Britain and the EU

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On June 23rd of this year, Britain will hold a referendum on its membership of the European Union, voting either to remain (“Bremain”) or to leave (“Brexit”). The present author is rooting for a “Brexit”, which is unsurprising for a libertarian who detests any metastasised growth of the state that the EU certainly represents. Unfortunately, in spite of the passionate rhetoric that the issue tends to inspire in the so-called “Brexiteers”, from a libertarian point of view it is difficult to reconcile oneself with, or to endorse, some of the arguments that are emanating from the “Brexit” camp. In other words, it would be a mistake to characterise the debate as a defiant band of liberty lovers seeking to shake off the tyrannous ogre of a bloated, continental tyrant, although that is surely part of the motivation. Rather, many of the “Brexit” arguments, seeking to respond to the “Bremain” side, are couched in the same conventional, statist terms. They therefore lack any incisive bite that would provide a convincing case for withdrawing from the union.

The most prominent issues where this is visible are economic growth and trade. When it comes to the former, both sides fling at each other hypothesised GDP figures that show either a marked gain or reduction in the number. Obviously “Brexiteers” are attempting to show that the figures would be higher outside the EU whereas “Bremainers” are attempting to show the opposite. However, simply adding up flows of monetary expenditure (and then expecting the public to comprehend the methods and assumptions involved in doing so) in order to try and get a bigger, magic number than the other guy tells you very little. If you had a billion pounds yet the only thing to spend it on in the entire world was a loaf of bread then you would be in abject poverty in spite of your nominal wealth. The key to encouraging economic progress is increased investment in capital goods such as factories, machines and tools developed with ever better technology, which permits more consumer goods to be produced per worker, thus lowering prices and making more things affordable for everyone. The kind of economic system that best incentivises this accumulation is one of strong private property rights, minimal regulation and minimal taxation. GDP figures can be high in spite (or even because) of the fact that these things may be absent, as it is buoyed by monetary inflation and government spending. The relevant question, therefore, is whether the EU is likely to either promote or discourage this kind of environment. Instead of arguing over GDP projections the answer that “Brexiteers” should be giving is that the consolidation of states makes it more likely that property rights will be diminished while taxes and regulations rise. Smaller states do not usually possess within their territories all of the resources they need to build a strong economy. In much the same way as a single household or individual needs to go shopping at the grocers, the butchers, the bakers and so on, so too does an individual state need to go “shopping” in other countries, trading what they have for things they do not have. Burdensome regulations simply discourage this trade, while high taxes and insecure private property rights will deter foreign investment, all of which will seek more favourable markets as a result. Moreover, if the state becomes too onerous it is far easier for citizens of even modest means to leave a small state than it is for them to leave a larger state. Large, consolidated states, on the other hand, usually have access to a wide labour market and a greater number of resources, and are better equipped for a degree of autarchy. Moreover, the large state’s sheer, geographical size makes it more difficult for a citizen to emigrate to a similar country which is unaffected by the large state’s diktats. The large state will therefore step up its plundering of the citizenry as it is shorn of any real impetus to cease doing so. What produces trade and economic progress, therefore, is not consolidating states into one giant monopoly, which has a reduced incentive to relax its depredations upon its citizens. Rather, it is allowing states to compete with each other to attract entrepreneurial migrants, investment and trade. In other words, while creating a trading block may give the appearance of vanquishing border controls, tariffs and other trade restrictions it does not stop the trading block from imposing internal taxes and regulations that are more burdensome to trade and prosperity than those between independent states. Indeed, a high rate of internally imposed Value Added Tax (VAT) can be worse than a tariff. And, as the “Bremainers” trumpet, while it is true that within a single market companies no longer have to deal with a myriad of different tax rules, different regulatory codes, and so on, it is likely to prove less costly in the long run to deal with many light and fleeting taxes and regulations than it is to deal with one behemoth. Just to give an idea of how big and bloated the EU bureaucracy is, one source (Brexit: The Movie) lists a whole host of household items one encounters between waking up in the morning and eating breakfast:

  • There are 109 regulations for pillows, and 50 for duvets and bed sheets;
  • 65 EU laws cover bathrooms;
  • 31 for toothbrushes and 47 for toothpaste;
  • 172 laws for mirrors, for some reason;
  • 91 for showers, 118 for shampoo, and an incredible 454 for towels;
  • At the breakfast table, there are 1,246 regulations for bread, 52 for toasters, 64 for fridges, 99 for cereal bowls, 201 for spoons, and 625 for coffee;
  • Far ahead, however, is milk which has been deemed to deserve an incredible 12,653 EU regulations.

None of this is to imply, of course, that a world without the EU would be wholly unregulated. Rather, regulation will come from the market place and it is consumers who will decide whether products should meet certain standards. Moreover, increased quality and better safety comes about through the wealth creating endeavours of free individuals so that these things become more affordable, not through the wealth distributing fiat of faceless bureaucrats in Brussels.

Concerning specifically the issue of trade is the argument over whether Britain would, outside of the EU, be able to negotiate so-called “trade deals” without the backing of the EU. In his final visit to the UK as President of the United States, Barack Obama indicated that Britain would be “at the back of the queue” for trade deals owing to what is presumed to be its diminished influence outside of the EU (although this attitude did not stop him, in the same trip, from preaching to an audience of young gullibles an instruction that they should “reject pessimism and cynicism”). The response of “Brexiteers” has been to try and demonstrate how trade agreements would, in fact, be possible and how Britain would open itself up to being able to deal with other large markets, such as China and India, independently. While the latter is certainly true, all of this is wide of the mark. For trade agreements between states are precisely what we wish to avoid. Trade agreements do not open up trade at all; rather they stifle it. Genuine free trade can be accomplished by adhering to a single principle that can be written in a single, short sentence: no restriction of trade across borders. Trade agreements, however, which frequently masquerade as free trade agreements, are simply government managed trade. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for instance, runs to more than 1,200 pages across two volumes of government imposed rules and regulations, usually in order to grant protectionist privilege to a handful of powerful firms and interests. Indeed, one of the motivations for “Brexit” is for Britain to avoid the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and the US, which is seen as giving too much power to overseas corporations and ignoring environmental concerns. However, “Brexiteers” do not augment this rejection of a specific trade agreement to a rejection of trade agreements as a whole. One possible retort to this argument is that, in the absence of any kind of trade agreement, other countries could simply whack enormous tariffs and regulatory burdens on imported British goods, almost like some kind of punishment. In the first place it is, of course, far-fetched to believe that every one, or even most, of the significant markets with which British companies trade would do this. If a state shuts off or otherwise burdens trade from another state it ultimately harms itself as much as it harms the state upon which it has imposed the restriction. For if, prior to the elevated tariffs or increased regulations, certain resources or products were purchased from Britain it is because Britain produced these products at the best value compared to anyone else. Therefore, after the restrictions, the citizens of the other state must now pay more to produce the same goods internally or buy them from an alternative state, or must be content to purchase goods of lesser quality. Moreover, shutting off imports weakens a demand for a state’s exports as ultimately all imports are paid for with exports. It would, therefore, be foolish for states to respond to a “Brexit” in this way. The same argument applies to the EU itself. Another of the arguments from the “Bremainers” is that if Britain left then the EU would still be Britain’s largest trading partners with the power to impose its regulations on trade entering the block, in addition to newly imposed tariffs. Britain would be shorn of any influence whatsoever to change these rules, and would end up in much the same condition as some of the proximate outliers such as Switzerland and Norway are alleged to languish (never mind, of course, that GDP per capita in those countries is markedly higher than in every EU country). In the first place this argument shows just how few clothes the emperor is wearing. On the one hand, the EU is supposed to be committed to promoting trade and commerce yet on the other hand, if you dare to leave it, you will be shut out by tariff walls and have to suffer whatever burdens the EU rains down upon you. Clearly, therefore, the EU is far from being a promoter of peaceful trade and prosperity. Rather, it is really nothing more than a protectionist club, like a gang of bullies in the school yard who look after each other yet terrorise the other kids. That aside, however, Britain’s “influence” does not come from its membership of the EU – rather, it comes from the value that the EU places on its partnership with Britain, which will ultimately boil down to Britain’s economic clout. If trade with Britain is valuable to the EU then Britain will have as much real influence outside of the club as it does inside; you do not stop talking to someone you need simply because you are not in a political union with them. If, on the other hand, Britain was a tiny, unproductive state that produced little then it would be ignored as a member of the EU just as it would be largely ignored as outside. That is why the larger, more prosperous states in the EU, such as France and Germany have most of the influence. Most of the arguments concerning the loss of any “influence” for Britain, both within the EU and on the so-called “world stage”, do not refer to the diminished influence that the average British citizen would have in improving his life and furthering his goals. Rather, it refers to the diminished influence that the British politician will wield following “Brexit”. Being a representative of a large territory such as the EU gives the state’s lackeys a much more prominent position at the table when they jet off, at taxpayers’ expense, to their plush conferences and summits to devise an ever increasing number of predatory ways in which they can burden the real wealth creators. In any case, however, the “loss of influence” argument seems to have received the final nail in its coffin in early May when it was alleged that Germany had a de facto veto over Prime Minister David Cameron’s renegotiation of Britain’s terms of EU membership. However, even if we imagined the worst case scenario where all of the countries of the world, including the EU, imposed punitively high tariffs and onerous regulations on British imports and refused to engage with Britain in any way shape or form, the latter would still benefit from making a universal declaration of free trade – no tariffs on imported goods and little or no regulation. This sudden reduction in cost would then make Britain a highly competitive market, reducing costs of inputs for British businesses, attracting investment, expanding output and lowering prices for British consumers.

Looking more broadly, what are we to make of the argument that the EU was the supposed solution to centuries of war and human rights abuses? Strictly speaking, the human rights obligations of European states depend not so much upon the EU but, rather, upon whether they sign up to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which dates from 1953. The Convention is used as a convenient short hand for states to demonstrate their commitment to human rights, which is a condition of EU membership, and jurisprudence from the European Court of Human Rights normally plays an important role in determining how member states should implement EU law in accordance with their human rights obligations. Nevertheless, even though, as libertarians, we must be suspicious of any kind of government implemented human rights charter, which simply cherry picks certain pleasantries, subjects them to state regulation, and calls them “rights”, it would be possible for a member state of the EU to leave and still remain a party to the ECHR. Somewhat perversely it is, in fact, prominent “Bremainers”, such as Home Secretary Theresa May, who are campaigning for Britain to withdraw from the ECHR while remaining in the EU. The possibility of war however, is an important issue, with Mr Cameron himself having argued that leaving the EU would increase the risk of Europe descending into war. In the first place we have to wonder why, if the situation was that grave, Mr Cameron’s commitment to the EU was so ambiguous before he achieved his so-called “reform deal”, which renegotiated Britain’s EU obligations in areas such as welfare and immigration. Prior to this he supposedly had no “emotional attachment” to the EU and at least gave the impression that he may campaign to leave if the reforms failed. Mr Cameron was effectively saying that if he was devoid of an “emotional attachment” to the EU he was also devoid of an “emotional attachment” to avoiding war, the latter of which is surely more important than tweaking the conditions of EU membership. That aside, however, we have to wonder what this argument – the possibility of European war – makes of the so-called “democratic peace theory”. This is the idea that democracies are less likely to go to war with each other, and is peddled by pretty much the same people who crow for political unity. Weren’t the continent’s wars started by despotic monarchs and crackpot dictators? Surely now that we all bask in the bliss of democracy we won’t be so eager to fight each other? Why do we need something more? Regardless of this, however, the argument that a diminution of the EU will lead to war is ridiculous – indeed, it is the opposite that is more likely. Wars are started and fought by states; human rights are abused by states; the state, in the twentieth century alone, caused more deaths than private criminals in the whole of human history. Even the greatest efforts of sub-state, politically motivated actors – i.e. “terrorists” – pale in comparison to the carnage and destruction wrought by states. If this is true, it stands to reason that the solution to preventing this is to make states smaller and weaker, not bigger and stronger. The most destructive, and most potentially destructive conflicts we have ever experienced – the two world wars and the Cold War – occurred after the consolidation of smaller states into large territories, namely Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union. The origins of both of the world wars is complex, of course, but a fundamental cause was the drive of the unified Germany towards autarchy. As an industrialised country, Germany relied upon the import of food and the export of manufactured products in order to pay for it. The costs and burdens heaped upon German industry in order to fund the Bismarckian welfare state hampered German production, leading to fewer exports and fewer imports of food. Thus Germany looked to conquer the agrarian lands of Eastern Europe to overcome this self-inflicted handicap. What is clear, however, is that this problem was facilitated by the unified state, which was endowed with the wherewithal to grow the depredations of the state upon its industry and the might to launch invasions. Later, the persistent nuclear terror that was extant during the Cold War was made possible because territories as large and as rich as the United States and the Soviet Union could afford to fund things such as the Manhattan Project. The most aggressive and belligerent state today is the United States, which, together with its fawning collection of NATO allies, is driven by the neoconservative foreign policy agenda that seeks a unipolar world of American dominance. The greatest threat to peace is that such ambitions emanating from a large, rich and powerful state run head first into the ambitions of other large, rich and powerful states – namely, China and Russia, as we are seeing lately with the expansion of NATO to Russia’s border, the demonization of the Russian president and the altercations in the South China Sea. The worst case scenario is that the world will be vaporised in a nuclear holocaust, something which is likely to get worse if the next US President, who will be elected in November of this year, continues down this path. It is clear therefore that the consolidation of states may reduce the number of potential warmongers – but the stakes are far, far bigger. The key to achieving peace and prosperity is free trade in a sound money environment. You do not have to point a gun at your butcher or your baker in order for him to hand over what you want; you simply have to offer him something that he wants and then you both get on with the rest of your day. Exactly the same is true on a global scale; individuals engaging in voluntary exchange without interference across borders will not fight each other. War and conflict result only when states infringe this harmony.

This leads us on to the so-called “democratic deficit” argument – the idea that the EU’s governance and institutions somehow lack democratic legitimacy. It is true that if the EU is perceived as beyond the control of the voters then tolerance for it will dissipate quicker than if they believe they are “having their say”. On the other hand, however, democratic legitimacy is something of a red herring. People possess a de facto control over the state, with or without democracy, the smaller and more local it is. Even if the EU reformed all of its institutions in order to eradicate the “democratic deficit”, the EU would remain as a vast territory in which the individual voter vanishes into an ocean of 500 million others and its institutions would still amount to a vast bureaucracy awash with special interests that speak umpteen foreign languages making it impossible for the voter of any individual country to understand precisely what is going on. This can point can be made without us having to resort to the wider libertarian critique of democracy as an enabler of, rather than a restriction upon the state.

In drawing all of what we have said together, we will conclude with an observation that is likely to resonate with libertarians. When it comes to the big issues such as economic progress, trade, and promoting peace and prosperity, all of the arguments in favour of the EU boil down to the assertion that the EU makes it easier to get rid of state imposed restrictions and to vanquish ills that are created by the state. In other words, the EU is supposed to be good not because it actually achieves a positive accomplishment over the restrictions imposed upon humans by nature (such as a new product or service), but because it clears away artificial roadblocks that states have put in the way. If this is true, perhaps it would be better to address the question of whether we need the state at all, rather than whether we need a giant one such as the EU.

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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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Money – the Root of all (Government) Evil?

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In addressing the evil and parasitic nature of the state, libertarians focus on many of the state’s specific characteristics in order to demonstrate its destructive effects upon civilisation – whether it is nationalised industries, market interference, the minimum wage, anti-discrimination and egalitarian pursuits, the business cycle, or whatever, there is a treasure trove of libertarian literature available that explains and elaborates the deleterious effects of these particular state endeavours. However, a less addressed question is which of these areas, if any, are the most important? Which of them amount to mere nuisances that can be circumvented or otherwise put up with and which, if any, of them amount to a significant transfer of wealth and power to the state with seemingly permanent effects? Furthermore, is there any one issue that libertarians should stress above all others if we are to deliver a real and significant puncture to the state’s ever-inflating balloon?

One prime candidate for this title is war and international conflict. With war comes every glittering prize that the state could ever dream of – mass mobilisation of labour and industry towards a common purpose dictated by the state; control of all markets; mass propaganda; control of communications; suspension of free speech and possibly of habeas corpus; and not to mention the bogeyman of the supposed enemy to which to channel the attention and hatred of the average citizen. Indeed Murray Rothbard, relatively in his career, recognised that while libertarians had some very profound things to say about the state’s mismanagement of, for example, the post office, focussing on war was the real key to unravelling the state’s power and oppression of the population.

Nevertheless, while a permanent and lasting degree of state power and control is enabled by war there is another contender for the top spot. That is the government’s control of money and, specifically, the ability to create an endless supply of paper money distributed to itself and its favoured outlets, as opposed to the rigour and discipline imposed by a “hard money” standard such as gold. Ultimately it is the state’s ability to fund itself that is at the root of all of its other absorption of power and control – even war.

In order to demonstrate this let us look at what the situation would be if government was constrained by a denationalised, “hard” money such as gold. In the first place, government would be wholly reliant upon the tax receipts of its individual citizens for funding and would be unable to resort to extensive deficit spending or inflation. The plainness and visibility of that confiscation places a much lower limit upon the state’s coffers. Put simply, when too much money is taken out of your hands physically you are likely to revolt much sooner. Indeed, in the past, war itself was an expensive operation and battling kings often struggled to raise funds to maintain campaigns. Strategic brilliance was often not accomplished by an all-out destruction of the enemy but, rather, by out-manoeuvring your opponent and preserving for as long as possible expensively-trained soldiers and equipment. In many cases funding had to come from external sources. The genesis of the aristocracy was in those who were rewarded with titles to the conquered land in return for funding the war – in other words the ruler had to parcel out parts of the new territory to those who had helped him grab it. Indeed even the English parliament itself and the Magna Carta­ – famed as the genesis for two cardinal principles of liberty, no taxation without consent and no trial without due process – resulted in part from the reliance of the king upon his relationship with the barons for support and funding. Hard money therefore not only physically restricts the amount the state can spend but has been the indirect cause of the enshrinement of restrictions upon the state’s despotic power.

In more recent times, however, the ability to provide funding from a non-stop printing press has permitted the state to expand its activities without having to account for them through tax receipts. People do not see the money disappearing from their pay packets or from their bank accounts; all they see is the prices they have to pay for goods and services rising and squeezing their purchasing power, a fact that can be easily blamed on greedy businessmen and shareholders. It is possible for a libertarian to be sympathetic with the view that as long as you know how much the government is taking from you then it has a reasonable degree of tolerability. But when government resorts to the smoke and mirrors trick of robbing not the money in your hand but, rather, its purchasing power then it must be opposed emphatically. In comparison to earlier conflicts, the wars of the twentieth century were so prolonged and destructive precisely because government could resort to the printing press. Had they relied solely upon tax receipts “war-weariness” would have set in much sooner among the population and they would have demanded a swift end to hostilities. Hence all of the overreaching effects of the state’s engagement in war flows directly from its ability to control the supply of money. If we wish to end the consequences of war upon the state’s metastasised growth then we need to attack the root of its ability to fund it.

It is true, of course, that there may be something of a chicken and egg story when it comes to war and paper money. Does paper money cause government to engage in war or does war cause government to print paper money? Either way, however, even if government was previously respectful of a hard money standard which it does not abandon until the outbreak of a war, it is this power of printing paper money in and of itself that fuels the extent of its belligerence. And in any case, the ease with which government can suddenly suspend a hard money standard only comes about because they have arrogated to themselves monopolistic control of the operation of money issuance. It would be much harder for government to print un-backed notes and force their acceptance when others are issuing notes fully redeemable in gold. Whatever comes first, however, either the paper money or the war and the growth of the state power, if you wish to prevent the flood then you must turn off the taps.

In more peaceful times hard money also disciplines the citizenry into realising that government is not the fountain of all wealth. The state has grown so much under democracy because, apart from the veneer of legitimacy that popular elections lend to the state, politicians are able to bribe the electorate with endless goodies that they do not believe that they have to pay for. The resulting borrowing and inflation – now reaching an eye-watering level in the West – which does not touch the citizen directly gives the impression of government as an endless stock of resources, the only difficult task being to elect someone who will give them to you rather than worrying about the more trifling matters of production and enterprise. Indeed, public discourse rarely seems to acknowledge the fact of scarcity, usually focussing on single issues and concluding with an explosion of outrage about how government isn’t “doing more” to combat the alleged societal ill. The more difficult question of the expense that we would endure, what should be given up as a result and which goods cannot be brought into being because of the new expenditure diverted to cure the problem complained of is overlooked. To the citizen there is always more money, more resources and more of everything that government can acquire from somewhere other than himself. However, in exactly the same way as a hard money standard would induce “war-weariness” in belligerent times so too would it induce “state-weariness” in peaceful times. People would soon tire of having their pay packets robbed to fund goods for other people; and people would soon realise that many of the things they would otherwise want from government for free simply cannot be afforded and must be worked for by themselves.

Let us turn next to the whole problem of the business cycle. Although panics existed before the advent of modern central banking many of these occurred precisely because hard money rules were casually abandoned, with issuing institutions expanding the volume of credit beyond the stock of monetary gold and government happily stepping in and relieving them of the obligation to redeem their notes in specie. But whatever the characteristics of pre-central banking business cycles it is undeniable that they reached a depth, severity and prolongation in the twentieth century that was not seen before. There are two reasons for this. First, government’s enhanced control over the supply of money induces a more serious degree of malinvestment than would otherwise be the case where the supply of money is checked by the stock of redeemable gold. In both of the biggest collapses of the last one hundred years – 1929 and 2008 – credit expansion ran for the best part of a decade or more. The longer the false signals towards entrepreneurs are continued the more they will borrow and invest in unsustainable capital projects and the further those projects go the more difficult they will be to unwind. When the bust finally comes, therefore, the situation is far more serious than it otherwise would have been. This brings about the second factor – that it lends credibility to the argument that the government should step in and “do something” to combat the malaise. The reason why the Great Depression endured for years (and why we are still enduring the current one) is not because of the initial collapse – it is because government did everything it could to maintain the existing structure of production, wages and prices. Fittingly enough President Hoover often invoked the language of war in describing the threat of the downturn and the culmination of this in the New Deal – the complete cartelisation of industry and agriculture into a fascistic economy – was achieved by the resurrection of World War One era departments and programmes. It is supremely ironic that government-caused depressions give rise to ever more invasive government intrusions, an irony that turns truly into tragedy when we consider that what followed the Great Depression was the carnage and destruction of World War II. With the current belligerence of the US in provoking tension with Russia and China another war is something that cannot be ruled out as a result of the present crisis; and we all know how destructive war is to freedom.

What we can see therefore is that government control of money is a prime contender for the top spot of issues that libertarians should consider as the most serious when combatting threats to liberty. If this should be doubted then one has to question why the mystery of central banking and its ability to pull the monetary strings from a shady, secretive outlet has been a political non-issue for decades. Politicians only bring into debate the relatively “easy” problems that do not upset the apple cart. While they are keen to oust their immediate, political opponents they never provide the public with any serious choice that would restrict the power and growth of government as a whole. At least democracy – another cause of government growth and legitimacy – gets praised and lauded from time to time, if only ever to justify the government’s military crusades against foreign tyrants. But before the last few years central banking and monopoly issuance of money was hardly even mentioned – not even to give it a blessing. It seems as though government is fine with brainwashing its citizens into embracing the justice of elections by voting but it is far too scared to even make them aware of its power over money. Although this is now beginning to change and there is a greater enquiry into and scrutiny of the US Federal Reserve (not least because of ex-Congressman Ron Paul’s emphasis of the issue) the acceptance of and absence of discussion of these evil institutions has pervaded for too long. This is where government would be truly and irredeemably hurt. It could enact as many reams of invasive and destructive legislation as it liked, yet they would be of zero threat if government was starved of funding to enforce them.

It is appropriate to end with the words of Ludwig von Mises who recognised everything we have been saying here in his first major treatise on the subject of money:

Defense of the individual’s liberty against the encroachment of tyrannical governments is the essential theme of the history of Western civilization. The characteristic feature of the Occident is its peoples’ pursuit of liberty, a concern unknown to Orientals. All the marvellous achievements of Western civilization are fruits grown on the tree of liberty.

It is impossible to grasp the meaning of the idea of sound money if one does not realize that it was devised as an instrument for the protection of civil liberties against despotic inroads on the part of governments. Ideologically it belongs in the same class with political constitutions and bills of rights. The demand for constitutional guarantees and for bills of rights was a reaction against arbitrary rule and the non-observance of old customs by kings. The postulate of sound money was first brought up as a response to the princely practice of debasing the coinage. It was later carefully elaborated and perfected in the age which—through the experience of the American continental currency, the paper money of the French Revolution and the British restriction period—had learned what a government can do to a nation’s currency system.

[…]

Thus the sound-money principle has two aspects. It is affirmative in approving the market’s choice of a commonly used medium of exchange. It is negative in obstructing the government’s propensity to meddle with the currency system.

The sound-money principle was derived not so much from the Classical economists’ analysis of the market phenomena as from their interpretation of historical experience. It was an experience that could be perceived by a much larger public than the narrow circles of those conversant with economic theory. Hence the sound-money idea became one of the most popular points of the liberal program. Friends and foes of liberalism considered it one of the essential postulates of a liberal policy1.

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1 Ludwig von Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit, p 414.

 

Exceptionalism

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The current crisis in the Ukraine, where a Western-prompted coup of the pro-Russian government has led to Russian occupation of the Crimean peninsula and “protection” for its naval interests in the Black Sea has highlighted the attitude of the West, and of the United States in particular, to what may be regarded as their “exceptionalism”. Whatever standards other countries and governments are held to, the US believes that it is permitted to deviate from (nay, obliterate) those standards, labelling their own actions with some other, innocuous term while utilising some half-baked moral justification in order to promote its acceptability. What is, for other countries, an illegal invasion of a sovereign state is, when the US does it, an act of “liberation”. When someone else organises a rebellion against a sovereign government it’s a violation of international law; but the US only “spreads democracy”. When other states commit horrendous acts of torture or indiscriminate murder they are “war crimes”; for the US, these are tactics that are necessary in the just and noble “war on terror”. Indeed Washington’s leaders have become so blinded by their sense of exceptionalism that they fail to realise that the case of the Ukraine, more than most others, has drawn stark attention to this unrelenting hypocrisy. Russia’s interests in the Ukraine are far more pressing than any interest that the US has either there or in any of its previous catastrophes such Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and wherever else into which it has poked its heavily armed nose. The Crimean population, according to a referendum held on March 16th, is overwhelmingly in favour of not only Russian intervention but of outright annexation of the region by Russia. Furthermore, Russia’s response, thus far at least, has not been to steam roller in, guns blazing, but has, rather, been more measured. So not only is the US protesting Russia’s actions, actions which the US happily takes everywhere around the world – it is doing so while Russia has stronger interests, is heavily supported by the indigenous population, and has taken weaker action than the US has in any of its self-invented skirmishes.

The concept of exceptionalism, however, is not something that is restricted to the US or is somehow born out of the US psyche. Rather, exceptionalism traces its roots to the very heart of how government operates domestically. If people steal from each other, it is called “theft” and is criminalised, yet when government steals it is permitted and is called “taxation”. If a company dominates an industry it is called a “monopoly” and must be broken up; if government does it, it is called “nationalisation” (probably with some other seductive sound bite such as the industry is being run “for the people”). If Bernie Madoff takes cash from customers to pay returns to previous investors, it is called a pyramid scheme and he is locked up; when government does precisely the same thing it is called Social Security. If the mafia forces you to pay tribute in return for security it is called a “protection racket”; when the government forces you to contribute to its armies, navies and air forces it is called “national defence”. Government necessarily conditions its operatives to believe that they are excepted from the common morality to which all other human beings must adhere. It is only because the US is the de facto most powerful government on Earth (although it is encouraging to see Obama’s belligerent efforts coming to nought in both the current crisis and the crisis in Syria) that this exceptionalism becomes magnified onto the international scene.  So in just the same way as government does not have to behave in the same way as its citizens, neither does the most powerful government have to behave like any other government. The US is not alone in this regard and has been preceded by other wealthy and heavily armed states – Ancient Rome, and the British for instance – who, coupled with a hubristic belief that they represent the pinnacle of “civilisation” in an otherwise barbarous world, have ploughed their way over everyone else whom they expect to be held to other standards. Indeed, when a pirate was brought before Alexander the Great and asked to explain his actions, the pirate is believed to have replied that what he, the pirate, was doing, was exactly the same as that which Alexander was doing. The only difference was that Alexander terrorised the seas with a “navy” and was styled an “emperor”, while the pirate did so with a “petty ship” and was thus brandished a “robber”1.

The conquest, therefore, of the exceptionalism of the most powerful nation can only be achieved by eradicating that exceptionalism at home – in domestic government and domestic policies. All human beings, whether they work for the government, the civil service, or are private citizens, must adhere to the same common morality and must be held to the same moral standards. Better, still eradicate government completely and the political caste – together with the divisions it creates between itself and those of us less exalted – will disappear entirely. Only then can we hope for a peaceful world in which all humans are equal before the law – both nationally and internationally.

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1See St Augustine, City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4.

Anti-War and Anti-State

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The furore over the recent attempt of the UK government to commit military force in Syria in concert with the US government revealed a widespread popular opposition to war that appears to span the entire political spectrum. Indeed, libertarians must admit that the ideological left, with its anti-imperialist and anti-war profiteering motive, has often been a louder voice in castigating the warmongers and interventionists in conflicts past and present.

Nevertheless it must be emphasised that if one is to be truly anti-war then that commitment alone is, regrettably, not sufficient. For war is always propagated by states, between states and for the benefit of states. Libertarians often point out that “war is the health of the state”, permitting the government to suspend the status quo and enact all manner of heinous oppression and control that would be unthinkable in a time of peace, measures that, curiously, do not disappear as soon as the alleged enemy is vanquished. But as much as it is true that war feeds the state so too does the state feed war, not only siphoning off resources from the productive sector towards the creation of bombs and missiles, but, crucially, the very desire to create a bigger state makes war more likely. Many anti-war activists of the left have no problem with government metastasising to whatever size in economic and social matters, creating alleged “fairness” and “equality” and whatever other emotive but elusive goals happen to sound most appealing. The aims may be innocently honourable enough but it is ridiculous to think that the means of the state can ever be used peacefully, let alone to believe that a large state can be the promoter and preserver of peace. There are three key reasons for this.

First, the state always means conflict. The precise means at the states disposal, the only means that it can use – violence – results in the constant diversion of scarce resources away from the ends of their owners and towards the ends of others. The state is effectively engaged in a constant war on its own citizens, forever plundering and pillaging them to fund their lavish lifestyles and to line the pockets of their friends under the guise of wasteful socioeconomic programmes. Foreign war, fundamentally, is no different and every motivation for it ultimately reduces to a battle over resources. It is therefore somewhat bizarre that anti-war activists are content to allow a government to war against its own citizens but, for some reason, as soon it comes to doing the same against foreign nations then all hell breaks loose. However correct this latter reaction may be, not only is it hypocritical but it is also dangerously naïve to expect the state to restrict itself to peace and harmony abroad when it will never even do so at home. Nazi Germany, for example, was met with such ambivalent dithering in the interwar period precisely because its ideology – big government control and intervention – was of no particular distinction from that which prevailed everywhere else at the time. The only difference was that it was prepared to take this ideology to its logical end, additionally piling on racial dogmas and nationalistic overtones that resulted in crimes which, however horrific and unforgettable, obscures the basic similarity between Hitler and, say, Roosevelt.

Secondly, big states attract the attention of control freaks and the greedy. The more money that is stashed in the government and can be leeched away by bloodsuckers and parasites then the more alluring it becomes to try and take a slice of that pie – and once that slice is taken, how wonderful it would be to take another slice, and then another after that! Finally when government intervention naturally starts to stifle productivity and there are no more pies left to be eaten, the siren song of war becomes ever sweeter to governments and their sponsors, not only as a distraction from their own economic mismanagement but as a way forward to secure a flow of resources from abroard and to tighten their grip on the domestic citizenry through lasting wartime or “emergency” measures. Neither must we forget that there is, among the political class, an alluring quality to being a wartime leader or “warrior”. Seeing off an alleged terrible enemy and apparently saving one’s people from invasion (although it doesn’t even need to get this far) is judged as being more heroic and worthy of the highest honours and decorations whereas creating “mere” peace and prosperity is apparently rather dull and uninspiring. Indeed, the most highly rated leaders all made their mark during wartime or were at least warmongering – Lincoln during the War between the States, Roosevelt and Churchill during World War II, and Reagan and Thatcher during the Cold War, for instance. Only when a conflict is so obviously pointless, futile and/or unjustified – such as those in Vietnam and Iraq – does this strategy backfire, as it did upon Johnson, Nixon and the younger Bush.

Finally, the degree of government intervention necessary to create alleged social or economic ends have only been met during a legacy of wartime control. The New Deal, for example, was modelled upon the wartime regime of Woodrow Wilson; World War II on the New Deal; and the post-war “Great Society”, the fight against poverty and the Civil Rights era all came after these wartime regimes were firmly in place. The citizenry have to be “united” (or worn down) by something such as war before they can ever begin to accept the degree of interference necessary to promote big government measures during peacetime. Ironically, therefore, a lot of the cravings of the anti-war left are reliant upon war if they ever have the hope of seeing the light of day.

In sum, therefore, to be anti-war but pro-state is the epitome of all dangerously ill-informed and contradictory positions, giving birth to the very thing it seeks to destroy. Rather, to be anti-war one must also be thoroughly and unreservedly anti-state, recognising this evil entity for precisely what it is – perpetual and endless conflict and violence. Only when we are well and truly rid of this scourge will there ever be a chance for peace.

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The Ethics of Interventionism

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With the US government’s current attempt to carry out some kind of military intervention in Syria as a result of the alleged use of chemical weaponry by the Assad regime, libertarians once again face the question of what their correct stance towards such a proposal should be.

To be libertarian is to believe that the initiation of violence, in any circumstance, is inherently immoral. This belief, termed the non-aggression principle, we have discussed and justified elsewhere. Libertarians recognise, of course, that this does not proscribe the right to self-defence, or the right to provide defence services towards someone else who is the victim of aggression. There are two key elaborations to make to this principle. First, libertarianism itself does not state that someone has the violently enforceable obligation to defend himself or to rush to the defence of other people. There may, however, by some other standard be a moral obligation to do so but this obligation cannot be violently enforceable as this would itself breach the non-aggression principle. It is quite consistent, therefore, to state that someone should help a person who is the victim of aggressive violence but that he should not be forced to do so. Secondly if you do decide to respond to an act of aggression then you do not have the right to inflict aggressive violence on any other person, whether it be forcing them to assist you or by making them the victims of so-called “collateral damage”. One would not launch a nuclear warhead and slaughter the population of entire landmass in order to neutralise a single murderer, for example.

It is these aspects that must be remembered by the libertarian in any debate concerning the ethics of interventionism. The mainstream debate is an all or nothing question – should we all intervene or should we all not intervene. Libertarians for too long have been seduced into accepting the terms of this debate and the resulting lack of unity from the libertarian (or the generally freedom-oriented) camp owes itself to the fact that, on the face of it, the question can be answered on either side from a libertarian-veneered point of view. Let us discuss briefly the problems with each of these responses.

Those who answer in the affirmative, that we should intervene, have rightly recognised that defence may be used in such a situation because the non-aggression principle has been violated by another party. But what they are overlooking is the fact that the funds to be directed towards military intervention are extracted forcibly by the government through tax revenue – in other words, that people are being forced to fund intervention. They are mistaking the right to intervene with a violently enforceable obligation to do so. But this violently enforceable obligation itself is a breach of the non-aggression principle and is, therefore, anti-libertarian and immoral. Such people are most welcome to criticise other people from the point of view of moral standards that are separate from, but compatible with, libertarianism. When, for example, William Hague, the UK Foreign Secretary, stated that any non-response by “the world” to the use of chemical weapons would be “alarming” he is quite welcome to hold that view (in spite of the fact that there has already been wide scale bloodshed in Syria for two years and that Western governments seem to be remarkably selective on what they choose to be outraged by). Indeed he is most welcome to contribute his own legitimately earned wealth (if he has any) and that of everyone he can persuade to join him voluntarily in the venture towards intervening in Syria. But what he does not have the right to do is to force other people, to extract funding by taxes (or to enforce conscription, if it ever came to that), for the same.

Those, however, who answer in the negative – that we should not intervene – rightly recognise that we cannot force people to participate in intervention. But now they seem to be making the opposite mistake of preventing people who do want to intervene from doing so. If someone is genuinely outraged by the infliction of violence by one person against another and believes that assistance against such heinous acts is a worthwhile devotion of his own funds then he is quite within his rights to contribute those funds accordingly, or even to voluntarily join a defence group and personally provide defence support for the victims. To stop someone from doing this if that is what they want is as much an affront to the non-aggression principle as forcing them to do so if they do not want. Once again we must emphasise that it may not be a good thing, by some standard exogenous to libertarianism, for a person to engage in intervention but that does not mean that he may be violently prevented from doing so.

The correct libertarian position, then, can be summarised as follows:

  • No person has the right to initiate violence (aggression) against any other person in any circumstance;
  • Where a person is the victim of aggression he has the right to defend himself;
  • Where a person attempts to defend himself he has no right to initiate violence against innocents during the act of doing so, including their enforced participation and causing “collateral damage”;
  • Where a person attempts to defend himself other people have no right to initiate violence against him in order to stop him from doing so;
  • A person has the right to solicit, contract with or otherwise co-operate with third parties in ensuring his defence;
  • Third parties, likewise, have the right to provide their funds and resources towards defence, either through a negotiated contract (security services) or voluntarily;
  • Third parties providing defence services have no right to initiate force against innocents during the act of doing so; this includes forcing others to contribute towards the same and causing “collateral damage”;
  • Where a third party provides defence services it not may be forcibly stopped from doing so by others;
  • Whether the injured party or a third party should or should not act to defend the former against an act of aggression, or whether such an act of defence is a “good” or “bad” thing by some other moral standard may be debated; however, the conclusion may not be enforced violently on any party that is not committing an act of aggression.

All of this is, of course, the most fundamental libertarian theory towards intervention and we have provided no detailed analysis of how “war is the health of the state” and so on. But these critical aspects must be remembered by a libertarian if he is to take the fundamentally, i.e. most basically correct moral position and serves to only form the bedrock of more elaborate analyses. Whatever he, in accordance with the last principle laid out above, believes of the merits of a specific act of intervention should be informed by and exist in harmony with these principles.

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Spying and Security

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The US government’s recent embarrassment over revelations of its surveillance program by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor/CIA employee, and their subsequent frustration in trying to apprehend him, has led to all of the usual outcry from libertarians about government spying, invasion of privacy and so on. However, a further interesting question is whether such acts are a necessary part of the deliverance of security. Would, for example, private security agencies have the need to spy on people’s private communications and, if so, how would this be regulated in a free society?

Security, like any other good, is an end that consumes scarce resources and its provision must therefore be valued like any other. Because a state is as an institution that enforces a territorial monopoly of the provision of law, order and defence funded by compulsory levies (taxes), it needs to provide a blanket security service and need never worry about “customers” leaving it for a competing service. As a result it is cut off from any communication, through the profit and loss system, of whether it has correctly allocated resources efficiently to provide for security needs and so it, alone, needs to judge the urgency of a particular security threat. This would not be the case on the free market, however, as private, competing, security agencies would not be able to apportion more resources towards the production of security than its customers were willing to pay for. In times, therefore, of relatively light or transient threats and normal, one-off acts of crime by individuals then security will not be a high priority and intelligence, which is linked almost wholly to such crime would have little purpose as there would simply be no data to gather. Indeed this would normally be the case in a free society. Most “organised” crime consists of the underground provision of peaceful and voluntary services that the government has outlawed and “terrorist” threats are political backlashes against the government. Even if there was the threat of invasion of a free society by, say, a neighbouring state, this would be much harder for that state to accomplish when defence provision is scattered and heterogeneous rather than concentrated and homogenous in the form of the government’s army, navy and air force. The closest you might get to any kind of organisation in crime in a free society is various forms of human trafficking, such as paedophile rings and kidnap for forced labour. It is therefore very unlikely that there would be the need for systematic intelligence gathering in a world free of the state. However, for arguments sake, let’s say that there is a genuinely serious and imminent threat of organised crime which commands a pressing need for intelligence of this threat by a private security agency in order to defend its customers. What could it do?

A security agency could certainly not invade the servers and networks of private providers of communication services. It could, however, negotiate contracts to monitor information that passes over these networks, with the specific nature of such monitoring subject to the corresponding nature of the threat. But the major difference between this and between government intelligence gathering is that it could never be secret and, if it was, it would be unlikely to last for long. From the point of view of the security providers’ customers, in an environment where there is a genuine threat then such monitoring is likely to be a selling point; while it may not be advertised quite as explicitly as “we will read other people’s emails to keep you safe”, if people, on balance, estimate any threat as being worth the while of this kind of action then they will be eager to provide custom to those security services that can offer it. On the other hand, if a threat is deemed not to be quite so serious to the extent that customers either do not care if other people’s communications are monitored or they would actively leave for an alternative provider to avoid it, could a security firm carry on the practice in secret? The answer is almost certainly no because this would cause the firm to incur costs that customers are not willing to pay for. Hence it would have to raise its prices. Such a firm would therefore see its customer base shrink to the advantage of suppliers who do not incur these deadweight costs. The practice would therefore be self-liquidating at the point when threats are no longer deemed to be worthy of the expense of intelligence gathering.

Furthermore, the monitoring of communications would need to have the consent of the customers of telecoms and internet providers. Again, the permissibility of this would be judged by these customers in the light the urgency of a threat. In the absence of such threats providers that do not invade the privacy of communications would receive custom and those that do would not. Moreover, in this environment, people themselves may be unwilling to deal with parties whose communications were not filtered through a monitored channel. But these services would also be tailored to specific regions that may be under threat or levels of monitoring could be targeted at specific groups based on their vulnerability or their propensity to commit an atrocity. There would not be the blanket monitoring of absolutely everybody and the provision of the same service to everybody regardless of who they are and where they are.

Would consent make intelligence gathering useless? Not necessarily. Between themselves, of course, criminals can use channels that are not subject to monitoring. But when the fear of a threat is perceived to be high channels offering absolute privacy would be difficult to come by and it is arguably the case that government is much easier to circumvent than private agencies. However, all criminal organisations must at some point communicate with the outside world (for purposes of supply, for example) and these latter communications would be subject to monitoring. While not perfect, therefore, it would not be impossible to piece together the movements and intentions of organised criminals.

The above is just a basic outline of what might happen in a free society and no doubt many more considerations could be added. But it is worth emphasising again the main point – that most of the need for intelligence gathering is generated by the government’s own avoidable acts and so, why it could conceivably be accomplished in a free society, it would almost certainly be unnecessary. The proper way forward, then, to end the world of spying, surveillance and secrets is to decriminalise victimless crimes and to stop the government from invading and bombing other countries and nurturing blowback. And we have of course assumed above that government is genuinely trying to protect its citizens; of great import also is the very convincing argument that government merely invents and exaggerates bogeymen for the very purpose of intruding into people’s lives and we need to consider the extent to which surveillance is the end rather than the means.

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