In the battle of ideologies, Austro-Libertarianism (that is, “Austrian” economics and libertarian political philosophy), in spite of (or, sometimes, perhaps because of) its logical consistency and rigorous passion for truth and justice, is lumbered with several burdens that are not always shared with opposing philosophies. Some of these – such as the fact that libertarianism is not a complete moral philosophy and can look, at best, cold and emotionless, or, at worst, a recipe for rampant selfishness and egotism – we have examined elsewhere. Let us explore a few more of them and suggest reasons for how they can be overcome, or at least mitigated as much as possible.

The Collectivist Mentality

Perhaps the biggest problem we face is that the fundamental tenets of the modern, democratic state are not viewed as being open to question. It is seen to be paradigmatic that democracy is the best system of government, that voting means freedom, that politicians serve their people and “the nation”. Whatever the current moral or political debate it is always seen as being a debate that should take place within the system rather that as an attempt to revolt against it. Indeed, in the history of political philosophy, consideration of alternative methods of rule has never been at the low that it is now whereas the possibility of no rule at all (anarchism) is completely off the radar. All alternatives to social democratic government are believed to be just baffling or bewildering, a mentality is reinforced and engrained by two aspects.

First, questions are always posed in the form of the collective and people are encouraged to debate only by thinking of the needs of the whole rather than of the individual parts that make up that whole. “Should Britain do X?” “Should we have nationalised railways?” “What should be done about our health service?” By not even allowing the possibility of individual tastes and desires to find expression, people are always geared towards the notion that there must, for every problem and issue, be a single solution that everyone must be made to endure. Although this is endemic throughout all political debates it can be seen in force in the current possibility (at the time of writing) that the United States will engage in military action against the Syrian government in response to the alleged use of chemical weaponry. “What should we do?” “The United States has a moral obligation…” “Our country will not waiver in its resolve” etc.

In what way can Austro-Libertarians face this challenge? The problem is that it is tempting to accept the terms of the argument and dive head first into discussing only collectives. In response to, for example, the question “should we have a nationalised health service?” a libertarian may find it difficult to prevent himself from crying “no!” and reeling off all manner of facts and  figures to show why a system of private healthcare would be far superior. Libertarians, however, must avoid this temptation entirely because it accepts, in principle, the notion that everyone must accept the same solution. It is also the expected answer from one’s ideological opponents and they are likely to be prepared with an array of counterarguments to nullify or at least blunt one’s own. Rather, an intelligent libertarian should attempt to change the terms of the debate and break out of the collective mentality altogether and focus on individuals. So in answer to the question concerning healthcare, one might retort the following:

“I have no problem whatsoever with the Government providing your healthcare through the National Health Service or whatever you want to call it. I don’t want to stop you from doing what you think is best for your needs with your money. But what right do you have to force me to do the same? I want to look after my healthcare needs in the way that I want with my own money. Do whatever you want with yours, just leave me out of it!”

This is a response that will almost certainly catch someone on the back foot. Having expected an argument about what is best for everyone and there being no possibility of “their” solution taking hold unless they win, they now, suddenly, have to face the fact that actually, they are most welcome to go ahead with what they want with the resources that they can muster. They just have to leave everyone who does not want to be a part of it alone. The terms of the debate have therefore switched from arguing about the merits of their system to arguing about why they should have the right to force everyone to become a part of it. That, they might find, is far harder for them to justify, especially once it is revealed that such a system as they advocate can only take place through the methods of violent enforcement. Liberals (in the modern sense of the word), lefties and collectivists do not like to think of themselves as being violent people and revealing them for what they are might be something of a shock.

Who Will Build the Roads?!

The second problem is related to the first and is manifest in the following types of argument. “How will we defend ourselves?” “Who will take care of disabled people?” “Won’t poor people die without nationalised healthcare?”  All forms of this argument may be summarised as the “Who will Build the Roads?” problem, where government has carried out a function for so long that people cannot imagine how else it would be done.

The obvious answer is, first, to point out how government has never invented or run anything that was not first done so by free individuals (except, perhaps, for nuclear weaponry – developing the machinery of mass killing is something that seem to come naturally to government). Knowledge of a few examples, such as how turnpikes were funded and constructed, and the history of the railways (and their subsequent deterioration under nationalisation) would be beneficial. But so too also is pointing out the fact that the opponent’s argument boils down to little more than this: “I don’t know how else X could be done. Therefore everyone else must be violently enforced to do it my way”. In other words, one should perhaps retort by questioning why that person’s lack of imagination means that everyone else must be subjected to violent enforcement. The whole point of the free market is that it unleashes the creative power of individuals and no one knows precisely what this creative power will produce and in what form. Government, on the other hand, causes nothing but stagnation in everything it runs. Schools, for example, are still teaching in the same way that they have done for nearly two centuries – a teacher in front of a class full of students, a method that seems to be rapidly failing as numeracy and literacy rates decline. Why is education stuck in a time warp whereas the free market around it is innovating and improving all of the time?

Nevertheless this may be a battle easily lost. There is a curious tendency in debates of this type for people to press one continually about how each and every minute issue would be resolved in a free society. Even if you bat away each one for six with success, as soon as there is something that you cannot explain, something to which you cannot illustrate a free market solution in any concrete fashion, however trivial and insignificant, you are expected to surrender and admit that government is necessary. Even if it is not possible to explain how a free society could possibly tackle one, single alleged problem, why is this one, minor “defect” claimed as a sweeping victory for government? Such a view is the result of the wilful (as opposed to merely passive) ignorance and closed-mindedness of one’s opponent and that is perhaps the hardest thing of all to overcome.

Market Chaos and the Fight for Resources

The next problem is the belief that individualism and freedom can only lead to chaos and collapse, a war of all against all in which everyone is motivated only by their greed in the fight for the scarce resources available. Surely there must be someone with their hands on the steering wheel to guide and take control, to steer everyone in the same direction, to ensure that free markets do not become over-zealous and drive us all to ruin? After all, everyone knows that the free market caused the Great Depression, right?

Apart from the usual explanations of how it was, in fact, government that causes economic crises and how it is government that causes the chaos of allocation through its inability to calculate, the more important and hard hitting retort to this accusation is to point out that freedom does not mean a lack of control at all. It simply means that individuals have control over their own lives as opposed to some central bureaucracy. Contrary to the opinions of even some free market proponents, there is nothing “spontaneous” or “disorderly” about freedom1. Rather every human action unfolds as the result of a purpose and desire and one is permitted to achieve these desires with one’s own person and property, and the person and property of those whom you can solicit to join, voluntarily, your enterprise. In this way the ends of everyone can be satisfied as far as they possibly can with the scarce resources available. Government, on the other hand, must always result in the substitution of one person’s or set of people’s purposes for everyone else’s, enforced by violence. Indeed, where someone says that government is needed to “steer us all in the same direction”, the very problem is what should that direction be? Nobody ever has precisely the same vision of how enforced collectivism should be implemented, nor of the goals that it should achieve. Ideological battles and physical wars have seldom been between liberty and collectivism but rather between different brands of collectivism. Fascists and communists, for instance, were pitted against each other in World War II even though they are both brands of totalitarian government. As Mises put it, an advocate of collectivism “always has in view his own brand of socialism” (Omnipotent Government, p. 253). It is government and collectivism, then, with its desire to forcibly direct everyone else’s person and property towards ends that they do not desire that causes chaos, conflict, and fighting. Further, if the market is motivated by greed, then what could be greedier than not only wanting to achieve your ends with your own property but with everyone else’s as well? And if everyone else refuses to play ball then you will fight them and force them to comply! At least a greedy free marketer has to stick to his own turf and needn’t have anything to do with you.

Economic Law and the Laws of Natural Sciences

Another problem is people’s perception of economic law as opposed to the laws of the natural sciences. Many of the latter are either immediately apparent, such as the law of gravity, or are accorded a high degree of respect when scientific research reveals them. Few feel that they have the ability to question the results that scientists produce, particular as we seem to live in a positivistic and evidence-obsessed culture. Economic law, however, is never accorded the same respect and for some reason it has always been believed, from eras of kings and conquerors through to prime ministers and presidents, that government can repeal and banish it through a simple decree.

If government attempted to legislate against the law of gravity – for instance, by demanding, that every object must be 2 feet from the ground – people would have little hesitation is declaring the politicians to be stark raving mad. Yet if the government attempts to alleviate shortages or unaffordability by enacting price controls, even though economists have, for generations, explained the necessary effects of such a measure, it is still believed that such an attempt is legitimate. The laws of economics are as scientific and true as the laws of the natural sciences. Only the precise conditions that bring them into play – that is the valuations of the individual humans and the uncertainty of future, natural events – are scientifically indeterminable. But so long as certain conditions are met, economic law cannot be counteracted. A reason for ignorance of this fact is that the ultimate causes of an economic distortion – human valuations and interference by government control – are difficult to link through to the result, except by a chain of deductive reasoning. Where prices rise for example, no one necessarily witnesses the increase in demand relative to supply (and no one witnesses the increase in the quantity of money that is brought about by government-controlled central and fractional reserve banking). All that it is seen is the numbers on the price tags getting higher, a fact that can easily be blamed on the greed of the merchant or trader. If subsequent price controls cause a shortage, again, the actual cause is not perceived. All that is seen is those same greedy merchants refusing to stock their shelves because now the price doesn’t allow them to “extract” a “huge profit”.

Part of this problem is also owing to a misunderstanding of the subject matter. The natural sciences deal with inanimate objects, i.e. their laws concern matter that feels no desires or purposes and is incapable of expressing choice. Hence the laws of the these sciences are seen to be immovable and true for all of time. Even if good or bad results follow from these laws one has to work with or around them rather than simply ignoring them. No one can, for example, simply dismiss the law of gravity or ignore air resistance if one wishes to fly. A bridge can only be built by understanding geometry and how loads affect various structures. Economics, however, concerns human choice and desire, something that may not only be impulsive and of the moment, but also has results – beneficial or bad – that are motivated and subject to influence and change. It is therefore perceived that economic law, dealing only with the supposedly wishy-washy vagaries of human desire rather than the concrete and immovable facts of the universe, can be overcome – by force if necessary. What is not realised is that economics does not deal with the substance of choices and resulting actions but with their form. Economics takes peoples choices and actions as a given, examining what must be true as a result in spite of their specific content. Its laws are universally valid even though certain choices may be necessary to demonstrate their effects (no could witness the interplay of supply and demand, for example, unless people were actually willing to trade).

Perhaps the epitome of this misunderstanding is that people even go as far as seeming to relax their awareness of the condition of scarcity. Government, in particular, is deemed to be an endless fountain of plenty that should forever be funding more or doing more to cure X, Y and Z. In citing various facts and statistics that demonstrate deficiencies and deplorable situations – “30% of people can’t afford to heat their homes!” “40% of people spend more than half their income on food!” “Child poverty afflicts a third of all families!” – all that our outraged social pioneers accomplish is pointing out the fact that we do not live in the Garden of Eden. Aside from not even entertaining the fact that freedom and lack of government is the path to prosperity, these busybodies have no proposal or specific method for determining precisely which needs are more pressing and must be resolved and which must be left to languish, however deplorable. All we get is that “something must be done!” a cry that will forever be heard until we live in the land of Cockaigne. An additional, exasperating cause of this is the incentive to engage in rent seeking behaviour. When government is sitting on a big pile of cash that could be spent on pretty much anything it wants, it becomes more economically viable for people to stop producing and to start demanding a share of the existing productivity. It is therefore not surprising that a whole host of problems and ills come crawling out of the woodwork when they can be solved, conveniently enough, by their sponsors and promoters receiving government money.

It is very difficult to overcome this mentality but there are some simple things that one can do to countenance this type of ignorance. If someone has difficulty in comprehending the validity of economic law, a basic way of shining some light on the truth is to point out the motivations of other parties in a situation – to put the person in the shoes of someone else. If, for example, the debate concerns price controls, persuade the person to appreciate the point of view of the seller as opposed to that of the buyer. What if he was in that situation and was suddenly told that he can’t sell an item for more than, say £10 each yet his costs are £15? In short, ask him, would you continue to sell in that situation? Secondly, where someone proposes a government measure to alleviate an alleged ill, ask for justification of why that problem deserves funding compared to others (having a few other of these problems at one’s finger tips may assist in this regard). As he is unlikely to be able to offer a definitive method of prioritising government spending, the answer will almost certainly dissolve into “raise taxes on the rich!” That will open the door to a wider discussion of the efficacy of government vs. the free market in creating wealth and vanishing problems such as poverty.

Truth and Lies

Perhaps the greatest intellectual difficulty that Austro-Libertarians face, however, is not the existing mentality of the people or their biases towards collectivist solutions. Rather, it is the fact that we are not always up against people who are interested in the truth. Government, relying on violence rather than entrepreneurial talent in order to attain its revenue, provides an easy and luxuriant income to hoards of individuals who would never have a hope of attaining that income on the free market. This is not to suggest, of course, that everyone who receives government funding is stupid and useless. In most cases it is simply the fact that their talents would not be in high demand on the free market. All human beings seek to further their ends and to make their lives more comfortable and rewarding through the means that are available. Economics frequently talks about how humans use objects as means to achieve their purposes, but so too can other humans be used as means. After all, why bother doing something for yourself if you can just order someone else to do what you want? Power, and the exercise of it, is therefore an extremely seductive potion, one that, once drunk, is very difficult to relinquish the effects of. But government has never survived on its own by simply crying “We are better for you!” “We are morally right!” etc. Rather, it has had to buy in other sectors of the population at large in order to retain its veneer of legitimacy. There are two of these that we shall mention here.

First, intellectuals are a prime category of those persons who are unlikely to obtain the income that they do on the free market. It is only through government funding and largesse that their theses and research papers would ever have a hope of being written. There is also, perhaps, the snobbish aspect that intellectual endeavour is somehow “above” the market and represents higher truth or something better than grubby trading (the same mentality one can often find pervading that other sink pit of government money, the arts). But that aside, when, for example, the majority of macroeconomic research is funded by the Federal Reserve, what likelihood is there that the budding and bright PhDs who can only find employment in one of these research programmes are going to churn out conclusions that are critical of central banking? Or when hoards of scientists are swept up by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) what chances are there that their conclusions will not invoke the need for more government control? This essay is not the place, of course, to determine the merits of specific scientific research. Rather, the point is that one has to be extremely suspicious of Government-funded programmes that conveniently either justify or warrant an increase in the size of government. But it is also true that some intellectuals themselves may wish to disingenuously cloak the truth in favour of a cherished political agenda – they simply believe that big government is a good thing. In any case, bringing on board seemingly impartial and objective intellectual justification for government is a massive boon.

Secondly, one might say that the population itself has been bought off. Democratic governments effectively bribe the citizenry with their own (or, rather, other people’s) money, not only by promising wonderful schools, hospitals, transport networks etc., but also by directly showering handouts from (and creating dependence upon) the ballooning welfare state, all conveniently paid for by taxing “the rich”. Even if one manages to resist the siren song of the former, it is very hard to denounce one’s receipt of a stream of free money. Given that there are so many people who are reliant upon government today it is difficult to envisage how one may even go about the practical operation of dismantling it, let alone attempting to convince people of the justification of such a move.

One cannot necessarily condemn individuals we have been discussing as being totally evil and immoral. If the livelihood of oneself and one’s family is reliant on, say, a tax credit or if one is in a government-funded job then it is understandable, if not forgivable, that people will tow the government line. But that only means that the exceptions, the ones who do not follow the Pied Piper’s tune, shine ever more brightly into the ether and it remains the fact that the justification of government is fundamentally nothing more than a charlatan operation. The supreme irony has to be that people are paying for the justification of their own enslavement.

It is very difficult to challenge this problem in the search for the truth. One could resort to challenging the credentials of one’s ideological opponents, but this can lead one down a dangerous path, resulting in ad hominem attacks and accusations of sour grapes. One should probably only restrict such observations to the most general terms, as we have done here, or at least ensuring that they only pepper solid arguments and counter-arguments that concern the specific issues. Instead, one can only countenance illusions and wizardry with one’s own solid passion for truth and justice, a reputation that one might have to earn through patient adherence to it. Lies and falsehoods will eventually be revealed for what they are. We, as Austro-Libertarians, know that government cannot ever achieve its promises, we know that it is a foregone certainty that it can never control the entire economy without collapsing, we know that it is immoral, violent and destructive. Everything that government does simply sows the seeds of its own doom. Perhaps we are starting to see the beginning of this at the time of writing, as Western populations, having been lied to once over the Iraq war, having seen the mess created in Afghanistan, and having grown ever more distrustful of the so-called “War on Terror” in general, are showing strong resistance to endorsing the US government’s desired attack on the Syrian regime that we mentioned above. Crucially, people are convinced that governments are lying about its supposed justification – “trust us” and “we know there is evidence” is no longer working. It may be only be a matter of time before this sentiment is linked towards the continued failure of government to find a way out of its self-induced economic malaise since 2008 and all of government’s chickens come home to roost. Who then, when all of the liars, conjurers and charmers have vanished will be left to pick up the pieces and who will people turn to for a way forward? Only those who all along remained steadfast to the truth and to what was right – the Austro-Libertarians.

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1As we have said elsewhere the notion of the market as a “spontaneous order” is metaphorical in only the very strictest sense.