Jul 042010

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organising its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

John Demetriou suggested another blogging challenge the other night, the topic to be: whether it is best to create a libertarian state by means of democracy, or by means of revolution. It seems rather appropriate to address such a question on this particular day, the anniversary of the only occasion in which the creation of a liberal state was attempted by both means at one and the same time.

Two initial problems present themselves when I consider this question. The first is that revolution is historically successful at changing the form of a government, but is usually violent and therefore illegitimate, and rarely creates a more liberal government in place of the one overthrown. The second is that democracy is non-violent and therefore legitimate, but where it successfully changes the form of government, it rarely creates a more liberal government in place of the one overthrown.

What these problems suggest to me is that changes of government are rare, sometimes violent, and usually for the worse. This presents a great difficulty to your average liberal or libertarian, for even though we may believe we have the right, as above, to alter or abolish a form of government that is destructive of our liberty, we are terribly reluctant to exercise that right—and as a result, never actually remove the destructive government from power.

A third problem, of course, is that the form of government currently destructive to our liberty is a democracy itself. And the idea of democracy is today so untouchable, any suggestion that it might be the democratic system which is destructive of our liberty, rather than simply the people in charge of it at the moment, is met with a sort of outrage.

Or else it’s met with a patronising smile and a statement to the effect that if libertarian government was at all desirable, the demos would desire it and vote for it—and the fact that they haven’t isn’t a fault in democracy, but a fault in libertarianism.

As much as I loathe the patronising smile etc., I’m beginning to believe that point of view may, indeed, be the correct one. It’s certainly true that the demos are rarely presented with a libertarian party or candidate to vote for, but even when, on occasion, they have that alternative, the majority of them don’t choose it. Libertarians and liberals, I conclude, are therefore a minority in democratic nations, and don’t have the option of democratic overthrow of the government even if they wanted to attempt it. We could, as the patronising smilers are wont to say, try to convert others to our way of thinking and thus grow to become a majority, but that’s difficult as well.

Most people can agree, roughly, that governments must not infringe the life and liberty of their citizens. (The disagreement usually regards criminals.) Libertarians would have no problem generating a majority with that view, because here at least, that majority already exists, and is why the government is not judicially murdering its opponents or locking them up in gulags. The ‘unalienable right’ libertarians can’t get a majority agreement about is property (coyly omitted from the excerpt above).

Oh, the government cannot (does not) come and take your stuff willy-nilly, sending in soldiers or policemen to boot you out of your house or snatch your family silver or raid your stash of cash under the mattress. Your property is, for the most part, protected from such predation—because you possess it.

But the government does take a certain category of your property, which it conveniently defines as property you’ve never legally possessed and thus has never actually been ‘yours.’ This is what the government calls ‘taxes.’ And, in Britain at least, most people never actually possess most of the tax money the government collects. It flows straight from their employers into the government coffers without ever passing through the fingers of the taxpayer. There are other types of taxes which do pass through taxpayer hands first: road tax, car tax, VAT, council tax. But that money never actually belongs to the taxpayer either, as evinced by the fact that if the taxpayer tries to keep it in his possession, he is charged with criminal activity: to wit, theft.

So the government declares that a certain proportion of the property within its jurisdiction belongs to it, regardless of how that property is generated or allocated originally. In practice, anyone who is employed (i.e. engaged in the production of property) is also employed by the government, by definition. In return for generating property for our employer, we receive a cut; in return for generating property for the government, we receive services. Quite naturally, the cut we receive from our employer is smaller than the amount we produce for him, and so it is reasonable to assume that the services we receive from our government are worth less than the property we produce for it.

In our chosen employment, however, all of our colleagues are in the same boat. Their cut is also less than what they produce. In our government employment, though, it’s a different story. Some people receive much more in services than they provide in tax—and some people receive services for which they provide no tax at all! In fact, the more tax one provides, the fewer services one receives, and the less tax one provides, the more services one receives!

There, then, is the source of the disagreement, and of the libertarian minority: most people, under our current form of government, perceive that the value of the services they receive is greater than the value of the tax they pay. For some people, this is factually true, and for others, it’s nothing more than perception: but as long as the majority perceive that they are receiving more than what they pay for, the libertarians (who generally perceive the opposite) will remain a minority.

And as long as most people think they’re pulling the wool over the government’s eyes in this way, they will neither (a) consider their property rights infringed, nor (b) support any change in government that eliminates that state of affairs. I submit that this must be the case, simply because whenever the government has moved in a general libertarian direction, it’s been because people have perceived, for a time, that government services are no longer worth vastly more than the tax contributions that pay for them. That was the case in Britain in the eighties, and that’s the case in Britain now.

You see the difficulty, no? Joe Bloggs can go into the store and pay 50p for a plasma television. It’s not a great television, but it works most of the time, and hey, he’s not going to get better anywhere else for 50p. Now you try stopping him outside the store and saying, ‘Hey, man, doesn’t it bother you that you can’t choose not to buy the television? That you pay the store 50p whether you take home the television or not? That I pay the store £50 but I’m not even allowed inside?’

Joe isn’t going to say, ‘Hey, you’re right. Screw that television, and screw this store.’

He’s going to say, ‘Well, I paid my 50p, so I’m entitled to the television. And if it could get £50 off you, the store must think you can afford to buy your own television for full price somewhere else. And if this store didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be able to have a television at all, whereas you would—so this way is only fair. See ya!’

All of which leads this cynical libertarian to conclude, ultimately, that most people don’t want a libertarian state. They don’t think the current form of government is destructive to their rights, and they don’t think it’s destructive to libertarians’ rights either. After all, if we’d just shut up our bitching, we could be busily defrauding the government, too. Or at least believing that we are.

As long as these perceptions prevail, nothing short of violent revolution has a chance of producing a libertarian state. And libertarians, I like to think, don’t do violence.

So if democratic change isn’t possible, and revolution is abhorrent, how do we arrive at a libertarian state? The only method I can imagine is to become so prosperous, as a society, that people no longer need some of the services the government provides, and can purchase the others more cheaply elsewhere. [UPDATE: For what it’s worth, I think the rise of the pernicious ‘inequality’ meme is proof that we’re really close to achieving this level of prosperity.] The best way to become that prosperous would be, of course, to have a libertarian state; but I think it’s possible to get there without one. It’s just going to take a hell of a lot longer, longer than I or my children or my grandchildren will live. In the meantime, the best thing I can do to help bring about a libertarian state is never, ever to shut up my bitching.

Read Obnoxio the Clown’s answer here.

John Demetriou weighs in at last here.

  21 Responses to “Whither the libertarian state?”

  1. I don’t believe democratic change is impossible, we don’t have to convince the masses, just get enough of us in on place:
    Or the easiest way would be, like the founding of the US, new territory. Although there isn’t any of that left so we’d have to make our own:

    • As awesome as the Free State Project is in theory, you watch when they actually try to secede from the United States. Remember what happened last time somebody tried that, only now imagine it with bombs.

  2. I’m running late.

    I will properly respond to the challenge tonight.

    My apologies.

  3. Good stuff Bella, bravo.

    As those corporatist cunts at Tesco might say ‘every little helps!’

    Here’s my threpenny bit’s worth here at the Mighty Boaty & D


  4. I am genuinely surprised that you think that societies in the west are going to become more prosperous.

  5. Bella
    As always, cogent, well-argued …….
    BUT, to me, the only hope is complete collapse …..
    See Demetriou for my argument.
    Lehman, AIG, et al gave some hope.
    More please … pretty please.

  6. Is it worth considering how (more) liberal society emerged in both holland and england in the 17th and 18th centuries to complement the American Revolution that you mention at the start? I suppose that, in the case of holland, that advantage was taken of the opportunity for a “fresh start” following independence from spain. It would appear that we are unlikely to be facing such circumstances anytime soon. I thought that the the period of limited government of the 18th in england was brought about by parliament (the “glorious revolution”) , although following the trauma of the civil war this might not qualify as a wholly pacifist narrative.
    Anyway, just on thought on one aspect of this debate. Good article btw.

  7. What if the general feeling of the Demos is one of indifference?

  8. Great post,

    Problem is revolution is followed by counter revolution by counter-counter revolution,a right mess.

    Little chance of revolution here,the state is all powerful and the population mainly indifferent.

    Of course if enough people start going hungry things would change,but I dont think a revolution would happen for political ideals

  9. In addition to property, “coyly omitted from the excerpt above” (by the author of the Declaration), I noticed another omission (by you, Bella). Just an observation.

  10. Great post! Only a problem with ‘purchasing services elsewhere’… that should be extremely cautious to prevent any sort of hamasization. The rest, perfectly right for me :)

  11. The Rights of Man was written about ten years after the French Revolution and shortly after the formation of modern America. Both states were shiny and new at the time and the British (non) constitution was held up as a model of all that was old and rotten.

    Some 200 years later we can see that whether it is democratic change or revolutonary change or just plain ordinary change the actual delivered result is not all that different. Overall, taking the happiness of the greatest number as a yardstick, I would say the French experiment has proved slightly the better. Whether the guillotine was the reason for this slight advantage I doubt. Perhaps inscribing the words liberty, equality and fraternity on the town hall wall was the reason.

    Problems remain though. Tom Paine referred many times to the real power behind any government – the courtiers and how these courtiers despised the monarch and laughed at his foolishness (it was usually a he). Not much has changed, it is a racing certainty that Whitehall mandarins and power-brokers are quietly laughing up their sleeves at Mr Cameron. Similarly in The White house and in the Elisee Palace the modern courtiers are laughing at Mr Obama and Monsieur Sarkozy knowing that they can easily be pushed this way and that with a talk-show here and a pork-barrel project there. The poor fellows will soon be gone but the real business of getting and grasping will continue.

  12. Bella,

    You’ve been getting behind on your Mencian Kool-aid supplements haven’t you? It really is very refreshing; you should try to sup more. 😛

    His conclusions re: democracy are somewhat similar. He too believes that democracy broadly works; that for the most part the government represents the “will of the people”. So too do the both of you identify actual economic benefit, and misconceptions about the form, function and nature of democratic government as causes.

    Where you differ, is that you place the major emphasis on the former — what Mencius calls “patronage” — while he argues that most important are the effects of the patronage on the latter. Unions and guilds are commonly cited examples of public choice economics. Far more dangerous examples are the Universities and the press. When the government is dependent upon public opinion; who controls public opinion controls the government. How much money and power have “scientists” managed to extort from taxpayers worldwide through their advocacy of CAGW?

    Even the Telegraph, last bastion of the Right in the mainstream press, relegates Hannan and Delingpole to the blogs section of their website, and any criticism of the consensus is clearly attributed and tucked away in the Opinion section.

    Walter Lippman, a leftist from a more innocent time:

    That the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough. . . . [a]s a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power. . . . Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.

    • If he wrote more, I would! (I’ve devoured his back catalogue.)

      But I’ve just been along for my top-up, and for once I think he’s a bit off-base. Re: gentleman, peasants, and varlets, and the purchasing of the votes of the latter by the former with the money of the middle group: I’m pretty sure this is exactly what the anger of the tea-partiers etc. is all about. It is about the perception of being deliberately harmed, by elites and criminals in collusion, and being told that to complain about this is morally repugnant.

      The thing is, that state of affairs is more or less the norm all over the developed world. A more interesting question is: why is it happening in America, and why now? Allow me to venture some hypotheses.

      First, the American ‘peasantry,’ a.k.a. the American right, were pretty despicably deceived by George Bush, whom they voted for in good faith and who did precisely nothing of what they, or any other voters, could have wanted. Bush lied. (Leave aside for the moment that it’s Congress that does stuff, and that wanting government to do stuff is not exactly a freedom-loving ideological position.) But as a result of voting for Bush, they were called idiots, hypocrites, monsters, etc. This is not conducive to fellow feeling.

      In the next presidential election, the peasants perceived that the American left were backing either another Clinton or a man who had actively participated in their demonisation. Even if the American right didn’t loathe Bill Clinton, they could never have been happy with Hillary—for what better proof would anyone have needed that nothing and nobody in American politics ever changes? The offer of Clinton 2.0 was basically a giant slap in the face of the idea that Americans can change who governs them.

      By the party closest to their beliefs, they were offered a candidate far to the left of most of them whose age, emotional instability, and ideological inconsistency made him laughable even to the left. I’m sure it came as no surprise to any of them that Obama won the election. After all, the peasants had no palatable candidate for whom to vote.

      And then Obama appointed a pack of crooks, wackos, and Clinton staffers to his administration. Talk about pouring salt on an open wound! Change did not even turn out to be change. And his Congress leapt straight back into what Congress always seems to do: micromanaging the lives of American citizens without care, without deliberation, without any kind of consultation except to say, ‘Hey, you had an election! That was your “consultation.” See ya in 2010.’

      The perception of democratic futility in America is thus rather pronounced. Can you think of a recent election in any other Western country where roughly one-half of the population was forced, if it bothered to vote at all, to choose the form of its destructor? I mean, the choice here in Britain wasn’t that great, but at least the Conservatives were considerate enough not to campaign on a platform of ‘everyone who voted for Tony Blair is a fucking moron.’

      I mean, the American left didn’t even have the decency to say, ‘Look, vote for us this time and we’ll stop calling you hateful idiots.’

      What they in fact seemed to be saying was, ‘Vote for us if you want, but you’ll be hateful morons until Judgment Day, and we’ll be spending the time until then punishing you for it. Ta!’

      • I think you have the measure of it, although I’d argue that whilst Tea Partiers understand in a general sense that their tax monies are being wasted, few of them would nail down specifically that the problem was the purchase of power and influence by the bourgoise through the subsidy of the criminal class’s shafting of the lower classes. Even fewer would be able to describe the fall of Detroit in such terms.

        Furthermore, the Left almost certainly *don’t* get it, and that is the audience to whom MM was pitching his latest speil.

  13. The recent election in the UK offered a choice between Tony Blair (Tory), Tony Blair (Libdem) – and Gordon Brown (ex-Tony Blair – Lab). Given that choice, 40% of the electorate didn’t bother!

    In the US presidential election the choice was between a middle aged man with absolutely no experience and a guy who should have been at home with his grandchildren. Difficult choice, but I wouldn’t vote for the old guy – he is the same age as me.

    So the problem isn’t the electorate – it’s the politicians and I don’t know how to solve the problem. Perhaps a start could be made with an age limit for presidents and prime ministers. Say 45-70.

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