Larken Rose is an outspoken proponent of radical, stateless libertarianism. In an infamous article, When Should You Shoot a Cop, and a recent speech at Porcfest, he has challenged a taboo among the libertarian movement, particularly the Free State Project, by asserting our right to use physical force in self defense against government agents. While he appears to make a compelling case, I think that it's important to highlight some important problems with his arguments.
Libertarian Guilt Trip
Most recently, there was a video in reaction to the expulsion of Christopher Cantwell from the Free State Project, who wrote a controversial article in a similar vein:
The first problem I have is that Larken is taunting us by telling us that we're afraid to address the issue, and painting people's condemnation of his point as fear of addressing the arguments. I agree with Larken that ignoring it is a weak tactic, which is why I'm responding. Hiding would merely strengthen Larken's point that the only thing standing between us and the truth is fear of facing an uncomfortable reality. This would embolden and isolate the ranks of people with this brave and potentially dangerous point of view.
I initially took him at his word, and I personally understand the desire to just make this issue go away. But considering that they let him talk at Porcfest, and that people debate the issue quite rationally on Free Talk Live (a radio show heavily connected with the Free State Project) for days on end, Ian giving him due respect, I think that Larken, to some extent, is crying censorship as a persuasive tactic.
A Free Agent
The next problem I have is that Larken makes the argument that organizations such as the Free State Project, which hold an official ideological position, stifle progress. As a member of an organization, things you say are to some extent representative of the organization, and Larken considers this a limiting factor. To address this, consider the ways in which one can act as part of a group.
In reaching ends (not just political ends), libertarianism, in my opinion, does not promote collective efforts, but it does promote concerted efforts. The difference is that in a concerted effort, membership in the group is not a matter of identification with the group, but rather a revocable agreement with its means and goals. If a group of people are considering conducting a concerted effort, there needs to be an description of what that effort is, so that people can decide whether or not to join. The description is pivotal, because every member of the group understands that every other member joined with the understanding given in the description. If a member does not meet the description, the leadership should consider removing them from the group. If the official description is not adhered to by the leadership in this or other ways, the disappointed members should consider leaving.
It may be a bit of a drag on progress, but it gives other people an important assurance as to what they're getting themselves into. If Chris Cantwell wants to take a position contrary to the means of the Free State Project, that's great. But I am strongly considering joining the Free State Project, and I, for one, don't want to join an organization that tacitly supports Chris's point of view. As such, it makes me comfortable to know that, in joining the Free State Project, I will be among others who feel comfortable with this decision. Chris, for his part, should find another concerted effort that matches his means.
The same could be said about headless movements. Larken amusingly goes on to say that there should be a splinter in the movement between people willing and not willing to use violence in self defense against government agents, and that the latter aren't true advocates of liberty. What if somebody called themselves a libertarian and advocated for socialized medicine? You'd tell them "sorry you don't understand libertarianism, you're not really one of us". It's basically the same thing, less formally instituted.
What would be dangerous is if an organization was not the holder of the banner, but was the banner itself. At this point the organization would represent a collective effort, which is identification with a group rather than just adherence to a principle. This is the concern that Larken is expressing, and to this extent it is valid. However so far, I don't think it applies to the Free State Project. (What does trouble me about the Free State Project is that it seems to be engaging in mission creep. I liked it better when it just planned to get everybody into New Hampshire, and dissolve thereafter.)
Daring to Speak of Violence
Now let's get to the meat of the matter. Here's his talk at Porcfest, "Why Speak of Violence":
Let's look at his first basic assumptions. 1) It is moral, according to the Non-Aggression Principle, to use deadly force, as necessary, for self preservation. 2) The aggressor having a badge does not create an exception. So much I agree on. Well, so what? Larken acts as if it is only the most enlightened, intellectually honest libertarians who would come to this conclusion. In reality, I think almost everybody, libertarian or not, will agree with this given the proper hypothetical. In Indiana, it's not only a socially acceptable position, it's LEGAL.
Further, I'd argue that almost everybody, libertarian or not, would agree that there are certain hypothetical situations in which a government "goes rogue", where it's time to take up arms (assuming there was any hope in the endeavor). Guns rights activists talk about this hypothetical all the time.
This, again, only serves to put Larken in the position of being the holder of some inconvenient truth. Don't be fooled, there's nothing that compelling about this point. The point that is compelling, however, is where he makes this argument in the context of activism. As an activist, your job is to go against the grain of public opinion. Practically, this is the difference between defending yourself against a police officer who is threatening you without giving you an option to comply, and forcefully defending yourself against a police officer because you don't want to obey a law. I understand that this is not important from a moral standpoint, but it is important from the standpoint of acceptance across society. Larken is clear that he is not advocating revolution, but when there is an institution whose actions are respected by the critical mass of the population as legitimate, using deadly force to defend against it may as well be a violent revolt.
To continue such an effort en mass as libertarians without eventually complying (and Larken implies that at some point we should all stop complying), it may necessarily require what even he would call a violent revolution. Activism is about persuading the public. Anything that requires force to overcome the critical mass of public opinion will render a large demand among the population for a counter-revolt. This is why many of us advocate what is often dubbed as "Peaceful Evolution". This is the true reason that the idea of shooting police officers in defense of our freedom makes some of us nervous, because so many in history have used injustice as a justification for such actions, almost always to awful ends.
Finally, let's look at Larken's calculus of force in society, which can be described as, "Freedom occurs when the good guys are more willing to use deadly force than the bad guys.". I think this is an oversimplification; more accurately, the calculus is, "Freedom occurs when people are more willing to use deadly force for good than for bad.". Note the subtle distinction. I'm not inclined to think that anywhere near 100% of the police force is comprised of evil people. They are full of good people on some bad missions. Perhaps on a power trip, but they are still driven by an ideology. That is why we believe that peacefully promoting and demonstrating a countering ideology is a potentially effective strategy. To begin to turn the tables, we need to turn minds.
But, Larken would ask, what about to finish turning the tables? What about the remaining, truly evil people in the forces? Don't we need some good guys to finally be willing to shoot the remaining bad government agents? Not necessarily. For one, consider the flip side of my calculus: it's possible to convince bad people to do good things. Evil people could be convinced to leave the police force by offering better pay as security guards in the agora. As the agora progresses, choosing to work in private security may also increase such people's standing in society. So, it may be more worth their while to do the right thing than to commit evil.
And as for those who remain in the police force regardless? Well, let us ask the question, what is a police officer? A police officer is an agent with the support of the critical mass of the population, otherwise he's a thug or vigilante in a clean shirt. Returning to my above point, the dangers in using defensive force against state agents is that in the eyes of the critical mass of the population, it may as well be revolution. Once the agora has taken hold, and the critical mass of the population has a different opinion, that agent ceases to be a police officer. At this point he works for a rogue agency that has lost most of the respect he had. At this point, there will be little need to make the case for defense against him or her.
Did I just concede Larken's point? No, because Larken's point is that we need to be talking about, and focusing on, this eventuality right now. But we don't. Before it's time, it's dangerous to yourself and to society. When the time comes, it will go without saying. Do we need to speak of violence? Yes, but only to make a reasoned argument against it, to avoid the appearance of being afraid of it, to avoid being tempted into Larken's point of view.