If You Don't Like It, Leave!'


This is an exclamation I've heard on innumerable occasions when I have debated the merits of a fully free society. 'So, you consider taxation a form of confiscation, even extortion? You think regulations are petty tyrannies? Well, you can go live somewhere else. You can't really complain, then. We have decided to collect taxes and that's the end of the story, or to impose zoning laws or affirmative action or bans on smoking or drug abuse. So, love it or leave it.'

These kinds of retorts are often put to those who think that all payments we make ought to be voluntary, all rules we obey must be ours to choose and the only laws that are just and need no consent from us are those that codify and organize self-defense and retaliation. The puzzle is why would this line of thinking be so widespread even in America where the ideals that supposedly guide public policy concern unalienable rights everyone is supposed to have?

One problem is that many people think of human societies as if they were clubs we decided to join at one point and once we become disenchanted with the club's ways, we can just cancel our membership. But this analogy is a bad one.

Clubs are themselves features of social life. It is from within a society that people join clubs, form corporations or partnerships, establish churches, get married and so forth. The questions of community life or politics are not about what may or may not happen within such associations one is normally free to either join or not, and when one does join to leave on certain agreed terms or not. The question as to what a human community or political system should be like is quite different. That issue has to do with the basic, constitutional features of life among human beings as human beings, not as club members, corporate associates, parishioners, spouses and so on. It is to this question that political, economic, or constitutional theorists and the like have addressed themselves. What exactly is a society supposed to be like to be suitable to human life as such? This is not about some special form of human life such as athletics, commerce, academics or religious. It is about human community life, period.

Such a question arises before the more particular questions about special communities can even begin to arise. For example, if it turns out that the answer to this initial question includes a prohibition of slavery, then it will also follow that any particular or special community within society may not include the enslavement of people. Or if it turns out that the answer to the basic question of politics is that a society must involve full equality of all of its members, than no club or church or university will fit within a just society that fails to ensure such equality.

So, then, what is it that a proper human community, fit for inhabitation of flourishing by human beings just as human beings, should be like? And here those who champion individual rights to life, liberty and property maintain that such a society may never, for any purpose, involve any coercive actions and policies. In our concern about the basic, constitution principles of a human community, what is crucial is that human nature is as fully accommodated as possible. Human nature consists, fundamentally, of our capacity to freely choose our conduct and so be responsible for how we have chosen to act. No obligations may be imposed on us other than to refrain from destroying the liberty of others in society, including their liberty to live, act and pursue their goals, or to produce for themselves and their loved ones what their lives require. It is this answer to the question of politics that precludes such policies as confiscating people's belongings, conscripting them into involuntary servitude, censoring their ideas, regimenting their way of life, and so forth.

So, when it is noticed that the basic principles, the laws, of one's community do not respect such prohibitions, the retort to that cannot reasonably be, 'Well, then just go live somewhere else? We have decided that such confiscation is perfectly OK.' This is reasonable about a club, from which one can withdraw and still enjoy one's liberty in the wider society if, indeed, it is a free one. But if the wider society is like a club and one must leave it in order to be free, where is one to go? The task of political thought it to come up with a framework for community life the principles of which would not require any human being to leave so as to live a bone fide, unhindered human life. (Moreover, if whatever 'we' decide to do is OK, so long as 'we' decide to do it, what if 'we' decide to prohibit leaving the place, as the Soviet bloc countries did, routinely?)

In a just human society the basic principles need to be adhered to and protected and it is no defense of their violation that, well, you can always leave. That is a confession that the society is, in fact, unjust.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.