Let Him Who Desires Peace …

by L. Neil Smith
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Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

The Roman historian Vegetius is probably most famous for having advised his readers, “Let him who desires peace prepare for war.” Being a Strategic Air Command brat, and a bit of an authority on topics related to self-defense, I understand and agree with the old boy.

It happens, though, that there’s more than one kind of peace, and more than one way of achieving it. If it’s the peace of not being attacked by another country or having sand kicked in your face by a beach bully, Vegetius’ advice works fine, at least it has for me.

But if the peace you seek consists of not letting your own country pursue military adventures aimed creating an empire, consolidating dictatorial power at home, cornering the market on an energy source that will be obsolete by the middle of this century, or turning the drooling idiots and moral cripples that our electoral system selects for into War Presidents, a different approach is called for, one that requires more intelligence and courage than most people seem capable of mustering today.

I know, because years ago, I addressed a campus group supposedly dedicated to world peace, offering them the ideas I’m about to offer you. I’ve never been less listened to or more willfully misunderstood. It was as if I had encountered some Abolitionists in the 1850s only to discover that they didn’t want to end slavery, but to be placed in charge of it.

Three things must be done to achieve lasting peace, each extremely difficult — the road to war is easier — but they can make the last couple of centuries of increasingly terrible and widespread warfare nothing more than a nightmare, out of which humanity will finally have awakened.

The first is to outlaw conscription. Wars can’t be fought without armies. The creation of conscripted armies is a major reason why 19th and 20th century wars were so particularly horrible and resulted in tens of millions of deaths.

Conscription must be recognized for what it is — slavery — and eliminated forever. I failed to convince that campus group on this point because each of them had his own idea how armies of slaves might be employed, domestically and otherwise, to advance his actual agenda which turned out not to be peace, at all.

There were two points I didn’t get to then. Following the end of conscription, any politician or bureaucrat who tries resurrecting it, no matter what “crisis” or “emergency” he cites to justify it, should be hanged. Also, conscription initiated or maintained by any country in the world should be considered an act of war against all others.

The next step is harder. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Western populations have gradually become accustomed to higher and higher rates of taxation. Americans are presently commanded to stand and deliver about half of what they earn to governments at one level or another. Whole volumes could — and have — been written about the economic and social damage this kind of taxation does to a culture.

But what concerns me here is that taxation is the fuel of war. Warfare of the kind witnessed for the first time only in the 19th and 20th centuries, warfare that kills tens of millions in the space of only a few years, warfare that snuffs out whole cities in the blink of an eye, is possible only when governments can seize and spend a significant fraction of the economic output of their host populations.

What makes dealing with this problem most difficult is that many still believe high rates of taxation and government spending can be employed benevolently, on various sorts of social programs from free public education (itself a major source of war) to transfer payments to various people and organizations for various reasons. But the power to do great good is the power to do even greater harm.

Setting aside many another argument against such programs — most of them supplied by several decades of cold, hard reality — the most important is that sooner or later, supposedly benevolent programs will be used, one way or another, for war. To supply an example, the government has threatened on many occasions to use Social Security rolls to ensure compliance with Selective Service. Student loans are used as an inducement to sign up, as well. Give it to government, it will be used for war.

Our culture desperately needs to reconsider the whole notion of taxation. There may be a hundred “worthy” objectives you’d like to see achieved with money taken from your neighbor — or you may simply like seeing your neighbor humbled and diminished. I worry about how it affects children when they finally figure out that they’re living in a kleptocracy.

One thing is sure: no government forced to subsist on bake sales and TV benefits will go looking for trouble in a world full of other tax-fattened, slave-owning governments eager to supply it. If Princess Di had focused on the ability of governments to pay for landmines, there would be fewer of them in the world today.

The third step is hardest of all, not physically, but in the minds of those who claim they want peace but are unwilling to pay the price for it. It is simply this: disarm governments, arm the people.

Fifty years ago, sheriff’s deputies and city police officers were required to supply their own weapons. The idea was that weapons were personal — meant for self-defense in a dangerous profession — not to be used for compelling compliance with the law. Laws were fewer then, more sensible, more constitutional. Most people were inclined to obey them for the sake of maintaining civilization.

Certainly no federal employee should be allowed to go armed in the line of duty. If they have a legitimate complaint against a person, they should have to apply to the local sheriff for aid in contacting that person in a civil manner, during business hours. This would remove the vicarious excitement from police “reality” shows — wearing masks, wielding machineguns, smashing doors in the middle of the night, screaming obscenties, terrorizing women and children — I would regard that as a worthwhile secondary benefit.

History has often demonstrated that it isn’t superweapons that win wars, but a determination of a people to resist tyranny and run their own lives. We taught this to the British in the 18th century. The Vietnamese taught it to the French — and then to us — in the 20th century. The Afghans taught it, first to the British, then to the Russians. They are still more than likely to teach it to us all over again. A people adequately equipped with small arms — and a working philosophy of freedom — are always more than a match for tyrants.

Which means that government claims on our productive capacity and freedom, made in the name of protecting us, are actually what we most need protection from. No foreign dictator, no so-called “terrorist” threatens Americans the way their own government does, and that has always been the case.

To summarize, then. End conscription. End taxation. Disarm the government, arm the people. I do not deceive myself, this is the work of a century. But since we didn’t begin when we needed to — about the time of Napoleon — the time to begin is now.

Do you have the courage and intelligence it takes?


Reprinted from The Libertarian Enterprise for January 13, 2003

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