With just seven little words, the freakout began: “The government holds a monopoly on violence.”
These were written by David Brat, a professor of economics at Virginia’s Randolph-Macon College and, now, the Republican party’s nominee for the state’s seventh congressional district. “Unusual” and “eye-opening” was the New York Daily News’s petty verdict. In the Wall Street Journal, Reid Epstein insinuated darkly that the claim cast Brat as a modern-day fascist. And, for his part, Politico’s Ben White suggested that the candidate’s remarks “on Neitzsche and the government monopoly on violence don’t make a whole lot of sense.” As is its wont, the progressive blogosphere lost its collective marbles too: One contributor sardonically described Brat’s claim as a “doozy,” while another contended that such opinions were sufficient for “one to question his, shall we say, cognitive coherence.”
This reaction is rather surprising, for what Brat wrote is not merely a statement of fact, but a thoroughly neutral statement of fact. “If,” Brat submitted,
you refuse to pay your taxes, you will lose. You will go to jail, and if you fight, you will lose. The government holds a monopoly on violence. Any law that we vote for is ultimately backed by the full force of our government and military.
Who among us genuinely doubts this to be the case? Only those, I would venture, who are so uncomfortable with the consequences of their philosophy that they seek the dull refuge of lazy euphemism and collective myopia. It is, it seems, decidedly easier idiotically to repeat that “government is the only thing we all belong to,” or that “government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together” than to acknowledge that, whether one is advocating a small government that takes care of the basics or a Leviathan that seeks to meddle in the smallest recesses of the human heart, one is invoking Thomas Hobbes. George Washington almost certainly never said that “government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force,” nor did he describe the state as “a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” But these maxims, attributed to him, gained wide currency because, imprimatur or none, they contain a valuable truth. Brat’s words are the heir to this recognition. In his supposedly “unusual” essay, he asks whether “we trust institutions of the government to ensure justice”; suggests that “history teaches us” to worry about the scope of the state; and, channeling a sentiment that would be extraordinarily familiar to the Founding Fathers and in accord with the philosophies and historical examples that inspired them, mocks the arrogant notion that we now “live in particularly lucky and fortunate times where the State can be trusted to do minimal justice.” He observed, too, that however secure the principle that Americans may defend themselves against violence if attacked, they will nonetheless eventually have to abide by a judgment from the state. When Brat argues that “when push comes to shove, the State will win in a battle of wills,” he is confirming that violence is only legitimate when the state says that it is. That’s a monopoly.
There is nothing incoherent or sinister about this. On the contrary: That a potential member of Congress is so elegantly aware of the remarkable strength of the body that he is seeking to join is little short of refreshing. Also bracing was that Brat’s contention was cast in bipartisan — or, rather, nonpartisan — terms. First, he asked whether his audience was happy to trust the extraordinary power of the government to the temporary custody of the Right or Left. Then he suggested that anybody who “answered ‘no’ to either question” could well find themselves with “a major problem in the future.” In doing so, he joined a long line of forward-looking Americans who have, in Edmund Burke’s felicitous phrase, tended not to “judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance,” but have been disposed instead to “anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle.” The colonists, Burke espied, “augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.” So, too, the architects of the nation. It was evident in the late 18th century that despotism was a perennial prospect, and, as Brat hints, the horrors of the 20th century should have served only to amplify that trepidation. Where, pray, is the problem here?
It may well irk those who would grow the state beyond all control that a public figure chose so directly to remind the people what “government” means. But it should vex almost nobody else. To refuse to subordinate language to politics is the first and most important duty of the free man. Alas, both Left and Right too often lean toward imprecision and pretense when it suits their ends, shooting sharpened daggers at plain-speaking sorts who dare to express the less pleasant truths of our society in harsh and unlovely language. The Left reacts with particular exasperation when one observes that taxation is forced confiscation of property; the Right when one points out that firearms are lethal weapons whose purpose is to kill. Euphemisms abound. No, we are told earnestly, “taxation is the price we pay for civilization!” “Taxes pay for good things!” “Without taxes, the country would collapse!” Perhaps so. But, wherever one comes down on the question, it has no bearing whatsoever on the nature of taxation. Whether one is taking 1 percent of a citizen’s income or 100 percent of a citizen’s income, one is still taking it. To acknowledge that this is the case is not to cast a political judgment but to recognize reality. Bravo!
So, too, it is with the debate over gun control. It is an incontrovertible fact that firearms are explicitly designed to kill living things — specifically, to expel hard projectiles at such a speed that they will rip unmercifully through skin, bone, and organs and incapacitate, maim, or end the life of a living creature. It is true that a gun can be a “defensive tool.” It is also true that in many cases all one needs to do is to point a gun at someone and he will stop doing what he was doing. But that is because the gun is a lethal weapon and he knows this to be the case. One would not get the same reaction from a crook if one pointed a banana at him. Ever vigilant against the tyranny of delicacy, George Orwell observed in 1939 that “truisms as that a machine-gun is still a machine-gun even when a ‘good’ man is squeezing the trigger . . . have turned into heresies which it is actually becoming dangerous to utter.”
If David Brat’s wholly inoffensive observations are enough to give a person the vapors, he might well look to reconsider the foundations of his philosophy. In certain cases — rape, murder, defense of the realm — the case for government force is an easy one to make. In others — the hosting of cowboy poetry festivals, the banning of smoking, the hyper-regulation of small businesses — it is downright farcical. Were I convinced that the state should be using its power to determine the optimum price of milk, I would probably recoil at the word “violence,” too. This, though, has no bearing on whether its use is pertinent. David Brat was correct: Governments of all sorts rely upon force and maintain a monopoly on fire, and thereby invite all of us to turn our skeptical eyes toward them. Let’s try not to crucify a man for looking on them without favor and telling all who would listen the acrid truth about what he has seen.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.