A Confused Man
This morning, a confused man named Joseph Andrew Stack, crashed a plane into a building in Austin, Texas that housed IRS ofﬁces.
The man, before crashing his privately-owned plane, wrote a message on his website, which is now being called the Stack Manifesto. In reading this manifesto, one can see just how absolutely confused this man was.
It seems that most blogs and message boards have been focusing on this man’s ideology, which is quite hard to pin-point. He appears to oppose heavy taxation while also supporting government involvement in healthcare. He displays a clear hatred for big government, big business, and big unions alike. And the last two lines of his manifesto seem to imply that he considered communism a lesser evil than capitalism.
His mixture of libertarian, communist, populist, and socialist sympathies, thus, make it impossible to pinpoint the man.
With that said, he does nevertheless present some reasonable comments about problems faced in our society. The problem, again, is that the man is clearly confused; thus, he conﬂates things that oughtn’t be conﬂated, and he often errs in the direction of his rhetorical attacks.
The man’s confusion was manifested this morning in his suicide-as-protest, when he crashed into a building with IRS ofﬁces.
Unfortunately, the online news media fail to focus on the most important issue: was anyone killed?
I’ve searched through a variety of articles, and yet few present any information regarding whether anybody (other than Stack himself) died in the crash. I ﬁnally found what I was looking for from Channel 8 News in Austin.
It appears that one person (other than Stack himself, presumably) died in the crash, and thirteen others were injured. It also appears that Stack lit his house on ﬁre this morning with his family still inside; luckily, they escaped.
In my opinion, this is more than enough information to completely condemn Stack for his deed, just as the The Humble Libertarian blog does:
As the Editor-in-Chief of The Humble Libertarian, I unequivocally and without qualiﬁcation, condemn this brutal, senseless, and stupid act of violence. As a libertarian, I am incensed that Joe Stack took it upon himself to take innocent lives in the name of less government spending and lower taxes.
The writer makes it clear that Stack is not a libertarian, writing, “Libertarianism emphasizes non-coercion, non-aggression, and peaceful coexistence among people.”
Actions speak louder than words, and even if Stack’s rhetoric had been 100% in line with plumb-line libertarianism (which, obviously, it was not), his actions would necessarily belie his words.
This is not to say that we cannot or should not have sympathy for what Stack went through. We most deﬁnitely should. But his experiences do not justify the actions he took.
Had it been the case that Stack had crashed his privately-owned plane into an unoccupied government building, I would be whistling a very different tune right now. I would actually be praising Stack for his brave act of deﬁance. But, sadly, Stack cannot be cheered, for he is a murderer, and thus unworthy of praise.
A Libertarian Critique
A proper libertarian understanding of justice can illuminate just how problematic Stack’s actions ultimately were. In order to evaluate Stack’s actions, let us consider the views promoted by the libertarian anarchist Murray N. Rothbard in his 1982 book, The Ethics of Liberty.
Although Rothbard defends the concept of using force defensively, i.e., using force to repel aggression (where aggression is deﬁned as the initiation of force or fraud), he is very clear that responsive force is only ethical if it is in proportion to the force to which it is responding. On page 85, Rothbard provides a very clear description of the limits of responsive force:
[U]nder libertarian law, capital punishment would have to be conﬁned strictly to the crime of murder. For a criminal would only lose his right to life if he had ﬁrst deprived some victim of that same right. It would not be permissible, then, for a merchant whose bubble gum had been stolen, to execute the convicted bubble gum thief. If he did so, then he, the merchant, would be an unjustiﬁable murderer, who could be brought to the bar of justice by the heirs or assigns of the bubble gum thief.
The news report does not make it clear whether the persons who were killed or injured were all IRS agents or not, nor even whether they were all government employees. Thus, while taxation is certainly and undeniably a form of theft, it would be impermissible to kill the IRS agents as retribution for their crime. For, in so doing, Stack became an aggressor.
Perhaps we need not even go this deeply into analysis, however, for remember, Stack lit his house on ﬁre with his family inside. Unless it turns out that every member of his family that was inside of the house happened to be a murderer, Stack had clearly engaged in attempted murder of innocent people even before setting foot on his plane. He was, thus, a criminal by libertarian standards, and one even more dastardly than those criminals we call IRS agents, who, by and large, at least aren’t murderers.
It is quite clear, therefore, that Stack did not care who he killed in his strive to retaliate, and even if people who have never worked a day in their lives for the state apparatus happened to be in the building at the time of the crash, Stack’s attitude was apparently, “So what?”
This brings us back to Rothbard, who wrote on pages 189 through 190,
[I]f Jones ﬁnds that his property is being stolen by Smith, Jones has the right to repel him and try to catch him, but Jones has no right to repel him by bombing a building and murdering innocent people or to catch him by spraying machine gun ﬁre into an innocent crowd. If he does this, he is as much (or more) a criminal aggressor as Smith is.
The same criteria hold if Smith and Jones each have men on his side, i.e. if “war” breaks out between Smith and his henchmen and Jones and his bodyguards. If Smith and a group of henchmen aggress against Jones, and Jones and his bodyguards pursue the Smith gang to their lair, we may cheer Jones on in his endeavor; and we, and others in society interested in repelling aggression, may contribute ﬁnancially or personally to Jones’s cause. But Jones and his men have no right, any more than does Smith, to aggress against anyone else in the course of their “just war”: to steal others’ property in order to ﬁnance their pursuit, to conscript others into their posse by use of violence, or to kill others in the course of their struggle to capture the Smith forces. If Jones and his men should do any of these things, they become criminals as fully as Smith, and they too become subject to whatever sanctions are meted out against criminality. In fact if Smith’s crime was theft, and Jones should use conscription to catch him, or should kill innocent people in the pursuit, then Jones becomes more of a criminal than Smith, for such crimes against another person as enslavement and murder are surely far worse than theft.
Joseph Stack acted unethically. While we can sympathise with his struggles, we cannot, if we are libertarians, condone his aggressive, anti-social acts.
Although I would like to see revolution, it cannot be achieved with the methods employed by the confused Stack. If we want to see positive change, nonviolent civil disobedience is a far better method, both tactically and ethically. If there is one thing I sincerely believe, it is that there is something in the nature of the universe that prevents aggression (i.e., the initiation of physical force or fraud) from ever yielding the desired results. If we ﬁght the state using aggression, the unintended consequence will not only be that we will become the very thing we hate, it will also be that we will drive away public support for our noble cause. But in using nonviolent civil disobedience, we force the state to show the guns it is holding, we force it to stop hiding that the entire state apparatus is built on violence.
Murdering an IRS agent will never solve the problems we face. It won’t bring an end to taxation, and it certainly won’t help to convince other IRS agents that their occupation is unethical. But if we use nonviolent civil disobedience, we thereby force the IRS agents (and other government employees of the world) to recognise that they themselves are actually threatening innocent people with violence, and this realisation will go a long way to promote the expansion of liberty.
—Alexander S. Peak