Americans are quick to comply with any request a "law enforcer" may make, even in situations where the same request, if made by an average citizen, would be responded to with anger, or even violence. When, for example, a police officer asks, "May I search your car?" the average American will, without hesitation, give his consent, even if he has done nothing wrong, and even if there is no reason to suspect that he has done anything wrong. But if the average man on the street made such a request of a stranger ("May I search your car?"), he may very well get a response more along the lines of, "Of course not! Get away from me or I'll slug you!”
The difference is that nearly everyone has been trained to bow to "authority." (Anyone who wants to see just how profound, and how dangerous, the effects of such training are should study the experiments conducted by Dr. Stanley Milgram, as described in his book, Obedience to Authority.) Nearly everyone, when dealing with "law enforcement," has an attitude of, "I am good, and therefore I cooperate with the police." As a result of our conditioning, receiving the approval of "authority" feels good, while being the target of "official" condemnation feels bad. As a result, even mustering the mental strength to refuse to consent to an unjustified search, or to refuse to answer the questions of a perceived "authority"—even in situations where the police openly acknowledge one's right to do so—is extremely difficult for most people.
How much more difficult, then, is it for the average person to even begin to consider the possibility of openly, intentionally disobeying the so-called "laws" of those who claim to be our rightful masters (i.e., "government")? What good person would willingly take upon himself the label of "law-breaker" and "criminal"? Right here and right now, the answer to that question is: anyone who actually believes in freedom.
"Tolerating" and "Demanding"
Activists are constantly opining that we should "demand" that politicians do this or that, and that we should not "tolerate" the rampant corruption and oppression we see today. But, to be perfectly blunt, most of them don't really mean it.
To "demand" something does not simply mean to beg for it; it means to insist upon it, backing up that insistence with a serious "or else" clause—a threat. Likewise, to not "tolerate" something means to not allow it to happen, which implies that one will use any means necessary to stop it from happening. So what do those in the freedom movement mean when they talk about “demanding” things of those in government, and not "tolerating" what government is doing? What, exactly, will they do if government ignores their “demands,” or does what they say they will not “tolerate”?
Most of the time, the only threat is that in a few years, the people “demanding” things might vote against those currently in power. However, when the next election rolls around—if they still even remember their “demands” by then—the voters will have a choice between voting for someone who will lose (from a third party), or voting for someone who will preserve the status quo (any Democrat or Republican). Either way, the same ruling class remains in power, the “demands” dissolve, and the people are stuck with the very situation that they said they refused to “tolerate.”
As a result, such “demands” are really not demands at all. Some people get outraged, jump up and down and shout a lot, and then, exhausted and defeated, they go back to being oppressed, without having changed a thing, and tyranny continues on its merry way. Is it any wonder that most people don’t bother to try?
It’s All In Your Head
The truth of the matter is that, as vicious and destructive as “government” can be, the real problem resides, not in Washington, but between the ears of several hundred million Americans. The only way a few hundred politicians can continually extort and control several hundred million citizens is by first convincing them that such extortion and control is legitimate. By labeling oppression as “law,” and condemning as “criminals” any who disobey any of those “laws,” tyrants—throughout the world and for thousands of years—have successfully trained the peasants to enslave themselves. As long as the common folk measure their goodness by how well they obey their masters, they will never be free, and oppressing them will be very easy.
And that is exactly what people do when they express pride in being “law-abiding taxpayers”: they are bragging about handing over the fruits of their labors to politicians (being good “taxpayers”) and blindly obeying whatever arbitrary commands the politicians may issue (being “law-abiding” citizens). They take pride in their own subservience, and view as the scum of the earth any “law-breakers” who don’t.
Condemning Runaway Slaves
Sadly, and ironically, many people who call themselves advocates of freedom seem more than eager to demonize and chastise those few people who call for actual resistance to tyranny. They insistent that we must "work within the system" to achieve freedom, and proudly proclaim that they would never resort to "illegal” means to do so. What that literally means is that they do not believe that they should exercise their individual rights, or live as free human beings, unless and until “government” gives them permission to do so. Why beg that a “law” be changed unless you feel an obligation to obey such “laws,” even when they’re unjust?"
Petitioning those in government to “legislate” freedom is akin to trying to talk a carjacker into agreeing that you should be allowed to keep your own car. In addition to the very small likelihood of such an approach being effective (as unlikely as voting or lobbying is to result in freedom), such an approach also implies something absurd: that you need the carjacker’s consent before you would have the right to keep your own car. Not many people would be silly enough to take such an approach, and yet most people, including most people in the freedom movement, do something equally silly, when they act as if they need the consent of politicians in order to exercise their unalienable rights (which itself is a contradiction in terms).
However, those who do not play such pointless, ineffectual games—those who refuse to play by the tyrants’ rules—are often shunned as “extremists” by most conservatives, Constitutionalists, and even many libertarians. Any talk of “illegal” resistance to tyranny—in other words, any type of resistance that hasn’t received the tyrants’ written approval—is almost always met by harsh condemnation from those who claim to be proponents of individual liberty. This is no different than having a bunch of slaves who continually lament the injustices of slavery, but who then immediately condemn any slave who actually tries to escape the plantation.
There are only two options: either we are all the property of the politicians, and therefore our only legitimate recourse is to beg our owners to change their ways, or we own ourselves, and do not need anyone’s permission to be free. Sadly, the vast majority of Americans, including most of the people in the freedom movement, hold the former mindset, and regard as “fringe kooks” any who hold the latter mindset. As a result, even those who claim to be zealous advocates of liberty keep their activism within the confines of the game set up by the tyrants: the game of elections and legislation, which leeches away an enormous amount of time, effort and money from well-intentioned citizens, without giving them any positive results.
There is also good news, however. Just as the problem is in your head (and the heads of several hundred million others), so is the solution. The solution is not any political party, any political campaign or movement, any lobbying effort, or any petition or protest, all of which play right into the notion that our only recourse is to ask the tyrants (“the system”) to please let us be free. No, the solution is for you (and everyone else) to understand that you own yourself, whether the politicians’ “laws” acknowledge that fact or not. If Americans understood that one, simple, obvious truth, their outlook and their actions would drastically change. And they would achieve freedom without a revolution, and without any election or “political action” at all.
Imagine if people thought they had the right to keep what they earn, instead of believing that politicians have the moral right to forcibly take a portion of it, via “taxes.” If the people did not view such extortion and robbery as legitimate and “legal,” there is no way that IRS agents, who are outnumbered two thousand to one by those whom they rob, could continue to collect. In fact, if the people didn’t view such robbery as legitimate, ending the “federal income tax” wouldn’t even require any sort of forcible resistance; universal “non-compliance” (i.e., many millions of people doing nothing) would make the entire scheme unenforceable.
The same is true of other sorts of tyranny, including citizen disarmament (“gun control”), drug prohibition, and all manner of oppressive “regulation” and “taxation.” If the general public understood that each person owns himself, and that no one owns anyone else, any initiation of violence against any individual—even if the aggressor calls himself “authority” and calls his attacks “law”—would be viewed as immoral and illegitimate, and would be resisted. And if there was universal disobedience to such oppression, tyranny would simply evaporate into thin air, without so much as a whimper. (Remember, all of the authoritarian enforcers—police, military, and the hordes of government bureaucrats—are people too, and enforce the decrees of politicians only because they view them as inherently valid and legitimate, and view disobedience to such “laws” as immoral. That is why they constantly use violence in the name of “the law,” in situations where they never would have used violence if they were acting only on their own behalf.)
Of course, if only a few people, or even a few thousand, understand the idea of self-ownership, and everyone else remains deceived, those few could not openly disobey the state without being crushed by its mercenaries (who would deem their violence to be righteous). The focus must, therefore, be on spreading the concepts of self-ownership and unalienable rights to as many minds as possible. But that is no easy task, since almost all of us have been taught, not only by the schools, media and government, but even by our families and friends—even those in the freedom movement—that obeying “authority” is the highest virtue, and disobeying is the worst sin.
None of these comments are intended to impugn the motives of those who are trying so hard, “within the system,” to achieve freedom and justice. They should be commended for their concern about the state of society today, and for their personal willingness to do something about it. But the truth is, it is not only ineffective, but self-contradictory to try to advocate liberty by way of “the system.” Focusing efforts on those who wear the label of “government” will never bring about freedom. The people who seek “high office” do so because they love to dominate others, and the widespread belief in “authority” gives them the opportunity to do so, in a way that even most of their victims view as legitimate.
Once the people stop viewing themselves as slaves, and stop viewing the politicians as masters, voting and lobbying will end, and the people will stop saying “please” to those who claim the right to rule them. Only then will freedom defeat tyranny.