David R. Henderson  

Choose Your Battles

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It's rare that I disagree with much of what co-blogger Bryan Caplan posts. But among those rare posts are his two recent ones (here and here) on appeasement. I don't want to go at them line by line. Other commenters have done that. Craig T. Bolton, for example, makes the point that if Bryan refused to pay taxes, it's unlikely that he would be dead or in jail.

Instead, I'll just say that the kernel of truth that I got out of the first of Bryan's two posts is that one should choose one's battles. I don't have a policy of appeasement and I don't have a policy of not appeasing. I assess costs and benefits and make what I think are appropriate decisions. I know that that's not much guidance. All I can say is that I think I'm really good at it.

I'll give an example. My former Congressman and the former Secretary of Defense and former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon Panetta, has a local institute that has a few public lectures every year. These are big visible events and they attract a lot of the local upper class. A number of my colleagues who are members of various groups in the Peace Coalition of Monterey County decided to have a protest in front of the convention center where the event occurred. I showed up representing Libertarians for Peace.

We were standing peacefully on the sidewalk, not obstructing anyone, except some of our people had strayed onto a driveway that exited the hotel. On that driveway, they would have obstructed people. There were two or three Monterey policemen there. One of them, with, of course, an air of authority, told the couple of people who were standing in the driveway that they needed to move because they were obstructing. The two people did move immediately without objection. But then the policeman tried to get us off the sidewalk and into another area. So I asked him whether it was illegal for us to be on the sidewalk. The conversation went something like this:

Cop: You can't obstruct people.
DRH: I get that, but we aren't. We're now off the driveway and we're not in anyone's way.
Cop: You can't be on the sidewalk if you're obstructing people.
DRH: I understand. We're not obstructing people on the sidewalk.
Cop: If you stand a few people deep, you will obstruct people.
DRH: OK, that's fine. To rest of the group: "Spread out so that you're only one person deep."

They complied quickly. But the cop was still not done.

Cop (with a little more energy, volume, and authority): You need to move off the sidewalk.
DRH: No, you said that we couldn't be more than a person deep. We've complied.
Cop (with even more energy): You can't obstruct people.
DRH: We've already agreed on that. That's not the issue here.

He then backed off.

How far would I have gone? I don't know. But I'm glad I chose that battle, kept a forceful but calm, polite tone, and didn't back down. I chose that battle.

Here's an example of a battle I chose that worked out also, but in which I took a bigger risk. It worked out. Am I glad I did it? Yes. Was it because I was macho? No: that's not how I ever think of things. I just thought that someone needed to be there for those two outnumbered New England Patriot fans.

By the way, as one of my students once said, "There's nothing wrong with choosing your battles. Of course you should. The problem is that many people who say 'choose your battles' will not choose any battle." I hasten to add that that does not apply to Bryan. Look at all the battles he's chosen on this blog. And I'm glad he has.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
RogC writes:
makes the point that if Bryan refused to pay taxes, it's unlikely that he would be dead or in jail.

Tis true that the prefered method of dealing with tax resisters is to pauperize them instead of jailing them. This is mainly because it's more effective. The type of man who would brave jail on principle is likely to be a coward at making his family destitute. However, people do go to jail for failure to file and refusal to turn over your assets will quickly lead to an escalation with violence.

vikingvista writes:

"makes the point that if Bryan refused to pay taxes, it's unlikely that he would be dead or in jail."

I don't understand people who keep making this alleged rebuttal, and I certainly don't understand your thinking that it is meaningful. Of course, it matters *how hard* you try to not pay taxes. You can capitulate at first warning. Or you can choose for some reason to leave your assets completely unprotected from government police, e.g. in a bank, so that they are easily confiscated. In most cases, it will be literally impossible to NOT pay the demanded taxes, no matter how hard you try. But, if you are to have even the slightest possibility of not paying those taxes, in open defial--i.e., if your refusal is a serious one--you most certainly will be dead or in jail, and probably the former. And you will STILL wind up paying those taxes.

I know it isn't your main point, but on that claim, at least, Bryan is clearly correct. If anyone doubts it, I hope they will give it an earnest try. Others have, and have proven my point.

I do not quite see how you are differing with Bryan except upon interpreting the meaning of "appeasement".

Charles Pham writes:

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Pajser writes:

David Friedman has excellent article on that topic, see "Schelling points."

Power corrupts. Even the petty power of a traffic cop.

Something to ponder, eh, Lauren?

vikingvista writes:

"Even the petty power of a traffic cop."

Given that the police are the ones looking into the faces of the peaceful victims of the aggressive legislation concocted by distant politicians, and still choosing to proceed with that aggression (something I'd like to think I'd not have the heart or stomach to do even if my job depended upon it), I'd say their corruption is probably the deepest of all.

Greg G writes:

---"Power corrupts. Even the petty power of a traffic cop."

Even the substantial power of wealth.

Ricardo writes:

"Even the substantial power of wealth."

You've pulled a sophistic trick there, Greg G. You changed the context of "power" from "power to coerce" to "power to spend."

Wealth does not provide a direct power to coerce. Of course, it can provide this power indirectly -- campaign contributions which lead to coercive policies, for example -- but in that case the coercion is still coming from government.

It is the power to coerce that we should fear, not the power to spend.

Greg G writes:

Ricardo,

Really? You've never heard of private spending being used to hire coercive force outside of government?

vikingvista writes:

Greg G,

Besides utilizing government action, as Ricardo mentions, it certainly happens in black markets, where government has stripped people of market protections.

But otherwise it is rare and rapidly extinguished, with the allegedly more celebrated historical cases instead being defensive force protecting owner's property rights.

The reason it is rare, is because success in open markets requires voluntary participation of customers, suppliers, workers, investors, partners, lenders, landlords, insurers, etc. It requires an extensive voluntary network integrated into society where everyone possesses a veto. And most people care very much if the person they plan on interacting with is likely to abuse them or those they care about.

David Gross writes:

Tax resistance is nowhere near as daunting as people make it out to
be. It's actually a very accessible form of practical nonviolent
direct action for most of us.

I know people in the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating
Committee, for instance, who have been successfully refusing to pay
federal income taxes for decades without experiencing prison (or even
prosecution) or impoverishment.

There are mutual aid programs, like the War Tax Resisters Penalty
Fund, to reimburse those resisters who have penalties and interest
seized from them so that they end up no worse off financially than if
they had paid the taxes up front.

Libertarians who understand the value of direct action would be wise
to learn from these examples and to establish a similar tradition of
their own.

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