All Government Acts are Underwritten by Force

I saw a little bit of this libertarian guy, Dean Smith, talking on the Joe Rogan experience about how taxes as they are now will be seen as a crime akin to slavery by future Americans. He believes that because tax collection is underwritten by the threat of violence. If you do not pay your taxes, he says, men with guns can come and forcibly take you from your home and throw you in a cage. That our government operates using the money taken under the threat of force is criminal.

This misses something important. All governments are underwritten by the threat of force.

Every law, every fine, every regulation, every mandate the United States government issues is backed by men with guns. If you don’t have a fishing permit and catch yourself a monster trout, you’ll catch a fine. If you don’t pay the fine, in some states, you can be imprisoned. The state will attempt to garnish wages or place liens on your assets first, but that is also a form of force.

This is the social contract, and it isn’t voluntary. As a citizen, you cannot opt out except by leaving the country. And then you’ll be subject to the rules and regulations of another government.

But imagine a government where you could opt in. Where you voluntarily pay your share of taxes and, in exchange, receive the services of the government. You call 911 because of a fire or burglary, and the dispatcher has to check their records to see if you’ve paid your taxes. No, sorry, we don’t have a record of that, enjoy your smoldering wreckage.

This voluntary tax scheme would actually build a massive record-keeping bureaucracy to track payments across multiple service providers. If you think the government is flawed and inefficient now, wait until they have to check records every time someone gets stabbed or has a heart attack or crashes their car. How often do you think they’ll get it wrong? Dispatchers already make errors by assuming a call is not an emergency or sending help to the wrong address – they’re only human, after all.

What about things that benefit everyone as a whole, like the military, the CDC and NIH, or the National Weather Service? If you don’t pay your share, do you get the benefits of cancer research? Or do the costs of those studies get passed on to the companies researching cancer treatment, who then pass it on to cancer-riddled consumers? We’re already at a point where prescription drug research is already so expensive for often marginal benefits. Pharmaceutical companies have to pursue money makers, drugs that treat chronic illnesses, like depression and high blood pressure, instead of drugs that cure diseases, like antibiotics. At this point, every single government action becomes a consumer choice. Or, more likely, a corporate investment.

We created governments to handle the big, societal issues that arose from agriculture – defense, food distribution, common good, economic protection – and continued with industrialization – pollution, labor exploitation, increasing globalization. These problems don’t take well to opt-in or consumption taxes because they affect everyone. And while individuals may disagree about the specific large scale problems to solve – look at Lamar Smith’s war on the NSF grant process – I don’t think many people believe that there are large, complex issues we need to tackle as a country.

Taxes are how we fund these solutions. We may have legitimate quarrels over the type of taxes and the rates, but to argue that we shouldn’t have taxes at all is fantasy. Your income depends on the protection and services that the government provides, so you should throw that government a cut. If you don’t, the notorious GOV is gonna come knocking for their money, Lebowski. If there were no consequences for non-payment, there’d be more people ignoring to government. In order to maintain their authority, the government needs to use force to maintain power when people challenge it. That they need to use force show a weakness in their power and authority.

Fortunately, the US maintains a mostly consensus government, where nearly every gets to vote for representatives who determine where their tax dollars are spent. Elections lend tax collection a measure of legitimacy. If you think, taxes are theft, you can vote for people who will oppose them. But you are going to have a hell of a time arguing against the existence of taxation once people realize all the things those tax dollars pay for and the alternatives to mandatory income taxes.

Fiction is an Argument with a Reader

Fiction is an argument about the nature of the world. The author writes their story to persuade you that their insights, observations, and ideas illuminate or reflect the reality that we all share. This applies to even the most fantastical stories, as they have to still convince a reader that the extra-real additions to the story are convincing within a different context (exo-planets with advanced technology) or alternate physics (magic or multiple planes of reality).

Authors persuade through details. The cracks in the ceiling, the inflection and slang, the other riders on a bus, all these work to sell the reality that contains a story. Regardless of where that story takes place, those details have to be as precise and broadly understandable as possible.

I once stopped reading a book because it described a town as being “like any other small Connecticut town.” On top of the rest of the book, this phrase told me that this was a narrow, insular book, one that had no desire to speak forth and reveal. It was the mark of narcissism. The phrase “small Connecticut town” codes a lot into it and will mean different things to different people. That the author used that shows he can’t escape his own shorthand, that he isn’t thinking of other people when he writes.

To be fair, that book suffered the curse of Hemingway, written in a spare and emotionless prose that came off boring instead of efficient. And it covered the dullest and most worn rut in American literature: masculinity. It did not convince me that it had something to say, or, more simply, that the story I was reading was worth continuing.

The simplest fiction stories, those without any assumed changes to the existing world, are the hardest to make convincing. They speak of you and your world. The more you know the setting, the personalities, the conflicts, the sharper the argument has to be. If a story has an old timer drinking his pension away in your neighborhood with can after can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, it won’t be believable if you know those guys order Narragansett because PBR is for broke hipsters, while Narragansett is for broken men.

That sort of persuasion comes from a sort of competent authority, that you have shown that you know this world, that you’ve watched and understood people enough to see them in this environment or extrapolate them into it convincingly. Sometimes that takes a sort of domain knowledge, about the location, about the types of people, or about the actions they do. Other times, all it takes is empathy. Writers (and, hell, anybody) can argue their views best when they a well developed sense of empathy.

There’s other ways to persuade with a story. Because an author defines the world you’ve viewing, they can manipulate it and, therefore, you the reader. All writers manipulate their readers, so watch out about judging that word, manipulate. I’m using to mean any time someone hides some amount of information about their intent from another person. An author can use this to great effect by hiding some information about characters or events, for example, to construct a twist that changes the nature of a story. Mysteries rely on some amount of manipulation to be satisfying.

Manipulation only goes so far for a writer. Persuasion, either through demonstrating knowledge or constructing enough believable details, must work hand in hand. Imaging a murder mystery where the killer is revealed to be a character that had not been introduced yet. You’d feel pretty cheated. Manipulation works only if you hide some facts about a story, not all of them.

Some writers, like John Grisham or Amy Tan, use their personal authority as experts in other domains – lawyers and Asian Americans, respectively – to convince you that the details within their stories reflect reality. I don’t know much about either how lawyers operate what Asian Americans go through, so when these authors throw in words, events, or locations that I don’t understand, I still believe them thanks to their personal background.

But woe betide the writer who does not convince. Their story falls flat, runs listless, and marrs their name. What convinces one person may not convince another, even beyond matters of style and taste, depending on their existing beliefs. Our brains are hardwired to defend our existing beliefs even if they are wrong. Smart people – that is, people more likely to read – defend their beliefs harder. So if you want a good story, cram it with details, accurate and heartfelt, and hope that a few them land with everyone.

Open Carry and the Politics of Personal Power

I’ve been very slowly reading Power: Its Forms, Bases, and Uses by Dennis Wrong (but it feels so right). I say slowly because it’s both a dense academic read and every time I get a few pages in, I start thinking about various forms of power in practice.

I keep coming back to the open carry mindset. By that, I mean gun owners who support openly carrying or wearing holstered firearms in public places. There’s some speculation that openly carrying a gun deters crime – criminals see armed citizens and decide against robbing that 7/11. Speculation, but little conclusive proof. To me, that’s the closest I get to agreeing with the open carry mindset. It’s like having a bunch of uniformed officers walking around a troubled neighborhood. The power of the visible.

But open carry is more about expressing the power of the individual carrying. It’s a show of potential force that indicates the guy with the gun has power. They never need to act on that show – in fact, it’s a sign that their power is weak if an individual or entity has to resort to using force. But the display itself is their source of power.

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Most of the open carry supporters have a strong mistrust of the government in all forms, preferring the smaller, tribal unit of the family. And the gun is there to protect the family. To show that this family unit is strong and can defend itself. The comedian, Bill Burr, talks about the standard paranoid situation where someone breaks into your house with the sole intention to kill you and your family. But that’s just paranoia. In 2011, there were about 100 homicides associated with burglaries. A small fraction of the total deaths in a year.

This and other justifications used for openly carrying guns – the imminent and constant threat of crime, a tyrannical government oppressing you – are fears that a malicious actor will impose their will on you by force. To counteract that potential force, they need to have access to force themselves.

When you are afraid of being acted upon, you feel powerless. The gun is their access to power. As Mao Zedong said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” It applies to all forms of power, though, as having access to force, you can compel others to do your will. Or, in this case, prevent others from forcing you to do their will. It’s a strangely logical mindset when you burrow into it.

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The difference between myself and the open carry movement is that I don’t believe there is a reason to arm myself in public. I would rather support better policing, as I believe in the promise of government. The far right sees government as a dangerous other, drunk on power and ready to take advantage of us. I see government as us, the collective expression of the population’s will. But maybe we’re both projecting on government, I with my hope and trust of fellow man and the paranoid right’s fear of being taken advantage of, placing on it those qualities we guard like diamonds in our hearts.