Myths about Freedom

Leave a comment

Libertarian enthusiasts usually take pride in their theoretical understanding of the ethics of liberty and the evils of statism. It is difficult not to read and be enthralled by the works of distinguished authors such as Murray Rothbard, Hans Hermann Hoppe, Walter Block, and from earlier generations the likes of H L Mencken, Albert Jay Nock and Frank Chodorov, before we even mention Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek. Nevertheless, it is not likely to be the detailed theoretical purity of libertarianism that will be of much help in persuading the passive majority of the population that a free society is both the most economically prosperous and the most just. Rather, our main concern will be in overcoming the statist-bias that most people hold, a bias induced as a result of their indoctrination by their state school education, mainstream media and the presentation of any political debate as requiring at least some kind of government response. This bias crystallises in a number of myths that serve to put a mental block from any acceptance of a society without government, or at least a society where government plays a minimal role. This essay will attempt to explore and debunk some of these myths, not only to refute them but to do so in such a way as to cause people to realise just how ridiculous any adherence to them is, and that the truth is not only correct but blindingly obvious. Indeed such a revelation needs to be this powerful as that same statist bias usually results in the outcome of any debate concerning the necessity of government to be distinctly unbalanced. It is not enough for us libertarians to explain how the free market may make society better off in ten or twenty ways; for if the person whom we are trying to persuade finds an eleventh or a twenty-first thing that we cannot categorically demonstrate will be dealt with successfully in a society without government, then never matter how persuasive our previous arguments and never mind how much the balance is stacked in our favour, the one perceived failure is taken as capitulation that government is necessary and any hope of a free society needs to be abandoned. New and radical ideas that challenge what everyone has always held to be true are often met with this type of defence mechanism, permitting them to dismiss the new truth and return to the comfort of the status quo. This, in many ways, is the libertarian’s most formidable enemy, may be more formidable than the state itself. Let us turn, then, to trying to shatter some anti-freedom myths.

No one will Build the Roads!

The first myth is what may be summarised as the “who will build the roads?” problem – that we are so used to government engaging in the monopolistic production of certain goods that we cannot imagine a world where government would be absent from that sphere of production. Under this category is included such questions as “who will take care of the disabled?”; “who will supply the water?”; “without the NHS what will happen to you when you are poor and sick?”; and so on and so forth. Aside from pointing out that everything (including roads) that government runs was first, at some point, invented by the free market and not by government bureaucrats, we might point out that the capitalist-entrepreneurs manage to successfully deliver into our hands some of the most technically complex items with components and expertise delivered from a multitude of countries. Refrigerators, television sets, radios, laptops, smartphones, cars, the list goes on. Having achieved all of this, will the prospect of having to take on something as wildly complex and as technically unnerving as laying down some tarmac from A to B strike the fear of God into budding entrepreneurs? Would those that aspire to the fame and fortune of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs be twisting and turning in their sleep from nightmarish apparitions of such a horror? Can these inferiors only be rescued by the boldness and bravery of the elite government bureaucrats who can master this fiendishly complicated endeavour? Clearly this is utter nonsense and any perpetuation of this myth relies solely on the argument from existence. Yet we can easily counter this by imagining what our thought process would be if government had taken over a lot more than it already does. If government had monopolised the smartphone industry, would you be saying “thank God for government! Without them, who will build the iPhone?!” If government took over the stationery stores would you wonder “who will sell me my pencils and pens?!” if government was to vanish? If you could only get clothes from government department stores, would the sudden loss of this monopoly mean that we would all have to go round stark naked?

Libertarians are, of course, always at something of a perceived disadvantage in challenging this myth as we are not advocating any strict, one-size fits all plan like other ideologies do. We intend to leave everyone alone to make their own plans peacefully. Hence we do not know precisely who will build the roads, where they will be, what they will look like and how they will be run. Indeed we don’t even know if roads will cease exist and be replaced by some more convenient method of transport. 2015 is the year to which, in the film Back to the Future II, the protagonist finds himself transported, surrounded by cars that fly and roadways and highways that exist not on the ground but in the sky. And yet here we are, one year earlier in 2014, without anything even approaching that level of technology because government forcing us to pay for their roads through taxes stifles any competitive innovation in that area. Indeed, anything that government touches lacks modernisation and development. Roads, schools, the post office, rubbish collection and so on all carry on with the same monotonous methods, procedures and technology while the free market around them innovates. Government is not only unnecessary for building the roads – it is actively preventing us from developing better methods of transport.

Greed and Individualism

The second myth we must tackle is that more freedom encourages greed, selfishness, and an individualistic, atomistic existence in which no one cares for anyone else. Nothing could be further from the truth. Libertarianism is neutral regarding the personal choices that people make so long as those choices are non-violent. Freedom may permit you to make as much money and keep it all for yourself, to shut yourself away from all social contact, to never give anything to charity, or to refuse to help an old lady across the street. But it also permits you to not make as much money as you can, to give as much of it away as you like, and to help as many old ladies across the street as you have time for. It encourages neither type of behaviour. The only reason why freedom and capitalism are accused of encouraging greed and selfishness is because people in free societies have generally chosen the path of increasing productivity, material wealth and the standard of living (ignoring, of course, the fact that while this confers great riches upon the most productive, the living standards of all people are raised far above what they otherwise would be). People who dislike these outcomes attack the system of freedom rather than the choices people make under it because they need to hide the fact that they simply wish to force society away from choosing a path that most people want but that they, the disgruntled, do not want. If they were to acknowledge that nothing about freedom per se encourages greed and selfishness they would reveal that what they are really trying to achieve is to force humanity to conform to their ends rather than what people individually want. It is true that people, as individuals, think and feel pleasure and pain as individuals first, then that of their closest family and friends second, of minor acquiantances third, and for the most part probably do not even care about the billions of remaining people whom they will never meet. Human nature places the individual at the centre of his own life. But not only are humans also sociable and co-operative creatures – the greatest product of this being the division of labour where, as if by magic, the actions of one person, you, could be serving the needs of someone thousands of miles away whom you do not even need to meet let alone care for – it is not the task of political philosophy to correct or otherwise make amends for perceived failures of human nature. Humans are self-interested and act as individuals; it is impossible for it to be otherwise and any political system has to accommodate rather than subvert or alter these facts. It is precisely because freedom is the only political system that does this that free societies have flourished to degrees unobtainable by any other political system. But the greatest irony surely has to be that it is capitalism and freedom that promotes moral fervour, selflessness and care for others, whereas it is any government system attempting to do the same by its usual raison d’être – force and violence – that encourages an individualistic and atomistic existence.   Forced government redistribution of wealth does not cause the donor to become any more moral or selfless; for moral actions require moral choices and if he is simply forced to have his earnings siphoned off into the welfare pot then this demonstrates nothing about his moral character. But further, if anything, having been denied the personal choice to determine which causes are good ones for your money, it is more likely that forced redistribution will instil in you bitterness, resentment and hatred of your fellow humans rather than sympathy, care and a willingness to help. Moreover, it is the existence of generous social safety nets that leads directly to the fracturing of family relationships and friendships and of any need to engage with fellow human beings on a personal and empathetic level. These relationships become most important precisely at your time of need and if the state is there ready to fill your cup in hand on these occasions then cultivating them becomes relatively less important. In a free society however, not only must each person possess a great empathetic skill in order to determine how best to serve everyone else under the division of labour, but the lack of a welfare state means one must rely on one’s friends and family, and they must in turn be able to rely on you. Hence these bonds of mutual care and assurance become stronger under a free society whereas a government-run society all but eradicates them. Finally, the bigger government becomes, the more it leeches from the productive sector, the higher the glittering stack of gold (or paper money, at least) that it steals encourages people to stop producing and to start finding reasons why they should be the beneficiaries of a share of the loot ahead of anyone else. Hence the proliferation of lobbyists, focus groups, think tanks, statisticians, and so on that exist for nothing more than showing why thieved tax revenue should go to one place and not another, and it is hardly astonishing when all manner of alleged societal ills and problems appear seemingly out of nowhere and can be, conveniently, solved by a fat wad of government cash being paid to their sponsors. Big government therefore pits each human against every other in a fight for the loot – it is a contest of who can get everyone else’s money first. If this is not selfish and greedy, then what is?

War of All Against All

Related to the last myth is the allegation that without government every human being would forever be robbing, stealing from and murdering everyone else, reducing humanity to the level of brutal savages and putting an end to civilisation as we know it. This myth suggests that it is an inherent part of human nature to oppose to the death every other human being in a fight for what is a fixed pool of resources, much like animals do in the jungle. If you can’t struggle your way to the top of the food chain in this “society” you will die at the hands of someone else. The first question to ask any advocate of this position is if, in the event that government and its monopoly of security, protection against crime and law enforcement, was completely abolished in a flash, would that person immediately go out and start looting, maiming and killing? In other words, is the only thing keeping you from putting a gun to someone else’s head the fact that government will detect and imprison you? Do you have no conscience whatsoever and are utterly dependent upon government to stop you from turning into a predatory animal? Furthermore, is government the only reason you go to work every day to co-operate with your fellow employees, greet your neighbours a good morning, have coffee with friends, walk your kids back from school, and sit down to a family meal in the evening where you will talk, laugh and joke with other human beings? Will you stop doing all of these sociable activities and engaging co-operatively with other human beings if government vanished? If you meet a friend for lunch is government the only thing stopping you from shooting him and pinching his dessert? The answer is of course no, an answer that is necessitated by the government advocate’s recognition of this behaviour as immoral. Humans possess consciences, moral fervour, and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. If he concedes that there are some acts that he would not carry out even if there would be no sanction whatsoever, is it not reasonable for our government supporter to expect this of other people as well? At the very least he has every reason to expect the same of every other person with whom he engages in these sociable activities. Indeed, can he name anyone he knows who, absent government, would transform into a criminal, and if he can, do those people form a majority of his friends and acquaintances? Humans not only possess a moral fervour that prevents them from acting wrongfully in the absence of retribution, but they also transcend their recognition of strict moral duty and are, additionally, an inherently sociable and co-operative species. Not only do we form bonds of friendship and kinship far more powerful than any government gun, but, as we mentioned when tackling the previous myth, we have developed a system of co-operation – the division of labour – in which you do not even have to know, meet, like, love, respect or admire any other human being whose needs you serve. Indeed, you may positively hate that person and yet you can still achieve gain through co-operation within the boundaries of voluntary trade – a gain that is mutual and not just for you, where both parties come off better, all in spite of the fact that you do not care a bit about each other. Government was not necessary for this creation – it was truly a “spontaneous” order, spontaneous in the sense that it was the product of human purpose but not of any human’s design. Only a handful of sociopaths and nutcases – a bare of minority of the population – require deterrence in order to prevent them from committing crimes. In addition to private security forces being able to deal with these individuals, there will certainly not be any overnight, societal collapse. Rather, it is government that pits each human against his fellow. Government achieves all of its ends through violence and force – someone gains at the expense of someone else. If you can tap into that mechanism then you can pinch, plunder and pillage from anyone whom you like. But it gets worse than that for government overlays this regime of violence with a veneer of democratic legitimacy, thus weakening people’s sharp, moral distinctions and ennobling anything you do against another human being, however evil and immoral, all OK as long as it was done through democratically elected government. It is worth emphasising this point – not only is government permitting this behaviour but is effectively saying that it is a good thing. It is no small wonder that with such encouragement the war of all against all not only exists under government but becomes prolific.

Companies will Poison our Food!

Our final myth is the notion that private companies, in seeking to maximise their profits, will put poisonous chemicals in our food, will cut corners with safety, our buildings will collapse, our cars will crash, our lives will be at the mercy of these profit-hungry merchants of greed! The obvious retort to this ridiculous assertion is that if a company is expecting people to buy its goods, if it is expecting to outwit its competition, and if it is expecting to make profits, then just why on Earth would it do these things? What advantage is there in creating a product that is going to kill your customers ahead of one that will not and will keep them coming back to you time and time again to keep on purchasing your products with loyalty? As soon as it is realised just how dangerous the goods you are selling are, won’t a competitor leap in with safer products and drive you out of business? At the base of this misunderstanding is the idea that, in the absence of government, regulation will simply vanish and companies will have a free hand to do whatever they like without restriction. But regulation is itself a market activity – not only does it consume scarce resources just like any other but it aims for an end that consumers desire. At the heart of regulation is not the desire to forcibly stop a company from producing in a certain way or from carrying out a certain activity. Rather it is to furnish information to customers so their choices are more informed. Indeed, free market regulators are dealers in the market for information and they need to decide precisely which information is of the most benefit to consumers. Although there exists consumer groups and watchdogs to which people subscribe in order to gain more information about the companies from which they buy, most regulation will take effect as independent certifications of standards which companies will have to achieve. If the standard, in quality, safety, or whatever is achieved then the company will be licensed to advertise the fact that its products have met this standard. Underwriters Laboratories, which regulates product safety, is an example of this arrangement. The regulator too has to judge precisely which standards consumers are willing to pay for. If consumers do not care to know whether a product has achieved a certain standard then companies will not seek certification or accreditation. If the standard is too high then products will become too expensive and the regulator will cease to receive custom from companies and will go out of business. If, on the other hand, the standard is too low then the certification is meaningless as customers are demanding knowledge of a level of quality that the regulator is not setting out to detect. Free market regulation is therefore alive and thriving and it is tied to precisely how much of it consumers demand. If people will not buy your goods because they do not achieve the level that is demanded by private regulators then you will find yourself going out of business.

Related to this notion is the myth that profit seeking will cause a relentless quest by greedy businessmen to deplete the resources of the Earth and after an extravagant party everything will be used up and the world will be left as a barren wasteland. This idea overlooks the fact that profits are determined not only by revenue but also by costs. Just as companies seek to maximise their revenues in order to be profitable so too must they decrease their costs. They are under constant pressure to achieve more output with less input. There is, therefore, an inbuilt incentive towards conservation in a free market – using less, and not more. If resources become depleted then their cost begins to increase so companies have to pay more to use them as inputs, squeezing profit margins and encouraging the switch to less scarce materials. Thus not only is the endangered resource preserved for only those ends which need it most desperately but the increased price induces the production of substitutes or fresh discoveries of the virgin material that were previously unprofitable to harness. As we have explained in detail elsewhere, the very resources that are in danger of depletion today are precisely those where the pricing, profit and loss system has been restricted and replaced by government licensing. Rainforests, fish stocks, and endangered animals are all examples of where ownership has been overridden by government fiat. As they are ownerless the use of these resources is not regulated by the cost of their depletion so there is every incentive to consume them now until they waste away. If this should be doubted then why are elephants, tigers and whales in danger of extinction whereas dairy cows, chickens, and sheep are not? How come the evil profit-seeking capitalists have not, quite literally, driven lambs to the slaughter until there are none left?

Conclusion

These are just some of the main myths which libertarians might encounter when trying to promote their vision of a free society. No doubt there will many more of them that crop up as a result of the statist bias that is inherent in most individuals. Libertarians face an uphill struggle in this regard, but hopefully what we have determined above goes some way to showing how ridiculous clinging to government really is.

View the video version of this post.

Advertisements

What about the Poor?!

Leave a comment

When debating the virtues of a capitalist or libertarian society, one can extol the benefits of private property, free exchange and non-violence. Most of the nagging questions – “how would police work in a free society?”; “how would we regulate unscrupulous companies?”; or the now-clichéd classic “who would build the roads?!” – can be dealt with fairly straightforwardly and it is not difficult to show how such a society would deal with these matters in a vastly superior way to one that is imbibed with statism.

However, there is one question that always presents a seemingly insurmountable difficulty – what would happen to the poor? By this, we do not mean the accusations of a free economy being “sink or swim” or “dog eat dog” which can also be disposed of fairly easily. What we mean is the fact that a free world would have no “official” institution or “social safety net” to help those who were genuinely less fortunate. A libertarian might mumble a few words about the importance of charity but with an outright declaration by one’s opponent that such a system is necessary, one may be tempted to concede that this is the Achilles’ heel of a libertarian society1.

It is high time that libertarians took the offensive against such a criticism and turn this apparent weakness into an advantage. In the first place, the question depends very much on how we are defining “the poor” – absolutely or relatively. In an absolute sense, the first hurdle to jump over is the criticism that capitalism is actually the cause of poverty. This is nonsense. Poverty is the state of humans in nature. When the first person walked the earth the only tools he had available were his bare hands. There is no “capitalist” system to speak of and his lack of food, shelter, clothing, and anything even remotely enjoyable in life is because nature dealt him this hand. Capitalism, that is, the accumulation of capital, is what moved him away from this state of nature and allowed him to enjoy hitherto unimaginable riches. On the eve of the industrial revolution, 85 percent of the world’s population survived on less than a dollar a day in today’s money. That figure is now down to 20 percent2. Blaming capitalism for the remaining poverty and “inequality” is like blaming a treatment for cancer for “only” curing 80 percent of cancer cases. The conclusion one would draw from such statistics is not that the treatment should be abandoned but rather that it should be extended to the remaining 20 percent as quickly as possible! One answer to our problem of what to do about the poor is, therefore, to say that capitalism will simply make poverty irrelevant, an evil vanquished and consigned to the pages of history books. And it is precisely those areas of the world that do not possess the institutions necessary for a functioning of capitalism – strong private property rights and the rule of law – that are still mired in poverty. Furthermore, those countries that have experimented with socialism experienced nothing but stagnation, decay, environmental destruction and a permanently low standard of living. So for someone who questions what a capitalist system would do about the poor it is incumbent on that person to explain why he favours a system that would keep the poor very much in poverty.

The more popular argument against capitalism, however, is that it causes relative poverty – that some people get ahead while others are left behind to languish. Apart from acknowledging what we just mentioned – that there are areas of the world where a capitalist system simply cannot flourish – the primary reason regarding one’s own political system is that everything in a given Western country is mind-numbingly centrist. In the UK political division was formerly split between the Tories – representing the preservation of the superiority of the aristocratic, landholding caste – and the Liberals which were born out of the enlightenment. When the liberal philosophy succumbed to socialism after the World War I, the latter marked a seemingly distinct contrast between the interests of businessmen and “capitalists” on the one hand and that of the working class on the other. This continued for the next seventy years until the collapse of socialism in Russia and Eastern Europe left socialism as an empty and unworkable philosophy. Beginning with the Thatcher era and culminating in the Blair Government, the ideological shift was to the centre – that, not any more was it “the workers” vs. “the bosses” but, rather, Government would allow business to pursue profit while preserving the welfare state and the nationalisation of certain industries such as healthcare. What has resulted, therefore, is a very rich strata of society and a very poor strata of society both supported by the Government, and ultimately all paid for by the middle classes. It is this “corporatist, welfare state” that has caused the bifurcation of wealth rather than any vestige of that system that could be referred to as capitalist. We have already seen in the 2007-8 financial crisis how the rich – usually connected with a financial system propped up by the legalised fraud of central banking and fractional reserve banking – rather than suffering losses are bailed out when they make huge entrepreneurial errors. Their gold-plated situation is one of “profit & profit” rather “profit & loss”, increasing the propensity to gamble recklessly and plough scarce resources into loss-making ventures. At the opposite end of the scale the poor are also bailed out of their situation, increasing the attractiveness of unemployment, consumption over saving, and the dissolution of traditional institutions such as family and friendship. The net result of all of this is a permanent rich and a permanent poor, all supported by the state and, ultimately, the middle earners who are not “too big to fail” but also not poor enough to receive government welfare handouts. This is the real cause of the inequality between rich and poor in the Western world today – that the gap is mandated by the extant political system – and not by capitalism.

A capitalist system, in contrast, would be strikingly different. In the first place, the rich can only stay rich by continuing to devote the scarce capital goods to the ends that are most urgently desired by consumers. No bailouts, no socialisation of losses. But also the whole purpose of a capitalist system is mass production for the masses. It is not a system of trading phantom assets denominated in paper money. It is this mass production that extends what were once the luxuries of the rich to the rest of society. In the pre-capitalist era, a rich man may have had a horse and carriage and the poorer man may have had nothing and would have had to walk. Today, the difference is that the rich man may have a Ferrari and the poorer man a VW Polo. But at least now they both have a car. Whereas before the difference was one of how quickly it would take one from get from A to B, the remaining difference is simply one of comfort and style. The relative gap has, therefore, narrowed. All around us we see a shortening of the time from the development of a luxury item to its dissemination amongst the wider population. It took several decades from the invention of the computer before every house and office had a PC; yet the Smartphone revolution has taken only a few years. As capital becomes more ubiquitous, therefore, the result is a practical narrowing of the gap between rich and poor.

Having pretty much explained why the poor would be far better off under a capitalist system than under a collectivist one, what of the fact that there is no formal institution for helping the poor? Here, people too often jump to the virtues of the welfare state while undermining those of a world without it. As we noted above it is precisely because there is a welfare state that the relative importance of other institutions such family, friendship and the local community become less important. After all who needs to rely on friends to help you out in your hour of need when the state will do it all instead? Without the state to bail one out however, such institutions are likely to flourish. The irony is that, under a capitalist system, the very selflessness and altruism that its critics say is destroyed by capitalism would in fact receive an almighty boost! The capitalist system is simply one of human co-operation; its just that this co-operation is voluntary rather than enforced. People do not simply stop co-operating because they aren’t forced and when the relationship is voluntary it leads to human beings that are more understanding, caring and friendly towards their social counterparts rather than the bitterness, hatred and resentment that results from mere force.

Critics of capitalism should therefore be met head on with the facts that a free economy a) reduces absolute poverty by allowing production for the masses to be unleashed, b) reduces relative poverty by permitting luxury items and innovations to be mass produced, and c) encourages family, friendships, empathy and understanding between human beings who will be more likely to help each other out when they are in genuine need. Given all of that, it becomes incumbent upon the statist to explain why he favours a system that preserves poverty and creates a society of selfish, bitter and uncaring individuals.

View the video version of this post.

1A curious aspect of political debates where liberty is pitted against some form of collective is that liberty is subject to a paralysing degree scrutiny to which its opposing philosophy is not. If libertarianism shows a single morsel of uncertainty when answering how it would solve a particular problem it is declared to be unworkable and impractical, regardless of how many other areas in which it is shown to be beneficial. Yet people happily support and vote for political parties in spite of disagreements with particular aspects of their manifestos.

2Tom G Palmer, Interview with an Entrepreneur Featuring John Mackey in Tom G Palmer (ed.), The Morality of Capitalism, p. 26