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What would you do?

A fable by Kevin Connors

Imagine a world not too much different from what we live in today…

Let’s say you have this neighbour who’s never grown up from his teen-age bully days. You know he beats his wife; you can hear the screaming at night and you see the bruises during the day. But she’s too terrorized by the guy to do anything about it.

But it gets worse: This guy has a bad habit of trying to move his fence over on to his neighbour’s property. You don’t live right next door, so he’s never bothered you. But once he tried to move the fence over your friend’s tomato garden. That fellow has quite a green thumb and you buy all the tomatoes you can from him at every harvest.

But further, this guys a gun-lovin’ irresponsible bastard, in fact, before you really got to know the guy, you went with him to a couple of gun shows and taught him how to reload. But he has this penchant for going out in yard every now and then and randomly blowing off a few rounds. Not a direct threat to you; you’re a few houses down the block, unless you go out on the street.

So, what do you do? Wait for his next door neighbours to act? Well, they’re kind of timid folks, deathly afraid of what he might do to retaliate. Build a high wall around your house, avoid the street, and give up on those nice fresh tomatoes? Why should you let this punk inconvenience you at all? Besides, there’s still a chance of one of those bullets going over the fence and you have it on good authority he’s shopping for hand grenades.

“Call the cops” is the obvious answer. But I forgot to mention this isn’t quite like the social system we live in; this is anarchy. Each household is truly sovereign onto themselves. Of course, being very wise in this sort of environment, you’re the baddest son-of-a-bitch on the street, an Nth degree black belt, armed to the teeth, with two ninjas for sons and a wife that can cook up bombs able to vaporize any other neighbour’s house in an instant.

Back when he pulled the tomato garden stunt, you went over and slapped him around a few times, made him move the fence back (which didn’t stop him from ripping up all the tomato plants in the process), took most of his guns away and told him to be nice to his wife. Well, he hasn’t tried to move the fence any more, but he still beats his wife, gets drunk and blows off a few rounds out in the yard.

What would you do?

39 comments to What would you do?

  • S. Weasel

    Roll my eyes at the silly cow for sticking with him, that’s what I’d do.

    On the other hand, if somebody blew up my car with my kid in it, and I found some indication that this guy had floated a few bucks to the responsible party…

  • James Merritt

    Mr. Connors brings us yet another analogy between nations and individuals. I’ve seen a lot of these lately: “Would you let your neighbor’s house burn down?” “Would you let your neighbor beat his wife and move his fences onto the neighboring property?” Etc.

    Speaking from the US, I have to say that, while my heart responds to such arguments, my head reminds me that the analogy is flawed when talking about the US. Our government is constituted differently than most others around the world. As much as we like to view “Uncle Sam” as a virtual person with his own autonomy, that is just a fiction. There is no king in the US, as much as Bush and other Presidents have tried to adopt the role. In the US, the people cede authority to the government for specific purposes under the Constitution. Those purposes include national defense, but not the liberation of foreign countries, nation building, and so forth. The resources made available to the government are not available for any and all purposes, as they might be to a monarch or a dictator. The situation is not at all like that of an individual, who can unilaterally decide to act on his own authority and initiative, committing his own property to a purpose. In general, Americans are free to commit their own individual lives and resources to a course of action; they are constitutionally restrained (although seemingly less so in the post New-Deal, post Great Society days) from committing the lives and resources of their fellow citizens to any purpose that is not properly authorized by the government charter.

    We have to keep reminding ourselves that our government is limited in scope, and that our President is NOT a king, when so many around the world approach us as if our government were like theirs, and when so many of our chief executives have proven susceptible to the temptations of empire.

    A more proper analogy would be, would you pull a gun on your other neighbor’s wife and hold her hostage until he went over and pounded the original abusive neighbor? Or would you steal someone’s car to shoot the abusive neighbor in a drive-by? These are ugly, extreme examples, with conceptual problems of their own, but are nevertheless closer in spirit to what actually has to happen in the US, in order for Uncle Sam to behave as a “good neighbor” in Mr. Connors’ analogy. Not to mince words: the US government has to misappropriate command resources to do the “neighborly” thing, because the Constitution only authorizes the raising and use of armies to defend the country. Our tradition is not to start a fight, but to finish it, to respond with overwhelming force in response to an attack.

    When Mr. Connors asks, “what would you do?” he leaves off a few words: “…if YOU were king?” Unfortunately, that kind of argument doesn’t apply to the US. If any one of us presumed to BE king, our history suggests that the best answer to the question would be, “duck.”

  • Barry

    Ostracize and boycott. Surely, this person engages in some productive activity other than fence moving and wife beating. I’d organize a boycott of any thing he produces. I would seek to exclude this person from all practical interaction with the rest of those who might come in contact with the ogre. While ostracizing and boycotting require voluntary responses, if this guy is deemed as horrible as you make him sound, it should be fairly easy to achieve complete isolation of this individual from the goings on of the rest of the neighborhood thus bringing about a change without forceful coercion.

    I would also use this opportunity to seek the establishment of simple property rights in order to absolve any possible confusion with what is, and is not, encroachment.

    As for his wife……

  • jdhays

    Snipe the bastard. He’s a clear and present danger to your family. It’s only a matter of time before someone you care about has a run in with this guy. If your neighbors don’t like it, they are free to try to shoot you first.

  • Barry,

    “I’d organize a boycott of any thing he produces.”

    Okay, so far, so good. The day after you have lobbied for your boycott you find a note pinned to your front door. It reads as follows:

    “Barry = piece of shit. I hear you’ve been saying bad things about me behind my back, fucker. I don’t like that. I don’t like you, little pissant. So you’re trying to fuck up my business? I think I have to fuck YOU up. Badly. Better watch out, Barry. Better sleep with one eye open, if you know what I mean. Coming to get you REAL SOON.”


  • N.N.Scott

    Assuming we are supposed to apply this allegory to the current Iraq debate, this “fable” begins to sound suspiciously like a covert argument in favor of the de-facto legitimacy of the nation state — which would be problematic for a libertarian anyway, wouldn’t it?

    In the world proposed by this story, the biggest, baddest guy on the block has the power to beat up anyone — good, bad or indifferent — and doesn’t need any justification at all. So let’s decline the allegory and just say that the USA has the power, the USA leaders now believe that Iraq poses a long-term threat to stability in that region, the USA has a strategic interest in maintining stability in that region, and therfore the USA has decided to impose stability. And let’s forget all the mushy-headed “moral justification.”

    In chapter two, please let us know what you’ll do with your crazy neighbor’s broken-down house after you kick him out — how you’ll spend your family’s treasure rebuilding it, or raze it and try to make sure it doesn’t turn into a hangout for drug dealers, etc…


  • T. J. Madison

    >>But further, this guys a gun-lovin’ irresponsible bastard, in fact, before you really got to know the guy, you went with him to a couple of gun shows and taught him how to reload.

    Oh, be honest. You’ve known about him (and his irresponsible nature) for a long time. In fact, you loaned his family money to buy the house.

    You bought him a new gun as a christmas present after he shot another annoying neighbor’s dog. He even came to you to ask permission to run the tomato garden stunt, and you told him you didn’t care one way or the other.

    Recently you gave another neighbor’s kids some bats so that they could beat up one of Asshole’s cousins who lives in the shed out back.

    Get the picture?

  • T. J.Madison: And thus it seems that, realising that in the past you made a mistake by supporting this creep, you should then take action to to rectify the mistakes of the past in view of new information, new context and new understanding. As jdhays said: snipe the bastard, he is a clear and present danger.

  • Rich

    Well, I’ve been meaning to do something about him for a while, but the bastard in number 13, you know the guy who smells of cheese and garlic, yeah, that’s him shifty looking fella, well he keeps telling me I can’t. So there, if he beats your wife, or shoots your kids, remember, I wanted to deal with this, but nobody would let me.

  • Simplistic Hick

    I’d like to add some details:

    Your troublesome neighbor is still seriously shopping around for hand grenades and you know that sooner or later (more likely sooner) he’s gonna get some. Well, I guess you can live with that if things don’t get any dicier.

    Meanwhile, there is a gang of drug-crazed, homicidal/suicidal, sadomasochistic teenagers running around the neighborhood who have been attacking people with knives. These drug-crazed teenagers have declared you to be their # 1 enemy and have declared their intention of killing you. They also have expressed a serious interest in acquiring hand grenades. They attacked you recently and drew some serious blood. Fortunately, it wasn’t enough to seriously incapacitate you. But it scared you and made you REALLY, REALLY MAD. So you beat the crap out of the ones who actually attacked you, but there’s lots more and they hate more than ever now.

    You can probably live with that, but what if these drug-crazed teenagers actually get some hand grenades? They can’t just go and get hand grenades on their own because they are only teenagers. But they’ll be happy to buy some from your troublesome neighbor, once he has some. Of course you don’t know that your neighbor actually would sell his hand grenades to the drug-crazed teenagers. But then, you don’t know that he wouldn’t. And you’ve been hearing rumours that some of these drug-crazed teenagers have been seen sneaking around on your troublesome neighbor’s property.

    Oh, oh! Things are gettin’ REALLY dicey now. But your friend, Jacques, has a really great idea. He talks you into convening daily meetings of the Neighborhood Watch committee. And at these meetings, he keeps arguing against you every time you want to do something while insisting that “violence is not the answer”. (Oh, and by the way, Jacques is well known to be having some pending business deals with the troublesome neighbor.)

  • Jim Brant

    Snipe Him. Make sure other neighbors see you do it.

  • themic

    NNS – Libertarianism is not incompatible withthe notion of a nation-state.

    Barry – the problem with the boycott is that it hurts his wife and kids more than it hurts him.

    Simplistic Hick – don’t it make you want to take out “Jacques” too? 😉

    my $0.03.

    — brendan

  • T. J. Madison

    >>And thus it seems that, realising that in the past you made a mistake by supporting this creep, you should then take action to to rectify the mistakes of the past in view of new information, new context and new understanding.

    Perry, this would be great if we (you and me personally) were making the decisions. We could admit that we’d screwed up and take steps to fix the situation.

    But we’re not in charge. The current US decision makers, many of whom are THE SAME GUYS who screwed up earlier, haven’t even acknowledged their responsiblilty for the previous screwups. Why should we trust them not to screw it up again? These people also lied to Congress, the Saudis, and us to get Gulf War I launched. Why should we believe anything they tell us?

    If these mistakes were in the distant past, maybe it wouldn’t be such a big deal. Unfortunately the screwups are ongoing.

    Just to give one example, the Turks have been bombing Kurdish villages in Iraq very recently, with full USG knowledge and cooperation. If we allow the Turks to participate in our “liberation”, it seems logical that lots of Kurdish “collateral damage” will occur. (We won’t hear about it until years after the “glorious victory”, as is standard.)

    Before we can use the USG/UKG to bring liberty to the world, we need to FIX them so that they actually can and will. Before we go sniping the evil neighbor, we need to GET OFF THE SAUCE, so we can be sober enough to SHOOT STRAIGHT.

  • Oi, what about the ‘note’?

  • Pete

    I’d steal his trash cans. If he complained I’d say Jacques did it.

  • I think the whole thing might look a bit better if we could take over some small chunks of Somalia fairly long term and show we can defend the civilian population from warlords inland [Malayan campaign style] and genuinely improve their lot.

    International reactions to that [grateful, ungrateful, indifferent etc] would be a good guide to what a Western power could expect upon then trying to take over all of a fully-functioning nasty enemy in one mouthful. These things take practice getting back into.

    Anyone yet ready to consider that the US might have been very mistaken not to back Britain over Suez in 1956? An awful lot of trouble could have been avoided if the West, in the person of the US on its own, hadn’t had to get through the last fifty years using Iran, Iraq, Israel and the Saudis as more or less co-operative, more or less deniable proxies in the region.

    Agreed, David, that note is horribly provocative. But isn’t that why every country employs cold-blooded, slimy types in its diplomatic service – to defend its leadership from its own hasty reactions to being baited?

  • Kevin Connors

    Thanks for publishing this, Perry; I’ve very much enjoied the humor and insight of most of these comments.

    There are, however, some serious stumbles. Of particular note is Mr. Merritt, who makes the common contra-liberationist’s mis-step of reading more into the Constitution than what is actually there. As written, and confirmed by repeated Supreme Court decisions over the years, the Constitution gives the Federal government, in the form of the President, with the approval of Congress, broad latitude in defending American interests abroad.

    There are many places where the Federal government has exceeded it’s Constitutional mandate, and Mr. Merrit is right to consider the taxes he pays to support those activities “theft”. But this is not one of them.

  • Julian Morrison

    Dammit, the first thing I’d do is have the good sense not to equate aggreagtes with individuals in my analogies. Shoot a thug and his left ear dies too – but his left ear isn’t a fully independent and utterly innocent sapient person, who has been herded into the aggregate by force.

    When you pretend “the enemy” is a person, or equate a countryful of humans with the head-honcho-du-jour, you can demonize “him” and ignore the plight of “collateral damage”. This is an evil and wilfully stupid thing to do.

  • Elizabeth

    How does one deal with this kind of abusive bully?

    Shoot him once where it counts on behalf of his wife, cut off each hand for the fists he planted in his kids, and chop each leg so he couldn’t run. I think I’d also yank his vocal chords.

    Then I’d plant him in an area where he could see his property and family flourish with success.

    “Goodbye Earl!”

  • James Merritt

    Mr. Connors appears to have missed my main point and chose to engage me on the way I see the constitution, vs. the way he sees it, the way imperialist fellow-Americans may see it, and the way the courts have interpreted it. First, the courts aren’t always right. Dred Scot was reversed, for instance. Also, the entire court system has bent over backwards for thirty years, to maintain the fiction of legitimacy for the drug war, when it is clear that the US oversteps its constitutional bounds by perverting a power to regulate interstate commerce into a power to prohibit interstate and intrastate drug commerce. The courts are currently bending over for many “War on Terror” abuses of civil rights, even though the Congress and President have not fulfilled the constitutional requirement to declare war before imposing various wartime measures. Indeed, engaging in a “premptive war” without a formal declaration as required by the Constitution, will probably amount to the biggest constitutional abuse since the Drug War (if not even more serious).

    The main point is, as Julian Morrison echoes, that even despite any broad latitude that the federal government may have to use military resources to protect US interests abroad, Uncle Sam — the country seen as “an individual” — is merely a fiction and the President is neither king nor emperor. An individual has complete wherewithal to use his body and resources as he sees fit (if not always the legal “permission” to do so). But the US and its President do NOT have unlimited right to commandeer anyone and anything in the country. Regardless of what the courts, congress, and president may claim, just let a would-be emperor try to commandeer or conscript more than a small percentage of the population or their resources for an unpopular war, and see what happens next. The protests of the Vietnam War era will seem like childlike fits of huffiness by comparison. The other thing in US history that needs to be remembered is the statement in the Declaration of Independence: “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these Ends [i.e., failing to secure rights, such as to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it…”

    America needs to fight wars that can be waged and won using only lives and resources provided by the people who believe in the war. When the country declares war because it has been (or is in clear danger of being) attacked, patriotic Americans will enlist and contribute by the millions. More or less EVERYONE will believe in the war. But when the country fails to declare war, when its leaders decide that a pre-emptive strike is the way to go without the case being made in the “courts” of congress or public opinion, subsequent attempts to conscript lives and resources, to make up the difference between voluntary contributions/enlistments and the need of the war machine, will be met with formidable resistance.

    Since Mr. Connors likes analogies, let’s analogize again: suppose that you make the decision to go after that bastard next door, but your colon dissents by metastasizing a cancer, while your arms dissent by becoming paralyzed, and your legs dissent by falling off. If you knew that your body’s organs could object to your bad decisions so dramatically and so immediately, you might not be so hasty about making those decisions, would you? You might choose “flight,” or at least minding your own business, a lot more often than you would choose “fight.” Indeed, you might reserve “fight” to only those times when you or your loved ones were attacked. Of course, it is silly to think of bodily organs as having so much autonomy. It is, however, just as silly to think of all the millions of individuals in the US and their property as being the body politic’s cells and expendable resources. That’s where the analogy breaks down. The US government exists to serve the individual citizens, not the other way around. Because a serious declaration of war requires an overwhelming commitment of lives and resources, the case for war must be made to the satisfaction of most — nearly all — of the citizens, in order for the war effort to be legitimate, not to mention successful. The US government simply does not have the wherewithal to compel citizens who are unwilling to fight for a cause. It can, however, persuade and inspire the citizens to defend their own homeland, if persuasion and inspiration are even necessary.

  • Tom

    The analogy is problematic, since presumably, we are invited to embrace vigilantism. “Hey, the guy’s a bastard, never mind worrying about trials and suchlike, let’s get him. We have the evidence.”

    But of course such parallels are dangerous, even if they do cast some light on an issue. For me, the case against SH is pretty clear – numerous breaches of UN resolutions, various acts – such as the invasions of neighbours and uses of WMDs against his own people. His financial support for terror groups, the probable connections with the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center……..

    But no matter how much evidence there is, the hardline anti-war types won’t be convinced until a major Western city is reduced to rubble with a “Iraq is pleased to take responsibility” badge on it. By which point the isolationists will look a bit, well, silly.

  • Kevin Connors

    The US government exists to serve the individual citizens…

    Again you are incorrect, Mr. Merritt. The Federal government was created to “promote the general welfare”; individual citizens are of little concern to it.

    You also couch your argument in the fiction of popularity begets legitimacy. In so doing, you have not only contridicted yourself by affirming the Evil War on Drugs, which is approved of by over 60% of the populace according to most polls, But you have actually condemned the United States. You see, the American Revolution was, by most historian’s estimates, initially supported by little more than 30% of the general population.

    Is it your contention, Mr. Merritt, that the United States is, by rights, still subject to Her Majesty’s rule?

  • I’d terrorize my family, make them report their every move, frisk them regularly, and threaten to kick them out of the house because they might object to how I deal with my nutcase neighbor.

  • I’d also take it upon myself to personally deal with every nutcase in my city, not just that one neighbor. I’d ignore the fact that doing so would give every nutjob on Earth an incentive to come after me first.

  • Gil

    I would awake from my nightmare that the transition from nation-states to anarchy did not include the formation of private defense agencies to deal with exactly these sorts of situations with justice and efficiency.

    If, incredibly, none had yet been formed then I would make a fortune creating one, since there would clearly be a great demand for such a service.

  • James Merritt

    Mr. Connors may wish to re-read the US Constitution more carefully. The federal government promotes the general welfare, true, but only through the exercise of explicitly granted powers which serve the purpose, in nearly all interesting cases, of securing individual rights (or sometimes states rights), as numerous sections in the main body of the document and the Bill of Rights were intended to make very clear.

    Whichever way Mr. Connors thinks I have “couched” my arguments, is up to him, but he shouldn’t be putting words in my mouth. I did not say that popularity begets legitimacy. The closest I came was to imply that the restraints on warmaking built into the Constitution tended to discourage foreign adventurism, which will never be nearly so popular or well-supported as defense of home soil. The latter is, coincidentally enough, the kind of war that the people who wrote the Constitution felt was the proper business of the federal government, not participation in miscellaneous military adventures, or obligatory military support — in their regional conflicts — of the allies we might acquire from numerous entangling alliances with foreign nations.

    If anyone relies on the popularity argument, it seems, ironically, to be Mr. Connors. The stretching of the “general welfare” provision into an umbrella covering any number of questionable and likely unconstitutional enterprises in the 20th century, was pushed through by an appeal to the depression-shocked masses, and cemented in the minds of the general population by maintenance of our evolving warfare-welfare state over several generations. The same majority that, according to a poll, erroneously thinks Iraqis were involved in the 9/11 attacks, thus “justifying” the war that the President wants to wage, is also quite satisfied to keep voting for congressional representatives and presidents who imply that the “general welfare” clause covers pretty much any social program that the politicians wish to undertake. Both notions are wrong, but they are popular, and can become deeply rooted for years, decades, or generations before refuted and expunged. That’s the kind of challenge I referred to in my first comment: we Americans must keep reminding ourselves that the US isn’t like other countries; that we have no king, and don’t want one, either. Sometimes (even in the revolutionary war, as Mr. Connors notes) it is a hard sell. This appears to be one of those times.

    Mr. Connors and I both seem to be arguing principle. My principle — which I believe to be compatible, if not congruent, with that of the US Constitution — is that of individual rights and the job of government to secure them; his principle appears to be grouded in the notion of an integrated body-politic, in which individuals and their property are little more than cells or nutrients, all at the disposal of the collective will (which, as we have seen throughout history, amounts to the will of one or a small group of politically adroit people, who are good at convincing others to see things their way).

    Incidentally, the “popularity” argument is indeed important, in the case where citizens can vote with their feet, which is at the heart of support for or opposition to spurious military operations. Rightly or wrongly, people will be glad to contribute to the waging of a “popular” war. They will actively oppose and undermine the waging of an unpopular war. At the end of the day, Mr. Connors’ argument is intended to make the proposed war popular, while I employ mine to reduce its popularity. I am sincere in my view of principle, as I am sure Mr. Connors is in his. Regardless of principle, however, when the mob starts moving, one way or the other, look out!

  • fyodor

    In lieu of “the note” (more on that later), I would seriously consider sniping him if I could. But what if I can’t get him without killing his wife (and kids), too? And what if those neighbors aren’t just timid but actively oppose such action because they think it would incite their volatile teenagers against them?

    Back to “the note,” I think that addendum is the most convincing part of this analogy. But I see no real life equivalent to it. If Iraq were genuinely threatening to attack the U.S., this would not be a preemptive war but one of self defense.

  • Perry, this would be great if we (you and me personally) were making the decisions. We could admit that we'd screwed up and take steps to fix the situation. But we're not in charge. The current US decision makers, many of whom are THE SAME GUYS who screwed up earlier, haven't even acknowledged their responsiblilty for the previous screwups. Why should we trust them not to screw it up again? These people also lied to Congress, the Saudis, and us to get Gulf War I launched. Why should we believe anything they tell us? If these mistakes were in the distant past, maybe it wouldn't be such a big deal. Unfortunately the screwups are ongoing. Why are the people saying “voluntary human shields” (people who go to Iraq to get in the way of military strikes w/o picking up arms themselves) are traitors who should be jailed, deported, etc, but the US govt officeholders who supported Saddam should remain in their jobs. You can jail Rumsfeld and invade Iraq – it is not a case of either/or.

  • set

    You know, I don’t think the support of Saddam then was much of a mistake. It kept Iran occupied for quite a time. It just meant America was just looking out for number 1.

  • AnGeL

    what if..we became extremely friendly with said neighbor.. and litterally killed him with kindness..(rather a passive agressive move)..sent in a few french maids that were entirely seductive, sent a few dozen cases of french champagne. a german accordian player to drive him insane, whilst playing the beer barrel poka, and let him go to heaven with 73 virgins with a smile on his face.. once again we could appear to all to be the superior inhabitant on the block…? .. well at least till we have to deal with his teenage kids and lonely wife…
    just a thought…..

  • AnGeL

    what if..we became extremely friendly with said neighbor.. and litterally killed him with kindness..(rather a passive agressive move)..sent in a few french maids that were entirely seductive, sent a few dozen cases of french champagne. a german accordian player to drive him insane, whilst playing the beer barrel poka, and let him go to heaven with 73 virgins with a smile on his face.. once again we could appear to all to be the superior inhabitant on the block…? .. well at least till we have to deal with his teenage kids and lonely wife…
    just a thought…..

  • Brian

    What if 28 of the 30 neighbors agree that I should rid the neighborhood of the bastard but the other 2 neighbors are against my action? Does the level of agreement among my neighbors determine the morality of my action? If so, what percentage is needed to justify my action? a simple majority? 100%?

  • Kevin Connors

    Mr. Merritt’s difficulty seems to be that he considers the Constitution to be an expression of libertarian first principles. It most assuredly is not. The Founding Fathers were not, first and formost, libertarians. They were pradmatic utilitarians who understood that, as Perry once so succintly expressed, “the world is a messy place.” And that tying the Federal government’s hands on matters of warmaking could cost the nation dearly.

    I have a challenge for Mr. Merritt! I defy him, using as source material the Constitution, supporting documents from the period, such as the Federalist Papers, Supreme Court decisions ans any poblished treatise by acclaimed Constitutional scholars, no tin-foil hat loonies as we can find all over the internet these days, to show any coherent doctrine of limitation of the Federal government’s warmaking powers and perogatives, beyond the well-known seperation of powers between the legislative and executive.

    If Mr. Merritt can produce such a doctrine, and present evidence of it in the form of an article, I’m sure the Samizdata Ream would be happy to publish it here.

  • blabla

    The founding fathers were not all in agreement, nor did they share the same political philosophy. However, both the federalists and the anti-federalists would have been considered libertarians in today’s statist societies. Of course, the anti-federalists were the good guys.

    One thing is for sure – just about all of them believed in the defense of individual, natural rights as the goal of any society, rather than any collective utilitarian good.

  • James Merritt

    Mr. Connors was kind enough to notify me of his challenge by email, rightly expecting that demands of life and work might (had!) drawn my attention from this thread. I had pretty much made my points and was content to let them percolate in the stew here. But once more unto the breach…

    Unfortunately, his challenge indicates that he may be continuing to miss my point. For one thing, I do see the Constitution as an expression of libertarian first principles, if only for the reason that I first learned many of those principles from my initial study of the Constitution back in the 8th grade (during the VietNam war, another period when constitutional warmaking authority was at issue). But the document is hardly a pure or consistent expression of libertarian theory. It is a practical work of statecraft, drafted and ratified by a committee of people whose views, on the whole, were remarkably libertarian in comparison with more common authoritarians throughout history (including today), as “blabla” reminds us. I don’t expect the Constitution to conform to any modern libertarian orthodoxy, but I observe that it overlaps that orthodoxy remarkably well, all the same.

    I can certainly point to original words of the founders in the matter of needing to avoid either foreign wars that are properly irrelevant to us, or aggressive wars that are not motivated by attacks on or imminent threats to the US. The point of the separation of powers, a warmaking “restriction” which Mr. Connors acknowledges by way of suggesting that we exclude it from discussion here, was precisely to help prevent aggression: open debate in congress prior to a formal declaration of war was expected to identify and dismiss frivolous and mistaken causes for war, leaving at the bottom of the crucible the real reasons for war’s necessity, which the great mass of patriotic Americans could embrace and support. The two-year limitation on war appropriations was intended to force the congress to revisit the reasons for the war, in view of the current status of its prosecution. This also gave the people the chance to vote their representatives out of office, if the congress and president ever colluded to authorize and fight an unpopular, unnecessary war (so here we see two levels of separation of powers!). Finally, the “sunsetting” provision was expected to help prevent the creation and maintenance of standing armies, which the founders knew and warned could be used by the President for purposes of adventurism.

    Beyond the above, I see nothing explicit in the Constitution that requires the US to fight only “good” wars, or “defensive” wars. (The suggestion in the Preamble, that the Constitution is ordained and established to, in part, provide for the common defense is just that, a non-binding suggestion — but then again, so is the “general welfare” phrase that Mr. Connors mentioned above.) The “doctrine” that Mr. Connors challenges me to produce would have to be found in non-binding legal critique, the non-binding writings of the founders, and teased from various court decisions. Personally, I don’t think such a doctrine exists, and in my postings here, I never claimed it did. I meant to convey that the combined mechanisms of the Constitution, and the whole context of it, naturally and intentionally discourage both foreign adventurism and aggressive warmaking. If a particular administration or congress wants to go against the grain, however, they can certainly find large enough loopholes through which to drive their tanks and fire their missiles. In the mid-20th century, the federal government did just that, with the creation of the Department of Defense, which started us down the road of maintaining a large standing military force, which, in turn, just begged to be used for purposes of foreign adventurism. Of course, that’s exactly what we got, and now we’re staring at the possibility of the US’s first, significant aggressive war. Once there was a large mass of “muscle” that would respond to the dictates of a single commander (or, more properly, a hierarchical command structure under the command in chief), it became easier for each succeeding generation to think of America as the integrated body politic that Mr. Connors has asked us to imagine and endorse. This is a dangerous perception, easily abused. The people who founded the US were aware of it and warned us against it.

    The purpose of an analogy such as Mr. Connors’, is to elicit support for the war. If the war could be fought with impunity, absent popular support, such elicitations would be unnecessary wastes of our time. If the Constitution effectively prevented the kind of war the Mr. Bush proposes to fight, the elicitations of support for the war effort would be superfluous — again, wasting our time. The reason that it is worth paying attention to Connors’ fable, or to the comments of me or anyone here who has expressed any on-point view whatsoever, is precisely because, in the US, popular support — or the lack of it — makes all the difference in whether or not the leaders can effectively wage war (or retain their offices if they choose to wage war). It is thus troubling to me that Mr. Connors challenges me to cite, apart from original source documents, only “acclaimed constitutional scholars” (no “tin-hat loonies” need apply!).

    Unlike Britain’s the US Constitution was deliberately written down in its entirety, and was drafted in succinct, common English of the day, precisely so EVERY CITIZEN of reasonable intellegence and competence in life could read and understand it all, in order to use it as a practical yardstick in judging the conduct of his government. The supreme law of the land isn’t just the province of politicians, lawyers, and judges. It is the proper study of “We the People,” every one. Although we have, of necessity, set up courts and judges to resolve disputes in interpretation — which we agree to respect even though they are not infallible — no citizen is excused from the responsibility to arrive at a personal understanding of the Constitution and its implications.

    The authors of the Constitution knew that WE THE PEOPLE would bear the cost of any wars waged in our name, and they deliberately made it as difficult as possible, for anyone to create, and dictate the actions of, a warmaking “body politic,” such as Mr. Connors’ imagines, while still leaving the federal government able to provide for the common defense. The crucial remaining ingredient necessary for any war would have to be public support. So now, just as we must individually understand the Constitution, we must also individually ask and answer hard questions, such as: Do we serve the government, or does the government serve us? Does Iraq represent an imminent threat to the US? What are our real interests here, and is war the only or best way to promote them at this time? Those who lean toward war must further ask themselves whether it is right to appropriate the time and property of their fellow citizens in this effort, and whether the actual damage to our economy or liberty caused by the war will be less than the realistically assessed risk of harm we face by dealing with our declared enemy in less warlike ways.

    War is not business as usual in a free society. It is indeed necessary for a country at war to become an integrated body politic, existing not under a peacetime constitution and its guarantees of liberty, but under martial law and a supreme commander. Connors’ analogy puts the cart before the horse. We are not the unified body politic BEFORE we make the decision to go get the bad guy. But we must be so integrated, AFTER we are committed to war, in order to have any realistic hope of winning.

    Here is the conundrum: in order to effectively fight the war, we literally must give up our freedom, our accustomed way of life, for the duration. How much of that must we relinquish, and for how long? If we are fighting for our lives, to repel invasion and restore our way of life, we can tolerate that for years. But what threat to our freedoms and way of life does Iraq realistically pose, that my fellow citizens and I should endorse the restriction of not only our own individual freedoms, and the upsetting of our own individual lives, but also those of my neighbors? If Saddam can’t be defeated immediately, or if his defeat sparks massive instability or an even larger war in the mideast, in which we must also participate, how long must we remain under martial law, functioning as the integrated, centrally commanded body politic? What are the dangers of remaining long in that situation?

    Speaking for myself, while I might donate my own time and resources to go after a bad guy, I cannot in good conscience declare that my neighbor’s time and resources are also forfeit to deal with THIS particular bad guy. Yet Mr. Connors’ fable requires each of us to do exactly that: to imagine that we were emperor, in command of the whole body politic. To the extent that we all embrace the illusion, in this and so many other circumstances, we can’t help but get the kind of government we envision: an empire, in which we are all cells and organs, to be used and disposed at the pleasure of the imperial authority. That’s not the republic that Mr. Franklin, Mr. Madison, and the rest of the constitutional convention delegates designed for us. WE THE PEOPLE must understand, and make the conscious choice: We can abandon that earlier dream, embracing empire and relegating the spirit and ideals of the Constitution to history. Getting into a major, aggressive war without benefit of a formal, congressional declaration of war would certainly be a huge step down that road. Or, we can keep the Republic and do our best to avoid the need for war. A good start toward and down that path would be to require a congressional declaration of war in respect of the Constitution, after the necessary and expected debates in Congress and the courts of public opinion.

    Once, long ago, George Washington had the chance to become King. Not only did he publicly refuse the offer, he voluntarily stepped down from the deliberately more modest role of President after two terms. If you were Washington in that situation, with those opportunities, what would YOU do? US citizens are, in effect, being asked a similar question today, especially in hypothetical arguments such as Mr. Connors’. Do you accept the scepter of empire in order to “do good” around the world? This is a trap, as I’d think those in the UK might well understand. Once the opportunity to “do good” passes, and good has either been done or not, the realities and ultimately unsustainable demands of empire will remain as a burden. In the US, we already feel a lot of that, despite having only flirted with empire in the past fifty years or so. If anyone was going to be emperor of America, it had to have been Washington. He had the good sense to refuse, and his example prevented the ascension of other aspiring American emperors, for at least a while. We are told today that, as the sole surviving superpower, America has the opportunity to establish its own empire. Connors’s fable dares us to act consistently with the idea of the US as an imperial power, much as Washington must have been dared and tempted in his own time. What will we do?

  • Jeremy

    Something very similar to this fable happened in my home state, in a small town, in the 1970s.

    There was this guy whose name I can’t remember, his nickname was “Ken Rex” or something like that. He was a bully, a thug, he robbed and stole from his neighbors. (Pretty much like the person in the fable) But the police never did much.

    So the town had a meeting. They voted to kill him. Then someone did. In broad daylight, in the middle of town.

    End of problem.

  • Jeremy

    Oh yeah, I might add, this person made his living as a thief or some sort of criminal (he didn’t work), so boycotting him would not have been an option…

  • Carleton Wu

    Well, as a nonconservative, I would say the following:
    I would not have sold/given him the equipment and raw materials to make war gasses and biological weapons. I would not have given him the info he needed to use those weapons on his neighbors. I would not have been his buddy (until the tomato incident showed he was too big for his britches)…

    So, next time us libruls tell you guys that principles matter in international relations, *pay attention*. We’re the ones who keep you from regretting asinine actions like those.
    (or, in your case, flushing them down the memory hole?)

    As for now, take the #%@$ out.


  • Michiel Buddingh'

    I’d put it differently. Neighbour X did all the bad things you mention. After that, you visited his home, and beat him up a little. Since then, he stopped being a nuisance to the neighbours (although he still beats his wife).

    Now, the only thing that stops him from trying to invade his neighbour’s garden again is the knowledge that you will beat him to a pulp if he tries.

    Knowing that, he’s trying to acquire a sniper’s rifle. Using this rifle, he’ll be able to hold most of the neighbourhood hostage. He may not be able to hurt you with it, but he can threaten to kill his neighbours if you try to stop him, and you’re good friends with some of them.

    Actually, it’s very unlikely that your neighbour has such a weapon right now, but you know that the very moment he obtains one, you’ll be unable to stop him. It’ll be too late, and he’ll be able to terrorise his neighbours as much as he likes.