TGIF: Wrong Lessons from the Congressional Shootings

I’ll start off by saying that no one should commit violence except as a last resort in immediate defense of self or other innocent life. I know this subject lends itself to endless hypothetical scenarios, but that’s all I’m going to say — except for this: political violence has a poor chance of achieving liberty or any other good thing, but an excellent chance of producing repression by the state and other bad things. It carries within itself the seeds of many evils, so even in purported good causes, violence as a strategy must be viewed with the deepest apprehension.

Let’s move on. The response of officialdom and the news media to the shootings of Rep. Steve Scalise and others this week completely missed the irony that at its core government is violence. Virtually every day members of Congress vote to authorize and promote violence: through weapons sales to other governments, the financing of war (overt and covert), the mislabeled war on drugs (it’s a war on people), border “security,” the equipping of the police, and so on. Congressional action is financed via the threat of violence — taxation — and armed state officials may, if they deem it necessary, use deadly force to compel the recalcitrant to comply with their orders, regardless of whether the “crime” charged is victimless. Violence is Congress’s business, its only business. Everything else, education, for example, supports this main purpose.

Participants in post-shooting discussions on cable-news programs assume that vigorous disagreement among unyielding people sowed the ground for the violence on the baseball field. How else are we to explain all the maudlin appeals for unity and comity between the two party caucuses in Congress. This is rubbish for several reasons. Disagreements are typically expressed in words, however vitriolic, but the shooter crossed the line when he grabbed his rifle and opened fire. Does anyone want to argue that vitriol triggered the violence? Let’s hear someone make that case. I’m sure it will fail. Ultimately, the shooter, a moral agent, shot other people because he chose to shoot. His actions had (illegitimate) reasons, not causes.

So let’s drop the pseudo-explanation about “mental illness,” which explains as a much as the word magic explains how Penn and Teller make things disappear. Heinous acts are signs not of madness but of anger and hatred. If you don’t know why the guy did it, just say so. “Mental illness” talk leads people to search for the ways in which free speech “triggers” political violence — and that is ominous. We can’t say Tom Szasz didn’t warn us.

If you look closely, you’ll find that there’s not too much disagreement among the politicians, but too little — much too little. Most disputes are over the purposes for which official violence should be employed. The vitriol, the extent of which is much overstated, is about ends, never means, because the politicians broadly agree about the means: violence. Who in the halls of power argues against government violence per se? It may happen on a rare occasion, but you won’t hear about it because it’s a fringe position.

After the shootings Ezra Klein, the editor of Vox, tweeted, “The great gift of politics is it gives us a way to make difficult decisions without resorting to violence to decide.” Nonsense on stilts! As I said, the decisions are always about how to use violence.

Outside the political arena people have long made difficult decisions — and cooperated — without resorting to violence. (Is Klein familiar with Elinor Ostrom? She won the Nobel Prize in economics.) If anything, the state makes violence more likely because the costs of it are socialized. Political decision makers need not suffer the consequences of their choices.

Moreover, as more and more areas of life are shifted to the political arena, people find themselves increasingly put upon by government action. This should require no demonstration. If we or our so-called representatives are to vote on how things are done, and the preference of 50 percent plus one is to prevail, then some people will have things forced down their throats (again, under threat of violence for noncompliance). Politics, as Klein means it, is not a gift. It’s a curse. (See the liberal legal scholar Bruno Leoni’s take on majority rule.)

If we want civil peace, let us transfer matters from the political to the consensual arena, where community, cooperation, and contract — that is, individual liberty and peace — reign.

As for “representation,” let’s get serious. One of the members of Congress on the baseball field that day noted on CNN that he “represents 800,000 people.” Really? I don’t think so. The illusion of representation was created to take the pressure off rulers — for if the people could be convinced that the government represented them — that they were in fact the government — how could they complain about its actions? (See historian Edmund Morgan’s observations on the history of the idea of representation.)

The unity garbage serves one overriding purpose: to keep the people from doubting the legitimacy of the state. Too much rancor and they might begin to wonder if this ridiculously corrupt scheme called government is worth the candle. The state is in self-preservation mode, and the mass media are lending a hand.

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Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute, senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies, former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest book is America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited.