“Ballots or bullets” is a false choice.
How do you think the American public, even as supine as it is, would respond if the Federal government were to attempt to re-assign everybody’s children to other parents; to force everybody to burn their Bibles and other religious or ideological texts; or even to confiscate everybody’s guns? More importantly, what kind of response do you think the government would expect? The answer, of course, is mass resistance, including, but not limited to, evasion and civil disobedience.
Why do I classify civil disobedience and evasion as “resistance”? Here, I define resistance as the assertion of control over one’s own person and rightful property in defiance of the State’s pretensions, or helping others to do the same. Under this definition, resistance is not limited to repelling aggression with countervailing force or the threat of countervailing force. Civil disobedience qualifies as resistance, because the disobeyer is asserting control over his own person and rightful property by conspicuously refusing to follow State dictates, even if he does not put up a fight when State agents comes to arrest or otherwise expropriate him. Evasion qualifies as resistance, because it is simply a surreptitious (and noble) assertion of control over one’s person and rightful property in defiance of the State. The importance of evasion for the effective defense of liberty is the chief reason that mass surveillance is such a tyrannical threat.
It is primarily because of the expectation of mass resistance that the State does not and will not soon even dare to attempt such outrages as the hypothetical ones listed above, at least not until it manages to induce, through ideological indoctrination, propaganda, and fear-mongering, a mass shift in public opinion toward greater statism. Otherwise, wouldn’t it be in the interests of those in the State to, with such brazen grabs, demolish rival bonds and loyalties, delete inconvenient doctrines, and confiscate potential tools for resistance?
It is ultimately thanks to this potential resistance, and not thanks any constitutions, laws, or “advocates” within the State, that we still retain whatever limited inviolable rights we still have. This truth has crucial implications for libertarian strategy.
Education is widely, and rightly, regarded as essential to libertarian strategy. But the next question that naturally arises concerns how the rubber meets the road: how can public intellectual assent to libertarianism translate to a libertarian reality?
A common answer is politics: a libertarian population inducing the state to roll itself back, either through democratic reform or popular revolution: through ballots or bullets. This answer is fatally flawed, for reasons I’ve discussed here and here. Legitimized aggression will never be ended by seizing (whether partially or completely) the apparatus of legitimized aggression, whether such a seizure is undertaken by flooding voting booths, public squares, or battlefields.
How else could the rubber meet the road? The only way to realize liberty in a principled, non-backfiring fashion will rely on potential resistance.
As argued above, State officers know that there is only so much the populace will stand for. They know that depredations outrageous enough would meet extensive physical resistance if enforcement were attempted. And they generally decide the costs of trying to overcome such resistance outweigh the benefits of enforcing them; so they don’t dare to even try. Thus, government powers are effectively nullified or precluded without a shot ever actually being fired and without a vote being cast.
Now, imagine if, in the future, the public felt about truancy laws the same way they feel now about outright child confiscation; about mass surveillance the same way they feel now about forced book-burning; about all gun restrictions the way they feel now about blanket gun confiscation.
The more successful that libertarians are in their educational work, the less tolerant will the public be toward their own subjugation, and the more will State encroachments on liberty be nullified or precluded by potential resistance. As the peaceful libertarian educational project marches forward, so too will the buffer margin of potential public resistance advance and induce the State to reverse-march.
The State may press its luck on some occasions and tyrannically try to call what it suspects to be its victims’ “bluff”; and in response, potential resistance might become actual resistance. But it is absolutely vital that any such actual resistance is purely defensive over one’s person and property, is as passive as possible (e.g., civil disobedience and evasion), never violates the rights of bystanders or even aggressors (through disproportionate responses), is assiduously contemplated beforehand (painstakingly weighing costs and risks to oneself and others), and is only undertaken in a way that will likely invoke widespread public sympathy for the defiant victim and public outrage against the State. (The recent shooting in Las Vegas was not “resistance” at all, but a despicable act of wanton murder. Such evil only breeds more evil, and feeds tyranny.)
And yet, if, through protests, strikes, online campaigns of expression, etc, the public unmistakably conveys its profound ideological shift and its newfound resolve to the power elite, such incidents of actual resistance may be few and far-between. In that case, even the dullards and knaves in the State will have to realize that there is no bluff, that their spell of false legitimacy is broken, that they are hopelessly outnumbered, and that they would be better off cutting their losses by either joining the voluntary society or skipping town.
“Ballots or bullets” is a false choice. Non-state potential resistance can make a difference, and, ultimately, is all that really has. Education, ideological change, and potential resistance—and not voting, legislation, or revolution—are responsible both for the liberties we still retain, and the liberties we will peacefully reclaim.
For more along these lines, also read What Reform Is.