Personal Freedom

Promoting Culture at the Point of a Gun

Culture is important. It shapes our general societal standards, it guides our behavior, and it establishes certain expectations we have of one another in our various interactions. It allows our history to influence our present and direct our future. It is a reflection of our ideals.

And government should have nothing to do with it.

Culture is largely organic, undefined by any central apparatus. It is modified through the collective actions and attitudes of the masses. It is the societal counterpart to the state’s top-down, arbitrary set of laws which are enforced by the few upon the many.

The government exists to protect life, liberty, and property. It can only legitimately operate with authority it has been delegated by the individuals who comprise it. Because no one person has the moral authority to impose and enforce his cultural standards upon his neighbor, he cannot petition a third party to do so on his behalf.

Culture is properly promoted and even “enforced” only through non-coercive means such as persuasion and even peer pressure. To empower the state to help define and enforce such standards is to promote an ideal at the point of a gun, for all government is force.

The state’s stranglehold over alcohol distribution and consumption in Utah is an excellent example of this exact problem. Proponents of restrictive alcohol laws argue that they are necessary to ensure that the “culture” in Utah remains one in which the consumption of alcohol is minimized, and children are spared the sight of an alcoholic beverage being prepared. They therefore endorse locking people in a cage or beating them over the head (should they affirm their rights and refuse to comply) who disagree with their cultural ideals and wish to pursue their own definition of happiness, however misguided it may be.

Violence in such cases is not justified. Coercion is acceptable only in situations where somebody’s rights are being violated, or about to be violated, and a defensive action is necessary to repel the threat. The state can only be empowered to use violence in cases where individuals themselves would be justified in doing so.

Would a restaurant patron be justified in punching his server in the face, or handcuffing him to the table, for mixing an alcoholic drink in sight of the child he brought with him? Clearly not. We therefore cannot approve of the state doing similar things on his behalf, even if they start more benignly as fines and permit revocations. Ultimately, the government backs its softer actions with the barrel of a gun.

Laws exist not to educate people about how they should behave, but to punish injustice and protect individual rights. Relying on the government to educate citizens about their own culture is like asking the mob to make sure people go to church each week. Contrary to some conservative opinions, the state’s agents are not justified in acting as sentinels to force people to become their “better selves” in an effort to “help shape the order of a free society.”

The problem with empowering the state to promote and enforce culture is that the centralization of this authority creates an ongoing contest wherein warring factions whose cultures clash with one another each attempt to wrest control of the state in order to enforce their definition of culture upon everybody else. Keeping the state out of the culture war will decentralize this conflict and allow competing ideals to achieve popular support in the marketplace of ideas on the strength of their merits rather than the strength of the state’s muscle.