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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Would You Lock Me In A Cage?

This is the question libertarians need to start asking people as we try to move them in a libertarian direction and this is the question everyone needs to keep in mind when they consider their support for or opposition to government policies.

"I don't think marijuana should be legal- it's unsafe and a gateway drug," a person may opine. "Oh really?" the libertarian should respond, "Well if I was using it alone in my own house, without threatening or disturbing anybody, would you lock me in a cage for it?"

This is where you should really press them: "No really. Would you lock me in a cage? Do you think you have a legitimate right to personally and forcefully grab me, put handcuffs on me, and lock me up in a cage?"

"Oh no?" you should rebut when they give the predictable response or some variant of it, "Not you personally, but for the government, it's different? How? Why? Governments are constituted of individual people, so they do not and can not have any powers that those people don't have themselves. In other words, you can not delegate to a larger group of people a prerogative that you don't have yourself. So if you can't rightfully lock me up for peacefully making a decision about my own body, neither can government."

This is a conversation libertarians had better start having with people about every political issue under the sun until they're blue in the face, and then repeat the conversation some more. This is how we will win. This is how we will show the world the monstrosity of welfare statism, warfare statism, regulatory statism, and police statism.

Libertarians must regain the moral high ground that is always claimed by the statists and to do this we must show the violence inherent in statism. Statism is not moral, it's not charming, it's not charitable, and it's not nice. Statist policies in the end, resort to violent force- to the threat of locking a human being up in a cage if they don't agree.

Ayn Rand made this connection very forcefully, saying that we must not practice benevolence at the point of a gun, and that the final argument of the statist is a gun. She was right. But when you use her approach in conversation, many people will be confused, and say, "Who's talking about guns? No one will point a gun at you for not paying your taxes."

But you know what they will do? They'll harass and threaten you, and finally they'll haul you off to prison. So we have to use the cage as symbol for the state's violence, because it's easier for people to make this connection, than with the gun. We must ask people this: "I understand that you believe in alms giving to take care of the less fortunate- I do too. But if someone made a choice you personally disagreed with and didn't give alms to the poor, would you lock her in a cage for it?"

If we press people long enough, most of them (unless they are dimwitted, truly malignant, or worst of all, moral cowards) will agree that we cannot just go around locking people in cages for disagreeing with our personal moral views about how to treat one's body or use one's finances. But that's what our government does and threatens to do all the time. That's how government operates.

Is it ever okay then, to lock someone in a cage? Sure. This guy for instance. John Gardner who raped and murdered two teenage girls in San Diego. We can lock someone like that in a cage. That's what government exists to do. It exists to use force against those who initiate its use.

It exists to protect the peaceful from aggression. But it should never use its cages or its guns on the peaceful in order to engineer a better society or inculcate some politician's view of morality. That would be an act of aggression in itself, and contradictory to the very purpose of government.

So next time you get in a discussion about a political issue and want to move the person in a more libertarian direction (or even simply get them to start asking the most pertinent question about any government policy), ask them- "Would you lock me in a cage for this?"

Photo credit: / CC BY-SA 2.0


  1. Great exposition to help people understand the nature of a statist government. Force is the one constant that is always needed in a government like that, whether it's a gun or the cage.

  2. Excellent article! Although, I know we have different views on what qualifies as "warfare statism."

  3. Interesting point, and a very valid one against one element of statism: the prosecution of victim-less crime like drug use. But the problem with this mode of thought within the Libertarian community is the assumption that the use of a drug only affects that one individual. It doesn't. The use of the drug, legally or illegally, can infringe upon the rights of other individuals. This is why I have a large problem with the Libertarians support of legalizing drugs. Most Libertarians are trying to look at an elephant through a microscope with this. If all it amounted to were people smoking mary jane in the privacy of their own homes only impacting themselves, drugs like marijuana wouldn't be illegal.

  4. Great post... Much food for thought. Rand equated statism with force because government takes by force... through ill concieved laws that which it has no moral right to.

    A gun is deadly force... statist government is force by regulatory stangulation of the individual and society.

    When a gun is used in the pursuit of providing food for onesself, in self defense, or to control the criminal element that would infringe on the rights of law abiding citizens it's use is proper and good.

    When used to infringe on the right of others or in the commission of violent acts against an individual or society or for the purpose to control through fear its use is evil.

    The same can be said of governmnt.

    Statist government is always evil because it takes economic freedom from the individual and redistributes (a portion) the results of a persons labor as it sees fit.

  5. Wes, good article.
    Robzilla, I would be curious to know which of my rights you would be violating if you used drugs. Thanks

  6. Michæl AtchisonApril 29, 2010 at 5:57 PM

    While I agree with your conclusion (the government cannot lock people in a cage for doing things that don't infringe on the rights of others), I'm not sure I agree with your argument (the government cannot have powers that we wouldn't grant individuals).

    Presumably we do grant SOME powers to the government that we would not want to grant to other people—like the power to conduct a trial, or the power to search private property (with a warrant, of course).

  7. Robzilla, a person using drugs may infringe on another person's rights, but they won't always. I don't believe they do usually, to be honest. That's the issue I have with prohibition; it inevitably restricts someone from a personal decision that wouldn't have impacted someone else in the least. That person's liberty was infringed simply because of what might have been.

  8. Carl- Yup!

    Teresa- thanks! And that's okay- all lovers of liberty are welcome here despite legitimate differences of opinion.

    Robzilla- I think Grant asks a fair question. I understand that someone may endanger someone else's life by say- driving while intoxicated. And I believe that endangering others like that should be illegal and dealt with harshly.

    But outlawing the use of alcohol altogether because someone might misuse it is foolhardy and wrong. Shall we outlaw all kitchen knives because they can be used for murder? Should we outlaw driving cars altogether since their use can violate your rights and threaten your safety and life? Hmmm? Of course not!

    People have a right to peacefully make their own decisions without forcibly interfering in the lives of others, and only when they cross that line of forceful interference should the government act to stop them.

    Finally, you conclude that if marijuana didn't affect our safety, it wouldn't be illegal. This is historically untrue. Marijuana was made illegal because of a moral panic predicated upon racist rhetoric, and motivated by special interests like the timber industry, which did not want to compete with industrial hemp.

    Les- right on!

    Grant- again- perfect question.

    Michael- I would say that those functions of government you mention are corollaries to our natural and individual right of self defense.

    Those things actually constitute not special powers for government, but careful limits on our right of self defense. Instead of my arbitrary search of your property because I think you might have stolen something from me (in a state of nature), I voluntarily consolidate and delegate my right of self defense along with yours in a duly-constituted and carefully limited state, which has restrictions on how it can carry out our right of self defense.

    A jury trial and searches (by warrant only) do not grant government extra powers we don't have, they actually delimit and define our own right of self defense, protecting the people who we accuse of violating our rights by giving them a fair hearing instead of a lynching. Does that make sense?

    Randy- exactly.