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Of course libertarians focus on the use of force against peaceful people — as that is the only criterion we use to judge laws. The simple fact is: You either want to make something voluntary or you support forceful coercion. There is no third choice.

An intelligent and kind-hearted friend of mine recently expressed frustration at what he thought was my repeated implications that “everyone else wants jackbooted thugs standing on the necks of people.”  Of course, I did not say precisely that and do not believe that specifically, but I also do understand, given my references to “armed coercion of peaceful people,” how he got that impression. To be clear, I do know for a fact that all my friends on the left—and especially my favorite debating counterparts — Marshall, Ethan, Mark, and Andrew, etc. — are brilliant, knowledgeable and well-meaning thinkers who have carefully considered the issues and simply want to support the right kind of government that will bring the most aid, comfort, justice and prosperity to all citizens.  Indeed, I also know that they – and progressives in general over the last 50 years – have also been on the right side of history regarding the majority of their beliefs – particularly civil rights, gay rights, civil liberties, and their typical opposition to unnecessary wars.  Libertarians quite frequently marched alongside liberals on these issues – and do know that many who have opposed us have often done so for small-minded, mean-spirited, and petty reasons.

It is also certainly understandable why my friend believes my references to coercion in discussions about Obamacare are “out of proportion,” but that simply exposes an innocence of the entire philosophy of libertarianism and why we believe what we believe: In brief, the only real tenet that all libertarians follow is that they refuse to support threats of violence, imprisonment or confiscation to bend peaceful people to their will.[1]  That’s it. This one over-ruling precept, in turn, informs you of the libertarian position on almost every law imaginable.  For in each instance, we ask the same question: Does it require the use of force – whether through confiscation or imprisonment — against peaceful dissenters who are victimizing no one else? Is it an effort of the state to bend peaceful populations to its will?  Yes, of course, we advocate the use of government force to protect victims — to stop crimes of murder, theft, fraud, and to prevent people from recklessly endangering or harming others, etc.  Yes, there are many good reasons to enlist the help of armed agents-– but one’s personal opinions on how citizens should behave or how states should run their economies is not sufficient cause to involve the gendarmes. If a law demands the state to harass peaceful people – whether it is stoners smoking pot in their basement; homosexuals who want to have a wedding ceremony; or Midwesterners who want to try free-market solutions  – then we support the people and oppose the law. In all peaceful situations, we are for reason, not force.

So while my friend does not dwell on the coercive aspect of the federal regulations he supports, this is the first and indeed only consideration of libertarians.  We did not rebel against the right of Massachusetts to implement its own version of Obamacare – as that was what its population wanted. But we protested the implementation of Obamacare nationally – forcing it on Texas, North Dakota, Kansas, etc. — whose populations vehemently opposed it and wanted to try other methods. Indeed, libertarians would also decry a national law that prohibits any state or town from trying Obamcare– even though most of us find it is economically naïve and ultimately harmful.

Thus, in the opinion of libertarians, the left has a blind spot regarding the state coercion required by their own economic views. They don’t like to think of how the government must deal with dissenters of the laws they advocate. But when looked at carefully, their support for federal enforcement of certain economic schemes, whether Obamacare or Single Payer or Mandatory Social Security, on millions of unwilling people is directly at odds with those personal attributes that the left usually esteems: the quality of being open-minded, non-coercive, universally tolerant, and antagonistic to force. Naturally, they have only good intentions.  Naturally, they think all these ideas will help society, but regardless of whether it is for the “people’s own good”, they still support forcing these views on reluctant populations. And when it is stated like that it is not easy to cover up its authoritarian core.  So typically leftists focus on the good; focus on what they imagine will be the beneficial results.

Federal agents typically lay siege to entrenched resisters to federal laws -- like the Browns of New Hampshire, who protested the federal income tax.

Federal agents typically lay siege to entrenched resisters to federal laws — like the Browns of New Hampshire, who protested the federal income tax.

Still, it is of course not true that the left “wants jackbooted thugs standing on the necks of people.” No, what the left really wants is for everyone to obey their decrees with no resistance – so that the armed agents remain out of sight and mind.  If only people would obey their dictums without fuss, they believe, the New Utopia would dawn. They simply do not like to think about resisters and dissenters – but resisters and dissenters there are – and they have to be pressed into line. Even the most arbitrary and nonsensical of regulations – such as the Los Angeles local regulation that hot-dog vending carts have two sinks — have resulted in the jailing of citizens.   Likewise, tax protesters are routinely captured and imprisoned – and sometimes a paramilitary force is required. Regarding Obamacare, we must ask ourselves what would happen if a state refused to implement it –and refused to allow federal agents to enforce the health insurance mandate on its citizens? This is not far-fetched.  A number of red-state legislatures did indeed pass resolutions to this effect. So then what next?  Do the left then want armed confrontation – an invasion of North Dakota? Several Maine towns, responding to frustrated local farmers, have declared food sovereignty and so immune to Federal regulations.  They want to be able to trade milk and poultry with their neighbors without having to build all the outbuildings and following all the big-farm specifications required by Washington D.C.  These towns have, in a sense, seceded.  So now what? Call in the armored vehicles?  My friends on the left never answer such questions – and typically express frustration that they are even asked.

My friend wrote that once one agrees we need some laws, then “everything beyond that, politically, is deciding which laws are just and which aren’t.”  Exactly. And libertarians believe that the only proper use of state force is defensive – that the only just laws are those that protect citizens. We think all laws that use the state to force opinions about economics, morality, personal health, etc. on peaceful dissenters are unjust.  So of course libertarians who discuss, say, Obamacare must stress it is coercive, for that is the only reason we oppose it.  My friend responds that this makes debate with libertarians on such issues “impossible.”  But that is not true.  The only problem is that if you want to think of yourself as tolerant and open-minded and a a gentle adherent to a live-and-let-live philosophy– and so are uncomfortable defending the fact that the law requires state coercion of peaceful and unwilling populations, then it just makes the debate extremely brief.

It is quite simple, you are either for using the state to compel your opinions on peaceful people or you are not. There is no third choice.

[1] The earlier description of libertarianism is the most succinct and powerful description of the liberty view of which I am aware and is a loose paraphrase of Dean Russell’s definition:   “In popular terminology, a libertarian is the opposite of an authoritarian. Strictly speaking, a libertarian is one who rejects the idea of using violence or the threat of violence—legal or illegal—to impose his will or viewpoint upon any peaceful person.”

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