Thursday, June 29, 2006

A Forced Marriage, A False Freedom

So one morning your daughter comes to you and says that she is engaged to Bobby, a boy she has been dating.

“That’s great,” you say, giving her a hug, “but you have to marry Dave instead.”

She wriggles out of your embrace. “Excuse me?”

“You can’t marry Bobby, pumpkin. You have to marry Dave.”

“I will marry who I want!” she says indignantly.
“Of course you will. You are free to marry whoever you choose!”

She blinks, bewildered. “Then I’m going to marry Bobby!”

You smile indulgently. “You don’t understand. You are free to marry any man you choose, but you are going to marry Dave.”

“You aren’t making any sense. I am not going to marry Dave!”

“Oh, but I’m afraid that you have to.”

“Oh really? And what happens if I don’t marry Dave?”

You sigh. “Well, I’ll have to lock you in your room and feed you bread and water for the rest of your life.”

“What? But you say I am free to choose my husband!”

“Of course you are! But you have to choose Dave!”

She bursts into tears. “Then how am I free, daddy?”

Does this conversation seem rather strange to you? Contradictory? Almost incomprehensible?

If so, then you have just experienced the essence of arguing with a statist.

Many libertarians feel that they have to convince people that the government is dangerous, or that the welfare state harms the poor, or that the war on drugs destroys civil liberties and so on – and that if other people can’t be convinced of the evils of government programs, libertarians will never be free of state control.

Nothing could be further from the truth! You don’t have to convince a single person about the evils of government in order to prove your right to live in a free society. Even if everyone else continues to live in the fantasy camp of government virtue, you can still be free.

But you have to establish one little thing first.

Let’s take the invasion of Iraq as a nice, non-controversial topic.

Some people think it’s great, some people think it’s tolerable, some ‘support-the-troops-but-not-the-war,’ and some hate the whole damn mess.

And we can all live together in relative harmony, as long as one condition is met.

People try to convince me that the Iraq invasion is just, wonderful, great, necessary, required for the defense of the realm and so on. I generally don’t let them get too far down this road, but rather interject the following:

“I understand your reasons for supporting the invasion – and you could be correct. You tell me that the invasion will protect my freedoms and keep me safe, but I disagree with that. I believe that my personal safety is not enhanced by my government lobbing bombs all over the Middle East, staffing hundreds of military bases worldwide, funding dictatorships, supporting coups and so on. But wouldn’t you say that the fact that we can disagree with each other – and with our government – is one of the freedoms that make this country great?”

Sure, the person responds.

“Now would we be living in a free country if every time I disagreed with you, or the government, I got thrown in jail?”

Of course not.

Then I tell the above story of the man and his daughter, and say:

“Do you see how this story applies to our situation? I disagree with the size and scope and use of our military, but I am forced to fund it anyway. Thus, like the girl who is ‘free’ to choose her husband, but must obey her father, I am ‘free’ to disagree with government programs, but I am forced to fund them anyway.

If it is dictatorial to throw people in jail for disagreeing with the government, then forcing people to pay taxes for programs they disagree with is also dictatorial, a violation of both the sovereignty of the individual conscience and freedom of association.
If the military supposedly exists to protect our freedoms, but we are forced to pay for it even if we believe our freedoms are threatened by its actions, then obviously our freedoms are not being defended, but rather violated.

Thus whenever a man tells you that he supports the invasion of Iraq, all you have to do is ask him one simple question:

Am I allowed to disagree with you?

If you are not allowed to disagree with him, then you are not free, so he cannot claim that your freedoms are being protected. In fact, there’s no point in debating with him at all.

If you are allowed to disagree with him about the invasion, then surely you have the right not to pay for it! If you are forced to pay for it regardless of your opinion, then you are not allowed to disagree in reality. Just like the hapless daughter in the above story, you must obey, or go to prison.

You can use the same argument about any government programs (or the government itself, as I prefer!). If someone tells you that the welfare state is helping the poor, you don’t have to convince him otherwise – all you have to do is ask him: am I free to disagree with you? If so, then you can obviously withhold your taxes and give them to charity instead, or start a company or buy goods to create jobs.

This approach is very liberating, because you don’t have to convert a single person into a libertarian or an anarchist in order to clinch the case for freedom. You and your friends can have utterly opposing views about the value of government programs – as long as your friends support your right to disagree with them not just in theory, but in practice.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Terminal State

It is the worst day of your young life. Your doctor has just told you that you have terminal cancer. You have a few months to live, maybe six. Your skin crawls, your mouth is bone-dry. Lists of everything you have to do scroll by endlessly in your mind’s eye… Finances, my will, a long line of goodbye’s…

“My God,” you stammer, trying to swallow. “Are you sure? Can I get a second opinion?”

“Of course,” nods your doctor sympathetically, gesturing at the brown folder on his desk. “The tests are pretty conclusive, but… Take them across the hall, there’s an oncologist over there. Have a chat with him, see what he thinks.”

You walk out of the office, almost feeling as if you’re floating. Miraculously, you get an immediate appointment with the new doctor. You sit down, and before you can open your mouth, he says: “What are you doing here? You look as healthy as a horse!”

“Well I was sent over here by my doctor. He says I’m sick, really sick…” Yeah, verily, unto the grave¸ you think involuntarily.

“What nonsense!” cries the doctor heartily, snapping his fingers. “Nothing wrong with you at all!”

“But…” Wordlessly, you hand your file over. The doctor glances at it.

“Well sure, there are some problems, naturally. That’s be expected. But you’re sound. Fundamentally sound!” He jabs his finger onto his desk for emphasis.

“But it’s spread to my…”

“Yes, yes,” he says impatiently, glancing at your file from the corner of his eye. “I can see that there are some problems. But you’re going to live to be 90!”


The doctor pauses very briefly, then waves his hand dismissively. “Oh, you’ll pull through. Something will come up…”

Against hope, you ask: “Do you know of a cure?”

The doctor cocks his head and narrows his eyes, obviously confused. “A cure?” he asks slowly. “For what?”

Question: What is your opinion of this oncologist? Would you put your treatment in his hands? Or would you think he was an incompetent lunatic – or worse – and back out of his office slowly?

With all due respect, this is how many anarchists feel when dealing with statists.

You see, the state might look healthy, but there’s this little matter of the national debt. It’s not just a US phenomenon, but let’s look at it from an American perspective.

We’ve all heard the scare statistics. $8 trillion dollars of debt. $110,000 per US adult.
$47 trillion dollars in unfunded liabilities… And picture all the people who are never going to help pay that debt – stay-at-home parents, students, retirees, criminals, soldiers, public employees, mimes and countless others who live hand-to-mouth.

Fiscally, the state is completely terminal. There is no way in God’s green acre that the national debt is ever going to be paid off – we’re going in completely the wrong direction for that! And all debts that escalate end up in bankruptcy.

So when a statist says to me that we need the government, or the government should do ‘X’ or ‘Y’, it could be arguable I guess, but it seems rather… irrelevant. It’s like getting a call from a man who’s jumped naked out of plane telling you he needs a parachute. Sure you do. But you haven’t got one, and it’s far too late to reverse that now, isn’t it?

The facts are clear, the math is clear, the lack of political will is clear, the self-interest of our rulers is clear – the government is dead. Dead, dead, dead. Sure, might look OK from the outside, but it’s already starting to smell.

So when people tell me they want a small government, I just ask them: OK, what programs will you cut to pay off the national debt?

The interest on the national debt alone is over $380 billion a year. Can we cut every single dollar from public education? That’s about $60 billion – barely makes a dent in the interest payments. What else? Defense? Over $400 billion – OK, now we’re getting somewhere, but we’re still not dealing with the principal

You can go on and on – and, as the statist whittles down the functions of government in order to pay off the national debt, you know what happens?

You start to get a society that looks pretty anarchistic!

One of two things can occur. Either the statist won’t support spending cuts, in which case he’s just like the second doctor in the earlier analogy, blindly declaring the health of something that is dying. Or, he does find the money to pay off the national debt – in which case he not only ends up about 3 microns away from anarchism, but he also implicitly admits that the state has been ripping people off horrendously for the past hundred years or so!

If the government can effectively function with, say, 5% of its current budget, then it has stolen trillions upon trillions of dollars from the past few generations. And the state cannot survive on, say 50% of its current budget, because that won’t be enough to pay off the debt.

So the state is either unnecessary, or a vile thief. Or both.

In every medical drama known to mankind, some Type-A surgeon always ends up trying to resuscitate a patient who has clearly shuffled off to join the choir invisible. Some gentle and rational soul always has to touch his shoulder and say: “He’s dead, Jim. He’s dead…” Someone else calls out the time of death.

As anarchists, this is our role. You can argue as frantically as you like about the role of the state, but we will continue to patiently put our hands on your shoulder and say: “Let it go. Stop electrocuting a corpse. Come with us, so we can choose the dance songs for the funeral, and work together to create what comes next.”

Monday, June 12, 2006

Market Anarchism: Are You Guys Crazy, or Just Nuts?

After twenty years as a ‘small government’ libertarian, I have spent the last 18 months or so strenuously – and unsuccessfully – resisting the implacable logic of ‘market anarchy’. I started out thinking it was a rather odd theory, but I have come to appreciate some of its finer points, and thought it might be interesting to share some of them with you. If these approaches are correct, then they may help you. If they are incorrect, perhaps you can rescue me from the error of my ways!

‘Market anarchism’ is a broad term referring to the theory that voluntary free market relationships can – and should – replace all existing coercive state relationships. It is derived from taking the principle of the non-initiation of force to its ultimate conclusion, and accepting that if using violence is wrong for one person, then it is wrong for every person. If stealing is wrong for me as a private citizen, then it is also wrong for everyone – including those in the ‘government’.

Much like the theory of relativity, the consistent application of this simple principle can produce rather startling conclusions. If the initiation of force is wrong, then governments as a whole are immoral institutions. Since the only moral agent is the individual (governments don’t ‘act’), then no individual can claim opposing moral rules based on a membership in a certain ‘club’ such as the government. Logically, a man can’t be subject to one moral rule while sitting at home (thou shalt not kill), and then be subject to a completely opposite moral rule when he puts on a uniform. The same is true for property rights. If all men have property rights, then no man can morally take the property of another man.

Of course, most people feel very uncomfortable with the idea that society can exist without a government. It might be worth understanding the ‘market anarchist’ responses to typical objections, just for the sake of clarification.

For instance, market anarchists are always asked how a stateless society could deal with violent criminals. We have some excellent answers, of course, but the most relevant is this: The vast majority of evils in this world are not committed by private criminals, but by governments.

Or, to put it another way: The greatest danger to human life is not private vice, but public ‘virtue’.

In the 20th century alone, credible estimates for the numbers of citizens directly murdered by governments stands at 262 million people.

Picture this: if the average height of each victim was 5’, laid out end-to-end, the corpses would circle the globe 10 times. This number is 6 times the number killed in all wars in the 20th century. To this figure we can also add others, such as the number killed by wars - 38.5 million, as well the 60 million killed by malaria as a direct result of worldwide governmental bans on DDT. There are many other ways in which people get killed by government policies, such as:

- general poverty due to central planning

- increased infant morality

- decreased life expectancy

- illnesses resulting from poor public sanitation

- malnutrition

- lack of access to medical supplies/services

- …and countless more!

We could add other crimes as well, such as the endless kidnapping and imprisonment involved in police states and the ‘war on drugs’? The US prison population rose from 488,000 in 1985 to 1.3 million in 2001 to 2.2 million today – half of which are non-violent criminals! One in five US inmates is sexually assaulted? What about the abuse that occurs in state-run orphanages or homes for the elderly? What about the conditions on the native reservations throughout North America? What about the mental and physical abuse that occurs in state schools? What about the family violence that occurs in regimes that do not recognize the rights of women or children? What about the constant infanticide and abortions in China? What about the endless, endless theft of taxation?

Do you see what I mean about prioritizing risks to human life and security?

State crimes are also qualitatively different from private crimes. There are many steps that a citizen can take to reduce the likelihood of being victimized by private criminals. From security systems to doormen to moving to a better neighborhood, citizens can directly reduce their risks. For instance, about two-thirds of murder victims knew their murderers – so just hang with the right crowd, and your risk drops significantly. 75% of recent murders in New York were directly related to the drug trade, so stay away from dealing and you’re that much safer!

Contrast that to government crimes. What can you do to protect yourself against taxation? Nothing. Everywhere you go, you are taxed. Want to take up arms against the Gestapo? Good luck. Want to escape senseless regulations? Pray for a libertarian afterlife.

Of course, the opposing argument is that criminal violence is like an inverted bell-curve – lots of state power = lots of violence, and also no state power = lots of violence. However, statistics rarely bear that out. For instance, In 1900, when the government was many times smaller, the U.S. homicide rate was estimated at 1 per 100,000. In 2003, FBI statistics put the rate at 5.7 per 100,000.

In general, within each country, the smaller the government, the lower the violent crime rate – and so who can definitively say that ‘no government’ will naturally produce more crime? It would be like saying: my health improves when my cancer shrinks, but will surely worsen if it disappears completely!

If we are truly concerned with human suffering, we must rank threats rationally. We must deal with the most life-threatening problems first, and only then proceed to lesser dangers. What would we think of a ER doctor who treated a hangnail before dealing with a spurting artery? When citizens face far more danger from government officials than private criminals, is it rational to use our fear of criminals to shy away from exploring the possibility of a stateless society? Of course not! Refusing to consider market anarchism for fear of criminals is like refusing to treat a man dying of cancer because he might someday be hit by a bus.

“Sure,” you might say, “I understand that dictatorships kill lots of people, but we’re all against totalitarianism – just because ‘too much’ state is bad doesn’t automatically mean that ‘any’ state is equally bad!”

I fully understand and sympathize with the intellectual appeal of a ‘small state’, and would find it very compelling, except for historical and current realities, which show that governments never ever stay small. Like a cancer, they continually expand. The smallest state that ever came into being – the American Republic – lasted less than a century before dissolving into internal wars, state-run banking, foreign entanglements, ever-escalating taxation and crushing national debts. For example, the graph below shows US government spending and taxation as a percentage of GDP since 1929.

And, of course, the vast majority of spending increases are on social programs – or, more simply, voter bribing:

Naturally, this rise in government spending increasingly displaces private (voluntary) sectors, just as a cancer displaces healthy cells:

The shortfall in US spending ($47 trillion dollars as of 2004) will inevitably result in either totalitarianism or bankruptcy (or both!).

There are many reasons for the inevitable increases in state power and corruption, but the main point here is that even if we were able to magically reduce state power to purely Constitutional levels, it would take less than a generation or two for the self-destructive growth to start again.

The government, as an agency of violence, can never be controlled. Like slavery, it can neither be reformed nor ‘managed’, since its very premise – the initiation of the use of force – is immoral, irrational and, in the long run, utterly impractical.

In my view, the libertarian movement is floundering not because we advocate too much freedom, but rather because we do not advocate enough freedom. Our moral vision is constantly compromised and diluted by the violence we advocate for the sake of our ‘small state’ position. But either violence is right or it is wrong. If it is right, how can we quibble about the degree of violence used by the state?

If it is wrong, how can we approve of even a small state?

I look forward to your feedback!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Inviting Freedom: Releasing Everyone's ‘Inner Libertarian’

Has this ever happened to you? You’re discussing liberty with someone, and you say something like: “The government shouldn’t take care of the poor.”

The response you get is: “Oh yeah? Well then who would take care of the poor?”

Ah, you reply, there will be more charities and job opportunities and everyone cares about the poor since everyone asks the same question and besides the government is not helping the poor now anyway and so on and so on.

And as you speak, the recipient of your wisdom asks endless skeptical questions until you end up having to prove the value of everything from the gold standard to getting rid of the minimum wage…

I’ve offered a way around this before, in my article ‘Forget the Argument From Efficiency’, but I would like to offer another solution to the problem of defending liberty in the face of skepticism.

I believe that Dispute Resolution Organizations (DROs) could replace the core functions of governments, but the idea is usually countered with the accusation that DROs would just turn into mini-governments. In this case, I was asked: “But DROs would force me to carry an ID card, just like a government!”

I had all my pat answers ready, but I tried a different approach. I simply replied: “That’s an excellent question! Let’s try answering it this way. If you’re a DRO and you want me as a customer, and I tell you I hate ID cards, how could you solve my problem?”

There was a pause. Gears began turning. “Well, you might not have to carry an ID card per se I guess… We could use fingerprints if we had to. Or retina scans. Or voice imprints.”

“But what if I said that I hated all those things too? Or they were too expensive?”

“Well I don’t know,” my former opponent said. “I guess if you were buying something, your ID would be your credit card. Or bank card. Huh. Or I guess you’d have to register whatever you bought to get a guarantee, so…”

And I swear, he went on for five minutes, brow furrowed, teasing out all the possibilities of how DROs avoid forcing customers to carry ID cards.

And he only forgot one solution. And I couldn’t resist…

“But tell me this,” I said. “Why would DROs want to have you carry an ID card in the first place?”

“Because it would be more efficient for them I guess.”

“Sure, but how could they make it more efficient for you?”


“I mean, they want you to carry the ID card, right, so how are they going to get you to do it?”

The brow furrowed again. It’s so hard for people to think ‘outside the state’…

“By… incenting me?”

“Perhaps. How might they do that?”

The furrows deepened. “Well, like coffee shops I guess, with those 6-for-5 cards I always lose. Or that Air Miles thing. Or gas stations. Or local computer stores, where if you pay cash they knock off a few points…”

And off he was again, for another few minutes. But then he stopped short. “But what if it’s not worth it for DROs to give me rebates for carrying an ID card?”

“Well what would that mean about the ID cards?”

“That… that they’re not that valuable I guess.”

And there it was! Instead of me being stuck in the position of defending liberty, we were exploring it together, and he was coming up with dozens of solutions.

And it was fun!

I left him without stating the obvious, although it wasn’t easy! The obvious fact was this: look at how much intellectual creativity energy is unleashed in the absence of State coercion!

So the next time you’re talking about liberty with a skeptic, if you’ve never tried it, try switching sides. You might be surprised how quickly you end up on the same team.