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Published September 27, 2011 in Talking Points by Sharon Harris
Now let's consider the difference between the gentle invisible hand and the visible fist of government with regard to violence.
Well-intentioned or not, government is violence. As Buckminster Fuller said, "The end move in politics is to pick up a gun." Laws are laws only because government can use coercion against anyone who violates them.
In contrast, when violence occurs in a free society, it's a crime. The rule is voluntary exchange. The "freedom to choose." The Golden Rule. The gentle invisible hand.
Violence is the day-to-day normal activity of criminals — and government. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. The visible fist of government.
When you think about violence, think about this: government has the War on Poverty, the War on Illiteracy, the War on Drugs. And these are not just metaphors, they're real wars. They are funded at gun point and enforced at gun point. Of course, the "War on Drugs" isn't a war on drugs. No one ever shot an aspirin. But it really is a war. We have Czars — people like Bill Bennett who see nothing wrong with beheading drug dealers. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich — himself a former pot smoker — called for the death penalty for drug offenders, including those who carry just two ounces of marijuana into the country.
Prohibition seems to bring out a terrible vindictiveness and cruelty in some people. In 1929, Mrs. Etta Mae Miller was convicted of having sold a single quart of liquor. This was her fourth such offense, so her sentence was life imprisonment. Life in prison for selling a quart of liquor. The General Secretary of the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals [sic] said, "Our only regret is that the woman was not sentenced to life imprisonment before her ten children were born. When one has violated the Constitution four times, he or she should be segregated from society to prevent the production of subnormal offsprings."
Today's prohibition is far more savage. In 2006, a record 829,625 people were arrested on marijuana charges — over 85% of them for mere possession. There are hundreds of people serving life sentences — with no possible parole — for marijuana offenses. Journalist Eric Schlosser told PBS there are cases of people serving life without parole for possession of a single joint or less.
Thousands of Americans are serving at least five years in federal prison — with no possible parole — for possessing as little as five grams of crack cocaine. Two pennies weigh more than five grams.
The proper role of government is to protect us from violence, theft, and fraud. Yet government, directly or indirectly, causes most of the violence, theft, and fraud in our society.
Government promotes violence in two ways.
The first is as an unintended consequence of laws and programs. For example, one third to one half of criminal offenses are committed by drug addicts driven into crime by the Drug War's black market. Milton Friedman estimated that up to one half of the homicides in this country — 10,000 deaths per year — result directly from the Drug War.
A free society would end this violence overnight.
And in a free society we could better defend ourselves from violence. Citizens would have the indisputable right to keep and bear arms. And a gun is a wonderful deterrent to violence. In states that have "shall issue" laws (where people without criminal records or evidence of mental illness are permitted to carry guns), crime rates are much lower than in states where there are no such laws. A major study by University of Chicago law professor John Lott shows that these states reduced robbery by 3%, aggravated assaults by 7%, and murders by 8.5%. It is estimated that extending shall-issue laws to states that don't now have them would lead to 12,000 fewer robberies per year, 60,000 fewer aggravated assaults, 4,177 fewer rapes, and 1,570 fewer murders.
That means the visible fist of government is causing a lot of unnecessary human suffering through its gun-control laws.
The second way government promotes violence is by itself committing it directly against citizens.
Government seizes people's property when they've never even been charged with a crime. This is called "asset forfeiture." A better term might be "robbery with a badge."
Under forfeiture laws, inanimate objects can commit crimes. Such things as cars and boats are charged with a crime, as a way for government to confiscate them.
Imagine if I came to your house and said, "I don't approve of the kind of beer you drink. And I'm sure you drove your car to the store to buy it, so your car's guilty and I'm taking it." People would declare me insane. I sure wouldn't try it in one of the "shall-issue" states.
Today more than 100 federal laws authorize federal agents to confiscate private property allegedly involved in violations of statutes on wildlife, gambling, narcotics, immigration, money laundering, and on and on. Federal agents can seize your property with no court order and no proof of legal violations. Billions of dollars worth of property has been seized in this way from tens of thousands of Americans who have never been accused of a crime or stood trial. It's so difficult to get their property back that most victims never bother to try.
The IRS can freeze your bank account or put a lien on your house without a hearing of any kind. And government can take property through eminent domain. Recently near my home the county government forced a black church to sell its land to make room for a tunnel. The so-called "fair" price paid wasn't enough to rebuild the church. A whole church community will be displaced for a bureaucrats' idea of progress.
In a free society, not only would this not happen to a church, but there'd be no BATF to burn churches down. Is your church BATF-approved?
Government theft is more insidious than free-lance theft. Lysander Spooner, one of America's most brilliant political theorists, talked about this in his masterpiece, No Treason. He compared ordinary robbers to tax collectors. The robber, he pointed out, robs you only once — and then goes on his way. The government, on the other hand, robs you year after year after year. Then it has the gall to say it's doing you a service and expects your gratitude.
The visible fist of government.
In a free society, the right to property and privacy would be sacred. It would be, as the great English statesman William Pitt so eloquently described, " . . . the poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail — it's roof may shake — the wind may blow through it — the storms may enter — but the king of England cannot enter — all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement."
In a free society, we will have that kind of protection. Those who want your property will have to negotiate with you. The gentle invisible hand, not the visible fist.
In a truly free society, we would also be far better protected from the violence of war.
There would never be a military draft or senseless foreign wars. Never again would children be seized from their families — as if they were natural resources — and sent far away to risk their lives. Never again would wives and mothers stand crying as they watch their conscripted husbands and sons come home in body bags. No more war-orphaned children.
What an incentive to work for a free society!
A noninterventionist foreign policy has another welcome side effect. When we have, as Jefferson said, "peace, commerce and honest friendship with all people, entangling alliances with none," we will greatly reduce the risk of terrorism. Much of terrorism is provoked by the American government's meddling in other governments' affairs.
Free trade also discourages war and makes friends instead. A quote often attributed to the great French economist Frederic Bastiat says it well: "If goods don't cross borders, troops will."
The gentle invisible hand vs. the visible fist of government. It's as different as night and day, robbery and voluntary exchange, war and peace. Government is at perpetual war against people and their property. We desire — we deserve — peace.
A free society is also a generous society. In part five, read how the free-market encorages generosity while the government creates resentment against the poor.