Thursday, March 25, 2010

What's good for the goose ...

Many years ago, I had a law school professor who opened his very first lecture by telling us, "law is violence." His point was that any use of the law -- or of government power in general -- involves force or the threat of force. That professor and I disagreed on many issues, but we both knew that to call for the passage of a new law or the enforcement of an existing one is to invoke men with guns, handcuffs and prisons -- and, ultimately, to be willing to kill in order to achieve a desired goal. So it strikes me as absurd to see members of Congress -- professional makers of law -- get their knickers all knotted because some of the people affected by controversial health care legislation have responded with harsh words, disturbing letters and even bricks and bullets.

The apparently unfeigned outrage comes because our legal and political culture largely agrees with Max Weber's old assertion that government is defined by a monopoly on the use of legitimate violence. The state may allow others to use force (for self-defense, perhaps), but that's at the discretion of government authorities, who always retain the right to initiate force themselves to achieve their goals, and can expect acquiescence on the part of the public. Basically, that means government officials get to boss us around, and we're not supposed to fight back.

So, when people react to legislation that threatens them with fines and arrest, backed by armed men, by tossing a few bricks through windows, they're stepping out of the cozy system in which members of Congress have grown accustomed to operating. Don't they know that the peasants are supposed to just lie there and take it?

This isn't to say that threats and vandalism are wise reactions to the passage of the health care bill -- or any other of the many intrusive and oppressive policies that officials from both major political parties have foisted on us over the years. If nothing else, it's playing on the government's home turf, since lawmakers can call on large cadres of people who are trained and paid to smash and kill. It also tends to be bad public relations in a world in which most people drink the same Kool Aid as their political masters. Americans may accept thousands killed by soldiers and police, but they tend to be horrified when individuals smash a few officials' windows.

Then again, as legislators engage in violence through legislation, perhaps there's a value in reminding them that not everybody agrees that the state should be unanswered when it pushes people around.

And we can hope we'll someday achieve a world in which nobody, not even government officials, gets to initiate force to achieve their goals.



Blogger akaGaGa said...

I don't advocate brick-throwing, either, but I found this quote from one of your links interesting:

"The lawmakers voiced what one senior aide who was present described as 'serious concern' about their security in Washington and in their home districts when they return this weekend for spring recess."

That fear might actually have some positive effect - at least Thomas Jefferson thought it might:

When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.

March 25, 2010 7:18 PM  
Blogger Johnny said...

This quotation has been set into the Canongate Wall of the Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh:

"When we had a king, and a chancellor, and parliament-men o' our ain, we could aye peeble them wi' stanes when they werena gude bairns - But naebody's nails can reach the length o' Lunnon."
- Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) Mrs Howden in "Heart of Midlothian"

Which, as I'm sure you can guess if you can't actually read it, is extolling the public virtue of tossing bricks at politicians.

March 27, 2010 5:59 AM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...


I would wade through even the most obscure dialect for a great quote like that!

March 27, 2010 7:50 AM  

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