Happiness in Slavery
Politics and religion in Libertarian Thought. Are there any more controversial topics than these ? Sometimes the two intertwine and blur. The reason for this is that both have a fundamental effect on how we live. Because of this, our political choice becomes all the more important.
Some people find voting a waste of time. Perhaps it is so, but in that way they do not exert their influence on their own society. With the elections coming, I believe it is primordial to give reason a voice in this debate. This is why I contend that there is definitively a case to be made for libertarianism, which is the rational political alternative. If you find political discussion boring, or if you have a short attention span, read the haiku I have written.
Now, I don’t deny that there are a lot of misunderstandings about libertarianism and capitalism, the economical system that is entailed by it. First of all, religious people tend to support capitalism. That is an unfortunate historical quirk. In fact the very nature of freedom of competition and freedom of action is against religious morality. The popular biblical character Jesus was himself an altruist (“blessed are the poor in spirit”, “blessed are the meek”, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man). It is the eradication of religion by communist countries that made theists contend that libertarianism is their own, thus giving them an opportunity to claim that they are not altruists, despite their own philosophy. But then again, no one said the faith-full had to be consistent, as people arguing with UFO believers or “holistic doctors” can testify regularily.
Another category of misgivings against libertarianism is born out of the impression that our current system is capitalist, and that therefore the failings that we see around us would only be accentuated. Usually, you’ll have someone saying “look at the moral fabric ripping itself apart, all the poor people begging in the street, and the popularity of Celine Dion – since we live in a capitalist system, if we get more capitalist it’ll get even worse !”. Unfortunately, that is based on a false premise. The fact is that the United States, in particular, work on a mixed economy system (where we have, for example, interest groups and a high level of social programs). Therefore the current failings of our system cannot be said to be necessarily due to capitalism. I will make a case later on that these failings are in fact mostly due to the socialist elements in society.
But first I must of course start by the beginning and discuss the underlying philosophy, that is, why should we come to the conclusion that freedom is the right alternative, as well as natural rights.
The theoretical framework of freedom
First of all, we must start from an ethical premise. This is because a society in itself is simply a group of invididuals that live in a given territory. The unit of action is people, not society. Therefore if one wants to discover what principles must regulate an ideal society, it is necessary to examine how individuals must act. The government is simply a way to effect individual morality in a global context thru laws and regulations. If we start from the idea that man must live for and serve others, then we will establish a system which will force everyone to contribute to society in a given way. On the other hand, if we start from the idea that man must live for himself, then we will let the individual be free in his actions, in order to let him fulfill his individual moral principles. The way that the chosen mode of society is implanted depends on the specifics (more concretely, the values) of the moral system that we take as premise.
This is not the place to discuss ethical theory, so I will spare you (don’t worry, I’ll make you suffer thru it some other time). Suffice it to say that libertarianism has as premise the Objectivist ethical system : that one’s life, and happiness, is the prime value – i.e. a morality of self-interest. Most freethinkers would agree with this : we seek happiness and material success (in whatever form that we prefer), and we value our freedom of thought and religion, all things that cannot exist without rational life. Such a morality entails a society where people’s lives and self-interest is protected above all. Or as Farrell Till puts it in a political context : “Every person, then, who doesn’t kill or steal or lie is acting in self-interest to help establish an orderly society in which one can live without fear of losing his life or property”. Because we all live for ourselves, and our life is the prime value, we must value above all, in a societal context, the protection and furthering of one’s life, with all that this entails. The Declaration of Independance recognize this necessary consequence of self-interest as such :
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Because all men are necessarily human, which means more precisely that they have the same basic needs in order to survive and flourish, all men must be equal to the law. Note that this does not mean that all men are equal.
Because our life is the prime value, it follows that the right of life, more exactly defined as the right of self-ownership, is the first right. Because of this, it is easy to understand why murder and assault are vastly considered as negative, and greatly punished.
Since ownership implies control, it follows that our actions must also be considered as property of the individual. The result of one’s actions, in a social context (be it production or trade), is property. Because of these deductions, the two great categories of rights which are derived from self-ownership are rights of action, and rights of property (which is nothing more than the action of owning something). More simply, if we own our own body, then, to be consistent, we must also protect one’s actions and property, all elements which are part of this ownership. It would be rather inconsistent to say to someone “make your own life !” and on the other hand tell him “you can’t do this ! you can’t do that !”. It gives some flavour to the expression “sending contradictory signals”. But then again, there are many parents who work with this modus operandi – that’s why some children grow up to be Christian fundamentalists.
That is the essence of libertarianism, in a nutshell – a system of government which respects natural rights.
Natural rights are the axiom that Murray Rothbard talks about when he defines libertarianism as resting “upon one single axiom: that no man or group of men shall aggress upon the person or property of anyone else”. Note that there is a big difference between natural rights and rights in general. There are such things as, for example, the “right to have a dozen prostitutes come in your home and make a strip-tease”. And I suppose there are some people who would argue that such a right should be recognized by the government. But this right is not a natural right, because it does not follow from the ethical premises which recognize nature (and the humans in it) as the basis of morality, and of which I have talked about before. Only the right of life, action and property, or rights derived from them, can be called natural.
Someone, on the other hand, could argue that such a right would be perfectly natural since having strippers dance for you is a service (a kind of punctual property of another person’s actions, if you will), and that therefore he has the right to this service. But natural rights are not a right to something, but a right of something. A right of action means that the government must protect your freedom of doing anything you want, provided that you are not breaking anyone else’s right in the process – not that you should force people to do whatever you want. Otherwise it’d get quickly unliveable, since usually the only thing guys want is get in another woman’s pants, and the only thing that woman wants is to get the hell away from this creep. You get the idea. Since everyone is human, there’d be no reason, in terms of rights, to favour someone and not his opponent. The rule that force cannot be used in society leads to an economy of capitalism – that is, based strictly on trade (exchanges of value), contrarily to socialist systems which are based on the forceful redistribution of wealth.
Now that you understand the outline of what libertarianism is, it would be a good time to put it into perspective. Some people, for unscrutable reasons, try to associate libertarianism with “the right”. That is quite a puzzling, or should I say dim, view of things. “Right and left”, as we understand them in politics today, is a gradient that has as endpoints communism and fascism (see image at left). The flaw of this system, which has prompted the circular interpretation, is that communism and fascism are not opposite, they are in fact quite similar totalitarian systems. To make this obvious, imagine if someone asked you “If Stalin is on the left, and Mussolini on the right, whom do you feel closer to ?”. The answer is, none of them, of course (that is, unless you have big problems, in which case you should consult a psychiatrist…). Which is why the linear interpretation of politics is so flawed.
Since the opposite of a totalitarian system would be one where the government has as little power as possible, it follows that the opposite should be libertarianism, since this system promotes minarchism (mini-government). Therefore a more comprehensive political graph (which would necessarily include all possible systems) would be one like you see at the right, with two axis, societal and economic freedom. Incidentally, there is a little quiz that can help you find where you are located on this graph. So this is only to help you see where I’m coming from here, and how this is all related. The big picture, if you will.
I said that libertarianism is a form of minarchism, and this requires explanation, since it is the most obvious real-life consequence of a libertarian system. The reason for this drastic change is the abolition of all government infringments on property rights. There could be no such thing as taxes or government subsidizing, so the size of the government would be significantly reduced.
Ayn Rand thought that under a system of rights, the government would be reduced to three main, and separate, functions – the police, the army and the judiciary system. It would be safe to say that the ideal system would have a government reduced to these and a very limited number of other functions. One of these functions is the redistribution of wealth dependant on one’s infringments of rights, for example, the redistribution of money from a polluter whose pollution exceeds the bounds of his property, to the citizens of the locality. Another of these functions is the administration of global necessities such as roads or firefighters, although there is no reason why these sectors should not also be open to private ventures, as they have been with great success in many countries (for example, electricity in the UK, Chile and Argentina, rail in the Japan and UK, telecom in New Zealand, Mexico and Hungary, all with great prices and level of service).
At any rate, such is the most obvious consequence of the establishment of natural rights. There are also other important consequences which must be taken into consideration. For example, upholding the illegality of taxes brings another problem : since the government would not raise any taxes but still offer some services, where do we take the money ? There are many possible solutions to this, which would not break anyone’s rights. One of these solutions would be a pay-per-use system. As people use governmental products, like the police, or the country makes use of its functions, like the army, the citizens would pay the minimal amount of money necessary to compensate for these costs. Another solution, derivate of this, would be a pay-per-contract policy. None of these are taxes since the customer can always desist from using the services in question (personally or thru a democratic process).
Friedman’s Law, the Black Market Principles and other disagreeable facts
So far I have elaborated on the theory – that is, the deductions that lead to the libertarian model of government as opposed to any other. But deductive evidence is not enough : if I am to convince you to put confidence in these deductions, and the conclusion that one should vote for or encourage the Libertarian Party, I also need empirical evidence to confirm my claims. Otherwise one could say that reason is all well and good, but where are the results ? The reasoning underlying this question is the following : as for ethics, utility should flow from valid theories, because they describe ideal systems. Therefore if utility is not shown to be present, there is a problem with the theory. This is why I will from now on talk about pragmatic considerations.
The fact is that everywhere in the world, libertarianism works, be it in social or economical areas. This is so obviously true that even anti-libertarians admit it – we have such factual examples everywhere. Private competition drives prices down and makes products more available to everyone, freedom of action reduces crime (for example, gun ownership) and favours public health (as for drug regulation or the legalization of abortion). The abolition of the absurd concept of “non-victim crimes” helps to make less people criminals : narcotic decriminalization in the Netherlands, legalized prostitution in, notably, Nevada and Germany, are all successes in this area.
Compare this to the crash of a totalitarian system like communism and fascism, as well as the repeated failures of socialist systems and socialist countries. The War on Poverty has not reduced poverty any more than the War on Drugs has reduced the drug problem – in fact, as Peter Ferrara points out, “[s]ince 1965 we have spent $5 trillion on the War on Poverty, measured in 1992 constant dollars. Yet the poverty rate is higher today than it was the year the War on Poverty began”. In Canada, socialized health care fails dramatically (I can speak from first-hand accounts about this, unfortunately). Elaborate welfare programs only breed generational poverty and do not actively solve the problem.
Let me now discuss specific facts or principles underlying these observations. You get, in discussions of social issues, people who advocate the eradication of entire products or actions – for example, gun control. But in these areas, there are principles that liberals, conservatives and socialists often ignore, which I designate specifically as the “Black Market Principles”. Briefly, those empirical principles are the following :
1. As long as there is a demand for a given product, whenever legal or not, people will exchange it.
2a. If something is illegal, then by necessity, only outlaws will have it.
2b. What is hidden, and therefore unregulated, is more likely to be damageable.
We know that the banning of a given product or action gives place to black markets (illegal trades). It happens that this has the consequence that a total eradication is not possible. During the Prohibition, the alcohol was still flowing – regulated by criminal organizations. The same thing applies to drugs today. Even within sickeningly strict circumstances, as in dictatorships, demand will dictate the offer (or individual action). And of course there are always substitute products for what one is trying to accomplish. Even if there are no more guns, anyone can make his own weapons or bombs. Heck, prisoners can make guns with a pen. I mean, how far are we going to go if we go off that path ? Ban all pens ?
The second point is that when this product is traded for on the black market, necessarily only criminals will have it. This is more often expressed as Liller’s Gun Law (where guns are outlawed, only the outlaws have guns). And then rolls the obvious question : do we want only criminals to be able to do this ? i.e. do we want only criminals to have guns ? Should we leave honest citizens defenseless and therefore breed more crimes ? If one does not consider people who commit the given action as criminal, then the complement to this is the other question : should we let them suffer and sometimes lose their lives because of this illegality ? One example of this is “coat-hanger abortions”, which have cost the lives of many a woman, or drug addicts who die because of drug impurity.
Not only are non-victim actions not considered as a crime in a libertarian system, but legalizing them brings only direct benefits to society. Furthermore, as many freethinkers amongst you probably think, nobody needs a “big brother” over our shoulder to tell us what to do (within reason, of course), not to mention that such a mechanism is an all-too easy way for religionists and other pseudo-ethicians to impose their own vicious bias. “There are many paths to the top of Mount Fuji”, and there are many paths to happiness – imposing one’s own as a universal truth is hypocrisy. That is why freedom in social areas is the only way to promote the search for happiness for each and every individual.
The same thing also applies to the economical area, where we have Friedman’s Law. Not the so-called Friedman’s Law #1 “if it is not yours, don’t touch it” (although it is in the same spirit) or the other Friedman’s Law “there is no such thing as a free lunch” (although Friedman did say this). The law I am talking about is the economical law named after the Nobel-prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, which is the following : “any service (…) will cost about half as much to provide in a free market as they did under [a] government”. This is what he has observed empirically, and this phenomenon is caused by competition and lack of governmental bureaucracy. One reason for this is that there is no incentive for efficient service in a governmental program : customers are a hinderance, not a necessity.
L. Neil Smith, a popular libertarian novelist, said the following :
“With taxation gone, not only will we have twice as much money to spend, but it will go twice as far, since those who produce goods and services won’t have to pay taxes, either. In one stroke we’ll be effectively four times as rich. Let’s figure that deregulation will cut prices, once again, by half. Now our actual purchasing power, already quadrupled by deTAXification, is doubled again. We now have eight times our former wealth !”.
Such an assessment is obviously laced with optimism, considering that not all our taxes go to non-core functions (core functions being those that would exist in a libertarian country). To make a more realistic estimate, we must examine the ration of tax money spent on non-core functions/tax money spent in total which would indicate what percentage of our taxes is really wasted (and would therefore not need to be paid by a free citizen in his daily life). We find that this ratio is approximately 13.8/34.6, which equals 40% . Because of this, a reasonable estimate would be that, in average, we would have 140% as much money as we do presently, assuming that we are talking about a relatively high tax bracket (benefits are of course scaled down as you go downwards). Our buying power would also rise by approximately 140%. Therefore, for non-regulated or lightly regulated sectors, our buying power would be 196% its current level, that is, doubled. For regulated sectors, because of Friedman’s Law, our buying power would double again, making it four times its current level.
I would like to close this section by mentioning a final aspect of economical advantages which are more obvious, which is the growth rate. As it is, we find that economical freedom is correlated with a high growth rate of the GDP. According to an index of economic freedom which is composed of money stability, reliance on markets, right of property and international exchange, we find that the freest economies in the world are Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, and the United States – and that all these economies have demonstrated solid growth from 1985 to 1995 (which was the limit of the study). Despite being little more than a piece of rock, Hong Kong, before being given back to communist China, was one of the world’s major international business and trade centers.
At the other end of the spectrum, we find that the least economically free countries, which include Algeria, Croatia, Syria, Burindi, and others, have all registered negative growth during this period, except for Syria. Furthermore, the more increase in economic freedom is high, the most growth is achieved, and the opposite is true – the least free a country is, the least prosperous it becomes. We find, all over the world, that free economies give citizens the opportunity for more productivity and higher incomes .
In the study “Government spending and economic growth” , Richard Thayer concludes the research by driving the point home : “The higher the rate the government grows the less the GDP grows”.
Everybody wants to rule the world
You probably know the tune to “Everybody wants to rule the world”. I wrote these words without thinking about the song, but the last three lines, I believe, are particularily relevant :
“All for freedom and for pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever
Everybody wants to rule the world.”
I’m pretty sure everyone has his own favourite objections against unregulated systems, and I can’t adress all of them, obviously. But let me talk about the more invoked ones – by this I mean crime, morality and war (in social issues) and poverty, slavery and money (in economical issues). Then I will also describe the most used arguments against totalitarist systems by modern economists.
We need more control in order to prevent crime. Well, it depends how you define “crime”. If you take our current standards of criminality, then of course a libertarian society would not stop non-victim “crimes”. If you mean people using force on others, there is no correlation between freedom and force or lack thereof. Besides from the fact that less people will have to use force to support a cause that they find just, there is no correlation because crime has as its roots false ethical premises. A more permanent solution to eradicate crime must start from education, not politics.
Freedom would destroy the moral fiber of society ! And this is usually seen as a bad thing. However this is not necessarily the point of view that we should adopt. Compared to the freedom of the pursuit of happiness, a quite abstract and subjective notion like “moral fiber” seems rather unimportant (and sounds more like something you’d get from eating cereals). This term is often used by absolutists to peddle their own religious precepts or “pop philosophy” morality, while claiming that diversity promotes moral relativism. But that is an invalid jump, for there is nothing in a libertarian system that encourages a form of ethics in the individual : someone can be an altruist and live that way, as long as he does not use force.
Capitalism was built on war, and feeds on war. This is not as much a deductive argument than an historical one. Opponents of capitalism do not try to show that capitalism in itself necessarily entails a tendancy to warfare, but draw from past experience with the extermination of the American Indians as a proof that capitalism needs warfare in order to be established. Sometimes an argument is added to this. It usually goes like this : since capitalism is built around the notion of property, and since you need land to have property, a capitalist system can only be subsist by acquiring more land, entailing warfare against its neighbours.
Unfortunately for the shelf life of such pieces of evidence, libertarianism is usually associated with minimal interventionism in exterior affairs, and societal growth, in any normal society, is furthered by other, peaceful means – such means including technology, production and wise investment on the part of the individuals involved. The economy is not a zero-sum game ! While socialists often seek to whip up the frenzy of wartime in order to facilitate the taking of power, capitalists know that war is not good for business, especially in this age of globalization. Money that is not invested on warfare can be used to more productive and progressive means.
you’d just be making more poverty or alternatively, this is just another scheme to exacerbate the class struggles. These two arguments are close cousins. Basically, the argument is that libertarianism is a “bourgeois” ideal, proposed by wealthy people in order to make them wealthier and the poor even poorer. One of the reasons put forward to invoke this “class struggle” is that a free system, without social programs, would make poverty worse than it already is.
Without Big Brother to send us our monthly handouts, we’d all be on the street ! Is that really so ? In fact we find the contrary – only in a libertarian system do we have a chance of decimating poverty. The liberal solution to poverty is a short-term solution, in the sense that social programs do not bring lasting value to the individual. Instead, the capitalist system of no redistribution of resources does not help poverty in short term but by making social conditions improve by progress (more jobs by the eradication of taxes on employment and restrictions), it helps to eradicate poverty much more efficiently. The long term answer to poverty is creating jobs and a better standard of life thru technology. On the other hand, forced equality stops progress, which means that social conditions cannot improve. You may already know the following proverb – “catch a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. I hope I’m not making you too hungry…
Even if all of this wasn’t true, there would still be no reason why such programs could not be privately funded, twice as efficiently, following Friedman’s Law. The same applies for any altruistic governmental program – as I have mentioned before, such things could also exist concurrently with a free market.
Now, on class struggles : this is based on the claim that libertarianism does not make everyone equal. The position taken here is that classes are intrinsically bad. This is usually based on the idea that everyone deserves the same condition, because everyone is equal. That is, as anyone can observe, false. Everyone is not equal in the sum of their attributes, but rather in their nature as human beings – which is why everyone is equal under law. The law applies to everyone equally because its ethical premises are based on human nature.
Instead of creating a clique of privileged rulers elevating themselves above the mass poverty that they sustain, natural rights insure that everyone is on an equal footing. The bottom line is that nobody is forced to be part of a class. You can be completely removed from any notion of class, living on your own, and no one would ever bother you about it. Incidentally, you will note that people who complain about the struggle of the classes are usually people who themselves vigorously engage in it, instead of refusing to support the system as they should logically do. Yes, I know, this is not an actual argument, but it’s still funny. It’s always interesting to note that, because of their very nature, most impractical doctrines are promoted by hypocrites.
The opposite side should be viewed critically : what are we to think of a system that condemns greed when it is about one’s own fortune, yet hypocritically does not condemn it in itself when it takes the money of the most honest, productive citizens ?
We would be ruled by the corporations. “Big business” is not exempt from the rule by rights – it must be condemned for “its constant seeking of government favors and its use of clout to secure protectionist legislation”. The job market must be like any other market : regulated by offer and demand.
Furthermore, many people harbour the illusion that they belong to “the working class”. But the employer/employee distinction is also subject to offer and demand. Nothing prevents one from being his own employer when there is not enough jobs, especially with today’s telecommunication systems. Saying that one wants a revolution “for the working class” is fundamentally meaningless.
You would only be creating more injustice, or you’re encouraging slavery !. This is a variant of the argument above, playing on a common equivocation of the word “slavery”. An expression that comes back often is “wage slavery“. Slavery is commonly defined as the state of a person being the property of another (and, necessarily, being under his control). In short, this means that a person is bereft of all natural rights, to the profit of his master. The only qualitative difference between state-slavery and race-slavery is that race-slavery has been abolished. Both embody the spirit of considering human beings as less than human, unworthy of natural rights and needing a master, in their own ways. On the other hand, “wage slavery” is the expression of the concept of free trade in work.
It is rather hypocrite to attribute slavery to a free system, from which people are free to leave at any time. And even if work and production was considered slavery, any other system cannot not be exempt from it – since production (of necessary goods, public goods, etc) is necessary for survival and life in society. It only makes the problem even worse.
Everybody knows that money is the root of all evil. This is only another, more general, variant of the argument from poverty. As with class struggle, this is used by people who want to summon a total-control utopia as a desirable system. Since money is evil, shouldn’t we use another, centralized system ?
Actually, even if money was a “bringer of evils”, it would be a solution to an unsolvable problem. Money is basically a measure of value that was designed as a less time-costly alternative to barter. Even without money, goods still have an intrinsic value, and the phenomenon of “accumulation of wealth” would still take place, only without an easy standard to measure it. People usually say that money is the root of all evil because they don’t have any.
But a libertarian system would not promote my happiness. I want to be enslaved and be told what to do by an absolutist authority figure ! And you can do so. That’s the beauty of a free system – anyone can form communities that obey any kind of rules (a meta-government, if you will), as long as contracts bind the parties in such a way. Hypothetically, one can imagine a great number of communities, each obeying a certain set of rules, in a form of “natural political selection”.
What about the objections from the other side ? Traditional economical arguments against totalitarian systems (apart from those I already mentioned above) are the following :
1. the totalitarian problem – any concentration of power inevitably breeds abuse.
2. the incentive problem – forced equality entails lack of incentive for progress.
3. the calculation problem – impossibility to allocate resources as efficiently as a free market.
The last problem may be the less obvious, but it makes an enormous difference. Studies have shown that Hong Kong, for example, has the same growth rate than Singapore, for only half the savings . It was found that the inefficiency of governmental monopolies is a prime factor on why certain Asian countries are experiencing deceleration while others are still growing strong.
From a theoretical viewpoint, it is the most important weakness since it is the main reason why the liberalist system cannot be as efficient as a capitalist system. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, which is nothing more than the interest of all the people involved in the market, maximizes the productivity of capital, and thereby social progress. Because maximal freedom is necessarily maximal efficiency, governmental intervention can only make society go down.
A free system is not a utopia. There will always be poverty, crime, control and abuse of power. However the least we can do is try to eradicate those problems as best as we posibly can. You could call it an extropia – a system that permits “an open, evolving framework” for all kinds of “institutions and social forms”, that naturally evolve and adapt to society as we see for organisms in natural selection, with similar results.
You will, of course, have noted that this is only a cursory examination of the subject.There are numerous other economical and social elements that would have been worthy of examination, like anarcho-capitalism, consumer protection, the judiciary system, religious tolerence, politically correct discrimination, syndicalism, the division of governmental power, ad nauseam. Such is the problem when trying to explain something as complex as a political system. Nevertheless, I hope the little I was able to convey to you will help you understand the basic issues more clearly. Happy thinking !
 Figures of 1996 and 1992 respectively, from The Scope of Governments and the Wealth of Nations by Gwartney et al., CATO Journal, Fall 1998.
 Measuring Economic Freedom, by James Gwartney and Robert Lawson, Journal of Commerce.
 Government Spending and Economic Growth, by James Gwartney et al.  Libertarianism : A Primer, by David Boaz.
 Prof. Ross Garnaut (The Financial Review, 23/9/97)
For A.D.D. sufferers (proud symbols of the MTV clip-driven generation), here is the haiku :
Right or left ?
different faces, same scam.
Now, nobody can accuse me of not being poetic. Take the time to bask in the light of truth, nobody’s going to blame you for it.