A place for new ideas to settle.

01 September 2015

Of anarchism and traffic tickets


At the end of the last Drunken Philosophy meeting I gave in to a bit of political-philosophy masochism and listened to a former-libertarian-now-anarchist explain how to argue your way out of paying a traffic fine. Just ask the following series of questions—not arguments, because if you try to argue the judge can just order you to pay:
Is the court obliged to prove its case against me, beyond a reasonable doubt?
   - Yes.

Must the court justify every point of its argument to prove the case?
   - Yes.

Can the court use anything but facts and evidence to justify those points?
   - Yes.

Is the court's reasoning based on the idea of jurisdiction; that I must pay the fine because I allegedly violated a law in the jurisdiction of the court?
   - (with growing trepidation) Yes...

Then what facts or evidence can the court provide that this "jurisdiction" actually exists?
   - Bailiff!
At which point the anarchist, having smugly proved that the court's "authority" is grounded in thug tactics, gets carted off in contempt of court, and still has to pay the fine.

Apparently this argument was suggested by Lysander Spooner, a man with an amazing name and a rather colorful legal pedigree. On the one hand he was a tried-and-true abolitionist who was absolutely militant in trying to achieve emancipation:
From the publication of this book until 1861, Spooner actively campaigned against slavery.[16] He published subsequent pamphlets on Jury nullification and other legal defenses for escaped slaves and offered his legal services, often free of charge, to fugitives.[17] In the late 1850s, copies of his book were distributed to members of Congress sparking some debate over their contents. Even Senator Albert Gallatin Brown of Mississippi, a slavery proponent, praised the argument's intellectual rigor and conceded it was the most formidable legal challenge he had seen from the abolitionists to date. In 1858, Spooner circulated a "Plan for the Abolition of Slavery", calling for the use of guerrilla warfare against slaveholders by black slaves and non-slaveholding free Southerners, with aid from Northern abolitionists.[18] Spooner also "conspir[ed] with John Brown to promote a servile insurrection in the South", and participated in an aborted plot to free Brown after his capture following the failed raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia (Harper's Ferry is now part of the state of West Virginia).[19]

In 1860, Spooner was actively courted by William Seward to support the fledgling Republican Party.[citation needed] An admitted sympathizer with the Jeffersonian political philosophy, Spooner adamantly refused the request and soon became an outspoken abolitionist critic of the party. To Spooner, the Republicans were hypocrites for purporting to oppose slavery's expansion but refusing to take a strong, consistent moral stance against slavery itself.[20]
Like daaaaaamn. By the Salkian standard of moral uprightness ("Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors") Spooner is already way ahead of probably most people. But his ideological rigidity came at cost: "Although he denounced the institution of slavery, Spooner recognized the right of the Confederate States of America to secede as the manifestation of government by consent, a constitutional and legal principle fundamental to Spooner's philosophy; the Northern states, in contrast, were trying to deny the Southerners that right through military force." Of course, this is what often gets repeated through sovereign-citizen and anarcho-capitalist circles. They tend to leave out the part where he also said "It would have been okay for the North to attack the South anyway, if the North had been taking a principled stand against the continuation of slavery..."

What we had in this discussion was (in my estimation) a sort of larval-stage freeman-on-the-land reasoning. The idea that the Law is like the a computer, or the natural world, and if only you can find the right clever argument or device then the Law will obey you in the end. It helps to view everyone else as a narrow-minded sheeple too programmed to think for themselves. Again, we didn't get that far, but I wonder if I didn't observe the ideation in its very first stages.

But enough slandering the argument. What's the counter-reasoning? Well, the crux of the anarchist's argument is that the law contains elements that cannot be justified on evidential grounds, and therefore the law is impotent. I can think of a couple rebuttals that certainly won't make the anarchist happy, but seem likely enough.


First, let's stay abstract. There are lots of systems of thought that (at least within themselves) do not have an ultimate evidence-based grounding. For a soft example, consider cell biology. If you just consider the workings of the cell parts, you won't find the whole story of why things are doing what they're doing: at some point you have to appeal to chemistry. (Obligatory snarky xkcd.) The hard example, is mathematics, which is an axiomatic system. To do mathematics, you have to pick some axioms and just go with them.

As a specific case, Euclid began his discussion of geometry with some axioms:
  • Between any two points, we can draw a line.
  • Any finite line can be infinitely extended in the same direction.
  • Given a point A and a fixed length r, we can draw a circle with center A and radius r.
  • All right angles are equal.
  • The Parallel Postulate.
  • If a = b and b = c, then a = c.
  • If a = b and c = d, then a + c = b + d.
  • If a = b and c = d, then a - c = b - d.
  • a = a.
  • The whole is greater than the part. 
There are even some implied axioms (sub-axioms?!), like the implication that there even are such things as "points" with which we can draw such things as lines and circles, etc. Euclid's axioms aren't enough to provide a foundation for everything one might want to do with mathematics—a quandary that frustrated mathematicians for centuries! Then it was proved that no axiomatic system can provide a foundation for everything one might want to do in mathematics and simultaneously allow for no contradictions. Oops.

Anyway, why do mathematicians even care about axioms? Well, axioms are the stuff we take to be beyond reproach, that once we've chosen a set of axioms, then everything we want somehow extends logically from those axioms. They're a backstop to any annoying barrages of "Why's that?" Eventually we get back to the axioms. Another "Why's that" and we're outside the realm of mathematics per se.

Maybe laws are the same way? Certainly they follow a sort of hierarchy in the United States: The Constitution declares itself to be "the Supreme Law of the Land," so that any further law needs to justify itself to the Constitution, at least in principle, to be considered valid. (Of course, valid laws still can be immoral...) The decisions of the Supreme Court on a law's constitutionality are, in some sense, final. At least there is no higher legal authority to appeal to.

There are differences, of course. Perhaps there are some beneficial laws that are prohibited by the Constitution. I already mentioned Constitutional-but-unjust laws. And moreover the law is not advanced through a process of conjecture, proof, and refutation as in mathematics. It's very possible, and even desirable, for a given law to be interpreted different ways by a judge, given the circumstances of the case.

Yet the principle of axiomatization still holds some weight, I think. In establishing rule of law we sort of need to invoke a Supreme Law. Spooner and other anarchists totally do this, by the way, they just appeal to "natural law" rather than the Constitution, which they regard as grounded in fiction about "consent of the governed" instead of... whatever "natural law" is grounded in. The ground...?


This brings me to the other argument. Anarcho-* people, libertarians, and other political contrarians often finish off the sarcastic gloss of some societal institution they don't like with "... and if you don't, then men with guns come and bully you into doing it anyway." Ergo, taxation (e.g.) is theft.

They say this with the most unctuous sarcasm, too, as if everyone else is just pretending that it's not the case. Maybe other people are. But here's the thing: Yes, and you too. See, only the most hopeless utopian naif would expect that Anarchyland is not, at bottom, grounded in rule by force. It takes on a certain ironic cast when you hear people go on about this and then turn on a dime to explain how the government is going to take away their guns, and how "an armed society is a polite society." Sure, but what happens when someone isn't polite?

I think it's not unreasonable to take one measure of civilization as how much obstinacy is required on someone's part before the Men With Guns come out. In the industrialized world it actually takes quite a bit... unless you are black. (I suppose the barbarism had to find an outlet somewhere. Note the rhetorical inversion.)

Compare this to Libertopia, where it's maybe the second step, if you're lucky. (That's assuming the for-profit court system is even worth your while.) On that measure, then the rule of natural law as predicted by fringe groups is somehow less civilized than even the median case in contemporary American society under the Constitution. Note, also, that white people are vastly overrepresented in this particular ideology. This is rather surprising; given the #BlackLivesMatter narrative, you might expect black people to actually prefer two steps to the current situation of maybe-one. Then again, not surprising, since the historical origins of Sovereign Citizenry are racist as shit.

Not even strict social constructionists can really escape this. No matter how much you want to claim that current social dysfunction would vanish in the "true society" dictated by Nature, or just after your preferred social engineering project has worked its way through a few generations, you still have to account—in principle—for anomalous situations, including That One Guy Who Just Won't Stop Causing Problems. To assert that your Utopia never needs to resort to force is either wishful thinking of the highest order, or else an open invitation to your neighbor civilizations to start revving up the tanks. (What are you going to do, scold them?)


And that's why Lysander Spooner still has to pay his goddamn parking ticket.

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