Speaking plainly about force
One of the most useful things I’ve learned about communication is the importance of stating things plainly and concretely.* But thinking about that lesson frequently makes politics maddening.
Euphemisms are the health of politics. If a government really wants to get away with murder, even secrecy can be less useful than making that particular murder sound unremarkable, justifiable, sensible, or even dutiful.
Many of us small-government folk are fond of saying that the state is force, and that’s true at the core, but it’s difficult to build a complex society on naked force. There’s a strategic advantage in getting most people to cooperate most of the time without a fight, and a bigger advantage in securing cooperation even when you’re not applying immediate pressure. It stands to reason that groups that incur less resistance when organizing the manpower and materiel for their ends are able to sustain violence better than less persuasive groups.
Every government today uses some mix of fear and consent to secure that advantage. An afraid person may cooperate even when the odds of punishment seem remote, because of how the typical person handles fear under uncertainty; on the other hand, a person may at least tacitly consent to a course of action because of a vague belief that the things he values will benefit, and securing his consent for violence is easier if you’re not describing it in the kind of detail that might make him sympathetic to the target. There’s a strategic imperative to coerce some while securing the consent of others by not calling coercion what it is.
This is all relevant to McQ’s recent post on collective action, but I’ve also been reminded of the power of plain speaking in the current debates political struggles over drugs and immigration.
The new Reason-Rupe poll did us a service by asking a few questions about marijuana in progressively greater detail. First, they asked, “Do you favor or oppose legalizing marijuana for recreational use?” It was close: 47% said yes and 49% said no. This is in line with other recent polls: ABC News/Washington Post found 48% support and 50% opposition for “legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use,” and when Gallup asked, “Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not?”, 48% said yes and 50% said no.
Then Reason-Rupe asked, “Some people argue the government should treat marijuana the same as alcohol. Do you agree or disagree?” The numbers jumped: 53% agreed, 45% disagreed. Virtually the entire increase was from women: their support jumped from 42% in favor of legalization for recreational use (with 6% unsure) to 52% in favor of treating marijuana like alcohol (with 3% unsure). Meanwhile, men barely budged, from 52% on the first question to 53% on the second.
Finally, the Reason-Rupe survey said, “As you may know, voters in Colorado and Washington made it legal to grow, sell and use marijuana for recreational purposes in those states. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law,” and then asked each respondent two out of three possible questions:
- “Should the federal government arrest people who SELL marijuana in states that have legalized it?”
- “Should the federal government arrest people who GROW marijuana in states that have legalized it?”
- “Should the federal government arrest people who USE marijuana in states that have legalized it?”
This time both sexes moved strongly away from drug enforcement. 64% opposed arresting sellers (32% supported), 68% opposed arresting growers (versus 29%), and 72% opposed arresting users (versus 24%).
(The Gallup poll asked a similar question: “As you may know, marijuana use is legal in some states. Do you think the federal government should take steps to enforce federal anti-marijuana laws in those states, or not?” At that level of abstraction, their opinions were much like the Reason-Rupe respondents on marijuana sellers: 64% said no, 34% yes.)
People might assume that “legalize for recreational use” is different from “treat the same as alcohol,” and there’s a certain political difference between thinking something should be legalized generally and thinking the federal government should not enforce its laws in states where a majority of voters disagree on the issue. Still, the support for current marijuana policy dwindled as the description of current policy, and of the targets of that policy, became more precise and relatable.
The same also seems to be true for immigration policy, although the wording of recent polls doesn’t make for easy comparisons. Still, when three polls each gave three options, it’s worth noting that over the last couple of years “the government [should] send all illegal immigrants back to their home country” and “[the government should d]eport all illegal immigrants, no matter how long they have been in the U.S.” each attract 17-19% support while “illegal immigrants who are currently working in the U.S. […] should be required to leave their jobs and leave the U.S.” wins 24-38% support. Again, we can’t make a direct comparison, because each poll’s other two options differ, but saying the government should “send back” or “deport” is harsher than the passive “should be required to leave the U.S.” In concrete terms, all three are equivalent: police forces identify and arrest people, imprison them, and eventually forcibly remove them to a usually much less pleasant place, and maybe some people become so frightened of that process that they abandon their lives here – their homes, jobs, and relationships – rather than risk being forcibly stripped of them.
Advocates for less restrictive immigration policy frequently use a phrase like “deporting 11 million people” to convey how difficult and ugly that option would be. It does have a way of drawing one’s mind to the logistical problems with addressing such a large population using only men with guns.
So their opponents who are still looking for a way to exclude 11 million people from the territory (having apparently exhausted all easier, mutually agreeable ways to coexist in the same place) suggest “securing the border” and requiring every employer and state agency to exclude unauthorized people from employment and, obviously, benefits. What happens when those policies are described in terms of what’s physically required? A partial list:
- Building thousands of miles of barriers and hiring police forces to patrol them requires collecting and spending billions of dollars annually,
- some number of people inevitably end up being scammed, arrested, hurt, or even killed trying to get past those barriers,
- implementing “e-verify” requires taking money from (or otherwise punishing) every employer who refuses or fails to incur the cost of implementing the system,
- and all of this requires a bureaucracy full of unionized public employees.
It sounds less messy than rounding people up, but it also sounds like quite a lot of complicated coercion to achieve smaller government or whatever it is you want.
Of course, that policy would make it marginally harder for everyone to do business, as not every business is computer-savvy and not every employee’s papers are in order; I’ll skip the long version of this story, but mine weren’t really in order until after I graduated from college, and my native California would have imposed a lengthy process costing several hundred dollars to fix them.
All of the above isn’t to say that violence is never appropriate in drug or immigration policy, though I do prefer to keep that violence to a minimum. The point is that talking about policy in terms that cause us to dwell on the physical reality of it tends to make that discussion more fruitful and push back the inclination toward solving problems with coercion. It may not always persuade people to be skeptical of government, but it’s a handy tool.
* Brevity also helps, but as you can see, I prefer thoroughness. Follow me on Twitter at your own risk.