Force and Violence: How the Left Blurs Terms

In a recent New York Times column, Frank Rich attacked and smeared the nascent tea party movement. While most of his diatribe received the fiskings it deserved, one significant fallacy went unchallenged. Perhaps it was overlooked because the left has committed it for so long now that it seems unquestionable. All the more reason to bring it to light.

The fallacy is the equation of violence with force. The error and its consequences are manifest in what the left condemns and condones. For example, the central complaint of Rich’s column is that tea party supporters are (allegedly) lovers of violence:

Such violent imagery and invective, once largely confined to blogs and talk radio, is now spreading among Republicans in public office or aspiring to it.

This evil, Rich contends, is to be contrasted with the left’s “non-violent” ways:

In the heyday of 1960s left-wing radicalism, no liberal Democratic politicians in Washington could be found endorsing groups preaching violent revolution.

It’s telling that Rich harkens back to the “good old days” of the 1960s. Not merely because its drug-addicted, anti-reason hippies are his intellectual mentors, but because they’re the ones who popularized the idea that overt violence resulting in bodily harm is the only true form of crime.

Rich’s “radicals” proudly engaged in rock-throwing student riots, forcible sit-ins, and other expropriation and destruction of private property. More importantly, they actively suppressed evidence of Stalin’s horrors, materially supported the reigning Soviet dictators, and unabashedly exhorted Mao Zedong to continue his “experiments” with the “Great Leap Forward” and “Cultural Revolution.”

Clearly their actions involved — and sanctioned — various degrees of force; small but still significant in the case of sit-ins, of historic proportions in the case of Communism. Yet none of this concerned them because, in their view, attacking property or compelling someone to act under threat of force is not “violence” and thus not objectionable. You can take a man’s property, oust him from the cities, order him onto collective farms, and force him into hard labor, but as long as the threat of force is so overwhelming that he can’t resist, there’s no “violence” and no foul. Lives are shattered and destroyed, but the left approves because there’s either no actual blood spilt or, in the case of Communism, the rivers of blood are carefully kept off camera. (Clearly leftists will countenance anything in the name of making men slaves to the State.)

The left’s modus operandi then, is to denounce the open use of “violence,” while promoting and condoning every other form of force.

Indeed, under the left’s influence and urging, government now exerts force against its own citizens in myriad and ubiquitous ways. It forcibly takes our tax dollars to fund public schools — leaving us with little choice or means to give our children the education we consider best. It decides which drugs can and can’t be tested; how approved drugs are to be marketed; and which patients, no matter how willing they are to take a risk, qualify for experimental drugs, etc. It regulates commerce and trade in issues ranging from trivial to critical. Just ask any businessman how many arbitrary rules he must heed every single day — under punishment of fine, closure or even jail. Everything from the placement of signs, to interview questions, to campaign contribution limits — even pricing! — is dictated to businessmen.

So while leftists may recognize the evil of a thug shooting an innocent victim dead, they simultaneously champion laws that prevent a person from buying the life-saving medicine she needs. The pain and suffering leftists cause by unleashing governmental force leaves them unfazed. As long as their victims remain nameless, and the proceedings are carried out behind closed doors (preferably by some bureaucracy or committee to give them “legitimacy”), the left is happy to use force to advance its agenda.

It wasn’t always so. Prior to the left’s ascendance, scholars such as Locke and our Founders developed a more reasoned approach. They analyzed what a man needs to survive — principally to think and produce — and then sought to enact the social conditions necessary to make that possible. Their conclusion is captured in two words: individual freedom, i.e., the freedom to exercise one’s mind, to work, and to keep the products of thought and action.  (These conditions remain equally necessary today.)

They then asked: what interferes with these conditions? Thought requires the ability to pursue one’s own leads and interests, not someone else’s; to follow one’s own judgment, not the dictates of others; and to accept conclusions as true by one’s own understanding, not because one is coerced to mouth the words (see Galileo). Only forcible intervention by others — whether by extortion, state censorship, or brute compulsion — can negate thought.

This thesis was broadened by an appropriate understanding of property. Locke and the Founders recognized that when force is used to deprive people of their property, i.e., of the material means necessary to support their lives — they can’t live. Property is also essential to “intellectual” freedom since — to have impact — ideas must be given a physical embodiment. For example, there’s no freedom of speech if the government or others can forcibly deprive you of your medium of communication, be it your printing press, syndicated radio talk show or blog.

Whatever its form or specific target, force is evil because it impedes or defeats man’s use of his mind and its products.

Accordingly, the Founders prohibited the initiation of force by anyone, including by the government itself. Indeed this is the very reason they established a strictly limited government.  On this view, the government’s sole function is to objectively wield retaliatory force to punish force initiators. Government is therefore properly limited to such functions as the military (to retaliate against force initiated by foreign entities), the police (for a similar domestic function) and the judiciary (which brings the use of force under objective, reasoned control).

Turning back to the left’s blurring of concepts:  Yes it is proper to condemn the initiators of violence. In fact it is morally mandatory because such action represents a tremendous evil. But violence is wrong precisely because it is a species of force.  For the left to oppose open violence while promoting every other form of force is more than hypocritical — it’s an unconscionable intellectual crime.

It’s time to reject the notion that only ”violence” is objectionable. Instead, let’s focus on eliminating the initiation of force, whatever its manifestation. Since the principle of individual rights is the principle which banishes force from human relations — let’s reestablish it. In so doing we’ll undo decades of leftist malfeasance.