Saturday, 9 July 2016

Call it cowardice

     I don’t know if it’s the worst thing you can call someone, but it’s still pretty darned inflammatory to call someone a racist. It’s so bad that racist comments are typically prefaced with “I’m not racist, but…”
     Nobody wants to think of themselves as a racist, and so we come up with all sorts of denial and coping strategies, to allow ourselves to pretend that really, we don’t see race, we don’t care what colour someone is, we don’t have a prejudiced bone in our body. And all those little things we do that someone who doesn’t know us might mistake for racist behaviours are really just misunderstood.
     This isn’t completely a bad thing. I mean, overall, I think it’s probably better that everyone recognizes racism as bad in principle, than for people still to be openly adhering to and advocating explicitly racist doctrines. So in a way, it’s progress, I suppose. But it does make it extremely difficult to address one’s own prejudices, if one consistently denies that they exist.

     But you know what? I’m not even going to bother with that right now, except to assert that pretty much all of us have unconscious, maybe even hardwired, presumptions or biases that make some degree of unintentionally racist behavior almost impossible to avoid. This can be measured with cleverly designed testing protocols: see Project Implicit, the results of which show a pretty consistent bias (manifesting as increased processing time to overcome that bias in simple cognitive tasks). I have wondered if the basis of that bias might even be something as tragically simple as contrast; is it just easier for our visual cortex to process and recognize an image as a human face if the eyebrows are darker than the skin? Or are we acculturated to see black as evil and white as good?
     I don’t know, and at this point it really doesn’t matter. The fact is that for some reason, most people of all races have some tendency to see a black person as more threatening than a white person, all other factors being equal. Ideally we wouldn’t, but for some kind of neural flaw or cognitive illusion or learned preference.

     So my point is this: I’m not going to blame a police officer for feeling more afraid when dealing with a black man. Fear has a mind of its own, and doesn’t pay much attention to our rational thoughts. When you’re scared, you’re scared, even if you know you shouldn’t be. Maybe your reasons for being scared are ideologically racist, maybe they’re unavoidable parts of how our brains are wired, maybe they’re reasonable responses to your personal history and experiences. I don’t know why you might be afraid, and I don’t really care. What matters is how you deal with your fear, and you can deny being a racist all you want and we can argue forever about whether or not you’re really deep down a racist, but regardless of why you’re afraid, there is a word we give to people who surrender to fear, and that word is “coward”.
     A coward isn’t necessarily someone who runs away from danger. It’s someone who panics, who is unable or unwilling to act wisely and responsibly in spite of their fear. It’s someone who shoots first, instead of calmly evaluating the reality of the threat. As Frank Herbert memorably put it in Dune, “Fear is the mind-killer”. Fear makes you act stupidly.

     Now, I’m not a cop. Apart from a couple of minor fisticuffs in grade school, I’ve never been in a situation where I had reason to think someone was imminently trying to harm me, much less kill me (unless you count that scuffle with colon cancer). So you might well point out that I don’t know what it’s like, and true, I don’t. But what would you be trying to argue with such a point? That fear is powerful, and it’s right to surrender to it? Or just that the level of fear is so great that it cannot reasonably be withstood?
     Look, cops have a dangerous job, I’ll grant that. I mean, that’s actually kind of the whole point: we need our police officers to have exceptional courage, because we need them to remain calm and rational, even when they’re scared and thinking they might be killed in the next few seconds. We need people who will confront potentially dangerous situations and turn them into safe situations. That’s a lot to ask, I know, but if you aren’t able to stay on top of your fear, you really ought not to be in this line of work. A coward with a gun is dangerous and unpredictable, and cowards get people killed: themselves, their colleagues, innocent bystanders.
     I don’t blame the cop who shot Philando Castile the other day for being scared. There’s no arguing with fear. But I do blame him for letting that fear call the shots, because by surrendering to his fear, he not only killed one innocent person, he also contributed to the atmosphere of resentment, distrust and fear in which a sniper in Dallas shot eleven cops, killing five of them. I’m not blaming him for those shootings, for which only the shooter was responsible, but dammit, a cop’s job is to make society safer for everyone, not just for himself in the immediate circumstance regardless of what it means for everyone else.

     There’s another problem with cowardice, a more systemic one, and that is that cowards (being governed by fear) naturally assume that’s what drives everyone else. And so they tend to approach conflicts as contests of fear: they think whoever’s the most scared loses, so they try to pretend that they’re not afraid at all, while they strive to be as terrifying as possible to their enemies. I mean, it’s a natural strategy with a long evolutionary history; even insects do it. But it’s inherently unstable, and degenerates into destructive arms races; every escalation must be met by a greater escalation. And every challenge, every failure to defer to the authority of might-makes-right must be made an example, for fear of showing any sign of “weakness”. And the only place that can end is with everyone being terrified all the time. But that’s fine, I suppose, so long as everyone else is more afraid?

     That’s not what we want from law enforcement. We’re supposed to be less afraid when we have effective police services. Something has gone terribly wrong when they think they must scare people to do their jobs or to stay alive.
     Don’t get me wrong. I think personal and institutional racism in law enforcement is a huge problem. But we can argue until the cows (or chickens) come home about that, because “I’m not racist” is so resilient a belief, and we’ll probably never convince the people who need to be convinced. And in any event, it may turn out to be impossible to fully eradicate the irrational tendency to be more afraid of a black face than a white one. 
     So in the meantime, maybe we should also pay attention to the sheer cowardice driving so many of these shootings, to recognize that part of a police officer’s job is to face dangers so the rest of us can be safer. It’s okay and natural to be afraid, even irrationally (including racistly) afraid. But if you’re so afraid that you cannot do your job without putting other people’s live at greater risk, then what good are you doing anyone?

Friday, 1 July 2016

One Weird Trick to Defeat Phone Scammers

     I kind of enjoy getting calls from telephone scammers. It's fun to play along with them for as long as possible, deliberately keeping them on the line so they can't call someone more vulnerable to their fraud.
     One recent scam that has been making the rounds here in Canada goes like this: you get a call from someone claiming to be with the Canadian Revenue Agency, informing you that a lawsuit has been filed against you and they need to talk to you right away. Most of the time it's a recorded message, but sometimes it's an actual human. Presumably, the idea of being sued by the taxman is terrifying enough that you go ahead and send them the money via some kind of wire transfer or gift card or something that just conveniently happens not to be traceable, because maybe CRA doesn't want to have to declare the income on its own tax return? Um, yeah, I guess that sounds legit.
     The one time I got an actual human calling me on this one, he sounded very polite and professional, and asked if I was going to be represented by a lawyer in this matter. When I said yes, he didn't miss a beat, and asked me for the contact information for that lawyer. Of course, he didn't actually want to contact my lawyer; he was in fact calling my bluff, because I probably hadn't retained counsel for a matter I'd never heard of before this call. And this was a very skillful bit of psychology, because it put me on the defensive, off-balance knowing that I'd been caught out in a lie.
     Or rather, it would have done that, if not for the fact that I am a lawyer. "Well, the problem," I said "is that I haven't actually seen the Statement of Claim yet." Click.
     He hung up on me immediately. Dang. What a disappointment! I was hoping to keep him on for at least a half an hour.

     But these guys are looking for people who don't know very much about the law, and so my mention of a Statement of Claim marked me as someone who'd probably see through their scam, which depends very heavily on making you feel like you have no power, and you must do whatever they say or else. Which is not actually how law works.

     Now, I'm not currently a practicing lawyer, and this must not be construed as legal advice, but there's a very fundamental principle that underlies pretty much all legal procedure, and if you just understand that one thing, you'll be a lot less vulnerable to scammers and schemers of various sorts. And that principle is basically pretty simple: everyone has a right to make their case. Not necessarily to win, of course, but to present their claim against someone else, or to attempt a full and complete answer to any claim made against them. And that means you need adequate notice of a claim against you; in the case of a lawsuit, you must be served with a Statement of Claim that lays out the particulars of that claim.
     See, when you get down to the very core of it, the job of the courts is to resolve disputes.  If everyone agrees about something, it gets done, it doesn't go to court. If the accused pleads guilty, the court doesn't have to hear the evidence. If the defendant agrees that she owes the plaintiff money, she pays it and the court doesn't get involved. Courts are there to decide who's right when there's actually a question to be decided, and if everyone agrees, there's no question.
     But the court wants to make a just and fair decision, based on all of the evidence and all the best arguments available. Ideally there will be lawyers on both sides, and here's the thing about trial lawyers: you hear them addressed as "Counsel", but that's not because they counsel their clients (although they do that, too). It's because their job is to counsel the Court, to ensure that the court considers every favourable argument for their clients' case. Lawyers are called "officers of the court" for this reason, and you might notice that they refer to each other in court as "my friend" and not "my opponent"; they serve the decision-maker together, even if their clients are bitterly opposed. And the lawyers, in order to provide good counsel to the Court, must have access to all the facts, and have enough time to think and research and formulate arguments.

     Which means that Courts hate surprises.

     Surprise witnesses are a staple of TV and movie courtroom dramas, but they are actually very rare, and only allowed in very particular circumstances. The general principle is that both sides to a dispute must be given adequate notice of something in order to be able to respond intelligently. And in particular, this is why we have rules about serving defendants with a Statement of Claim. If I don't know I'm being sued, I (or my lawyer) cannot prepare arguments. If I don't know the charges against me, I can't mount a defense. And if I don't even know I owe CRA money, I can't be expected to pay them, let alone argue why I don't owe them.

     So the upshot of all this is: If someone threatens you with jail or a lawsuit or seizure of assets or any other sort of legal proceeding unless you pay up right away, and they don't give you enough information or time to make a good faith reasonable effort to ascertain if their claim is valid, they're probably trying to scam you. I say probably because it's possible they have a valid claim and just don't know how to proceed with it, but in any event, the best way to defend yourself against scammers and legitimate claimants alike is with good faith insistence on basic procedural fairness. "Really? I'm being sued? This is the first I've heard of it, but if you say so, perhaps it's just been an oversight that I haven't been properly notified. Could you send me something in writing with the particulars, so I can figure out what's going on and give you a proper answer?"
     And remember that good faith is key, here. If you're using this as a stalling tactic, and you know you actually do owe money, that will eventually catch up to you in court. The point to remember is that the Law isn't about winning, but about following a fair and impartial procedure intended to insure that the person in the right wins. If someone manages to prove to you that you are in the wrong, well, pay up and move on. Fair's fair. But if you suspect someone's trying to scam you, polite insistence on procedural fairness will almost always make them hang up and try to scam someone else.

Monday, 20 June 2016

White "Genocide"? Seriously?

     For some time now, I've heard or read the occasional alarmed complaint that multiculturalism and miscegenation amounts to white genocide. "Genocide", of course, is a word that quite rightly provokes moral outrage, but let's set aside that indignation for a moment and analyze it with some technical precision: what exactly does this white genocide mean?

     First of all, let's assume that it is in fact some form of genocide, that it entails the extinction of white people as a race, that someday there will be no more white people. I don't think this is likely to happen anytime soon (unless through some catastrophic event that puts people of every colour in similar danger), but let's just say, for the sake of argument, that intermingling will, in a generation or two, mean the end of the white race. (I'm also granting, for the sake of argument, that there is such a thing as "the white race".)
     What is the fate of the victims of this genocide? Well, basically, it means we get to marry whoever we want, watch our beautiful children and grandchildren grow up happy and healthy and loving and loved, and eventually see ourselves replaced by these younger generations before we die of natural causes.

     Oh, but yeah, it's totally a genocide, because those younger generations, even though they'll be descended from us and be our own flesh and blood and we might pass down to them all of the culture and language and they might faithfully follow those traditions as well as we ever did, they won't be us because skin colour.

    Nah, you know what? I'm totally cool with this particular form of "genocide".

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Chemtrails and Clouds and Missing the Obvious

     A while ago, I was fortunate enough to be assigned window seat on my return flight from Vancouver. I always love having a window seat, because even in this age of ubiquitous photography and access to images from space and the deep sea and everywhere else, the visceral experience of acceleration and ascent while watching the ground in its human scale recede into the distance somehow puts things into a perspective you just can't get from admiring photographs or even videos. But here's one anyway:

     On this particular flight, it was the clouds that kept my attention. We passed through two distinct layers, and as we climbed above the higher one, I was treated to a spectacular view of a vast rippling expanse of cloud tops. And my mind was filled with wonder at how so much structure could emerge from just water dissolved in air. Look at the way the ripples form as the waves of air flow over the mountains!

     Now, this morning, a friend on Facebook posted a link to a website about chemtrails, which opened with the following paragraph:
When I was a little boy, I used to wonder what those beautiful streaks in the sky were. Why would some of them dissipate immediately, and others stayed in the sky all day?

     The implication, of course, is that something suspicious is going on here. Otherwise, we should expect all vapour trails to behave the same way: they should either all dissipate immediately, or all linger a similar length of time.
     On the one hand, I want to applaud the inquisitiveness that drives such a question. And yes, obviously there should exist some sort of explanation for why some vapour trails last longer than others, and why some are so huge and billowy, and why some never appear at all. But on the other hand, I am kind of disappointed that the inquisitiveness stops there, because it completely fails to consider the equally mysterious question of the huge diversity of normal ordinary clouds themselves.

     What is a cloud, after all? Well, we all know (I hope!) that it's water in the air, a mist of tiny droplets that scatter light so you can't see very far inside one. Fog is just clouds at ground level, and when the weather is chilly, we can see our breath: it's the same stuff.
     But here's the question that always troubled me as a little boy, and which still caused me to marvel at the age of 50 from my window seat over the Rockies: Why do clouds seem to have boundaries at all? Sure, the boundaries are pretty fuzzy when you get close to them, but on a large enough scale, the patterns become stunning: that patch of air is cloud, and that patch is not cloud. And you see these amazing ripples and puffy towers and all sorts of complicated fractal shapes that just scream for an explanation: How is it that this volume of air gets all misty and cloudy, while that volume just over there remains clear?

     It's not at all a simple question, but there are a few basic factors that are simple enough to understand. There's temperature, of course; we all know that sometimes air can be hot and sometimes it can be cold. There's also humidity, which is how much water vapour is actually in it; you won't get clouds at all if there's no water vapour there to condense. There's also pressure, which is related to temperature, but is a different concept; differences in air pressure from one place to another are why we have wind. And wind has a velocity, which as a completely relative quantity might be of little relevance but for the fact that it  leads to turbulence. And then, on top of it all, there's particulate content: dust, smoke, pollen and such, which is important because it provides a surface for water vapour to condense onto; without any particulates, you can have extremely humid air and still no cloud formation. And who knows what difference various local changes in chemical composition might make, if the percentage of nitrogen here is a little higher or oxygen there a little lower.

     Now, I really have no idea how all of these factors combine, but the evidence of my eyes from watching clouds drift by is this: it's really complicated, and the atmospheric conditions that form clouds can vary greatly from place to place and time to time and altitude to altitude, locally and globally. And as a result, we can get an astonishing variety of cloud patterns. I also know, from introductory high school chemistry, that burning hydrocarbons (like jet fuel) produces carbon dioxide and water vapour, so it's to be expected that aircraft exhaust would have water vapour in it. (Also, heat and turbulence and probably particles of soot which would help promote condensation, and some engines burn cleaner or dirtier than others.)

     So when I hear chemtrail conspiracy theorists talk about how suspicious it is that one plane might leave a trail while another one doesn't, I am perplexed. If ordinary, natural weather patterns can generate such a huge variety of cloud forms, why should we expect all aircraft vapour trails to look the same? I honestly do not know the answers, because I do not understand the complex processes of cloud formation well enough to predict what conditions will produce what sort of vapour trail, but it seems to me likely that the same variation in conditions that produce varations in clouds should be capable of producing different sorts of vapour trails, without any need to postulate some diabolical and deliberate chemical-spraying conspiracy.

     What am I missing here?

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

More about the obscene lie of "trickle-down" economics

     I've written before about how trickle-down economics is mislabeled, because it mixes metaphors with inconsistent gravitational fields. The term will not die, though; just the other day I found myself in an argument with a business owner who insisted that if only his taxes were lower, he could afford to hire more people and let that wealth trickle on down.
     Inadvertently, he formulated his claim in such a way as to make the absurdity of the theory so clear to me I felt compelled to blog about it here. Think about this: What he's saying is that unemployment happens because rich people don't have enough money to hire anybody.

     Seriously, that is what the whole tax-cuts-for-the-rich, trickle-down ideology really boils down to. If only the rich could get a break on their taxes, they could afford to hire some of those unemployed people and create jobs and wealth for everyone. Our economic ills are, apparently, due to the rich not being rich enough.

     Now, if you have any sympathy for the idea of the rich being job-creators, you'll probably be suspecting at this point that I've unfairly stated the theory in the most absurd way possible, and I'm ignoring the subtle genius of Reagan's brilliant insight. After all, the fellow I was arguing with seemed pretty sure that it was his hefty tax bill that kept him from expanding, and shouldn't he know better than I the details of his own business? Doesn't it make sense that, if the state confiscates too much of the proceeds of productive enterprise, there will be nothing left to finance the further growth of that enterprise?
     Of course it sounds plausible, and all the more so because it has been so enthusiastically promoted as wise economic insight for nearly four decades now. But that plausibility begins to fall apart if you look a little closer at it.

     For example, if you've ever done your own taxes, you're probably aware that you can deduct expenses from your gross income. The basic principle is that if you need to spend money to make money, the money you had to spend is not counted as income when you recover it. Think of it this way: If you buy $100 of materials, and turn them into finished goods which I buy for $120, your income is $20, not $120. So our tax system is set up to tax you on your $20 gain, not the $120 in gross revenue.
     Now, if you run a business in which you hire people to work for you, their wages are classified as an expense for your business. This means they're not taxed (though your employees may have to pay income tax on it, minus their own deductible expenses -- the same rules apply to them). So what this means is that in fact, you can't actually blame taxes on your profits for not leaving you with enough  money to hire more workers; if you just went ahead and hired those workers from your business' pre-tax revenues, you wouldn't pay taxes on the portion of revenue used to pay their wages.

     The point here is that if a business isn't hiring new people, it's simply wrong to blame that on their taxes being too high. And the same is true for capital investment and other forms of expansion: our tax system is carefully designed to have all sorts of exemptions and deductions to encourage growth, which only makes sense, because the more money you make, the more taxes there are to collect. The taxman's interests are actually aligned with yours here. Sure, tax policies can be made smarter, but that's not a synonym for "lower".

     The other thing that's disastrously wrong about trickle-down theory is that it applies an extremely simplistic model of investment. To be fair, it's the model that most of us learn through school and which is reinforced in ordinary household economics and even in games like Minecraft: You need to save up a surplus pool of resources to build stuff. If you haven't punched enough trees or gathered enough vespene gas or saved up enough coins in your piggy bank, you can't start your project.
     This makes good intuitive sense, and it is a prudent way to manage your affairs. But it is almost shockingly naive to assume that entrepreneurs and job-creators are limited to this approach, and all the more so when you consider that the richest of the rich made their fortunes either in or at least in large part with the assistance of the finance industry.
     You see, entrepreneurs do not start out rich, and then decide they finally have enough money to trickle it down to everyone else. They start out by seeing an opportunity to get rich, a way to provide something that people will pay them for. Of course, as mentioned above, it often takes money to make money, so they have to come up with the capital to get started, to build a factory and to buy materials and hire and train staff, and in so doing they create jobs and growth. But here's the thing: they don't need to have all the resources to do that themselves up front.  They can get a business loan from a bank. They can incorporate a corporation and sell shares. This is why we even have a finance industry: to raise the capital to finance the exploitation of profitable opportunities!

     (It's true today, of course, that a large amount of entrepreneurial activity is dependent on billionaire investors, but that's largely because we have concentrated so much wealth in the hands of billionaires; the institutions of finance and banking would work just as well with millions of small investors as they do with a few huge ones. Indeed, billionaire investors are the old-fashioned, pre-finance way of doing things. Back in the day, you had to go to the king or some other extremely wealthy noble to get your bright idea funded, and there was little incentive to do so since His Majesty would own it all. Also, he only had so much time to divide among all the clever people pitching ideas, and would probably rather be hunting anyway. This is why the emergence of financial markets, publicly traded companies, credit and other innovations in the Renaissance led to such unprecedented economic growth as we've seen in the last few centuries. It's also, I submit, why that growth is slowing down as we concentrate the money again in the hands of a few billionaires.)

    So this is why I say that trickle down theory is so preposterously backwards. Despite its superficially plausible rhetoric, it really does boil down to the claim that our economic malaise is due to rich people not being rich enough, and that if only they had all the money, we would all be much better off. And that is an obscene lie.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

How to be an Informed Voter: Ignore Election Coverage!

     Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend who wishes she were more informed about the upcoming election, and asked me if I could recommend any reading material. My first instinct was to suggest both a left-leaning and a right-leaning source, in order to try to hear different perspectives, but in all honesty it seems to me that, at least within the United States, that's a bit of a problem. Frankly, I could not think of a right-leaning source I felt in the least bit comfortable recommending, because the once respectable GOP conservatism of Eisenhower and Arnold Vinick seems to have imploded into a seething morass of irrationality, anger and hatred, and explicitly right-leaning press is what dragged it there. But of course, I also couldn't in good conscience recommend just following the explicitly left-leaning press.
     Nor, however, could I recommend even the most steadfastly nonpartisan press. It isn't that they don't make an effort to give voice to both sides. Indeed, that in itself is sometimes a dangerously misleading tendency; by being impartial between any two opposed positions, you may give undeserved credibility to the flaky crackpot view that probably ought to be ignored. ("Is the Earth toroidal? Most scientists say of course it isn't you idiot, but here's someone with a revolutionary new theory that we're standing on the inside of a big donut. Let's hear both sides.")
     No, the real problem with election coverage is that the attempt to cover it impartially inevitably reduces to horserace analysis: who's ahead in the polls, how people are reacting to this or that speech, what strategies the candidates will use to win this or that demographic, who "won" the debate, how many electoral votes this state is worth, and so on. And none of this is in the least bit helpful to the voter who is trying to decide whom to vote for.

     I confess, I follow that stuff, too. I do, after all, care passionately about the outcome of each election, and it's hard to resist any information that may shed light on what's going to happen. But from the perspective of someone wanting to figure out whom to support, it's worse than useless. So I was at a bit of a loss for how to answer my friend's question: what could she read, in order to become better informed when the time comes to cast her ballot?

    So here's what I ended up suggesting: don't pay too much attention to the election coverage, at least until you've got some idea which way you lean. Instead, remember what's important about elections: whoever gets elected is going to be making policy decisions about important issues, and this is really what matters. You may not know or care about every issue, but there are many that will affect you personally, and many more that you probably ought at least to be aware of.
     Ask yourself, then, what it's important to you that government deal with. Are you worried about the economy? About terrorism? Crime? Climate change? Good. Pick one or two issues, and read up on them. Newspapers, magazines, books, blogs, videos, everything. Become known to your friends as someone who's very interested in a particular subject, and they'll often send you links or refer you to people with similar interests. Talk. Listen. Think.  Get to know enough about a subject that you feel astonished at how much more there is to learn. Be able to fairly represent at least two contrary opinions held on the subject.
     Bear in mind that each and every author or source you consider has its own biases and agenda, and take that into account. Read and research with the understanding that nobody is going to give you The Answer, though most of them will try; you're going to have to formulate your own opinion by synthesizing everything. While there's a good chance you'll find some expert in an area with whom you agree on an awful lot, realize that there's no escaping responsibility for forming your own opinion; even the decision to defer to an expert is a decision to choose that expert to defer to.

     You don't need to become an expert, of course. The goal here is really just to become an educated lay-person, so that you know enough about the vocabulary and concepts to be able to understand the gist of what the experts are talking about. And once you've reached that point, then you might want to go and hear what the candidates in the election campaign (remember the election?) have to say about it. Because then you will be able to listen to their ideas, and get some sense of whether or not they actually have any understanding of the issue, and whether or not their policy proposals make sense. Only then should you start to make up your mind as to which candidate you support.

     If you start at the other end, choosing a party or a candidate, and then forming your policy opinions to follow, well, you're kinda shirking your democratic responsibilities. It's all very well and good to look to your leader for leadership, and defer to him or her on those areas you don't know enough about to form your own opinion, but before they're elected they've no claim to your deference. Their authority as a leader is something that you choose to give them, and you ought to think carefully about whom you entrust with it.

     Once you have decided who you're going to vote for, of course, it's going to be very hard to resist the temptation to follow the horserace. So go ahead. Watch the pundits, read the polls, get frustrated and irate or thrilled and elated. More likely both. You'll want to know who wins, because you'll have a good reason to care, and that is actually a good thing.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

On being law-abiding, and the coerciveness of the law

     "Hey, I have no intention of ever murdering someone, but why do we have to have a law telling us not to, and threatening us with life in prison if we do? Why is it okay for the State to coerce us into not murdering each other?"

     An argument often raised by libertarians against this or that law (often the law requiring them to pay taxes) is that law is inherently coercive. That is, they'll claim that taxes are morally indistinguishable from robbery because the government is putting a gun to your head and demanding you hand over your money. Sometimes, if they're capable of nuance, they'll qualify this by saying that some taxes are necessary, and only excessive taxes are morally bad because you're being coerced to hand over more than necessary. In any event, they focus on this coerciveness, the fact that the might of the state makes a credible threat of punishment if you fail to comply, as the fundamental evil of law generally. Sometimes a necessary evil, but an evil nonetheless.

     It seems like a slam dunk argument, but when I reflect on why I (and most people) obey the law, it begins to ring hollow. The fact is, I do not obey the law simply to avoid punishment. I obey the law because it is the law; I have committed myself as a rational autonomous being to abide by the law, even when it is not in my immediate interests to do so, because I recognize a moral duty to be law-abiding. While I may not agree with each and every statute on the books, I embrace the concept of law itself, not least because it includes mechanisms for challenging unjust laws. I have written before of why I choose law over lawlessness.
     Now, of course it is true that if I were to break the law, I would be subject to punishment. And yes, the threat of a fine is an inducement for me not to park illegally, but here's the thing: I try to avoid parking illegally regardless of whether or not there is a risk of a fine, and if I do occasionally get a ticket, it's usually because I underestimated how long an appointment would last and didn't put enough in the meter, not because I took a calculated risk and thought I could get away with it.

     It's important to stress here that I am not advocating a blind obedience to the dictates of Parliament, or that Just Following Orders is in any way an appropriate moral stand. One of the best things about our law is that there is always (supposed to be) a mechanism for review and considerations of justice. If I'm arrested for a crime I didn't commit, the law obliges the Crown to prove it before I am to be punished. If I'm arrested for a crime I did commit (whether by accident or by moral lapse or by civil disobedience), I still have the opportunity to argue my case for why the law should be struck down, or why I should receive a discharge or a lesser sentence. And the statutes are responsive to lawful democratic and political forces as well. When I say I believe in a moral duty to abide by the law, I include all of the lawful means to challenge, amend and reform the law. Even civil disobedience, the deliberate breaking of an unjust law to bring about its reform, can be done with a fundamental respect for Law generally.

     It is this fundamental respect for Law generally that I am advocating here as "law-abidingness". A law-abiding person accepts that the law itself is a valid reason for acting, independent of any punishment provisions. One may also consider the punishment provisions as a reason for acting, but to the law-abiding person, punishment cannot be the only reason for obeying the law. Moreover, while the law-abiding person will not require the threat of punishment to comply, she should probably accept that punishment provisions are a pragmatic necessity to ensure that non-law-abiding citizens also comply.
     Punishment is not for law-abiding citizens. True, they may be punished if they break the law just like anyone else, because the law is unable to distinguish between scofflaws and law-abiders who just happen to have broken the law for some reason. Law-abiding people may object to the severity of a particular punishment, or to the content of a particular statute, but they do not object to the fact of punishment in general as a part of the law. The law-abiding person may not be happy about the coercive element of the law, but places the blame not on the law itself but on the non-law-abiding person who makes that coercive element necessary.

     What this means is that the libertarian who objects to a law because it is coercive is not, ultimately, coming from a position of law-abidingness. Of course it is coercive, if you aren't committed to obeying it out of a sense of moral duty! But that is no principled objection. Complaining that the law should not be coercive is really just to complain that there should be no law at all.

     So please, if you're going to make the argument that taxes are bad because they're coercive, don't call yourself a libertarian. Be honest: you're an anarchist.