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05/06/2003 Archived Entry: "Not purity, but priority"

IT'S NOT PURITY, BUT PRIORITIES. Some people mistakenly think I advocate an exalted standard of libertarian purity. Then they point out -- quite rightly -- that neither I nor anybody else can live totally according to "pure" libertarian principles. That is, one can't live one's life without ever funding some freedom-destroying government project or compromising one's own liberty or privacy in some way.

Heck, I've pointed that out myself. If you live naked in a cave, someone pays tax on the cave to support government. Or the cave gets a tax exemption, which thrusts the burden of taxation on to some other poor sucker. And either way, although you've done your utmost, you're not "pure." But the, purity isn't the point. Priorities are the point.

The point is: How consistantly do we live according to our principles, in this imperfect and all-too-human world? And do we strive to live as consistantly as possible with them? And if not, why not?

Let's say that the ideal -- the admittedly unattainable ideal -- is 1) never to cooperate or compromise with the state in any way and 2) to do

our best to bring the state down whenever and wherever it obtrudes on the rights of peaceable people. We can't achieve that ideal. But it's a libertarian holy-of-holies. So if we really value the ideal (or either half of it), we'll at least strive to move toward it.

Four levels of action

In our striving, there are four possible levels of action:

  1. To talk or dream, but do nothing (yacking on listservs falls into this category, for example)
  2. To support or delegate freedom activities to others (e.g. contributing $25 to a freedom group)
  3. To actively, but safely, engage in freedom activities (e.g. being a team leader for a within-the-system activist group, joining a legal demonstration)
  4. To commit our lives to our ideals, even at personal risk or sacrifice (e.g. resisting taxes, living self-sufficiently, refusing to register for the draft, channeling a major precentage of our time or resources into freedom building (not just into politics-as-usual), or giving up a "good" job because it's bad for freedom. Some one-shot activities, like refusing to surrender documents to police who have no warrant, also belong in this category because they entail serious personal commitment.)

Some people who claim they care about freedom fall into category 1 and never rise above it. It's reasonable to assume that such folks either care nothing about freedom, in reality, or are too paralysed with fear or indecision to act effectively. Maybe a similar-sized group makes it to category 2 and stops there.

But almost certainly most people who truly love freedom actually occupy all four levels at different times and in different causes.

For instance, one libertarian might be so passionate about ending the drug war that he openly grows medical marijuana, even though he knows it might cost him 20 years in prison (a clear category 4 activity). This same person might demonstrate publicly for families of drug war prisoners (category 3) and contribute money to groups defending anything from free speech to forfeiture victims (catetory 2). This person also values gun rights, but he just doesn't have the time, energy, or knowledge to give to that cause. So his activity in that realm is confined to occasional bitch sessions with his friends (category 1).

Another example: After five years of living underground -- refusing to pay taxes, never using an SSN, not having a drivers license, homeschooling her children without government approval, monkeywernching the snoop works at every turn (all serious category 4 activity) -- a freedom lover is exhausted and burnt out and "drops back in." For the next five years, she doesn't even rise to category 3, but confines herself to making small donations (category 2) and talking about freedom at every opportunity (category 1). She may even become completely apolitical for a while -- which you might call category 0.

It's simply not a matter of blacks and whites. And certainly not of "purity."

It's just that if our activities never rise to category 4 (the level of personal resistance and risk) then we should question -- and not be surprised if others question -- how serious we really are. If we know we're being asked to finance or otherwise cooperate with something that is freedom-destroying, and time and again we complain about it -- but go along -- how, ultimately, can we live with ourselves, let alone live with the monster state we're creating? If we're unwilling to take risks now for what we believe in, but we assure ourselves we really will lay our lives on the line someday and in some unknown circumstance -- then in all likelihood we're just swimmin' in the big Egyptian river.

You may validly argue that some particular technique of resistance is ineffective, or that some level of risk is too high for the potential value to be obtained. And you'd sure get no argument from me. To each his own. We could go 'round and 'round all day about the best way to be effective, and in the end each of us would do what we thought to be right. But the bottom line -- the literal bottom line in this case -- is that if you won't take risks for what you claim to value, then you don't really value it much.

Posted by Claire @ 03:14 PM CST

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