The False Dilemma

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Current, conventional thinking about social, political and economic subjects typically narrows the options available to a set of policies advocated by two, may be three political parties or scarcely dissimilar ideologies. Consequently any genuine radical or lateral thinking about these topics is abandoned and it is assumed and accepted that the fundamental questions of the state, the government, and of tackling the biggest societal problems of the day are already settled. Seldom are alternatives to these entrenched matters – such as whether the state should have any positive role at all in anything – given the light of day, let alone the opportunity of being debated. This phenomenon, which presents a distinct challenge to libertarians, is known as the “false dilemma” – the illusion that the only choice is between a very constricted range of possible options, preserving the status quo in favour of the state and its cronies while at the same time bestowing the illusion of control on a gullible electorate.

In the UK the “false dilemma” is playing itself out in such a way as to completely obliterate one of the basic truths (understood by Austro-Libertarians) that all humans can flourish and co-exist peacefully. Those on the ideological right such as supporters of the Conservative Party believe that business should be helped in order to boost economic growth, while cuts should be made to welfare and to public services in order reduce the government “deficit” (a much overused term given that the overall debt and not the deficit is the real problem) and to slim down the cash cow that the benefits system has become to the allegedly lazy and unproductive. Those of the ideological left believe that a strong welfare state, heavy taxes on the wealthy and increased government spending are needed to end the scourge of poverty. Both of these ideologies contain kernels of truth and genuine, honourable concerns that make their particular preoccupations seem plausible. It is true, for instance, that business needs to flourish if there is to be any economic progress at all, and that government needs to reduce its profligate borrowing, taxing and wasting with all due haste. On the other hand, it does not seem fair that a society should allegedly produce vast wealth for a few while leaving others to languish in stagnating poverty, nor is it necessarily true that wealth creation is “top-down”. The continuing result of this for UK politics seems to be that political action is becoming a choice, or a very false dilemma, between two broadly defined groups of people in society – a choice between those who are “rich” and those who are “poor”.

This impression is exacerbated by the fact that the political parties whose rhetoric represents these ideologies never achieve their aims, or never really carry them out. “Austerity” is proving not to boost economic growth nor help the plight of the poor simply because government spending is not, in fact, decreasing. Bank bailouts and cartelisation of businesses will not do the same either as they simply perpetuate malinvestment and economic waste. They do, however, save the politically connected rich from the consequences of their actions while leaving everyone else to foot the bill. On the other side, increased government spending and a burgeoning welfare state only siphon funds from the productive sector to be consumed and wasted by government. Both sides, therefore, in failing to ever be able to achieve their stated aims provide plenty of ammunition for the opposition, ammunition that is fuelling this apparent basic choice between “rich” and “poor”.

If we are ever to have any hope of recovery from the current economic malaise we must seek for a repudiation of this false choice and a restoration of the understanding that both economically and ethically the rich and poor can prosper side by side. At the heart of the problem, the false axiom accepted by each ideology, is the notion that government must help somebody in order to create a better society. There is curious mixture of economic and ethical arguments that are used in order for each side to select whom government should help and to whom it should deny the same. Take, for example, the supporters of big business. They will say that it is right to use taxpayers’ money to bail out the banks in order to avoid a complete financial meltdown. Conveniently “their chums” in the city will reap fat rewards from doing so. But they then deny this very same method – the diversion of taxpayers’ money – to welfare programmes to help the poor because people should work for what they earn without leeching from the productive and the so-called “benefits scroungers” should get off their backsides and find a job. In other words they are using primarily economic arguments to justify bank bailouts while using ethical ones to deny welfare spending. Their “lefty” opponents will argue that throwing cash at the rich who made mistakes is unjust and that they should be left to foot the bill for their own mistakes. Yet they then state that welfare spending is needed to eliminate poverty and fuel growth from the “bottom up”. So they too, deny the flowing of taxpayer’s cash to certain groups based on ethical grounds but then promote it to others based on economic grounds. Each side, will of course, pepper their ethical arguments with economic ones and vice versa – the right, for example, will, as we have said, argue that welfare spending needs to be cut in order to reduce government outlays, and the left will argue that alleviating poverty is a just and noble cause. But the main thrust of each side’s opinion cannot be denied.

If we unscramble all of this and look at the ethical and economic arguments separately we will find that there are no grounds whatsoever for any state involvement. If it is unjust to violently confiscate tax revenue from innocent citizens to fund the lifestyle of bamboozling bankers then it is equally unjust to do the same to fund the lifestyles of those who are poorer. The difference is one of degree rather than of kind. Nobody, whether he is a prince or a pauper, a saint or a sadist, or a capitalist or a labourer has the right to wrestle away the property of other people for his own benefit. And from the economic side, bailing out bad business will simply perpetuate the moral hazards and malinvestments that need to be eliminated, while continuously funding the poor through welfare spending will only exacerbate poverty as it makes being poor relatively more attractive, reducing any incentive for people to do more to lift themselves out of that position, while squeezing the role of benevolence and charity for the genuinely needy. Furthermore, government would do a lot more for the poor if it stopped interfering in wealth creation in the first place with all of its burdensome laws and regulations that make the exercise impossible but for a few large and politically connected corporate favourites.

The real choice is not between “rich” and “poor”, “left” or “right”, “Conservative” or “Labour” “employer” and “employee”, and whatever other faux selection that the establishment throws at us. The real choice we have to face is, on the one hand, whether we want to continue with a political and economic system that, whomever’s interests the particular delegates of the day purport to promote, will only result in a parasitic existence for the politically connected at the expense of the stagnation of the standard of living for the rest of us. Or, on the other hand, we could choose a system where nobody has the violently enforceable right to live at the expense of everyone else and that everyone is free to trade and produce whatever he wants with his property, a system that will raise the standard of living for everyone and not just a select few. Only by considering radical options and overcoming the assumption and acceptance that the fundamentals of our society are beyond debate can we hope to build a world that is both truly just and economically prosperous.

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The Scourge of the Collective

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By the far the most significant error with any political, social, economic or philosophical discourse today is that all questions, issues and problems are posed by starting not from the individual but from the collective as the most significant unit in the discussion. Time and again, even among liberal and libertarian circles, hot topics are posed as any of the following: “Should we do V?”; “Should society allow X?”; “Should the Government intervene in Y”? “Should everyone be forced to do Z?”

Such a way of tackling these problems assumes that there must be an answer that is applicable to everyone. That, for everyone, either one of A or B must apply but individuals (those selfish, unfeeling, heartless and greedy morons whose interests must always be subjugated by the “good of the people”) are never able to choose which one of those they might prefer. Indeed, for libertarians and liberals to accept the false dilemma by entering these discussions results in them conceding the basic assumption of the statist opposition, that is that the individual is subordinate to the collective.

Here are some common examples. Please note that the discussion of each is not intended to resolve the issue at hand, merely to demonstrate the correct way of posing the question.

1. Should we intervene in other countries’ affairs?

Anyone attempting to answer this question is invited to argue, in the face of brutal oppression or of invasions of countries elsewhere, that either everyone must be forced to pay for or participate in “our” intervention or everyone must not. In short, a more honest way of stating the question is “should the Government confiscate the fruits of our productivity (i.e. tax) us to pay for military aggrandizement abroad?”

But why should we all have to intervene or all not have to intervene via the Government? If I believe so strongly that the aggressive violence on the part of state leaders or armies overseas is so unjust and must be repelled then what is stopping me from sending my financial help with money that I have earned to this cause? Indeed, what is stopping me from resigning from my current life and flying out to act as a freedom fighter in defence of the helpless civilians? On the other hand, if I believe that whatever is going on abroad is none of my business or I have (in my view) much greater pre-occupations at home and that my financial resources are best devoted to these why should I be taxed to fund a cause that others find important but I do not? What right does anyone else have to money that I have earned but they have not? Further, actions always speak louder than words. If you believe so strongly in something then you should be able to put your own money where your mouth is. If you are only willing to do so with other people’s money then perhaps it isn’t that much of a just cause after all?

In short, the problem should be discussed as follows. If the individual wants to support a cause abroad should he be prevented from doing so if it inflicts no violence or aggression on any other individual? If he does not wish to support such a cause then should he be forced to do so when his antipathy is similarly free of violence and aggression?

2. Should we allow the buying and selling of organs?

Again, the question is not “should we permit or ban the trade of organs?” It’s “should I be prevented or permitted by you from trading what is a part of my person or property with another individual on terms agreeable to ourselves that inflicts no violence or aggression on anyone else?” Answers on either side must therefore be directed to the question of what justifies one individual or group of individuals being able to violently enforce their point of view on others who do not share this point of view.

3. Should we regulate industry X?

The story is always the same. Something terrible happens, a plane crash, a building falls down, or someone loses their life savings through the collapse of some hair brained investment scheme. The clamour is always for us to regulate more, usually in the name of safety, to prevent such disastrous consequences from ever happening again. In practice what this means is that the Government should be permitted to tax all of us in order to more closely supervise industry X, industry X being whichever industry is deemed to have caused the unfortunate event.

As tempting as it is to launch into a discussion of the fact that regulation itself consumes valuable resources and hence is also a part of the market process, plus that regulations are often the very cause of the problems that they seek to ameliorate (or at least the existing regulations fail to detect problems that should have been obvious within their existing scope – Bernie Madoff for instance), we shall stick to the problem of how these questions should be posed correctly. If I think that industry X should be regulated then why can’t I pay, with my own resources, a consumer watchdog to keep an eye on industry X and report to me any potential problems? Or, as would more likely be the case, why do I not just refuse to purchase products from industry X and insist that, before I return as a paying customer, they must conform to the standards laid out by regulator Y? (Underwriters Laboratories is a good example of this arrangement). Should my desire to see industry X regulated allow me to command the resources of people who wish to have nothing to do with industry X, or are happy to accept its products unregulated at the price for which they are on offer?

4. Should we ban smoking in public places?

The loaded phrase in this question is “public places”, a good definition of which is as follows:

“Generally an indoor or outdoor area, whether privately or publicly owned, to which the public have access by right or by invitation, expressed or implied, whether by payment of money or not, but not a place when used exclusively by one or more individuals for a private gathering or other personal purpose.”

The problem is that most premises that are within the scope of this definition of “public place” in various pieces of legislation are not places that are paid for and maintained by public money (taxes). They are privately owned and operated places to which members of the public usually do not possess a right to enter but rather are invited to do so in order to carry out trade. Shops, bars, restaurants, gyms, etc. are all good examples of this kind of premises that are categorised as a “public place”. No one is forced to enter these places, to purchase products that are sold there or to pay for their upkeep. In short all activity that goes on there is entirely voluntary.

The question, therefore, is not whether “we” should ban smoking in “public places”. It is “should I, as an owner of private premises into which the public are invited, be forced by you and others to allow or prevent my invited visitors from smoking when you have no obligation to enter, pay for or maintain these premises?” Alternatively “why if I prefer or prefer not to smoke when I am an invited visitor to certain premises should I be not able to find premises that suit my desire accordingly when you need not enter, pay for or maintain these premises?”

In conclusion, the common element running through all of these questions is the absence of violence and aggression involved in the acts concerned. In short all of the questions can be posed as “Should X prevent Y from doing activity Z when Y carrying out activity Z inflicts no violence or aggression on X?” Posing the questions in this way strips naked all collective thinking and exposes it for what it really is: the violent enforcement of the values, tastes and morals of some people upon people who do not share the same.

Finally, the words of Ludwig von Mises in these regards are instructive:

Individual man is born into a socially organized environment. In this sense alone we may accept the saying that society is-logically or historically-antecedent to the individual. In every other sense this dictum is either empty or nonsensical. The individual lives and acts within society. But society is nothing but the combination of individuals for cooperative effort. It exists nowhere else than in the actions of individual men. It is a delusion to search for it outside the actions of individuals. To speak of a society’s autonomous and independent existence, of its life, its soul, and its actions is a metaphor which can easily lead to crass errors.

The questions whether society or the individual is to be considered as the uitimate end, and whether the interests of society should be subordinated to those of the individuals or the interests of the individuals to those of society are fruitless. Action is always action of individual men. The social or societal element is a certain orientation of the actions of individual men. The category end makes sense only when applied to action. Theology and the metaphysics of history may discuss the ends of society and the designs which God wants to realize with regard to society in the same way in which they discuss the purpose of all other parts of the created universe. For science, which is inseparable from reason, a tool manifestly unfit for the treatment of such problems, it would be hopeless to embark upon speculations concerning these matters. (Human Action, Scholars Edition, p. 143)

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