More Timely Than Ever!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Private Protection

I had the pleasure yesterday of attending a lecture by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, long-time libertarian writer/activist and a professor of economics at San Jose State University, on "national" defense in a free society. In making the case for private nonstate protection, he pointed that we already are protected to some extent from government invasion by private organizations. How so?

The U.S. government could be violating our freedom a lot more than it is now. During World War I, Eugene Debs was jailed for making a speech defending war opponents. This doesn't happen today. The main reason freedom of speech is more secure than it used to be is that the ACLU and other civil-liberties groups have for years promoted the idea to the public that free speech is a good thing. Moreover, whenever the state makes a move against it, these groups spring into action. That is, they act as private defense agencies. Interestingly, they are nonprofit and unarmed. Their weapons are ideas, which Hummel emphasizes are always the ultimate defenses against tyranny. As he says, "Force doesn't rule the world. Ideas rule the world because ideas determine in which direction people point their guns."

On the other side, Hummel pointed out, our freedom to own guns is to some extent protected by another set of private organizations, most prominently (if highly imperfectly), the National Rifle Association. Again, their weapons are ideas, not (ironically) guns.

This is not to say the protection is flawless -- far from it. But it is not insignificant. Think how much worse the U.S. government could be. If we want private protection to work better, we need to win people over to a set of ideas not as riddled by contradictions and compromises as the current set is.

But the point stands. Private organizations can defend liberty against tyranny. If they can do it with respect to the the U.S. government, they can do it with respect to any government.

Cross-posted at Liberty & Power.


Anonymous said...

If they can do it with respect to the the U.S. government, they can do it with respect to any government.

Wrong. These nonviolent tactics can't work against Saddam (when he was backed by US in 1980s) or US Backed El Salvador Generals in 1980s and similar other monsters.

Sheldon Richman said...

What I mean is this: Given the right ideas, private organizations, as opposed to coercive political organizations, can provide protection. This is not to say nonviolence is the only tactic available. If Saddam had somehow come to power in the United States, private organizations could have arisen to protect against him -- if enough people objected to his rule. We wouldn't need a new state to defend ourselves.

Sheldon Richman said...

Let me clarify a bit more. Hummel's point is not a pacifist one. (Pacifism may be appropriate in some circumstances and inappropriate in others.) What he's showing is that the public-goods/free-rider problem can be overcome without coercion. When the ACLU or NRA fights off some new potential violation of freedom, everyone benefits, even people who did not join those groups. The presence of free-riders doesn't necessarily impede that effort.

Mupetblast said...

Interesting insights, both yours and Hummel's.

I'm a student at SJSU, currently being taught by Fred Foldvary in public finance. I hope to squeeze in a class by Hummel before my stint is over. Great department over there in Econ, though my major is Poli Sci.

Anonymous said...

"Pacifism may be appropriate in some circumstances and inappropriate in others."

So the ends justify the means.

For the committed pacifist, pacifism is ALWAYS appropriate. A strongly held moral belief is not dictated by circumstances.

For the individual who occasionally dabbles in pacifism, pacifism is merely a pleasant diversion from cynical utilitarianism or a temporarily elevated form of non-aggression, while always holding violent self-defense as a natural right.

Not sure on which side I fall, but let's not cheapen the meaning of pacifism.

Anonymous said...

Correction: in fairness to Sheldon, rather than "the ends justify the means," let me revise that statement as follows:

"Good is the means suited to the purpose." *

Pacifism is thus only as valid as it is a suitable means to achieving some purpose.

* For those interested, read Delmar England's "The World in a Mirror."

Sheldon Richman said...

I'm surprised by this reaction. While the end does not justify any means, it is certainly a key criterion in the selection of means. Is that controversial? If I want to buy something at the store, the end dictates that I travel there. But it doesn't justify running over a pedestrian on the way.

I was using "pacificism" in the sense of nonviolence, not as a formal doctrine. That's not an uncommon usage. I am not a philosophical pacifist because I believe violence is permissible under certain circumstances of self-defense and defense of other innocent life. I don't think even Gandhi opposed violence under all conceivable circumstances. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough, Sheldon, I meant no offense. I understand pacifism to mean the formal doctrine of abstention from violence in all cases. Your "non-violence" begins to clear it up for me.

As for Gandhi, my only knowledge of his life is from the feature film, which I suspect is romanticized drivel, Academy Awards notwithstanding. Films have to be superficial owing to the brief time directors have to get their points across. My sense is that Gandhi was a pacifist, and that he probably would not have defended himself violently. I could be wrong. According to the film, Gandhi engaged in multiple hunger strikes, a self-destructive act. This may be considered hyper-pacifism (not only failing to defend the self, but failing to preserve it), or perhaps counter-pacifism, as it is still violence, albeit self-directed.

I am not a pacifist, but I respect the pacifist ideal that violence cannot be reduced by committing violence, for any reason. It makes sense, for death comes to us all.

So, I maintain that we honor the meaning of "pacifism" by restricting the use of the word to total abstention from violence, and using some term like "self-defensive" or "non-aggressive" to describe an individual who retains for himself the right to use violence, but only in legitimate self-defense.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly enough, I came across a link to this book review of the NY Times on the Future of Freedom Foundation site today:

Their Vilest Hour:


The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.

By Nicholson Baker.

"The main figures in the book are Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt; members of the pacifist movement including Gandhi; Hitler and his entourage; and diarists like Victor Klemperer in Dresden and Mihail Sebastian in Bucharest."

So I guess Gandhi was a pacifist after all, assuming the author (or book reviewer) is using the term as I would.

"In his afterword [Baker] says of the pacifists: “They failed, but they were right.” It is an aspect of the subtlety of his book that the reader is entitled to wonder if it’s true."

Pacifism is always right. It is evidence of fatal human weakness that individuals fail to live up to the pacifist ideal. Death/loss of control (same thing) brings out the worst in living things.

Sheldon Richman said...

If someone is using force against you, I can see nothing wrong in using force to repel the attack. It would be wrong to let it happen.