Small States – the Key to Liberty?

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Although libertarians share a passion for personal liberty, free enterprise and the primacy of the individual over the collective, they can differ markedly over the precise role and scope of the state. The main division is between so-called minarchists on the one hand, who believe that there is a limited, justifiable role for the state in defining and preserving property rights, providing security and dispensing justice, and between so-called anarchists on the other who believe that the state, however minimal the services it provides, is always an unjustified invasion of individual liberty and that all defence, security and adjudicative services should be provided by the free market just like any other end.

This division is far from being a futile theoretical exercise and is, indeed, important in determining and clarifying the nature of libertarianism. The present author, for example, self-identifies as a Rothbardian anarchist who sees no justification for the state whatsoever and that anything else is antithetical to individual freedom. However, what we shall argue here is that there is another distinction that is likely to be much more important when it comes to the actual achievement of individual liberty in our world today. This distinction is not between how big or how powerful a state is within a given territory, but, rather, the size of that territory in the first place. That actually, a world of liberty will be achieved much more effectively if we concentrate on breaking up existing states into smaller states rather than trying to limit the scope of government within an existing, large state. Moreover, as we shall see, the realisation that smaller states are more conducive to individual liberty goes at least some way to abolishing any practical difference between minarchism and anarchism.

The vast, monolithic state is, in fact, a relatively new phenomenon. Germany and Italy, for example, consisted of much smaller territories and independent cities until the late nineteenth century; the United States was intended to be a union of smaller, independent, sovereign states, and the transformation of the US into a single, large state occurred informally as a result of the civil war and the gradual consolidation of sovereign power in Washington DC. Other large states were born out of independence from conquest with many simply being artificial lines drawn on a map by politicians. The latest experiment is, of course, the European Union which has, since the post war era, attempted to draw an increasing number of powers away from the capital cities of the individual member states and concentrate them in Brussels. This tendency of increasing the size of states has gone hand in hand with the gradual replacement of laissez faire with socialisation, statism, social democracy and increasing belligerence on the part of the resulting behemoth states. All of the vast conflicts of the twentieth century – the two world wars and the cold war – occurred after major consolidations and empires were in place. Today, we are left with the belligerence of the United States and its Western allies as they seek to control the Middle East and to quell the growing ambitions of Russia and China which are, of course, two more states that cover a vast territory.

There are several reasons why larger states erode liberty while smaller states tend to be more conducive towards it. The first and most obvious is that a larger state has access to a vastly greater sum of resources – more natural resources such as oil, gas, farmland etc. and, of course, a larger population to subject to tax slavery. Thus the large state is able to command relatively more wealth than a smaller state. The greatest impact of this is with regards to foreign policy. It is not likely, for example, that a territory the size of Monaco or Liechenstein would have the wherewithal to produce the military hardware of the United States. Even if its tax base could, in some way, pay for all of the necessary resources it would, in the first place, be heavily reliant upon foreigners who would have to supply, manufacture and then store all of the aircraft, tanks and missiles and so on. This conveys to foreign governments the power to restrict the military growth of the small state and with it all of the derivatives that accompany an increasing appetite for warfare such as suspension of civil liberties, freedom of the press, and so on. Indeed, in small states which are reliant upon foreign powers for their military equipment, such as Singapore, it is usually to the benefit of the foreign state to see the smaller state armed. Second, a large state possesses a larger population and thus can benefit from a wider division of labour in its bureaucracy. Hence larger states have no end of specialist agencies, departments and units that are each devoted to a particular area of government which serves to more effectively augment and consolidate the potency of government power. The US federal government, for example, employs approximately £4.1m people across an alphabet soup of abbreviated names and acronyms for hundreds of government departments and agencies. Smaller states will not have this luxury. Liechtenstein, for example, has an entire population of just over 37,000, a bare fraction of the federal government of the US, so many of its government employees must presumably carry out several core functions rather than individual, specialist occupations. Third, consolidation of smaller states into larger states reduces the competition between states. If a small state becomes too burdensome and oppressive in its rate of taxation and regulation then people can simply jump ship. Thus there will be a drain of productivity from the onerous state to the benefit of less domineering states. Indeed, rather than any so-called, internal “separation of powers” between the different organs of an individual state, it is in fact the competition with other states that provides the real check and balance to state power. We can therefore see that the real motivation for the consolidation of smaller states into larger states, the increasing number of trade agreements and treaties between states and, furthermore, the recent hullaballoo about corporate tax avoidance is to restrict choice amongst the taxed population. If such restriction is achieved, people will stay put in their home state and government can subject them to ever increasing restrictions, safe in the knowledge that nowhere else can offer anything better. The logical end – a vast, monolithic world state – would have absolutely no check whatsoever on its expanding powers, short of people’s abilities to escape into outer space. Moreover, sealing the border of a small state is markedly more difficult than sealing the border of a larger state. Smaller states are more reliant upon foreign trade for resources and the migration of intellectuals, entrepreneurs, businessmen and cultural or sporting icons, and so they have to permit a relatively porous border. A larger state, however, has much of these things home grown already and thus is able to invoke more impenetrable border restrictions, safe in the knowledge that it is not providing an overwhelming degree of disruption to its economy. And, of course, in a smaller state people are physically closer to the border so that even relatively impoverished people who wished to escape to a neighbouring state could brave the journey by foot in a few days. It would be much harder, however, for the same type of individual to escape the US to Mexico from, say, Kansas. Fourth, a larger state possesses a greater number of domestic industries compared to a smaller state. This creates both the incentive and the wherewithal to impose a greater number of protective trade restrictions and tariffs. If a smaller state, however, specialises in, say, two or three industries but does not have a steel industry it is clear that any protective tariff imposed on imported steel would be protecting absolutely nothing and everybody within the state is simply having to pay higher prices for steel. Moreover, as we noted, smaller states are more reliant upon foreign trade in the first place and any the effects of any restriction in that regard are likely to be greatly magnified compared to the same in a larger state. Fifth, all else being equal, a larger state comprises a greater proportion of the worldwide economy than a smaller state. Correspondingly, there will be a wider acceptance of its government-issued, paper currency. Larger states therefore have a much greater ability to inflate their currencies to support government spending and, moreover, export this inflation abroad. It is no secret that the status of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency, where everyone has a willingness to buy and hold dollars, has permitted a perpetual inflation of the dollar for decades, the eventual disastrous effects of which are only just beginning to be felt. A smaller state, however, whose currency has a smaller circle of acceptance and is barely used in international trade, is more likely to simply inflate itself into oblivion and has to enact price controls and capital controls much sooner than the larger state. Thus the chickens come home to roost much quicker in a smaller state, much like we are seeing in present day Argentina. And finally, in smaller states where the population is more homogenous in culture and outlook, it is much more difficult to set up a welfare state and to invoke the attitude that state welfare is permissible. In the first place, the lack of contrasting demographics provides little excuse for racial or cultural differences and, moreover, differences in the level of education to be used as a justification for alleged inequalities that can be somehow ameliorated by state welfare. In a larger state, however, it is possible to drill into the minds of welfare recipients a sense of entitlement resulting from their alleged misfortune while at the same time encouraging a sense of guilt and obligation in the minds of those who happen to be better off. Second, in a large state the disparate groups and populations, some of whom are wholly net tax payers and others wholly net tax receivers, are distant and unfamiliar to each other. The social security cheque of a poor, blue collar, unemployed man in urban Detroit, for example, may well be written by a middle class lawyer residing in Westchester. In other words, if you are a tax payer your money simply vanishes into a pot and you never get to see first-hand the nature and quality of the people who benefit from it, nor do the latter – probably residing on the other side of the continent with different coloured skin, a different language and different social and cultural practices which are entirely alien from yours – ever get to see you. Thus, with such an impersonal and faceless affair, there is little incentive for anyone to care about sponging off anyone else, nor is there much cause for tax payers to become outraged at who is sponging off of them. In a smaller state, however, the person writing your welfare cheque may quite easily be your neighbour, from whom there is nothing much to distinguish you in terms of background and education that should cause you to be any more “disadvantaged” than he is. Therefore, in a smaller state, it becomes much easier to determine which individuals are productive and generating wealth on the one hand, and which individuals are unproductive and acting as a leech upon everyone else on the other. Both the willingness to accept and to fund state welfare is therefore kept firmly in check in a smaller state.

To reiterate, none of this means to say that the theoretical debate between minarchism and anarchism does not matter. However, we can also see how the conduciveness of smaller states towards liberty and larger states towards tyranny goes some way towards eliminating the schism between minarchists and anarchists. The government of a smaller state is closer to the population not only geographically but also in terms of its values and cultural outlook. The result of this is that the crucial issue of the consent of the governed is at least partially, if never perfectly, resolved by a small state. Any government action is likely to be tailored to the specific needs and values of the smaller, local population as opposed to the one-size-fits-all solutions imposed by larger states. A degree of empathy and understanding between the governors and the governed is far more likely in a smaller state as opposed to when the government draws to its so-called “representatives” from distant and unfamiliar lands in a capital city that is hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. There is at least, therefore, a greater chance that the government is working for you and with you, even if you may disagree with some of its policies and have to obey certain edicts which you would prefer to disobey. Moreover, in a smaller state with a smaller population a single vote out of, say, a few hundred thousand people carries more weight than a single, drop-in-the-ocean vote in a population of tens of millions. And if the world as a whole consisted of thousands of small states and free cities with relatively small populations what would be created is a “patchwork quilt” of independent territories, each with their own social, political, cultural, economic, and religious idiosyncrasies, to the extent that everyone would be able to find somewhere that is broadly conducive to his own needs and values. Some states or cities, for example, could be relatively liberal with, for example, legalised drug use, and/or permissibility of homosexuality, whereas others could be conservative and/or religious and permitting the expression of only traditional cultural values. Moreover, although the industry of each state would necessarily have to specialise in what was possible in terms of the geography, climate and access to raw materials, each independent state would seek to pursue excellence in academia, art, culture, and sport on a much more local scale than is possible today in larger states. Therefore, states, and cities in particular, would once again become seats of great learning and culture as opposed to the havens of poverty and crime that many of them are today.

At the heart of all of this is the right to secession – the freedom of territories, cities, districts and the individual property owner, to break away from one state, join another, or even to go it alone entirely (indeed, the possibility of individual property owners seceding is one that Mises entertains in Liberalism, dismissing it only out of impracticality). In the first place it is, of course, the recognition of the right to secede that will shatter the behemoth state into smaller states. The prospects of a move towards this are not at all bad. Secessionist movements are beginning to show signs of success in various parts of the world, notably in Scotland where, in spite of a failed independence referendum last year, voters awarded 56 out of a possible 59 UK parliamentary seats to the Scottish Nationalist Party in May of this year. The US state of Texas passed a bill in June of this year that will see the opening of its own bullion depository in order to provide some kind of independence from the inflationary zest of the Federal Reserve. Indeed, given that the imperialism of the West is founded upon the hegemony of the dollar, seceding from this empire of paper money may be both the most symbolic and practically effective rejection of the large state. Second, however, with the right of secession comes the strongest chance of reconciliation between the theoretical schools of anarchism and minarchism. For if there is a right to secession, states are little more than a collection of property owners coming together voluntarily to provide for a common purpose in a way that suits those particular property owners. If these property owners could leave and take their property with them if they so desired the issue of consent – the preoccupation of anarchists – is overcome. However, in order to prevent secessionist fervour, the state – the group of property owners as a whole – cannot become overly burdensome or invasive towards particular property owners lest they leave. It would also be likely that too much socialisation and the implication of a welfare state would lead to weakening competitiveness with neighbouring states in which fewer areas were socialised. Thus, the scope of the state within a particular territory – the preoccupation of minarchists – is likewise resolved. Moreover, the threat of secession and the competition with other states would cause the government of a particular state to behave more like a business, seeking to attract “customers” to join its territory, so that even if certain services were socialised they would have to be run in a competitive manner because endless tax funding would simply never be a possibility as it is in a large state. There comes a point, therefore, where the distinction between the state as a compulsory, aggressive institution on the one hand, and a purely voluntary and privately endorsed entity on the other begins to dissolve. In short, whichever way you look at it the only way to achieve either the absence of a state desired by anarchists or a small state desired by minarchists is to oppose, resolutely and emphatically, the large, overarching state.

It is clear that this understanding can have important ramifications for the libertarian movement as a whole. While the theoretical debate between minarchism and anarchism will (and, in the opinion of this author) should remain, when it comes to decisive action towards achieving a free world we can see that pressing for the eradication of large states and their dissolution into smaller states may be a unifying way forward. Moreover, although libertarians should, at heart, remain fully radical and uncompromising in their detestation of the state, we can see that the less revolutionary stance proposed here is likely to be more acceptable to a public which still views at least some kind of state as a necessity. Libertarians would be able demonstrate to the public that the large, monolithic state is inimical to their prosperity while at the same time avoiding all of the “who will build the roads” and “who will catch the bad guys?” questions, discussion of which tends to alienate people from the libertarian cause. However, unlike the advocacy of other “half-way” measures to reduce state power (such as so-called  tax reform and school vouchers), which simply rearrange the deck chairs on the sinking ship of the state, pressing for the breakup of large states is a positive move towards eliminating the state entirely. There is, therefore, nothing half-hearted about this approach. Once we begin to put the world on the path to breaking up large states, not only will the worst excesses of state oppression be vanquished, but the achievement of restricting the geographical size of states may, in and of itself, also achieve the final libertarian end – either minimal “night watchman states or, a complete, de facto eradication of the state as an aggressive institution.

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“Ending Useless Lives” – A Critique of Matthew Parris

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The UK Government’s Assisted Dying Bill, which was defeated in the House of Commons in September of this year, was, rightly, a controversial one. The question of assisted suicide, in order to prevent the onset of pain or the so-called “loss of dignity” from a degenerative disease or old age, is disputed amongst libertarians too, with some asserting that if you own your body and your life you should be able to do whatever you want with it, whereas others claim that anything that seeks the destruction or termination of one’s life is antithetical to freedom.

We are not, of course, hoping to resolve this kind of debate here. Rather, the focus of this essay is an interesting article that appeared recently in The Spectator authored by Matthew Parris entitled “Some day soon we’ll all accept that useless lives should be ended” and subtitled “If the law does not lead, it will follow — at root the reason is Darwinian”. Parris states forthrightly what he believes will be a result of any assisted dying law, a result that most people do not wish to countenance – that, one day, we will encourage and/or require people to end their lives. Unwittingly, however, Parris unveils not the dangers of any assisting dying bill at all. Rather, it is the dangers of the culture of statism in which such a law would be enacted, a culture of government permissibility, prohibition and encouragement which has seeped into our psyche that rejects any difference between law and positive morality.

The argument (deployed by opponents of assisted dying) is that licensing assisted dying is to smile upon the practice. The legal change would act as a cultural signal that society now approves. This would in time lead to pressure on those who might not otherwise have contemplated ending their lives, to hasten their own demise — so as ‘not to be a burden’ on others. One day (say the faith squad) it could even become the norm.

I am sure they’re right. We who may argue for ‘permissive’ legislation must have the intellectual honesty to admit that the ending of a legal prohibition does act as a social signal. In vain do we protest that ‘nobody is forcing’ upon anybody else (say) same-sex marriage, or the cashing in of pension pots, or a quickie divorce, or the possession of marijuana. Indeed not. Nobody is forcing these delights upon others, but humans are social animals and one of the ways a society signals its attitudes is by criminalising behaviour it thinks very harmful, and decriminalising behaviour towards which its attitude has softened. [Emphasis added]

It is clear from this that Parris views government laws and the will of “society” as harmonious – that government restricts what “society” does not want and permits what “society” does want. There is, therefore, in Parris’s view a union between government and people, that we are all one. It is clear also that Parris views “government” and “society” as primacies – any rights and freedoms we enjoy exist because society and government have been kind enough to pass “permissive” legislation so that we can enjoy them. “Society”, however, is not some mysterious entity with its own cognitive ability and even if it was there is no reason for the government to be in step with anything “society” decides. The prevailing attitudes, opinions and points of view on certain moral subjects originate in the minds of individuals in disagreement with the points of view of other individuals. After all, if everyone was in agreement the alleged immoral act would never occur and hence laws against it would be pointless. Never does Parris consider that the law is simply being used by one set of persons to curtail the freedom of others. Never does it occur to him that the law’s proper scope is to simply prevent invasive violence between individuals and not to confer any moral propriety on anything. Rights and freedoms originate with individual people and do not require the government to permit them. They require a total absence of government, not any piece of government paper with a Royal assent or presidential signature in order to bring them about.

The stoning to death of women taken in adultery under sharia law is undoubtedly the signal of a cultural attitude towards adultery. Were you to advocate the abolition of this punishment, Islamic moral conservatives would be right to warn that the move would both indicate and encourage a softening of public moral disapproval of female adultery. Likewise, the progressive removal of legal restraints on homosexuality has been both consequence and cause of an increasingly sympathetic attitude towards gays. It is futile to deny this

Assisted dying is not a novel desire, not a strange new way of thinking. As a moral impulse, the idea that one might hasten one’s end because one gained no pleasure from living and one had become a burden on friends, family and the state has been with us since the dawn of man. You will find it in literature right down the ages. In your own lifetime you will have heard it expressed by others of your acquaintance. The impulse, though, has usually been discouraged — resisted as an unworthy attitude to life — and this cultural disapproval is reflected in law.

To alter the law in a permissive way would therefore be pushing (as it were) at an open door: legitimising a moral argument that has always been present (or latent) among humans. I would have every expectation that, given the extra push, the habit would grow.

All of this would be true only if one accepts the view that law either is or should be, by its presence or absence, a promoter of positive morality. As libertarians we reject this view. Perhaps stoning adulterous women and criminalising homosexual behaviour was rejected not to signal any cultural approval but merely because what people do to each other in their own bedrooms is no business of the state nor of anyone else? Legalising them simply means that legitimised violence cannot be used to prevent them by people who have no business interfering in the lives of others. There is no reason to suppose that legalisation, as well as having been a consequence of relaxed social attitudes towards certain acts, should be regarded as a continuing cause of this tolerance. Everyone is still free to disapprove of such acts and to disassociate themselves from them if they so wish. Nor is there any reason why legalisation should transform simple permissiveness into encouragement or promotion. Adultery may be legal today but it is not culturally acceptable to cheat on one’s partner, and such acts are met with indignation, disapproval and rebuke. Where there has, on the other hand, been a continuing social relaxation to acts such as homosexual behaviour it is because a greater exposure to these acts that legalisation permits has caused people to realise that such acts are probably not as horrific as they might have once thought from when all they knew about them was disseminated from the propaganda of the government and moral zealots. If, on the other hand, murder was to be legalised it is likely that such exposure would cause people to still regard this as horrific and abominable. Legalisation is not, therefore, necessarily a direct cause of any social attitude towards anything.

And so it must — indeed, in the end, will: and if it does not lead, the law will follow. At root the reason is Darwinian. Tribes that handicap themselves will not prosper. As medical science advances, the cost of prolonging human life way past human usefulness will impose an ever heavier burden on the community for an ever longer proportion of its members’ lives. Already we are keeping people alive in a near-vegetative state. The human and financial resources necessary will mean that an ever greater weight will fall upon the shoulders of the diminishing proportion of the population still productive. Like socialist economics, this will place a handicap on our tribe. Already the cost of medical provision in Britain eats into our economic competitiveness against less socially generous nations.

This does not mean an end to social generosity. It does not mean an end to economically unproductive state spending. These are social goods that we value for non-economic reasons, and should. But the value we place on them is not potentially infinite. They have their price. Life itself has its price. As costs rise, there will be a point at which our culture (and any culture) will begin to call for a restraining hand. I believe that when it comes to the cost of keeping very enfeebled people alive when life has become wretched for them, we’re close to that point.

Parris seems to have forgotten that “tribes” are only handicapped because they existed in a pre-capitalist era where they had to compete with either each other or with other tribes for a finite number of resources. Capitalist economies, however, allow every person to take their place in the division of labour and all are better off from the resulting manifold increase in productivity. More alarmingly, however, Parris seems to think that all values and ends are collectively held and desired. What is “useful” as well as the “costs” and “prices” of attaining these ends are all decided by the “culture” or by “society”. It is absolutely true that all ends have their price but the only reason these ends are priced by “society” is because the government has taken upon itself to socialise welfare and medical care. People only become a burden to everyone else because they are forced to pay for the sustenance of other people’s lives through the conduit of the state which cannot and will not ever do so in the most cost effective and sustainable way. Indeed, it is government that creates the problem of hordes of sick and dying individuals by encouraging demand through the provision healthcare and welfare that is either free or vastly reduced in cost at the point of need.

Parris refers to “socialist economics” as harming “the tribe” yet he doesn’t seem to realise that the tribal mentality that he adopts is precisely a symptom of socialisation and collectivism. Socialist economics doesn’t harm “the tribe”, which in Parris’s case seems to mean his country the UK, a country that must, for some reason Parris does not explain, remain “economically competitive” with other countries. Rather, socialist economics creates tribes in the first place, with the tribal leaders – the government, the heads of planning, etc. – deciding what is important ahead of everyone else. The value of “economic competitiveness” ahead of other ends would be valued by them, the leaders, and forced upon everyone else, with the “useless lives” sacrificed for that end. Parris makes a mistake typical of collectivist thinking which is to regard society, or man’s propensity to be a “social animal”, as requiring each human to value the same ends or to work towards the same goals. This is not true. Society exists because humans realise that they can pursue their own ends (that differ from everyone else’s ends) peacefully and more productively through the division of labour and voluntary trade. The beauty of this system lies in the fact that everyone can coexist peacefully and harmoniously while pursuing their own material, self-interest (and indeed can accomplish their individual goals to a much greater extent). It is utterly false to view society as a vast machine in which individual people comprise nothing more than metaphorical cogs and pistons, all fitting together and moving along to produce the same output. If, therefore, socialisation was ended, how much should be spent on medical care and on other so-called “economically unproductive” ends would be a matter for each individual person with their own individual means, or with the voluntary assistance of other people. They would willingly sacrifice their individual “economic competitiveness” and direct resources to providing for their care in old age at a point that was desirable to them without forcibly burdening everyone else.

I don’t even say we should look more benignly upon the termination of life when life is fruitless. I say we will. We may not be aware that our moral attitudes are being driven by the Darwinian struggle for survival, but in part they will be. And just as we feel ourselves looking more sympathetically at those who wish to end it all, so we shall be (unconsciously) looking at ourselves in the same way. The stigma will fade, and in its place will come a new description of selfishness, according to which it may be thought selfish of some individuals (including potentially ourselves) to want to carry on.

We admire Captain Oates for walking out of his tent and into his death when he judged his enfeeblement was threatening his colleagues’ chances of survival. That is an extreme case, but it illustrates a moral impulse that I expect to grow — and for the same reasons as it occurred to Oates: the good of our fellow men.

I do not therefore need to campaign for assisted dying. I do not need (and wouldn’t want) to persuade anybody that the time has come for them to end their lives. I don’t need to shout from the rooftops that suicide can be a fine and noble thing, or rail against the ever growing cost of medical care in the final, prolonged phase of people’s lives. My opinions and my voice are incidental. This is a social impulse which will grow, nourished by forces larger than all of us. I don’t exhort. I predict.

In these closing paragraphs Parris makes clear that he is not advocating the ending of life at some point that it is deemed socially useless. Rather, he makes it clear that it is an inevitable result of a Darwinian struggle for survival. This case may be probable, or even certain, under current conditions. The problem, however, is that Parris’s analysis once again misses the elephant in the room. Captain Oates only walked out of his tent because the resources available to him and his “fellow men” were finite – his “enfeeblement” threatened the survival of his colleagues because they lacked the ability to produce more resources. Government socialisation of welfare and medical resources replicates the predicament of Captain Oates across society as a whole, stifling production, and increasing demand of what becomes a dwindling supply of resources at ever spiralling costs. Moreover, statism and socialisation entrenches in our psyche the “common good”, the willingness to sacrifice the individual to upon the altar of the collective, a willingness which has only become necessary precisely as a result of the ineptitude of collectivism. So although we may have some, limited agreement with Parris’s “prediction” we can, as libertarians, respond emphatically that none of it is necessary if one simply puts an end to the mantle of the state. Had Parris abandoned his collectivist mind set he might have realised this.

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