Eternal Vigilance or Perpetual Motion Liberty?

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March 27, 2008

Rothbardian anarchism has played a central role in the development of my understanding of human action. The state is the central antagonist of history, and most other antagonists mimic the state. The state appears stable because it attacks any potential institution or ideology that might reduce dependency on the state. However, the state is not stable long term, because its very nature is to grow and consume its host society, but create nothing from itself. While there are certainly times when states are undefeatable from the outside, there will eventually come times for every state where its predations weaken it to a point where it will die.

By contrast, a stateless libertarian society does not have the state's internal apoptosis design. A period of decline and death of a state leaves the opportunity for either a new state to develop or a free society to form without a state. The latter option is all the more difficult to establish when neighboring states always act to reimpose a new state so as to avoid competing with a free society. But eventually, the right combination of hard work in educating with libertarianism, desire to be free, a dying or dead state, and dying, dead, or weak neighbor states would allow the formation of a free society which outside states are no longer able to destroy. Just by statistical chance over time, eventually an alignment of these recurring conditions would allow a libertarian society to develop the size that outside forces could not destroy it. Then with time the neighboring states dissolve by being unable to compete and a successful free society exponentially increases world knowledge of the reality of a free society. Medieval Iceland and Somalia today offered slight previews but were too small relative to outside forces to start a perpetual libertarian society.

I have thought as above most of my Rothbardian life, but now I see the last paragraph as a major oversimplification through which I weakened both the case for and the means to get to a free society.

Selling oneself into slavery

In The Ethics of Liberty, Rothbard presents selling oneself into slavery as a logical impossibility because of the "inalienability of the will." The will may be inalienable, but a contractual obligation certainly is not "inalienable." Rothbard would reject a contract worded thusly: "I hereby sell myself into slavery to Smith Co. in return for subsistence living and three lottery tickets per week." However, consider this case. Joe A. Gambler is given a one million dollar line of credit at 20% interest at the casino. He gambles it all until he has one million in debt, and just the monthly interest is more than his attainable monthly income. He is bankrupt, and if Rothbardian contractual debt obligations are enforceable in a meaningful sense, then the casino has very significant rights on the control of how Joe gets to spend his income, how much leisure he gets, and how much he must work. Joe has become a de facto slave.

Rothbardians miss this essential problem. People are advertised, persuaded, brainwashed, conned, Ponzi schemed, schooled, and more to convince them to sell themselves into virtual slavery. It is not a non-issue, it is a central issue. Living by debt is walking on a wobbly fence when falling on the wrong side is slavery. Call debt slavery merely de facto slavery if you will, but if it looks like a dead fish and smells like a dead fish, then why treat it other than like a dead fish? Notice how important thrift and debt avoidance was to Thoreau in the first half of Walden. He noticed that, like today, people would sell themselves into debt for superficial luxuries in housing when one could build an acceptable structure without debt. For those who say it cannot happen, I say rather, don't let it happen.

Heinlein presented an idea that slavery is imposed on people by societies on the frontiers in Citizen of the Galaxy and Between Planets, and for years as a Rothbardian I disagreed. Heinlein's argument has significant limits if taken broadly, but here is an example of how it is true. One party, say MineTown Inc. offers jobs to people to come work for it on its island. It provides housing, recreation and entertainment, stores, and many needs and wants. The salaries seem excellent and many people take the offer. The relocation requires purchasing a house on the island on credit, but all seems fine at first. MineTown provides for all foods and essentials, and as they are on private property on a frontier, no competing stores are allowed. Then MineTown Inc. says they have a duty to their shareholders to maximize share value. They raise the price of foods to the point where no one can ever pay off the debt owed to MineTown, and it stops providing transportation off the island to anyone in debt. Natural monopoly plus opportunity available through ignorance or trust creates absolute monopoly. Game over. Nominal libertarianism can by such become de facto authoritarianism.

Is it necessary to take the above thought experiment and find examples of historical mine towns to prove it can happen? Just look into the conditions in present day Dubai . Thousands of migrant workers are stuck in the problem of arriving by debt contract, and are then unable to afford both basic necessities and also save for the money to leave.

The state as we know it has originated not like the above, but through war and conquest. But should we call a situation as above that acts just like a state would a free society? If we claim to be only anti-state, then maybe not. But I am not only anti-state. I am pro-liberty, I am pro-freedom, and I am anti-deception and anti-self-deception. I am hostile to means and methods that can enslave us even by agreement or contract. If other people are content with that slavery, I want to convince them otherwise.

In conclusion, Rothbardian libertarianism could allow de facto slavery and totalitarianism. If people are further encouraged to trust the market without question, then Rothbardians could increase the moral hazard of being suckered by deceptive businesses like MineTown Inc. Liberty is not a perpetual motion engine started with the fall of the last state. Guard it with eternal vigilance, seek it continuously, and never trust that all options on a market are automatically in your best interest. Otherwise, an imbalance of economic power would naturally develop into political power. Even if the market allows "natural monopolies" to develop, libertarians should actively distrust them and attempt to limit their power over a society. Decentralized technology should be preferred over centralized methods. Businesses and methods which spread wealth among many should be preferred over those that concentrate it among few. This is all an extension of self government. Let state governments not exist and non-state voluntary governments/cooperatives/organizations/societies remain as limited as possible.

This is another reason why voting is dangerous. Even if done in a nominal free and libertarian society, voting imposes the will of a majority on a minority. This is why many effective small groups seek consensus rather than majority opinion. The larger the group, the less that can be done by consensus. The less done by consensus, the easier to justify imposition on the minority. Since large societies don't expect consensus, they seek to create the strongest possible coalition of 51%, and that strength is built only at the expense of the minority.

I hope to make this an occasional series of articles on issues on which the libertarian movement is insufficiently vigilant. Perhaps this is an internal challenge to the libertarians. No more preaching to the choir, time to spank them. Feel free to email thoughts, as there are probably areas where I am insufficiently vigilant as well. Here are concepts and cases for further work and brainstorming that I believe libertarians as a movement have not addressed properly: bankruptcy in libertarian theory, degrees of excludability of private property, defining conditions (and by whom?) of abandonment of land, information/ignorance exploitation, regulatory capture and vendor lock-in, Microsoft and the BSA, Acton's motto, the impartiality of justice, and Nozickian anarchism vs. Heinlein's anarchism.

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Lysanders Ghost's picture
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Lysander's Ghost has degrees in math and economics, a wife, and five kids.  Besides agorist free-market anarchism, he promotes a Weston Price Foundation approach to nutrition and health, plays guitar, and loves progressive rock/metal.  A long term goal is to finish a SF book in the style of Heinlein.  You can visit his blog here.