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Suppose you were fond of books


By L. Neil Smith

Excerpted and Adapted from Lever Action: Essays on Liberty, Mountain Media, 2001
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Suppose you were fond of books ...

You liked their leather bindings, their fancy endpapers, the way they speak to you of other times and places, the way they feel in your hand.

You even liked the way they smell.

Naturally you were aware that books are dangerous. They give people ideas. Over the long, sad course of history, they've resulted in the slaughter of millions -- books like Uncle Tom's Cabin, Das Kapital/, Mein Kampf, the Quran, even the Bible -- but you had too much intelligence, too much regard for the right of other people to read, write, and think whatever they please, to blame the books themselves.

Now suppose somebody came along who agreed with you: books are dangerous -- and something oughta be done about it! Nothing you couldn't live with, of course: numbers should be stamped inside them, a different number, not just in each kind of book, or each title or edition -- but in each and every individual book.

"So what if it raises prices a little? We can keep track of 'em better that way -- it'll help you get 'em back if they're stolen."

But wait ... Isn't the right to freedom of expression, the right to create, exchange, and collect books -- without a trace of government harassment -- the right to read, write, and think whatever you please, isn't that supposed to have been guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution? No matter who decides it's wrong? No matter how "sensible" their arguments may sound for taking that right away?

You tried to defend your rights, but nobody listened. You appealed to the mainstream media; they were even more dependent on the Bill of Rights than you were, and American journalism has always gloried in its self-appointed role as watchdog over the rights of the individual. But the bitter truth was, that during heir long, self-congratulatory history, they were more like a pack of curs caught bloody-muzzled time and time again, savaging the very flocks they had been trusted to protect.

You were alone. You insisted that books don't kill people, people kill people. They laughed and told you that people who read books kill people.

Time passed ... and still they couldn't be satisfied. Now they wanted the serial numbers written down in record books. Then they demanded that your name be written down beside the numbers, along with your address, your driver's license number, your age, your sex, and your race: "'Cause we gotta right to know who's reading all these books!"

Soon they were insisting that bookstores be licensed. They forbade you to buy books by mail, in another state, on the Internet, or from a friend. They required that your dealer report you if you bought more than one book within a five day period.

They forbade you to buy more than one book a month. They demanded that you wait five days, a week, three weeks, before you could pick up a book that you'd already paid for -- at a bookstore subject to unannounced warrantless inspections and punitive closure by heavily- armed government agents. In states like Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California, mere possession of a book meant an automatic year in jail.

At one point they offered to spend tax money to buy your books "back": "You got too many. This is a purely voluntary measure -- for the time being."

Now they want to confiscate any of your books that they think are too long: "No honest citizen needs a book with that many pages!" Ideologically biased think-tanks, Homeland Security, TSA, and your local police all agree that anybody who reads books is a potential terrorist.

Your taxes will be spent to burn them, and somehow you have a grim foreboding that this is only the beginning, that some dark midnight, no matter how peaceable or agreeable or law-abiding you have been, you're going to hear that knock on your door ...

Yes, books are dangerous.

They start holy wars, revolutions, and make people dissatisfied with their lives.

But this is ridiculous!

Is it a nightmare?

Another Gulag horror story?

A bloodsoaked page from the history of fascism?

No, it's just the commonplace oppression that people suffer under every day when they feel about guns the way that you feel about books.

Okay, so maybe that feeling, being fond of guns, is a little hard to understand. But just try justifying your own love of books, say, to a Christian fundamentalist, or an Iranian ayatollah. The very demand that you must explain yourself -- in blatant, brutal violation of your basic human rights -- will make you inarticulate with rage.

Increasingly, gun owners laugh at the notion of human rights, because, increasingly, they have none.

Sure, guns are dangerous.

Like books.

Like books, the right to create, exchange, and collect them without a trace of government harassment, is supposed to be guaranteed.

No matter who thinks it's wrong.

No matter how "sensible" their arguments may sound for taking your rights away.

So what makes you think your books are any safer than your neighbor's guns?

Whether you like books or guns, the issue's the same:

When anybody's rights are threatened, everybody's rights are threatened.

A fifty-year veteran of the libertarian movement, L. Neil Smith is the Author of 33 books including The Probability Broach, Ceres, Sweeter Than Wine, And Down With Power: libertarian Policy In A Time Of Crisis. He is also the Publisher of The Libertarian Enterprise, now in its 18th year online.

Visit the Neil Smith archive on JPFO.

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