This article was originally published in the May 1970 issue of The Objectivist and later anthologized in The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (1970) and Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (1999).
A very dangerous notion is now being smuggled into our cultural atmosphere. It is being introduced in reverse, in a form that looks like the opposite of its actual meaning and logical consequences. The form is sympathy for criminals who claim to be motivated by political goals; the notion is the legal category of “political crimes.”
There can be no such thing as a political crime under the American system of law. Since an individual has the right to hold and to propagate any ideas he chooses (obviously including political ideas), the government may not infringe his right; it may neither penalize nor reward him for his ideas; it may not take any judicial cognizance whatever of his ideology.
By the same principle, the government may not give special leniency to the perpetrator of a crime, on the grounds of the nature of his ideas.
A crime is a violation of the right(s) of other men by force (or fraud). It is only the initiation of physical force against others — i.e., the recourse to violence — that can be classified as a crime in a free society (as distinguished from a civil wrong). Ideas, in a free society, are not a crime — and neither can they serve as the justification of a crime.
If one keeps clearly in mind the moral-legal context (and hierarchical derivation) of any given political principle, one will not find any difficulty or contradiction in applying it to specific cases. For instance, American citizens possess the right to freedom of religion; but if some sect adopted primitive beliefs and, began to practice human sacrifices, it would be prosecuted for murder. Clearly, this is not an infringement of the sect’s religious freedom; it is the proper application of the principle that all rights are derived from the right to life and that those who violate it cannot claim its protection, i.e., cannot claim the right to violate a right.
In exactly the same way, for the same reasons, the unspeakable little drugged monstrosities who resort to violence — and who have progressed, without significant opposition, from campus sit-ins to arson to such an atrocity as mass terrorization and the bombing of public places — should be treated as the criminals they are, and not as political “dissenters.”
Morally, they are worse than the plain criminal: he, at least, does not subvert the realm of ideas; he does not posture as a champion of rights, justice and freedom. Legally, both kinds should be given the same treatment. Ideas end where a gun begins.
The moral bankruptcy of today’s liberal Establishment (including its concomitant: the erosion of the concept of individual rights) is the basic cause of the young thugs’ activities. The granting to these thugs of such titles as “political dissenters” and “idealists’’ is the major reason of their accelerating growth. The alleged economic justification of their violence — the notion that it is caused by poverty — would be inexcusably evil, if the notion were true; but it becomes grotesque in the light of the mounting evidence that the young thugs are predominantly children of the well-to-do.
There is only one doctrine that can permit this to go on: the morality of altruism. I have said that altruism is, in fact, the negation of morality. “Your code hands out, as its version of the absolute, the following rule of moral conduct: . . . if the motive of your action is your welfare, don’t do it; if the motive is the welfare of others, then anything goes.” (Atlas Shrugged.) You can now see it demonstrated in practice. If such monstrous actions as bombings are regarded as “idealistic” because the actors profess to be motivated by the “welfare of others” — and the liberal journalists who proclaim this are not hooted out of their profession — then the last vestige of and pretense at morality are gone from today’s culture.
The actual motive of whoever manipulates the opinions of the dazed, scared liberals is fairly obvious: by arousing sympathy for “political” criminals, by staging protests and demanding leniency from the courts — allegedly in the name of political freedom — the statists are establishing the precedent of political trials. Once the issue of ideology is made part of a court’s consideration, the principle is established: the government is brought into the courtroom as an arbiter of ideas. If the government assumes the power to exonerate a man on the grounds of his political ideas, it has assumed the power to prosecute and condemn him on the same grounds.
It is in Europe, under the despotism of absolute monarchies, that a legal distinction was made between political and non-political crimes. The first category consisted predominantly, not of acts of violence, but of such acts as uttering or publishing ideas that displeased the government. And, in the growing trend toward political freedom, public opinion was on the side of such offenders: they were fighting for individual rights, against the rule of force.
If and when the public opinion of a free country accepts a distinction between political and non-political criminals, it accepts the notion of political crimes, it supports the use of force in violation of rights — and the historical process takes place in reverse: the country crosses the borderline into political despotism.