Building a Libertarian World

Leave a comment

A difficult and perhaps insufficiently understood question concerning libertarianism is how libertarianism will be brought about in the world as we know it and, moreover, precisely what a libertarian world will look like. How can libertarians expect their theoretical understanding of their philosophy to emerge from this present world of seemingly perennial statism and how will the world be shaped once this libertarian world is accomplished? This essay will bring together a number of thoughts of this topic that have been addressed in previous essays, namely the relationship between libertarianism and wider morality, the nature and origin of law and concepts such as rights, obligations and property, and the importance of decentralisation and the relative size of state institutions, in order to try and create a unified picture of how libertarianism in theory can (or will) become libertarianism in practice.

Let us begin our examination, then, with an outline of libertarian theory and the place of libertarianism amongst wider political and moral theory. Libertarianism as a theory is concerned solely with the legitimacy of the initiation of physical force between rationally acting beings and either themselves or other physical matter of which the world is made (i.e. “resources”). Rationally acting beings are those beings who strive to attain their deliberately chosen ends through the utilisation of means, means that are scarce and can only be devoted to one individual’s end at the expense of everyone else’s. Libertarianism asks the question who may act physically in relation to a given piece of matter and who may not. It answers this question by stating that every rationally acting individual owns the physical matter that comprises his body (“self-ownership”) and all external, physical matter either of which he is the first user or of which he has received in trade voluntarily from a previous, legitimate owner (“property”). A violation of these principles – i.e. the uninvited, physical use of an individual’s person or property by another individual – is deemed to be an aggression, an unjust invasion of that which belongs to somebody else (for example, murder, assault and theft). Thus, from these core beliefs we derive the non-aggression principle to encapsulate the basic libertarian approach to all interpersonal conflicts born out of scarcity.

Therefore, libertarianism itself – to use the accepted parlance amongst libertarian scholars – is a “thin” rather than “thick” philosophy, addressing only the legitimate use of physical force. Another way of putting this is that, because everyone’s ends must be accomplished through physical actions which impact, physically, other matter in the real world, libertarianism concerns which persons may act and seek to fulfil their ends in relation to a given piece of matter, and which persons may not. Libertarianism does not, on the other hand, concern the contents of an individual’s ends or goals nor, once it is understood that an individual may act, does it have anything to do with whether or how he should act or which precise choices he should make. Libertarianism addresses neither the wisdom nor the foolishness, and neither the benefits nor the burdens that a given action may bring – merely that the choice to act in a certain way is the individual’s to make and further considerations about whether he should so act is the province of wider morality. A further way of putting this is that libertarianism deals with that which is legally permissible and may be done without response from the force of the law; it does not deal with that which is morally permissible i.e. with which behaviour is either morally accepted or morally questionable – all of which, in contrast to illegal behaviour, cannot be restrained or prevented by physical force, however odious or unpleasant. For example, I have the legal right to refuse to hold open the door for a lady; a SWAT team will not break burst in and arrest me for having refused to act in accordance with this social more. However, from a moral point of view, I have probably behaved quite rudely and in a socially unacceptable manner, meaning that such a choice was, most likely, not a good one to make. However, the choice is still mine to make and no one would have the legal right to use physical force to ensure that I hold the door open. In short libertarianism is about what I may choose to do whereas wider morality concerns what I should choose to do.

Overlooking or disregarding this important point is likely to cause a great deal of confusion. It is the mainstream view today that law and wider morality are not separate endeavours and that the law exists to enforce a positive, moral code. On the one hand the law is used to prevent us from making choices which are morally bad – past and present laws against vices such as drug and alcohol use and against various sexual preferences or adultery are a testament to that. On the other hand the law is also used to force us to act in ways which are morally good – such as the supposed charitableness, selflessness and altruism that is allegedly accomplished by the whole apparatus of the welfare state, which is funded, of course, through legally enforced tax contributions. Morally bad acts are outlawed because they are seen as bad choices to make from which bad consequences will follow and so nobody should be doing them. Morally good acts are forced because they are seen as good choices to make from which good consequences will follow and so everybody should be doing them. When a libertarian, however, then comes along and says that nobody should be legally prevented from injecting or ingesting whatever substances he wants in his body, that no one should be legally restrained from having consensual sex with whomever he wants, and that no one should be forcibly dispossessed of his lawfully earned money to be distributed to others, what he means is that people should be able to choose or to choose not to do these things – that he should have the choice to take drugs, or the choice to have consensual intercourse with a member of the same sex, or the choice to either keep or give away his own money. However, the casual observer, viewing these pronouncements through the prism of an intertwined legal and moral code, looks upon the libertarian desire to legalise acts such as drug taking as a moral endorsement of that act, and the libertarian desire to defund the welfare state as an admonishment of altruism or sacrifice while replacing it with selfishness. He overlooks or refuses to understand the fact that the libertarian is making neither a commendation nor a condemnation of these choices whatsoever – merely that the morality and wisdom of making these choices are no business of the law’s. Unfortunately, many libertarians serve to aggravate this misunderstanding by assuming that there is no further moral question concerning a particular act beyond its satisfaction of the non-aggression principle. Yes, a person should be able to, for example, say whatever words he wants on his own property without any interference from the law – but it does not follow from this fact that it is a good idea to say a particular thing at a particular time, nor does it follow that other people should not withdraw their support of you if they find what you have said objectionable. A person who takes a narcotic does not violate the non-aggression principle but it doesn’t follow from this fact that everything is okay and that there is nothing more to be said on the matter. Indeed, very bad consequences might follow for the drug taking individual and his family if he proceeds to do so and it would be ridiculous to suggest that these are irrelevant considerations. This does not mean to say, of course, that the non-aggression principle should not be primary concentration in building a just and peaceful society. Given that the violation of the non-aggression principle is so endemically legitimised by the institution that is responsible for nearly all of society’s woes – the state – it is, of course, entirely right that libertarians should persistently and consistently emphasise it. However, to view the non-aggression principle as the only worthwhile consideration would, if taken to its logical conclusion, amount to a travesty for the principle only concerns where one may act, not whether he should so act.  Shorn of all other reasons to act or not to act, those who wed themselves to the principle but to nothing else would be devoid of any impetus to make one choice over the other and would, in fact, never act at all! While it is true, therefore, that libertarians in their capacity as libertarian theorists are only concerned with the proper application of the initiation of violence in society, in their role as citizens in society they must also cultivate a positive, personal morality, a personal morality that will permit the libertarian to add value to moral debates far beyond the limits of libertarian theory – while keeping firmly within his sights that none of his views are anything to do with libertarian theory itself.

It cannot be emphasised enough how embracing or understanding the very limited scope of libertarian theory affords a tremendous degree of intellectual clarity for political and moral philosophy. Theories of interpersonal ethics concern how we, as rationally acting individuals, should behave towards each other – the choices we should make that affect our own lives and the lives of those around us. It might be a good thing for each of us to give to charity and to care for one’s elders, for example. However, if theories of interpersonal ethics concern the choices that people should make, then their starting point needs to be that an individual really does have a choice as to whether he should act one way or the other. A person behaves morally or immorally if he has moral responsibility for his actions – i.e. that what he did was born out of his own free will. He does not so behave if his action was forced or if he was otherwise acting as an automaton. This fact is frequently recognised with acts that are seen to be morally bad or evil. For example, if I am holding a knife and somebody grabs my hand and plunges the knife into the body of another person who subsequently dies, few people, if anyone, would agree that I was the murderer as opposed to the person who grabbed my hand. My action was not chosen by me; it was, rather, completely forced and out of my control and thus I do not bear moral responsibility for the ensuing stabbing. Similarly, the law recognises circumstances where an individual is placed under such a degree of duress that his moral responsibility is severely compromised if not totally eradicated. If, for example, someone holds a gun to my head and threatens to shoot me dead unless I stab another person then I am relieved of moral responsibility for the resulting injury or death, at least to a degree. This relief from moral responsibility is seldom, however, recognised with moral goods. If it is morally good for me to give some of my money to the poor then I can only be said to have behaved morally – i.e. to have done a good thing – if I have chosen that act. If, on the other hand, such an action is forced – that I am, Robin Hood-style, robbed of my money and it is then given to the poor – then I have not done anything good at all. I can neither be praised nor condemned for whatever result this action will bring because the choice was not mine – I had to give up that money regardless. It follows from this, therefore, that if giving to the poor is a good thing and is, further, the hallmark of a caring and compassionate society, it is ridiculous for this giving to take place through the forced mechanism of the welfare state. When people pay their taxes to fund the welfare state they don’t give voluntarily at all – rather, the money is forcibly taken from them. The original donors therefore did not behave in any way morally good or morally bad; indeed, strictly, they did not “act” in any way whatsoever. Because they were forced to give up their money, neither care nor compassion was ever shown on their part; in fact, it is more likely they will be extremely resentful. Moral theories that allow for the enforcement of their ends through violence are therefore not really theories of interpersonal ethics at all; rather, they are theories of how the enforcing party – i.e. usually the state’s officials and lackeys – should behave unilaterally, treating everybody else as little more than tools to be wielded towards whatever ends the specific theory so desires. That’s why all socialist and collectivist theories are completely contrary to the reality of human nature – they suppress the very real desires and choices of millions of ordinary people for the benefit of the ends sought or desired by a handful of political masters and bureaucrats. Libertarianism, however, preserves each individual as a moral agent with the ability to make the choices that he wants with the means that he lawfully owns; it forms a true foundation for wider moral theory by reminding such theories that seeking violent enforcement of their ends is no theory of moral behaviour at all, such behaviour requiring moral responsibility for one’s actions. Thus we can see the importance of the place of libertarianism in philosophy as a whole is as a thinly conceived theory concerning the legitimate use of force and violence between rational persons. It is not a complete moral philosophy but it serves as a firm basis for moral philosophy, and this important purpose would be severely impaired if libertarianism as a theory was, instead, conceived of as “thick” or demanding additional moral imperatives.

Beginning from this understanding of libertarianism in theory we can move on to discussing libertarianism in practice. How will a libertarian world be brought about and what will it look like? What kind of institutions will build and preserve this libertarian world? What is it that is preventing us from achieving a libertarian world today? What needs to be the focus of our efforts? In answering these questions we are going to set ourselves the somewhat ambitious task of attempting at least a degree of reconciliation between what are perceived as distinct “camps” within the libertarian movement. First, there are the “thin” libertarians and the “thick” libertarians mentioned just a moment ago; and second, there are the “anarchists” – those who believe that no state is justified at all – and the “minarchists” – those who believe that minimal state is justified for the prevention of aggression. What we will show is that, when it comes to the most likely and practical way that a libertarian society can be introduced, these largely theoretical differences may not be that important and that all libertarians can proceed towards one, common aim.

In beginning our task we first of all need to define precisely what a libertarian society in the real world will actually be. An uncontentious definition would be a society in which the non-aggression principle is adhered to so widely, through one way or another, that violations of it amount to little more than minor incursions and nuisances rather than endemic, perennial societal ills. Some violent invasions against the person or property of other people will always exist – there will always be, after all, criminals and those who are willing to do bad things. The important point, however, is that they do not approach the scale of systematic violence and destruction that our governments heap on us today.

If we accept this definition then there are three problems which we need to consider. The first problem is how to eradicate, from the mainstream consciousness, the legitimisation of the initiation of force or violence – in other words, how do we ensure that the non-aggression principle comes to be viewed as both true and just by almost everyone? How will all persons, regardless of their status or position, come to be subject to this same, basic prescription? The second problem, however, concerns how we will reduce actual violations of the non-aggression principle to a level far below that at which we languish today in order for a very real peace and prosperity to flourish. It would be no good if we achieved the first goal of educating everyone about the injustice of stealing and killing, for instance, yet we all happily stole and killed because the incentives and institutions required to deter such violent behaviour did not exist or, indeed, were impossible to bring about. If this was the case then libertarianism would simply be a theory without any practical application, a whimsical idea that would have no relevance to the real world. The third problem, which is the most difficult of the three to comprehend, is whether a libertarian world will be created from the top down or from the bottom up. Will it be sufficient, for example, for a small band of diehard libertarians to overthrow the existing rulers, install themselves as the supreme leaders and proceed to order everyone to adhere to the non-aggression principle? Or will a sustainable libertarian world be brought about some other way?

Happily, if we examine each of these problems in turn we will find that they point to a common way forward. Addressing the first problem of the legitimacy of force and violence in our world today, we can see that the primary vehicle for this legitimisation is, without a shadow of a doubt, the state – and the democratic state in particular. It is already acknowledged by almost everyone that individual, private citizens cannot steal, murder, thieve, etc. There is no general or widespread problem of people failing to recognise that I, as a private citizen, may not, for instance, steal from my neighbours to fund my business, nor may I use violence to get other people to do what I want with their property. I may not kill someone in the street or bomb houses because I believe there might be some threatening or nasty people inside of them. These acts are, quite rightfully, recognised as unjust and illegal. When it comes to the mechanism of the state, however, people’s attitudes are markedly different. It is, apparently, perfectly legitimate for the state to steal from its citizens in order to fund its business of welfare and warfare; it is legitimate for the state to use force to “regulate” what you do with your own person and property, even though what you may wish to do inflicts no violence or infringement against the person or property of anybody else; the state is allowed to drop bombs on houses if it believes there are nasty people it doesn’t like inside, writing off the innocents who were killed or maimed in the process as “collateral damage” (or at least the state can do this in faraway lands where its voters neither have to see nor think about it). Far from being a check on state power, democracy (the only form of government that is assumed, without argument, to be just by anyone who expects to be taken seriously) has served to increase the power of the state – and thus the extent of its violence – by providing it with a veneer of legitimacy. The only thing that can possibly be said in favour of democracy is that, once one realises that a majority will always get its way one way or another, it provides for a relatively peaceful and bloodless transition of political power from one majority to another. Today, however, democracy has been exalted to a level far removed from what it deserves for providing solely this simple benefit. Because people believe that they are “choosing” their leaders and “choosing” the policies that are implemented by casting their vote or “having their say” this, for some reason, means that it is alright for the state to go about its business of force and violence in almost any way it likes. The power of kings, emperors and those who otherwise claimed some kind of unique, divinely endowed right to rule was kept in its place by the fact that everyone else was shut out from either the use or benefit of state power; no king ever managed to create a world of paper money that could be printed and accepted as payment without limit to fund his warring ventures, nor could he build a redistributive welfare state; no king ever had an alphabet soup of departments and agencies managing your home, your family, your workplace, the products you buy, the services you use, and so on. However, because everyone in a democracy is apparently allowed to “have their say”, such a system not only allows everyone an opening to benefit or even direct the state’s immoral acts via the mechanism of government, but because such acts have been “chosen” by the “will of the people” they are transformed from provoking moral outrage to provoking moral celebration. Never mind, of course, that people do not actually have any meaningful say in a representative democracy – all they are allowed to do is vote, once every few years, between a tiny selection of carefully screened candidates who create the impression that they are bitterly divided yet agree perfectly on all of the fundamental features of the state which libertarians oppose. Only occasionally are the people allowed to come out of their corner to fight, as the British did with the recent referendum on EU membership and the Americans did with the election of Donald Trump as their President. What is important for the legitimisation of force of violence, however, is the fact that people believe that they are in control of the state. It follows, therefore, that delegitimising the state and weakening the power of the state would go a long way to delegitimising the use of force and violence everywhere.

This leads us onto our second problem which is how to minimise the actual incidence of force and violence in society. Unsurprisingly our answer points once again to the primary culprit, which is the state. As we just mentioned, a powerful driving force for the actual commission of violent and invasive acts is their perceived legitimisation under the aegis of the democratic state. After all, if it is okay to relabel theft and violence as taxation and regulation and to do these odious acts through the mechanism of the state, then obviously they are going to be done a lot more often. However, so many of the catastrophes and calamities for which the state is responsible result from the actual, physical wealth and power that many states have managed to accumulate, with that wealth and power concentrated in an ever dwindling number of specific people and institutions. As a result of this the ability for the state to expand its predatory effects has been left almost unchecked. The consolidation of state territories into unified governments has been particularly disastrous in this regard. The two most destructive conflicts in history – the two world wars – occurred after the unification of Germany and Italy, with the drain the Bismarkian welfare state inflicted on the economic prosperity of Germany leading to the drive towards autarky and the perceived need to conquer the largely agrarian lands to the East. The nuclear terror perpetuated by the Cold War was made possible only because such large and powerful states as the United States and the Soviet Union were able to fund the building of their nuclear arsenals. The United States, the only remaining superpower today, has caused havoc in Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and God knows where else simply because it can do so relatively unopposed. Smaller states with smaller tax bases and access to fewer resources simply cannot do this. Yet, ironically, because the state is still viewed as the fountain of all goodness, it is further state expansion which is called for in order to prevent war and preserve peace – as if it is all of us barbarous citizens who are causing all of the strife rather than the political leaders with their armies, navies and air forces. Proponents of such expansion fail to understand the obvious fact that if you wish to minimise war and its effects then the last thing you want to do is to make belligerents bigger and stronger as opposed to smaller and weaker. Nor do they understand that if you wish to promote trade and prosperity then so too must the state be cut down to size. The original project of the European Union was designed to unify and pacify the old warring colonial powers, creating a trading block with tariff free borders through which goods and workers could pass unhindered. We can certainly agree that the aims are broadly correct – if you wish to achieve economic progress then you need to encourage capital accumulation, which can only be done through relatively strong private property rights, minimal taxation and minimal regulation. However, the path that was taken to achieve this was to consolidate and centralise Europe’s political institutions in Brussels and to, eventually, create some kind of European super state. This is the precise opposite of what you want to do if your aim is free trade and increasing prosperity. If Europe, instead, consisted of several hundred, or even up to a thousand small territories and independent cities the size of say, Monaco, Liechtenstein or Luxembourg then the lack of each state’s ability to access both natural and human resources, except through international trade, would be reduced to a minimum; thus such states could only introduce onerous tariffs and border controls at the expense of crippling themselves. Moreover, a small state cannot increase its internal taxes and regulations to levels which are too onerous otherwise residents will simply hop across the border (which, in a small state, is likely to be only be a few miles away) leaving the heavily taxing state drained of its productive population. Thus, what keeps taxes, regulations and border tariffs minimal to non-existent is the competition between many small states so that they can attract investment, talent and resources. In turn, production of these things is encouraged and wealth creation accelerates. However, in a vast super state covering thousands of square miles and controlling an array of natural resources and a population of millions, the taxing and regulating authorities are now left relatively unchecked. No longer do they have to attract resources and talent and neither can these things leave as easily – for they are already there within the territory of the large state and crossing a border that may be thousands of miles away is markedly more difficult. It is for this reason that the EU has become one of the most heavily regulating and interfering state institutions in the world, a fact which incites farcical hilarity, if not utter despair, when you consider that there are more than 12,000 EU regulations concerning milk. If all of these regulations are necessary it’s a wonder how previous generations ever managed to enjoy the stuff at all. It is true that there may be no internal tariffs and border restrictions within the EU and yes, goods and workers can move freely between, say France and Italy. Business leaders acclaim how great this is for commerce and enterprise, yet what these business leaders overlook is that the EU itself has become a burdensome engine of internal taxation and redistribution that far outweighs any gain achieved through the abolition of border tariffs. Indeed, each member state’s contribution to the EU budget effectively amounts to a tariff anyway – the only difference is that the burden of paying it is borne by the citizens of each state as a whole rather than individual industries or businesses which ship goods to the EU. Fortunately the EU does not have any direct, taxing power over the citizens of member states, yet it has been moving to nullify tax competition between states, the very element that is so important for keeping tax rates low and for attracting investment. And let us not forget, of course, that the EU is more than happy to charge onerous tariffs on imports from outside of the bloc. Super states, and prospective super states such as the EU, are not single markets promising trade, prosperity and the best conditions for enterprise – they are, instead, single bureaucracies of heavy taxation, crippling regulation and welfare parasitism.

In his astonishingly perceptive book, The Breakup of Nations, Leopold Kohr pointed out that almost every notable achievement of the human race – great art, great literature, great culture, great technology, great philosophy, and so on – is all but irrelevant to the preservation of peace and prosperity. The only relevant factor is the size, or, rather, the relative size of states. Big states prey on their citizens and their foreign counterparts not because they think they either should or that to do so is good (although they may believe these things), but simply because they can. Great power endows one with great temptation, a temptation which political leaders nearly always cave in to. The evidence for this is difficult to dismiss. Centuries of cultural refinement marked by some of the world’s finest achievements in art, literature and music did not prevent France and Germany from each having their turn at conquering the whole of Europe; the philosophy of freedom and liberty didn’t stop the British from building an empire; the economic and technological progress of the United States has not stopped her from interfering, disastrously, all over the world. Yet the era in recent history which supposedly (but not entirely accurately) marked the nadir of man’s cultural and economic achievement – the Dark Ages – was, by comparison, relatively tranquil, as it was also populated, for much of its history, by relatively smaller, weaker states. From all of this it is clear that the breakup of states into far smaller units – what we might call political decentralisation – should be a clear aim of libertarians.

It is on this note of decentralisation that we move onto our third and final issue which is whether a libertarian world will be brought about from the “top-down” or from the “bottom-up”. Would it be enough, for example, for a defiant band of libertarians to take over the state apparatus and to enforce a libertarian legal code? What we have just said about power and corruption should make our initial answer obvious. If libertarians take over the state won’t they simply become corrupted by its power and influence? Or, more likely, if the populace whom they now govern was not similarly enamoured with libertarian values, wouldn’t the leaders cave into the pressure to use the power of the state to “act” in order to correct some kind of perceived societal ill? A comparable occurrence of this nature in recent history is the American Revolution, which is popularly portrayed as the overthrow of a tyrannous, foreign king by the oppressed but passionate American people fighting for their freedom. Yet, in reality, what occurred was that a new elite simply served to replace the power vacuum that had been left with the departure of the British. Not only were the founding fathers far from unified on the question of precisely which type of government should replace the ejected monarchy, but very quickly aspects of the new United States began to resemble those of their previous colonial masters. We know today, of course, that the Constitution of the United States has utterly failed to constrain the power of the federal government. Yet even reading the original text alone should alert a critical reader to how un-libertarian it was in the first place. It does, after all, preserve the power to tax among a myriad of other horrors in Section Eight of Article One such as declaring war, raising armies and the infamous commerce clause. Within mere years of its adoption, the very same people who were victors over the repressive British provoked the whiskey rebellion, enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts, and even the great Thomas Jefferson found it difficult to constrain himself when, as President, he signed into law and draconically enforced the Embargo Act of 1807. If libertarians simply served to replace the despots they would very soon find themselves acting as the new despots. A genuine libertarian revolution will be impossible unless the power of the state is chopped from the bottom rather than simply given a haircut at the top.

The more important point, however, is revealed when we consider what it is that institutions such as property, rights, obligations and laws – the backbone of a libertarian society – are supposed to serve and how these institutions developed historically. The mainstream point of view in this regard is hopelessly confused, wallowing in a misunderstanding of the abilities and extent of human design and ingenuity. The results of such ingenuity are, of course, all around for us to see. We can easily marvel, for example, at the achievements of humans in the fields of science and engineering, at how we have transformed barren, dead matter into great structures such as buildings and bridges, how we have harnessed the power of electricity to provide us with heat and light, and how a device as small as a microchip can process information many times faster than the human brain. Every way we look we see the results of humans striving to shape the world in the way that we wish in order to meet our needs and improve the quality of our lives. Since the advent of Cartesian rationalism in philosophy, it has seemed almost obvious that if humans can shape the resources we have around us to do what we want them to do then so too can we apply this same engineering bent to society itself and to societal institutions. In other words, that we can deliberately shape society and design its institutions to do what we want them to do. If we can construct the Empire State Building then surely we can construct laws, regulations, rights, and obligations in order to make society a better place? That is the fundamental view of statists today – that society is something there to be managed, pushed in certain directions and squeezed into certain shapes by our political masters served by an army of elite intellectuals. The laws that are enforced are to be designed and enacted through legislation in order to push, from the top down, society onto a particular economic and moral path. Society, however, exists only because individual people perceive that social co-operation is essential for meeting their needs and for vastly improving their quality of life. In contrast to this, it would be quite possible for each person to be content to live an atomistic existence, finding his own food, building his own shelter and entertaining himself devoid of all social relations and interaction with anybody else. If this was the case then society, as such, would not exist. If the population of a territory consisted of 1,000 people yet each of those people lived such an isolated existence then that is all you would have – a piece of land with 1,000 people on it; you would not, however, have a society of 1,000 people. Because, as should be obvious, such an existence would result in the starkest and most brutal impoverishment, humans have, instead, decided to come together and co-operate. Such co-operation has developed from our existence as hunter gatherers, through the Neolithic Revolution and has reached its most advance form in the division of labour – the specialisation of each individual in a particular task which serves the needs of others. It is this social co-operation which is, in and of itself, society. Because the purpose of this co-operation is to further the needs of individuals it is the case also that the institutions that are required to facilitate this co-operation appeared because they made the pursuit of our individual needs and wellbeing easier. The great societal institutions – such as the family, the law, money, and morality – were never explicitly designed or “invented” by anybody. Rather, they were the product of centuries of evolution or of what we might call a “spontaneous order”, and the precise content of their makeup was determined by what facilitated the needs of individual people. The family, for example, developed during an era in which humans were pure consumers of what the Earth had to offer rather than producers – much like animals are. The availability of resources in a society which only consumes and never produces is heavily dependent upon the height of the population. As humans could keep on breeding merrily the population quickly rose to a level where the quantity of resources was insufficient and hence everybody suffered from a reduced standard of living. The family unit developed as a response to this problem in order to make fathers bear the cost of their own children. The more children they have then the more food and shelter they would have to provide for and so this furnished a powerful incentive to keep the population relatively in check. It is from this that our current code of sexual ethics has also developed – the requirement of sexual fidelity and the moral penalisation of sex out of wedlock, for example, all stem from the fact that such acts defeated, or could potentially defeat, the object of controlling the levels of population vis-à-vis resources. Money, which today is printed and controlled entirely by the state, was never explicitly designed by anyone but, rather, arose as a product of barter, whereby one or a handful of goods (usually, except for specific situations, precious metals) became more marketable than any other and hence came to be regarded as valuable not for whatever practical use they may serve but precisely because they could be exchanged. Nobody woke up one morning and, surveying the difficulty of trading individual goods directly, decided to say “I know! Let’s invent a good that we can all trade for everything else and call it money!” No wise leader started, out of the blue, to produce money or manufacture money, nor was the precise monetary commodity in a given situation explicitly chosen by anyone. Rather, given the immense power it afforded, the minting and issuing of money was usurped at a much later date – a usurpation which, of course, was only completed in 1971 when the US dollar’s last tie to gold was severed (and which may not be finally complete until states have succeeded in issuing a common, worldwide, paper currency). Law similarly evolved over centuries, or even millennia, out of interpersonal conflicts people ran in to over resources. The source of a legal case was the fact that two people each wanted to use the same resource to meet their own ends whereas, owing to the fact of scarcity, only one could do so. In other words the precise areas in which the law was concerned were decided by whether or not people could peacefully meet their needs in a given situation. If they could not then it was their perception of a conflict that gave rise to legal rules and principles. This is very important lesson that many libertarians, let alone everyone else, are yet to understand; the precise boundaries of aggression cannot be decided from on high by a wise and powerful leader because the elements of aggression – a physical invasion of another person’s property – are all dependent upon the parties’ perception of those physical transgressions as preventing them from fulfilling their needs with the resource in question. What is aggressive behaviour and what is not cannot be based upon what a political leader thinks is a conflict between two people (as all political leaders do when they enact legislation), nor can it be based upon some precise, scientific measurement of whether one body collided with another. If I shake a bed sheet and a piece of dust travels through the air and lands on your shoulder then, even though I have initiated an action which physically impacts on your person, this is not aggressive behaviour because such an action does not interfere with your ability to use your body to meet your ends. Indeed, most likely, you wouldn’t even be aware of the speck of dust at all. If, however, I threw the bedsheet over your head and wrestled you to the ground then this would probably be regarded as assault and the law would find me liable as such. Both actions concern a physical transgression of your person or property initiated by me, but only the one which interferes with your ability to use your person and property to meet your needs as perceived by you is the aggressive action. None of this should be taken to suggest, however, that the precise content of legal rules is purely subjective, nor should legal liability follow merely from somebody’s whim. Rather, objectively defined rules are drawn from typical experiences of what is and what is not aggressive, such typical situations arising before legal adjudicators again and again. Most people do not want to be killed by another person; most people do not want their belongings taken; most people do not want to be raped. So, for example, if one person kills another then it is presumed that the deceased did not so wish to be killed and the accused must adduce evidence to the contrary if he is to avoid liability. On the other hand, most people do not perceive that a speck of dust landing on their shoulder as a result of someone shaking a bedsheet is aggressive and invasive behaviour. So anyone who turned up before the court alleging that such an incident was aggressive would most likely be told that, even if, subjectively, this speck of dust prevented him from enjoying his person or property, he alone should bear the burden of protecting himself from this unusual sensitivity, rather than forcing everyone else to tiptoe around him. What we can see as a result of this, therefore, is that the precise boundaries of aggression which are expressed in precise laws are very much determined by the customary and conventional context. This is perhaps best illustrated when determining the requirements to enter contracts. If I sit down in a restaurant in Great Britain and order from the menu then that action is sufficient to make me liable to pay for the meal as that is how the situation is understood in this society. My refusal to do so on the grounds that I had not been told explicitly that I would have to pay would be laughed out of court. On the other hand, in another society, it might be the case that you are assumed to be a guest unless the proprietor of the establishment states that you must pay for your meal. If I raise my hand at an auction I might find myself liable to pay for one of the lots; if I do it outside in the street I am merely saying hello to someone. The action is the same but whether I am placing a bid or simply making a greeting has to be judged by the context. So the same thing can not only mean different things in different societies, with different consequences following, but so too might they mean different things in the same society depending upon the precise situation. Legal adjudicators have to assess what the actions of the parties meant and what they intended through their actions according to the social, customary and conventional context in order to determine the precise limits of legal liability. Because, as we said earlier, society is emphatically not something that is managed from on high but is, rather, motivated by individuals, this is an evolving rather than a static process. Such evolution can evolve only through case law, i.e. through law made or “discovered” through actual cases involving real people in real conflicts, rather than through legislation which involves only conflicts manufactured or perceived by politicians and bureaucrats. The importance of the customary and conventional context also applies to which beings may enjoy legal rights and which may not. Libertarians are often chided for their lack of agreement over the issues of abortion and the rights of children but, strictly speaking, these issues cannot be resolved theoretically. Libertarian theory will tell you which kinds of beings enjoy rights and which types of action are aggressive; it does not, however, tell you whether a specific being enjoys rights or whether a specific action is aggressive. The questions concerning the legal rights of foetuses and of children are of this latter category – do they qualify as the kind of beings to whom rights apply, i.e. are they rationally acting beings? And, if not, at which age or ages will a foetus or child be deemed, or at least presumed, to be a rationally acting being capable of enjoying rights? Is the fact that a foetus grows inside the mother an invasion of the mother’s body or has she demonstrated some kind of consent to the foetus’s growth? None of these questions are answered by libertarian theory but, rather, they concern the application of libertarian theory according to the customary, social and conventional context. To take a deliberately extreme example in order to illustrate this, early, primitive societies ascribed natural phenomena to the will of deities, and were unable to differentiate between inanimate phenomena (such as the sun or clouds) on the one hand and conscious beings on the other. Let us suggest that, in such a society, trees are perceived to possess personalities and to have rational thoughts and feelings which could, through some way, influence the course of events (in a similar vein, the present author, as a very young child, believed that trees shaking their branches were the cause of the wind, rather than vice versa). The legal system (or other social rules acting as a precursor to a legal system) of this society would recognise each tree as a legal person endowed with rights, and that to invade the tree’s physical presence would be an unlawful aggression against the tree’s person. Today, however, due to the advances of our scientific understanding, we have sufficient reason to believe that trees are not, in fact, rational beings nor do they possess the will or ability to alter the course of events. Although “living” they are not conscious and simply occupy the sphere of natural resources which can be owned by actual rational beings.

To re-emphasise, the important point about all of this is that, given that both the nature and the content of the elements that preserve societal order – such as rights, obligations, property – are determined by the needs of individual people, it follows that these elements can be neither determined nor shaped by groups of leaders or intellectuals acting from on high – in other words, by centralised, state institutions. Libertarians and free-market economists wax lyrical about how the state cannot hope to run and control specific industries productively in order to meet the needs of individual people and how the state has no rational method of directing resources in ways that best meet the needs of those people. Rather, such industries always end up succumbing to the priorities of the political leaders, the bureaucrats and the employees. Exactly the same is true of the institutions that concern societal governance. The entire state apparatus of legislatures, courts, bureaucracies, and their supporting police and military forces are designed not to give effect to and to prioritise the needs of individual people but, rather, to promote, enhance and push forward the visions of society held by liberal elites – visions of collectivism, equality, uniformity, and multiculturalism that destroy private, voluntary allegiances to localised institutions such as families, communities, and places of worship to direct it towards the glorification of the ever expanding state. The move towards greater state consolidation through supranational outfits such as the United Nations, the European Union, the IMF and so on is designed to concentrate decision making authority in an ever dwindling number of colossal institutions, centralising power and control in the handful of powerful oligarchs. A genuine libertarian society – a society distinguished by freedom for the individual – will therefore only come about through the destruction or dismemberment of the institutions which are diametrically opposed to this freedom. In practice this will mean halting and reversing the current trend towards state consolidation and inter-state co-operation, and seeking the breakup of individual states into as smaller territories as possible. This will scatter decision-making authority away from the centre and towards the individual as close as possible by achieving the increasing localisation of institutions which bear the responsibility for preserving order and governance.

The way forward for libertarians to bring about a libertarian world is therefore relatively clear – we must seek, emphatically, the de-legitimisation the state, the dilution of the power of the state, and the reduction of the size and territorial reach of each state. If, however, we needed to select just one of these elements – one call to action that could be regarded as the libertarian rallying cry – it appears that the third aim of reducing the size of each state is likely to have the greatest impact. Not only is it from this achievement that the other two are likely to follow but it is also the one which, at least after 2016, gives the appearance of being most likely to succeed and of being brought about in the right way from the bottom up rather from the top down. Ethno-nationalism and secessionism has returned to our world as a reaction against the forced centralisation of state institutions and metastasising of supra state bureaucracies; open borders, forced integration and globally managed trade are giving way to each state and smaller territories determining their own policies in this regard. Although our faith in the political process – the game that the statists want us to play – should be cautious, we have to hope that events such as the “Brexit” vote and the election of Donald Trump indicate only the beginning of this rebellion from the masses, a rebellion against the globalising, centralising and bureaucratising forces that will far eclipse the significance of those two events alone.

Moreover, this aim of seeking to reduce the territorial size of states and state institutions achieves also a degree of reconciliation between the distinct camps within the libertarian community we described earlier – between “thin” libertarians and “thick” libertarians on the one hand, and between “minarchists” and “anarchists” on the other. For libertarian “thickests”, we are fully conceding  that the move towards decentralisation and to smaller state territories to likely to be dependent upon the willingness of people to place their trust in more localised, informal, and voluntary institutions such as a common culture, a common language, common customs, a common morality and a common (or a common absence of) religion. It is these alternative elements which are required to shift people’s reliance away from the formal apparatus of the state for their feeling of identity, security and community, and also to generate a feeling of empathy and friendliness within each locale which is needed to grease the wheels of social co-operation. It is precisely because these common elements are the antithesis of statism and state growth that all socialising theorists and politicians have sought to denigrate and destroy them – as they are largely trying to do now through mass migration and the fostering of welfare dependency. By eradicating cultural, community, conventional, customary identities (as well as traditional morality) through its egalitarian, all-inclusive, non-discriminatory, socialising programmes, the state simply sows distrust, hatred, and envy which makes easier its task of theft, violence, and welfare statism. We as libertarians, therefore, should regard the promotion of these common elements and informal institutions as necessary for bringing about a libertarian world. For libertarian “thinnests”, however, we are also acknowledging that we, as libertarians qua libertarians, need not promote a particular culture, a particular language, particular customs, or a particular moral code. It is true that certain cultures, customs and moral codes may be more conducive to sustaining the non-aggression principle than others (and, as I have argued elsewhere, the requirement of non-aggression is, in and of itself, likely to promote and emphasise certain, broadly conceived values). However, it is not our job to determine from on high what these customs and cultures might be and to enforce them upon everyone else. Our focus, rather, is on breaking up the giant, behemoth states so that people can find their own way, building their own communities based upon their own values. Without the power of vast states to enforce and support them, the flourishing of these individual communities will undoubtedly depend upon them being able to adopt values which promote proper order, governance and social wellbeing. However, much of this is largely achieved by the fact of cultural harmony in the first place – that everyone in a community largely agrees on the same basic values and that everyone’s behaviour is broadly acceptable to everyone else. In short, that all members of a given society are basically kindred spirits. Determining precisely what these values will be is, for libertarians, a secondary task at best. Moving on to minarchists and anarchists, if we break up states into relatively smaller sizes then minarchists can be satisfied that each territory still has some official institutions that are responsible for law and order; anarchists, however, will be relieved to know that because such decentralisation and deconsolidation increases the relative power of the individual vis-à-vis the state then the practical distinction between the state as a compulsory association on the one hand and as a voluntary association on the other becomes much less clear. Indeed, at some degree it will be completely abolished. At the extreme end, a small commune on a few acres of land comprising merely tens of people will be heavily reliant upon gaining the continual trust and enthusiasm of each of those people if the commune is to survive. However, a vast commune such as the former Soviet Union can treat each individual person however it likes – stealing from them, forcing them to do what it wants, and, of course, murdering them. Moreover, the ability of a small state to launch any foreign wars – which, in the long run, is the source of the loss of most of our freedoms – is vastly reduced, if not eradicated.

This, then, should be the goal of all libertarians, lovers of freedom, and those who are passionate about free enterprise and free association – breaking up the state into as smaller territories as possible and rendering state power and influence as inert as possible. We can hold some hope that this may be the way in which the tide is turning and that we can finally bring to a close this chapter in human history that has been marked by socialisation, collectivism, statism, bureaucratism and endlessly destructive warfare built on a cushion of false prophets, false values, false money, and a false prosperity.

View the video version of this post.


“Brexit” Wins – Where now for Liberty?


As I am sure everyone is now aware the British people, on Thursday, voted to leave the European Union by a slim majority of 51.9% to 48.1%. Without a doubt this largely unexpected result represents one of the most important, possibly the most important, step forward for liberty in at least a generation, dealing a serious body blow to a major project that sought to centralise and consolidate state power and to weaken the primacy of individual nations and identities. However, while our enthusiasm remains palpable and before the champagne goes flat it is important to judge this outcome in a sober light and to reflect upon how we, as libertarians, can capitalise upon this victory.

As I stated in my essay prior to the referendum, we must bear in mind the fact that the official leave campaign was not a battle between libertarians, or liberty-leaning individuals on the one hand and statists on the other. Rather, it was between small statists and large statists. The contest was not about getting rid of the full house of government horrors – central banks printing paper money, the welfare state, the NHS, and so on – but about national control of the state apparatus versus international control. The populist politicians who will benefit the most from “Brexit” – notably, former London mayor Boris Johnson, who is likely to become the next UK Prime Minister, and US Presidential candidate Donald Trump – may shove two fingers up to the establishment but they are very, very far from perfect and principled characters. Consequently, if they are elected they will soon become part of that establishment and subject to its infiltration. But even if they manage to resist this they may assume they have a mandate to become more authoritarian in their own way. Moreover, the centralising forces that have invested so much in the European project are not going to give up easily. They may have been set back considerably but we can expect them to fight, in the short term by making the stipulated two-year process of withdrawal from the EU punitively painful for Britain, and in the longer term by finding other ways to enact consolidation and centralisation through the back door.

However, let us explore now some aspects revealed by this referendum that provide both something which we libertarians can capitalise on and reasons for us to be optimistic for the future. The first aspect is the sentiment of the voters who participated in the ballot. According to Lord Ashcroft Polls, 43% of those who voted for Britain to remain in the EU did so because “the risks of voting to leave the EU looked too great when it came to things like the economy, jobs and prices” while only 9% voted because they felt “a strong attachment to the EU and its shared history, culture and traditions”. Out of the leave voters, better trade and economic growth outside of the EU was a relatively minor concern with only 6% acknowledging this as their primary reason. However, 49% of leave voters said the biggest single reason for them wanting to leave the EU was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. In other words, looking deeper than the overall slim majority in favour of leaving we can see that remain voters voted pragmatically for their jobs and financial security whereas leave voters voted out principle for British sovereignty. If these figures are correct, therefore, the referendum indicates either a complete lack of support for or a downright repudiation of the ideology of centralisation and the merging of individual nation states in a giant behemoth. This is an extremely encouraging revelation for the cause of liberty and one that has seemingly been missed by mainstream commentators.

The second aspect is the reaction of liberal elites to the referendum result, a result that has shocked them profoundly. The prevailing attitude of these people is one that I have detected from conversations with and observations of my own friends and acquaintances, who are mostly young, are either well or highly educated, and are either intellectuals or professionals. This is the attitude that all progress, peace and prosperity, and that all prevailing cultural attitudes emanate from the top down, from a stewardship and management of society and the economy by wise, far sighted elites such as themselves through the apparatus of the state; and, hence, the bigger and more unified the apparatus of the state run by people like them then the more successful and prosperous will be the society it rules. In the same way that great engineers can fashion the tallest buildings, the fastest cars, the biggest planes and so on, so too do these people believe that they can engineer and shape society according to what they believe is virtuous and valuable. What they fail to see is that a peaceful and prosperous society is nothing more than individual people seeking to co-operate to attain ends that they want; that it is individual people with their own thoughts, feelings and desires making their own choices to better their lives; that their attitudes and values are motivated from the bottom up by what is good for them and for their families and friends. The narrow minded, intellectual view has led the elites to interpret the results of the referendum – i.e. rejection of a unity of states – as being a rejection of peace and harmony with the rest of humanity because they cannot imagine a unity of peoples without the unity of states. Indeed, the reaction of one acquaintance to the outcome of the referendum was that she was feeling “apocalyptic”. However, the most pertinent example of this globalist-elitist attitude is in the following reaction offered to the BBC by a young Polish lady:

Seriously Britain? It’s sad that a majority of your people didn’t realise that it’s not a choice…about your no longer imperial country, but about commitment, devotion and enthusiasm of the whole Europe. If you voted Leave, you are selfish and you deserve to watch Scotland saying ‘bye’.

I pity well-educated people of Britain, especially youngsters, that will need to face what the ‘majority’ brought them.


As a person who truly believes in unity of European culture and heritage and supports sticking together against the odds, I feel really disappointed, even personally touched” [Emphasis added]

Another individual expressed regret that we do not have weighted voting – because obviously all of those stupid voters out there in the wilderness do not know what is best for them, an attitude no doubt bolstered by the fact that much of the leave vote came from working class heartlands where the Labour Party is normally strong. What these bright individuals have utterly failed to realise is that people have had enough of “well educated”, morally superior, self-righteous elites such as themselves telling them how to live their lives and forcing them to do it, with the most hubristic and arrogant of them now retreating into their shells because they think the world is about to end without this pan-European state structure that they have designed for us all.

Happily, however, I also sense, amongst some of the smarter individuals within these kinds of circles, a small but glowing realisation that there was, outside of London and the ivory towers of universities, a whole other country from which they were entirely disconnected – attitudes, opinions, thoughts, feelings and desires which they completely ignored. It is this realisation that libertarians should attempt to nurture and grow, an opening into which we can begin to instil the benefits and morality of decentralisation and personal liberty. It will be a long haul but at least there is a glimmer of light.

So while, therefore, I believe that June 23rd is a great day for liberty, there is much work to be done and we should not lose any time in getting down to it.

View the video version of this post.


Small States – the Key to Liberty?

Leave a comment

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.

View the video version of this post.

Austro-Libertarianism – Three Next Steps

1 Comment

Austro-libertarianism undoubtedly has a long history of scholarship of which it can proudly exemplify as not only providing a coherent body of truthful insights into the way in which the world really works, but also provides a foundation for a just and prosperous society.

However, far from resting on any laurels (and I doubt any scholar in this tradition would ever believe that we are at the stage where we can do such a thing), this essay will suggest three areas of development to which scholars in the Austro-libertarian tradition may wish to focus their research.

Pure Praxeology

The first area is to reconceive “Austrian” economics as a pure (or at least “purer” theory) of praxeology. Although “Austrian” economics is noted for deriving its laws from the theory of individual human action, economics traditionally – not least because concepts such as exchange, production, prices, money, and so on are the complex phenomena that we wish to study and understand the nature of – concentrates only on action above the level of the bilateral exchange of wares for a money income. Our economic categorisations and concepts therefore rest on that limitation. “Austrian” treatises, although they begin quite properly by explaining how economic theory is derived from the action axiom (together also with extremely useful chapters on unilateral or “Robinson Crusoe” exchange), soon begin to espouse their theories in terms of these more aggregative concepts, only occasionally returning to individual action in order to emphasise a particular point1.

A simple example to illustrate this point is the economist’s approach to the classification of goods. A “consumer good” is one that is purchased by a consumer for money without any further sale for money expected. Bread, for example, is treated as a consumer good because it generally goes through no further monetary exchange prior to being consumed. At the individual level, however, the bread may only be a capital good in making, say, a sandwich. Labour is combined with the bread and other goods – say cheese and tomatoes – in order to produce the final consumer good of a cheese and tomato sandwich. We can say the same thing about cutlery and crockery, paper and ink and so on. All of these goods are used at the level below that of exchange for money by individuals to produce further goods. “Land”, on the other hand, is treated as the natural resources which are a gift to all humans, not just an individual human being. However, a good produced by another human being may, to the individual who happens to stumble upon it, comprise “land” in the sense that it is a free gift to him and that he has not had to exert any productive effort in order to bring it into the condition in which he finds it. If, for example, I find an abandoned car in perfect working order and (assuming there are no competing ownership claims), even though the car is a produced good, as far as my action and my computation of costs and benefits towards that action goes, the car is a gift of nature and is in exactly the same condition as, say, a tree that has grown naturally.

It is easy to see why any loss of the connection to individual action can quickly lead economists in the “Austrian” tradition and their fellow travellers down wrong paths. Murray N Rothbard provides an extensive critique of W H Hutt’s aggregative concept of “consumer sovereignty” – the idea that all consumers are sovereign over producers and that the latter exist only for the benefit of the former and not for themselves2. The market place is where everybody seeks to benefit himself through voluntary exchange, and there is not, in fact, a distinct class of labourers, of producers and of consumers with one being “sovereign” over the other. Rather, everybody at differing points of the day (even from minute to minute) participates in a different economic category – a man is a labourer when he goes to work; he is a consumer when he stops by at the shop on his way home; he is a capitalist if he purchases some shares for his pension, and so on. Questions of “sovereignty” – the boundaries of rule – concern only the political arena. Concentration on the basis of economic law in individual human action would have avoided any fallacy and prevented a resort to parcel phenomena into homogenous, collective blocks. However, Rothbard hardly escapes the same danger to which Hutt succumbed, building his entire theory of production using the economic fiction of the Evenly Rotating Economy (ERE), an economy in which all economic activity is repeated and known. Thus, entrepreneurial profit and loss is eliminated. This model allows (or, perhaps, forces) Rothbard to conclude that capital goods earn no net rents and that all rents are paid back to the original factors of production – land and labour – a theme that is oft repeated throughout his entire treatise. It is submitted here, however, that regardless of how such an approach may be helpful in illustrating the complexity of the structure of production, any firm or even implied conclusions drawn from it are likely to be grossly misleading and can only lead to error. The most dangerous false step from this presentation is to assume that the ownership of land – as an original factor – provides essentially free income to those who happen to hold it. Needless to say Rothbard takes great pains to rebut this conclusion, but his attempt could be condensed, with a slight modification, to a single paragraph:

As the only income to ground land that is not profit or interest, we are left with the original gains to the first finder of land. But, here again, there is capitalization and not a pure gain. Pioneering—finding new land, i.e., new natural resources—is a business like any other. Investing in it takes capital, labor, and entrepreneurial ability. The expected rents of finding and using are taken into account when the investments and expenses of exploration and shaping into use are made. Therefore, these gains are also capitalized backward in the original investment, and the tendency will be for them too to be the usual interest return on the investment. Deviations from this return will constitute entrepreneurial profits and losses. Therefore, we conclude that there is practically nothing unique about incomes from ground land and that all net income in the productive system goes to wages, to interest, and to profit3.

The correct position, therefore, is that “things” do not “earn” anything. All actions, whether they involve the dispensation of labour, land or capital goods, require the sacrifice of one state of affairs (“costs”) in the pursuit of another state of affairs. It is hoped that the ends brought about are more valuable than the ends given up. The creation of this value if the action is successful (or its destruction if it is not) is the product of entrepreneurial judgment. All income from any action is therefore paid out to cover costs, interest or entrepreneurial profit and loss. All net rents in the economy accrue only to this latter element – successful entrepreneurial judgment with the means at one’s disposal, whether this is your labour, land that you own, or a capital good that you hold. All of these things that can be bought or sold for more or less money than is sufficient to cover their costs plus interest. It is only by remaining firmly anchored to action at the individual level that this realisation can remain in focus4.

Coupled with this endeavour of better preserving the link between the complex phenomena in the economy with individual action is a greater emphasis on “Austrian” methodology not as a separate topic but one to be espoused during the course of the treatise. The reason for this is that a “vulgar” conception of “Austrianism” would state that all economic theory and all of the laws of economics are deduced logically from the action axiom and one or two subsidiary axioms. Truths derived empirically have little or no place in “Austrian” economics. This is not, however, altogether true. Only the core theory concerning the action axiom and its immediately related categories, in addition to some of the more fundamental laws (such as the law of marginal utility) are deduced logically. However, there is a great body of “Austrian” economic law that requires the ascertainment of empirical facts. We cannot, for example, derive economic laws of bilateral exchange without ascertaining the existence of more than one human being, an endeavour which any individual cannot simply deduce. We cannot have an “Austrian” approach to the economic effects of taxation unless one group of persons had, in fact, attempted to tax another group. We cannot have an “Austrian” business cycle theory without first assuming the existence of banks, the practice of fractional reserve banking, a loan market and even money itself must be presupposed. Although the regression theorem, for instance, is a valid praxeological law5, it would only exist if we first of all knew that money existed and that people had chosen to use a good as a general medium of exchange. Now it is true, of course, that these laws would remain valid and true even if the substantive human choices upon which they rely had not been made. If we imagined a world without money, for example, and pondered its existence merely as a hypothetical we could still derive “Austrian” laws concerning it without it ever actually existing. The actual phenomena in existence simply direct our interest to them as those are the areas that matter in our lives and hence are the things we wish to study and understand. No doubt it is also quite impossible to try and “imagine” alternative institutions and choices that have never existed and to apply to them the core “Austrian” theory, especially as our own experience of real concepts such as money, exchange, prices, banking and so on often provides an illustrative tool to our theoretical insights. However, it is more accurate to speak of the entire endeavour of “Austrian” economics not solely as a body of economic law that is deduced logically, but as the application of the core theory, deduced from the action axiom, to the substantive institutional choices that humans have made, the existence of which is verified empirically6. More prominent highlighting of the “Austrian” method and the source of each parcel of knowledge during the course of a treatise would aid greatly any misunderstanding in this regard.


The second area of fertile development in “Austro-libertarianism” is the necessity to sever or more sharply delineate the relationship, often casually assumed not only in political philosophy but also in the opinions of lay persons, between legal norms and moral norms. That is, the question of what should be legal – in other words, those norms which may be enforced by the imposition of violence – should be separated from the question of what is good, worthy or preferable. It is submitted that this is one of the greatest barriers to a proper understanding of the role of violence in interpersonal morality, and has been dealt with in detail by the present author here, here and here. Many people happily recognise the illegitimacy of the legal (violent) enforcement against themselves of norms that other people value as moral ends which, as the hapless victims of this enforcement, they themselves do not (or at the very least, they would complain about it). But, because of the prevalence of the legitimising effect of democracy and the blurring of any distinct line between the governors and the governed, most would not think twice to advocacy of the legal (violent) enforcement of ends that they deem good against other people. Indeed, the criterion for what should be legally enforced boils down to little more than what most people think should be legally enforced. Libertarians need to create an understanding that the proper role of violent enforcement is restricted to preserving the physical integrity of each individual’s person and property – and as moral agency requires such integrity in order for a person to choose and act, such an insight is crucial for any proper understanding of interpersonal morality. The examination of whether something is bad, unpleasant or a vice must be separated from the question of whether its prevention should be enforced legally; and, equally and oppositely, the examination of that which should be peacefully permitted by the law should be separated from the question of whether such acts are good and noble things. In addition to aiding moral and political philosophy, this would be of a benefit to libertarianism specifically as it would render inert the perceived support for all of those bad and unpleasant things – drugs, prostitution, gambling, blackmail, and so on – which are non-violent but are nevertheless not necessarily things that we would wish to see in our society7.


The final area for development in Austro-libertarianism, this time in the field of economic history and anthropology, is to engage in a rigorous study of the effects of inflation and inflationism throughout history. “Austrian” scholars have certainly charted well the purely economic effects but, in the opinion of the present author, an exhaustive study of the social, cultural, political, and aesthetic effects of inflation is yet to be written, at least in the “Austrian” tradition. As Henry Hazlitt notes:

[Inflation]…discourages all prudence and thrift. It encourages squandering, gambling, reckless waste of all kinds. It often makes it more profitable to speculate than to produce. It tears apart the whole fabric of stable economic relationships. Its inexcusable injustices drive men toward desperate remedies. It plants the seeds of fascism and communism. It leads men to demand totalitarian controls. It ends invariably in bitter disillusion and collapse8.

Apart from the wide “macro” effects of inflation – not least of which include the birth of odious ideological movements and regimes and their ability to fund wars and conflict – also of interest is how inflation effects us at the individual level. For example, how many of our day-to-day products that we enjoy today are the result of genuine development by a capitalist economy and how many are simply substitutes developed in an era of inflation to enable people to attempt to salvage some of their previous standard of living? Products such as instant coffee, condensed milk; synthetic clothing; plastic bottles; and so on. How many genuine labour saving products were developed not because people genuinely wanted to save time but because inflation had either reduced their income to such a degree that time came at a premium or because inflation had induced impatience and a present-oriented fervour? Indeed the latter may have had distinct ramifications beyond the economic – the birth of adolescence as a distinct demographic; the sexualisation of society; the preference for entertainment ahead of learning; the attraction to style rather than to substance; the prominence of sound bites and “tweets” rather than in-depth analysis; the emphasis on youth and adaptability to an ever changing world rather than on age and accumulated wisdom. All of these things have significant consequences for which inflation much at least be partly responsible. Further, how much does inflation distort our views of reality and of what is possible? Inflation, as Hazlitt noted, makes speculation rather than production profitable – the image of productivity and wealth creation rather than the very thing itself. It makes big or easy wins more attractive than patient investment in a lifelong endeavour. But at the extreme we might say that we have attempted to replace reality itself with dreamed ideals. Government, has taken over and replaced real money (gold and silver) with a fake paper counterfeit. Having replaced reality with one form of fakery, we expect government to be able to legislate to replace reality with our pseudo visions, to carry out the miracle of transforming stones into bread. Thomas Nast’s cartoon, Milk Tickets for Babies in Place of Milk (below), concerning the inflation during the American Civil War, perhaps captures the foundation of this mindset in artistic form. The cartoon contains representations of reality that are passed off, for example, by Acts of Congress as reality itself. As English professor Paul A Cantor explains:

Nast’s illustration brilliantly captures [the confusion of] things with representations of things. Like Magritte [in the painting The Treachery of Images], Nast reminds us that a picture of a cow is not actually a cow, but he is not making a merely aesthetic statement. He is drawing a more serious analogy between the duplicity involved in artistic representation and the duplicity involved in the government printing money and forcibly establishing it as legal tender, an analogy embodied in the parallel “This is a Cow By Act of the Artist” and “This is Money by the Act of Congress”9.

Given that “Austrians” lead in the way in a providing a genuine understanding of the definition and effects of inflation it would be appropriate for an historian versed in “Austrian” theory to undertake a full study along the lines that we have suggested here.

View the video version of this post.

1It is also the case that most “Austrian” scholars writing today received their initial education in the mainstream economics tradition and only later “turned” to “Austrianism”. Thus one senses a tendency, if not a persistency, to lapse into the comfort of aggregative and pseudo-concepts, at best obscuring the essential connection to individual human action, and at worst completely losing it and ending up in the rhetoric of collectivist and societal-oriented action.

2Murray N Rothbard, Man, Economy and State with Power & Market, p. 631-6

3Ibid., p.530, emphasis added.

4The present author is not enthusiastic about the excessive use of equilibrium constructs and they should, at the most, be used as a tool in order to distinguish one concept from another, an endeavour that would be impossible without such a construct. Nevertheless, it is possible that a dynamic equilibrium – a fiction in which there is change and entrepreneurial profit and loss but where all forecasts of the particular entrepreneur in the model are correct – together with a focus on the costs of land acquisition and of the dispensation of labour would have created a better illustration than the ERE. But whatever model is used, it is submitted that the illustration of every stage of production, whether it is with land, labour or capital, necessitates the elements of costs, interest and entrepreneurial judgment and that, contra to Rothbard’s assertion that the mental construction of the ERE is necessary in explaining the structure of production, a much clearer grasp of reality can be and, indeed, is attained without omitting any of the crucial elements.

5Although this is disputed. See Gary North, The Regression Theorem as Conjectural History, Ch. 7 in Jörg Guido Hülsmann (ed.), The Theory of Money and Fiduciary Media – Essays in Celelbration of the Centennial.

6If anyone should doubt this and remain steadfastly wedded to the idea that “all” of “Austrian” economics is deduced logically this then he should attempt to present an “Austrian” treatise written in formal logic.

7The present author has dealt with the so-called “thick” or “thin” libertarian debate here.

8Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson, p.157.

9Paul A Cantor, Hyperinflation and Hyperreality: Thomas Mann in Light of Austrian Economics, The Review of Austrian Economics, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1994), 3-29.

Libertarians Beware?

Leave a comment

An article concerning the libertarian attitude towards the black market by Robert Wenzel entitled “A Warning to Libertarians: Please Do Not End Up Like Ross Ulbricht” recently appeared on the libertarian site Wenzel’s basic premise is that libertarians in their capacity as libertarians should not celebrate the black market, let alone get involved in it as budding entrepreneurs:

The trial of Ross Ulbricht, admitted founder of Silk Road, is over. He has been convicted on all the charges brought by the government. It is a terrible tragedy.


Ubricht faces somewhere between 20 years to a life sentence. To be sure, from a libertarian perspective, there does not appear to be much that Ulbricht is guilty of. He simply provided a market for individuals willing to exchange, certainly not a violation of the libertarian non-aggression principle.


BUT, despite the libertarian perspective, he is going to spend a a [sic] very, very long time in prison.

This is part of the reason, [sic] I find it remarkable that some libertarians are cheering on further efforts in the murky dark internet.


The Ross Ulbricht trial marks a turning point for the darknet. Originally created to combat a problem, DNMs have now become a rallying point for the adherents of Libertarian [sic] ideology. Ulbricht himself described the Silk Road as an “economic experiment.” Many see him as a martyr and have supported him through it all, from patronizing the Silk Road via contraband purchases to donating over $339,000 via Bitcoin toward his legal defense fund. His downfall was an inspiration to push further, to continue the economic experiment, for the betterment of humanity (hopefully).


As long as a commodity needs physical delivery, there is no protection from the government, even if it is done via the dark net – and that supposes the government isn’t watching on the dark net in the first place, before physical delivery.

There are just so many things that can go wrong operating in the dark net, with very heavy downside, it makes no sense for a libertarian, qua libertarian, to get involved, especially by running such an operation.

Just becasue [sic] libertarians are in favor of free exchange, where does it say they have to run underground markets?

He then quotes Murray Rothbard’s discussion of Samuel Konkin’s agorism:

If the black market should develop, then the successful entrepreneurs are not going to be agoric theoreticians…but successful entrepreneurs period.


As much as I love the market, I refuse to believe that when I engage in a regular market transaction (e.g., buying a sandwich) or a black market activity (e.g., driving at 60 miles per hour) I advance one iota nearer the libertarian revolution.  The black market is not going to be the path to liberty, and libertarian theoreticians and activists have no function in that market.


Historically, classical liberal political parties have accomplished far more for human liberty than any black markets.

Returning to his own commentary, Wenzel continues:

Advancing liberty is not about selling hooch or weed, though there is no reason to condemn those who enter into these noble professions. If you want to advance liberty, you do so by writing, speaking and reading about liberty. This requires that very little be done beyond libertarian study and actual libertarian activities, even at the early stages of developing such a career.


Leave the drug dealing to drug dealers, There’s this thing called the division of labor and there is no path where drug dealers and libertarians have to pass, anymore [sic] than libertarians have to cross paths with fire eaters and sword swallowers, though I doubt many fire eaters and sword swallowers are paying much in terms of taxes, something that libertarians can appreciate, as much as they can appreciate the efforts of drug dealers, without getting into the business.

Indeed, just becasue [sic] street hookers must operate on the black market doesn’t mean we should be encouraging libertarian women to become hookers, even if they would only accept bitcoins.

One can agree that this appeal to libertarians to heed a bewaring of the black market makes several important points. First, a libertarian is certainly not necessarily a good entrepreneur and regardless of whether he is he would still need to devote a lot of time to reading, studying, absorbing, understanding and debating libertarianism. One cannot pursue a cause unless one has a thorough understanding of that cause. Second, simply because libertarian theory permits certain activities that are currently illegal (the vending and use of drugs being a pertinent example) does not mean that libertarians promote such activities as a good thing to be encouraged. Such a question concern’s one’s personal morality and not libertarianism as such. The libertarian movement itself seeks to neither promote nor disparage any substantive choice of action whatsoever and there is a genuine risk that libertarians will either be labelled as the “anything goes” crowd or, worse, may be identified with the active encouragement of acts which, while they do not breach the non-aggression principle, are otherwise odious, unpleasant and/or lacking in social acceptance.

However, where the present author parts company with Wenzel is the suggestion that a) operations such as the black market and entrepreneurship in general fundamentally do not matter very much in the fight for liberty and b) that painstaking education of the populace is likely to be far more productive in this regard. There is also the suggestion, exemplified by the Rothbard quotation, that traditional political parties that are organised to promote liberty are the way forward and have worked in the past. However, it is our contention here that these propositions are likely to be untrue and that, in fact, entrepreneurship will have a far more effective role to play in the practical matter of bringing about a world of liberty while education and political parties may, in fact, have a minimal effect.

Many libertarians probably have it in their head that a free world will one day be achieved through a giant revolution where the inspired masses rise up and force the transition from an imperialist-statist regime to one of liberty. But one has to wonder precisely how this is going to happen. Even if a majority of the world’s population became educated enough about the benefits of liberty, a transition to a world of liberty is one from a state of power to one of an absence of power. Revolutions, however, are fundamentally the replacement of the holders of power. In other words, the power vacuum left by the vanquished rulers is filled quickly by the revolutionary leaders – and we all know how potently power corrupts. It did not take altogether too long, for example, for the post-revolutionary United States to begin centralising power and even so ardent an advocate of liberty as Thomas Jefferson left a questionable record once he became President. A libertarian revolution, the end product of which is a fragmentation and scattering of power from central concentration in governments and states down to the individual, is therefore likely to be largely leaderless and lacking any concentration in terms of personalities, places and also times. Rather, different people, in different places at different times will carry out independent acts to move the world one step closer towards freedom. Libertarianism is, therefore, fundamentally about rejecting the world of political parties, political leaders and electioneering – not seeking to emulate them or join in their game.

Underestimated, therefore, is the possibility that rather than government being overthrown the likeliest route for the achievement of liberty is for government to simply dissolve through circumvention. Given this, the importance of black and regular markets starts to become apparent. For even if the population becomes educated enough to be inspired towards liberty, in order to truly achieve such a world through a de-homogenised process lacking in central control and leadership, small, local and independent circumventions of government authority – as exemplified by the black market where scattered, independent entrepreneurs attempt to meet the people’s needs that happen to be contrary to the proscriptions of the government – are likely to be a key route to in bringing this about. In other words, government simply drowns in a sea of non-compliance with its diktats. Indeed one of the reasons why, for example, the underground drugs industry is so difficult for government to even scratch the surface of, let alone conquer, is because there is not one giant overarching drugs lord sitting on his throne dispensing all of the world’s drugs, ready for the government to take out and thus win the war. Rather, it is because there are a multitude of relatively small, independent suppliers, with their own locations, their own partners and stakeholders, their own methods and techniques, and so on. Taking out any one of them does not necessarily stop the rest, and even if it did what is there to stop someone new from springing up and setting up shop? The seizure of a large drugs shipment, usually celebrated as a grand achievement, barely makes a dent in the ability of the black market entrepreneurs to continue to produce and supply these substances.

However, even this path – that of the black, underground and regular markets providing an outlet for an educated public – is probably not going to be the way in which a world of liberty will be achieved and we can suggest a far more likely, praxeologically supported scenario of what will happen. All governments require at least the tacit support of a majority of the population in order to retain their power. But it does not follow that the breaking of this tacit support necessarily requires the people to become educated about the ethics of private property and the moral odiousness of the state (although one can hardly deny that such an education would be a good thing). Whatever regime exists humans will always think and feel as individuals – they have ends as individuals, they act as individuals and they feel gain or loss as individuals. Their support, or tacit acceptance of government, relies not only on the fact that government is seen to be legitimate but also on the fact that it is perceived to accomplish certain ends for the individual. In particular, protection from crime, and the sustenance and stability of a peaceful order are seen by almost everybody to be the primary function of and justification for government. Like any other means to an end, government will cease to be supported when its costs, real or perceived, outweigh its benefits.

In the first place, as bankrupt governments unload increasing privations and annoyances upon the daily lives of their citizens, it is precisely the shrewd entrepreneurs who will find a market of people who seek to overcome these irritations. We can see this already with innovations such as Bitcoin and 3D printing seeking to overcome the government monopoly over the financial services and firearm restrictions respectively. But the march of technological progress does not even require entrepreneurs to be consciously aware that it is curbing government power. The internet, for example, has practically obliterated the government monopoly over information. The very pinnacle of market circumvention of government would be to shatter its very raison d’être – the monopoly of force and the dispensation of justice – without which it would simply not be able to impose its oppressive and parasitic existence upon the citizenry. What if there was some way of not overcoming or overthrowing government’s force but of simply circumventing it and making it a practical non-entity in people’s lives? As the present author stated in a previous piece, “Making Government Irrelevant,

What if […] an invention would enable any person, at extremely low cost, to protect his or her person and property from all forms of force? I have very little idea as to what this could be – an invisible force field around each object you own, perhaps? This is a matter for the genius of inventors. But imagine the result – in one swoop you would eliminate both the ability of government to tax, steal, imprison, kill, maim and live off the fat of everyone else and you would completely eradicate its reason for existence. For if people can now protect themselves from invasion of their person and property at very low cost, why bother with government? Why would anyone pay taxes for an army or police force when this new, cheap, method prevents the very reason for their existence? Of course, people may continue to pay “taxes” voluntarily for some service that the current administrative set up may be perceived to be providing. But there is nothing wrong with this if that is what people want to do with their own money. The bite of force, however, will be lost and government will be relegated (one might say promoted) to the same level of every other market player – having to offer people a valuable service in return for its voluntarily paid revenue.

Therefore, people do not necessarily need to overthrow government or come to understand how evil and immoral it is – it simply needs to made irrelevant in their lives. And it is entrepreneurs, either existing in the black or mainstream markets who are the most likely to be the path through which a world of liberty is achieved. It is submitted that, given the innovations in this regard that have been accomplished so far and the difficult government is having in coping with them, this route will be the most successful in building the road to liberty than any attempts to educate the populace towards revolution. Education will, of course, always be important and every libertarian has a duty to read, learn and debate libertarian theory. And certainly no libertarian has any business engaging in entrepreneurial ventures if he is completely lacking in the required talent. But so too should we be prepared to recognise the fact that entrepreneurial invention and ultimately the market, the very thing itself that we as libertarians champion – individual people seeking to peacefully and voluntarily meet their ends through means – is the most likely thing that will bring about the world that we believe is right.

View the video version of this post.

The “Austrian” Method Part Two of Two – Human Action and the Natural Sciences

Leave a comment

In part one of this two-part series of essays on the “Austrian” method, we explored how action forms the grounding of our epistemology. We will now, in this second and final part, determine the correct approaches for humans to go out into the world and study the complex phenomena that exist.

Methodological Dualism

The “Austrian” approach to the explanation of phenomena is that science must apply a definitive and rigorous methodological dualism – taking one approach towards the study of human action on the hand and a different approach towards the study of the actions of unconscious matter on the other. The study of humans – that is, of their conscious actions as opposed to the actions motivated by the chemical and biological physiology of their bodies, such a heartbeat – must be validated by deduction from the action axiom. Within this category of study falls praxeology and the parts of it that branch into economics and ethics. The study of unconscious matter, on the other hand, must be validated empirically, encompassing all of the areas of study to which we typically apply the epithet “science” – physics, chemistry, biology and so on. This position of the “Austrians” is contrary to that of the mainstream economics profession which takes a methodological monistic approach, with the study of human action being categorised in exactly the same way as dead, unconscious matter and subjected to validation by evidential testing. Indeed science these days is almost synonymous with “evidence” and any conclusions that are not validated through evidence are seen to be worthless. The huge myriad of facts and statistics that are gathered about society are all used as “evidence” to indicate a particular problem or that a government intervention is or is not working. Indeed the entire approach gives credence to those who seek to bring about social engineering – if humans are merely mechanical objects that always behave in manner X when action Y is imposed then society can be manipulated like a puppet on a string in accordance with the will of the political leaders. If the product of this engineering is a failure then the hypothesis is merely viewed as being incorrect and – regardless of the lives ruined or lost in the first round – perhaps we should try seeing if humans behave not in manner X but in manner Z when action Y is imposed. By failing (or refusing to acknowledge) that it is the method itself and not the specific conclusions under it that are at fault, endless rounds of programmes and interferences are justified in order to try and get government to shape society according to whatever preoccupations – justice, equality, fairness etc. – happen to rule the roost. It is not too outlandish to suggest that the biggest social experiment of this kind – the Soviet Union – took seventy gut-wrenching years and countless millions of lives before it was abandoned as a failure. The settlement of this question, therefore, and proof of the necessity of methodological dualism is one of the most important bulwarks against tyranny that liberty-minded individuals should be prepared to understand.


Our first task is not to establish whether this dualism is justified, but, rather, whether it is possible to learn anything of substance at all through reasoning and deduction. A positivist objection to validating knowledge through reasoning is that it must necessarily be analytical and tautological rather than synthetic and progressive of knowledge. In other words, everything we need to know is contained in the original proposition and deducing further knowledge from it amounts merely to an engagement in endless definitions that teach us nothing new about the world whatsoever. But just because something is deduced from a given proposition does not mean that it is simply an elaborated definition of that original fact; rather, we very much learn something new about the world that affects how we interact with it. Even a very simple proposition – such as two parallel lines will never meet – will have impacts on geometry, design, endeavours in construction and even our spatial awareness. Try building an object where your design relies on the false proposition that two parallel lines will, at some point, meet and you will probably find that it will collapse. Similarly, the fact that we derive the whole corpus of economic theory from the simple proposition that “humans act” does not mean that we are expressing redundant and pointless definitions through economic theorising. All of the subsidiary axioms – that humans choose means, towards ends, at a cost, resulting in profit or loss – as well as concepts we derive from them – supply and demand, marginal utility, prices, exchange, interest, capital goods – and not to mention all of the further complex laws that we deduce from them all collapse into the basic axiom that humans act. Yet to understand these concepts and laws is not to engage in endless tautology. Do we not learn anything new about the world by deducing from the fact that humans act that price controls will cause either a shortage or surplus of the controlled goods? Do we not gain something from realising that increased taxation will raise the cost of production and hence retard its extent? All of these concepts and laws tell us something we did not know before about how we interact with the world and we would be very much at a loss without their realisation.

Unconscious and Conscious Beings

Having established this, therefore, let us proceed to justify the methodological division between the validation of knowledge of the actions of unconscious matter on the one hand and the actions of humans on the other. As we mentioned in part one, the seeking of knowledge in inherently bound with our role as actors and how we can enhance our use of means towards ends motivated by choices. The study of all complex phenomena in the universe is fundamentally an endeavour to enhance our understanding of another fundamental category of action, that of causality and the operation of causes – how one event causes another. It is through our role as actors where we must display and utilise an inherent understanding of the causal link between events that we come to realise the necessity for methodological dualism.

The physical objects around us in the world are all capable of being categorised as means through which we may meet our ends. A particular action utilising an object as a means will give a certain result – the end may be fulfilled, unfulfilled or fulfilled to a degree short of that desired; “over-fulfilment” – that is that the means through action produce more of an end that that which was sought may also be considered but it overlaps with un-fulfilment if the result is to create a net loss by impacting on other ends. This success or non-success of actions – that is, the suitability of means for ends – determines our knowledge of causes between these two categories of action. With unconscious objects humans tend to find that the same outcomes occur from repetition of a certain action under like conditions – if I let go of a ball it drops to the ground; if I do it a second time it drops to the ground again. In other words I find that on each occasion repeated actions to attain an end display a universal causal link between means and ends. However, if I shout at the ball to wash my laundry for me, I will learn that there is no causal link between shouting at a ball and my laundry being cleaned, however much I may repeat the action. This forms the basis of all approaches to the gaining of knowledge of unconscious matter – by holding all other variables constant and altering only the variable under examination we derive the laws of physics and chemistry from our observation, through action, of this matter. Importantly, these laws are invariably true and operate whenever the conditions are fulfilled. A further aspect that we know innately from our actions is that these truths tend to be quantitative as well as qualitative – that a given quantity of means is necessary to produce the end and variations of that quantity may either enhance or spoil attainment of the end. If I wish to sweeten my hot beverage I may add a spoonful of sugar; half a spoonful giving half the sweetness would be too little and two spoonfuls giving twice the sweetness would be too much. In the laboratory this translates into quantitative or proportionate laws; when we examine the boiling and freezing points of water, for example, we do not simply form a broad, qualitative law that increasing temperature will increase the energy of water molecules and lowering it will decrease the energy; rather, we know that a temperature of 100 degrees Celsius will boil water and a temperature of 0 degrees will freeze it, with each degree towards those points approaching it incrementally. As we know from observing our kettle or a pot on the stove, water doesn’t sit their tepidly until the boiling point is reached then vaporise suddenly; rather it starts to bubble and steam at much lower temperatures. Similarly, water approaching freezing will not suddenly ice over all at once but begins to turn to frost and slush at 2-3 degrees. Quantitative laws whose effects occur in infinitely small steps are precisely those truths of unconscious matter that are determined by the natural sciences, validated fundamentally through our inherent understanding of our use of them as means in actions towards ends. As we stated in part one, the fact that we continue to act to utilise means towards ends indicates that these causal links are not random or spontaneous but are, rather, objective laws of reality.

From our actions towards humans, however, we learn something markedly different. The realm of the physiological and chemical properties of their bodies is, of course, the same as that of unconscious matter – prick a man and he will bleed; hold a flame to him and his skin will burn. The domain of his consciously chosen actions, however, is where we find two important differences. First, the same human will not necessarily behave in the same way when the same situation is repeated, even if all other variables are held constant. Second, two humans will not necessarily behave in the same way in the same situation at the same time, even though they may each be acting under the same conditions. If I walk into a busy shop and shoot a gun in the air, some of the people will dash for cover, some will stand petrified, others will scream, others still may rush to tackle me to the ground and so on. Different people respond to the event in different ways. If I then leave and, a few minutes later, walk in and do the same thing again what will I find? Will the same people who dashed for cover last time do the same thing this time? Will the exact same people who screamed last time do so a second time? The answer is likely to be no – some of those who dashed for cover or stood petrified last time may now be buoyed up by their prior experience and join the ranks of those who rush to tackle me; those who tried to stop me last time, however, may not wish to risk their lives a second time and will run for shelter. Of course it is equally possible that they will all behave in exactly the same way – what is important is the fact that this aspect cannot be determined. The conscious choice of human actions serves to break those actions free of reliance upon the laws of physics. I don’t have to wait for the wind to push me two metres to the left; I can just decide to move my legs and walk that distance in that direction. Actions must, of course, always be in congruence with natural laws; I can’t for instance, jump and expect to be propelled into space. I can, however, make the conscious decision to build a rocket that will take me into orbit if the means are available and I don’t need to sit around and wait for the inertia of physical matter to do it for me. Human choice and volition, therefore, replaces the laws of physics as the cause of human action. Importantly, the place of human choice must be regarded as not just a cause but the ultimate cause of such action. The very existence of free will precludes the possibility of universal laws regarding the substance of a given action that is motivated by that will. Either an individual is free to do what he wants or he is not and his actions are reliant upon some other inertia. Psychology – the study of why humans make the choices that they do – may one day determine whether given physical or chemical impetuses in the brain always result in a given action; but until that stage is reached we must regard human choice as a distinctly teleological phenomenon. Economic science therefore proceeds in a markedly different direction from that of the natural sciences. Economists begin from the general, ultimate cause of human action and deduce from it the specific laws of phenomena; natural scientists, on the other hand, begin with the specific phenomena and work “backwards” to determine their more general causes.

Should the teleological nature of human action be doubted then consider the case of the individual who seeks to derive knowledge of other humans. Knowledge, as we have said, is the perquisite of actors – its purpose is to determine more accurately the technical requirements for future action, enhancing the understanding of the suitability of means directed towards ends. Let’s say that a man wants to hold a dinner party and wishes to serve either steak or salmon – whichever is less expensive (or more expensive, if he was trying to impress his guests). If the steak is cheaper he will serve steak and if salmon is cheaper he will serve salmon. Before this knowledge is gained his future action – whether he will serve steak or salmon – is uncertain and conditional upon the content of the knowledge. When he receives that knowledge – let’s say that steak is cheaper – he makes a choice to serve steak at his party. But he could easily have chosen salmon if salmon had been the less expensive of the two. In other words the very seeking of knowledge itself proves the uncertainty of future action and any attempt to seek knowledge of other, equally acting human beings, and derive concrete laws concerning the substance of their action would be contradictory.

Our knowledge of humans, as opposed to that of unconscious matter, therefore appears to be curtailed by a very wide margin. For we cannot, in our actions, approach other humans in the same way as we approach other matter – we cannot mould and shape humans in the way that we can other means to which we devote our ends. Does this mean, then, that we can know nothing at all about human action? Does our attempt at any study at all necessarily lead us into a dead end and should we give up? Not at all; we learnt in part one how our actions form the bedrock of our epistemology and how it necessarily constrains and conditions our search for knowledge. In exactly the same way, while we cannot form strictly substantive laws of human action, we can discover laws regarding their formal requirements – laws that exist by virtue of action itself regardless of the content of the individual action. In short, if we cannot examine the impetus towards the substance of actions and derive no laws at all from their observation we need to return to the root of the formal constraints of action by examining action itself.

The Characteristics of Laws of Human Action

There are three important qualities regarding the truths that we derive from the fact of action – first, they are deduced logically from the action axiom; second, they are formal and not substantive laws; and third, they are qualitative and not quantitative. They are deduced because only an actor has the innate ability to understand the meaning of action. In our own role as actors, we have an introspective understanding of the meaning of action and what it is to be an actor and we rely upon this understanding to draw conclusions about other actors. When a person picks up a cup in order to drink for instance, we know that this is not a random movement instigated by the laws of physics; rather, we know, from the knowledge we have validated from our own action, that this person is using means towards ends as the result of a choice. Simply observing and cataloguing the physical movements would tell us nothing at all – we might know that his arms move 46.3 centimetres to the left and his fingers clasp the cup and raise it 31.7 centimetres from the height of the table; but only reflection upon these movements, derived from our own role as actors, will tell us anything about these movements as freely chosen actions using means towards ends. Any kind of empirical validation of this knowledge is therefore impossible. Second, the laws are formal in that they specify the qualities of actions as a general category but have nothing to say about their substance. We may deduce, for example, the law that, all else being equal, an increase in the demand for a good will raise its price. But we have nothing to say on precisely what this good will be and when it will be demanded. Indeed, nothing about the physical quality of objects tells us whether they will be economic goods at all – such a categorisation being dependent upon the volition of the human mind. What is desired today may be discarded as useless tomorrow and vice versa. And finally, these truths are qualitative and not quantitative because actions occur in whole, discrete and concrete steps that take place in one go and do not proceed in infinitely small increments or decrements. If the temperature of a room is raised by one degree per minute water in the room may gain energy gradually by a measurable step per degree. Yet a human in the same room will not start shedding small parts of his jersey gradually at each degree; rather, there will come a point later where he perceives himself to be too hot and will take off the entire jersey in one go. Further, the impetuses that result in a change of choice resulting in an action are not uniform between human beings – others might find that they get too hot at a lower or higher temperature. And on a different day they may all make a different decision. Similarly, two objects that contain minute, physical differences may be regarded as the same good by the acting human. One bottle of water might contain exactly one litre of water; another might contain 1.0001 litres. Yet to the acting human this difference may be negligible and he will happily regard each bottle as interchangeable. It is partly for this basic reason that the application of mathematical formulae to explain (or rather, to predict) human action is invalid – mathematical sequences proceed in infinitely small gradations, the result of which would lead one to expect that human action also proceeds in such tiny, measurable steps.

It is these aspects that cause much ire and infuriation in the mainstream economics profession. Under the mantle “science is measurement” any method that rejects the formation of quantitative and substantive laws is seen as inherently unscientific. Science, however, is the seeking of knowledge as it exists in the universe; it is therefore perfectly scientific to state that laws must be qualitative if that is all they ever can be; grossly unscientific behaviour – indeed, an aberration on the part of anyone who proclaims to respect discovery of the truth – is to attempt to make known that which never can be. If quantitative laws cannot be determined then that is the boundary of scientific discovery.

The attempt to ascertain laws of human action through empirical validation produces only statistics and historical truths about the choices that were made at that particular time and place by those particular humans. Simply because the price of meat doubled during a shortage of cattle in Ruritania in 1952 does not mean that such a shortage in 2014 will also cause a doubling in price – or any change in price at all. Empirical validation fails to work in the realm of human action because none of the variables are ever held constant in two situations. The laws must instead be validated by holding the variables constant in one’s mind and deducing what must be the necessary result by virtue of the formal qualities of action. It follows from this also that the laws cannot be used to predict, with any scientific accuracy, future action – something that “Austrians” sometimes unwittingly overlook in their zeal to promote their otherwise correct understanding of economic theory. “Austrians” who have predicted a heavy increase in price inflation following the Federal Reserve’s money printing have had to cope with the smug retorts of the mainstream as this inflation has not emerged, largely because the demand to hold cash, particularly by the banks, has also increased. We cannot ever say that, for example, if the quantity of money is increased that there will be price inflation of any measurable quantity or even if price inflation will appear at all. All we can say is that, if all else remains equal, one is betting very heavily on the result of price inflation by carrying out the action of printing money. The focus of “Austrian” economists is to explain phenomena and not to engage in the Friedmann-ite obsession with the prediction of future events. Ironically, however, given their superior explanatory power, “Austrian” predictions tend to be more accurate than those of the mainstream – “Austrians”, for example, were among the few to recognise the instability of the housing bubble prior to the 2008 crash. Furthermore, being derived from absolutely true, self-evident premises the laws themselves – should our logic be correct – must also be absolutely true for the entirety of time, regardless of whether the particular phenomenon with which the law is concerned ever appears in society. A Robinson Crusoe island, for example, would be devoid of interpersonal exchange; and yet the laws of interpersonal exchange would still be true and valid. Phenomena which appear in society may determine the scope and direction of that which we wish to study, but they do not preclude the truthfulness of phenomena that have not made an appearance or do so to a lesser extent. Even if empirical validation in this field was possible, therefore, its limitation to present and visible phenomena would result in knowledge of a markedly poorer tapestry. It is unlikely that the Robinson Crusoe situation of unilateral exchange has ever existed to be observed and yet so informative is this situation of our basic economic understanding that we would be worse off without it.

Does this mean that we can never say anything at all about the content of actions? We can, but only on the basis of empathetic understanding of our fellow human beings and not upon any strictly defined laws. The realms of entrepreneurship and historical analysis use this method to determine and explain the actions and choices of humans in the future and the past respectively. Profit opportunities exist precisely because future actions cannot be embedded in concrete law; if they were everyone would know what they would be and every good and service would consequently be bidded up or down to precisely its cost. Rather, entrepreneurs must take their empathetic understanding of human desires in the future and combine it with superior logistical and technical knowledge of his goods or services and methods of production in order to make a profit. The historian, in forming explanation of past choices, must do this retrospectively. Use of the natural sciences and the sciences of human action will provide a circumscribed explanation for the most part – an historian who attempted to explain the effects of the Irish potato famine as the result of witchcraft would clearly be a charlatan, for example. Yet the key question of why historical figures acted as they did, their thoughts and feelings that motivated them towards action – a branch of historical investigation that Mises labelled thymology – can only ever be based on the historian’s empathetic view of the factual conditions under which the historical character was acting. The result is historical explanations that are based not upon concrete and certain knowledge but are simply more or less persuasive than others.


What we have outlined in these two parts is only the briefest possible sketch of the “Austrian” method as it applies both to economics specifically and to wider epistemology. It is therefore appropriate to end with a core bibliography of works that explore the “Austrian” method in more detail than we have been able to here:


Introductory Works:

Gordon, David                    An Introduction to Economic Reasoning

White, Lawrence                The Methodology of the Austrian Economists



Menger, Carl                          Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences

Mises, Ludwig von               Epistemological Problems of Economics

Human Action, Part One, “Human Action”

Theory and History

The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science

Robbins, Lionel                    Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science

Rothbard, Murray N            The Logic of Action, Section One, “Method”

Hoppe, Hans Hermann      Economic Science and the Austrian Method

                                                   The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, Part Two , Chs. 9, 10, 14

View the video version of this post.

The “Austrian” Method Part One of Two – Foundations of “Austrian” Epistemology

1 Comment

One of the primary dividing lines between practitioners of the “Austrian” School of economics and those of the mainstream is the appropriate method of economic reasoning – how are economic theorems validated and thus known to be true? “Austrians”, of course, are famous for their assertion that all of economic theory is deduced from a handful of axioms concerning human action, plus one or two empirical truths, such as the desire for leisure time. The mainstream, on the other hand, treats economics as being more akin to the natural sciences, where propositions are first formulated as hypotheses that must then be tested and validated empirically by sensory observation.

In commenting on this disagreement we shall, in this first part of our examination, go to the very heart of the matter and first of all define what we mean by epistemology and secondly to examine how it is that we know absolutely anything whatsoever. This is necessary before we look more closely at the “Austrian” method as it applies specifically to economics in part two.

Once more we must say that we are tackling here a very deep and extensive area of philosophy and much of that which we present will necessarily be brief, undeveloped and possibly incomplete. Nevertheless we hope here to outline the foundations of this important and much derided area of “Austrian” theory and its implications not only for economics but also for the social sciences and philosophy more widely.

The Purpose of “Austrian” Epistemology

One of the most frequent objections to the “Austrian” method is the misunderstanding that its chief concern is with how knowledge is acquired. Surely, these critics contend, we must have experience of, for example, what is supply and what is demand, or how to use money before we can formulate any theorems that concern them? We cannot just sit back and muse in our mind over these concepts divorced from any real, sensory interaction with what these things mean. However, the a priori nature of “Austrian” economic reasoning has less to do with how knowledge is attained and more to do with the cardinal question of how knowledge is validated – in other words, how do we know a given proposition to be true? Take, for example, the assertion that two parallel lines will never meet. We are not interested in the particular origins of my experience of parallel lines; rather, the question we want to answer is given that I have an experience of parallel lines what validates my conclusion that they will never meet? Do I need to construct the proposition “two parallel lines will never meet” as a hypothesis and then validate that hypothesis by empirical testing? Or will critical reflection upon the problem resolve the matter? In other words, do I need to go out and test a large sample of parallel lines in the real world in order to determine whether they will never meet; or can I reason in my mind that this must be absolutely and undeniably true?

The two titans of the twentieth century “Austrian” School, Ludwig von Mises and Murray N Rothbard, disagreed on the epistemological status of the fundamental categories of human action. Mises, who was influenced by Kantian epistemology, regarded them as “categories of the mind” and that they therefore existed prior to any experience. On the other hand Rothbard, an Aristoletian, denied this and regarded them as “broadly empirical”, something that could only be realised through experience. In other words they did not share the same theory concerning how we come to know the fundamental categories of human action. This divergence of opinion, however, did not prevent them both from recognising the essential self-evident truth of these fundamental categories and from recognising that such categories, regardless of how they come to be known, will always be a priori to the complex phenomena for which economics seeks an explanation. In spite of their differences in some of the more esoteric questions of epistemology, therefore, both could agree that all of the laws of economics are validated by reasoning and deduction from these self-evident categories and not from empirical testing. It is, therefore, the requirements for the validity of economic theory that separates practitioners of the Austrian School from their mainstream colleagues. This will be the focus of our attention in these essays.

Epistemology and Human Action

Let us therefore turn to the foundations of the “Austrian” method in wider epistemology. Contrary to what empiricists and relativists may claim, what is true and valid is heavily constrained by certain conditions of the universe in which humans find themselves. Truth and knowledge are not a tabula rasa upon which we can scribe whatever interesting pieces of information happen to come along. Even if they were we would first have to presuppose the existence and understanding of certain concepts simply to make such a record and communication – concepts such as identity, non-contradiction, alternatives, possibilities, causality, language, quantities, and of course, at the base of it all,  truth itself. You cannot record or communicate unless you have a common understanding of the concepts that you are recording or communicating. It is such presupposed concepts that heavily anchor the ambit of that which constitutes objective knowledge. Where does our knowledge of all of these aspects come from and how does it constrain or condition our search for further veracity?

It is submitted that at the very basis of all knowledge are a limited number of self-evident truths – truths that are proven simply by the endeavour of attempting to validate them. Furthermore, these self-evident truths are revealed to us through our action and the action axiom – the fact that we act in the universe and interact with reality – as all human endeavours in acquiring knowledge are actions and it is the formal conditions of actions that constrain the boundaries of knowledge.

The unique quality of self-evident truths is that they do not need further validation – to validate a proposition is to make it evident; yet if either stating or enquiring into the proposition is to validate it then one does not need to waste time and effort seeking further validation through observation, evidence or whatever; it is absurd to endeavour to make evident that which already is.

The first self-evident truths that we can derive from the action axiom are the individual actor’s identity, his consciousness and his existence. For any enquiry into the question of whether he exists and whether he is conscious answers that very question itself; for he cannot make such an enquiry without demonstrating to himself his existence and his consciousness. Furthermore, he presupposes his identity and his separation from other beings and objects – his enquiry being “do I exist?” and not whether a tree or China exists. He would settle the former question by introspection but not the latter questions, indicating his realisation of his identical separation from those other concepts, objects or beings. Any attempt by the individual to deny his existence, consciousness and identity would be to prove them – one cannot deny that one exists or is conscious; nor can one construct such an argument without recognising that he and he alone is the subject separate and distinct from other beings and objects.

Second, we have the constraints imposed by the formal categories of action itself – ends, means, choices and so on. All action must make a choice to direct means to an end at the exclusion of other ends with the outcome of either a psychic profit or a psychic loss. All enquiries are themselves actions that make use of these categories and so any attempt to disprove them would be futile. But what other self-evident truths are revealed by these categories of action? All actions must combine two or more means to produce an end at the cost of another end; what this reveals is our knowledge of conjunctions – “and” and “or” – for we must combine one means and another in order to produce either end A or end B. We also reveal our knowledge of quantities – for every end requires a specific quantity of a combination of means. A single cup and half a pint of water may be enough to satisfy the end of quenching my thirst; fewer cups or less water would fail to quench it; more cups would be superfluous and more water would cause a flood. Our actions always aim at combining means in the correct proportions. Quantities, incidentally, are a praxeological concept and are not reliant upon whatever we choose to represent them in notation or communication. We know that 2 plus 2 will always equal 4 whenever we act in relation to goods in the real world. The numbers themselves – 1, 2 3, 4 etc. – are simply symbols that we apply to the praxeological concept of each given quantity, routed in our understanding of action – 1 to a single unit of a good, 2 to double that quantity of units, 3 to triple the quantity, and so on. On paper 2 plus 2 could equal 5 but this only serves to change the symbols that we apply to these concepts and all that we have done is renamed that which we once called “4” as “5”. The concepts of 2, 4 and 5 always remain constant and routed in our action and regardless of what we call these quantities a fixed quantity of a good plus another fixed quantity will always arrive at the same quantity in sum however much the operation is repeated. Moreover, regardless of the symbols we choose our expression of quantities is always in a form or magnitude that best serves to meet our ends – both the diameter of a screw and the distance between London and New York City are lengths in space, yet it is praxeologically convenient for us to express the former in millimetres and the latter in either kilometres or miles.

As well as further embedding the law of identity in our recognition of these categories of action, we also reveal an understanding of the law of non-contradiction (A or not-A). For an action is motivated by the condition of scarcity thus revealing that we know that we cannot have our cake and eat it; nor can we swim and remain dry; nor can we be in two places at once. To believe the contrary would mean that a human would never act as he would expect all of his ends to arrive at his doorstep immediately. Action pursues either one end or another and is routed in the realisation that to achieve both or all of them would be a contradiction.

Third, actions all have to take place in space and we interact with this space in order to fulfil our ends. Hence we know automatically that our world is constructed in three dimensions and that certain interactions with space will fulfil our ends whereas others will not. If an apple is to my right then I reach out to my right and I am able to take possession of the apple; if it is on my left then I reach out to the left. More importantly, from this knowledge we derive all of the laws of Euclidean geometry that we use in order to interact with space.

Fourth, we have an understanding of the nature of causality as all actions are designed to produce a causal interference in the world that alters the assumed chain of events. If I wish to eat an apple and proceed to pick an apple from a tree I demonstrate that I know that my action will cause me to take possession of the apple and will cease its hanging from the branch. If I kick a ball my action causes it to fly through the air to another location. If humans did not have an innate understanding of causality then they would never act as they would not know that their movements would bring about the end desired. Action therefore demonstrates an understanding of the phenomenon of causality.

Fifth, we must know through our actions that we live in an aura of uncertainty – uncertainty in the sense that the actor does not know whether a given event is certain to materialise – not whether it is actually certain to do so in practice. If the actor knows that it is certain that event A will happen at point T then there would be no purpose in acting in order to bring about event B. An action to bring about event B at point T indicates that the actor knows that the materialisation of event A at point T is not certain and is subject to change. In any case, regardless of the knowledge of the certainty of events, action itself – the individual motivation towards ends by desires and choices – demonstrates that the world is not ruled by determinism. If it was the materialisation of all future actions of any individual would be motivated not by the individual desires of the human but by a pre-ordained plan that is written into the fabric of the universe. The fact that an actor expresses desires and choices that result in actions that change the course of events demonstrates that there is no fixed course to occurrences in the universe and that they can be altered by an expression of free will, if the means are sufficient. Furthermore, the act of making an enquiry also demonstrates the universal fact of uncertainty – the nature of an enquiry is that the answer is uncertain and could be one way or another. If the answer was certain then we would never bother to make an enquiry as we would already know the correct answer.

Finally, we have an understanding of the nature of time. All actions must take place through time and thus we know that we exist in a linear continuity. If actions did not have to take place through time then the ends would be achieved instantly and thus there would be no action – nor would there be any need to sequence the attainment of ends in order of preference. Indeed time, like quantities, is an inherently praxeological phenomenon. If humans were not subject to the condition of scarcity that motivated them to act and all of their ends were attained to their fullest instantly then the universe might physically exist in what we know as the “passage of time” but humans would have no awareness of this concept. All events would be contemporaneous and all enjoyments received instantly – there would be no comprehension of historical sequence and temporal distance would be non-existent. Any measurement of this non-existent distance in hours, minutes and seconds – let alone centuries, decades and years – would clearly be impossible.

By virtue of the inescapable fact that humans act we lay the groundwork for epistemology through our revelation of these self-evident truths – self-evident because any attempt to deny them must reveal their truth. We therefore realise that there is a body of truths that we know to be absolutely and apodictically true. The fundamental importance of this realisation cannot be denied – these categories of action that we have elaborated constrain and condition our search for knowledge and we cannot imagine knowledge that is incompatible with them. They are not mere conventions or choices of enquiry but are, rather, incontestably and undeniably true presuppositions of all arguments and theorems that may be posited. They are not the results of such arguments but are, rather, the starting blocks – that with which we must work in order to deduce further truth. More importantly, however, it anchors our search for objective truth of reality without having to investigate metaphysical and supernatural problems. In the deepest and murkiest waters of epistemology “truth” could mean pretty much anything we want it to mean. We could hold that simply because something is perceptible and realisable to us does not mean that it is “truthful” according to some as yet unknown, higher plain of understanding. Take, for example, the sensory perceptions. The fact that I can see an object, can touch it, can smell it taste it and if I drop it I can hear it break does not necessarily mean that the proposition “this object exists” is necessarily true – I am just perceiving it to be true. The world is not really full of colour nor do noises actually exist – these are simply interpretations by the brain of particular frequencies of light wave and sound wave respectively. Indeed there may be other senses that I do not possess that may depict hidden reality that I cannot perceive. Taken to an extreme, for all I know nobody else may exist and nothing of what I can perceive around me may be real – it might be some giant hallucination or a video game concocted by some other being who inhabits the genuinely real universe. Is it not possible that reality could just be a product of my consciousness and could I not be deluding myself when I try to concoct objective truths to comprehend that reality? These questions, however, do not concern us when we ground our epistemology upon action. If I act so as to use a cup as means from which to drink a beverage in order to satisfy the end of quenching my thirst I demonstrates my knowledge of the cup’s existence and its possession of certain qualities that affect its suitability as means in action and its direction towards the end of quenching thirst. I can try and deny this and reason that, upon some “higher” plain of understanding, this cup does not exist or that it possesses qualities which it does not. Yet my actions towards this object will always prove the opposite, from actions that both succeed in attaining their ends and those that fail. I might claim that the law that the angles of all triangles sum to 180 degrees is not really true according to some mystical level of knowledge. And yet when I act so as to construct one, or if I try to build a structure that relies on triangles, I will always have to use triangles with angles that sum to 180 degrees; if I did not the outcome would be a failure to attain my end. There is therefore a distinct epistemological harmony and coherence that is revealed to us through the categories of actions – choices, means, ends, results – that ground our knowledge in objective reality and rescue it from ethereal musings. If there was no such coherence between these categories then a person would simply never act at all as there would be no objective laws that link these categories. The characteristic of genuine hallucinations is that they display discordance between the categories of action. In a real case, an individual experienced a hallucination induced by LSD in which he believed his partner had turned into a vicious snake; terrified, he grabbed a knife and proceeded to stab the snake. His end was to kill the snake – a being that looked like a snake, behaved like a snake, hissed like snake and to all intents and purposes was, to him, a snake. And yet the result was that he killed not a snake but his partner. It is clear that where the identities and qualities of means and ends change randomly at will it would be impossible to ground our epistemology on any plain of reality at all. The fact that we are able to continue to act, to meet ends through means motivated by choices indicates that this is not so. Even the failure to meet ours ends indicates not a lack of objective law but the fact that the means were not appropriate for the ends sought – and will be inappropriate once again if the action is repeated under the same conditions. Unless interactive flaws, such as the appearance of the snake, begin to emerge in our current reality then we can be content that we are not all undergoing a mass hallucination, that this is the reality in which we live and this is what we are interested in as the object of our study. More powerfully, however, any action whatsoever demonstrates an individual’s belief in an objective knowledge of this reality that he is powerless to deny – for to do so would itself be an action that displays knowledge of the harmony between choices, means and ends.

We are with confidence, therefore, able to take a position contrary to those of positivism, relativism, skepticism, nihilism and the like and hold that there is a body of truths that are absolutely and undeniably true, undeniable because their self-evidence is revealed to us through the fact their denial would simply end up proving them. It is this springboard – epistemology grounded upon an action – that leads directly to the “Austrian” understanding of how to derive knowledge of other humans and of inanimate, unconscious objects.

Finally, we must also state the fact that the endeavour to attain knowledge and truth is itself bound inherently with our role as actors. Our goal in explaining complex phenomena and gaining an understanding of the world around us is to enhance the effectiveness of our actions – even if the end is merely to attain knowledge for some aesthetic purpose such as the exercising of the mind and the enjoyment of an inherent sense of beauty and order that one may perceive in truth. Non-actors, those creatures whose movements are motivated simply by instinct, never seek the attainment of knowledge for they do not possess the rational mind through which to process it; and if we were humans living in a world of total abundance the seeking of knowledge would be superfluous. Not only would a lack of knowledge itself indicate scarcity but when all enjoyments and satisfactions are achieved instantaneously the attainment of knowledge would have no purpose. Al things would be known and enjoyed immediately and there would be no enquiry into anything whatsoever. At its most basic level, therefore, knowledge itself is a category of action and is intimately bound with our role has human actors.


Having sketched the foundations of our epistemology, therefore, we can go on in the next part to the “Austrian” understanding of human action and the actions of non-humans and the implications of this understanding for economics.

View the video version of this post.

Older Entries