Good People working for the State?
Updated: Oct 27, 2020
Libertarianism is an attempt to think through how to have a social order which is wholly based on cooperating voluntarily with your fellow human beings.
Libertarianism is an attempt to think through how to have a social order which is wholly based on cooperating voluntarily with your fellow human beings. It’s meant to be friendly and constructive. People are understood to be generally good, but not that good and not all the time. We are not utopians.
The State is understood to be a criminal association by libertarians because it claims the right to threaten other people with violence without its victims being able to seek legal redress. The criminal association includes plenty of people in the so-called private sector who seek to live better through state coercion. People who have made careers in state dominated activities may feel a little aggrieved but they shouldn’t. The Libertarian analysis is about all the counter-productive institutions and practices that are based solely on the state’s unwarranted legal privilege.
So a key message is that you are not automatically a bad person if you work for the state or a state privileged entity or occupation. There may well be dysfunctional set-ups which can have excellent people working hard to keep them going. It is not personal. On the other hand, your moral position next to a person who is living entirely through voluntary exchange, and not indirectly on the proceeds of violence, is problematic. It is not on the face of things superior.
Libertarianism is at bottom an ethical system. A key Libertarian text is ‘Ethics of Liberty’ by Murray Rothbard. It sets out the legal principles and rules to be derived from the Libertarian view that we are all entitled to live our lives and dispose of our justly acquired property, as we see fit. Nobody may directly attack or threaten to attack other people or their property. As a first approximation this is the non-aggression principle (NAP) again. Behind it though is a Natural Law tradition stretching back to Thomas Aquinas. Everyone should be equal before a simple ethical based law administered without favour.
The fact that Libertarianism is an ethical system means that expressions like ‘extortion’, ‘coercion’, ‘stealing’ and ‘bullying’ are appropriate and not out of place. Anyone who threatens violence against people is a criminal, whether he is a robber or a tax official. There is an economist term called ‘Rent Seeking’ which more polite and respectful. But t still means the same thing – benefiting from the coercive force of the state to feather your own nest, for example by stealing, or loading unnecessary costs onto competitors or consumers.
As well as being wrong on principle, these scams and rackets are damaging. They make almost all productive people of us poorer and less secure. State-privileged individuals do things which, if we did them, would land us in court and jail because they are illegal, and wrong. Wrong actions include:
- Taxation, which is forcing people to give you resources in the absence of any specific agreement. This is demanding money with menaces, robbery or theft.
- Using licensing requirements to maintain a closed shop such as medicine, accountancy or law.
- Banks creating money out of thin air to permit unfair something-for-nothing or win-lose transactions with producers. This is forgery, counterfeiting or fraud, against workers and savers.
- Borrowing money when you plan to reduce its value by inflation before repayment. This is a fraud.
- Making war, often with conscripted soldiers. This is murder, arson and criminal destruction, and with conscription it is kidnapping.
The problem is in part historical. Pre-industrial societies were based on hierarchies where the most noble and respected layers of the social cake had huge incomes based on stealing from poverty-stricken peasants, serfs or slaves. In other words, societies really were networks of protection rackets. It had stunted undercapitalised business sectors and sky-high interest rates. These went with desperate poverty and the likelihood of expropriation. Such states were always derived ultimately from conquest.
Now we have societies living well because they are sustained by voluntary co-operation between, in particular, suppliers of labour and of capital. But there is still a perceptible tendency to look down on productive men and women on the part of the historic establishment and, not least, an element of public sector snobbery. We are hoping for a future where everyone’s sense of self-worth or of contributing to society is based on successfully co-operating with other people for mutual benefit.