No Tar, No Feathers, No Nothing

Suppose I had a very strange experience with some of my neighbors on two successive evenings. The first night a group of my neighbors showed up at my door with a bucket of tar and a bag of feathers, and they wanted me to join them as they headed down the block to find Murphy and give him the treatment. As I asked them about this curious task that they had undertaken, it became apparent that they had all managed to make common cause even though their reasons for doing this were about as varied as it gets. One was there because Murphy played his stereo too loud, another because Murphy was a competitor at work who got a choice promotion instead of him, another because Murphy supported the war in Iraq, and so on. And, as it turns out, I had my own issues with Murphy that I would rather not go into, and so I started to rub my chin thoughtfully. There are two problems here. The first is the question of the justice of the action itself. Does Murphy have it coming to him? The second has to do with the justice of the coalition. Even if the action itself were just, what would it mean if ninety percent of those executing that action were not motivated by that just aspect of the situation at all? If they had never heard of it, and wouldn’t agree with it if they had?

Now the next evening, another group of neighbors showed up at my door with no tar, no feathers, no nothing. And their visit concerned Smith, a block away in the other direction. When I asked what their plan was, it turned out that everybody in this second mob wanted to leave Smith entirely alone. But their reasons for this were as varied as the reasons given the previous night. One said that it was Monday night, and a guy should always be allowed to enjoy the game. “Nothing better than football,” he said. Another man said that Smith should be left in peace because the universe was green jello and the higher they fly the much. A third man was an avid reader of Ayn Rand, and said that it was our responsibility to the Goddess of Free Will to leave him alone. Yet another said that he didn’t care about Smith so much, but that if he didn’t get his lawn mowed that evening, his wife would kill him. And I wanted to leave Smith alone because I had never heard of him. Now if I agreed, and said, “Thanks for coming by!” and started to close the door, do I have the same “coalition problem” that I had the evening before? No, not even close.

If we are going to interfere with Murphy in a concerted action, we have to justify it. And if Christians participate with others who are not Christians, they have to justify that. But if we are going to leave Smith right where we found him, even if we are leaving him alone at the very same moment that a number of unbelievers are also leaving him alone, we don’t have to justify anything. And I certainly don’t have to justify “the coalition,” not even if a social critic calls it “capitalism.” Ism my foot. I am just leaving him alone.

Now this is why those Christians who want to make common cause with various leftists have a real problem. Liberals want to tax Murphy into the middle of next week. Conservatives and libertarians (for all kinds of reasons, some of them ludicrous) want to leave Smith alone. And this is why consistent Christians have much less internal consternation when they lean in conservative directions.

A laissez-faire grin directed at Smith does not have to be explained the same way that beating Murphy with a stick needs to be explained. Coercion always needs to be explained. Minding your own business does not need to be.

Now, lest anyone retreat immediately to foreign policy (where conservatives tend to be less generous, and love to talk about Somali pirates right away), I need to say that I hold to this principle on both domestic and foreign fronts. Coercion always has the burden of proof. In some cases, that burden can even be met.

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