NOTE TO SELF, BASED ON QUAKER TESTIMONIES OF INTEGRITY, SIMPLICITY, PEACE, EQUALITY, AND COMMUNITY:

1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.
2. Do what you say, say what you think, think what is true.
3. Subtract superfluities from your life, speech, desires and thoughts.
4. Don't initiate aggression against the persons or property of others, nor support people who do, including the people who "constitute" the government.
5. Respect life and natural law.
6. All people are endowed by their Creator with equal and inalienable rights to the earth and to the fruits of their own labor, and a "Citizen's Dividend" funded by a "Single Tax" on the unimproved value of land and other natural resources would be the fairest way to protect these rights.

For supporting materials, see the Archive and the Recommended Reading and Videos section at the bottom of this page.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Why be a libertarian?

The libertarian political attitude is expressed concisely in the motto endorsed by Henry David Thoreau at the beginning of his essay Civil Disobedience -- "That government is best which governs least." Its central tenets are the principle of self-ownership and the principle of non-aggression, which holds that the initiation or threat of physical force or fraud upon persons or their property, by a person or a government, is illegitimate. The principle of non-aggression does not preclude defending against or responding to aggression. In the words of Thomas Jefferson: "Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’, because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual," and "No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him."

The first question that must be asked about any government is: By what right does it exist in the first place, and from where does it derive its "just powers," if it indeed has any? "The positive testimony of history is that the State invariably had its origin in conquest and confiscation," observed Albert Jay Nock in his great book, Our Enemy, the State. With regard to the origin of the American State specifically, after a survey of the historical circumstances surrounding it, Nock had this to say:

"It is clear that while in the nature of things the British State's interventions upon the economic means would stir up great resentment among the interests directly concerned, they would have another effect fully as significant, if not more so, in causing those interests to look favourably on the idea of political independence. They could hardly have helped seeing the positive as well as the negative advantages that would accrue from setting up a State of their own, which they might bend to their own purposes. It takes no great amount of imagination to reconstruct the vision that appeared before them of a merchant-State clothed with the full powers of intervention and discrimination, a State which should first and last 'help business,' and which should be administered by persons of actual interest like to their own. . . .
The main conclusion, however, towards which these observations tend, is that one general frame of mind existed among the colonists with reference to the nature and primary function of the State. This frame of mind was not peculiar to them; they shared it with the beneficiaries of the merchant-State in England, and with those of the feudal State as far back as the State's history can be traced. Voltaire, surveying the debris of the feudal State, said that in essence the State is 'a device for taking money out of one set of pockets and putting it into another.' The beneficiaries of the feudal State had precisely this view, and they bequeathed it unchanged and unmodified to the actual and potential beneficiaries of the merchant-State. The colonists regarded the State primarily as an instrument whereby one might help oneself and hurt others; that is to say, first and foremost they regarded it as the organization of the political means. No other view of the State was ever held in colonial America. Romance and poetry were brought to bear on the subject in the customary way; glamorous myths about it were propagated with the customary intent; but when all came to all, nowhere in colonial America were actual practical relations with the State ever determined by any other view than this."

The Founders of the newly-born United States government, although they drafted a Constitution that allowed them and their successors to exercise the "full powers of intervention and discrimination" in furtherance of their own interests, tried to locate its legitimacy somewhere other than in raw self-interested power, i.e. in the myth of the "consent of the governed" -- a myth rigorously debunked by Lysander Spooner in his indispensable treatise, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority.

A reasonable objection to the above considerations is this: Even if the government is illegitimate, a government is necessary, and that in a sense makes it legitimate, despite its dubious origins. There are two responses to such an objection: First, it is not at all certain that a State is necessary, and many have argued that it's not and tried to show how a Stateless society might work. (See, e.g., David D. Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom. Quakers might be particularly interested in Murry Rothbard's history of the anarchist conditions and attitudes prevalent among the Friends who colonized Pennsylvania.) Second, if necessity is going to be the justification for the existence of the State, then necessity should be the standard by which all of the State's laws and acts should be judged. If you believe a State is necessary for national defense and building roads, for example, then the only State functions such a belief justifies is national defense and building roads. It doesn't legitimate anything else that a bunch of politicians or the people who bought them into office might want to do. There's no magic in a "majority" that gives them the right to do anything that any one of them acting alone wouldn't have the right to do (with the important caveat that trial by jury and due process when available is always preferable to vigilante justice, since less subject to error and passion).

That's the crux of the matter: The government has no right to do anything to you that no other person or association of persons has a right to do, or would have a right to do in an anarchist society. No one has or would have a right to throw you in jail for victimless "crimes" like smoking marijuana or non-fraudulently giving legal advice for money without a law degree, and neither does the government, though it pretends to. In an anarchist society like that projected by David Friedman private protection agencies and mutual protection societies would fulfill (probably more effectively) the police functions monopolized by government today, and would have the right to exact restitution and punishment for assaulting or killing one of their clients or members, assuming due process. To the extent that the present government merely does the same thing -- i.e. enforce the non-aggression principle -- there is no injustice. In an anarchist society one or several of the mutual protection societies or private protection agencies would likely attain, because of the mutual need for arbitration between such organizations and defense against large-scale invasion, a position at the top of a hierarchy of such societies and agencies. All that is needed to approximate such a state of affairs is for the present federal government and more importantly the people who now prop up its pretensions and usurpations by their complacency and misplaced patriotism to begin to think of the federal government as having a status no more exalted and no more privileged than that of a private protection agency at the top of such a hierarchy, with no rights other than what it obtains by freely-entered contract and actual explicit consent.

The most obvious difference between that conception of government and the illegitimate conception of government we have now is our present acceptance of pervasive armed robbery in the form of involuntary taxation. It is not only unjust in itself but is the source of the bloating and concentration of governmental power that in turn finances all of the other governmental aggressions against the rights of the people that are now carried on. There are in fact well-known ways by which the government could fund itself without resorting to robbery and that would actually serve to remedy rather than aggravate injustice. As discussed in my post titled "Why be a left libertarian?", for example, the land (apart from any improvements on it) and other natural resources in a community and the economic rent associated therewith (as well as, arguably, the estates of decedents) belong equally to all in the community, not just to those who presently hold title and possession. Since the necessary collection and distribution of this rent could ordinarily not be administered without the agency of some kind of governmental organization, it is legitimate for that governmental body to keep that part of the revenue which is needed for its necessary services before distributing the remainder equally to the members of the community (the Georgist "single-tax").

To close with something of a corrective, Albert Jay Nock did not have only bad things to say about America's Founding Fathers. In this passage in Our Enemy, the State he regarded Thomas Jefferson as a visionary:

"What is it, [Jefferson] asks, that has 'destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all powers into one body, no matter whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or of the aristocrats of a Venetian senate.' The secret of freedom will be found in the individual 'making himself the depository of the powers respecting himself, so far as he is competent to them, and delegating only what is beyond his competence, by a synthetical process, to higher and higher orders of functionaries, so as to trust fewer and fewer powers in proportion as the trustees become more and more oligarchical.' This idea rests on accurate observation, for we are all aware that not only the wisdom of the ordinary man, but also his interest and sentiment, have a very short radius of operation; they can not be stretched over an area of much more than township-size; and it is the acme of absurdity to suppose that any man or any body of men can arbitrarily exercise their wisdom, interest and sentiment over a state-wide or nation-wide area with any kind of success. Therefore the principle must hold that the larger the area of exercise, the fewer and more clearly defined should be the functions exercised. Moreover, 'by placing under everyone what his own eye may superintend,' there is erected the surest safeguard against usurpation of freedom. 'Where every man is a sharer in the direction of his ward-republic, or of some of the higher ones, and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day;... he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte.'"