Politicians and Entrepreneurs

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When perusing much public discourse concerning those in government and those who, say, are businessmen and entrepreneurs, one of the more striking aspects is how their economic roles and motivations are viewed as the complete opposite for what they really are.

Even though their achievements may, from time to time, be lauded, the businessman, entrepreneur or capitalist is almost universally despised for what appear to be his motives of greed, selfishness and exploitation. Central to this is the profit-motive, a factor that seems to receive exclusive attention at the expense of any other. Yes, it is true that people are in business to make money and usually as much of it as possible. But this completely overlooks the fact that no businessman is in a position to force anyone to contribute to his income. He can only gain a return on his investment if he is able to accurately devote the scarce resources available to the most highly valued ends of consumers. Even if he has no charitable motivation or any emotive feeling towards the people whom he serves, at the very least he is required to have a superior empathetic understanding of their tastes and desires. If he fails in this regard then the result is not a bumper profit but an eye-watering loss. All transactions, therefore, between businesses, their customers and their employees are entirely voluntary. People enter voluntary transactions because they expect to be better off as a result of them. Nobody is therefore put into a worse position through his interaction with a business, or at least they expect not be.

Counter this with the view of the politician. Reading the list of supposed motivations for government office one would think that only those with an angelic disposition need apply. Not only are they expected to be selfless and altruistic, thinking only of their “people” and of their “nation”, they are also supposed to be utterly devoid of any kind of personal ambition. Asked whether he/she has any eye for high office, one is normally retorted with the rhetoric of “public service” and the apparent fact that the budding statesman is just there to “do his job”.  In short, the implication is that government employment produces universally good and wonderful things that apparently require some kind of sacrifice for which there is very little reward. Nothing could be further from the truth. Government receives its revenue from taxation, and taxes are paid compulsorily. Whereas the entrepreneur has to risk the entirety of his wealth in order to persuade his consumers that what he produces is worthwhile spending their money on, a politician faces no such restraint. They can charge as much as they like, deliver services that are despicably dire and command a personal income that far exceeds what they would be able to obtain in the free market. Furthermore, because the funds for all of their boondoggles have been levied by the threat of force, there is a very real loss experienced by the taxpayers, even if the resulting service is relatively “good”. For none of them would need to be forced to pay up if the government’s ends where truly what they most highly desired to do with their money. Whereas an entrepreneur makes everyone – himself and his customers – better off, the politician only makes himself and the recipients of his tax loot better off. Those who have been forced to pay are left substantially worse off.

These fallacious views have played themselves out recently in the whole debacle of corporate tax avoidance. Few overlook the fact that the likes of Amazon and Starbucks rake in large revenues (if not apparent accounting profits) that somehow requires them to “give something back” to “society”. Yet what is forgotten is that they have only been able to obtain these revenues and profits through voluntary exchange because they have created employment and served the needs of customers by providing them with products that they want to buy. Yet for some reason we think it is just to charge them for this “privilege” of serving our needs. Further, is there not something incongruous about the whole rhetoric of “giving back”? I want a coffee so I go to Starbucks; I give them money, they give me coffee; they have already given in the form of a product that meets my needs. If Starbucks has to “give back” then why don’t I have to “give back” their coffee? Why am I, through the route of taxation, effectively allowed to renege on my side of the bargain?

A similarly related fallacy is that anyone who “owns resources” (i.e. land and capital goods) effectively just has to sit back and earn a perpetual income by virtue of this ownership. Although space precludes a detailed examination of the economics, a net return can only be earned from such ownership if the good is directed to a use more highly valued than that anticipated by other entrepreneurs. Failure to do this will simply result in losses. Try telling the owners of Woolworths, HMV or Blockbuster that ownership of resources is a path to perpetual wealth and income. If anything, it is the government that yields a perpetual income from resources. For it can confiscate anything it wants by force, and display zero entrepreneurial talent with its use by spending it on any wasteful project it deems desirable to itself and its cronies. The only say we have in the matter is an “election” between approved and screened candidates once every four to five years.

Whenever one is presented, therefore, with an opinion on the characters of businessmen on the one hand and of politicians on the other it is best to assume that the stated characteristics should be reversed.

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What is Liberty?

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While proponents of liberty are often to be found waxing lyrical about its virtues, it is worthwhile taking a step back and discussing what liberty actually means –  that is, rather than attempt to explain why it is just, how do we define it in such a way as to distinguish it from other political philosophies?

First, let us discuss what liberty is emphatically not. It does not mean that one should be able to live a life free of any of the obstacles that humans are burdened with by nature. So for example, “freedom” from hunger, from poverty, from sickness, from the cold, the rain, and so on are all freedoms that humans can achieve only through their power over nature and through the utilisation of nature’s resources in order to provide relief from want. They are problems that would confront any human even if he was the only being in existence and to say that we “need” these freedoms is to state the obvious truism that we do not live in the Garden of Eden. Rather, liberty is a sociological concept – it refers to the relationship that arises between humans in the same world, not between humans and nature. This equivocation is frequently taken advantage of by those whose political orientations are far from libertarian. Not only, for example, is taxation and redistribution justified to provide “freedom” from the very things that we just listed but so too do our political lords and masters abuse the term when discussing the rights that they are kind enough to grant us. The so-called “right to life”, for example, can mean anything from not being killed by another human to the provision of food and shelter to sustain it. A vaguely defined right to “privacy”, i.e. to be left alone by everyone else, has to be “balanced” by my right to “security”, which requires resources from nature in order to achieve it.

Neither also does liberty mean surrendering oneself to some kind of “spontaneous order”; properly understood, the concept of such an order refers to institutions that emerge indirectly as a result of individual humans each pursuing their own unique ends, as opposed to through the direct design or agreement of any handful of them. Money is a case in point. The concept does not warrant the likening of society to some kind of biological organism (where the individual cells and organs have no independent will) nor does it mean that order unfolds in a manner akin to evolution or natural selection, a process that (excluding the possibility of divine intervention) is inherently purposeless. Such analogies are metaphorical in the very strictest sense.

Rather, the sociological concept of liberty arises because a human’s life must be led by using the resources of nature to further the ends that he desires. Individual humans, however, run into conflicts over how these resources should be used as they each want to use the same resources towards their own, competing ends. In other words these resources are interpersonally scarce. This is the starting point of all political philosophy – how to resolve conflicts that arise from the scarcity of resources in the world. Indeed, all political philosophies are little more than attempts to solve this problem. The rights that derive from these solutions are property rights, the strongest of which is ownership – the granting of the power of disposal over a scarce resource to one person at the exclusion of all others. There are two key aspects that we can deduce from this fact. First, those philosophies that view property as oppressive or as an affront to liberty simply dismiss the sociological problem rather than answer it. To outlaw any property at all keeps everyone in the original position of conflict in which we are all fighting over resources. Similarly, abolishing property because it “stops everyone” from using a resource simply begs the question – a property right has to be granted precisely because everyone cannot use the resource. Any widespread attempt to abolish property has merely fallen subject to the “iron law of oligarchy” where a few elite caretakers administer the resources and have to determine the uses to which they are put, with any residual “right” that the Average Joe has to a resource remaining as an empty, hollow shell. Any incisive concept of liberty, therefore, has to accept that other people’s desires to use the means available will be an obstacle in one’s own life and hence it must utilise the concept of property. Secondly, it shows why all consequentialist or utilitarian arguments that attempt to show us why “we” are “better off” with liberty than some alternative miss the point. For the precise problem is that we all think that there are different consequences that are better than someone else’s and so we need to decide whose consequences should prevail with the scarce means available.

The essence of liberty, then, is in how it defines property rights – quite simply, that you are entitled to the ownership of your own body and the external matter of which you are the first user-occupier or the latter’s voluntary successor in title. No one, therefore, can act violently against your own body or against the previously ownerless matter that you brought into use or acquired in trade through voluntary exchange. Within this sphere of ownership you can do anything you want. No, as a free individual you will not have a guaranteed freedom from hunger, from sickness, old age, death and so on (although the free market has been shown to increase a human’s power over nature more than any other system). And the same rights held by every other human will get in your way from time to time, if not all of the time. But only by defining liberty in this manner can libertarianism address the scarcity problem and be ideologically distinct from other attempts to do the same. The justice of liberty defined this way is, of course, another matter.

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Spying and Security

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The US government’s recent embarrassment over revelations of its surveillance program by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor/CIA employee, and their subsequent frustration in trying to apprehend him, has led to all of the usual outcry from libertarians about government spying, invasion of privacy and so on. However, a further interesting question is whether such acts are a necessary part of the deliverance of security. Would, for example, private security agencies have the need to spy on people’s private communications and, if so, how would this be regulated in a free society?

Security, like any other good, is an end that consumes scarce resources and its provision must therefore be valued like any other. Because a state is as an institution that enforces a territorial monopoly of the provision of law, order and defence funded by compulsory levies (taxes), it needs to provide a blanket security service and need never worry about “customers” leaving it for a competing service. As a result it is cut off from any communication, through the profit and loss system, of whether it has correctly allocated resources efficiently to provide for security needs and so it, alone, needs to judge the urgency of a particular security threat. This would not be the case on the free market, however, as private, competing, security agencies would not be able to apportion more resources towards the production of security than its customers were willing to pay for. In times, therefore, of relatively light or transient threats and normal, one-off acts of crime by individuals then security will not be a high priority and intelligence, which is linked almost wholly to such crime would have little purpose as there would simply be no data to gather. Indeed this would normally be the case in a free society. Most “organised” crime consists of the underground provision of peaceful and voluntary services that the government has outlawed and “terrorist” threats are political backlashes against the government. Even if there was the threat of invasion of a free society by, say, a neighbouring state, this would be much harder for that state to accomplish when defence provision is scattered and heterogeneous rather than concentrated and homogenous in the form of the government’s army, navy and air force. The closest you might get to any kind of organisation in crime in a free society is various forms of human trafficking, such as paedophile rings and kidnap for forced labour. It is therefore very unlikely that there would be the need for systematic intelligence gathering in a world free of the state. However, for arguments sake, let’s say that there is a genuinely serious and imminent threat of organised crime which commands a pressing need for intelligence of this threat by a private security agency in order to defend its customers. What could it do?

A security agency could certainly not invade the servers and networks of private providers of communication services. It could, however, negotiate contracts to monitor information that passes over these networks, with the specific nature of such monitoring subject to the corresponding nature of the threat. But the major difference between this and between government intelligence gathering is that it could never be secret and, if it was, it would be unlikely to last for long. From the point of view of the security providers’ customers, in an environment where there is a genuine threat then such monitoring is likely to be a selling point; while it may not be advertised quite as explicitly as “we will read other people’s emails to keep you safe”, if people, on balance, estimate any threat as being worth the while of this kind of action then they will be eager to provide custom to those security services that can offer it. On the other hand, if a threat is deemed not to be quite so serious to the extent that customers either do not care if other people’s communications are monitored or they would actively leave for an alternative provider to avoid it, could a security firm carry on the practice in secret? The answer is almost certainly no because this would cause the firm to incur costs that customers are not willing to pay for. Hence it would have to raise its prices. Such a firm would therefore see its customer base shrink to the advantage of suppliers who do not incur these deadweight costs. The practice would therefore be self-liquidating at the point when threats are no longer deemed to be worthy of the expense of intelligence gathering.

Furthermore, the monitoring of communications would need to have the consent of the customers of telecoms and internet providers. Again, the permissibility of this would be judged by these customers in the light the urgency of a threat. In the absence of such threats providers that do not invade the privacy of communications would receive custom and those that do would not. Moreover, in this environment, people themselves may be unwilling to deal with parties whose communications were not filtered through a monitored channel. But these services would also be tailored to specific regions that may be under threat or levels of monitoring could be targeted at specific groups based on their vulnerability or their propensity to commit an atrocity. There would not be the blanket monitoring of absolutely everybody and the provision of the same service to everybody regardless of who they are and where they are.

Would consent make intelligence gathering useless? Not necessarily. Between themselves, of course, criminals can use channels that are not subject to monitoring. But when the fear of a threat is perceived to be high channels offering absolute privacy would be difficult to come by and it is arguably the case that government is much easier to circumvent than private agencies. However, all criminal organisations must at some point communicate with the outside world (for purposes of supply, for example) and these latter communications would be subject to monitoring. While not perfect, therefore, it would not be impossible to piece together the movements and intentions of organised criminals.

The above is just a basic outline of what might happen in a free society and no doubt many more considerations could be added. But it is worth emphasising again the main point – that most of the need for intelligence gathering is generated by the government’s own avoidable acts and so, why it could conceivably be accomplished in a free society, it would almost certainly be unnecessary. The proper way forward, then, to end the world of spying, surveillance and secrets is to decriminalise victimless crimes and to stop the government from invading and bombing other countries and nurturing blowback. And we have of course assumed above that government is genuinely trying to protect its citizens; of great import also is the very convincing argument that government merely invents and exaggerates bogeymen for the very purpose of intruding into people’s lives and we need to consider the extent to which surveillance is the end rather than the means.

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