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On Brute Force
Free Life, March 1898
Herbert replies to a correspondent....
"Force is not brutish," says the writer. But what other word can I choose? If I agree in not liking the use of the word, it is simply because I think we insult wholesale the races of animals by supposing that they are only amenable to force. Otherwise the word is applicable enough. Force is merely directed against the body and limbs of a man. It is the tying by the stronger of the hands and feet of the weaker. It makes no pretense to touch reason or soul, except so far as it argues that the fear of its punishments will often act as effectually as the punishment itself. But what moral element is there in the fear of punishment? What have you gained morally if a whole nation abstained from pillaging each other, because a policeman stood at the corner of the street looking on? Force may be "directed by brain," as the writer says, but directed or not directed by brains, it is a thing that is simply addressed to external actions, and not to the inner sense of right; it is simply a thing that rests on fear--that restrains the weaker and generally baser natures--and that will restrain nobody, if some accident happens, and those who are the holders of force ceased to be feared. What is your force worth, if anything shakes the position of the force-holders? The whole story of force is the story of failure; and those who have trusted to it are those who have spent their lives ploughing the sands.
If John Smith--says the writer-- chooses to live within a community, he must take the consequences. The community performs certain services for him, and therefore it may forcibly exact certain services and payments in return. Well, that is a far-reaching argument. Whatever then the community does is right. If it chooses to expel Jews, or to tax them at a higher rate than other citizens, if it harasses and forbids certain forms of religion, if it violates homes and treats the children as belonging to itself, not to the parents, if it is of a Puritanical character and persecutes the publicans and sinners...if it sells its offices like Tammany to its political supporters, or if it is Socialistic and declares war against the rich, yet you see the community...is justified of all it is or does. Then there are no limits to force, and no rights belonging to the individual. If you choose to live in the community, you must accept what the community chooses to do--you must accept "force directed by brains," of whatever nature the force or brains may be. But what is this infallible, this omnipotent thing that is not to be limited in actions? What is this community? It is simply 3 men who think differently from 2 men. It is simply the larger half of a voting crowd of which no one can say that they are in any way wiser or better than the smaller half. They are only more in number--that is their one solitary attribute, for the sake of which this omniscience and omnipotence are in wholesale fashion handed over to them. But the Chinese are more numerous than the English. Suppose one day they pleaded the rule of majorities?
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