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The Ethics of the Pressure Cooker


The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th was an epoch of rapid technological and political change, accompanied by doubts, fears, and often violence. Anarchists (of the collectivist variety) roamed over Europe and exploded bombs made of the recently invented dynamite. A German anarchist had announced, “It is within the power of dynamite to destroy the capitalist regime.” Violent anarchists also hit New York.

Pressures to respond by crushing individual liberty developed. Whether or not they were as strong as today remains an open question. In 1885, a former British member of Parliament, Auberon Herbert, wrote a remarkable article to counter such pressures. Entitled “The Ethics of Dynamite,” his article argued that political violence should not be used as an excuse for increasing the power of the state because that would be like institutionalizing dynamite. He explained that “[dynamite] is not opposed to government; it is, on the contrary, government in its most intensified and concentrated form.” It is worth reproducing a long quotation from this article (although it is available at the Online Library of Liberty, and there is no substitute for reading it):

Dynamite … is government in a nutshell, government stripped, as some of us aver, of all its dearly beloved fictions, ballot boxes, political parties, House of Commons oratory, and all the rest of it. How, indeed, is it possible to govern more effectively, or in more abbreviated form, than to say: “Do this — or don’t do this — unless you desire that a pound of dynamite should be placed tomorrow evening in your ground-floor study.” It is the perfection, the ne plus ultra, of government. Indeed, if we poor liberty folk, we voluntaryists, who are at such intellectual discount just at present, and at whom none is too mean to fling his stone — if we, who detest the root idea at the bottom of all governing — the compelling of people to do what they don’t want to do, the compelling of them to accept the views and become the tools of other persons — wished to find an object lesson to set before those governments of today which have not yet learned to doubt about their property in human material, where could we find anything more impressive than the dynamiter, with his tin canister and his supply of horseshoe nails? “Here is your own child. This is what your doctrine of deified force, this is what your contempt of human rights, this is what your property in men and women leads to.”

Herbert saw another, more practical lesson to be learned from the dynamiters: we must not become more like them, we must not react to their actions by further restricting individual liberty. He writes,

If we cannot learn, if the only effect upon us of the presence of the dynamiter in our midst is to make us multiply punishments, invent restrictions, increase the number of our official spies, forbid public meetings, interfere with the press, put up gratings — as in one country they propose to do — in our House of Commons, scrutinize visitors under official microscopes, request them, as at Vienna, and I think now at Paris also, to be good enough to leave their greatcoats in the vestibules — if we are, in a word, to trust to machinery, to harden our hearts, and simply to meet force with force, always irritating, always clumsy, and in the end fruitless, then I venture to prophesy that there lies before us a bitter and an evil time.

Perhaps Herbert does not give enough room to legitimate self-defense against barbarian mass-killers. But the rest of his argument is difficult to argue against, and is very relevant today.

Today’s dynamiters are airplane suicide bombers and pressure-cooker bombers, and we need to re-actualize the ethics of the pressure-cooker bombers. Our rulers (including a large part, perhaps a majority, of their supporters) react exactly like Auberon Herbert feared more than a hundred years ago. “Exactly”? Well, not exactly. We are much past the stage of gratings in Congress, scrutinizing visitors, and requesting them to check their trench coats at the entrance — although, in America, freedom of speech has survived. Boston showed that the rulers now feel allowed to lock down entire parts of a city and to conduct house-by-house searches.

And what to think of the heavily militarized police who need hundreds of men to catch two bombers and are incapable of arresting them alive or in a condition to answer questions? How many SWAT teams does it take to screw in a light bulb? What to think of the poor professionalism of these overarmed cops who cheer when they have finally made one bloody arrest, as if to vindicate their esprit de corps? What to think of the clamors to deprive the surviving suspect of his constitutional rights and of what has been the common law of civilized mankind for one or two centuries? Isn’t a trial meant to determine guilt? And what sort of martial law would the government and its militarized police impose if, instead of fighting one or two isolated thugs, they had to stop an invading army?

Destroying constitutional rights to fight terrorists intent on doing the same will mean, in the best case, that you will never fear terrorists again. You will, however, be even more scared of your own government and its praetorians.

This post was written by:

Pierre Lemieux is an economist affiliated with the University of Québec in Outaouais. He is the author of many books, the latest of which is The Public Debt Problem: A Comprehensive Guide (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). He lives in Maine.