With reasonable men, I will reason; with humane men I will plead; but with tyrants I will give no quarter, nor waste arguments where they will certainly be lost.—William Lloyd Garrison
I started my present career as a letter writer. I wrote letters galore—to newspapers, magazines, broadcasters, senators, presidents, and everyone else that seemed to me to be in positions of authority and decision over my life.
Later on, however, the telephone acquired more significance as intellectual weaponry, simply because of the increasing frustration tied to writing letters. The phone seemed a more immediate means of reaching the source of power. Newspaper editorialists or commentators carry an air of authority, yet they rarely argue their points. For anyone with respect for rational disputation, letters published in newspapers, read on TV, advertised by congressional representatives will be a source of frustration—they are undoubtedly the worst received at the source that prompted writing them in the first place. Governmental agents are the least likely to heed a communication that makes its point by reasonably detailed argument. Only pressure-group mail gets the State moving now. To those who lack the force of threat, the official replies will merely be evasive techniques. Writing will, in short, amount to wasted effort. Phoning, as well, seems useless—and more costly.
These days I still do some writing—mostly to relieve my feelings of powerlessness. But I am getting intemperate in my middle age. Ten years ago I had more hope. I thought well of the power of persuasion, but I did not realize then that arguments, however sound, cannot move people who are not themselves embarking on solutions to problems. Mere talking or writing does not imply what the words should convey. Ignorance of this paved the way to my trust in those who gave voice to important ideas (however wrong) concerning political matters. I thought that speaking implies rational concern. But I confused the "ought" with a simple "is": language should be used rationally, but it need not be so used. Human free will allows the debasement of any valuable tool, including language. Although I could have said this much even then, in practice I was still impressed with the possibility of genuine communication. What even the brightest people can do with language so as to undercut its worth was only a theoretical possibility for me. So I went on writing, talking, trying to reach with my ideas everyone else who did these things on topics of concern to me. I believed that those I heard and read were conscientious in their use of the medium of language.
It is now clear to me that even the most eloquent use of language can serve people in very lamentable ways. Words can be used to obscure problems, to communicate dishonestly, to drive out meaning instead of utilizing it. This is not necessarily a malicious process—evil is rarely malicious and premeditated. Instead the process reveals negligence, evasion, fright, laziness and other traits by which people can avoid acting responsibly, in their best interest.
I am still a firm believer in the fundamental potential of verbal education. Yet I did neglect serious consideration of what one should do when dealing with others who are insensitive to finding serious solutions to problems. Such people, I now know, merely parrot significant human behavior. They engage in clowning, feigning communication, pretending to seek solutions, using language to eliminate its very purpose. From the most sophisticated philosophers to the local plumber, there are those in each field who employ the resources open to human beings for the purpose of spreading distrust of those very resources. (The pathological skepticism that reigns at universities must be seen as a means to eliminate any sort of solutions to the real difficulties standing in the way of obtaining knowledge. The skeptic isn't really an epistemologist but a phony metaphysician—he tries to characterize reality as unknowable. And to argue with him makes no sense—he admits of no standard of proof by which one could demonstrate that knowledge exists.)
The real problem for others like myself arises when language is debased in the political arena. I may not worry too much if Ted Kennedy destroyed his life by confusing language. If Jacob Javits feigned talking seriously to his children or friends—well, that is their problem. But as politicians these people are already unavoidably involved with my life. They cannot be "left be" for they will not leave me be. Refusing to attend to them is just permitting them to attend to me unchecked. Political activism is not a luxury, not something that I have the option of leaving to the experts, as I might do in a free society. The politicians are organized thieves, burglars, and extortionists against whose actions I cannot call for help as I might call the local cop to help rescue my goods from a burglar.
Just how to handle this problem is not easy to specify in general terms. That is because the problem is highly individualized. Each of us faces it in terms applicable to his own circumstance. I have to ask what I should do to eliminate the forces standing in the way of my rightful liberty. Others must do the same. But that everyone ought to consider seriously measures to be taken to defend himself is a fact of life. At this stage it is advisable to think of what power is available for self-defense. This is a very complicated issue, for the power that is available is understandably hidden. People who might fight the State—by whatever means, just or unjust—will most likely conceal this capacity, lest the IRS or FTC or some other guardian of State-might should take notice and engage in preventive action.
Yet there is a general approach most people could employ. The disenchantment with the State is widespread, to say the least. No doubt many people are party to the creation of statism, but even among these some are now thinking of means of retaliation. Even large businesses employ some executives who see the danger of current trends, who know of what has happened as a consequence of building up Uncle Sam.
At this point those with a coherent alternative and awareness of subtle ways of responding to the current trends have a chance to reach those in the relatively private sector. My rationale takes into consideration that those out of power may be interested in solutions that do not enlarge the State. Here communication will have a chance. The mutuality of purpose—to defend against the State—can establish the grounds for it.
It is time to "make war" with the State. One need not engage in self-destructive violence, nor in indiscriminate attack. One can call upon those now awaking to the perils of statism to contribute their energies—even funds—so as to wage a counter-offensive. People in the oil industry, for instance, should now see how wrong it is to call on State aid, and so they might make an effort to counter the consequences of that aid. I would suggest calling on such people—in person, by phone, or by letter—and explaining what must be done to halt present trends. There might have been justification for hope that the State will go away when some of those near it—e.g., Goldwater—made noises of internal dissent. But this option is no longer available. You and I have to engage in a creative discovery process to identify and carry out those actions that will serve to defend us.
It seems to me clear that without this "eternal vigilance" no one can claim to love liberty. John Philpot Curran wrote in 1790:
It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become prey to the active. The condition upon which God has given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.
Tibor Machan teaches philosophy at SUNY-Fredonia. Dr. Machan's viewpoint appears in this column every third month, alternating with the viewpoints of Murray N. Rothbard and David Brudnoy.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Viewpoint: Focusing on Defense, Not Cooperation".