A recurrent issue arising in discussions of the proper relationship between individuals and their government is how we should view the illicit activities of government officials as compared to those of individuals. Does the private crime of the latter represent a greater threat to law-abiding citizens than does the public crime committed by the State? Do advocates of liberty ignore or minimize private crime in an overzealous attempt to discredit the functions of government? In our efforts to reach a wider audience and to achieve a freer society, should promoters of liberty devote more of their focus and energy to individual criminals and write and speak less about the depredations of the State? Are we being blind (or, at least myopic) in our approach and thereby alienating average citizens, discounting what is primarily on their minds, that is, the effects of private crime on their lives?
In trying to answer these questions, we need to consider whether all violations of rights are equally evil or whether there is something unique about the actions of government. Do these latter justify directing more of our efforts to criticizing the State, i.e., are such violations by public criminals worse than those committed by private criminals? If, however, there is in reality no difference between such violations, if all such violations are equally evil, then we are guilty of dropping a significant portion of the context necessary to ensure that our message of freedom is heard and accepted.
Perhaps we should treat private and public crime equally since what victims are more worried about is the fact of their rights violations rather than who, specifically, is violating those rights. But are people truly indifferent to the nature of those who victimize and exploit them? While it is true that most (if not all) people would be upset by a theft regardless of who did the stealing, it also seems reasonable that individuals would be more upset if a friend or loved one stole money from them than they would if a stranger committed the crime.
Despite the fact that the material loss would be identical and the perpetrators equally guilty before the law, other values come into play that would explain the differing responses. Perhaps the stronger reaction of the first example would occur (and be justified) because in such a case the victim lost more than just his physical values and (perhaps) the non-physical value of a sense of security. Losing the intangible value of trust in an intimate who is supposed to protect and respect you and your interests rather than hurt you can be more traumatic than any material loss.
Likewise, while the agony and sense of loss may be as great for a person whose spouse is murdered by a mugger as it is for an individual whose loved one is murdered by an agent of the BATF or DEA, the latter might well be even more anguished given who victimized his family. Few people expect a private criminal to honor their rights, but most "ordinary" people do expect the agents of their government to do so. It is unlikely that most citizens are blase about such things. After all, an ancient concern has been "who guards the guardians?"
Citizens may well rank the problem of private rather then governmental crime higher on their list of concerns, but this may be due to a number of differences between the two. First, private crime is highly visible, has a very direct, immediate, and specific impact on its victims, and is almost universally condemned. On the other hand, governmental crimes are often hidden (e.g., inflation described as "price increases" initiated by individuals rather than an increase in the money supply initiated by the government); are frequently longer term and more subtle in their deleterious effects (inflation again or any of thousands of regulations); are often causally obscure (e.g., when people die from denials of gun permits or keeping certain drugs off the market); and are frequently supported and advanced by influential segments of our society (e.g., media, politicians, and community leaders who support statism, and special interest groups who seek governmental largesse).
In other words, in private crime, the effects and costs are localized, concentrated, and immediate. In governmental crime, the effects and costs are diffused, diluted, and delayed. Simply because ordinary people are more concerned about private crime does not mean we should lessen our concern with governmental crime.
To offer an analogy, people unsurprisingly and rightly focus more attention and energy in dealing with an immediate medical problem such as an infection or a broken bone than they do with long term health concerns such as consuming too much fat or engaging in too little exercise. Yet in the long run, it is just such subtle and hidden problems as the latter that are much more likely to kill them, e.g., through heart disease.
Pointing out the obvious hardly requires the same amount of educational effort as clarifying the ambiguous or revealing the hidden. Thus, if freedom advocates do devote more energy to governmental abuses, they may do so -- not from any desire to minimize, ignore, or deny the day-to-day concerns of citizens -- but because people are already fully aware of the problems associated with private crime. Either they experience them directly or they hear them endlessly reported by the mass media and politicians eager for some issue to divert the voters' attention from what the government is doing to them.
Unfortunately, many individuals remain ignorant of what is hidden, obscured, and denied by those supposedly in office to protect their rights. Would the public or our own goals truly be better served if advocates of freedom devoted equal or even a majority of their educational efforts to elucidating the obvious and duplicating other exposés of private crime?
There is, of course, a very definite -- and very limited -- role for government. Government is not a "necessary evil" but is, in principle and proper practice, a positive value. If something is, by nature, destructive of human needs, it can hardly be considered "necessary" for survival. A morally defined and limited government fulfills a vital role in a free society. But good government like any value requires work to obtain and maintain. Unfortunately, far too many people have abdicated their responsibility in this regard and taken the (temporarily) easier route of handing the reins of their lives over to bureaucrats and politicians only too eager to steer the wagon.
As to the issue of whether all rights violations are equally "evil," it is appropriate to consider what this term means. If by evil we mean immoral, we need to realize that two actions can both be equally immoral in the sense of violating the same principle, e.g., theft is wrong. Yet if we consider the aspect of immorality that pertains to its destructive effects, actions violating the identical principle can have vastly different impacts in the amount of harm they do, e.g., stealing an apple versus looting a nation's treasury.
In this latter sense of the level of damage inflicted on victims, governmental abuses are a greater threat in the long term to ordinary citizens than is private crime. Our government has inflated away, wasted -- stolen -- nearly $11 trillion in this century alone, a far larger loss of wealth than all the private criminals in that time period have managed to cause. In addition to inflation, immorally imposed taxes seize $2 trillion a year from citizens. Other billions in costs are coercively imposed through regulations and immoral laws.
Worse even than this grandest of all larcenies, governments around the world have killed and murdered tens of millions of people in this century...and our own government is hardly blameless. This loss of life is far greater than that attributable to private criminals. According to R. J. Rummel in Death by Government, the total is nearly 170 million innocent lives destroyed through governmental action in the past hundred years. One must also add into this total the unknown millions who have died because of governmental prohibitions of certain medicines and devices, the government induced diminishment of wealth (richer people live longer), and the stifling of ideas and the resultant negative consequences which occur when creative people give up fighting against overwhelming governmental powers.
Yes, private criminals violate the individual rights of millions of people in this and other countries every year. It is no less true that governmental criminals violate the individual rights of everyone in every year. And, indirectly, those "ordinary people" whom some believe we are slighting in our literature are also unwitting criminals when they support such inappropriate governmental actions as widespread regulations and a continued redistribution of wealth. These people do not need to be educated in the horrors of private crime; they know all too well about that already. They do, however, desperately need to be made aware of their philosophical and moral errors in supporting unethical governmental behavior and the ways in which the State acts to oppress them in myriad aspects of life.
Only governments can systematically and on a large scale violate the rights of billions of individuals. Whether through censorship, taxation and regulation, or outright murder, government officials and their henchmen make private criminals look like pikers. Public crime is unprecedented in both degree and scope. In the sense given above, governmental violations are more destructive and immoral than private violations and, as such, more deserving of attention by liberty advocates and the public at large.
As Ayn Rand pointed out in "The Cult of Moral Grayness," "...unless one is prepared to dispense with morality and to regard a petty chiseller and a murderer as morally equal, one still has to judge and evaluate the many shadings of 'gray' that one may encounter in the characters of individual men." A child who punches another child and steals his candy and a Joseph Stalin who orders the death of millions of individuals both are morally culpable for initiating violence. They are hardly equally destructive. The same principle applies when comparing private crime to public crime.
When appropriate, advocates of freedom can (and should) demonstrate how we can deal with private crime through clearly defined and limited laws, ensuring certain punishment for criminals, and correcting the environmental factors which influence (but do not cause) people to commit criminal acts. We can demonstrate how inappropriate governmental behavior makes it more difficult for ordinary citizens to confront and control private crime. Linking the abstract principles of proper social relationships to the specifics of day-to-day existence continues to be extremely important in creating a better society.
A good example of combining the problems of both public and private criminals occurred during recent discussions of gun control. Pro-freedom articles and essays dealt not only with the broad Constitutional issues of infringing on Second Amendment rights and our ability to resist tyranny (public crime), but also with the real effects of gun control on actual people who are denied the right to defend themselves against "private" criminals threatening their lives. The more such linkages can be made, the more effective we can be in connecting with those unfamiliar with the requirements and need for a free society.
Still, advocates of the free-market should focus most of their efforts on government as the "greater evil" which disrupts and destroys the lives of vastly more people than any number of private criminals. Too many citizens are unaware of what is actually occurring around them and to them. (For example, too many retired people do not realize the extent to which social security is simply a welfare scheme that ultimately impoverishes them.) Like the newscaster in the movie "Network," they should proclaim, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more."
As advocates, we should emphasize moral principles and not approach problems from merely a pragmatic or value-free approach as do many economists. People want and need moral guidance in their lives. Anyone who pretends that values are irrelevant or unimportant in the struggle for liberty is kidding himself and harming our cause. Constant bickering over means rather than principles is precisely the greatest stumbling block to the current Republican efforts in Congress. A downsizing in government is not primarily a "practical" or pragmatic issue; it is first and foremost one of principle and morality. Failure to recognize that fact at a fundamental level has doomed the Republican "revolution."
And, no, we do not yet exist under a tyranny. Persuasion and change continue to be possible. Yet there has been an exponential growth in the power of government in this century. There is nothing "hypothetical" about the massive rights violations occurring now. Nor need there be anything "distant" about the arrival of a true dictatorship. As Germany and other nations have amply demonstrated, the change can occur in less than the span of a single generation. That is not to say such a tragedy will occur here in America. That is not to say, either, that it will not.
Perhaps as critics believe, most Americans are unconcerned with who violates their rights. History, ethics, and logic would suggest that perhaps they should be.