Kathleen Parker’s column about “combat vet” libertarians who have made talk of violent resistance unsettlingly common is both powerful and welcome. Coming from a conservative, it carries particular weight (and was meant to).
But it started me thinking: what’s the fundamental difference between the kind of responsible libertarians whom I happily have dinner with and the “buy more guns, more bullets” contingent? It’s not a matter of differences on policy or extremism vs. moderation. Some Cato supporters aren’t too far from Ayn Rand, while some militia types support—whether coherently or not—Social Security and Medicare.
Bentham’s Anarchical Fallacies steers us in the right direction. The basic difference is between anti-government activists who use “ought not” or “should not” in referring to laws they oppose and those who use “cannot.” When a political argument uses “ought not,”
the moderate expression of opinion and will intimated by this phrase, leads naturally to the inquiry after a reason….
But “can not,” applied to a government measure (except when part of an empirical observation, not our concern here) conveys something very different and evokes something very different. “Cannot” talk—which Bentham calls “bawling upon paper”—dresses up my will that a law shouldn’t exist in a language that suggests that it should be disobeyed and its supporters should be assassinated.
My will is here so strong, that, as a means of seeing it crowned with success, I use my influence with the persons concerned to persuade them to consider a law which, at the same time, I suppose to be made, in the same point of view as if it were not made; and consequently, to pay no more obedience to it than if it were the command of an unauthorized individual.
As passions are contagious, and the bulk of men are more guided by the opinions and pretended opinions of others than by their own, a large share of confidence, with a little share of argument, will be apt to go farther than all the argument in the world without confidence: and hence it is, that modes of expression like these, which owe the influence they unhappily possess to the confidence they display, have met with such general reception.
[“Cannot” talk] is no appeal to anything, or to anybody, but a violent attempt upon the liberty of speech and action on the part of others, by the terrors of anarchical despotism, rising up in opposition to the laws: it is an attempt to lift the dagger of the assassin against all individuals who presume to hold an opinion different from that of the orator or the writer, and against all governments which presume to support any such individuals in any such presumption.
Can and can not, when thus applied…are the disguised cant of the assassin….They resemble that instrument which in outward appearance is but an ordinary staff, but which within that simple and innocent semblance conceals a dagger. These are the words that speak daggers—if daggers can be spoken: they speak daggers, and there remains nothing but to use them.
I wish this weren’t topical.