Libertarians Beware?

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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 Lewrockwell.com. 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.

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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.

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Liberty in our Lifetime

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Perusing many libertarian and “Austrian” oriented websites, podcasts and newsreels, it is very easy for one to lapse into despair when considering the possibility of ever achieving a world of liberty. The stories and the commentary are always the same – of collapsing economies, increasing government interference in our private lives, and the increased propensity for war and conflict. Indeed, at times, the state can seem so overwhelming in its march towards total domination that the typical libertarian, normally isolated as he is, can only sink into despondency over how any of this may be stopped let alone reversed.

There are, however, five reasons to be optimistic for the prospect of gaining liberty, even in our lifetime. Furthermore these are not mere fleeting trivialities but, rather, relate directly to aspects that are pertinent and essential to the existence and strength of government. Let us consider each of them in turn.

1. Government is Small

As government is parasitic upon the productive element of the economy it can never, in its totality, consist of more than a mere fraction of the total population. If the majority become the parasite and the minority the host then the latter will simply collapse under the weight of the burden. Government cannot continue to siphon labour and capital from the productive sector and divert it to the unproductive. Even if we live in an era when all of our emails and telephone calls are stored, the government will always be in the position of having only a handful of people who will be able to scrutinise and read these emails. It takes even more than that – talent and intelligence – to analyse these communications and to put two and two together. In short there will never be enough man-hours in order for the government to manage and spy on the lives of everyone from dawn until dusk. Even before we had mass electronic communication and had to rely on snail mail the government still failed to crack down on black markets, drug shipments, smuggling, and all of the other free market responses to the non-crimes that it created, the circumvention of which was successful because it served the needs of the majority. Government will forever be burdened by the fact that it is in the minority and this is a major obstacle towards both its growth and the effectiveness of its meddling.

2. Government is Stupid

Why was Great Britain the biggest imperial superpower of the nineteenth century and why was that role taken on by the United States in the twentieth? By contrast, why did the Soviet Union fail to make any headway at all in international dominance after World War II up until the point it collapsed? Both Great Britain and the US were internally liberal countries in their respective eras, both accumulating a massive amount of capital that enabled a vast number of goods to be produced and the resulting standard of living to rise. There was, therefore, a plentiful store of wealth into which the government could tap in order to fund its foreign ventures. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, with its centralised, socialised economy, could not produce the wherewithal necessary to enable it to enforce itself imperialistically on foreign nations. In other words, government relies on keeping the society on which is leeches relatively free in order to guarantee the productivity that will enable government to expand its operations. In contrast, government itself, as has often been said, cannot even run the post office. Indeed government has failed to invent anything valuable or worthwhile during its entire existence and is only able to take over and operate industries that were kindled and developed in the private sector. This is true of every government operation that is, today, taken for granted – roads, healthcare, communications, utilities, and so on. The only thing that government has ever been able to do with modest efficiency is construct gallows and develop nuclear weapons, i.e. to invent the machinery that kills millions of people. Because of the absence of prices, profits and losses, totally socialised societies failed to harmonise the stages of production that is necessary in order to produce a vast amount of wealth, and very quickly these societies had to revert to at least a kernel of market activity. Indeed, it was a running joke among Soviet economists that they needed at least one country to remain free of international socialism so that the planners and bureaucrats would know what the prices of goods should be. Government without the free market is blind and stupid, unable to generate the resources it needs to carry on its overreaching activities. Therefore, if government was to extend itself to an all-encompassing dominion the only thing it could be certain of achieving is suicide.

3. Government is Greedy

Libertarians often point out that what is often forgotten in mainstream discussion of government is the fact that it too is populated with human beings who have desires, choices and ends and that they will happily use the legitimated violence through the mechanism of the state in order to achieve these ends. It follows, therefore, that as soon as that system fails to enable them to grab the wealth and riches that they desire, then they too, the government officials and the bureaucrats, will lose faith in their own organisation. One of the reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed is not because the people revolted but because the inner circle themselves began to see that the very system they were operating was not even giving them a particularly high standard of living. They were simply (to use a clichéd phrase) rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, playing around vainly with an ever diminishing pool of wealth on the path to destruction. It is, therefore, a mistake to suggest that any post-Cold War politician is a “socialist” or a “communist” in the true sense of those words. Rather, they have to keep the capitalist means of production going in order to blood suck from the wealth that is furnished by private industry. The most we are likely to get today is government partnership with big business, a form of fascism (minus, perhaps, the excessive nationalistic overtones of Hitler and Mussolini) rather than strict forms of socialism or communism. Ironically, therefore, government’s own greed for luxury and largesse will itself stop government from becoming too powerful and overreaching.

4. Government Cannot Risk Revolution

All governments, being a minority of the population, require, at least, the tacit acceptance of the majority of the population in order to remain in power. As soon as this acceptance is lost and there is active resistance then government ceases to function and will simply collapse. One of the reasons why the majority of the population today has become so tacit is because the standard of living, compared to previous ages, is so high. Although this standard would be much higher in the absence of any government at all, it is still the case that capitalist production and free exchange is able to both fund all of government’s boondoggles and also ensure that even an average wage earner in the Western world can live in relative comfort. It must be admitted that, on balance, in spite of the proportion of their productivity that is siphoned off by the government being at its highest point in history, people are relatively content. Although we are not yet quite as soma-induced as the inhabitants of Huxley’s Brave New World, the attractions of entertainment and leisure time that are made possible by capital accumulation through the free market provide a permanent and satisfying distraction from all of the nasty things that government is doing. Indeed some people’s thoughts never move much beyond analysis of the last football game or of the latest participants in The X Factor. The resulting apathy towards political and social matters, we might say, is the very bedrock of the tacit acceptance of government. Government, therefore, cannot risk destroying the origin of the production of the standard of living that makes this possible if it is to continue to gain its tacit acceptance. Whereas in previous ages there was nothing much to lose from the tightening of a king or emperor’s grip, today there will be a very marked change in the efficacy of production if the government’s tentacles strangle the capitalist system. Deprived of supermarket shelves stocked full of food, water that runs as soon as the tap is turned on, lights that illuminate with the flick of a switch, and televisions that flood their living rooms with Strictly Come Dancing, people would flock to overthrow the government that had so obviously failed. Indeed, it has been said that any nation is only three meals away from revolution but with our standard of living so much higher now it might not even take an empty stomach to arouse the masses. Hence any government worldwide could be less than a single day away from being toppled if its citizens are deprived of some comfort that was, hitherto, taken for granted. Food for thought, one might say, for any politician in power.

5. Government will be Out-Innovated

It is something of a truism amongst military historians that generals are always fighting the last war. They fail to adapt their methods of assault and defence to the new technologies and methods of fighting that have emerged since the previous conflict. Hence the mechanised horror and destruction of World War I made possible by twentieth century technology was met with strategies and tactics that dated from the nineteenth. This points to what is, perhaps, the biggest hope that we have for liberty in our lifetime – that government will not be able to keep up with the pace of free market innovation. The free market is necessarily heterogenous, decentralised and unbureaucratic whereas government is the precise opposite – big, unwieldy and burdened by procedure in a lengthy chain of command which always puts it on the back foot compared to the scattered mass of private citizens. We have already stated that government cannot create anything useful and must largely rely on the innovation of capitalists from which to draw its expertise and technological know-how. And further, we have also already pointed out that government has always failed to control black markets and underground trading that emerge in response to government induced shortages and prohibitions. These aspects can only accelerate in the technological age, when it is possible to transfer wealth and information to the other side of the world at the click of a button. Already innovations such as virtual currencies have emerged in response to the debt-laden and corrupt government-approved financial system and no doubt, in the wake of the scandal of the US’s spying program as revealed by a former NSA contractor and CIA operative, Edward Snowden, there will be increased market innovations to provide for privacy and security. Indeed we might even say that the internet itself caught government on the back foot – with a worldwide network of information and resources emerging and developing successfully before they were even aware of it, it’s difficult to believe that government wouldn’t want to turn back the clock and put strangleholds on such a boon to freedom. In short, government always has to react to the obstacles that are put in its way by innovative forces that are far superior. If the free market invents letter writing government has to find a way to intercept letters. If the free market invents the telephone it has to find a way to tap phone lines. And if the free market invents email then the government must determine how it can download and read these. The ultimate achievement will be when each individual person will be able, at very low cost, to protect his/her person and property from the aggression of others – perhaps through some kind of invisible force field or other such futuristic invention. The precise means are not as important as the concept; for if this could be achieved it would, in one fell swoop, eliminate both the means through which government leeches off its productive citizenry (force) and its very raison d’être – the production of security and the protection against private criminals and foreign, invading states. Indeed the latter might prove to be more important than the former given that the very justification of government for most people lies in the fact that society would be consumed by plundering and pillage in the absence of government. Take that alleged necessity of government away and what reason is left for it to exist? The fact that it would not even be able to exist in such a world where it would obviously be deprived of tax revenue might just be the icing on the cake.

Conclusion

Far from sinking into depression or despair at the state of the world today, we have demonstrated that there is, in fact, much to be hopeful for in the prospect for liberty. Furthermore, if the last point we noted above is true, then we should also be optimistic of the chances that there will also be very little violent revolution and we can look forward to a libertarian world emerging peacefully and with little bloodshed.

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Making Government Irrelevant

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Much of the pro-Liberty movement, including the present author, seems to focus on the role of education in being the prime driver towards a world free of state violence and coercion. We believe that informing people of the true nature of the state (i.e. no better than a band of thieving thugs) will incite people to embrace freedom and reject government intervention.

However, a great deal more thought needs to be turned to whether, rather than people wilfully and decisively rejecting government, the “revolution” will come about through a seemingly more mundane and passive method – that of simply making anything that government does irrelevant.

We are already bearing witness to several instances of this. The internet, and the increased accessibility to the world wide web through portable devices, renders almost inert any government attempt to control information, the whole Wikileaks saga perhaps being the most profound testament to this. Indeed it is possible to suggest that the average person today has quicker and better access to information than Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton did a mere twenty to thirty years ago. Added to this is the infancy of virtual currencies such as Bitcoin and Litecoin demonstrating how it is possible to curb government currency and capital controls and render physical borders irrelevant. In spite of the fact that virtual currency appears to be far from perfect in these early days, one cannot overlook the promise that their idea if not their present execution holds for the future. And in the United States 3D printing seems to be taking the bite out of gun control.

The marvellous thing also is that these mini-revolutions occur without violence and bloodshed – there is no fighting, no overthrow and no killing. Indeed this is not unusual as previous civil strife and conflict has not been about government per se but, rather, over who controls the government. The struggle of the twenty-first century, however, is over getting government out of the way entirely, regardless of who is in charge of it. We should not be surprised, therefore, that there will not be one big and violent revolution to overthrow government for ever but, rather, hundreds of small, decentralised and peaceful revolts that will simply cause government to wither away in helplessness.

This is not to suggest, of course, that government will not fight back in these areas; indeed governments, as they start collapsing from over-borrowing, overspending and eventual bankruptcy, will try ever more desperately to enforce increased controls and pluck all of the remaining feathers from the golden geese of their citizenry. But the more those geese are plucked the more they flap towards an escape and independent individuals have, historically, been better at what we might call the “invention of circumvention” than the government has been at stopping it.

But let us focus on the one area of government that is both its method of function and, according to the beliefs of the average Joe, it’s raison d’être – violence. Government commits its horrendous abuses and enriches its participants through the use of force against others. But is also supposed to protect the common citizen from the use of force by others and this is why government is still regarded as necessary. What if, then, 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.

We should, therefore, urge all inventors to dust off their drawing books and get working on such a marvellous invention. It may, quite literally, save the world before it drowns in a sea of statist despotism.

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