Reducing Harm by Working to Get Us All on the Same Page

by Gary L. Fincher, March 2001

Over the past five or six years, as Kay and I have criss-crossed the country, meeting old friends, dropping in on relatives and conversing with acquaintances, we both have gotten a sense that there exists a very palpable underlying lack of comprehension regarding our crusading activism in the libertarian movement.   It seems that those outside our comrades in the movement, our libertarian”compatriots”, if you will, do not relate to or even seem to have a clue as to the reasons that would impel us to bother participating in those endeavors (libertarian activism), let alone choose it as a lifestyle. The silence and lack of commiseration we’re greeted with on the topic (which obviously doesn’t exist when we’re in the company of fellow activists), speaks volumes to us and tells us that we haven’t done a very good job of explaining our motivations or of defining the problem.

Therefore, today I feel the time is right to thoroughly explain to those who may not have yet cultivated an awareness of the need for a libertarian movement (which necessarily requires participants, or “foot soldiers).”   The timeliness of this discourse might just be better now than sooner, ironically; for it comes at a time when more and more people in this country are beginning to form an awareness and appreciate the fact that there is a very real need to become an activist at some level, even if their own lifestyle does not permit the type of aggressive, all-out consummate activism in which Kay and I have settled into.   But regardless of the degree of devotion any given individual can afford upon his life to commit to the cause, or the percentage of time he spends getting involved, because the fact is that Americans, in ever-increasing numbers, have said to themselves, “If I don’t get involved, who can I expect will?,” and are now standing up to be counted and to “stem the tide.”

The “tide” represents the “problem” I promised to define in my opening statement, a problem which alone accounts for and provides the only incentive necessary for our becoming involved in the movement and provides the key, when adequately understood, as to why Kay and I are and always will be (unless and until the problem goes away or gets solved) libertarian activists.  This brings me to my explanation.  I somehow get the feeling that people who aren’t intimately aware of the nature and causes of the libertarian movement think that being an activist is some sort of “hobby” for us, that we are involved in politics because we “enjoy politics,” that we somehow have developed an affinity for, or possessed an intrinsic proclivity toward, the subject of “politics.”   The fact that we sign onto and undertake certain projects that are political in nature for compensation might even lead some to conclude that we’re mercenaries who have simply stumbled into that line of work and metamorphosed into professional activists by reason of practicality.   While our impassioned outlook when it comes to all things political should quickly dispel the latter notion, please permit me to offer the (perhaps surprising) revelation that the other notions are just as untrue.  Yes, you read me correctly:  Kay and I are not in politics because we like politics.  In fact, the whole point is that we have a strong antipathy toward politics.   It is precisely our strong aversion to political objects that formed the basis and the springboard for our entry into the libertarian movement as a couple of the busiest and tireless activists around.

This assertion might be perplexing at first to some people, and indeed will begin to make sense only when put in a perspective arrived at by understanding the answers to a few fundamental questions: what is politics, anyway; what is a libertarian; and what’s the problem?  The whole issue of why Kay and I are such fervent, diligent and dedicated activists will begin to elucidate, hopefully, as my explanation of these key concepts unfolds.

Politics is Different

What is politics?  A common trap people fall into is in thinking of politics as a subject or a field of study one decides for himself to enter, much like, say, geology or electrical engineering.   Fallacious thinking of this nature is further compounded when one begins to think of the various political ideologies or viewpoints, such as liberal, conservative or yes, even libertarian, in the same manner as one might view different genres of musical endeavor – such as rock, country or classical, for instance.  In much the same way as a person chooses to be a musician, and then decides to go on and produce work that falls into the style or genre of classical music (in effect, he has chosen classical as his brand or flavor, so to speak), one might choose to enter politics and “pick” liberal as his flavor, or genre.  Or so goes the line of thinking.  However, this way of looking at politics is based upon a flawed premise, one that is readily apparent as such when applied to another “field”, that of street crime.  If I were to employ the same approach to street crime, and suggest that a person might choose to enter the field of criminal activity and might further choose as his “brand” or “genre” that of burglary, i. e., he might decide to be a burglar instead of a rapist or murderer, my assertion would be dismissed in a chorus of hoots and jeers, and justifiably so.

But street crime and politics are not so dissimilar as you might at first think.  In other words, politics shares characteristics that are more similar to street crime than it does to music or electrical engineering.  How?  Because politics, unlike music or electrical engineering, involves – no, has as its very essence – issues of human interactive behavior with fundamental ethical considerations, behavior which, if deemed to be illegitmate or inappropriate when placed under scrutiny, will once and for all thrust politics into the same category as the almost universally-adjudged-to-be-immoral street crime, an area in which most people would not even hesitate to insist needs to be fought with the utmost of vigilence.

My definition of politics – and I think it’s an adequate one – is that it’s the “behavior of attempting to control, through means other than persuasion which is hoped will lead to voluntary cooperation, the lives of other individuals in addition to self.”

As you attempt to analyze and/or digest my definition, I would encourage you to just stop and think about how the machinery of politics actually works in the real world: legislation is passed and becomes compulsory, even upon dissenters who may have fought against the proposed bill; military conquests that hardly resemble persuasion sweeps a regime into power regardless of how many of its residents hold sympathies toward it; and political governments the world over use as their very means of financing itself the only method that is not in fact persuasion, the highly coercive method known as taxation.  So why don’t you judge for yourself if real-world politics conforms to my definition after all?

The obvious next step in the assessment of politics has to then be to ask the following question: is it legitimate to attempt to control the lives of others by means other than persuasion that is hoped will lead to voluntary cooperation?  If it is wrong for the burglar or rapist or murderer to attempt to control others in that manner, then how is it ok for the politician or government official (even if that government official is overwhelmingly supported by most of the public and is acting on their behalf) to do so?   The libertarians – being the only cohesive ideological
group which even seeks to address the ethical considerations of the political process itself – would answer: it isn’t.

So, what is a libertarian? A libertarian is someone who accepts, regardless of the popular sentiment of any given time, the following maxims:

1. Each and every individual human being is absolutely created equal, when it comes to rights or legal status, with no exceptions whatsoever;

2. Since all individuals are seen as equal entities, the application of any philosophy of rights has to be the one and only characteristic that is shared completely and equally among every single individual, that being that each one, male or female, old or young, rich or poor, tall or short, has one individual LIFE.  Therefore, the right of an individual to have exclusive dominion over his own life , which can be exercised in multiple different ways, and is sometimes known as a natural right, is inherent to the individual, or inalienable and its inviolability should be respected;

3. An individual’s dominion extends only to his own life, and to no others. No one individual’s dominion or control over his own life can supercede another, nor be prioritized or ranked ahead of another’s;

4. Any individual or group of individuals, regardless of the size of the group, who attempts to exert control over another individual’s life without his consent, is seen as encroaching upon the rights of that individual, and is therefore engaged in action that is morally inappropriate, given the ethical framework of natural rights (that framework is sometimes called natural law).  This violation is seen as aggression, a crime against an individual.  Aggressive behavior that involves this type of encroachment is the only thing that the libertarian would support the prohibition of, would consider against the law and would assert needs to be addressed through enforcement measures;

5. But what really sets the libertarian apart from the rest, however, is that he will maintain that his professed principles need to be logically and consistently adhered to, if they are to be meaningful at all.  To the libertarian, the assertion that an individual, because he happens to be a government official, has the rightful authority to dictate behavior (remember, only peaceful, non-aggressive behavior is acceptable in the libertarian view) to a civilian, would have no rational basis and would be incongruous to a philosophy that advances equal, natural rights.  As would the suggestion that a white, 19th century plantation owner had the legitimate authority to issue an edict that any black person be forced to pick cotton against his will.  The argument that the majority of those residing in the “slave states” in mid-19th century America actually supported the enslavement of blacks by white plantation owners would not sway the libertarian, for it would not adequately concord with his concept of equal rights (nor would it be an adequate enough thesis to supplant the idea of absolute equal rights as a superior philosophy, as the arguer would probably be hoping for).  Majority rule, or any other artificially-contrived scheme, is rejected by the libertarian because not only does it fail to meet the standards of his rights credo (only individuals have a life, hence only individuals have a right to that life; the majority or any other collective cannot be said to have a “right”, or the “equality” aspect of our credo would be invalidated), but it is in itself a woefully inadequate alternative ethical theory to the libertarian philosophy of equal, inalienable natural rights of all individuals.   As someone once humorously noted, “Democracy is 2 wolves and 1 sheep voting on what to have for breakfast.”

In summary, the libertarian not only believes that everyone is endowed from the outset with equal and inalienable rights, but that everyone should be held to the same standard of exercising and respecting those rights.

The libertarian, then, armed with a cohesive and comprehensive social theory, will stand alone in the political world in actually coming to a determination regarding the ethical considerations that the political process raise.  Since the libertarian approaches the matter logically and consistently, he can expect to come to an accurate and proper determination, which both justice and conscience demand, what with so many real lives of very real people usually hanging in the balance.

Where does that leave politics?

If politics – as we already have established – involves the attempt to control the lives by some over others in complete disregard of an individual’s autonomy, then the libertarian will pass judgment on the ethical question of whether social goals should be pursued through political means with a resounding response in the negative.

The libertarian, who as you now know, believes in a framework of equal natural rights for all individuals, understands that politics as a process for achieving social goals, however noble those goals may seem to be, is incongruous to that ethical framework, will necessarily and invariably thwart the will of some, to their real or perceived detriment, and is therefore deemed to be immoral and wrong.  Because politics weighs in on the negative side of a libertarian’s sense of right and wrong, he will be opposed to it and may even be compelled to action to fight against it.

Whenever a government body passes a “law” mandating that peaceful and honest individuals behave in ways contrary to their own desired will, this is a political act that encroaches upon the natural rights of some individuals and causes libertarians to mobilize and fight back.  Whenever a policeman uses coercive force to arrest an individual peacefully minding his own business, though he may or may not have run afoul of one of thousands or millions of illegitimate political edicts he may or may not even be aware of, an individual’s right is nevertheless being violated, sounding the trumpet for libertarians to rally to action to vigorously oppose such action.

The reason is simple. The libertarian will be, whenever such an event occurs, asking anyone who will listen, “By what authority is a legislator, a policeman, a governor, a judge, anyone, authorized to forcibly intervene in the dominion of an individual (provided that individual hasn’t himself encroached upon anyone else’s life) against his expressed wishes?” To date, no answer to this question has been satisfactorily given to the libertarian; in fact, the libertarian might even ask, “If an individual himself doesn’t own and have dominion over his own life, then who does?”  And expect that until someone provides an answer that satisfies all the necessary parameters of individual ownership, the default position should lie with the more self-evident self-ownership principle.

That the libertarian is involved in politics is no more a contradiction than the fireman who is involved in fire (he hates destructive fires, so feels compelled to fight them) or the cancer researcher who is involved in the cancer field (he finds cancer repugnant and battles against it). In the same way that a fireman is anti-fire, or a cancer researcher is anti-cancer, the libertarian fighting political blazes by the government as the metaphorical unrepentant arsonist can be said to be anti-political (or anti-government, to the extent that it’s the government, as the chief executor of politics, who is the most prolific at disregarding individual rights).

By the way, the reason that politics can’t be compared to music, which has multiple varied genres coexisting peacefully, is that the products the music industry produces (tapes, CDs, live concerts) are bid out in a market fashion, with each consumer purchasing only what he feels it will take to satisfy his demand for the commodity.  Yet, the “products” that liberals and conservatives and the like, have to offer are not really products at all, but are in fact competing agenda that happen to be, usually, fatally in conflict with each other, and almost always in conflict with libertarianism (which can more accurately be described as a plea for no political agenda, than as an agenda in itself; but I’m reminded that even negative numbers are numbers, and so it is that libertarianism, though completely anti-political, is nonetheless a political player).  Note closely my choice of words: “…in conflict with…”  While the music genres are in contrast to each other, the political “genres” – the liberal agenda, the conservative agenda and yes, the libertarian anti-agenda – are actually in conflict with, not merely in contrast with, each other.   Only a small amount of logic is needed to discern the difference between the two and realize that items that are in conflict with one another cannot coexist peacefully.   And if items cannot coexist peacefully, the moral implications are thus:  If a condition exists where two or more political agenda are in irreconcilable conflict with each other, i.e., there is no way to reconcile the situation in a way that leaves room for all political agenda to be implemented and become operational, then it’s obvious that one or more agenda have to be invalid, leaving either the valid one (for purposes of this thesis it can only be the libertarian one, or the one that is libertarian in character, or is respecting of natural rights, that is the valid one when cast against those with un-libertarian attributes) or none at all, when no libertarian alternative is present.   It has to be a truism that no two conflicting political agenda can be left standing when it’s all said and done, in any practical sense, in any meaningful way that involves implementation, as logic and even laws of physics would dictate.

So, common sense will suggest that, in any case of competing, conflicting agenda (this is what politics is all about, really), some premise, preferably the correct, i.e., moral one – if we want to do what’s right, that is, and prevent injustices – has to be applied in order to sort it out in a determination of which one will be the one to prevail.   But alas, as today’s libertarians are keenly aware, too often the agenda that prevails is the one cocked and loaded with human rights abuses ready to be fired off in a succession of reckless discharges.   Often too, is the case of conflicting agenda in a perpetual tug-of-war for power, with no single agenda left in a sole, clear-cut -prevailing position.

Usually, in real life, no principle or premise is applied at all in reaching a determination of which agenda should or will prevail, or in effecting the victory of any agenda.  Virtually every time, in a world dominated by politics, it comes down to a power struggle, to whoever has the most political clout or power, or even whoever has the most military might.  The libertarian perspective is all but forgotten, lost in a free-for-all to get to the top of the heap.  But think about it:  isn’t an “agenda” that holds high the banner that says that no one should be able to force his agenda on anyone else really the one that is superior and the one that should prevail?  After all, in the same way that the compulsory foisting of the white, 19th-century plantation owners’ agenda on the black population in the antebellum south caused untold strife, irreparable harm and a resentment that reverberated for decades to come, anytime that one group forcibly crams – through political, non persuasive action – their agenda down the unwelcome throats of another group, the same types of problems will persist, the same kind of suffering, resentment and strife, because people are always better off when they are free to pursue their own agenda and, consequently are free to reject any agenda that doesn’t appeal to them or estimate will be to their detriment and cause them harm.  Often, as will be illustrated below, having an unsolicited and unwelcome agenda results in poverty, injury, loss of freedom or even death.  One need look no further than the 1960s and Viet Nam to realize that this is, unfortunately true.  The solution: to work toward a society where, when someone has an agenda, they either utilize persuasion in hopes of getting their neighbors to go along with it, or keep it to themselves.  Yes, there’s no doubt about it: there can be no real, intelligent argument that moving to the libertarian non-agenda would cause the least amount of suffering or harm.

Harm.  That leads me to my conclusion, in which I hope to satisfy for you the final question I posed earlier, which is, “What’s the problem?”

Well, if you rejected my notion of rights and instead believe that no one has any (and that would include yourself, of course), that all there is and should be is a mish-mash of privileges of varying ranks, some trumping others at certain times with no apparent pattern or logical consistency, or that might-makes-right and whatever it is you can do to “win” is fair and good, then, from your perspective, there’s not a problem and you’ve finally finished this essay.  But, if you accept the libertarian view that all men and women are created with equal rights that are not only inalienable but should at all times be respected by everyone, including government officials, then you should be by now concerned that there is a very big problem.

The Problem

Harm is the real crux of the situation, since if politics posed no harm or threat to anyone, there wouldn’t be any need for activism.  But the harm is not only rampant and epidemic, but as long as the government is allowed to continue to exist, the harm will only continue and its scope will be ever-expanding.  There’s a reason we libertarians level a seemingly inordinate amount of energy on harm done by the government, when in actual fact harm is inflicted by all types of individuals and organizations.  But while private sector harm is and will continue to be a problem, the harm done by government is industrial strength by comparison.

Actually, there’s really no comparison.  After all, who but governments have the power to wage wars and engage in mass destruction?  Who but governments have the power to kill as many of its “subjects” as it wishes at will with impunity?  Who else but governments have the ability to incarcerate millions of its “subjects”, after leveling charges against many of them, based on whatever whim it had felt like at the time, whenever it liked, with virtually no fear of repercussion whatsoever?

In our own country, the incarceration rate is the highest in the world, with over 2 million Americans sitting in jail, most because of “victimless crimes”.   And care to guess what has been the leading cause of death throughout the history of the world, aside from natural disease and illness?  If you guessed being killed at the hands of your own government, then you guessed right.

The examples are just too numerous to list in this essay. You’ve got the Kent State shootings, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Wounded Knee massacre, Waco and Ruby Ridge, the shooting 41 times by police of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed African street vendor in New York City  – the list can go on and on. I can only scratch the surface of the killings perpetrated by governments, from cops to the military to the FBI to the national guard to IRS agents, you name it.  And we all know you don’t have to actually be killed to be harmed.  The government and its policies are responsible for a mind-boggling array of harm, harm that stretches anywhere from minor irritations and harassment to killing and maiming.  Rodney King didn’t get killed by the agents of the government (L.A. cops) but he suffered immensely, just the same.  Actually, he was one of the luckier victims of government, having had his beating filmed on videotape.  But make no mistake about it: had it not been for the footage, his case never would have been heard and the cops would have gotten away with it, as thousands and thousands of cops get away with the same type of brutal stuff everyday, to thousands of their victims all across America and the world.

Every day, people lose their lives, get beat up, lose their homes, their cars, all sorts of property and get harassed and literally driven into the ground by some arm of government “just doing its duty.”

And there’s no need to keep our discussion of harm restricted to high profile cases, or of instances with strangers, either.  Personal experiences of harm played no minor role in our becoming activists, that’s for certain.

In 1987 in Texas I lost several hours of my “freedom” by having to sit in a county holding cell, and lose a couple hundred dollars of my hard-earned money to boot.  Why?   Because I chose to drive down the road minding my own business, hurting no one, but without a seat belt.

In the 1970s in British Columbia, Kay had her windows and doors busted in by rifle-toting thugs of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who then pointed the barrels of their weapons in her face and commenced to make her and her then-husband’s life a living hell for the following months, all because of a plant that grew naturally in the area, which they had access to (marijuana).

In 1991 in Miami, Florida, I was brutally violated by five police officers (let’s call them ‘thugs’, for accuracy, shall we?) for no reason other than my querying them if they might not have a warrant to unilaterally stick their filthy hands in my pockets while I stood on a public sidewalk gathering signatures on a petition.  Then, if that weren’t bad enough, they possessed the audacity to charge me with battery (when I’m the one who was battered) after – of course – laughing and taunting me about it like a gang of schoolyard bullies.  Trouble was, their being cops, or agents of the government, they’re the ones who get to write the police report and the charges, not me, so the charges don’t even have to resemble remotely what was actually taking place.  Thus, it was able to go from a scenario of reality, whereas I was gathering signatures on a public sidewalk perfectly within my rights, to the fictional, felonious scenario that ultimately I was forced to defend in court, that I suddenly decided to go hunt down and beat up five police officers – just because I felt like it, I guess!

Then there was the time in Santa Fe in 1998 when, on election day, Kay and I were peacefully standing in line to vote, wearing Libertarian clothing in a heavily-Democrat precinct and found ourselves arrested and denied suffrage while they jokingly amused themselves with comments to me (while handcuffed in the back of a cop car as the polls began to close) like, “Boy, sure is a nice turnout [at the polls] this evening, isn’t it?”  I won’t go into the ensuing nightmare we were forced to endure, or the costs we were forced to incur, or the lost productive time due to their absurdity.  Yet, that arrest, even the governor of the state disagreed with, but, of course, the harm had already been done.  Harm that is, in fact, the hallmark of government.  And if the essence of government is really harm, and not help, why not become an activist and try to eradicate as much of it as possible.

We’ve all heard the rumors that the government is there to help, which reminds me of a bumper sticker I once had with an image of a hand pointing a loaded revolver toward the reader with the caption, “I’m from the government – I’m here to help you.”  But we “in the know” know better. Actually, Harry Browne was pretty right on when he said that the government is really good at only one thing, and that’s to break your leg, hand you a crutch, and then say, “See, if it weren’t for government, you wouldn’t be able to walk.”   But gee, I’m envious – when my proverbial “leg” was broken in Miami and Texas and Santa Fe (and a host of other scenes I didn’t have room to mention) I didn’t get handed a crutch – all I got was a promise to break my other leg next time they got the chance.

As far as I’m concerned, when an entity, such as the government, can violate you, and then, not only be able to get away with it, but actually place you on trial (for hurting them?) then putting up with the sheer existence of a government has gotten to the point of insanity and shouldn’t be tolerated by a rational populace.

Whenever it is I hear of a case like mine, or like Kay’s, I feel compelled to remain an activist and fight that much harder to abolish the entity responsible for the harm.  Whenever I hear of some elderly person’s home being taken away just because they didn’t pay real estate ransom to the municipality, my ire gets up and I want to cut the government down to size.  Whenever I hear of some hapless foreign youngster being maimed or killed for no other reason than that the U.S. military wanted to flex its might, I see red and like David, want to slay the Superpower Goliath in hopes that no more innocents will suffer at its hands.  Whenever I see cops on TV running some young man down like a lion would a deer because of what he chooses to smoke in the privacy of his own home, I get indignant and refuse to give up my valiant fight against The State, the most prolific rights violator ever known to man.  And still echoing in my ears and stained in my mind’s eye forever, is the sweet-looking 20-something girl from a Harry Browne for president ad who is serving 99 years for experimentation with drugs even though the very politicians who are most adamant about the violent and insane war on drugs, such as Bill Clinton, Al Gore and George W. Bush, have admitted experimenting themselves, but instead of sitting in a prison somewhere, are living a life of pomp and luxury – at our expense!  Can the situation be classified as anything but insanity?

I mean, we’re talking about a scenario whereby government agents of all stripes get to go around, capriciously and at random, single out someone whom they don’t like, and make their life miserable, and impoverish many of them.  And where do they get the resources to commit all this mayhem?  Why, from the very people they violate and impoverish, of course!  And these people get anything they want, live in the finest homes, drive the most expensive cars, dine anywhere they please, live in style.  But we should have to pay taxes, I’m told.  To which I’ll respond by saying, “Yeah, right; give me a break. Go waste your breath on someone who isn’t aware of what’s really going on, because that’s not me.”

One might make the observation, an observation which I cannot dismiss, that the prospect of ever slaying the evil leviathan looks pretty much hopeless, due to its size and entrenchment. There is a lot of truth to that, but then again, stranger things have happened.

I’m reminded of the story about a man who was walking along the beach, throwing beached starfish back into the water.  A man came up along behind him, a man who had been observing his actions for some time and asked him what he was doing.  The first man replied, “I’m throwing these starfish back into the water, because they’ll die up here in the sand if I don’t.”  The second man exclaimed and admonished, “You must be nuts.  There are thousands, possibly millions, even, of starfish up here on this beach.  You can’t possibly save them all.  There’s no way you can possibly make a difference.”  The first man, unshaken, simply smiled, picked up another starfish, threw him back into the water and said, “Made a difference for that one.”

Too, to me, it’s a matter of principle, conviction and personal legacy.  If there is a Judgment Day, I want to be able to stand before my Creator and, when asked if I took part in wrongdoings that I was “supposed to” go along with, if I condoned those actions just because my neighbors were doing so, and if not, did I take any extraordinary action to prevent or stop them from occurring, with answers of complete character and integrity, that I was never part of the problem and was instead part of the solution.

Hopefully, you’re no longer wondering why we’re crusading to make a difference.



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