• Alan Stevens - AWAH - Libertarianism, Freedom.

Roe v Wade, Decentralisation and Voluntarism

Instead of individuals opting out of the state, why not radical decentralization of government to local communities? Local people could pick n’ mix their desired level of state activity. The US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade may pave the way.

Recently I wrote a post, ‘Consent and Opting Out of the State’, about how governments claim that people consent to their rule. There was meant to be a mystical ‘social’ contract between the rulers and the ruled. John Locke, an important political philosopher at the time of the crucial Glorious Revolution of 1688, read into this notional contract the state’s agreement to guarantee basic legal protections, which reappeared a century later in the United States’ Bill of Rights, i.e. the first ten amendments to the US Constitution.

These rights amount to what libertarians identify as property rights in one’s self and one’s justly acquired possessions. Attacks against property rights contravene the foundational libertarian Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). It was generally understood in the 18th and 19th centuries that property rights were the basis of liberty. This is because, if people cannot prevent their rulers taking their stuff and bullying them, they cannot hold on to any other freedoms either. The Soviet Union had all sorts of constitutionally guaranteed liberties but with only one employer and landowner the individual could not protect himself in reality.

The social contract narrative underpinned a quasi-libertarian regime, described as classical liberalism, in England and America and, with varying degrees of efficacy, in an increasing number of other countries around the world. Without classical liberalism, the explosive growth of the last centuries in activity and living standards would not have happened.

We would have remained in post medieval squalor – which is why all this stuff actually does matter. For more on pre-industrialisation squalor and the wonderfulness of the Industrial Revolution please click here for the posts ‘Misery & Stagnation in the Agrarian State’, and ‘Liberty’s Triumph, the Industrial Revolution’.

It was easy to demonstrate that the ‘social’ contract is no true contract. And also to show that governments have steadily chipped away at the property rights which they were supposed to protect, making the whole thing null and void. But, as I suggested in my post, a government could redeem itself by giving individuals the right to opt-out of the state in exchange, perhaps, for relatively minor payments for roads and ‘defence’.

With people able to opt-out of the state in situ, without having to emigrate to free societies abroad, which don’t yet exist, the UK government would be justified in claiming that those people who ‘opted-in’ did in fact consent to rule by the British state. Libertarians would then have no complaint to make.

Since governments are fundamentally predatory, they will never allow an internal opt-out of their own free will. It’s also easy to see that the tax base, especially many of the more productive and valuable families, would opt-out. The state would be revealed as simply a coalition of dysfunctional looters, and as a bankrupt.

Both realisations are spreading rather rapidly anyway among the better-informed sectors of society. Western states are shaking themselves apart in an unavoidable crisis of centralized power analogous to the collapse of the similarly unviable, and technocratic, Soviet Union.

I missed a trick in the earlier post by failing to talk about other form of ‘opt-out’ which is more practicable, has occurred often in history, and may be the only realistic way forward in the years ahead.


That form of opting out is local decentralization. The easiest and quickest way to deregulate a society is for one geographical area to leave (or ’secede from’ to use the official term) the control of an existing state. July 4th in the USA is simply a celebration of a spectacularly successful secession, during which the constraints of the British State just fell away.

But internal decentralization into local geographical areas may be less disruptive and more manageable than outright secession. The bigger a state is, the more likely it is to include communities that do not have the same political views and aspirations. Buying off and managing these divergent communities becomes increasingly taxing.

America and the EU appear to be over-centralised, and to be increasingly unstable. The USA is divided between relatively statist ‘Blue’ states and (somewhat) more liberty-minded ‘Red’ states. The EU also includes communities with radically different identities and political traditions. And just like America, different areas of the EU either depend on statist financial transfers or resent paying for them.

Perhaps the only way of keeping any kind of union together may be to decentralize to local communities and farm out practically everything the central state currently does. People could move internally to and from ‘Blue’ and ‘Red’ areas to live in high or low tax and regulation societies. Even small variations in tax burdens and regulatory regimes already drive a lot of migration between US states. People are pouring into Florida, the bastion of resistance to the Covid bio-medical tyranny. It is aiming to supplant Wall Street as a financial centre, and to become the tenth largest economy in the world. It seems to be on the way to achieving both targets.


Perhaps the recent US Supreme Court decision overturning its ‘Roe v Wade’ decision is a positive harbinger of things to come. In Roe v Wade the Court had cobbled together a justification for US Federal Government making laws concerning abortion for the whole country. But in the Constitution the policing power is clearly retained by the States.

Far from being a decision to make abortion easier or harder or whatever, the new state of affairs once again just enables states with different views to enact more or less liberal or restrictive laws. Roe v Wade caused decades of anger and division in American politics. A one-size-fits-all centralized approach will always annoy both sides of a political divide. It will always be too much for one group and not enough for the other.

Once things have calmed down, we can hope that tensions on this issue will diminish as public opinion in each state guides the enactment of laws which mesh with local views.

There are other misconceived federal interventions which are based on what are now judged to be the faulty constitutional foundations erected by Roe v Wade. Significant decentralization could occur in the USA over time ‘automatically’ as these other precedents are overturned. It would at least be moving in the right direction.

Just think what might be achieved if all the federal bureaucracies were broken down and hived off to the states. Some states might expand them. Some others might scrap them. It would be their choice. But with any luck people could then choose to live where they felt comfortable. Crucially they could do so peacefully without running the risk of civil war and breakdown which secession often entails. Washington could revert to managing an enormous militia-driven, mutual-defense union, just as the founding fathers envisaged.

If radical decentralization is not tried in the USA and the EU, then secessions and/or revolutions will be on the menu in the next few years.


The reader may by now be thinking something like “Alan, for someone who is supposed to be in favour of everyone moving towards free, non-state societies, you seem remarkably chilled out about a world in which many or most communities remain pretty statist?”.

Yes. Here is the point. Libertarians, and to varying degrees their de-facto allies among social conservative and traditional left-wing voters, don’t want to impose their views on others. Other people must be free to cluster in ‘Progressive’ high-tax Nanny State jurisdictions. If that is what makes them genuinely happy, why not?

Just leave us alone. The simple fact that the modern state, and its ethically challenged supporters, just have to use force to make us accept their plans for us puts them, a priori and automatically, completely in the wrong.

It’s not an argument about prosperity or what works spiritually, philosophically or anything else. I would personally like to live in a society where nobody – no official in particular - has the legal right to attack me or take my stuff. Bizarrely, most people disagree vehemently with my view. Fine, they can all get together to live that way instead, if they want to.


Of course, it’s obvious to us libertarians why ‘voluntarism’ works. Indeed, libertarianism may be rebranded as ‘voluntarism’, or indeed ultra-decentralization. All dealings between people should be voluntary. There should be no legal coercion, other than in enforcing court restitution orders. People will cooperate with each other only when all parties believe they benefit. Indeed, they will only do things that they believe are the most beneficial known practicable uses of their (always limited or ‘scarce’) time and resources.

It's a far cry from being bossed around to suit the agendas of parasitic officialdom. Under voluntarism there can be no ‘exploitation’. A coercive state is needed to enable exploitation, which can be defined as compulsory ‘I win, you lose’ arrangements.

Obviously, genuinely free societies will have the incentives, information and freedoms to continuously refine and improve social cooperation of all kinds. That’s why Classical Liberalism was such a success, before the regrowth of the state in the 20th century stifled it, and that’s why future societies based on these principles will be attractive places to live.

This does really matter. The degree to which prosperous societies can be rebuilt will depend entirely on whether people really understand this.

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