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.