Libertarianism is the New Abolitionism
Readers may take exception to the emotional tone and confrontational nature of this website’s criticism of ‘the state’.But the cause of liberty must be based on calling the state out as a moral evil as well as an unsound project.
I have written over fifty posts on www.awah.uk since I started at the beginning of the lockdowns and the tyrannical ‘new normal’ last spring. I had already started to write a book about the pro-liberty challenge to the western political status quo. Its chapters formed the basis of many of my longer posts here explaining Austrian School economists’ critique of modern economic theory and in particular modern banking practices. Little did I know how rapidly the crisis would be upon us.
People who are broadly sympathetic nevertheless tell me that I might have more influence if I moderate my tone and expression. I use words which make me seem angry. I describe the actions of people acting under the protection of the state as being contrary to basic moral principles – which in fact they are. This does not sit well with the preconceptions of many. We live in a society saturated with quasi-religious narratives about the state being a moral and practical good – rather than being more akin to an association of leeches.
The purpose of this site is to promote the idea of establishing free, non-state (or at least minimal-state) societies. That seems to me the long-term way forward. Indeed, as long as the worship of the modern state survives, we will all be at risk of extinction. Only with no state will we be free of our bloated military and arms maker establishments devoted to nuclear brinkmanship, fearmongering and, ideally (from their point of view), endless war.
Populations that don’t learn to distrust the state, and the unlikeable individuals who use it to profit at others’ expense, will be doomed to suffer cycles of state failure and collapse. One such cyclical upset is upon us now. Many more people are now looking for other answers. Progress, if not survival, is going to depend on preparing the ground for life after the state as we know it. It is time for an uncompromising promotion of liberty.
Otherwise, the anti-liberty pro-state people are going to have everything their own way.
THE STATE IS MOVING TOWARDS AUTHORITARIANISM AND FAILURE
The dissemination of socialist ideas in the 19th century began the rot undermining the classical liberal consensus. But it was Hitler and Mussolini who laid the groundwork a century ago for what states in the West have actually become. Importantly, President Roosevelt explicitly based his New Deal in 1930s America on Mussolini’s 1920s fascist economy in Italy, which is one reason for the New Deal’s decade long failure to end the Great Depression. Corporatist America was the last man standing in 1945 and became the model for all in the post war era.
Hitler explained, in his book ‘My Struggle’ (Mein Kampf 1925), that the best way to achieve the basic socialist goal of total control of the population was not formal expropriation, as practiced by the Russian socialists. Instead, the Fascist aim was to gradually undermine people’s personal and property rights through ever-increasing regulation, always apparently justified by allegedly promoting public wellbeing.
Western countries have been slowly but surely converted into soft-fascist states with an ever-thinner veneer of democratic representation. The presence of basically identical two-party monopolists in the USA and Britain, and the impossibility of voting at all for or against the officials ruling the EU, greatly reduce the plausible scope for democratic redress. Those who believe that the state’s right to engage in theft (‘taxation’) and bullying (‘legislation’) is acceptable because the state is ‘democratic’ need to admit their error. Occasional voting for so-called representatives in legislatures has little effect when compared to the relentless daily pressure exerted by official and corporate vested interests.
The lockdowns are an attack on liberty in the West. Whether preplanned or merely caused by an opportunistic grab by Big Pharma, the WEF and countless mini-Hitler politicians, the new normal is just an authoritarian clampdown. It has been enabled by the widespread prevalence of unviable beliefs and values in the population, including a safety mania which denies risk, let alone death. There have been years of state-funded efforts to discredit traditional notions of family, business, sound money, individual responsibility and even regard for the truth. This has resulted in an authoritarian reluctance to allow people to make their own trade-offs between risk and living.
But the current hasty attack on our freedom is also a sign that ruling groups sense that their grip on power is failing. Over the last few decades, faith in politics and in politicians, and in their allies in the media, paper money banking and what I call ‘corrupt corporates’ (big firms who use state power to feather their nests at popular expense) has been in continuous decline. At the same time the finances of Western states have become unstable, a trend made much worse by the casual crippling of their tax bases during lockdown (see www.awah.uk post ‘Lockdowns are Pushing States into Coffin Corner).
In Britain recorded national income fell by 10% in 2020. To understand the reality of such a loss, one must first take away the statistical fluff of unmarketable state activity which accounts for half of national income. What is left suggests that productive sector activity in Britain fell by as much as a fifth in 2020. Much of this taxpaying activity has closed for good.
France shows the way to perdition. The government sector there has expanded to nearly two thirds of the ‘economy’ relative to a shrinking private sector. That means that the productive sector is only a third of French society. It’s probably less, really, when you consider how many firms are ‘zombies’ (unable to survive without borrowing to pay interest on their debts) and ‘corrupt corporates’ relying on state privilege. It’s not surprising that so many people have unrealistic beliefs when they are paid by the state one way or the other.
Such tiny private sectors are not going to sustain the big-state and its dependents. The short-term expedient is more out-of-control money printing to pad out tax revenues. This must destroy western currencies in a not very distant future (see www.awah.uk post ‘Hyperinflation, Bitcoin, Gold and FIAT Currencies’). When that happens, many will suddenly lose incomes which the state seemly ‘guaranteed’. The scales may well then fall from their eyes.
The Libertarian task will be to help as many people as possible to understand that moving towards liberty is the only way back to renewed prosperity. To achieve this, pro-Liberty advocacy has to go beyond restating the case for pro-market reforms to state policies.
WHY NOT JUST CONCENTRATE ON THE ‘ECONOMIC BENEFITS’ OF LIBERTY?
There is overwhelming evidence that pro-liberty economic policies work well. There is none to suggest that centrally planned socialist economies work at all. The way that Germany’s crippled economy boomed from 1948, when the allies’ economic regulations were scrapped, is just one well-known demonstration. Indeed, the post-WWII boom up until 1970 can be seen as a result of undoing a lot of harmful earlier government intervention.
So why don’t I abandon my attack on the morality of the state and stop upsetting otherwise reasonable people by proposing its abolition? It seems more reasonable to focus on rolling back and amending misguided policies to increase economic growth.
This is in essence what the original, and excellent, Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in Britain has been doing since the 1960s, and other similar think tanks here and abroad, especially in the USA. These think tanks would describe themselves as classical liberal or even libertarian supporters of a smaller state, similar to many conservative thinkers.
And they have had many successes around the world. Most notably in Britain, many of Mrs. Thatcher’s liberalising policies, including the hitherto impossible notion of privatising nationalized industries, were ideas borrowed from the IEA by her ally Sir Keith Joseph. The result of her limited move towards free markets was a noticeable revival of British prosperity and morale in the 1980s and 1990s. The education programs and campaigns run by the IEA, and by the Mises Institutes in the US, Brazil and elsewhere, have indeed raised awareness of free market economic ideas that are not well taught in state funded academia.
FREE MARKET THINK TANKS ARE NOT ENOUGH TO ESTABLISH LIBERTY
And yet it has not been enough. Freedom is losing in the West. Our institutions have been taken over by extreme statists. To be fair there are many reasons why the current consensus in favour of the modern state has been so hard to shift. It is underpinned by propaganda, (un-enlightened) self-interest and status-quo bias – which will all be addressed in my next post.
But the growing pro-liberty community has also been fighting with one arm tied behind its back. The problem is the split in the pro-liberty camp between small-state classical liberals on the one hand, and absolutist no-state property rights libertarians (or anarcho-capitalists) on the other.
WHATS WRONG WITH PROMOTING CLASSICAL LIBERALISM?
Classical liberals hark back to the success of 18th and 19th century Britain and America when small minorities of propertied voters ensured taxes remained low and property rights were respected. They believe the state has a legitimate role in protecting citizens from external and internal aggressors – i.e. providing ‘defense’ and ‘justice’. And maybe providing some ill-defined so-called ‘public goods’. This is the position of conservative ‘free-marketeers’.
Statists and crypto-statists are happy to allot classical liberals a ration of respectability because they are no threat. But Theresa May, the British Prime Minister who tried to obstruct Brexit, went out of her way to attack libertarians in the same breath as terrorists.
Modern classical liberalism has certain weaknesses which limit its appeal. Crucially, it accepts the existence of the state complete with its legalised theft and coercion. But once you allow this privilege to any group of individuals, you lose the opportunity to denounce the state as a moral evil. Classical liberals are therefore reduced to debating which areas of interventionism should be permissible and how they should best be managed.
There is no viable political program for classical liberalism. Re-establishing it would require a return to restricted voting franchises based on wealth. Furthermore, once the state is agreed to be ‘a good thing’, one cannot stop vote-buying politicians ganging up to offer ever more state. One cannot stop the state growing back and destroying classical liberalism.
Classical liberals end up trapped in the matrix of the mixed economy. ‘Essential’ services such as health, education, defense and justice, and transport and energy ‘infrastructure’ belong in the state’s elevated ambit. The less respectable private sector can get on with mundane ‘inessential’ activities such as clothing, groceries, hospitality and travel. Unsurprisingly it is the areas with most state involvement that work worst, but are harder to reform, though the IEA and others have made sterling efforts in these areas.
The cognitive effort required of IEA or other think tank participants, and indeed of reform minded politicians, to suggest detailed changes in each economic sector is very great. I may have getting on for 100 IEA publications about various industries of the highest standard on my shelves. But rationality is often inadequate to overcome opposition from vested interests created by government policies. Success in each case may demand inordinate expenditure of political capital for little immediate return. It is a lot of effort.
There is too the little problem that in the sphere of defense and justice, which classical liberals so unwisely concede to the state, it has performed so badly. It’s an undeniable fact that by far the majority of violent deaths in the last century were caused directly or indirectly by governments, often in the name of ‘justice’ or ‘defense’.
Private sector killing in contrast has been on an altogether more modest scale. And much if not most of that has been the work of violent gangs created by the ‘war on drugs’ and other ill-judged state ‘justice’ initiatives.
Lastly, let’s not forget the corruption that even the classical liberal republic entails. Once installed, elected representatives have often ignored their promises. They succumb to the allure of donors and vested interests. As the 19th century’s Lord Acton said, power corrupts (and famously ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’). One undeniable virtue of free, stateless, societies is that they would prevent sociopaths and normal mortals alike from experiencing the temptations of political power.
PROMOTING LIBERTY AS AN ABOLITIONIST CAUSE
A better way to promote the cause of free stateless societies, at least until working examples appear and convince people by force of superior example, is to denounce the state both as a moral evil, as well as a recipe for warfare, poverty and failure.
We have done nothing to deserve having no legal redress against those benighted individuals who abuse us in the name of the state. The state has no real claim to political authority over us. It is not inherently legitimate. It is ultimately based on one or more instances of violent conquest. Nor is it based on any kind of meaningful consent, still less anything resembling a proper contract.
We have got to the point where most productive people are working half the time for no reward – because of taxation – and much of the time they are coerced under the threat of violence. This is akin to slavery or serfdom and must be addressed as an evil, as was slavery itself, calling for immediate abolition, even though in practice progress was likely to be slow and indeed the last slave state in the west, Brazil, lasted until 1888.
THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY AND THE LIBERTARIAN CAUSE
As standards rose in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, previously accepted institutions began to be challenged. Just as people had assured themselves that ‘the poor you will always have with you’ – when it was steadily ceasing to be true – so they had taken the age-old institution of slavery to be a natural part of the world.
And an economically central part of the New World. European settlement of the Americas was based on enforced labour - African plantation slavery production of tropical commodities, especially sugar, or precious metals mining by unfree Amerindians in Mexico and the ex-Incan Andes. Even the northern American colonies were engaged in feeding the Caribbean sugar islands.
People, as a rule, consider that whatever is done in their society is right, however odd their ways may seem to outsiders. This ‘status quo bias’ is a principal reason why most people resist the idea of scrapping damaging state institutions. Slavery too was just as actively supported by many of the great and the good.
And yet a small minority of people began to suggest its abolition. They decided, correctly as any libertarian must agree, that slavery is a moral evil. Slavery means somebody else owns you and so it can never be acceptable to libertarians who believe above all in self-ownership. The Abolitionists attacked slavery as a moral evil – rather than some kind of sub-optimal economic arrangement.
When one points out that owning another human being is immoral, just like using state power to justify theft and bullying is immoral, one instills strong feelings of discomfort in people who are often likeable and well intentioned. People in both cases could find it hard to square their acceptance of their society’s arrangements with the possibility that, deep down, they just ain’t right. It demanded a lot of courage all round to achieve the goal, and it took a long time, but the abolition of slavery in the West worked out in the end.
For more on the similarities between slavery and state abolitionism, and the courage needed to promote both, here is a link to an interesting, and short, Tom Woods podcast:
COURAGE, EMOTION AND THE CRISIS OF THE WESTERN STATE
I don’t actually like making people feel uncomfortable, quite the contrary, but I think my basically sympathetic critics are reacting uneasily to a core feature of the pro-liberty cause as I believe it will have to be promoted in the long term. The state, as we have known it, is coming down. The globalist ideal of technocratic tyranny cannot save it. An alternative is needed. If we are lucky, for some at least, it will be stateless liberty. After all what’s to dislike about the idea that people should be allowed to live their lives as they see fit?
A just cause draws on emotional energy. It is said that there are just four basic emotions; anger, sadness, fear and joy. The prevailing belief in the authoritarian state, just as it is letting people down so badly, gives rise to them all in its opponents. There is anger that the state denies people the right to live life as they see fit, fear about what may happen, and sadness about the suppression of human flourishing. And there is just a little bit of joy at the prospect of the state’s replacement by something better.
Resistance is not futile, but it will not be simple. I will leave the last word to Professor Dumbledore:
‘Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we will all face the choice between what is easy and what is right.’