States and Corporations

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To say that the existence of the state is, in the mainstream, uncontroversial would be something of an understatement. While the precise individuals who form the state and the specific acts that they choose to do with state power often attract controversy, the existence and sustenance of the state itself is deemed to be essential for not only a functioning and orderly society (such as that which could be provided by a so-called “night watchman” state) but also to contribute, or even to cause, the economic and cultural progression of that society. This belief has become even more potent since the state, sometime in the twentieth century, became endowed with so-called “democratic legitimacy”, i.e. it is supposed to be run by representatives chosen by the people for the people.

Let us run through some of the uncontroversial and supposedly necessary aspects of the state that are barely questioned by anyone today.

First, the state possesses a territorial monopoly of the legitimised use of the initiation of force and violence. The state alone is permitted to fund itself not through voluntary exchange but through compulsory levy (i.e. taxation); people are required to pay to the state that which the state says they should pay regardless of the “service” that they receive from the state in return. The state, further, is permitted to confiscate the legitimately earned wealth and property of individuals and to hand it to other individuals in order to achieve so-called “social justice” and a reduced inequality of wealth and income. Further, the state may use this legitimised force to ban certain uses of one’s own property that in no way interferes with the person or property of anyone else. It may also use this force to compel individuals to deal with their property in certain ways specified by the state, usually at one’s own expense – a power of the state that is euphemised by the term “regulation”.

Second, the state alone is tasked with maintaining law and order and the protection of the person and property of individuals from criminals. The possession and trade of goods and services to enable individuals to accomplish this themselves – such as personal firearms – is increasingly restricted by the state to the extent that such possession or trade itself becomes a crime, even if the intent is simply to prevent criminal acts against oneself. You are therefore utterly reliant upon the state for your own protection and, moreover, you are defenceless against the state when its employees aggress against you. Nevertheless this does not prevent the state from requiring private organisations to police the populace on its behalf – such as in the collection of taxes from payrolls and the requirements of banks and other financial institutions to report on the transactions of their customers.

Third, should the state fail to maintain law and order and to protect your property from criminals, it is then the state to whom you must turn if you want a redress. For the state also enjoys over its territory the privilege of being the sole provider of the dispensation of justice in conflicts between parties, including in conflicts which involve itself. This takes place not just in state run court houses refereed by state employed judges but also (when the state or some of its members have been seen to cause an incident that results in public outrage) in so-called “independent public enquiries”. These are undertaken by a different employee (or retired employee) of the state and the funding still flows from state coffers so there is no wonder why these are almost always written off by the general public as a whitewash.

Fourth, the state alone is tasked with providing so-called “national defence” and securing the state’s borders. Although the restriction of civil liberties in the face of either a real or imagined threat against the state’s sovereignty by a foreign invader is not uncontroversial, it is hardly new and is, in fact, a hallmark of every war into which the state drags its people. More commonly, however, the state may prevent foreign visitors from entering the territory of the state even if domestic private property owners have invited them. People who wish to come to the state’s territory to create jobs and wealth, or simply those who wish to work, are forcibly restricted by the state, even if a domestic employer is willing to hire them. The state also controls, by force, the flow of trade across its borders and imposes tariffs and other restrictions on the movement of goods, regardless of whether a domestic individual or entity wishes to conduct peaceful trade with a foreigner.

Fifth, the state alone is permitted to print and issue currency in the form of paper money or electronic credits to the extent that it may create this money and use it to buy goods and services for itself without having worked to create any wealth in the first place. Other people who do this are labelled as “counterfeiters” and are subject to the full brunt of the state’s forceful retaliation. Such a power to create money is bound only by the economic consequences of price inflation and credit expansion but it permits the state to fund and grow its activities without resorting to increased taxation, instead robbing the domestic population of the purchasing power of the existing notes that they hold.

Sixth, the state forcibly maintains a monopoly over transportation networks such as roads, highways, railways and airports. If they are not nationalised outright, the state frequently contracts out the provision of other supposedly “essential” industries such as healthcare and the supply of utilities such as gas, electricity and water under the rubric of “privatisation”, yet it maintains a tight control over these industries to the extent that they are little more than a state dominated oligarchy.

Seventh, the state tasks itself with the “education” of the children who are born and/or raised within the state’s territory, mandating, through the threat of punishment, attendance at certain ages dictated by the state, regardless of what children may prefer to be doing or better at doing. The state employs the teachers, sets the curriculum, determines the standards to be achieved through examination (i.e. sets the grades) and is responsible for inspecting its own schools and institutions. Private education is possible but, apart from being monitored closely by the state, is nearly always prohibitively expensive and thus is seen, with some resentment, as being the preserve of the wealthy and privileged. Thus the majority of people have little choice but to turn to the state to provide the education of their children. Furthermore, the state takes it upon itself to interfere in the general upbringing of children, with state run schools often tasked with policing parents and dispensing lessons such as “citizenship” and “personal, social and health” education in order to make up for supposed parental shortfalls.

Finally, the state is supposed to protect us and to provide for us in our hour of need – such as if we lose our job or when we retire. State provided retirement benefits are little more than a giant Ponzi scheme. Funds confiscated by taxation from the earliest “beneficiaries” to provide for their retirement were not saved and invested by the state; rather, they were consumed in current expenditure. Instead, it is the current tax confiscations of younger generations that pay for the pensions of today’s retirees. The state forcibly prevents private individuals and companies from engaging in such a scheme as it ultimately results in collapse and losses for the later investors, and those that do offer such a service are thrown by the state in jail. The state’s own scheme is, as we are beginning to see today, susceptible to such a fate yet the state exempts itself from having to follow its own rules.

No doubt readers can think of many other “uncontroversial” aspects of the state that are held dear among mainstream views. Each of these aspects could be demolished in separate, longer treatments and many libertarian writers have, of course, done just that. What we wish to do here, however, is to ask our fellow citizens who do not counter these “functions” of the state a very simple question: if you accept with gladness or even celebrate these aspects of the state that we have just listed, can you imagine also permitting a private corporation to do the same things that the state does? Can you imagine a private corporation being able to initiate the use of force and violence against other people? Would a private company be allowed to force you to do what it wants with your own property? If you get into a contractual dispute with AT&T should AT&T be allowed to judge the outcome of the conflict? If American Airlines assaults or kills your family should American Airlines sit both in the dock and on the judge’s throne? Should Microsoft be tasked with national defence and arm itself with nuclear weapons? Should McDonalds be able to tell you which foreigners and which goods and services can cross the border even if you want them to come and visit you? Could we imagine a world in which Google or Walmart can print paper money and force people to accept it in return for goods and services? Or a world in which Facebook builds all of the roads and runs all of our utilities? Would it be possible for, say, Apple to be able to force our children to attend its schools? And finally, should we allow Bank of America or J P Morgan Chase to force investors to participate in Ponzi schemes? Most lay persons are likely to recoil in horror at the thought of any private corporation being able to do all of these things. Yet, bizarrely, they either accept or defend the fact that the state should participate in these activities.

One likely retort to this is that the state is supposed to govern for “the people” whereas companies are interested in making profits for their shareholders. Indeed, the state uses its self-proclaimed subservient and altruistic nature to exempt itself from all of the proper behaviour that is required of private citizens, who are supposed to be interested in only their own gain. While it is true that companies are primarily interested in making a return for their shareholders (why else would the shareholders have invested in the business?), it is also true that companies can only achieve these profits by serving the needs of their customers. It is the customers who decide, through their choices to spend or not to spend money with the corporation, whether those profits are made. In any case, however, we might point out that an odious act does not transform into a good one simply on account of for whom it is done. If I steal your money this act is rightly viewed as wrong, regardless of whether I intend to keep the money for myself or whether I intend to give it to someone else who may, in my opinion, “need” it more than you do. Similarly, therefore, if the state confiscates your money through taxation and distributes it via the welfare state the fact that it goes to “the people” makes this act no more moral than if the bureaucrats kept it all themselves (which, of course, they often do – not only are the administrative costs of the welfare state frequently underestimated but most of the money disappears into the hands of the state’s favoured contractors and suppliers rather than directly into the bank accounts of the poor). Moreover, we don’t even have to go so far as to cite strictly moral or immoral acts to illustrate this point. Monopolies, for example, are viewed as being bad because they tend to reduce quality and raise costs over time; this fact does not change simply because it is the state that runs a monopoly over say, healthcare, rather than a private corporation.

Another likely response to our question is that the state is under the supposed “democratic control” of the people and that if the state uses these powers “illegitimately” or irresponsibly then they will be booted out at the ballot box. Apart from the fact that, again, an illicit act does not become moral simply on account of who controls those who are doing it, a citizen has the right of voting between a bare handful of carefully selected and screened candidates only once every four or five years. Moreover, a person cannot choose with any specificity which policies and manifestos to support. Rather, he has to throw what little weight he has behind a single candidate (or party) and all of that candidate’s stances on a wide spectrum of issues, from whether we should continue funding wars in the Middle East down to whether a person may light up a joint in his own home. And once elected the successful candidate can simply abandon whatever promises he made in return for your vote straight after. As if that wasn’t bad enough, what if your preferred candidate does not get elected? You still have to suffer the implementation of the odious policies of an alternative candidate whom you may utterly despise. With a private corporation, however, you can choose to vote or to not vote for them with your wallet every single minute of every single day. You don’t have to wait for a few years if you want to switch from Tesco to Sainsbury. Moreover these choices are very specific. If you change your grocery supplier you are not also changing your telephone provider. If you ditch Ryanair and start flying EasyJet you can still get your clothes from Debenhams. If a corporation takes your vote, i.e. your money, then breaks its promises it made before you handed it over it is called “breach of contract” and for this the company can be sued. And finally, your choice to shop at Sainsbury’s or Tesco is not dependent upon a majority of other people wishing to do so – both are able to trade regardless of whether they are supported by a majority of consumers.

What we can take from all of this is that if a private corporation possessed every single right and function of the state except the power to tax and demand your patronage, then you would have more control over it than you do over the state. The situation we have produced, therefore, is, on the one hand, a society of corporations over whom each individual has a high degree of control yet which are required to abide by all of the laws and at least a basic code of morality, and on the other hand a state which no one can control yet can, for the most part, do whatever it likes. It seems to me that if we are to suffer the illicit and illegitimate powers of the state at all they would be far safer in the hands of a private corporation rather than the state.

Of course our goal is that nobody should have the right to carry on these acts that we outlined in the first part of this essay – that they should be illegal regardless of who does them and in whose name. No one should have the power to tax, to confiscate the income and wealth of other people; no one should be able to print money; nobody should be able to arm themselves with all manner of horrific weaponry while forcibly disarming everyone else; and no one should be able to run a Ponzi scheme. When you take all of these characteristics of the state and ask yourself what life would be like if anyone else was allowed to do them, you rightly begin to shudder with fear. So why should we ennoble the state with the dubious privilege of being able to do them?

Hopefully what we have outlined here is a useful point with which a libertarian can turn a debate with a statist or state-biased lay person, and to cause that person to reconsider either his active or his tacit support for the state and its actions.

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The Myth of Overpopulation

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Overpopulation, either locally or globally, is often blamed on a number of apparent problems from the shortage of particular (usually “essential”) resources all the way up to the outright poverty of entire continents. Although few governments, most notably the Chinese, have enacted any strict policies in order to control their populations (except with regards to immigration), factoids such as the allegation that, if every single human wanted to enjoy a Western lifestyle we would need something like a dozen earths, attempt to create an unwarranted degree of hysteria.

The myth of overpopulation rests on the belief that humanity is akin to some kind of cancer which, as it grows exponentially, devours a fixed or arithmetically growing pool of resources that must be shared between everyone who has been unfortunate enough to have been born. This would have been the case in a hand-to-mouth society that preceded capitalism and the division of labour. There was effectively no production and the birth of each individual person constituted merely another mouth to feed. In other words, an increase in population led to an increase in demand for consumption without any corresponding increase in production, thus putting pressure on the existing stock of resources that had to be shared by everyone. Nevertheless, when it comes to shortages of goods in local markets today we can surmise that even if there was a fixed or otherwise relatively limited pool of resources that everyone had to share we couldn’t pin the blame for shortages on such a fact. In a free society, a particular good might be very expensive but it should never be the case that we cannot find anything. As the population increases the price of resources would rise and thus choke off demand for the least valuable uses. Shortages, rather, are always the result of government price controls that try to create the illusion of abundance without the reality, decimating the current supply and obliterating any incentive to produce more. That aside, however, the blatant reality for a capitalist society marked by the division of labour is that there is not a fixed or arithmetically growing pool of wealth and resources, and that the whole purpose of such a society is to grow, exponentially, the amount of wealth that is available. Indeed, as we shall see, humanity has succeeded in this endeavour to only a fraction of its capacity.

When the first human being trod the virgin soil of the earth, he found himself in a situation of almost unrelenting poverty. Mother Nature, as anyone trapped for an extended period of time in the wilderness has discovered, is far from a kind host, providing very little (except air to breathe and fruit on wild trees) by way of resources that can be consumed immediately for very little effort. Yet all of the matter contained in every resource that we enjoy today – buildings, cars, refrigerators, televisions, computers, clothing, medicines, and so – was, give or take a little, right there at the beginning of the world’s existence. Strictly speaking, no human being has ever created anything – rather he has merely transformed matter from one thing into another. So why, if all this matter was there from the very start, weren’t these wonderful things available to our first human? The reason is, of course, that a human must apply his labour in order to change the matter available in the world into useful resources that fulfil his ends. Yet the work of one man with his unaided body alone was not sufficient to create all of the wonderful things that we enjoy today. Indeed, it might take a single human being an entire day to hunt or catch enough fish for just one meal before the process must be repeated the following day. How can this be limitation be overcome?

The first answer is quite simply the very bugbear that is complained about – an increased population. A greater number of humans can together lift and carry a far greater amount than one man alone. Several or many men building a house would accomplish the task in a far shorter time than one man alone. More importantly, however, the widening of the division of labour as the population grows ensures that production stays ahead of population growth. Additional humans constitute an additional demand for consumption – ten humans may require ten houses whereas one human would require only one. But the fact that these men are also producers means that each can now fill his day by specialising in a particular task. One man, devoid of the ability to specialise, may take a year to build one house and he would have to undertake every single activity related to the building work on his own. With ten men, however, two may specialise in lumber felling, another two in transport, some in building, and the task of one the men may be solely to produce food and other supplies for the men doing direct work on the houses. The result of this is a greater degree and concentration of knowledge and an increased perfection of technique and expertise in each task. The resulting time saving means that, whereas one man would take one year to build one house, ten men would less than one year to build ten houses. Thus the rate of house building overtakes the rate of the increase in population. We therefore see that the quantity of labour has a marked effect on the accumulation of wealth and the transformation of matter into useful economic resources, provided that a society is distinguished by capitalism and the division of labour. To further emphasise this point, it is the twin effect of the consumption demand of the additional people coupled with the fact that these people are also producers that makes an ever increasing widening of the division of labour possible. If ten houses have to be produced then it might not be possible for one man to concentrate on any single task in order to fill his day; he might have to work in installing the wiring, the plumbing and the wallpaper. If one hundred houses have to be built then he might be able to concentrate on plumbing alone. If one thousand houses are built then he might be able to specialise on plumbing just bathrooms whereas someone else works on plumbing kitchens, for instance. The ever increasing volume of demand from an increasing population therefore begats an ever increasing division of labour when that population is put to work, and with it come all the benefits of specialisation and expertise.

Second, although it is flexible, the human body is a relatively weak and feeble creature, capable of moving and lifting only a tiny amount of matter at any one time. Regardless, therefore, of the quantity of labour available we can see that fifty men carrying sacks on their back would fail to transport as many goods in as short a space of time as, say, a railway locomotive hauling some wagons. The power of labour is therefore a further limiting factor on the number of resources that can be enjoyed. This power can only be increased by accumulating ever greater amounts of capital. All such goods – machines, tools, vehicles, and so on – are, fundamentally, merely extensions of the human body that enable its labour to accomplish more than it otherwise would. A man with an axe can fell a greater a number of trees than a man whose body is unaided by this implement. For centuries, humans could not labour to extract oil from the ground and refine it into petroleum. Yet with the capital available to construct drilling apparatus, oil rigs and refineries this is no longer the case. Indeed, most direct labour today is not concerned with the production of consumption goods at all. Rather, it is devoted to the production, augmentation and improvement of capital goods. In short, it is directed towards increasing the power of labour.

What we begin to see, therefore, is that it is not necessarily the scarcity of resources burdened by an ever increasing population that is the real obstacle to the growth of wealth and economic progress; rather, it is the scarcity of labour and the power of that labour as represented by the stock of capital goods which serve to enhance it. Goods are, to be sure, the original source of scarcity. We apply our labour only because the available quantity of a given resource exists in insufficient supply relative to the ends to which it could be devoted. Yet the power of our labour is a significant compounding factor on the degree of scarcity that we must endure. My body may only have enough capability in order to fetch a few buckets of water from a nearby stream – yet more than three quarters of the globe is covered in water. It is because the power of my labour is relatively weak that most of this water is either too far away or of insufficient quality to serve me any practical end. Only be improving the power of my labour – by being able to move greater distances, lift heavier volumes and develop processes of purification – could I hope to enjoy more water.

Such a circumstance is not limited to such a clearly abundant resource such as water. The entire world, right from the depths of the core of the Earth all the way up to the stratosphere is densely packed with matter. Our labour has only ever been able to harness a mere fraction of these resources, mostly skimmed from the Earth’s crust. As time goes on however, as population increases and with it capital accumulation and the widening of the division of labour, we harness the ability to tap into more and more of these resources. Hence, mines and oil fields that were once too costly to drill are now drilled (and, indeed, are more productive than the most productive fields of yesteryear); such mines could eventually reach depths of miles rather feet; and valuable elements can now be extracted from more complex ores. There is no reason to believe that this process cannot continue. Even today, the sea contains traces of elements such as gold which, in their totality, amount to a far greater quantity than all of that ever mined from beneath the land – 20 million tons compared to 175,000 tons respectively. Yet our labour is insufficient to take advantage of this fact. Indeed the sea remains one of the greatest untapped resources available to us. Unlike private land settlement which led to a prosperous agriculture and exploitation of the land, government has pretty much closed off areas of the sea to the possibility of settlement, preventing the development of a full-fledged aquaculture and robbing us of the ability to exploit this wonderful gift of nature.

It is for this reason – the increasing power of labour – that all predictions of resource depletion as a result of overpopulation (not to mention the ridiculousness of disingenuous “facts” such as the allegation that twelve earths are required to give everyone a Western lifestyle) – have failed. In the well known Ehrlich-Simon wager, for instance, economist Julian Simon made a bet in 1980 with biologist Paul Ehrlich that the price of five metals of Ehrlich’s choosing would have declined in price ten years later – indicating increasing availability of resources rather than increasing scarcity. Simon won the bet outright, in spite of a population increase of 800 million during that decade. Other peddlers of the overpopulation thesis, such as Albert Allen Bartlett, have labelled the views presented here as “cornucopian” or “the new flat earth” – mythical, whimsical and not based on any serious scientific understanding. What these people share in common is that they simply do not account for the future economic viability of production from what are currently viewed as uneconomic resources. For the clear result is that as population has increased we have been able to apply more labour with a greater power of that labour to a greater number of the world’s resources in ways that we were not able to do before. The ultimate goal, needless to say, would be something akin to molecular engineering – the ability to transform worthless matter such as dirt, trash or even air – into valuable resources. The futuristic “replicators” on TV shows such as Star Trek can apparently conjure goods such as a fully cooked meal out of thin air; yet the science behind would not be too difficult to imagine. We have already harnessed the ability to transform matter into energy through processes such as combustion. We can envisage that one day we could do the reverse and transform energy into matter. An inedible sack of coal could end up as a fabulous meal on your dining table.

Overpopulation does, however, give the appearance of being a problem as a result of government interference. Above we noted above, additional consumption demand represented by an increasing population serves in increase wealth provided that the additional population are also producers and therefore will act so as to widen the division of labour and the accumulation of capital. Yet the actions of government serve to swell consumption while choking off production. Pressure on resources and industries therefore arises from government control of these things. Britain’s decrepit healthcare, energy and transport systems are bursting at the seams as a result of demand and increasing costs, a direct result of inefficiency combined with prices that are too low which serve to swell consumption demand in these industries. Government pays its citizens to produce babies and thus increase the population, while an increasing immigrant population today is induced not by the freedom to pursue one’s own goals and to better one’s own life for oneself through hard work and productivity, but, rather, by generous welfare states. All of this causes a rising population that contributes to consumption but very little by way of production. In other words, if you set up the economic system to make consumption as care free as possible and production as costly as it could be then the excess of consumption and a deficit of production will give the illusion of overpopulation. Government therefore begins to look on its citizens as pests and parasites, wanton consumers of precious resources that are desperately running out. Yet the problem is not with resources; rather the problem is with the ability of the government to swell the ranks of consumers and its inability to increase the power of labour, together with its incessant stifling of anyone else who tries to do so. Every additional person who is born in the world is another mouth to feed, another person who will demand the consumption of resources. Yet that person could also be a producer who will widen the division of labour and help to grow the capital stock. Government succeeds only in breeding the consumer in a man while totally destroying in him the producer.

Turning to a related aspect, the fact that whole continents, such as Africa, are mired in poverty has nothing to do with the allegation that the richer countries refuse to “share” their wealth. If the richer countries did not have their wealth, it would not mean that poorer countries would have more – the wealth simply would not have been produced, period. Indeed, whatever wealth that does exist in poor places is often the result of Western enterprise or outright gift. These places do not lack resources; rather, they lack the institutions of private property and voluntary exchange that enable capitalism and the division of labour to flourish, and with them a greater command of labour over resources. Indeed, many of these countries are proceeding down the wrong path by setting up welfare states, trade unions and Keynesian economic (mis)management overseen by democratic institutions which are, of course, the very things that are destroying the standard of living in the West. The West achieved its greatest accomplishments in a pre-democratic, pre-welfare state and pre-union age before Marxism and socialism succeeded in leading the onslaught against capitalism and private property.

What we can see, therefore, is that overpopulation is not a fundamental economic problem. It is only an apparent problem in a society that is hampered by government intervention and the stifling of private property rights, the division of labour and capital accumulation. However, even if population started to put pressure on resources when, in a capitalist society, we reached the (unlikely) point where we were regularly turning over all of the matter in existence to meet our ends – we would still conclude that this would not be a problem worthy of any serious attention. Or at the very least, it would certainly not be a problem that merited any centralised, government control. For as population increases relative to the supply of resources, the latter become more expensive. The cost of raising a child therefore itself becomes prohibitively more expense and people would need to choose between devoting ever more valuable resources to themselves or to their children. Indeed one of the first of such resources to exert this pressure may well be land, assuming we have not, by then, invented the ability to produce more of it artificially. We could, of course, build upwards and end up living in skyscrapers but people may prefer to breed less and have more land available to themselves rather than to their children. Such choices may serve to relieve, naturally, any exponential growth in population figures. Even if, though, people desired to keep on having more children it would only indicate that they prefer the company of children to enjoying more resources for themselves. There is no objective standard by which to complain about the result of such a choice. Nevertheless, even when it comes to the question of land, humanity is currently so far from this point that we hardly need to bother mentioning it, except to try and concede to the overpopulation thesis its best possible case.

The illusion of overpopulation is exacerbated today by a fundamentally antagonistic attitude from what Murray Rothbard called the “professional foes of humanity”, the environmentalist movement1. Apart from this movement’s interference in one the most crucial markets for capital accumulation – the production of energy – the fundamentals of their philosophy view the earth as inherently beautiful and sacred, and any of humanity’s attempts to exploit it as sacrilege. Such a view is radically anti-human and can only hold that the problem with the Earth is that there are too many of these stupid, dirty, polluting, and wantonly consuming human beings. Given the influence that this movement holds it is no small wonder that such thinking permeates into more mainstream views. That aside, however, we can conclude from what we have learnt here that humans need not fear increases in population. What they should fear, however, is their government turning additional people into spoon fed eaters with shackled hands – consumers who cannot produce. It is this fact that puts a very real pressure of resources. It is therefore not overpopulation that is the real problem but, rather, “over-government”.

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1Murray N Rothbard, Government and Hurricane Hugo: A Deadly Combination, Llewellyn H Rockwell Jr, (ed.), The Economics of Liberty, pp 136-40.

Libertarians Beware?

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

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

Returning to his own commentary, Wenzel continues:

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Economic Myths #9 – Social Safety Nets

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It is often trumpeted as a virtue that “civilised”, social democratic countries offer their citizens one or more types of “social safety net” in attempt to eliminate the most dire effects of, say, unemployment, illness or some other kind of incapacity that could inflict a condition of extreme poverty upon the individual members of the citizenry. The idea is that the most basic wants will always be guaranteed by the state should one be unable to provide them for oneself and no one need have any fear of hunger or lack of shelter – situations that are said to be “intolerable” in a modern, 21st century society.

The first problem with this theory is that poverty is not some selectively appearing disease that crops up every now and then to infect an otherwise healthy and wealthy society. Rather, poverty is the natural state in which human beings first found themselves. When Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden they saw the world to be a barren and harsh place that is capable of providing precious little – may be just oxygen to breathe – without the conscious effort of its inhabitants. The only way to alleviate this harsh situation is for humans to work to produce the goods that they need and, eventually, to bring about capital investment in order to expand the amount of consumer goods that can be enjoyed – whether it’s cheap food, housing, education, holidays or whatever – a process that only really got underway in any significant form in the 1800s. If the individual beneficiaries of a social safety net are not able to produce these goods themselves then somebody else must do so. Simply legislating the welfare state into existence does not create the goods and services it needs to dispense to the poor and needy in order to banish poverty and want. Rather, existing goods have to be forcibly confiscated from those who have produced them and dished out for free to those that haven’t. Social safety nets are compulsory redistribution programmes, not wealth creation programmes and any benefit one receives under them will be at the expense of another person.

The economic effects of this are familiar to economists not only in the “Austrian” tradition but of other free market persuasions also. The most naïve error made by any proponent of redistribution is to believe that people’s behaviour is somehow hermetically sealed from the government intervention that seeks to achieve a certain end – i.e. that increased taxes on activity A will not discourage people from carrying out activity A; or increased funding to eliminate a “dire” situation will not, in fact, exacerbate that situation. Whenever a new tax is proposed the estimations of new revenue to be raked in are always based, incorrectly, on the assumption that people will still wish to carry on doing the taxed event just as they did before, as if the tax makes no difference. And if some new programme to be financed by this revenue is proposed, they will calculate the amount of money needed to cure the existing problem without considering whether throwing money at it will make it worse. All else being equal, if you pay people to when they do something they will do more of it; if you charge someone when they do something they will do less of it. In the case of social safety nets, if people are charged to produce wealth in order to fund it the cost of creating wealth is forcibly raised. Relative to other activities such as engaging in more leisure time, the attractiveness of producing more goods, more capital and more resources is reduced. There will, therefore, be less production, less capital investment and fewer consumer goods at higher prices – hardly the situation that one would expect to be conducive to the abolition of poverty. Similarly, if you grant a guaranteed right to be paid upon the occurrence of a bad event – such as sickness and unemployment – then you lower the cost of that event and the relative cost of preventative measures is raised. All else being equal, you will have more sickness, more unemployment and so on.

The focus of many of these social safety nets today appears to be on so-called “hardworking families” – never mind the fact that single people also work hard and struggle to make ends meet. Children, in particular, appear to be little more than a metaphorical blank cheque that the state writes to “protect” them from poverty and hardship. Yet children do not appear out of nowhere and a conscious decision must have been made at some point to have a child – or at least to carry out the act of procreation. The same economic effects will therefore result from any safety net that benefits parents with children. If you pay people when they have children then there will be more children in families that struggle to pay the bills. The resources to feed these hungry young mouths must be confiscated from those who do not have children – either through inability, a lack of desire or good old fashioned financial prudence – and redistributed to those who do.

The running theme through all of this, therefore, is that throwing free money at a problem in which people have at least some kind of influence will only aggravate that problem. Indeed, in spite of more than half a century of the welfare state we in the Western world still seems to be afflicted with the scourge of poverty – although a rather bizarre form of it where those who are poor appear to suffer more from obesity rather than from starvation. One would associate progress with a reducing, not widening social safety net. We might as well also mention the “cynical” view that government prefers to retain people in a state of dependence because it means more reliance upon the state and more votes.

A powerful weapon in the arsenal of proponents of the welfare state is the false dichotomy – that the choice is either between a government social safety net motivated by care and compassion on the one hand or some kind of selfish, greedy, sink-or-swim and dog-eat-dog society on the other. This is plainly ridiculous; the free market exists precisely because people have needs and others are willing to advance the means to fulfil them. The whole purpose of insurance – presently and regrettably distorted by government interference – is to protect from genuinely catastrophic events that are not your fault in return for a premium paid in advance. Furthermore, opting for the alternative of the free market does mean the abolition of care and compassion – rather, it gives people the freedom to be caring and compassionate. Indeed it is such private benevolence that is discouraged by the welfare state as it obliterates the need to cultivate personal relationships upon which you can rely. Real benevolence, selflessness and caring for one another springs from these relationships and from private choice; the forced redistribution demanded by the state, however, leads to the very opposite – bitterness, antagonism and cynicism when your hard earned money is taken to be given to others, all of whom – in spite of whether they are genuinely needy or not – are tarnished as workshy and endless breeders. It is no accident that many of the great charitable foundations appeared in the nineteenth century, the most relatively free and capitalist period in history – and not in the era of the welfare state. As for the argument that social safety nets are necessary for civilisation, what could be less civilised than violently wrestling something you want from someone at the point of a gun?

The social safety net therefore needs to be realised for the destructive force that it is – not as a hallmark of economic and societal progress but as one of retrogression of civilisation and as a retarding influence on the very real cure for poverty and illness – more capital, more production and more goods for everyone to be able to buy at cheaper prices.

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Economic Myths #7 – Government means Harmony

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One of the aspects of capitalism and the free market that the typical lay person finds difficult to comprehend is the fact that the complex structure of work, production, distribution, and trade could possibly take place without some kind of centralised, directing authority in order to co-ordinate everybody’s efforts. Wouldn’t there just be chaos and mal-coordination with everyone trying to make their own, independent plans with no government tiller to steer the giant ship?

This fallacy stems from the belief – accentuated by holistic concepts such aggregate statistics and, indeed, national identities – that “the economy” is some kind of enormous machine that has “input” and requires one operator to “process” the “inputs” into “outputs”. In fact, rather than being one giant, amorphous blob “the economy” is made up of millions and millions of independent unilateral acts of production and two-way trades, many of which will never have anything to do with each other. Indeed, I may sell an apple to my neighbour for 10p in London; another person may sell an orange for 20p to his neighbour in Manchester. Neither of the two pairs of people has ever met, nor need any of them have anything to do with the exchange of the other pair; and yet both exchanges would be regarded as part of “the British economy” in mainstream discourse. Rather than being a top-down operated machine, the economy is a bottom up network of independent transactions – motivated by the ends desired by each and every one of us rather than a bureaucrat – joined only together through the communication of the price system. All of the trades together, stimulated by varying and changing desires and ends that people seek, will have a constant and unceasing influence on the prices that regulate the supply of goods relative to their demand. Ironically, it is precisely because of such complexity that the attempts of any central authority to control and direct it are nothing short of futile – as Ludwig von Mises proved as long ago as the birth of the world’s greatest collectivist experiment, the Soviet Union, in Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth.

An oft-heard complaint, particularly from the left, is that “globalisation” and expanding markets has led to a decimation of the local culture and community. All this means, however, is that the market for goods has simply expanded so that one can source one’s needs from pretty much anywhere on the globe. It is still the case that the driving force of demand is not global or holistic – it resides very locally in every individual person’s tastes and desires. Such complaints therefore fail to recognise the irony in calling for a very distant and hardly local entity – the government – to halt globalisation and expanding markets by replacing what individual, local people desire with its own ends.

This myth, of course, goes further than economics and has more than seeped into philosophy as well, stemming from a basic misunderstanding about what is required for the human race to live in peace and harmony. It does not mean that we all need to be pursuing the same ends, following the same plan or singing from the same hymn sheet and we do not need some centralising authority to prevent “discordance” between the actions of one person and another. Rather, what is required is that we can each follow our own plans while not conflicting with the plans of others. This is precisely what private property and the free exchange accomplish. Recognising that all conflicts have their origin in the contest over physical goods, an exclusive right is granted to the first user-producer (or to the recipient of the good in a voluntary exchange) so that he may fulfil his ends without molestation from other people; and other people can use the goods for which they are the first producer-user without interference from him. Any person arguing in favour of “one direction” and “harmony” at the behest of centralised control really means that everyone else’s plans should be overridden by his own – and should be forced to accept them. Indeed every forced, government transaction requires there to be at least one loser, one person who does not want his funds directed to the ends desired by government. Rather than producing harmony what results is merely bitterness and antagonism. Furthermore, aside from the economic chaos that such a system brings, rather than inspiring such qualities as productivity, self-reliance, hard work, prudence, patience and responsibility, the resulting social disorder instils, in their stead, laziness, apathy, conflict, corruption, impatience and cynicism – hardly the human qualities that one would wish to exemplify as the hallmarks of a “peaceful” and “harmonious” society.

True harmony can only be brought about by allowing each and every individual to pursue his own ends with the scarce resources over which he has lawful ownership, while allowing everyone else to do the same – permitting the human race to flourish peacefully and devoid of conflict. Not only does government fail to aid this process, it is the active cause of its destruction – and the sooner we recognise this the closer we will be to building a lasting peace and prosperity.

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