What not to do about tyranny

February 8, 2013 § 25 Comments

Liberalism has succeeded largely by bringing down tyrants, real or perceived, unleashing the free and equal new man to do whatever he chooses to do — as long as what he chooses to do is consistent with liberalism. It has done so by attacking the very idea of particular men or particular ideas having legitimate authority. Thus it devolves into an assault on truth.

There is no question that we live under a perverse regime, where those in authority hold to twisted ideas radically at odds with the good, the true, and the beautiful. Therefore the impulse to resist the tyrant is natural and good.

However, the means we choose to achieve our ends are important in both the moral and the practical domain.

In the moral domain it is wrong for us to lie or to advocate lying. (Advocacy of lying is formal cooperation with evil and is just as wrong as lying ourselves). When we advocate that the government adopt an agnostic or nominalist approach to marriage or some other fundamental institution we are advocating that the government lie: that government officials tell falsehoods about marriage and base policies on those falsehoods. It is wrong for us to advocate in favor of this on principle, independent of consequences.

So even though Caesar is a tyrant, and even if we think we might be better off if he did lie as a matter of consequences, it is wrong for us to advocate that Caesar lie.

§ 25 Responses to What not to do about tyranny

  • alan says:

    Zippy, how does the government “getting out of the marriage business” get converted into an “agnostic or nominalist approach to marriage”? It seems that you are equating different ideas.

  • Chris says:

    @ Zippy: Agree.

    And we need to support each other here — the Reformed need to back the RCC and the Lutherans and anyone else — because if we do not stick together we will be stuck to the trophy wall by Caeser as we fail.

    That includes passive resistance — put something up simulteneously that discusses unity, removing ourselves from the courts and education, and dancing. Warning: it is long — although it is Saturday here I did not have enough time to make it short.

    @ Alan
    Most churches see marriage as a noble estate held by a covenant to a sacrament. Or they see God is in the house and part of the covenant — the vows are as much to God as to each other. This is not a nominalist account, which sees little difference between sleeping with someone for years and raising kids together in what us kiwis call de facto marriage and being married. I’ll let the smart Catholics expand on the differences.

    The state can call anything it wants marriage. That is naming or nominal marriage. The RCC would say that marriage is made by the sacrament and a sacramental marriage is forever — the Reformed would say that this is a contract or covenant between two people and you must not make it a lie. Both would say that sleeping together is not akin to marriage, or else fornication would become a marriage and then adultery.

    Many marriages in the state term — such as Caligula marrying his horse — are not marriages in any version of canon or church law.

    Where I disagree with Skippy is that the state is not needed for a true marriage. A contract is. In the past these have been registered in the church, and divorce dealt with initially in the church, with the state called in only when force is required.

    For Christians, the nominal idea of marriage is a straw man argument. Which was dicussed here.

  • […] About the same time that I put up today’s post Zippy Catholic wrote this. […]

  • @Zippy –
    Advocacy of lying is formal cooperation with evil and is just as wrong as lying ourselves

    Surely advocacy of lying is much, much *worse* than lying – since we are fallen creatures who cannot always stop ourselves sinning. (We can, however, repent lying.) But we *can* stop ourselves advocating systematic sin as a matter of considered, planned policy.

    My point is that our society is now in a very usually sinful position of formally advocating all manner of sins as policy – saying these sins are actually good – therefore preventing repentance.

  • Zippy says:

    Alan:
    It seems that you are equating different ideas.

    I attempted to explain their equivalence in my previous post, though I’m still not completely happy with the level of clarity. In a nutshell, for the government to “get out of the marriage business” – in the sense meant by proponents of the policy change – requires government officials to assert simultaneously the mutually contradictory propositions that the government both does and does not know what marriage is.

    As I pointed out in a comment at the Orthosphere, this is similar to what the government did with respect to abortion in Roe vs Wade. The government asserts that “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins.” It then goes on to assert positive law which depends upon a particular resolution of that very question.

    This is what liberalism frequently does in general, by the way: it pretends to prescind from answering substantive moral questions while asserting positive law which depends upon substantive answers to substantive moral questions. This is a form of lying, and we should not advocate lying — not even under a rubric of ‘agree and amplify’ as a means to the end of using liberal ideas against liberalism.

  • Zippy says:

    Bruce:
    Surely advocacy of lying is much, much *worse* than lying…

    Yes, good clarification. I’ve argued myself (at some point or other) that formal cooperation with evil act X is objectively worse than actually committing evil act X. What I meant to say is not that lying and advocacy of lying are morally equivalent; just that both are categorical moral evils.

  • Yes – I wasn’t expecting us to disagree on this! But it is an insidious and characteristic evil of modernity that we tend (I certainly do) to excuse or miss seeing the especially demonic quality of strategic wickedness. Indeed, the media tend to snigger at the cleverness of legalistic dishonesty (especially as practiced, for example, by recent Democrat Presidents when picked up on a specific instance of their minute-by-minute 24/7 dishonest-misleading).

    BTW writing my comment here inspired this blog post:

    http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/deliberately-misleading-by-choice-of.html

  • Steve Nicoloso says:

    Failing to tell the truth is not the same as telling a falsehood.

  • Failing to perceive the truth is not the same as telling a falsehood.

    Being constitutionally incapable of discovering the truth is not the same as telling a falsehood.

    Failing to have the requisite power to force the governor to bend to your will, and thus tell the truth, is not the same as telling a falsehood.

  • Figured I’d bring this over because it seems germaine… At the Orthosphere, Zippy said:

    Another time the liberal state took a nominalist/agnostic stand on such a core issue was in Roe vs Wade.

    To which I respond (with some edits here):

    The officially agnostic stance on abortion is certainly tragic. Good governments defend innocent life, just as good governments promote traditional marriage.

    But abortion agnosticism is certainly better than the non-agnostic government deciding on your behalf that you must, in fact, kill your children.

    And that is the correct analogy with regard to our government’s status quo non-agnostic involvement with marriage. You are ostensibly free to make whatever promises you like and live however you like.

    But if and when either one of those marriage partners decides to break those promises, we will step in and help her (or, possibly, him) to not only get away scott free, but likely take cash and prizes. It doesn’t matter what promises you made, whether oral or written, it doesn’t matter that children are involved, all that matters is that you are “happy”.

    That is not only not a defense of traditional marriage, it is open, calculated hostility. The result is human suffering likely exceeds that caused by abortion agnosticism.

    Yes, the government doing nothing would be a vast improvement. (But would of course be far from ideal.)

  • DeNihilist says:

    Well here is one mans’ way to broach the subject –

  • […] [1] Other recent posts on the subject of advocating “getting the government out of the marriage business” are Marriage and the death of reason, All the king’s horses and all the king’s marriages, What if only usurers could marry?, and What not to do about tyranny. […]

  • Zippy says:

    Steve:
    But abortion agnosticism is certainly better than the non-agnostic government deciding on your behalf that you must, in fact, kill your children.

    As I mentioned in the other thread, though, there is a difference between making a judgment that government agnosticism on X is better than it taking the active position Y, on the one hand, and advocating in favor of government agnosticism on X. Judging it better that the thief take the money and leave without killing the hostages, yes; advocating that the thief take the money, no.

  • That’s true. But you’re only interpreting me as advocating that the government lie. I’m only advocating that the government not talk at all, except to enforce contracts as contracts, if it cannot say what is true. And let us be realistic, there is no way we’re going to overturn no-fault divorce laws–the insanity is baked into the cake of liberal democracy. The only question is whether traditionalists get eaten or are given safe passage out.

  • Zippy says:

    Steve:
    I’m only advocating that the government not talk at all, except to enforce contracts as contracts, if it cannot say what is true.

    How can it enforce contracts as contracts if it cannot say what is true?

  • Not everything the government does has an evil agenda. The inability of the government to say what is true on one topic (e.g., marriage) is not tantamount to an inability to say anything true at all, ever. A power, no matter how evil, so incompetent as to never say anything true at all would fail to retain power even for a nanosecond. Of course, we cannot expect judges to always be unbiased, but at least the positive law could require them to be. Current family law (positive and precedent) encourages judges to be very much biased in adjucating marriage contracts, and in a direction diametrically opposed to traditional (European) marriages–So much so that I would surmise there has never been a social experiment that has wrecked greater damage to the common good. (Yes, even Hitler’s wasn’t this bad. Several Asian Maoists probably were/are worse, but had lower body counts.)

    The liberal state is myriad of contradictions, not the least of which is its purportedly equal enforcement, “valuation”, of liberty and equality. We know it values equality more, any honest observer knows that. We know, and can see it operating before our eyes, that this rhetorical sleight of hand operates very much against liberty. Yet in regards to the liberty side, the government seems quite disposed (today and for now) to let people be free to be themselves: If sodomites want to marry, who are we to take away your happiness? If you want a divorce, same thing?

    This is one policy area where, if freedom is pursued to its logical conclusion, i.e., let people make whatever the hell contract they want (just don’t make society subsidize your failures), that a part of that common good can be restored. Again this stipulates that the ability to enforce contracts in an, at least statistically, unbiased manner is relatively undamaged. Maybe that’s a big if, but that is true for any policy prescription, besides anarchy.

    I implied that this is a strategy that could work today, and maybe wouldn’t work forever. Obviously (well to those paying attention at least), wherever freedom is tried, disparate outcomes will necessarily result. It is perfectly possible that after 20 or 50 years of GOOTB, some folks might notice that a certain class of people seemed to be disadvantaged by certain sorts of contracts, and the government will be pressured to start ripping them up again. Well, then that at least will have provided 20 or 50 extra years of sanity.

  • Zippy says:

    Steve:
    Maybe that’s a big if, but that is true for any policy prescription, besides anarchy.

    Maybe we could reframe it this way:

    It is your expectation (I don’t necessarily share that expectation, but that is a practical issue not a fundamental issue of principle or reason) that the modern liberal government can be trusted to enforce formal, written contracts which go through in great detail to define what “marriage” means for the particular individuals entering into it; especially when the term “marriage” is not used in that contract. This is already an available option in the liberal state, actually: the “prenuptial agreement”, which is enforceable to the extent that it is consistent with the law.[*]

    This is in contrast to entering into a marriage contract which is straightforwardly called marriage, in front of witnesses, in a particular Church whose doctrinal understanding of marriage is spelled out clearly in (say) its catechism and in other magisterial documents.

    In either case this is all done ‘in the shadow’ of civil family law as well: all contracts are made in the shadow of the law, which is why a contract to (e.g.) sell onesself into slavery is unenforceable.

    The main difference seems to be that the stipulations in the catechism and magisterial documents has been transferred into a third document signed by the couple as prima facie evidence that the contract they understood themselves to be entering into was precisely that kind of contract with those terms. We’ll call this “The Contract”.

    So now we have a scenario where a couple gets married in church without The Contract (a form of prenup). They have a dispute, and their case is brought before a family court.

    What change in policy are we to recommend which entails “getting out of the marriage business”? How would the proceedings differ between couples who have signed The Contract and those who haven’t?

    I believe the answer is “not at all”.

    It seems to me that we just want the government to have a substantively good and true understanding of marriage. There is no escaping this fact (short of anarchy). “Get out of the marriage business” either means “keep doing exactly what it is doing now” or it means anarchy.

    ________

    [*] The basic problem is that the law is bad. There is no escaping from this problem from the standpoint of advocating a change in law or policy: there is no “quick fix” solution. Individual Christians and small communities of Christians may hide in the countryside from Caesar, of course, but that isn’t the subject of discussion: the subject of discussion is advocated policy changes.

  • Steve Nicoloso says:

    It seems to me that we just want the government to have a substantively good and true understanding of marriage. There is no escaping this fact (short of anarchy). “Get out of the marriage business” either means “keep doing exactly what it is doing now” or it means anarchy.

    We agree of course and in spades what we want is good law, which would of course be based on a true understanding of marriage. I think we also agree that the state’s hermeneutic of marriage is now used as a specific cudgel to injure true marriage, and thus family life, and thus the common good.

    What change in policy are we to recommend which entails “getting out of the marriage business”? How would the proceedings differ between couples who have signed The Contract and those who haven’t?

    The state has no record of either couples’ marriage. It may have them showing up on tax returns as living at the same address and accepting tax benefits (or not) as co-habitors. It may show them to be one or more of the parents of children that it has on the books. But the state has no record of their marriage and therefore has no power to grant something called a “divorce.” It has no power to say kids live with so and so, and so and so gets visitation, and so and so pays such and such. There would be at least a strong bias toward the status quo ante, unless some other specific law was violated.

    If there is a dispute in the marriage (say, for instance, bored woman wants to leave, take the kids, the house, and 15% of her future ex-husband’s future gross earnings until kids reach age 23), then the government has at least an official neutrality in the matter. The court will look at the contract, and see what it stipulates when this type of event happens. If the contract was verbal, then that leaves a lot more room for the (possibly pernicious) imagination of a judge. I think that would be unwise, therefore to rely on it. But in principle, even the verbal one should be enforceable.

    We will of course still be at the mercy of pernicious magistrates, but it is the nature of being governed at all to be at their mercy. At least officially there is a neutrality. And that it is a profound, even if tenuous, improvement relative to the current abject hostility to traditional marriage.

  • Zippy says:

    Steve:

    (Skipping over the stuff on which we very much agree)

    But the state has no record of their marriage and therefore has no power to grant something called a “divorce.” It has no power to say kids live with so and so, and so and so gets visitation, and so and so pays such and such.

    I’m not sure what you are saying here, unless you are adopting Vanessa’s proposal that GOOMB be interpreted to mean the elimination of marriage licenses and state vital record keeping w.r.t. marriage.

    This would have virtually no effect on civil or criminal actions, as far as I can tell.

    The vast majority of contracts aren’t registered with the state and do not require licenses, but they are certainly enforceable when it comes to civil and criminal law. When a civil suit is filed or criminal activity is discovered the same process of discovery, deposing of witnesses, etc takes place. The same legal context (the entire body of family law) would apply, with or without licenses or vital record keeping.

    If that whole legal context is a disaster – and it most definitely is – that can’t be undone by what amounts to an attempted bureaucratic trick through elimination of licenses and record keeping. The problem can’t be solved without solving the problem.

    I may have misinterpreted your proposal though. If you mean something other than the elimination of marriage licenses and cessation of vital record keeping you’d have to tell me what the specific proposal happens to be.

  • Steve Nicoloso says:

    I’m not sure what you are saying here, unless you are adopting Vanessa’s proposal that GOOMB be interpreted to mean the elimination of marriage licenses and state vital record keeping w.r.t. marriage.

    This would have virtually no effect on civil or criminal actions, as far as I can tell.

    Well, yeah, that is approximately what I’m saying. I guess that is the nub of the theory: If the state can’t say you’re married, then it cannot say you’re divorced. Since people are (or are not) married whether the state says so or not, or confers benefits or not, then the effect (of state silence) on marriage per se is rather marginal. But while divorce is an actual impossibility, according to Catholic (and what used to be known as Christian) teaching, the states’ continued granting of divorces creates a lot of injustice and disorder.

    Yes, a fair amount of family law would have to go out the window with official state agnosticism on marriage. Basically let the libertarian wet dream come to fruition: consenting adults contracting basically whatever the hell they want… AND living with the consequences of those contracts. It’s political jujitsu: You want liberty? Fine, here’s your liberty. But don’t come running to the state if liberty turns out to not be quite as “fair” as you’d hoped. Freedom and disparate impact go hand in hand. The vast majority of people will choose and continue to respect traditional arrangements. A government officially agnostic about marital arrangements will have no choice, except by official lawlessness, but to enforce the contracts of those traditional arrangements.

    Official lawlessness is yesterday, today, and forever a real possibility but that’s a given either way.

    For most of human history, people lived in relative freedom from official state interference. States were simply too remote, too weak, too corrupt, or, even in the best circumstance, lacked the technology for any other situation to obtain. And yet, given that actual human history, traditional cultures nevertheless arose–not just Christian ones. Obviously it is better to have a state (with power and technology) to enforce traditional norms. But failing that it would be better to simply turn back the clock and pretend the state doesn’t really know much about marriage.

  • Zippy says:

    Steve:
    For most of human history, people lived in relative freedom from official state interference.

    The thing is, though, this particular Golem doesn’t awaken as “state interference” in any straightforward sense. It isn’t as if we are talking primarily about criminal law.

    This Golem awakens when one spouse petitions the state for redress against the other.

  • This Golem awakens when one spouse petitions the state for redress against the other.

    I think that is correct. But no-fault divorce is the vortex into which practically all of family law currently gets sucked. It’s a MAD button that can be pressed by anyone at any time, and so basically forces everyone into bargaining with the most crazy terrorist of the bunch.

    I see the elimination of state marriage as a way to eliminate state divorce–and no-fault divorce would (hopefully) be a by-product of that legal winnowing. Yes, it is possible that leftist family court judges roped in to hearing cases that look a whole lot like what they used to hear, might adjucate according to that same hermeneutic (i.e., “disparate” outcomes are evil, therefore throw the contract out), but in doing so they would operating outside of the law–whereas today they are not.

    Would elimination of state marriage (and divorce) licensing certainly work to preserve some shred of the common good? I have no idea. Would it make things worse? I don’t see how.

  • Zippy says:

    Steve:

    Nobody seems to agree with me on the logical point (though if it follows the usual pattern someone a year or so from now will send me an “aha” email). If I’m right then advocating for GOOMB is like advocating for gyreing and gimbaling on the wabe: it is an incoherent concept into which authority will pour whatever its arbitrary will happens to be.

    But setting aside the question of rational coherence, let me address this from a practical perspective:

    But no-fault divorce is the vortex into which practically all of family law currently gets sucked. It’s a MAD button that can be pressed by anyone at any time, and so basically forces everyone into bargaining with the most crazy terrorist of the bunch.

    I agree completely, of course.

    Yes, it is possible that leftist family court judges roped in to hearing cases that look a whole lot like what they used to hear, might adjucate according to that same hermeneutic (i.e., “disparate” outcomes are evil, therefore throw the contract out), but in doing so they would operating outside of the law–whereas today they are not.

    I’m a natural law guy not a positivist (at the end of the day everyone is a natural law theorist: positivism is just a rhetorical tool for begging particular questions), so I don’t agree that they are acting within the law today.

    Would elimination of state marriage (and divorce) licensing certainly work to preserve some shred of the common good? I have no idea. Would it make things worse? I don’t see how.

    As a practical matter it would mean that everyone starts out as already no-fault divorced in the eyes of the law, on the day of the wedding. I’m not sure how that helps, and given that substantial numbers of marriages still don’t end in divorce it seems pretty harmful on its face.

  • I’m a natural law guy not a positivist (at the end of the day everyone is a natural law theorist: positivism is just a rhetorical tool for begging particular questions), so I don’t agree that they are acting within the law today.

    Well, they are acting today within the “rules”. Obviously, there is no such law, properly understood, as no-fault divorce. But rules are the best (and worst) we can hope for from the current regime.

    As a practical matter it would mean that everyone starts out as already no-fault divorced in the eyes of the law, on the day of the wedding. I’m not sure how that helps, and given that substantial numbers of marriages still don’t end in divorce it seems pretty harmful on its face.

    Well, my assumption is that it is financial inducements which principally encourage the party with the poorer future time orientation and/or the weaker hand to seek divorce. I do not know this is true, but the fact that divorce rates have only sky-rocketed after the no-fault divorce revolution (de jure or de facto… NY state still officially has no no-fault divorce statute) is very suggestive. Therefore, get rid of financial inducements and you may have done some amount of good.

    Again, most of human history has not seen governments interested or strong enough to issue marriage licenses and enforce marriage contracts, yet most of human history is not marked by high rates of divorce. It is therefore likely that government involvement has lately been having a profoundly deleterious (if unintended) consequence.** Taking away that involvement (or a big chunk of it) therefore may be the prudent, even if not ideal, course to take.

    **There are a whole raft of government policies that actively militate against the traditional family, and therefore against the common good. No-fault divorce is just the biggest and baddest one.

  • Zippy says:

    Steve:
    Therefore, get rid of financial inducements and you may have done some amount of good.

    Agreed, but I doubt that GOOMB as you’ve specifically defined it (elimination of marriage licensing) would accomplish that. I expect that the kinds of court decisions which provide that kind of short-sighted financial inducement would simply be applied more broadly. Understand that GOOMB represents a (at least perceived) significant discontinuity, and discontinuities are likely to move things in the direction of the zeitgeist rather than against it.

    At the end of the day we are speculating about what an already wildly irrational regime will do as a practical matter given some specific legal maneuver though, so there probably is no good answer. The result is wildly unpredictable but, given the cultural gradient, is likely to be very bad. “What could it hurt”, “how was I supposed to know”, and all that.

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