The Trouble With Ragnar Danneskjold

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Why is a pirate sporting umlauts one of the most revered characters of literary libertarianism? Until I listened to the audio book of Atlas Shrugged, I wasn't even sure how to pronounce the name properly, and I'm willing to venture a guess that I am not alone in this regard. Awkward Scandinavian pronunciation aside, the Danneskj'ld archetype inspires even the most stoic libertarians to imagine themselves as a heroic foil to tyrannical governments. We envisage putting on our Guy Fawkes mask for a night of terrorizing corrupt cops, or lecturing a packed courtroom about the merits of the individual against looters; all the while cunningly escaping the clutches of an Orwellian State.

Modern day avatars of Danneskj'ld witness the daily violence and destruction of liberty precipitated by the State, and whereas the rest of us remain content to pen a stern letter to the editor about a new tax increase, they attempt to reply in kind. They don guns, assert their rights and disregard court injunctions. We root for them and send money; secure in the knowledge that justice must, and will, prevail.

They go to jail.

Their failing stems not from their lack of courage, or moral justification, indeed they often have a surplus of both, but rather from a lack of prudence. During their cost-benefit analysis of tackling the government head on, they consistently overestimate their own potential for inspiring change and underestimate the personal costs. Sophisms like 'Better to live one day as a lion, than one hundred years as a sheep' make for inspiring pep rallies. The effect is less so when facing the prospect of life in a federal penitentiary.

A recent example of this hero-complex is Wesley Snipes and his attempt to evade the income tax. Is he morally justified in fighting the IRS? Of course. Does he exhibit incredible testicular fortitude for standing up to these thugs? We must again answer in the affirmative. Finally, is it prudent for a wealthy actor to risk a moment in a Hepatitis-infested rape complex by making a futile stand against the government? No.

Any discussion of 'Making a Stand' would be incomplete without mentioning the sad case of Ed and Elaine Brown, the tax protestors who, after being convicted in federal court, engaged in a 10 month armed standoff with U.S. Marshals. Were they victorious, the couple would have been allowed to keep the $1.3 million in back taxes the IRS wanted. They were, inevitably, captured and will now spend 63 months apart, living amongst murderers, rapists and other denizens of their respective federal penitentiaries. Rather than lose just their money, they chose to forsake their freedom as well, with the only positive result being something for the libertarian Blogosphere to gab about for a couple weeks before allowing the Browns' story to drift back into oblivion.

The liberties of non-violent drug users are quashed by the State with ferocity almost on par with tax resisters, with predictable results. There is a sense of inevitability each time a new medical marijuana dispensary opens its doors, that it won't be long before men with guns come to arrest the administrators and shut it down. With each offense, the jail times for the leaders increase until they soon face the prospect of decades in prison for additional offenses. And yet, they continue to flaunt the government, secure in the knowledge that they are modern Thoreaus who will soon be recognized for their moral righteousness. They are indeed justified in agitating for a revision of America's drug policy, and should be commended for drawing attention to the outrages regularly visited upon the terminally ill and those in chronic pain. However, advocates for medical marijuana have made a miscalculation in believing that by going to prison, they are anything more than another microscopic morsel down the gullet of America's voracious federal prison system.

Those who fight the State on its terms and risk jail time are not following in the example of the heroic Ragnar Danneskj'ld, but rather of impotent martyrs ignorant to reality. Sacrificing oneself to the maw of the State does not result in positive change; it merely results in one less voice for Liberty.

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Rory Hand's picture
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