Ideas and the Culpability for Violence
July 27, 2011
by Lew Rockwell
The violence perpetuated by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway unleashed the
usual torrent of blaming anyone who might have influenced the murderer’s thought.
He was first described as a right-wing Christian — a description designed to
put a certain community on notice. As more evidence rolled in, he has been more
accurately described as an anti-Islamic nationalist, but the tendency to pin
this violence on any non-leftist is still there.
There were footnotes in his 1,500-page manifesto to many dozens of books and
articles — including a few published by the Mises Institute. Looking at
the balance of his citations, however, it’s clear that his main influence had
nothing to do with libertarianism. His inspiration was a point of view reminiscent
of American neoconservatism. He cited articles in this tradition — particularly
on the fear and hate of Islam — far more often than any other.
So, does this violence discredit neoconservatism, as when then-President Clinton
tried to blame libertarians and the "militia" movement for the Oklahoma
bombing in 1995? The point of this game is to silence the opposition, shut down
debate, and fundamentally discredit the body of ideas on which the violence
can be blamed.
It’s pretty much been this way since the ancient world. Governments can perpetuate
violence in war and against the civilian population every day, but when a private
person does the same for political reasons, a struggle ensues to see which line
of thinking will pay what price.
The truth is that every political point of view can be twisted into a rationale
for violence. If you think that the rich should be expropriated, there are generally
two ways to bring this about: you and your friends can steal from the rich directly
— maybe killing some fat cats in the process — or you can lobby
Congress to do it for you.
The second method is preferred in a democratic society. When violence against
person and property operates under the cover of the law, it is rarely called
out for what it truly is. It is only when the legal cover is removed that the
violence shocks and alarms us. But what about the morality of it all, whether
we are speaking about private violence, the redistributionist state, or the
war-making imperial state? In moral substance, they amount to the same thing.
One of the least reported biographical details of Timothy McVeigh, executed
for the Oklahoma bombing that killed so many innocent people, is that his own
disregard for life was cultivated during his time as an American soldier from
1988 to 1992. He was awarded the bronze star for service in the first war on
Iraq, where he killed civilians and teenage conscripts under the cover of law.
It was here that he learned how to suppress the whisperings of his conscience,
and to harden his heart. As he said, "If there is a hell, then I’ll be
in good company with a lot of fighter pilots who also had to bomb innocents
to win the war."
Let’s try a thought experiment that is not entirely implausible. Let’s say
that in the future, some psycho kills innocent people and blows up buildings.
But this time, he is directly influenced by libertarianism, and was driven to
desperate measures in the interest of overthrowing the state.
This could happen. It hasn’t happened, but it could. The question is whether
this person’s intellectual influences would discredit the libertarian tradition.
That would certainly be the attempt of the mainstream media. Even after 9/11/01,
the pundits were screaming that this event alone was enough to discredit libertarianism,
that the destruction and the aftermath offered positive proof that we need a
gigantic state. So, yes, I think we can be confident that if some violent person
had libertarian influences, libertarianism would catch the blame.
In the event of such a thing, what should be the response of libertarians?
It wouldn’t be that hard. Libertarianism is the one political theory extant
that consistently preaches non-violence in every way, condemning all aggression
against person and property whether it is done by a private party or under the
cover of law.
Libertarianism posits a belief that is not widely held today, but is nonetheless
true: namely, that society can organize itself without violence (no theft, no
murder), but only using that blessed institution of mutual cooperation among
individuals. The use of violence in any form is not only contradictory to libertarian
theory, libertarianism stands alone as the only political outlook that makes
non-violence its core tenet.
Of course, this implies an anti-government stance because government is the
organized, consistent, relentless, large-scale center of violence on earth.
It enacts this violence for a huge range of reasons: to bolster economic growth,
to protect us from invasion, to prevent the population from being exploited
by business, to keep the culture pure from alien influences, to protect us from
our own bad decisions, to grant us health and income security from birth to
death, and much more.
But in doing all these things, it has only one lever to pull: aggression against
our lives and property. This is because government cannot do anything on its
own; it exists entirely in a parasitical relationship to society.
What if a person who sees this point is driven to desperation and acts in a
way that is contrary to the fundamental ethics of libertarianism? In other words,
what happens if a person influenced by an anti-government theory undertakes
actions that are more of the character of what governments do every day? That
would not and could not damage the credibility or integrity of the libertarian
Keep in mind that we are alive in an unprecedented moment. The state in all
countries in the developed world is working its mischief as never before in
world history. It taxes more, regulates more, manipulates more than ever. The
state has never been more pompous, arrogant, and ambitious than it is today.
The police state has visited the developed world in a manner none of us have
seen in our lifetimes. The local police reflect that ethos. They disregard their
heritage of wearing a civil mask and now bully people openly in a way contrary
to freedom. The U.S. in particular has erected a giant prison state that exists
outside the observable sphere of social life. The state has cut off employment
opportunities for an entire generation, looted the savings of older people,
and even made it nearly impossible for people to provide for their own savings.
Public opinion is increasingly aware of the problem and the source of the problem,
and so the public anger at the political and bureaucratic elite is intensifying,
especially as the economic depression deepens. The nation state is growing ever
more fierce even as it becomes more decrepit in the digital age. It would hardly
be a surprise to see this anger turn violent in the coming years.
There is a very easy answer to the problems that afflict us today. The nation
state needs to civilize itself and bow to the realities of our times. It needs
to dismantle its apparatus of control, call off the dogs of war, rein in its
police and armed bureaucrats, and permit society to develop and flourish on
its own. It’s not complicated. Why won’t the state take this path? Because it
thrives off violence, domestic and international.
These are fundamental truths, and they are becoming more obvious by the day.
No amount of propaganda can wish them away. The only real means of achieving
peace is to reject violence as a means of social control or political activism.
We must withdraw our consent to violence, the consent that is the basis of all
government. What the great theorist Etienne de la Boetie wrote in the 16th century
remains true today:
Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that
you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support
him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal
has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.