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: http://www.flickr.com/photos/abardwell/ / CC BY-SA 2.0