I was part of a Facebook conversation the other day, and the topic at hand was a discussion of what is – and is not – proper for the government to do. It was a public thread, on a libertarian profile, with people from all over participating. One of the ladies didn’t like the advocacy for minimalist government being put forward. She used a library as an example of how, when we work together, we can accomplish more than we can alone. So she supported doing things like libraries and education through the government.
She was right. We can do some really good things when we work together. But she was missing something important.
What was missing is that, funding the library with it’s lovely collection, pleasant programming, and charming librarians is a heavily armed IRS agent. He’s not cute and cuddley, and he really doesn’t care that, for example, your daughter had a 10-day NICU stay, and both your sons had surgeries this year, and you really can’t afford to make your “contribution” to the library. If you don’t ante up, he’ll shoot your dog on his way to rip you out of your shower so he can throw you in jail.
The power to participate in the governing process is the power to determine under what circumstances it is legal to use force on our fellow men. Governments exist for only one purpose: to make and enforce rules governing human conduct. Every rule or law which is passed has attached to it a penalty. The penalty invariably takes from the disobedient either his life, his liberty, or his property.
Under a government subject to the voice of the people, the ultimate responsibility for laws, and therefore for determining when it is proper to kill a person, jail him, or take from him his property, rests directly on the voting citizen. There is no other place to rest the credit or blame for what is done in the name of government.
-H. Verlan Anderson (Many Are Called But Few Are Chosen, Introduction)
This woman did not believe that she was being unkind. The on the contrary, it was clear from her comments that she was moved by compassion for those around her, particularly the less fortunate, and that is a noble impulse. But what she didn’t notice is that when libraries, schools, public pools, and so forth are funded through taxes you can have things like the widow on a fixed income, the one whose children have long since grown and left, and she’s getting by. But if she has a major medical event, or some other significant expense, she may very well be forced from her home by her inability to pay property taxes and her new bills both, even if her house is completely paid for. The tax collector isn’t going to let her off without paying her “fair share.” She considered only the effects of what is seen: the library. She missed entirely that which is unseen: the coercion that funds it, and the unintended consequences that even good things can have when they are done incorrectly (because certainly broad access to knowledge, the purpose of a library, is a good thing, and necessary to the survival of a republic). The end never can justify the means.
To use force is a serious thing, and you don’t have to see the man with the gun to be violating another’s agency. A number of church leaders, including President McKay and Elder Uchtdorf have said that agency is God’s greatest gift to man, next to life itself. We should be as reluctant to damage agency as we are to damage life! President Hunter taught,
“Those who are filled with the love of Christ do not seek to force others to do better, they inspire others to do better, indeed inspire them to the pursuit of God.”
(A More Excellent Way, April 1992)
We live in a wicked world, and Satan does his best to make evil look desirable, even justified. One of his strategies is to make evil actions, such as the unwarranted use of force, legal, even mandatory. It can be easy to miss, indeed, he takes great pains to disguise himself and his handiwork, and to whisper soothing lies to those who may feel uneasy. But the fact remains, most of the time, the use of force, even -and perhaps especially- to achieve benevolent ends is not justified.
“There is great risk in justifying what we do individually and professionally by what is “legal,” rather than what is “right.” In doing so, we put our very souls at risk.
-James E. Faust, “Be Healers”, Clark Memorandum, Spring 2003
How do we risk our souls? Well, one way would be to violate agency. If agency is, as our prophets have taught, as valuable as life, then we can anticipate that the penalties for the destruction of agency will be as severe as those for the destruction of life, and the repentance process as urgent and arduous. Yet most are much more casual in their concern for agency than they would ever dream of being in their concern for life.
Libertarianism is the idea that we can work together to do good things without the use of force. And we can do it better than it could ever hope to be done by the force of government. We don’t need a man with a gun to make us build a library. Like minded people can create privately funded libraries. Perhaps a church, or a service organization, a philanthropist would create one. Maybe a businessman would create one that might charge a subscription fee. The beauty of it is, if you want the service you can buy in. If you feel poor folks may be left out, you can raise funds for a scholarship, or open an all-volunteer library in a donated space. Will every library built fit your idea of the ideal library? No. And that is ok, even desirable. The possibilities are limitless. And they absolutely do not require force to get the job done.
Never forget: when we do a thing through the government, we are embracing force to get the job done. We are saying, in effect, “This job is so important that all must participate, and any who will not are going to lose freedom, property, or even their life as the penalty.” We need to be very clear that we are within the bounds of justice when we act, whether our action is purely individual, as well as when we act within a group, a State, or our nation. In all cases, we are responsible for the force that is used, whether we use the force ourselves or whether it is “merely” done in our name.
In my view, there are very few things for which we can, in justice, use force against our neighbor.