The government in the United States has increasingly become a powerful weapon that two warring tribes repeatedly seize control of and then use against each other. For those of us who are averse to being smashed, it’s long past time to consider the machinery of the state as nothing more than a bludgeon in the hands of dangerous maniacs.
Dangerous? Indeed. It’s hard to beat the insight into the malicious heart of government offered by Rep. Ted Lieu on CNN in December.
“I would love to be able to regulate the content of speech,” the California Democrat told CNN’s Brianna Keilar. “The First Amendment prevents me from doing so, and that’s simply a function of the First Amendment.”
Lieu obviously takes it for granted that many politicians would muzzle their enemies if it were permitted and that only meddlesome legal strictures prevent them from enacting their dark desires.
Those strictures no longer look so strict. New York state’s blue-tribe government last year repeatedly abused regulatory power in assaults against independent institutions. First, it sought to intimidate financial firms and insurance companies into breaking ties with organizations that advocate self-defense rights. This emulated the Obama administration’s earlier Operation Choke Point scheme by which “powerful bank regulatory agencies engaged in an effort of intimidation and threats to put legal industries they dislike out of business,” according to John Berlau of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. New York officials followed up by threatening to declare “truant” any children attending private schools whose curricula didn’t win state approval.
For his part, Donald Trump, red tribe jefe, demands unwavering personal loyalty. He promised to punish companies that defy his nationalistic economic schemes by moving production overseas. “They will be taxed like never before,” he vowed last summer of Harley-Davidson. And the president, who once described freedom of the press as “frankly disgusting,” doubled down on his predecessor’s hostility to journalistic independence by threatening to retaliate against the critical Washington Post with antitrust action, higher postage rates, and taxes on Amazon, which shares Jeff Bezos as its owner.
Yes, politicians have misbehaved in the past. But pollsters continuously report that the dominant modern political factions hate each other to an unprecedented degree, and their chosen standard bearers are seeking to act on that loathing. It’s enough to make you think government officials shouldn’t be trusted with the powerful tools of the state—and to worry that the restraints intended to prevent misuse of those tools have broken down.
“We are at the end of the American project as the founders intended it,” political scientist Charles Murray wrote in 2015’s By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission (Crown Forum). That project, as he saw it, was an effort to “demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals, families, and communities to live their lives as they see fit as long as they accord the same freedom to everybody else.” Given the U.S. government’s intentional erosion of that ideal, however, Murray proposed mass civil disobedience against intrusive rules and overreaching officials.
“You have the right to defend yourself and others from state injustice, even when government agents act ex officio and follow the law,” philosopher Jason Brennan wrote in the January 2019 issue of this magazine. “Innocent people have a right not to be subject to badly made, high-stakes political decisions,” he adds in his 2018 book, When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice (Princeton University Press). Brennan doesn’t suggest that overt resistance is risk-free, but he argues that it’s morally justified and often better than knuckling under.
Both Murray and Brennan see the government as frequently oppressive and out of control—but also as subject to correction, or at least a good knee-capping, if enough people are willing to gum up the works. “Government is the Wizard of Oz…impotent to impose its will in the face of widespread refusal to comply with its rules,” argues Murray.
There’s evidence that something as simple as shaming and social ostracism can effectively sap government agencies of energy, recruits, and resources.
Long-despised for its grabbiness and brutality, the IRS further alienated the public when it acted against Tea Party groups during the Obama years. Since then, it’s lost funding, cut way back on intrusive audits into Americans’ finances, and suffered deep demoralization. “Almost a third of its remaining employees will be eligible to retire in the next year, and with morale plummeting, many of them will,” ProPublica reported in December. That’s one-third fewer arm-twisters—at least for a while—to be called upon by Lieu and his colleagues, even as restrictions on their power erode.
Like the IRS, the FBI compounded the bad will it engendered with lethal misbehavior and the shenanigans of a habitually dishonest crime lab by allowing itself to be drawn into contentious political issues, such as investigations into the bad conduct, real and alleged, of the major 2016 presidential candidates. “Public support for the FBI has plunged,” Time reported last year. And that skepticism appears to have affected juries, which are returning 11 percent fewer convictions in FBI-led cases than they did five years ago.
Employment applications to the FBI dropped from 21,000 per year to 13,000 per year, The Washington Post has reported, necessitating a marketing campaign to haul in reluctant recruits. State and local police agencies, also tainted by news reports of brutality and bias, have likewise seen sharp drops in applicants, resulting in fewer officers to enforce the government’s will. “The number of full-time sworn officers per 1,000 U.S. residents has dropped from 2.42 in 1997 to 2.17…in 2016,” the Post notes.
Come to think of it, that just might leave a little room in the hiring process for applicants who see Edward Snowden as a role model—or even as a starting point in the necessary process of sabotaging from within overpowerful and much-misused agencies.
Most of us will prefer quieter acts of disobedience—ignoring regulations and perhaps assisting others who get caught doing the same, as Murray recommends. We might also choose to respond to the excesses of government agents as we would those of any other thugs, without offering undeserved deference, as Brennan suggests. We could refuse private services to state employees, damage government property, dox officials, and even directly intervene in incidents of oppressive action.
There’s no reason to show respect to a system that sees us as nothing more than enemies to be smashed.