Free Trade and the US

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One of the characteristics of the anti-globalisation movement personified by US President Donald Trump is its apparent opposition to free trade. Free trade is not only associated with the globalisation agenda of the liberal elite but is also held responsible for the shipping of jobs and production overseas where cheaper labour and cheaper raw materials can be exploited, leaving at home nothing but crumbling factories and swathes of unemployed workers. Hence a considerable part of Trump’s “America First” programme appears to be devoted to distinctly anti-free trade measures, such as increased protectionism and tax penalties for firms relocating jobs overseas.

What should be the reaction of Austro-libertarians to this phenomenon? Do we not believe that free trade is almost the very essence of freedom and the fountain of prosperity? Should we not oppose any attempt to restrain trade by either tariffs or regulations? On the other hand, what are we to do when such policies are seemingly associated with nothing but destitution and misery for a significant proportion of the population?

For libertarians to simply repeat like a broken tape that trade should be left “free” runs the risk of considering only surface phenomena while failing to examine deeper, underlying problems. In the first place, of course, the association of the globalising movement with free trade is patently false. Those behind this movement are not in favour of genuine free trade; rather, they promote a heavily managed trade environment – one governed by trade agreements, trade deals, and a complex myriad of rules and regulations which favour only large corporations and the politically well connected. Indeed, trade agreements and trade deals are the antithesis of free trade, the latter of which demands a complete absence of the state from any involvement in trade. The terms “free trade agreements” and “free trade deals” are therefore nothing more than meaningless doublethink. A grave mistake that the anti-globalisation movement is likely to make is to confuse political globalisation – the consolidation of and intensified co-operation between states and state institutions, which is a relatively new phenomenon – with economic globalisation, which is private institutions trading peacefully and voluntarily on terms agreed by themselves, a situation which has existed for centuries. Political globalisation should be opposed bitterly while economic globalisation and the expansion of the international division of labour should be promoted. The bigger problem, however, is the fact that free trade today, if it is genuinely free, is carried out in a context where there is a gross, underlying violation of private property rights – in other words where the players who are demanding freedom are benefitting from the curtailment of other people’s freedom. For instance, banks are restrained from being “free” by heavy regulation and oversight because their lending activities have the tendency to blow up bubbles which lead to crippling busts. However, the reason for this tendency is that banks are, simultaneously, legally privileged (by the ability to hold only fractional reserves) and economically privileged (by being the first parties to receive new money that is freshly printed central bank – money which is itself, of course, subject to legal tender laws and of which the central bank is legally privileged as the sole issuer). It would be a travesty for Austro-libertarians to respond to any call for increased bank regulation by pointing out that such regulations are a violation of freedom. While this is true in and of itself, the real problem is clearly the state’s monopoly money and its dissemination through fractional reserve banking. To take another example, entities that are endowed by the state with a monopolistic or quasi-monopolistic privilege are normally able to charge higher prices to their customers and to pay lower prices to their suppliers. If, in response to the resulting “obscene” profits and high prices, the state proposes to regulate the prices of the entity’s products or tax away a significant portion of its profits, Austro-libertarians pointing out the pitfalls of price control and the injustice of taxation would be speaking the truth as far is goes. However, they would be ignoring the bigger, underlying problem which is the entity’s monopoly privilege, and that what is really needed is to rescind this privilege in order to open up the market to genuine competition. Only in this context is the freedom of firms to set prices both legitimate and economically beneficial.

When it comes to free trade, part of the underlying problem that is easy to ignore is that, of course, US workers are burdened by minimum wage laws and employment regulations which, to any employer, makes them relatively more expensive than workers overseas who may not be burdened by such interventions. However, the bigger “macro” problem is the fact that trade today takes place with the exchange of state-issued, paper currency which can be expanded at will, rather than with “sound” money such as gold or silver. The added complication in the case of the United States is that it is, currently, the issuer of the world’s reserve currency. What we will see is that, even without minimum wage laws and employment regulations, this would cause jobs to vanish overseas.

When the entire world is trading with “sound” money such as gold the prices of labour in the US and overseas depend upon the relative supply and demand for gold and for labour in each location. In which circumstances could labour be cheaper overseas? (By “cheaper” we mean that wages are lower per unit of production and not per hour. Wages in developed countries are higher per hour because labourers there can produce more in each hour on account of the relatively high amount of capital goods per worker – more tools, machines, factories and so on. Wages in poorer countries may be lower per hour because each worker can produce less per hour, but in equilibrium they would not be lower per unit of production). If labour is cheaper overseas then it means there is a relatively higher supply of money and a relatively lower supply of labour in the US while there is a relatively lower supply of money and a relatively higher supply of labour overseas. Employers therefore divert more of their funds to employing workers overseas in order to take advantage of the lower wages. This, however, is simply the correction of a disequilibrium which will reach its own natural limit. As money leaves the US then money there will become relatively scarcer while the amount of labour will remain the same and so US wages will fall; the new money flowing into countries overseas, on the other hand, will cause wages there to rise. At some point wages both at home and overseas will equalise. Of course, if the reverse happens – that wages are higher overseas than in the US – then the opposite process will occur, with money being drawn out of overseas countries and coming home to the US to bid up wage rates there. All of this is part of the natural process of economising behaviour which seeks to employ resources across the world by directing them to their most highly valued use. Absent any further state interference such as minimum wage laws and onerous employment regulations, all workers, both overseas and at home, will end up employed at the same wage rate (per unit of production).

What happens, however, when we are trading not with “sound” money, such as gold or silver, but, rather, with a paper money which can be issued by the state at will? If the domestic state chooses to expand the supply of money then this will cause an effect similar to that we just outlined. The supply of money at home will increase causing local prices – including wages – to rise. Prices overseas, however, will not yet have risen on account of the fact that the new money has not yet reached there. This process takes places through the complicating factor of the exchange rates between currencies, which is itself, of course, a price and is subject to the same influences. If the US prints more money but the overseas country does not then the first firms to spend the newly printed money on foreign currency will benefit from the old exchange rate and will be able to obtain more foreign currency than they otherwise would have which they can then use for purchasing goods and labour from abroad. Firms will therefore divert more of their spending to importing resources and seeking foreign labour than they would domestic labour. For the majority of countries such printing of currency can have only a very limited effect. If the inflation is a one shot affair then, eventually, increased bidding for foreign currency with the newly printed money will cause the exchange rate to adjust, strengthening foreign currencies and weakening the domestic currency. Fewer units of foreign currency can be bought with the additional supply of domestic currency and so the attractiveness of foreign goods and services diminishes, vanishing entirely when the currencies reach purchasing power parity. Currencies reach a state of purchasing power parity when the exchange rate between currencies and between goods is harmonious. For example, if an apple costs two South African Rands or one US Dollar, then in a state of purchasing power parity one US Dollar would equal two South African Rands. At this point there is no additional benefit from buying goods and services from abroad than there is from buying them at home. If, on the other hand, the inflation is continuous then such continuation comes to be expected. This expectation of inflation will in and of itself cause a much quicker adjustment to the exchange rate than previously, thus nullifying, or at least blunting, the benefits to the recipients of the newly printed money, robbing them of the power to ship jobs and the supply of resources overseas. The only thing that is experienced is domestic price rises. Of course, if the continuous inflation becomes abusive then it sows the seeds of hyperinflation as bigger and bigger doses of inflation are required in order to “cheat” inflationary expectations until the inflation reaches such a degree that such cheating is no longer possible and price rises even begin to exceed the rate of inflation. By this point, needless to say, a country has a lot more to worry about that jobs being shipped overseas. Thus what we can see is that with both “sound” money and independently issued, national paper monies mechanisms exist which prevent a permanent loss of jobs and the sourcing of supplies from overseas.

The situation is different, however, where the issuer of the paper currency happens to be the issuer of the world’s reserve currency. This is the dubiously privileged position in which the US and the US Dollar finds itself today. For when a country is the issuer of the world’s reserve currency the price adjustment mechanisms that we outlined above, which prevent the permanent loss of jobs overseas, are disrupted.

The US Dollar became the world’s reserve currency partly as a legacy of the Bretton Woods gold exchange standard, where the US pyramided the issue of US dollars on gold and the rest of the world pyramided its currencies on the US dollar. Today, however, the US dollar owes it reserve status largely to the petrodollar system – the agreement of oil exporting countries, led by their lynchpin, Saudi Arabia, to price and sell oil in US dollars – and the resulting domination of US based financial networks. The upshot of all of this is that in order the buy oil (which everybody needs) and in order to engage in international commerce pretty much everybody everywhere must buy and hold a significant quantity of US dollar reserves. And as the demand for oil has increased over the past forty years so too has the demand for the US dollar. Thus there has existed a continuously buoyant demand for the holding of US dollars which is sufficient to outstrip the increase in any supply of those US dollars. This buoyancy of demand is also maintained and strengthened by the fact that several countries, most notably China, unit recently pegged their currency to the dollar in order to fuel export driven growth. In other words, they deliberately weakened their own currency by printing more of it to buy dollars, thus pushing up dollar demand and increasing Renminbi supply. Even though China has used most of those dollars to purchase US treasury bonds, thus nullifying the increase in demand for US dollars, it would still be the case that their own currency would emerge weaker (which if, of course, the entire point of the peg). This leads us onto the next problem and one that is most relevant to the recent past – that the reserve currency becomes a “safe haven” asset. The US dollar index, which tracks the value of the dollar against a basket of other currencies, has risen since 2011, particularly as a result of crises in the Eurozone which has served to weaken the world’s second most dominant currency, the Euro. Indeed, against the US dollar, every single major currency is lower than it was five years ago. This is something that US dollar doomsayers are yet to understand. Yes, the dollar is being printed into oblivion, but so too is every other currency; the dollar just happens to be the least rotten apple in the cart.

The effects of all this are that when the Federal Reserve prints fresh, US dollars domestic prices will rise. However, because the dollar is able to maintain its strength on the world stage vis-à-vis other currencies, holders of US dollars find themselves in the continued position of being able to source goods and services cheaper from abroad than they can at home. Indeed, for several decades now the US dollar has effectively been able to buy more than it is really worth. People happily hand over goods and services in exchange for the medium with which they can trade oil and engage in international commerce. Because the US can simply buy what it needs by printing a currency which everyone wants, the result has been to turn it into a giant consumer economy rather than a producer economy – an economy which has no need for jobs. After all, why not just put all of those jobless people on welfare that can be paid for with printed dollars which will buy them Chinese goods? Indeed, in spite of the resilience of the American entrepreneurial spirit, the US is, today, a very difficult place in which to be a producer. According to a ranking by the World Bank, the US was as low as the 51st best place in which to start a business, a paltry 39th best place in which to deal with building permits, ranked only 36th for the ease of obtaining electricity, registering property and for taxes, and 35th for trading across borders. Yet, in full congruence with what we have explained here, the US was, apparently, the second best place in the world in which to obtain credit! Other rankings tell much the same story, with Forbes placing the US at 23rd overall on their list of best places to do business at the end of 2016 – not too bad, you might say, until you realise that is was ranked first just ten years ago.

Needless to say, much of the global monetary situation may now be changing, particularly with moves by China – itself a big consumer of oil – to compete with the petrodollar system and to establish alternative clearing institutions for international commerce that are not reliant upon the US dollar. What we can see from all this, however, is that, on the one hand, to blame free trade for the flight of US jobs overseas is clearly incorrect; yet it is foolish and naïve for Austro-libertarians to defend free trade on the surface when the underlying property rights are far from free. The lesson to be learnt, therefore, is that when confronting issues that threaten our freedom, Austro-libertarians should remember to examine them on the deepest possible level and not simply react to what they see in plain sight.


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Utilitarian Arguments for Liberty

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Utilitarianism or some form of consequentialism has underpinned the ethical worldview of many libertarians past and present. Within the “Austrian” School we may cite Ludwig von Mises, F A Hayek and Henry Hazlitt as proponents of this approach, contrasting with the more rule-based or deontological approaches of, say, Murray N Rothbard and Hans Hermann Hoppe, and the objectivism of Ayn Rand.

This essay will seek to examine some utilitarian and consequentialist arguments in favour of liberty. In doing so we must bear in mind two aspects. First, not all utilitarian arguments are of the same ilk and vary from simple approaches of judging outputs resulting from a posited situation with interpersonal utility comparisons, all the way to more general and sophisticated treatments such as that of Mises and that of Rothbard in his noted article “Towards a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics”1. Here, therefore, we will compare these two utilitarian approaches towards liberty. Second, the adequacy of utilitarianism can be examined from the point of view of providing a moral bulwark for a world of liberty on the one hand and from the point of view of promoting such a world on the other; our treatment of it may be different in each circumstance because that which may be suitable to form the moral foundations of liberty may be not be the key aspect that we can emphasise when persuading the populace of the virtues of a libertarian society. Hence we must examine any utilitarian argument from both points of view.

We will begin, then, with the basic forms of consequentialism that look to measure the output of individual scenarios. Such an approach will often posit an emotive and hypothetical situation where one individual owns property and another individual will succumb to some kind of malady such as hunger, illness and ultimately death unless he gets his hands on that same property. A typical example is of a lost man wandering in the woods, cold, malnourished and in immediate need of food and shelter. He comes across a log cabin, of which someone else is clearly the first user/occupier. By peering through the window our lost man can see that it is full of food. Would it be ethical for him to break in to the cabin, use it as shelter, and/or eat some of the food without the permission of the first user?2

The rule-based approach to libertarianism would state that the lost man does not have a right to break into the cabin, use it as shelter and eat the food without the permission of the cabin’s first user (hereafter, the “owner”) as it is a clear breach of the non-aggression principle. However, a utilitarian or consequentialist may argue that while the cabin owner has a prima facie right to the ownership of the cabin and its contents the question should be answered by taking the approach that avoids the most harmful consequences – or, conversely, promotes the best consequences. In this particular situation, the loss of the food or shelter to the cabin’s owner would, apparently, not be a remarkable cost. Yet the denial of it to the lost man, starving and shivering in the open, would be tremendous, may be even as much as his life. We may warrant, therefore, that the starving man should be able to break into the cabin.

Is it possible for such a view to form a) the moral backbone for libertarianism and b) a persuasive argument in promoting a libertarian society? In answer to the first question, we must decide firmly in the negative. First, all of these scenarios, such as the starving man in the woods, are purely hypothetical situations to which we are expected to give hypothetical responses. However, ethical dilemmas do not arise in hypothetical situations; they arise in real situations where there are genuine conflicts over scarcity. Although such hypothetical situations could one day come about, the danger of entertaining them is that it can be worded in such a way as to provoke the answer most desirable to its proponent. Thus the die is already loaded in favour of the latter’s political philosophy. Walter Block comments on such an example provided by Harold Demsetz of the Law and Economics movement (which is basically a utilitarian approach to legal rights). Demsetz’s scenario is that of “Austrian Pure Snow Trees”, which are owned by a religious sect. An ingredient from these trees happens to be the only cure for cancer, but the religious sect will not allow them to be used for that purpose, reserving them instead for religious worship. Demsetz challenges whether it is really “evil and vicious” to override the private property rights of the religious sect so that cancer sufferers can benefit from the trees’ curative ingredient. Block responds at length:

Given [Demsetz’s] highly emotional example, it is indeed hard to resist the notion that it would be preferable if the trees were used as a cancer cure.

Emotionalism can be a double edged sword, however. As long as our intuitive imagination has been unleashed by Demsetz in this creative way, why not push the envelope a bit? Consider, then, the case where the views of this religious sect are absolutely correct! That is, if the trees are torn down for so idolatrous and unimportant a purpose as curing cancer, then we’ll all be consigned to Hell forever. Wouldn’t it then be “intuitively appealing” to allow the islanders to continue their ownership of these trees?

Demsetz, in taking the opposite position, is acting as if the cult is erroneous in its religious beliefs. But assume for the moment the “cultists” to be correct in their world view. It would then be justified – according to Demsetz – not only to protect them from the onslaught of the cancer victims, but to seize the assets of the latter if this would in any way help the former. Suppose, that is, that there was a cancer cure, owned, now, by the victims of this dread disease, but that for some reason the worshippers determined that this material would help them in their efforts to contact the Deity. Then, according to the logic established by Demsetz, it would be appropriate public policy to forcibly transfer the cure to the control of the religious ”fanatics.” Surely Demsetz knows nothing-for certain that would render such a conclusion invalid.

[…]

Let us extend the Demsetzian argument in yet another dimension. Suppose that it was not the islanders’ trees that could cure cancer, but rather their hearts. That is, the only way to save the sufferers from this disease would be to kill, not the Austrian Pure Snow Trees, but their owners, the members of this religious sect, and then to take their hearts, chop them up, and feed them to cancer victims. Would Demsetz (“emotionally”) support this “modest proposal” to do just that?

[…]

Ultimately, there are only two ways of settling such problems. All others are merely combinations and permutations of these two. On the one hand, there is a provisional or instrumental property rights system. Here, holdings are secure only as long as no one can come up with a plausible reason for taking them away by force. Under this system, either dictators or majorities (or dictatorial majorities) hold the key to property rights. The difficulty is that there are no moral principles which can be adduced to derive any decisions. Presumably, utility or wealth or income maximization is the goal; but due to the utter impossibility of interpersonal comparisons of utility, this criterion reduces to arbitrariness. On the other hand is a thoroughgoing and secure property rights system. Here, one owns one’s possessions “for keeps.” The only problem here is the temptation to overthrow the system in order to achieve some vast gain, such as the cure for cancer. Demsetz’s example is so forceful by virtue of the fact that he expects his readers will consider a cure for cancer to be more valuable than a pagan rite – he knows it is likely they will engage in interpersonal comparisons of utility. But these temptations are easily resisted as they are inevitably imaginary and artificially constructed. We have yet to be presented with a real world example where there is a clear cut case for massive property rights violations.

[…]

Hypothetical arguments have their undoubted philosophical use. [However], the point being made here[…]is that [deontological] libertarian rules are only inconsistent with broad based utilitarian concerns in the imagination, not in reality.

Note how far from reality Demsetz must remove himself in order to manufacture an example that is intuitively consonant with his support for what in any other context would be considered murder (hearts) or theft (trees) or slavery-kidnapping (draft).

[…]

In very sharp contrast indeed, resort need not be made of fanciful examples to defend the libertarian vision.3

Imaginary scenarios, then, are always worded so that the listener is encouraged to empathise emotionally with the economically deprived while completely ignoring the point of view of the property owner, or at least making the latter look frivolous and capricious. Such a rhetorical trick applies not only to specific scenarios but also to entire political treatises. How much, for example, do the imaginary, hypothetical situations of the original position and the veil of ignorance in John Rawls A Theory of Justice – which do not exist in the real world – demand the very answer that the author desires?

Second, the purpose of ethics is to resolve or otherwise avoid conflicts that arise from the result of physical scarcity. Rule-based approaches to liberty that provide physical demarcations to denote property rights permit this to a high degree of certainty in any given situation as the boundaries of permissible action are constructed objectively. Because all valuations through action result in physical changes to physical goods, objective evidence of these changes – i.e. homesteading, production, etc. – give an immediate cue to indicate to a latecomer that the property may not be touched4. Consequentialist approaches, however, cannot rely on objective, physical demarcations to denote property rights; rather, they rely upon the measurement of competing subjective values. This renders the resolution of conflicts and conflict avoidance much more difficult. The question the lost man faces is what am I permitted to do right now? If moral boundaries are based upon hypothetical and changing values and tastes then this question cannot be answered. He may assume that the cabin owner values the cabin and its stock of food less than he does, but he has neither evidence nor proof of this. Indeed the cabin owner isn’t even there to ask. And whether the cabin owner values it less may change from day to day. Yesterday, the cabin owner might not have valued these resources very highly at all; today, however, what if the cabin owner has himself suffered an accident and requires the shelter and food, which he believes to be in secure possession, and is now under threat from the wanton consumption by the lost man? What if the cabin owner’s life is threatened by the loss of food and shelter? Indeed, what if he had purchased the cabin as insurance against that very possibility? There is, therefore, no way of making a rational decision ex ante.

Third, if ethical determinations cannot be made ex ante then it follows that a decision must be made ex post. In other words, the lost man could take a chance by breaking into the shelter and then battle out the question of whether he was right to have done so later through litigation or a settlement process. It is for this reason that utilitarian forms of libertarianism tend to be minarchical rather than anarchical. Hence, this basic form of utilitarianism provokes the very monolithic state apparatus that libertarians should be opposing, and puts in its hands a tool – interpersonal utility comparisons – with which to make its decisions, a tool that is ridiculously uncertain and malleable5. To be sure, it might be possible for individuals to form an empathetic judgment based on interpersonal utility comparisons in an individual situation. But it does not follow from that possibility that a government or a court could make a rigorous determination when passing legislation or enunciating judgments that affect the lives of millions of people in multitudes of different situations6.

Fourth, at the heart of many consequentialist approaches is a fundamental misunderstanding as to what the concepts of “liberty” and “freedom” actually mean. If one views them as meaning freedom from want, from hunger, from the elements and so on then one is naturally led to a consequentialist approach. However, properly considered, liberty is a sociological concept that applies to the relationship between each individual human being. A person is free if he can live his life without the physical interference of his person and property by others. Whether he is hungry, cold, or naked, on the other hand, concerns his relationship not with other human beings but, rather, with nature. This can only resolved not by extending his “freedom” forcibly into the territory of others but by gaining power over nature – in short, by productivity. Any number of theoreticians can spill oceans of ink in trying to determine whether or how the wealth of the cabin owner should be distributed to the lost man in the woods. Yet wouldn’t it be so much better if society was so wealthy that the lost man possessed the wherewithal to prevent himself from being in such a wandering state in the first place? What if the man had an inexpensive GPS system; compacted supplies of food in pill/tablet form that could sustain him for weeks or months; emergency communication devices that would alert a private protection agency to his whereabouts? Yet it is precisely such productivity that is threatened by consequentialist determinations of property rights. Strong private property rights that remain certain following original appropriation or voluntary transfer promote economic growth by encouraging saving, long term planning and low time preference. Uncertain or vague private property rights do the exact opposite. If it is possible that your property will be snaffled in an instant by someone who allegedly “values” it more than you do then the attractiveness of using the good for saving and investment is lowered. You will be willing to take fewer risks and will work less hard with the good if you know that the fruit of your efforts might be confiscated in the blinking of an eye. At worst, such weak property rights encourage immediate consumption as soon as you get your hands on any good at all. That way, in most cases it will no longer exist for someone to take it away again at a later date.

Turning now to our next question, would such basic consequentialism serve in any way to persuade people of the virtues of a libertarian society? Again we have to answer firmly in the negative. We must remember that the primary preoccupation of libertarianism is with the evil and oppressive monolith known as the state. This is the entity that truly destroys freedom; it confiscates our income to fund its profligate spending; forces us to use its worthless paper money that it prints incessantly to fuel its endless foreign wars; destroys families and fuels poverty and dependency with the massive welfare state; regulates what we can do with our bodies, what we can say with our own mouths, where we can set up business, whom we may employ in that business and on what terms. Government is estimated to have killed approximately 262 million people outside of warfare during the twentieth century; private affronts to liberty – even such horrendous crimes such as murder and rape – pale in comparison to this. The US government’s so-called war on terror, at a cost of several trillion dollars, has killed an estimated 1.3m Iraqis, Afghanistanians and Pakistanis in its first ten years, even though more Americans are killed by falling televisions than by terrorist attacks. The greatest insult has to be that it is this miniscule private crime that supposedly constitutes the very justification for the state and its monopolisation of security and litigation. Although there is no shortage of nobility in striving to apply justice in every individual case, libertarians must fry the biggest fish and not spend their time debating whether a lost man breaking into a cabin is or is not an affront to liberty. When attempting to promote liberty, let us confront the very real ogre of the state rather than dwelling in imaginary scenarios that will make no practical difference to people’s everyday lives. Furthermore, as we mentioned above, if justice depends on interpersonal utility comparisons in individual cases, then it craves for the existence of a compulsory referee in the form of the state, the very thing that destroys liberty entirely. We must conclude then that this basic form of utilitarianism, which seeks to evaluate outputs from specific situations, must fail on all accounts as an argument in favour of liberty.

Let us now turn towards a second conception of utilitarianism, the more sophisticated approach adopted by such eminent theoreticians as Ludwig von Mises. The tenor of this approach is that voluntary exchange under the division of labour – i.e. the market – is essential for the survival and flourishing of every individual human being; every human is so interdependent upon every other that to plump for anything else would result in the rapid disintegration of the standard of living or, at worst, certain death. Hence this form of utilitarianism concentrates on the virtues of the market itself rather than looking to the justice of individual situations. Mises, and others who follow this approach, therefore avoid any complications arising by way of interpersonal utility comparisons.

It is important to realise that this argument is predicated upon a few other important Misesian insights. First is that when pondering the economic organisation of society only two extremes are possible – the free market or total socialism. As Mises so effectively argued, any “interventionist” point or “mixed economy” approach in between these two extremes will cause effects that must either lead to abandonment of the intervention on the one hand or to total control on the other. One must therefore choose between one or the other and cannot favour anything in between. By demonstrating the economic impossibility and the catastrophic consequences of full socialism Mises demonstrates the complete lack of basis for making a choice that favours full government control. The only rational option, therefore, is the unfettered free market. Second, and related to this theme, Mises was of the view that “society” is synonymous with social co-operation under the division of labour. As he says in Human Action:

A society that chooses between capitalism and socialism does not choose between two social systems; it chooses between social cooperation and the disintegration of society. Socialism is not an alternative to capitalism; it is an alternative to any system under which men can live as human beings.7

Following this line of thinking, questions such as “how to organise society” strike one as absurd when society itself is already a form of organisation. We do not have the choice of “picking” from an array of options when it comes to forming a society. Either there is social co-operation under the division of labour and society exists; or there is an atomistic hand-to-mouth existence and society does not exist. Any person, therefore, who genuinely wishes to promote a theory of society cannot rationally opt for any kind of socialism and, a fortiori, any kind of interventionism8.

How useful is this approach for forming a moral backbone for libertarianism? At first, this approach seems remarkably more plausible than the basic form of consequentialism that we just discussed. By looking at the general consequences of the market we do not get caught up in traps such as interpersonal utility comparisons and we have a strong counter-argument against anyone who proposes a collectivist theory of social organisation. Moreover, the fact that the marketplace serves to improve the material wellbeing of every individual human being lends it a heavy degree of moral weight. If the free market was to spread misery and discontent through perpetuating a lower standard of living we would surely be willing to lend it less moral credence. Unfortunately, however, this utilitarian approach lacks the very thing to which the basic form of consequentialism was far too devoted – a rigorous passion for the justice rather than simply for the utility of private property rights.

First, although it provides a rhetorical defence against those who profess their collectivist aspirations to be for the benefit of society, it will never provide a defence against megalomaniacs who are content to milk everyone else for all they are worth. In other words, it will never provide an answer to those who believe society exists to serve them alone and that they are entitled to use other people in any way they see fit. The existence of such megalomania should not be dismissed lightly. Simply because we associate it more with caligulan monarchs and despots of times gone by does not mean to say that our democratic structures are impervious to it. Many libertarians are vocal opponents of what they see as “US exceptionalism” – the idea that the US government can pretty much do whatever it pleases in foreign affairs and standards that apply to a foreign government do not apply to the US. How can this be described as anything except megalomania?

Second, the logical effects of the socialisation of society – the total collapse of the division of labour and the complete decimation of the standard of living – can be gut wrenchingly long run effects. Society currently has plenty of capital that can be consumed and afford a comfortable, even luxurious living to any one individual. The Soviet Union took an agonising seventy years to die, a span of time that exceeds that of most individual’s adult lives. An advocate of socialism and socialisation is therefore not necessarily advocating his own certain death or relegation to poverty. He may be content to live like a king for the duration of his life and not care a whit if society became deeply impoverished long after he has dropped off of his mortal coil. Arguably this was the attitude inherent in Keynes’ oft-quoted quip “in the long run we are all dead”. As Murray Rothbard is supposed to have retorted, “Keynes died and we were left with the long run”. But such an attitude is provoked and enflamed by the fact that democratic government is a revolving door with officeholders required to endure repeated elections, endowing them a very short time in which to accomplish their goals. Every politician yearns for his day in the sun when he is lauded and praised as a great statesman, but he has to achieve this now, in the short run, before he loses an election. As long as he can reap the headlines and rewards during his tenure and, possibly, for the remainder of his life, who cares if his policies are ultimately destructive after he is long gone? It is for this reason that democratic governments are suffering from ever increasing and crippling debt as each generation of politicians seeks to shower its electorate with free goodies that only have to be paid for years after they have left office (or have died) and it is somebody else’s problem9. So too, could we suggest, that endless war has become the norm as each successive leader tries to demonstrate his Churchillian qualities and to elevate himself to the legendary, almost Godlike realms of the great warrior-statesman such as Lincoln and Roosevelt. Never mind that war ultimately is destructive; never mind that it destroys entire cities and societies; never mind that it kills, maims and otherwise ruins the lives of millions of innocent civilians. As long as the commander-in-chief can claim to have vanquished a cherry-picked foe in some distant country then his place as a saviour of civilisation is assured, at least in the meantime. So too do the manufacturers and profiteers of armaments display the same attitude. They know how evil and destructive war ultimately is; there is no shortage of literature espousing this fact. But they get to reap heavy profits now and to enhance their own lifestyles now. Why should they care about what happens in the long run?

Third, by resting its case on the general virtues of the market this kind of utilitarianism suggests that if some form of social organisation, other than the market, however unlikely, becomes feasible then private property rights could be legitimately overridden. In other words if some form of collectivism could sustain the division of labour and a standard of living equal to or exceeding that of the free market would the force behind government taxation, theft, murder then become legitimate? However, surely if such a world was to come about we would still argue that people have the right to self-ownership and the right to the ownership of goods in their possession as first user or through voluntary transfer? Of course, a person might choose to submit to the yoke of government planning if it affords him a higher standard of living than that of the free market, but this is a different kettle of fish as the submission is then purely voluntary. On its own, however, any ability of a system other than the free market to sustain a society is insufficient as a justification to override private property rights.

Fourth, this brand of utilitarianism may convey a sense of prospective justice – that which should happen concerning property rights in the future – but what does it have to say about retrospective justice? In short, how does utilitarianism know whether the existing structure of property rights is just? After all, the existing structure of ownership benefits a lot of thieves and plunderers that would need to be dealt with in the transition from a statist to a libertarian society. A libertarian steeped in natural law and Lockean homesteading theory would answer this question rather straightforwardly. Any current owner would have to demonstrate that his title derives either from original appropriation or through voluntary transfers in title. If it is not and someone who claims such a title comes forward then ownership must be yielded to the latter. A utilitarian, however, has a bit of a problem as his philosophy generally focuses on the benefit changes to the existing array of property titles to the current market participants. He could argue that, like the natural lawyer, all existing titles to property could be examined against competing claims and then either endorsed or rectified accordingly. However, because his theory is based on the efficacy of the market in developing the division of labour his case for requiring this is demonstrably weakened. Certainly theft and plunder disrupted the efficiency of the market in the past. However, wouldn’t a mass of re-appropriations to rectify ancient crimes undermine the efficacy of the market today, at least temporarily? Would it not be easier, from the point of view of efficiency, to just preserve all existing titles then let everyone go forward? Why compound a past disruption to the market with a new one? It is upon this basis that this brand of utilitarianism is criticised for preserving the status quo, for permitting, in the transmission to a libertarian world, the bureaucratic class to keep their hands on the loot, much like the oligarchy did in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. To be sure, this argument against utilitarianism is not, in the view of the present author, as strong as some libertarians make it out to be. Nevertheless, utilitarianism does open itself up to the charge that there comes a point where stolen property should remain in the hands of the thieves (or their heirs) simply because the act of unwinding the theft would cause more disruption to the market than to not to do so, particularly if the property is heavily invested in an enterprise that provides substantial employment and is apparently productive. Moreover, while it is straightforward enough to justify voluntary trade in the marketplace as promoting the division of labour and the standard of living, we have to wonder whether the utilitarian can provide much of a justification for original appropriation – that is, for the first user of a good to retain it – with his utilitarian arguments alone. Original appropriation is of course the genesis of voluntary trade – we appropriate virgin goods with the intent to produce with them and trade them away for things we want in exchange, thus helping to overcome the fact that the world’s resources are not evenly distributed amongst different geographic regions. However, such a justification can only stand if one can also demonstrate that the originally appropriated property is previously ownerless and unvalued by other people, and is only recognised as scarce and valuable by the first user. The only possible such demonstration is that the first user was the one to “mix his labour with it”, whereas the actions of everyone else demonstrated no preference for that property. Hence all utilitarian arguments in favour of the free market, fundamentally, collapse into the Lockean homesteading theory anyway.

Having addressed the question of whether this form of utilitarianism can be a useful moral underpinning for libertarianism, let us turn now to whether it is useful as a persuasive tool for espousing the virtues of a free society. In this sphere, utilitarianism certainly fares much better. The heaviest gun in the arsenal of the utilitarian libertarian is the fact that living in an unfettered free society where government exists, at most, as a “night watchman”, limited to protecting private property rights of the individual, will produce manifold increases in the standard of living through a rise in real wage rates. It also has the virtue, in contrast to the basic form of consequentialism, of concentrating its focus on the very institution that is an anathema to freedom – the government – instead of getting bogged down in the minutiae of individual cases. Squarely, it is government that needs to withdraw itself from the marketplace and it is government that needs to stop meddling in economic affairs in order to bring about these wonderful consequences. Furthermore, every government minister promotes his programmes on the basis that they will serve to help at least some sector of society, if not everybody. The utilitarian, however, armed with a thorough understanding of economics, can easily demonstrate why the results must always be the very opposite of those intended and why the government interference will always, necessarily, create more harm than good when examined under the terms of its own justification. While, therefore, a given politician or promoter may have ulterior motives in proposing any programme – such as to benefit lobbyists, donors or other special interests – his public justification for the programme can be shown as shambolic. There may, of course, be some difficulty in disabusing people of the notion that the free market is a “sink-or-swim” society and there is also added problem of those who steadfastly refuse to try their hand in the marketplace for what might seem like a distant reward and prefer instead to yield to the siren song of government redistribution. To this, only a passionate plea for the justice of the market place can provide an answer.

Conclusion

George Reisman explains how an understanding of the consequences of free market economics has “powerful implications for ethics”:

It demonstrates exhaustively that in a division-of-labor, capitalist society, one man’s gain is not another man’s loss, that, indeed, it is actually other men’s gain — especially in the case of the building of great fortunes. In sum, economics demonstrates that the rational self-interests of all men are harmonious. In so doing, economics raises a leading voice against the traditional ethics of altruism and self-sacrifice. It presents society — a division-of-labor, capitalist society — not as an entity over and above the individual, to which he must sacrifice his interests, but as an indispensable means within which the individual can fulfill the ultimate ends of his own personal life and happiness.

A knowledge of economics is indispensable for anyone who seeks to understand his own place in the modern world and that of others. It is a powerful antidote to unfounded feelings of being the victim or perpetrator of “exploitation” and to all feelings of “alienation” based on the belief that the economic world is immoral, purposeless, or chaotic. Such unfounded feelings rest on an ignorance of economics.10

While, therefore, we must conclude that no form of utilitarianism provides an adequate, watertight moral backbone for libertarianism, which can only be furnished by demonstrating the justice inherent in private property rights and free exchange, we must also agree that we can never ignore the manifold benefits to every individual and the harmonious society that they create. Indeed, few people, publically, ever attempt to propose an ethical theory that does not create a society of peace and harmony. Thus a through understanding of the effects of the free market can provide a framework with which to refute competing theories on their own terms. Furthermore, few deontological libertarians omit to pepper their theories with demonstrations of the beneficial consequences of the marketplace. While, therefore, this essay has been generally critical of utilitarianism it is likely that it will always have a central place in libertarian theory.

1Reprinted in “Economic Controversies”, pp. 289-333. Rothbard is, however, keen to note that his reconstruction does not provide any plea for an ethical system, merely “conclusions to the framer of ethical judgments as part of the data for his ethical system”.

2Another example is the so-called runaway train that will hit five people if diverted onto one track or only one if diverted onto the second. Should the signalman switch the points to the second track to ensure that only the one person is killed?

3Walter Block, Ethics, Efficiency, Coasian Property Rights and Psychic Income: A Reply To Demsetz, The Review of Austrian Economics, Vol.8, No. 2 (1995) 61-125, at 76-84 (emphasis added, some footnotes omitted.

4Libertarian jurisprudence does, of course, have to determine precisely which physical acts result in which property rights. However, any difficulty is likely to remain only in borderline cases or cases where evidence of prior ownership is fleeting or difficult to apprehend and, in general, all persons should be able to determine in the majority of situations whether property is subject to a prior right and a third party referee would not be required to determine this.

5As a result it is also the case that consequentialists vary in their particular views concerning the justice of taxation, eminent domain, intellectual property, etc. on to a greater degree than rule-based libertarians.

6Ironically, the same argument based on interpersonal utility comparisons – that the wealthy value what they have less than the poor and that the latter “need” this wealth more than the rich do – is used by proponents of government welfare and redistribution. It is difficult to understand how an argument that can be used against a world of liberty can be used in favour of it.

7Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, p.676.

8It is upon this foundation that Mises’ examination of concrete economic policies, where he moves from the wertfrei into the world of value judgments – the effectiveness of the policies themselves from the point of view of those who promote them – is  based.

9Because the incessant tendency is now reaching a chronic level the ability to postpone the day of reckoning has become ever more difficult and most of the more recent glory-seekers are now living to reap what they sow. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan is a pertinent example.

10George Reisman, Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, p. 17.

Towards a Universal Human Ethic

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The effort to establish an incontestable proof for libertarianism as a universal human ethic is an immense undertaking and one that (to avoid any possible false anticipation) will not be accomplished in this short essay. We can also suggest that even if a libertarian scholar was to arrive at such a thesis it is unlikely that he would attract the attention and rejuvenation of political philosophy that, say, John Rawls did upon publication of his A Theory of Justice, an inherently statist work that found natural admirers amongst those interested in promoting the cause of the state. In this essay we will outline some important considerations that may help towards establishing libertarianism as the universal, human ethic.

The first consideration, and one that the present author is yet to see in print, is why should the burden of proof be on libertarians to establish their case? Doubtless it is the task of those who posit a particular political or ethical theory to justify their propositions, but too often in this kind of debate, democratic government is seen to be the natural, neutral or perhaps “default” position, with libertarians striving to promote something new and exciting, like a novel invention or a method that must be proven to be right before we could possibly envisage accepting it (although it seems as though we are never allowed to have it tried and tested). However, the case is, arguably, the other way round. Liberty – the freedom of each individual as an independent moral agent free from interference – is the natural, default status of human beings, as will become clear from our analysis below. It requires only negative action on the part of every individual human – the abstinence from physical invasion of the person or property of another. Anything else, however, requires a positive, conscious choice to disturb this peaceful situation and to interfere, physically, with somebody else. Those proposing such a positive course of action should surely be required to prove their case ahead of those who argue for retention of the natural state of affairs? Indeed, the difficulty of establishing a case for libertarianism does not result in the case for government being any stronger and at the very least proponents of the latter should be prepared to justify their positions as well. Often in these debates the libertarian is presented with a smorgasbord of issues and is required to explain how each and every one of them would be dealt with in a libertarian society and produce a just outcome; for some reason, the slightest weakness, the slightest inability of the libertarian to explain how a single issue, however minor, would be handled better in a libertarian society is taken as conclusive proof that libertarianism must be discarded, regardless of the finesse of the argument before that point. This is nothing but intellectual sloth, or rather a preference to bask in the comfortable status quo rather than confront formidable questions. It may be difficult to argue for the rights to self-ownership and private property, but it is much more difficult to propose that a select few should be able to override self-ownership and private property; that a select few need not earn their living by serving others through voluntary trade but can, instead, confiscate it; that the select few can enact laws and edicts with no regard to any primary rationale whatsoever; that the select few can establish massive, compulsory monopolies over whole industries such as transport and healthcare; that this little elite can accumulate debt that exceeds the productive capacity of the planet; that it can spend this borrowed money on invading and bombing civilians in foreign countries in conflicts that are not its concern. This side of the debate cannot be ignored. Now, to be sure, not all statists agree that these are legitimate things for the government to do and would wilfully deplore them in concert with libertarians (although much of this would be a criticism of that which government does, as opposed to the libertarian view that opposes government per se). But this demonstrates that the status quo is not the default option and opponents of libertarianism must be prepared to establish their own philosophies as being superior to libertarianism rather than simply dismissing one that they do not share.

The second consideration, and one that has been raised in previous essays, is the presuppositions of those who attempt to promote ethical theories of society. The characteristic of humans that distinguishes them from animals or unconscious matter is that they make voluntary choices to devote means towards ends, rather than simply relying upon instinct or the inertia of other matter. These voluntary choices are the substance of moral enquiry – because of the fact of scarcity, humans must choose between competing ends to which means could be devoted. An ethical theory informs the human of which ends he should pursue and which he should not with the means available. Without voluntary choice arising from scarcity moral theories would be redundant – total abundance would mean that every end is already fulfilled and hence moral theories would have no information to provide, and without voluntary choice moral theories would have no effect upon an action because the individual cannot change its outcome. Thus any being that makes voluntary choices is deemed to be a moral agent – the being to whom a moral theory applies. A theory of intrapersonal morality would concern only how moral agents should make choices in relation to amoral agents – those who have no voluntary choice such as dead matter, or objects. The moral question is “what is a good thing for this person to do with this object?” and not “what is a good thing for this person and for this object?” There is no such thing as moral rights arising in the form of dead matter and any moral enquiry concerns wholly the best ends for this individual human to pursue vis-à-vis that matter. With interpersonal morality, however, the question changes as now we are concerned about what is good for one actor and what is good for another in their relations between them. An interpersonal ethical theory accounts for not only the best ends of the one actor but also those of the other; thus, there arises the language of reciprocal rights and obligations that we possess and owe, respectively, to each other. As we noted, the essence of being human is that voluntary choices are completed through actions which are physical manifestations, making physical changes to the matter that is in the world and that this is the criterion of moral agency. If one person’s voluntary action, therefore, physically restrains or interferes with the person or property of another then what is the result? What happens when one person uses force against the person or property of another? Simply that this latter person is now prevented from making voluntary choices that result in actions devoted towards ends that he desires. Rather, his action is now forcibly directed, like a mere object, to the fulfilment of the ends of another individual. He therefore loses his characteristic as a moral agent and, worse still, as a human being entirely. For the very characteristic that makes him human – voluntary choice – has now been denied to him. What follows, therefore, is that any ethical theory that relies upon the force may be a perfectly applicable ethical theory to the individual actor doing the forcing – it may be perfectly acceptable if it is presented as a theory of what this one person should, treating every other human in the world as mere objects for his use. But if it is presented as an ethical theory of society then something is surely amiss – for how can such a theory apply to a society of humans, who, by virtue of that definition, each have independent moral agency making voluntary actions motivated by voluntary choices, when the substance of that theory denies them this very characteristic? It is no answer to this charge that, as humans, we have a reciprocal obligation to submit to the force of a person who may be said to have the “right to force”. Such an obligation does not make sense because an obligation presupposes the voluntary choice to carry out the substance of that obligation. If one is forced, however, there is no obligation at all – like a tree blowing in the wind it simply happens. Furthermore, the threat of force resulting in seemingly voluntary compliance is indistinguishable from force because there is no genuine choice – the same outcome will always result regardless of the victim’s choice to either carry out the forced ends voluntarily or to submit to violence. Moreover, neither does so-called “democratic oversight” of the enforcers – through, say, popular elections of the government – make any difference. In the first place, the answer of democratic oversight to seemingly despotic and autocratic propositions is reminiscent of the response of the socialists to Mises’ theory of economic calculation under socialism – in order to try and get around a very real problem faced by their theory they have to make socialism look like a market through various contrived devices such as bureaucrats “playing” entrepreneurs with money bestowed on them by the state – which raises the question of why not just adopt the market anyway instead of an inferior version of it? In just the same way here democracy lends a veneer to tyrannous and collectivist theories in order to make them look more free so that people are really “volunteering” to government edicts – which equally raises the question of why just not adopt genuine liberty? Regardless of this, however, democracy does not convey any genuine voluntary control to the individual. Rather, it conveys it to a majority of individuals. Any ethical social theory legitimated by democracy is not, therefore, a genuine human ethic but rather an ethic of the majority. Anyone in the minority is still forcibly subjected to ends that they do not want. Furthermore, this control by the majority would only be present in direct democratic systems where you get to vote on every individual issue. However, in so-called representative democracy, the political system under which most of us are languishing in the world today, the majority merely chooses the decision makers out of a carefully screened list once every four or five years – and there is no compulsion upon these leaders to carry out their manifesto commitments or electoral promises. The majority may have chosen the leaders but there is no guarantee that they would voluntarily submit to that which these leaders would decide to do once in office. Neither also does the fact that the tyranny may be partial rather than absolute save any collectivist social theory. For example, the government may forcibly confiscate 40% of your income in taxes; 60% of it is still yours to do with what you like as a free and independent human being (subject to all the myriad of government restrictions and regulations, of course). More specifically, the government does not regulate when you make a cup of coffee, or go to the toilet, or watch the television, or do your laundry. In other words there is still a very significant part of our lives in which collectivist ethical theories still allow us to be independent moral agents. However, this is only because the government has decided to leave you alone in these activities. If I had a working horse and I let it wander to any corner of the paddock that it wanted, sleep when it wanted, drink water when it wanted, none of this would change the fact that the horse is still entirely mine to dispose of as I wish. Indeed I might only allow these unilateral actions on the part of the horse because it makes it more pliable to being forced to work at a later date. In the same vein, most collectivist theories, absent some vague or waffling commitment to “fairness”, “equality” and so on, do not posit the substantive choices that should be made under their aegis – they merely advocate the procedural, political set up for making them. There is no reason why, in principle, government could not confiscate all or a larger chunk of your income, or actually regulate how often you go to the toilet or what you decide to wear. The de facto result of democracy is that it has seemingly legitimated any action of the government whatsoever, with democratic governments having made far more inroads to personal liberty of which ancient monarchs could only have dreamed. Substantive freedom under collectivism is based more upon what the populace is willing to bear rather than anything inherent in the ethical theory that informs it.

This proposition – that any theory that does not permit complete individual freedom can never be a genuine human ethic and therefore is, by its own standards, contradictory is not, of course, a watertight theory. It would, for example, have nothing to say to a person who did not wish to present his theory as a social theory and only cares about subjecting other people to the ends that he desires – in other words, a tyrant in the extreme. And indeed, just as a horse may need to be cajoled in working for you, so too may the tyrant pay lip service to espousing an ethical theory of society that works for everyone in order to placate the population, whereas privately he has concluded that only his ends really matter1. Nevertheless, it is certainly an important realisation whenever confronting someone who proposes such a theory. For if he is proposing a genuine theory of society then his theory is contradictory. If he is not, then his tyranny is simply revealed for what it really is and his true ends, to subject everyone else to his desires, will be laid bare for all to see. It is not likely that response to such a theory would contain an overwhelming degree of enthusiasm.

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1This is arguably the shortcoming of Hans Hermann Hoppe’s argumentation ethics, which relies upon the premise that ethical propositions must be determined by argument. Does this bind the person who doesn’t argue, or playfully argues only to cajole or placate while having already unilaterally concluded ethical propositions in his own mind?

Libertarianism – A Utopian Ideal?

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Libertarianism – and any sort of more general freedom from government as advocated by anyone with a pro-free market leaning – is opposed both ethically and economically on a number of substantive grounds. The proposition that without government we would have inequality, destitution for the masses, rampant greed, and so on is a familiar charge. A further point of opposition is that libertarianism, and the drive towards it is simply utopian or idealistic and that libertarians are hopeless day dreamers, lacking any awareness of how the world “really” works. It is this objection that we will attempt to answer in this short essay.

There are two different basic guises of the argument that libertarianism is utopian. The first is that a libertarian world will simply never come about; that government is so entrenched in the world and people are so inherently statist that any hope for a libertarian society will founder upon the rocks. In the first place we might as well point out that libertarianism is a normative theory; just because we live in a society overwhelmed by statism does not mean that things should be that way. The current situation may make it harder to achieve but it does not undermine libertarianism as an ethical theory. But if we ignore this we do have to recognise that much of the fight for freedom will be an uphill struggle – as it always has been in history. The present author does not expect a libertarian world to appear within his lifetime. But from a strictly practical point of view this fight is a lot less “utopian” than many other goals such as the fight against poverty or against disease. These things require positive action and endless patience to wait for enough wealth to accumulate in order to provide some alleviation. Indeed even the most popular ideal in the world today – the so-called spread of democracy – requires armed invasions, active peacekeeping, the setup of institutions for which to hold to elections and the willingness of the population to get off their backsides and vote. This is assuming, of course, that such an ideal is genuine and not simply a veneer for power and control over resources. Freedom, however, only requires negative action – the abstinence from violence against the person or property of another person. Every single individual in the world has the physical ability to bring this situation about right now with no effort whatsoever. Freedom could practically be achieved much more quickly than wealth, democracy, inequality, happiness, fulfilment or any other ideal that one could care to mention. This does of course suffer from the drawback that people need a passion for liberty and a willingness to cease their promotion or tacit acceptance of the ruling regimes. Inducing recognition of the illegitimacy of government on a wide scale is a formidable task for libertarians, especially as it is so radical. But what is truly utopian, however, is the belief that the current situation of debt, spending and kicking the can down the road can ever continue. At the birth of social democracy, Western nations had accumulated several generations’ worth of capital that had raised the standard of living by a significant magnitude. This provided a seemingly inexhaustible fund for politicians to bribe voters, showering them with goodies in the form of retirement benefits, welfare payments, nationalised industries, publically owned infrastructure, and so on in return for their votes. Because politicians like to spend and spend without raising current taxes, much of this spending was fuelled by borrowing, with the productivity of accumulated capital enabling tax revenue to service this debt. The borrowing and inflation has benefitted the bookends of society – the poorest who receive the majority of the welfare payments and the very rich whose assets survive the inflation by rising in nominal value – as well as the baby boomer generation, which has received most of the lavish benefits without having to pay for them. The profligate waste disguised a slow but relentless capital consumption until now productivity can no longer provide for the burgeoning level of spending. Governments today are struggling to even service the interest on debt through tax revenues, having to borrow more just to pay down previously accumulated debt. Particularly now as the aforementioned baby boomer generation has begun to retire, leaving behind it a decimated workforce supporting a heavy generation of retirees, this situation is likely to only get worse. There are three possible options available – to default on the entitlements; to default on the debt; or to print enough money to pay for everything. The first option would cause mass social unrest, the second would cause financial markets to collapse and the third would cause hyperinflation of the currency. This is an unpleasant but soon to be necessary choice. It is precisely because the paradigm of social democracy, its welfare state and social justice no longer appear to be working that liberty (and “Austrian” economics) are beginning to be viewed as viable alternatives. As suggested previously, the view (and hope) of the present author is that this will be a relatively bloodless and un-revolutionary process, taking effect through the simple circumvention of government by people who simply want to live their lives and maintain their standard of living. Regardless of their precise knowledge of the virtues of liberty, a libertarian world will come about by people seeking to assert their individuality. That seems a lot less utopian than desperately attempting to prop up the current, zombie-like system.

The second guise of the argument that libertarianism is utopian is the proposition that non-aggression is counter to human nature and there will always be people who seek to murder, rape and steal. Or, even worse, a free society will just create a society of looters and murderers and the peaceful and harmonious world that libertarians envisage will simply never appear. With government, however, peace is maintained (enforced?) and we have a controlled and orderly redistribution subject to democratic oversight and this is far more in keeping with the nature of humans. First of all, freedom is the raison d’être of human nature and not its antithesis. Undoubtedly it is true that the political means of achieving wealth through theft and redistribution, as well as the abdication of individual responsibility through devotion to a leader, are powerful and attractive propositions that may form part of human nature. But this is simply a part of the universal law of human action that seeks to minimise individual cost and maximise individual benefit. People seek to promote government action because they think it will promote what they want while forcing others to shoulder the burden. They want government to enact their ideas and their plans and for everyone else to march in time. They seldom consider the fact that they may be suffering the costs of implementing somebody else’s plan. As soon as government ceases to serve this function in the opinion of individuals, it will be dropped. It is, therefore, individual freedom and not an automated, robotic adherence to the government that is in keeping with human nature. Second, bearing this in mind, it is far from clear that society would simply disintegrate into murderous chaos if government was abolished instantly. While there may be a transitory period of restlessness, people will soon take steps to privately protect and defend their property, with these private means replacing the monopolistic provision of the state – as happened recently in the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, when police were ordered to stand down. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that the division of labour and social co-operation would suddenly be obliterated overnight. People engage in these things not only because it is the most productive form of organisation but also, and perhaps more importantly, because the number of people willing to commit private murder and theft would still be in the minority. The majority of people abstain from these acts not because the government is preventing them from doing them but because they are evil. Abolishing the state will not change this view. If any proponent of government was to suggest otherwise then it is permissible to ask him what he would do if government vanished suddenly. Would he be among the looters and plunderers? And if not, why should anyone else? Third, libertarians have never made the claim that the world will be completely eradicated of aggression and we do not assume that, once governments and states are abolished, evil people will suddenly vanish from the face of the Earth. Indeed, libertarians do not even have to prove that a world of liberty will be absolutely flawless and totally free of evil and violent people; it simply has to be better than any other option. What we are firmly opposed to is the legitimisation of aggression when it is carried about by an elite group called the government; that if we recognise acts such as murder and theft as immoral and evil then they shouldn’t be done by anyone. In other words, libertarians oppose the legalisation of aggression under any circumstance, applying simply what resides in everyone’s understanding of basic morality to those who are in government. The fact that illegal acts will still be done is fully acknowledged; but allowing a legitimate channel for the initiation of violence dilutes this basic moral understanding and serves as a vehicle for evil acts such as murder and theft rather than for their prevention. In any case, even if libertarians strove for a world of the complete, de facto eradication of all aggression, private and public, then what would be wrong with that? It is not likely, for example, that rape will ever be completely eradicated whatever legal regime is put in place and any person who sets out to achieve such a total banishment would certainly be “utopian”. But we would hardly dispute the honourable nature of his goal, nor would we castigate his efforts to achieve it. Governments themselves participate in causes even more utopian than this, such as the seemingly endless “War on Drugs”. Doubtless many of us would love to have a world free from substance use but, regardless of the ethics of either drug use or the attempts to prevent it, from a strictly practical point of view it is hopeless to attempt to regulate with the force of law what people desire to put into their own bodies.

Libertarianism will never create a perfect world; but it will create a world that is most in step with the fact that humans think, feel, desire, choose and act as individuals. Undoubtedly, according to some “higher” ideal, the human race is flawed but any practical and sensible political theory has to account for humans as they are, warts and all. It is for this reason that libertarianism, as opposed to its statist and collectivist rivals, is one of the least utopian theories.

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Myths about Freedom

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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.

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Austro-Libertarianism – Fighting for the Truth

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In the battle of ideologies, Austro-Libertarianism (that is, “Austrian” economics and libertarian political philosophy), in spite of (or, sometimes, perhaps because of) its logical consistency and rigorous passion for truth and justice, is lumbered with several burdens that are not always shared with opposing philosophies. Some of these – such as the fact that libertarianism is not a complete moral philosophy and can look, at best, cold and emotionless, or, at worst, a recipe for rampant selfishness and egotism – we have examined elsewhere. Let us explore a few more of them and suggest reasons for how they can be overcome, or at least mitigated as much as possible.

The Collectivist Mentality

Perhaps the biggest problem we face is that the fundamental tenets of the modern, democratic state are not viewed as being open to question. It is seen to be paradigmatic that democracy is the best system of government, that voting means freedom, that politicians serve their people and “the nation”. Whatever the current moral or political debate it is always seen as being a debate that should take place within the system rather that as an attempt to revolt against it. Indeed, in the history of political philosophy, consideration of alternative methods of rule has never been at the low that it is now whereas the possibility of no rule at all (anarchism) is completely off the radar. All alternatives to social democratic government are believed to be just baffling or bewildering, a mentality is reinforced and engrained by two aspects.

First, questions are always posed in the form of the collective and people are encouraged to debate only by thinking of the needs of the whole rather than of the individual parts that make up that whole. “Should Britain do X?” “Should we have nationalised railways?” “What should be done about our health service?” By not even allowing the possibility of individual tastes and desires to find expression, people are always geared towards the notion that there must, for every problem and issue, be a single solution that everyone must be made to endure. Although this is endemic throughout all political debates it can be seen in force in the current possibility (at the time of writing) that the United States will engage in military action against the Syrian government in response to the alleged use of chemical weaponry. “What should we do?” “The United States has a moral obligation…” “Our country will not waiver in its resolve” etc.

In what way can Austro-Libertarians face this challenge? The problem is that it is tempting to accept the terms of the argument and dive head first into discussing only collectives. In response to, for example, the question “should we have a nationalised health service?” a libertarian may find it difficult to prevent himself from crying “no!” and reeling off all manner of facts and  figures to show why a system of private healthcare would be far superior. Libertarians, however, must avoid this temptation entirely because it accepts, in principle, the notion that everyone must accept the same solution. It is also the expected answer from one’s ideological opponents and they are likely to be prepared with an array of counterarguments to nullify or at least blunt one’s own. Rather, an intelligent libertarian should attempt to change the terms of the debate and break out of the collective mentality altogether and focus on individuals. So in answer to the question concerning healthcare, one might retort the following:

“I have no problem whatsoever with the Government providing your healthcare through the National Health Service or whatever you want to call it. I don’t want to stop you from doing what you think is best for your needs with your money. But what right do you have to force me to do the same? I want to look after my healthcare needs in the way that I want with my own money. Do whatever you want with yours, just leave me out of it!”

This is a response that will almost certainly catch someone on the back foot. Having expected an argument about what is best for everyone and there being no possibility of “their” solution taking hold unless they win, they now, suddenly, have to face the fact that actually, they are most welcome to go ahead with what they want with the resources that they can muster. They just have to leave everyone who does not want to be a part of it alone. The terms of the debate have therefore switched from arguing about the merits of their system to arguing about why they should have the right to force everyone to become a part of it. That, they might find, is far harder for them to justify, especially once it is revealed that such a system as they advocate can only take place through the methods of violent enforcement. Liberals (in the modern sense of the word), lefties and collectivists do not like to think of themselves as being violent people and revealing them for what they are might be something of a shock.

Who Will Build the Roads?!

The second problem is related to the first and is manifest in the following types of argument. “How will we defend ourselves?” “Who will take care of disabled people?” “Won’t poor people die without nationalised healthcare?”  All forms of this argument may be summarised as the “Who will Build the Roads?” problem, where government has carried out a function for so long that people cannot imagine how else it would be done.

The obvious answer is, first, to point out how government has never invented or run anything that was not first done so by free individuals (except, perhaps, for nuclear weaponry – developing the machinery of mass killing is something that seem to come naturally to government). Knowledge of a few examples, such as how turnpikes were funded and constructed, and the history of the railways (and their subsequent deterioration under nationalisation) would be beneficial. But so too also is pointing out the fact that the opponent’s argument boils down to little more than this: “I don’t know how else X could be done. Therefore everyone else must be violently enforced to do it my way”. In other words, one should perhaps retort by questioning why that person’s lack of imagination means that everyone else must be subjected to violent enforcement. The whole point of the free market is that it unleashes the creative power of individuals and no one knows precisely what this creative power will produce and in what form. Government, on the other hand, causes nothing but stagnation in everything it runs. Schools, for example, are still teaching in the same way that they have done for nearly two centuries – a teacher in front of a class full of students, a method that seems to be rapidly failing as numeracy and literacy rates decline. Why is education stuck in a time warp whereas the free market around it is innovating and improving all of the time?

Nevertheless this may be a battle easily lost. There is a curious tendency in debates of this type for people to press one continually about how each and every minute issue would be resolved in a free society. Even if you bat away each one for six with success, as soon as there is something that you cannot explain, something to which you cannot illustrate a free market solution in any concrete fashion, however trivial and insignificant, you are expected to surrender and admit that government is necessary. Even if it is not possible to explain how a free society could possibly tackle one, single alleged problem, why is this one, minor “defect” claimed as a sweeping victory for government? Such a view is the result of the wilful (as opposed to merely passive) ignorance and closed-mindedness of one’s opponent and that is perhaps the hardest thing of all to overcome.

Market Chaos and the Fight for Resources

The next problem is the belief that individualism and freedom can only lead to chaos and collapse, a war of all against all in which everyone is motivated only by their greed in the fight for the scarce resources available. Surely there must be someone with their hands on the steering wheel to guide and take control, to steer everyone in the same direction, to ensure that free markets do not become over-zealous and drive us all to ruin? After all, everyone knows that the free market caused the Great Depression, right?

Apart from the usual explanations of how it was, in fact, government that causes economic crises and how it is government that causes the chaos of allocation through its inability to calculate, the more important and hard hitting retort to this accusation is to point out that freedom does not mean a lack of control at all. It simply means that individuals have control over their own lives as opposed to some central bureaucracy. Contrary to the opinions of even some free market proponents, there is nothing “spontaneous” or “disorderly” about freedom1. Rather every human action unfolds as the result of a purpose and desire and one is permitted to achieve these desires with one’s own person and property, and the person and property of those whom you can solicit to join, voluntarily, your enterprise. In this way the ends of everyone can be satisfied as far as they possibly can with the scarce resources available. Government, on the other hand, must always result in the substitution of one person’s or set of people’s purposes for everyone else’s, enforced by violence. Indeed, where someone says that government is needed to “steer us all in the same direction”, the very problem is what should that direction be? Nobody ever has precisely the same vision of how enforced collectivism should be implemented, nor of the goals that it should achieve. Ideological battles and physical wars have seldom been between liberty and collectivism but rather between different brands of collectivism. Fascists and communists, for instance, were pitted against each other in World War II even though they are both brands of totalitarian government. As Mises put it, an advocate of collectivism “always has in view his own brand of socialism” (Omnipotent Government, p. 253). It is government and collectivism, then, with its desire to forcibly direct everyone else’s person and property towards ends that they do not desire that causes chaos, conflict, and fighting. Further, if the market is motivated by greed, then what could be greedier than not only wanting to achieve your ends with your own property but with everyone else’s as well? And if everyone else refuses to play ball then you will fight them and force them to comply! At least a greedy free marketer has to stick to his own turf and needn’t have anything to do with you.

Economic Law and the Laws of Natural Sciences

Another problem is people’s perception of economic law as opposed to the laws of the natural sciences. Many of the latter are either immediately apparent, such as the law of gravity, or are accorded a high degree of respect when scientific research reveals them. Few feel that they have the ability to question the results that scientists produce, particular as we seem to live in a positivistic and evidence-obsessed culture. Economic law, however, is never accorded the same respect and for some reason it has always been believed, from eras of kings and conquerors through to prime ministers and presidents, that government can repeal and banish it through a simple decree.

If government attempted to legislate against the law of gravity – for instance, by demanding, that every object must be 2 feet from the ground – people would have little hesitation is declaring the politicians to be stark raving mad. Yet if the government attempts to alleviate shortages or unaffordability by enacting price controls, even though economists have, for generations, explained the necessary effects of such a measure, it is still believed that such an attempt is legitimate. The laws of economics are as scientific and true as the laws of the natural sciences. Only the precise conditions that bring them into play – that is the valuations of the individual humans and the uncertainty of future, natural events – are scientifically indeterminable. But so long as certain conditions are met, economic law cannot be counteracted. A reason for ignorance of this fact is that the ultimate causes of an economic distortion – human valuations and interference by government control – are difficult to link through to the result, except by a chain of deductive reasoning. Where prices rise for example, no one necessarily witnesses the increase in demand relative to supply (and no one witnesses the increase in the quantity of money that is brought about by government-controlled central and fractional reserve banking). All that it is seen is the numbers on the price tags getting higher, a fact that can easily be blamed on the greed of the merchant or trader. If subsequent price controls cause a shortage, again, the actual cause is not perceived. All that is seen is those same greedy merchants refusing to stock their shelves because now the price doesn’t allow them to “extract” a “huge profit”.

Part of this problem is also owing to a misunderstanding of the subject matter. The natural sciences deal with inanimate objects, i.e. their laws concern matter that feels no desires or purposes and is incapable of expressing choice. Hence the laws of the these sciences are seen to be immovable and true for all of time. Even if good or bad results follow from these laws one has to work with or around them rather than simply ignoring them. No one can, for example, simply dismiss the law of gravity or ignore air resistance if one wishes to fly. A bridge can only be built by understanding geometry and how loads affect various structures. Economics, however, concerns human choice and desire, something that may not only be impulsive and of the moment, but also has results – beneficial or bad – that are motivated and subject to influence and change. It is therefore perceived that economic law, dealing only with the supposedly wishy-washy vagaries of human desire rather than the concrete and immovable facts of the universe, can be overcome – by force if necessary. What is not realised is that economics does not deal with the substance of choices and resulting actions but with their form. Economics takes peoples choices and actions as a given, examining what must be true as a result in spite of their specific content. Its laws are universally valid even though certain choices may be necessary to demonstrate their effects (no could witness the interplay of supply and demand, for example, unless people were actually willing to trade).

Perhaps the epitome of this misunderstanding is that people even go as far as seeming to relax their awareness of the condition of scarcity. Government, in particular, is deemed to be an endless fountain of plenty that should forever be funding more or doing more to cure X, Y and Z. In citing various facts and statistics that demonstrate deficiencies and deplorable situations – “30% of people can’t afford to heat their homes!” “40% of people spend more than half their income on food!” “Child poverty afflicts a third of all families!” – all that our outraged social pioneers accomplish is pointing out the fact that we do not live in the Garden of Eden. Aside from not even entertaining the fact that freedom and lack of government is the path to prosperity, these busybodies have no proposal or specific method for determining precisely which needs are more pressing and must be resolved and which must be left to languish, however deplorable. All we get is that “something must be done!” a cry that will forever be heard until we live in the land of Cockaigne. An additional, exasperating cause of this is the incentive to engage in rent seeking behaviour. When government is sitting on a big pile of cash that could be spent on pretty much anything it wants, it becomes more economically viable for people to stop producing and to start demanding a share of the existing productivity. It is therefore not surprising that a whole host of problems and ills come crawling out of the woodwork when they can be solved, conveniently enough, by their sponsors and promoters receiving government money.

It is very difficult to overcome this mentality but there are some simple things that one can do to countenance this type of ignorance. If someone has difficulty in comprehending the validity of economic law, a basic way of shining some light on the truth is to point out the motivations of other parties in a situation – to put the person in the shoes of someone else. If, for example, the debate concerns price controls, persuade the person to appreciate the point of view of the seller as opposed to that of the buyer. What if he was in that situation and was suddenly told that he can’t sell an item for more than, say £10 each yet his costs are £15? In short, ask him, would you continue to sell in that situation? Secondly, where someone proposes a government measure to alleviate an alleged ill, ask for justification of why that problem deserves funding compared to others (having a few other of these problems at one’s finger tips may assist in this regard). As he is unlikely to be able to offer a definitive method of prioritising government spending, the answer will almost certainly dissolve into “raise taxes on the rich!” That will open the door to a wider discussion of the efficacy of government vs. the free market in creating wealth and vanishing problems such as poverty.

Truth and Lies

Perhaps the greatest intellectual difficulty that Austro-Libertarians face, however, is not the existing mentality of the people or their biases towards collectivist solutions. Rather, it is the fact that we are not always up against people who are interested in the truth. Government, relying on violence rather than entrepreneurial talent in order to attain its revenue, provides an easy and luxuriant income to hoards of individuals who would never have a hope of attaining that income on the free market. This is not to suggest, of course, that everyone who receives government funding is stupid and useless. In most cases it is simply the fact that their talents would not be in high demand on the free market. All human beings seek to further their ends and to make their lives more comfortable and rewarding through the means that are available. Economics frequently talks about how humans use objects as means to achieve their purposes, but so too can other humans be used as means. After all, why bother doing something for yourself if you can just order someone else to do what you want? Power, and the exercise of it, is therefore an extremely seductive potion, one that, once drunk, is very difficult to relinquish the effects of. But government has never survived on its own by simply crying “We are better for you!” “We are morally right!” etc. Rather, it has had to buy in other sectors of the population at large in order to retain its veneer of legitimacy. There are two of these that we shall mention here.

First, intellectuals are a prime category of those persons who are unlikely to obtain the income that they do on the free market. It is only through government funding and largesse that their theses and research papers would ever have a hope of being written. There is also, perhaps, the snobbish aspect that intellectual endeavour is somehow “above” the market and represents higher truth or something better than grubby trading (the same mentality one can often find pervading that other sink pit of government money, the arts). But that aside, when, for example, the majority of macroeconomic research is funded by the Federal Reserve, what likelihood is there that the budding and bright PhDs who can only find employment in one of these research programmes are going to churn out conclusions that are critical of central banking? Or when hoards of scientists are swept up by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) what chances are there that their conclusions will not invoke the need for more government control? This essay is not the place, of course, to determine the merits of specific scientific research. Rather, the point is that one has to be extremely suspicious of Government-funded programmes that conveniently either justify or warrant an increase in the size of government. But it is also true that some intellectuals themselves may wish to disingenuously cloak the truth in favour of a cherished political agenda – they simply believe that big government is a good thing. In any case, bringing on board seemingly impartial and objective intellectual justification for government is a massive boon.

Secondly, one might say that the population itself has been bought off. Democratic governments effectively bribe the citizenry with their own (or, rather, other people’s) money, not only by promising wonderful schools, hospitals, transport networks etc., but also by directly showering handouts from (and creating dependence upon) the ballooning welfare state, all conveniently paid for by taxing “the rich”. Even if one manages to resist the siren song of the former, it is very hard to denounce one’s receipt of a stream of free money. Given that there are so many people who are reliant upon government today it is difficult to envisage how one may even go about the practical operation of dismantling it, let alone attempting to convince people of the justification of such a move.

One cannot necessarily condemn individuals we have been discussing as being totally evil and immoral. If the livelihood of oneself and one’s family is reliant on, say, a tax credit or if one is in a government-funded job then it is understandable, if not forgivable, that people will tow the government line. But that only means that the exceptions, the ones who do not follow the Pied Piper’s tune, shine ever more brightly into the ether and it remains the fact that the justification of government is fundamentally nothing more than a charlatan operation. The supreme irony has to be that people are paying for the justification of their own enslavement.

It is very difficult to challenge this problem in the search for the truth. One could resort to challenging the credentials of one’s ideological opponents, but this can lead one down a dangerous path, resulting in ad hominem attacks and accusations of sour grapes. One should probably only restrict such observations to the most general terms, as we have done here, or at least ensuring that they only pepper solid arguments and counter-arguments that concern the specific issues. Instead, one can only countenance illusions and wizardry with one’s own solid passion for truth and justice, a reputation that one might have to earn through patient adherence to it. Lies and falsehoods will eventually be revealed for what they are. We, as Austro-Libertarians, know that government cannot ever achieve its promises, we know that it is a foregone certainty that it can never control the entire economy without collapsing, we know that it is immoral, violent and destructive. Everything that government does simply sows the seeds of its own doom. Perhaps we are starting to see the beginning of this at the time of writing, as Western populations, having been lied to once over the Iraq war, having seen the mess created in Afghanistan, and having grown ever more distrustful of the so-called “War on Terror” in general, are showing strong resistance to endorsing the US government’s desired attack on the Syrian regime that we mentioned above. Crucially, people are convinced that governments are lying about its supposed justification – “trust us” and “we know there is evidence” is no longer working. It may be only be a matter of time before this sentiment is linked towards the continued failure of government to find a way out of its self-induced economic malaise since 2008 and all of government’s chickens come home to roost. Who then, when all of the liars, conjurers and charmers have vanished will be left to pick up the pieces and who will people turn to for a way forward? Only those who all along remained steadfast to the truth and to what was right – the Austro-Libertarians.

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1As we have said elsewhere the notion of the market as a “spontaneous order” is metaphorical in only the very strictest sense.

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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