Feb 02

Inciting to riot

Gary Farber asks:

Would you assert that a modest libel law, or copyright law, or
incitement to riot law, inevitably lead to 1984? How about a law
banning private nuclear weapons?

I would say that the risk from a modest libel law or copyright law
is small, though not nonexistent; look at the way the DMCA has been
used to justify schemes that would embed controlware in everyones’
computers. State power is no less real if it consists of NSA or FBI
back doors built in by an acquiescent Gateway or Dell.

If the lawmaker/law-enforcer is a monopoly government, then a law
banning private nuclear weapons would worry me a little more, basically
because I don’t trust governments to have any control over
the weaponry their citizens can keep. History shows that that power
is invariably extended by degrees and abused until the citizenry is
totally disarmed; the case of Great Britain in the 20th century is a
particularly telling one (and its sequel in the 21st is proving
just as bloody and insane as the NRA diehards predicted, with criminal
gangs machine-gunning each other in the Midlands cities while
law-abiding citizens are jailed for carrying pocketknives).

I would prefer the risks of private nukes to the disarmament of the
civilian population. But that’s not a choice anyone will actually
ever have to make, because the intersection of the set of people who
want nukes and the set of people who would obey or be deterred by a
law against them is nil. A law against nukes would therefore be
pointless, except as an assertion of the power and right to enforce
other sorts of weapons bans that are harmful in themselves.

Nukes are different than handguns. Handgun bans are bad, but
they’re not utterly pointless; there is a significant class of
criminals who would carry in the absence of a ban but don’t in the
presence of one. The real problem with handgun bans is that the good
effects of slightly fewer bad guys carrying weapons are swamped and
reversed by the bad effects of far fewer good guys carrying
weapons. It’s all in how the disincentives against crime shift.

An “incitement to riot” law is a huge and obvious red flag. A
political culture in which that becomes entrenched would be one headed
for the überstate fairly rapidly.

But much depends on who makes those laws and how they are enforced. I
could live with a ban on certain sorts of heavy weapons or a Riot Act,
for example, if they were a condition of my contract with my
crime-insurance company, or part of the covenant of my homeowners’
association. Powers that are too dangerous to grant a monopoly
government could safely be delegated to security agencies and
judicial associations that have active competitors, and who do not
in the nature of things have universal jurisdiction.

Mr. Farber may not be aware than anarchists like myself actually
envision living in a society that still has police and courts and a
common legal code, but one in which no one organization has a status
that is uniquely privileged under the law. There would be something
that is functionally not completely unlike a “government”, but it
would be a virtual entity — a contract network of courts,
police, and citizens. I would delegate my right to resist assaults on
my life and property to the police agency that acts as my agents. That
police agency would have reciprocity agreements with other police
agencies; they, in turn, would contract with judicial associations
to arbitrate disputes among their clients. Find a copy of
The Market for Liberty for the details.

Finally, I comment on Mr. Faber’s attempt to reduce the
slippery-slope argument against statism to an absurdity by applying it
to libertarians (“libertarianism, because it values the individual
without regard for society, inevitably leads any individual who
believes in it to become a sociopathic serial killer”).

There are several obvious problems with this argument. First,
sociopathy is a wiring defect only found in less than 1% of the general
population (but including a large percentage of politicians,
and that is no joke). Libertarianism cannot turn people into sociopathic
serial killers because nothing (other than some odd and rare
sorts of injuries to the brain) can turn people into sociopaths.

The argument also ignores a glaring asymmetry in the real-world
facts. Extreme libertarians do not as a rule go on senseless killing
sprees. Governments, even “good” governments, often do. In the U.S.,
the scarifying examples of MOVE, the Branch Davidians, and Ruby Ridge
are before us even if we agree to leave warfare out of the picture and
consider only the last two decades.

But more importantly, the claim that libertarianism values the
individual without regard for society is damagingly false. The
assumption that “valuing the individual” and “valuing society” are
opposed is precisely what thoughtful libertarians reject. Our highest
value is non-aggression, peacefulness — voluntary cooperation.
Our message is that only when individual freedom is properly held to
be the greatest good can a sane, peaceful, and truly just society
flourish.