Speaking daggers

What distinguishes responsible libertarianism from the kind that says “buy more guns, more bullets”? Bentham helps us out here: it’s the difference between arguing that the government should not do something and asserting that it cannot. The latter isn’t an argument; it’s an appeal to violence.

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.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

30 thoughts on “Speaking daggers”

  1. I think all of us who don't counsel subservience to genocides agree that at some point laws should be disobeyed, and supporters assasinated. And most of the militia types I've encountered don't think we're at that point yet, they just think that waiting until we reach that point before arming and organizing is rather like waiting until the flames are licking against your bedroom door to buy your fire extinguisher and plan an escape route.

    So the difference here is not one of kind, but of degree. And probably not so much difference as to the point at which the assasination takes place, as to the point where you start thinking about how you go about assasinating. And whether that's really smoke they smell, and not just somebody's dirty socks…

  2. Anyway, Ms. Parker asks, "Is the political environment becoming so toxic that we could see another Timothy McVeigh emerge?"

    No, the government hasn't burned any Americans alive in their own homes in better than a decade. Haven't heard much about American mothers being shot dead by snipers while holding their children in their arms, either. And deny it all you like, that sort of thing was what was making our political environment so toxic back in the early 90's. Not health care 'reform' proposals. Our government killing it's citizens in really brutal ways.

    Can't think of a better way to bring back the toxic environment, than turning a blind eye to where the toxin was coming from…

  3. "Haven’t heard much about American mothers being shot dead by snipers while holding their children in their arms, either. And deny it all you like, that sort of thing was what was making our political environment so toxic back in the early 90’s."

    Yes, that's why we saw so many militia groups forming to oppose Bush I.

    Not.

  4. Yo, Brett:

    I suppose that assassinating American citizens doesn't count?

    Of course not. These are Ay-rab Americans that the administration plans to assassinate. Not home-grown Christian terrorists.

  5. For the record, I find almost all libertarians very, very annoying. We may all think some laws are more important than others (against murder v. against speeding a bit …), but if someone goes so far as to actually label himself as a libertarian, it's a good sign he's got more than one screw loose.

    And that's before we get anywhere near the issue of violent means.

    On the other hand, I guess it is a good deed to feed them (protein) dinner, as it may help their thought process.

  6. "Yes, that’s why we saw so many militia groups forming to oppose Bush I."

    Yup, exactly. Or are you actually under the delusion that the militia movement got it's start when Clinton was elected? Most of the stuff that had them pissed off happened under Bush. Even Waco was barely into Clinton's first term, and at least the way it started had to be pinned on Bush, it was perpetrated by people Bush promoted for committing Ruby Ridge. though Clinton bears responsibility for the way it ended.

  7. "Yup, exactly. Or are you actually under the delusion that the militia movement got it’s start when Clinton was elected?"

    No, but it went from jack sh*t to much larger. I'm in Michigan.

  8. Brett's account accords nicely w/ McVeigh's own stated grievances & self-justification, or parts of them. He was also angry about taxes, regulation, gun rights, the Constitution generally, socialist tyranny, woman trouble, the microchip in his head, etc. He was a disordered person, failing & desperate. So it’s prudent to attend to terrorists’ & their apologists’ propaganda, but not to take it at face value as a complete causal account.

    The toxicity of our political environment back in the early ‘90s was largely a matter of the rise of rightwing talk-radio, the radicalization of the Congressional Republican caucus, things like Richard Scaife’s Arkansas Project, Robert Bartley, Pat Buchanan, etc, etc – in short, it emerged from the heart of the right, not the lunatic fringes. And the mainstream right wasn’t concerned chiefly w/ Randy Weaver (whose case began & ended during Republican administrations, as Brett notes) or the Branch Davidian siege. It’s a fair question how far the toxicity of mainstream rightwing rhetoric influenced the likes of McVeigh or the subculture that enabled him, but in any case Oklahoma City rightly cast the rhetoric in a darker light.

  9. And I was in Michigan, too, at the time. Fancy that, they went crazy when the feds went from killing people by the ones and twos, to killing them by the dozens. That's the sort of thing that OUGHT to drive people apesh*t, if they're not morally numb, or committed statists.

    The point is, the militia movement damned well DID criticize Bush, when he was in office. Who do you think they blamed Ruby Ridge on? Or the fact that Waco was pulled off by people Bush PROMOTED for what they did at Ruby Ridge? Reagan put a choke chain on the BATF, Bush took it off and told them "sic em'!". Clinton was little more than a continuation of Bush in that respect.

  10. K, you guys just love McVeigh. He's a ready made excuse to attack anybody who agreed with him on anything. If he'd complained about malaria, you'd feel justified in attacking people who raised money for mosquito nets.

  11. Heck, Brent, we also love Eric Rudolph. We love all of you right-wing clowns who turn to murder and arson, and then complain about EarthFirst! and Bill Ayers. We love the "liberal" media that perpetuates the idea that multitudes perished in the 1960s at the hands of left-wing terrorists, but that right-wing groups like the Minute Men and Posse Comitatus never hurt anyone.

    Selective bunch, your militias. I went to beaucoups gun shows during the reign of Bush II and tried to get them interested in things like domestic spying and the PATRIOT Act and the increasing federal deficit–and they could not have been more apathetic. Now that The Dusky Ethiop sits in the Oval Office, though, things sure have changed…

  12. Can anyone else hear the world's smallest violin playing for the Branch Davidians? Let's not blame the child molesting mental patient with a god complex, it was obviously the government's fault.

  13. Elbows, it seems to me there's plenty of blame to go around. I've only read news accounts, not in-depth studies, but it seems like the attempt to end the siege was monumentally poorly done. Still, your point that David Koresh was the mad leader of a nutty heavily-armed cult with persecution fantasies and practices of sexual abuse, a record that eventually led to the fulfillment of those persecution fantasies (a fulfillment that once the siege began was helped along and made worse by the fantasies themselves), and that for some reason people only ever mention the governmental wrongdoing and not his wrongdoing – that point is too often overlooked.

  14. I don't know about who the militia movement blamed at the time, but online, today, Clinton almost always gets the blame for Ruby Ridge; the people who bring it up rarely remember that it happened under GHW Bush. I think it just gets conflated with the end of the Waco siege.

  15. Brett, you tip your hand too easily. Sane people do not believe today's government is coming after them. In sympathizing with these nutballs you accept their crazy premise.

    Waco and Ruby Ridge were probably handled poorly. But they were anything but a conspiracy to start "killing its citizens". If you're a militia, maybe. If you're an illegal immigrant, maybe. If you're a Muslim, maybe. Liberals ain't the ones with the problem standing up for the little guy.

    Oh wait… I did mention illegal immigrants and Muslims, didn't I. Sorry!

  16. Child abuse? Oh, yeah, that's SOP for dealing with child abuse allegations: Go in with guns blazing. Hell, I didn't even know the BATF HAD jurisdiction over child abuse. Could have sworn the people who did have jurisdiction investigated, and found nothing. Betcha think using tear gas on children to get their parents to surrender is clever, too.

    You guys are pathetic when it comes to Waco: The feds trapped those people, cut off their communications, and spent over a MONTH demonizing them in regular press conferences while making sure they couldn't dispute anything, and then, when public sympathy reached a low point, they died. If they were guilty as hell of everything the government said, that was a frightening display to watch. Because whether they were guilty had nothing to do with it, if they did the same to YOU, people would cheer your end. You whine about "Kristallnacht", and don't blink at stuff the SS would have felt at home doing.

    Is it any wonder the militia types think the left would run a police state if they got the chance? Every time the subject comes up of our government acting like one, you make excuses. Obama could set up a series of concentration camps, and if he did it in a cause you loved, and Sunstein's Department of Internal Subversion had been at work a while, you'd think everybody in them deserved to be made into lamp shades.

    You're ready made minions, just waiting for the right dictator to come along.

    Bottom line, Eli: Sane people do NOT believe "It can't happen here."

  17. Who can forget Obama's subtle jest, made just a month prior to taking office:

    If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator."

    Oh wait…it was actually Bush

    My bad.

  18. The government can waterboard its own citizens?

    Shall we be content with the terms "should not" or "ought not" to signal that we might tolerate such things? Is active opposition to be so condemned?

    Let's choose something that has definitely not happened yet (American Blackwater employees may have been waterboarded.)

    The government cannot execute your children for demonstrating at anti-government rallies.

    "Ought not"? "Should not"?

    At what point does civilization collapse to the point where civility becomes farce?

    If we admit such a point exists, it then becomes a matter of where one draws that line that dictates one's sanity. Today's right wing terrorists draw their line much closer to current civilization that the vast majority is comfortable with. Where is the line that, if crossed, would bring about rebellion from a plurality capable of government overthrow? I do not know. I strongly suspect such a line exists and my pride in being American rests on our government steering well clear of it. The Cheney/Bush administration failed that test and I would be all the happier if president Obama would complete the important work of dismantling the twisted legal logic that justified our government saying in unacceptable circumstances "Ah! But indeed we CAN!"

  19. "Bottom line, Eli: Sane people do NOT believe “It can’t happen here.”"

    I didn't say that at all. I specifically said *today's government*. Your views are unarguably paranoid and absurd. "Concentration camps"? Give me a break.

  20. I feed obliged to add something. Commenters express themselves hyperbolically here at times, but if anyone currently knows a person who’s really weighing whether it’s time to start thinking about assassinating supporters of US law, or literally fears as a significant possibility that, in the United States in 2010, the government is about to commit genocide against the people, or make them into lampshades, or come & burn him alive in his bedroom, the actual source of his distress is almost certainly not the government, but a serious mental disorder. His anger almost certainly has personal, prepolitical sources. The appropriate response isn’t more political discussion, but to strongly encourage him to get prompt professional help. This is a serious matter, as people with these kinds of mental disorders suffer terribly, & can be a threat to themselves & others.

  21. Conversely, of course, if somebody expresses the opinion that, under certain extraordinary circumstances which don't currently obtain, armed resistance against the government would be justified, you shouldn't pretend that they're currently waging war against the government, and deserve to be called 'terrorists'. Even if they disagree with you about how likely those circumstances are, and who'd bring them about.

    Yes, even if they think that the Boy Scout motto applies to circumstances like that.

    I've been at peaceful political protests where we could see police snipers on the neighboring roofs ready to shoot into the crowd, just because we were "right-wingers" protesting for our 2nd amendment rights. One mistake and you damned well WOULD have had some people out for blood. That kind of "right wing terrorist" rhetoric is dangerous if you sling it about indiscriminatingly, and it gets taken seriously.

  22. I want to be clear. What we’re talking about isn’t a matter of reasonable disagreement or differences of degree. If a person really fears there’s a significant probability that the US government is going to commit genocide against its citizens, turn us into lampshades, etc, the point isn’t that he’s a terrorist, but that he’s most likely seriously mentally ill. In some cases these kinds of beliefs may arise because they serve to rationalize the person’s own impulses toward violence. If his delusions have led him to prepare to assassinate supporters of US law, he’s preparing to become terrorist. In any case he needs to be urged to seek help.

  23. Let me be clear, in return: If somebody currently thinks there's a significant probability that the US government is going to commit genocide against it's citizens tomorrow, they're probably mentally ill. If they think there's a significant probability that, if trends continue, the US government might commit genocide against it's own citizens ten years from now, they're simply less optimistic than you. If they thought that back when federal agents were burning people alive in their own homes, they were simply less than Polyannish.

    At the risk of having somebody yell "Godwin!", who thought Germany was going to be making lampshades out of people ten years later, in 1935? Maybe if somebody HAD worried about that, it never would have happened.

  24. With great respect, Brett B, the only US government to set up concentration camps lately has been that of GW Bush. The Waco event was grotesque and horrible but did not represent US government policy towards all its citizens. Has its like been seen in the 15+ years since then? There is no doubt that Bush/Cheney/Rove took the country huge steps towards deprivation of civil liberties based on artificial fear, but it is still not mentally stable to be watching out for concentration camps or forcible deprivation of major liberties in the US at the instance of the US government in any of our lifetimes, even young ones.

  25. You put a lot of weight on that "lately". And on that "all its citizens", too. I don't think even North Korea ever tried to put ALL its citizens to death…

  26. Anyway, to sum up my points:

    1. There ARE circumstances under which one should resist the government, and assassinate it's supporters. They don't presently obtain.

    2. Germany went from one of the most liberal states in Europe, (Which is why they had so many Jews available to kill…) to the final solution, in the space of a few years. So whether we think there will be a genocide tomorrow has nothing to do with the plausibility of a genocide a decade hence. It's not just wrong to deny this, it's dangerous. Believing that "it can't happen here" makes it happening here more likely.

    3. Stating that you'd resist the government, and assassinate it's supporters, under justified circumstances which don't presently obtain, doesn't make you a terrorist.

    So, you can't categorically attack people who are willing to say that, under some circumstances they'd be willing to take up arms against the government. It really does depend on the circumstances that would trigger that action.

    And don't call people who aren't committing terrorist acts "terrorists". It's just your own version of "eliminationist rhetoric"; After all, isn't that what the government is supposed to do with terrorists? Eliminate them?

  27. Brett: "Germany went from one of the most liberal states in Europe, (Which is why they had so many Jews available to kill…) to the final solution, in the space of a few years. So whether we think there will be a genocide tomorrow has nothing to do with the plausibility of a genocide a decade hence. It’s not just wrong to deny this, it’s dangerous. Believing that “it can’t happen here” makes it happening here more likely."

    And when Bush & Co. were headed down the path to a totalitarian state as fast and as far as they could (which, thankfully, turned out to be far less than they thought, due to their own phenomenal incompetance), where the f*ck were the crowds of thousands of Tea Baggers waving guns?

  28. When Bush the Elder had the BATF going around killing people extra-judicially, the militia movement was certainly up in arms. The tea party movement wasn't around yet. By the time Bush the younger was in office, the militia movement was much reduced by the Clinton era persecutions, and the BATF wasn't doing much anymore to provoke them. (Bush might not have been a friend to gun owners, but he wasn't stupid enough to be an enemy to them.)

    The Tea party movement, while it's comprised mainly of gun owners, (Any right-wing movement is going to be, considering how common gun ownership is.) is mainly about economics, not 2nd amendment rights, and you won't see very many people waving guns around at Tea party rallies.

    Neither movement is much concerned about the depredations of the US government against foreigners, but I figure people who didn't much care about Americans being burned alive are in no position to be critical about that.

  29. Brett the token libertarian: "There ARE circumstances under which one should resist the government, and assassinate its supporters. They don’t presently obtain."

    The theory of Just Terrorism is subject to the same constraints of precticality as Just War: among other tests, you have to have a reasonable chance of achieving your aim. (Just War also requires a legitimate authority, which insurgents very rarely have). Modern terrorism fails to meet this test, dramatically. Even Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of the IRA reached this conclusion, with very significant popular support and a strong organisation; and the even stronger Tamil Tigers were defeated militarily. You have perhaps to go back to the Algerian FLN and the Nazi Party to find a political movement that succeeded in part using terrorist methods. The pre-revolutionary Bolsheviks were against terrorism, for practical not moral reasons. And please don't talk to me about the French Resistance: it was essentially non-violent up to June 1944, because of the effective German policy of shooting hostages in reprisal for attacks. The idea thet in the USA today a groupuscule of right-wing kooks would have any real chance against a suburban sheriff's department, let alone the 82nd Airborne, is risible. Militias have been militarily a sideshow since Agincourt. Lexington was a fluke. Rob Roy is a legend. Robin Hood is a myth.

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