Bryan Caplan  

My Life of Appeasement

Economics: Truer than it seems... Bootleggers and Baptists in Al...
Morally speaking, I think taxation is theft.  The government has a lot of bad excuses for taking my money without my consent, but no really good reasons.  Still, every year, I pay my taxes. 

Why don't I stand up for my rights?  The obvious reason: If I stood up for my rights by refusing to pay and attacking anyone who tried to make me, I would end up dead or in jail.  That's the way the government deals with tax resistors

Given this bleak forecast, I never openly defy the government.  Instead, I practice the opposite strategy: appeasement.  I find out what the government demands, I comply, and I resume living my rich, fulfilling life.  Yes, my rights have been violated.  But I'd rather live on my knees than die on my feet.  Indeed, I would consider dying on my feet to be not only foolish, but wicked.  Life is a gift, even if the government insists on tarnishing it.

Didn't the Munich Agreement prove for all time that appeasement doesn't work?  Hardly.  Despite its well-hyped failures, appeasement is an incredibly effective social strategy for dealing with the unreasonable and the unjust... also known as 90% of mankind.  Whenever someone makes bizarre demands upon me, my default is not to argue.  Instead, I weigh the cost of compliance.  If that cost is small - and it usually is - I let the babies have their way.  If you bump into me in the grocery store, I say "Sorry." 

Doesn't that open the floodgates to additional demands?  Not in my experience.  One symbolic gesture is enough to placate most of the unpleasant characters I encounter.  After my concession, we usually go our separate ways.  And even when I repeatedly interact with the same unreasonable, unjust person, at least my appeasement makes it hard for them to imagine that they have to get back at me for my past wrongs.

Despite their scorn, almost everyone knows that appeasement works.  How do I know this?  Because everyone appeases to cope with social realities.  Recall your day.  Did you experience some unreasonable, unjust treatment?  Probably.  If so, did you escalate the conflict until reason and justice prevailed?  Probably not.  Why not?  Because it would be a Pyrrhic victory, likely to leave you unemployed and alone.

Once people retract the absurd claim that "appeasement doesn't work," they finally unveil their real objection: They have too much pride to appease.  "Why should I apologize when she's the one who stepped on my foot?"  When people express such attitudes, I usually just appease them and get on with my life.  But what I'm silently thinking is: "If you're truly awesome, you shouldn't care what unreasonable, unjust people think."

Does this mean that you should never stand up for what is right?  Of course not.  But you should pick your battles very carefully.  While fighting is far more impulsively satisfying than submitting, you should restrain your impulses in favor of calm reflection.  You might be in the wrong.  You might be making a mountain out of a molehill.  And even if right and proportion are on your side, the real world is not an action movie.  You could easily fail - and you have a lot to lose.

COMMENTS (23 to date)
Unimedia writes:

Fair enough, Bryan, but there are moments when you wouldn't appease, aren't there?

Peter H writes:

One of the great things about a free(ish) society is that you can outsource many of the downsides of standing up for what is right to an entity who is better equipped to handle them, and thus secure a mutual benefit.

For example, personally resisting absurd economic regulations is foolish in the extreme. But if you want to resist them effectively and with none of the awful downsides, you can donate to the IJ. And as a law firm specializing in that, they will be more effective than you, while facing much less personal risk for their advocacy on your shared viewpoints.

Ted Levy writes:

"...all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

KK writes:

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Otto Maddox writes:

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Shane L writes:

The experience of Chamberlain in the 1930s has been so traumatic and significant in the histories of UK and USA that the lessons learned from that failed appeasement have greatly crowded out other historical messages to the contrary. National Interest Magazine had a fascinating essay on successful moments of appeasement some years back, including Britain appeasing the United States in the late 19th century, which led the two countries into a decisive alliance instead of disastrous confrontation. Unfortunately the essay is now behind a pay gate but for those who wish to pursue it, here it is:

vikingvista writes:

True. Appeasement is the heart and soul of civilization. No city could last a day without being immersed in it, even without the deliberately and unapologetically antisocial actions of so many criminals and government workers.

But such ubiquitous appeasement isn't a compromise of principles. It's just a mature recognition that even the most determinedly inoffensive person can't get through social life without at times violating even her own preferred manners, perhaps unwittingly. That person you appease today may very well have appeased you last month.

No, if principles are truly compromised, it is with more deliberation. It is in the social solutions one advocates, the arguments one makes, and the action plans one carries out.

The appeasement that holds communities together is something different than either hypocrisy or a pragmatic live-to-fight-another-day strategy.

Patrick writes:

Taxation makes property rights possible. If taxation is theft, property rights are theft, too. Indeed, we'd agree that slavery was brazen theft, and that was the result of the way property rights were defined at the time. Property rights are always and everywhere a political phenomenon.

If you trace back the chain of custody far enough, you'll realize that all property is morally tainted, anyway. Was the cobalt in your computer extracted with the use of slave labor? There's no way to tell, but the odds are good. And let's not even mention the land upon which your home sits.

There's no way to wriggle out of this moral quandary with anarcho-capitalist notions of paying multiple competing security firms to protect your property. That was tried in the Walled City of Kowloon. The firms were more commonly known as Chinese Triad gangs.

Abolish taxation and the best we can hope for is neo-feudalism. The predictable coercion of our government is far less bad than the unpredictable coercion of a succession of violent warlords.

Craig J. Bolton writes:

It is bad enough when internet ranters put out this sort of essay, but it is inexcusable when leading libertarian academics do so. For instance:

"Why don't I stand up for my rights? The obvious reason: If I stood up for my rights by refusing to pay and attacking anyone who tried to make me, I would end up dead or in jail."

Now let's see. What is really likely to happen if you don't pay your taxes?

To begin with, after the couple of years it will typically take the government to notice that you aren't paying your taxes, you will receive a series of written demands.

After 6-12 months of that, your wages may be garnished and/or your bank account(s) may be garnished.

After a year or so of that, there will be a tax lien filed in the public records. In a really extreme case (which seldom happens)a sheriff or marshal may show up to seize your personal goods for auction (aka levy and execution).

You will not be put in jail or murdered because people in jail or who are dead don't have the wherewithal to earn money to pay taxes.

You will, of course, be killed if you do things like point or shoot a shotgun at a marshal, but that has nothing to do with not paying taxes or advocating not paying taxes. It has to do with pointing or shooting a shotgun at a law enforcement agent.

So the above quotation may be interpreted as blatantly false or as the sort of weasel like statement that would qualify Mr. Caplan to run for high office.

Brad writes:

This reminds me of the great Dave Chappelle skit

"When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong"

Hazel Meade writes:

Did you experience some unreasonable, unjust treatment? Probably.

Maybe it's just Stockholm Syndrome, but I feel like I manage to get through most days without being treated unreasonably or unjustly.

At least not by actual humans. I shake my fist at the universe!

If you feel like this a lot, I recommend watching True Detective. You and Rust sound like you have a lot in common.

NZ writes:

Appeasement probably works well when you are likely to be defeated in a confrontation, or at least have very little confidence that you would win. But if the outcome could easily go either way, or if you're likely to win, then appeasement is bad both for you and for the defeated party.

In this scenario, it's obvious why it's bad for you. It's bad for the defeated party because being appeased by a clearly superior adversary is humiliating. It enrages the inferior party, motivating him/them to continue the confrontation.

This explains the behavior of minority victim groups, for example.

Joshua writes:

I like what Peter said about offshoring some of one's personal resistance.

When doesn't appeasement work?

I think another case where appeasement is a bad idea is in a personal relationship - or at least it should be very minimized. In past relationships where I've appeased, it builds resentment. It's one thing to make small sacrifices to please each other, but it's important to ask for things that are important to you.

Kitty_T writes:

Funny, I just spent last night traveling by air and apologizing to people who stepped on me, dropped bags on my head, all the usual. It did get annoying after a while, but what's the point of having a fit when it just makes everyone's day worse than it already is?

I also opt out, so I suppose I'd done my bit for the resistance for the day.

Jeff writes:


I think you hit on a good point that it matters whether your "appeasement" is a one-off situation or is in the context of an ongoing relationship, whether it be a business or personal situation. If it's someone you never expect to see or do business with again, that's much different than appeasing someone you will encounter over and over again. As is often the case, Kipling got there first:

It is always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
To call upon a neighbour and to say: --
"We invaded you last night--we are quite prepared to fight,
Unless you pay us cash to go away."

And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And the people who ask it explain
That you've only to pay 'em the Dane-geld
And then you'll get rid of the Dane!

It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say: --
"Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away."

And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we've proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.

It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say: --

"We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that pays it is lost!"

Sheldon Richman writes:

There are important foreign-policy implications here. Someone who insists that "we" (the US government) must never appease a foreign government should be made to confront the fact that he appeases a government all the time -- the one who claims him as a subject.

Thomas Sewell writes:

Appeasement only sometimes works in the sense that it might prevent an escalation. It doesn't work to prevent the other party from taking what they want.

So yeah, I suppose if you have no real prospect of resistance, you might consider it, or if what they want doesn't particularly matter to you, you would just give in, but if it's a matter of something which both matters to you and you are willing to sacrifice/fight to resist, then appeasement wouldn't be the way to go.

Katie writes:

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Richard writes:

I think that there is a difference between a person who has been defeated in a fight for liberty and one who willingly makes a statement like "I would rather live on my knees than die on my feet.'.

How is it possible to have respect for a man who makes such a statement?

Also, if you freedom (rights and property) mean so little to you, why should not someone take them away from you?

It is simply not an honorable position to take.


Mike White writes:

I've loved your work ever since I was introduced to it a few years back. However, you almost lost me with this article until you made a glove save with your final paragraph. Rich's comment about having respect for an individual who would utter such a statement rang true for me too at first. Regardless, an individual must have something that he/she is willing to fight for. If I choose not to, I will never bow/drop to my knees/worship any man/woman/etc. Still a fan and a bubble builder -- as I'm pretty sure I initially misinterpreted your intent.

Steve Roth writes:

Or to quote a favorite line from an old friend of mine,

"Some hills just aren't worth dying on."

Maybe it should be "most" hills.

Seerak writes:

The main problem with this post is the lack of a definition for the term "appeasement".

This is problematic, to say the least, because it permits a ridiculously overbroad stretch of the term to examples not otherwise commensurable with that most infamous example, the Munich Agreement.

"Appeasement", as I understand it, means specifically to *willingly* surrender a principle to another's wrong action, without protest. *Willingly* here, means doing so freely, as opposed to under duress. It means granting permission to the morally impermissible, when one has other options.

We pay taxes under duress, as with all other compliance with unjust laws. But we (of the "taxation is theft" bent, at least) do so under protest, i.e. we declare the injustice for what it is even as we comply - as Mr. Caplan does here. That is not "appeasement".

Making day-to-day accommodations with others, such as bosses etc. We don't have all the information, and often we can be wrong about it - and that's when such issues actually rise to being "issues of principle" in the first place, which most don't (thankfully). "Giving the benefit of the doubt" or just a generalized goodwill is what that is, not "appeasement".

There *can* arise incidents where one's lines do get crossed, we aren't technically under duress, and we let it pass because it isn't worth it. E.g. someone deliberately shouldering you aside in the subway when there was plenty of room. These get the closest to possibly being "appeasement", but I don't think there's anyone calling such that besides Mr. Caplan. More examples of these might be fruitful for discussion.

All of us have certain "lines" which we will not permit others to cross, be they consciously defined on principle or emotional ones (or both); we therefore have, at least, an intuitive sense of the distinction between appeasement and being forced.

In this context, I reject the thesis; no, appeasement does not "work".
And like any other willful compromise of principle, no it doesn't "work".

Mark V Anderson writes:

"Pick your battles" is really the only important thing that was said in this posting. One may apologize and kowtow many times a day if you live in a city. But I don't think that "appeasement" is the word that fits. If one wants to live a good life in the city, one indeed must ignore many possible insults. But that is about simply focusing on what is most important, so you are able to focus on what counts. That is not living on one's knees, that is living a focused life.

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