Choose Your Battles
By David Henderson
It’s rare that I disagree with much of what co-blogger Bryan Caplan posts. But among those rare posts are his two recent ones (here and here) on appeasement. I don’t want to go at them line by line. Other commenters have done that. Craig T. Bolton, for example, makes the point that if Bryan refused to pay taxes, it’s unlikely that he would be dead or in jail.
Instead, I’ll just say that the kernel of truth that I got out of the first of Bryan’s two posts is that one should choose one’s battles. I don’t have a policy of appeasement and I don’t have a policy of not appeasing. I assess costs and benefits and make what I think are appropriate decisions. I know that that’s not much guidance. All I can say is that I think I’m really good at it.
I’ll give an example. My former Congressman and the former Secretary of Defense and former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon Panetta, has a local institute that has a few public lectures every year. These are big visible events and they attract a lot of the local upper class. A number of my colleagues who are members of various groups in the Peace Coalition of Monterey County decided to have a protest in front of the convention center where the event occurred. I showed up representing Libertarians for Peace.
We were standing peacefully on the sidewalk, not obstructing anyone, except some of our people had strayed onto a driveway that exited the hotel. On that driveway, they would have obstructed people. There were two or three Monterey policemen there. One of them, with, of course, an air of authority, told the couple of people who were standing in the driveway that they needed to move because they were obstructing. The two people did move immediately without objection. But then the policeman tried to get us off the sidewalk and into another area. So I asked him whether it was illegal for us to be on the sidewalk. The conversation went something like this:
Cop: You can’t obstruct people.
DRH: I get that, but we aren’t. We’re now off the driveway and we’re not in anyone’s way.
Cop: You can’t be on the sidewalk if you’re obstructing people.
DRH: I understand. We’re not obstructing people on the sidewalk.
Cop: If you stand a few people deep, you will obstruct people.
DRH: OK, that’s fine. To rest of the group: “Spread out so that you’re only one person deep.”
They complied quickly. But the cop was still not done.
Cop (with a little more energy, volume, and authority): You need to move off the sidewalk.
DRH: No, you said that we couldn’t be more than a person deep. We’ve complied.
Cop (with even more energy): You can’t obstruct people.
DRH: We’ve already agreed on that. That’s not the issue here.
He then backed off.
How far would I have gone? I don’t know. But I’m glad I chose that battle, kept a forceful but calm, polite tone, and didn’t back down. I chose that battle.
Here’s an example of a battle I chose that worked out also, but in which I took a bigger risk. It worked out. Am I glad I did it? Yes. Was it because I was macho? No: that’s not how I ever think of things. I just thought that someone needed to be there for those two outnumbered New England Patriot fans.
By the way, as one of my students once said, “There’s nothing wrong with choosing your battles. Of course you should. The problem is that many people who say ‘choose your battles’ will not choose any battle.” I hasten to add that that does not apply to Bryan. Look at all the battles he’s chosen on this blog. And I’m glad he has.