I tried to summarize Karl Jaspers’ The Question of German Guilt. One of his arguments was that, when it comes to questions of politics the choice of being aloof is not available to us. We are unable to look at the political mess around us and just say “I’m not going to participate and I take no responsibility for what happens in the name of my community or nation.”
As Jaspers put it:
Every human being is fated to be enmeshed in the power relations he lives by. This is the inevitable guilt of all, the guilt of human existence. It is counteracted by supporting the power that achieves what is right, the rights of man. Failure to collaborate in organizing power relations, in the struggle for power for the sake of serving the right, creates basic political guilt and moral guilt at the same time.*
In other words, we’re all doomed to have to take a stand of one sort or another. Attempts to stand aloof are really just evasions of this responsibility, and amount to acquiescence and acceptance of the current regime.
When I started my experiment in tax resistance, my goal was “to stop supporting the government personally — to wash my hands of it. I had a selfish desire to live my life according to my principles, and not a more overarching agenda of regime change or reform.” I felt that “a compelling case for the need to resist the government can be made. Now, finally, I have earned the right to weigh that case. Once I stop supporting the government, I can make the decision of whether to wash my hands of it or whether to actively oppose it.”
I was following Thoreau’s lead, here. He argued in Resistance to Civil Government that while a person might decide to take on the task of reforming society as a hobby or a calling, a person is not obligated to try to make the world a more just place, but is only obligated to make sure that he or she is not acting as an agent of injustice. For him, voluntarily paying taxes to the government stepped over this line, but his goal was not to overthrow the government, but “to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually.”
Later on I came to have doubts about whether standing aloof and reclaiming one’s innocence is an option. I was debating someone who felt that as long as you take no fully voluntary steps to commit injustice, you are in the clear. Since paying taxes is not voluntary, you cannot be held responsible for what the government does with your taxes, and so you shouldn’t feel like you are obligated to inconvenience yourself in any way in order to avoid paying taxes.
I had a hard time answering this objection, though I gave it a good go. It just seems to me that the horror of a state like ours is too gargantuan to be just the work of those people with actual evil intentions and shameless direct culpability. It requires a nation of people working together. The American government rules because of the consent of the American people (not because it is a democracy, but because it like all governments ultimately relies on consent). The many ways, large and small, in which we manifest this consent serve to weave together the leviathan that enables murder and suffering on vast scales.
I incline toward the viewpoint that the libertarian ethical ideal of “initiate no aggressive act” is damn near impossible due to this complex web of complicity, and that people who believe that they can escape this by merely “intending” to initiate no aggressive acts are missing something important about intentions and actions. How does one cope with this fog of culpability and diffuse aggression, especially if it is impossible to actually stand aloof from it? Ball-and-stick models like “if you commit an aggressive act, you owe the victim appropriate restitution” fail under the load of this complexity.
There’s a utopian folklore in the libertarian tradition — sometimes called “Libertarian Zionism” — that envisions some promised land (or promised “gulch”) where the libertarian non-aggression principle is the only law. Some people hope to reach this place through magic, others through imagination, others by building an island in international waters, or even moving to New Hampshire.
William Williams just wanted a place to call his own, that’s all. He didn’t want anything from the government, and he didn’t care to give anything to it either. He bought himself some land and has steadfastly refused to hook up to any public utilities. He collects rainwater, uses a septic tank, has solar panels for electricity and uses propane, kerosene and wood for heating and cooking. He has no telephone.
He’s roughly the sort of person I imagine when I think of someone doing things Thoreau-style — deciding to cut off corrupt civil society and just go it alone. And in my daydreams of Thoreauvian aloofness, William Williams is visited by songbirds not bureaucrats, and it all ends happily ever after.
“I don’t bother anyone. Why should they bother me?” he said. He’s about as apart from the state as you can get… except that he’s been hauled into court again and again — for refusing to hook up to the local sewer system, for refusing to let Allegheny Power run a line through his property, for refusing to respond to court orders.
We seem to be stuck — the more energetically you try to get out of the government’s clutches, the more tightly it squeezes. If you decide to cooperate, even only to the extent that it demands at gunpoint, you become part of the web of complicity that makes the leviathan stronger. All the libertarian utopias and strategies of aloofness are chimerical. The only choice seems to be to plod ahead in the mud of this real world, choosing to side with the angels or the devils and making your decisions accordingly.
* I found a similar argument in Hannah Arendt’s essay on Civil Disobedience. It seems to me to suffer from the same problems found in the long line of myths inventing the consent of the governed from the Hobbes/Locke tradition of Western philosophy. These amount to hand-waving and just-so-story-telling, and to the extent that they are taken literally were well-refuted by, for instance, Lysander Spooner’s No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority.
Still, there does seem to be something important in the ideas that, first, we are born into civilization and there is never any question of entering it or leaving it and so we must decide how we are going to coexist with it, and, second, that to the extent that we know we can dissent if we do not do so we are in some manner consenting.
Every man is born as a member of a particular community and can survive only if he is welcomed and made at home within it. Some kind of consent is implied in every newly born’s factual situation, namely, some kind of conformity to the rules under which the great game of the world is played in the particular group into which he belongs by birth. We all live and survive by a kind of tacit consent, which however it would be difficult to call voluntary. How can we will what is there anyhow? We might call it voluntary, though, when the child happens to be born into a community in which dissent is also a legal and de facto possibility once it has grown into a man. Dissent implies consent and is the hallmark of free government; who knows that he may dissent knows also that he somehow consents when he does not dissent.…
…Seen in this perspective, tacit consent is not a fiction; it is inherent in the human condition. This consensus universalis, however, does not cover consent to specific laws or specific policies, even if they are the result of majority decisions. It is often argued that the consent to the Constitution, the consensus universalis, implies also consent to statutory laws because in representative government the people helped to make them. This consent, I think, is indeed entirely fictitious; under present circumstances, at any rate, it has lost all plausibility.…