Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Man Bitten by the State

Old texts often provide valuable wisdom. Sometimes such knowledge is lost, as anybody but the staunchest proponent of the Whig theory of history would agree. Sometimes such knowledge is rediscovered, perhaps entirely independently or perhaps by inheritance through history. To identify whether this rediscovery actually occurs requires the avoidance of “presentist” and “Whiggish” fallacies, in which one tries to find modern ideas in any little statement or assumes that one has superior knowledge today. There is a related question of incommensurability between ideas of recent and ancient years. Whether this is a problem depends on the context and requires making an historical judgment. Finding pearls of wisdom present in both old and new texts can also teach humility – one cannot discount the past simply because it is not recent.

I think I have found a small piece of such wisdom from past and present. Consider the following from George Fyler Townshend’s English translation of Aesop’s Fables.

The Man Bitten by a Dog

A MAN who had been bitten by a Dog went in quest of someone who might heal him. A friend, meeting him and learning what he wanted, said, “If you would be cured, take a piece of bread, and dip it in the blood from your wound, and go and give it to the Dog that bit you.” The Man who had been bitten laughed at this advice and said, “Why? If I should do so, it would be as if I should beg every Dog in the town to bite me.”

Benefits bestowed upon the evil-disposed increase their means of injuring you. 

There are various other renderings of this fable.  Most notably, a common alternative to the last sentence is “[h]e who proclaims himself ready to buy up his enemies will never want a supply of them.” But I focus on the first of these, for it more readily generalizes to institutional rather than individual evils.

The fable brings to my mind Ayn Rand’s concept of the "sanction of the victim.” The phrase originates from her novel Atlas Shrugged. If you’re a fan, then here’s more ammunition; if you’re not, then here’s an alternative expression of a similar idea. For canonical statements of the idea, check out A particularly succinct statement and generalization of the concept appeared in a recent article by Ben O’Neill (

Rand's reference to the "sanction of the victim" was used to refer more specifically to the fact that victims supply the tools of their own destruction to their destroyers, who are incapable of production themselves. … [S]he did regard the moral sanction of the victim as being a necessary tool supplied to one's destroyers. It is in this sense that I use the term.

My usage of the concept includes both the material support and moral sanction of the destroyers.

Although I do believe one can usefully apply the concept of the "sanction of the victim” to things other than politics, I have in mind its application to politics. In particular, I have in mind a radical libertarian (anarchist) application to the ideological support of the state and its existence. For those inclined to support just limited government, then you can restrict its application to whatever you think constitutes unjust government. With limited exception, it is unviable to not provide material support to the state - consider what happens if you don’t pay your taxes. But one most certainly need not provide it or its policies with ideological support, and should go further by opposing them.

Don’t bestow the benefit of your ideological submission upon “evil-disposed” institutions. Otherwise you’ll be feeding your blood-soaked bread to the dogs – and they will eat you alive.