Libertarianism and the Collective
By Duncan Whitmore
“Liberty means the right to shape your own institutions. It opposes the right of those institutions to shape you simply because of accreted power or gerontological status.”
– Karl Hess1
The libertarian ethic of non-aggression preserves the sovereignty of the individual – that no other person, or group of persons acting in concert, may initiate a physical incursion against your body or against the objects that comprise your property. In this sense you are, permanently, a free and independent being. On the other hand, it is an undeniable aspect of human history that we have grouped ourselves together into various forms of collective – states, nations, communities, congregations, businesses, families and so on – and that these collectives have taken on purposes and characteristics of their own that have served to subordinate the individual to the collective. Indeed, the meanings of these identities – their history, their traditions, their culture, and so on – and the passion that they can arouse suggests that they are far more than the sum of their individual parts. Take, for example, the unique splendour of the Lake District; the stirring words of the hymn “Jerusalem”; the pomp and circumstance of the Trooping of the Colour; or even something as straightforward as sitting in a pub with a pint of beer or munching on fish and chips. All of these things can arouse an overwhelming sense of pride for England and all things English. Surely these things are much greater than and should not be expected to yield to the whims of any one mere individual Englander, particularly when most of them have been around for centuries before him?
It is often asserted by critics of libertarianism that the ubiquitous presence of collectives – which may, if only superficially, be characterised as a part of human nature – is at odds with the individuality of the libertarian doctrine. Each and every one of us is born into at least one of these collectives and we enter and exit various others throughout the course of our lives. The ethos of each of them as well as their customs and traditions is engrained into all of us and sometimes it appears as though we have little choice but to accept them. Is it the case that libertarians have ignored something so pervasive and seemingly so necessary for human flourishing?
A corollary of this anti-communitarian interpretation is the characterisation that libertarianism (as well as its adjuncts of capitalism and the free market order) is necessarily selfish and self-centred – that the only thing that matters is the maximisation of benefits to the individual ego. One of the more recent high profile critics in this regard has been Pope Francis who, having outlined what he thinks are the premises of libertarianism, reaches the conclusion that it is “radicalization of individualism” and “therefore anti-social”.2 Unfortunately, libertarians and classical liberals have often served to fan these flames. One may debate the precise meaning of the eponymous concept in Ayn Rand’s “The Virtue of Selfishness”.3 Nevertheless, in an era where there is a propensity to judge a book by its cover (and even greater propensity to misunderstand its contents) it may not have been helpful for the high priestess of a philosophy of freedom to emblazon such a blunt title in print. In addition, a bigger problem tends to come from less exalted advocates of libertarianism who present only a crude understanding of the subject and have the intellectual fervour to take its components only at face value. For example, the present author once heard a respected libertarian academic speak of an occasion when a student suggested that team sports were “un-libertarian” owing to the fact that participation in the team served to subordinate the individual to the collective. While the anecdote may be apocryphal and demonstrates an extreme level of misunderstanding, the view recounted is simply the logical conclusion of some of the lesser errors that abound.
The task of this essay will be to demonstrate that the existence of collectives, the human propensity to associate and their derivative characteristics that appear to grant collectives a life and soul of their own present no problem whatsoever to libertarianism. In fact, the ability to appraise different collectives, to assess their varying qualities and to act as passionate advocates for certain types of collective are important tools in assisting libertarians to bring about a world that most closely resembles their ideal.
Before beginning this task, we might as well point out the necessity for there to be at least some kind of social realm in order for any theory of interpersonal ethics (not just libertarianism) to appear in the first place. It is true that the libertarian ethic of non-aggression is an axiom and applies regardless of the substance of specific human choices; the tendency of humans to associate with each other, on the other hand, is a datum of history and need not necessarily occur. In other words, it is neither physically nor psychologically impossible for everyone to choose to live an atomistic existence devoid of contact with other human beings. Such an outcome is merely unlikely on account of the tumultuous drop in the standard of living that would occur as a result. If such a choice towards an atomistic lifestyle was made we could still say, in an abstract sense, that murder and theft would be wrong. However, there would be no means of publicly understanding, disseminating, acknowledging and respecting boundaries of acceptable action. All conflicts would, therefore, be resolved simply by the victory of the strongest individuals over the weakest. Any attempt to determine, disseminate and apply a system of social rules, either formally or informally, could occur only in an environment of social co-operation – indeed, the clue is in the name social rules. Moreover, such an endeavour is itself a process of social co-operation – a process to which “might makes right” outcomes would be an anathema by definition. Therefore, libertarianism, as much as any other political philosophy, applies only in an environment where there is likely to be some form of collective present. Consequently it is an error to state that libertarianism is opposed to any kind of collective when its relevant application all but has to presuppose them.
Nevertheless, there is a clear difference between the libertarian understanding of the collective and the statist understanding of the same concept. This difference is, moreover, not a particularly difficult one to grasp and, thus, there is no warrant for alleging that liberatarianism implies some kind of polar dichotomy between the individual and the collective.
The libertarian understanding of the collective is that individuals partake in social co-operation and form associations (such as families, businesses, congregations, teams, tribes, nations and so on) because those vehicles serve as means for better serving their own ends as appraised in the minds of those individuals. Their lives and what is important to them are served better, in their own view, by being a member of the collective. The rules, restrictions and other vicissitudes that the members of each collective are required to observe – i.e. the extent to which the individual “subordinates” himself to the collective – are endured only because the partaking individuals feel that the benefit gained from doing so outweighs the cost. For example, I may adhere to my workplace dress code of wearing a suit and tie, even though I prefer the comfort of a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, because the relative discomfort of wearing a suit and tie is outweighed by the benefit of the wage that is paid to me. A husband and wife may agree to divide the burden of household chores, even though they may each prefer to be doing something else like watching TV, because the increased comfort and amiability in the family home is a greater benefit than being entertained by Sky. I will turn up to my football club’s match which is scheduled for 6pm even though I may prefer the later time of 7pm because if I don’t get there at 6pm I will miss the game.
The collective in the libertarian sense is, therefore, a means, or a method, of serving the ends of the individual, and any such collective is ultimately subordinate to the individual. It is not difficult to see why the phenomenon has arisen. Social co-operation under the division of labour creates riches for each individual far in excess of what each person could accomplish if they had to manufacture everything they wanted with their own hands. The organisation of social co-operation into collectives possessing common rules and edicts (and, eventually, cultures and traditions) which aid the fulfilment of the shared understanding of the collective’s purpose allows this to be realised to its fullest extent. Moreover, such collectivisation is a plus sum endeavour because everybody gains through a co-operative enterprise. This is in contrast to the zero sum route of plunder and pillage where the robbers gain at the expense of the victims. We do not need to examine these facts further by elaborating on, say, the productive power of the division of labour – a sufficient understanding of it should be obvious.
Sometimes, the motivation to join a collective is multi-faceted, such as can be seen in the evolution of the family unit. From one perspective, it is clear that each individual believes that he gains from the love and tenderness that is the essence of the family home, as well as from the moral and financial support it brings in times of difficulty. These are likely to form the modern day motivations towards starting a family. However, at least one historical explanation for the emergence of the family (together with the resulting mores of sexual fidelity) argues that it arose to combat the increasing cost of a runaway population that resulted from an environment of “free love” in which men had sexual intercourse with multiple, uncommitted partners and left the latter to raise the resultant offspring. By permitting sex to occur only in wedlock, the family served to make fathers responsible for the cost of bringing up their children, and thus the risk of too many children being born and the concomitant pressure on resources was reduced. Therefore, if a man wished to benefit from the delights of sexual intercourse and procreation, he had to do so through the family unit. This enabled him to avoid the cost of either ostracism or some lesser kind of dismissal from the rest of society that would result if he engaged in such activities otherwise.4 Today, however, with our era of welfare statism and sexual liberalisation, such concerns are (rightly or wrongly) viewed as less pressing. It is no surprise, therefore, that owing to the perception of its decreased benefit to each individual the incidence of the family has begun to decline.
Whether an individual deems himself to be better off by joining a particular collective is determined by his faculty of reason – the ability to evaluate his circumstances and to decide upon the best course of action to fulfil his consciously chosen ends. The question of whether humans gained this ability before or after they were part of some kind of social collective is likely to be a chicken or egg problem. In other words, did the ancestors of humanity herd together in groups while they were no different from other animals; or did they first gain the ability to reason and then make the conscious choice to form social groups? As interesting as this question might be to anthropologists it is unnecessary to answer it for our purposes here. Now that the ability to reason is undeniably present it is more than clear that associations wax and wane in accordance with their capacity to fulfil the needs of individuals – that we each withdraw from associations that we feel are causing us a net cost and subsequently join ones that we feel confer on us a net benefit. A man may divorce his wife and marry another woman if the first marriage is now devoid of love and is characterised by antagonism and hatred; I may quit my job with one company and go to work for another because the latter may promise better pay and conditions than my previous job; companies go bust if they fail to satisfy the needs of their customers while new ones spring up if they offer better products; people move houses, or even emigrate, if one community ceases to offer them the way of life that they prefer; and the political map, the boundaries of sovereignty between nations, has morphed throughout time, admittedly because of war, invasion or conquest in many instances, but also because of secession and devolution in many others.
It is true, of course, that, if a person is born into a collective, or is otherwise already in one, then the comforts and familiarity of this environment may be enough to prevent him from leaving. A dull and monotonous job may be tolerated because of good workplace relationships and an established routine; a relatively unhappy family situation may be endured because the prospect of loneliness seems far worse; and most of us are likely to remain in our country of origin because of the difficulties of learning a foreign language and adapting to a different culture that is far from home. However, knowledge of one’s inside world versus the remoteness of the outside is simply one of the factors that weigh in a person’s mind when assessing the value of any collective. In some circumstances, “better the devil you know” might be the best course of action. In other cases, however, there may be a clear perception that the grass is greener on the other side and that making a change is worth any risk.
The collective as understood by the statist, on the other hand – the type of collective that is typically referred to whenever we speak of “collectivism” – is markedly different. In this kind of collective, the outward appearance of social co-operation is present – everyone is still talking to each other, sweating away at their work, and their efforts are seemingly complementary and mutually dependent. Now, however, the ends to which the individuals are co-operating towards fulfilling are not ends which are perceived to be a benefit for themselves. Rather, they are ends which are deemed to be important to the collective itself. In other words, people co-operate towards some kind of conception of the “greater good” or the “common good” – goals which individuals are expected to sacrifice themselves on the altar of. The labour of each individual, his co-operation with other individuals, and his adherence to the social rules of the collective may still be regarded by him as a cost. But he is now devoid of any outweighing benefit that is appraised by him as a benefit. It is for this reason that socialist economies – the epitome of collectivisation – suffer from an incentive problem and have to threaten to shoot their workers in order for any work to be done.
One corollary of this is that the collective itself is anthropomorphised to the extent that it is, in and of itself, regarded as some kind of conscious entity that has thoughts, feelings, and desires – and that individuals are now a means for serving these elusive thoughts, feelings and desires of the whole rather than vice versa. Any collective may be spoken of as having its own goals and objectives but to the extent that this is true it is only because the individual members of the association have decided from themselves that these goals and objectives are worthwhile and that their pursuit is better served by acting together. The discussion of collectives and their actions by referring only to the name of the collective itself – for example “Barclays Bank earned a profit this year”; “St Luke’s Primary School is putting on a play”; “Liverpool Football Club wants to win the Champions League” – all of these are simply shorthand phrases for describing the shared intentions and co-operative actions of the individuals who partake in each collective. They are not literal statements in the sense that anyone other than an individual who was part of the collective intends to do or actually did anything. As always, the words of Ludwig von Mises encapsulate the matter succinctly:
Individual man is born into a socially organized environment. In this sense alone we may accept the saying that society is logically or historically-antecedent to the individual. In every other sense this dictum is either empty or nonsensical. The individual lives and acts within society. But society is nothing but the combination of individuals for cooperative effort. It exists nowhere else than in the actions of individual men. It is a delusion to search for it outside the actions of individuals. To speak of a society’s autonomous and independent existence, of its life, its soul, and its actions is a metaphor which can easily lead to crass errors.5
Give that collectives do not, therefore, have any kind of independent, conscious thought, what is “good” for the statist collective together with its aims and actions always ends up being determined by what is good in the minds of the collective’s leaders. And quite often, what they mean by this is what they think everyone should regard as being good, or that which is good for themselves rather than what is good for everyone else.6 The individuals who make up the collective are, therefore, relegated to the status of pawns on a giant chessboard. Fundamentally, therefore, statist collectives are vehicles of exploitation – they serve the needs of some people at the expense of others.
The difference between the libertarian and the statist is not, therefore, that the former is an adherent of the Thatcherite cliché “there is no such thing as society” whereas the latter is a passionate advocate of society. It is simply that they have different understandings of what society (or any other collective) is and what it is for. For the libertarian, society and social co-operation is what the individual partakes in so that he may better satisfy his own ends; for the statist, society is something which the individual partakes in to satisfy the same end imposed upon him by the political elite (although few statists acknowledge, or even realise, that this is the logical outcome of their arguments). This statist conception of social co-operation rests on a grave misunderstanding – that co-operation must necessarily be seeking the same, ultimate end. They do not realise that people can co-operate in order to accomplish different things out of the same act of co-operation, which is precisely what people do.
Collectives and Libertarian Strategy
At the opening of this analysis we noted that a proper understanding of collectives and their characteristics would help, rather than hamper, the libertarian seeking to bring about a more libertarian world. In other words, this understanding presents a distinct practical advantage beyond the theoretical resolution of any problems presented by the alleged individualist/collectivist dichotomy. This practical value is that we can assess a wide array of organisations that exist in the world today in order to observe whether they exist primarily to meet the needs of individuals or whether they exist to meet the needs of themselves. If, from this exercise, we can then isolate the unique characteristics of organisations that serve their individual members as well as the characteristics of those that serve themselves, it follows that promotion of the former and denigration of the latter is likely to have an important role in any libertarian strategy.
This possibility is at odds with the view that all collectives are somehow anti-libertarian, a view that is blind to the fact that different types of collective – for example states – vary in the extent to which they suppress the individual. Libertarian theory tells us, of course, that the initiation of all violence is abhorrent and that states, being necessarily violent entities, are all bad in the de jure sense. This purely formal equality leads to the erroneous conclusion that, when it comes to the actual overriding of individual rights, all states are equally competent in achieving this endeavour – in other words, that a state equals a state equals a state. Thus, surveying the world map and seeing that it is populated by nothing but states may cause the budding libertarian to recoil in despair at the apparent hopelessness of the situation. Either that or he may be convinced that the only way to bring about a libertarian world is to follow the unrealistic path of somehow rallying a critical mass of the approximately seven billion people on the planet under the somewhat insipid and uninspiring banner of leaving other people alone. This is not to suggest, of course, that the practice and dissemination of libertarian study and scholarship is not a vital endeavour; merely that, as a practical method of bringing about a world that more closely resembles the libertarian ideal, its use is likely to be limited.
The more realistic view, however, will retain the indictment that states are all bad in the de jure sense but will not draw from this truth the superficial conclusion that they are all equally bad in the de facto sense. For example, the Soviet Union and Hong Kong are both examples of states and, moreover, both are/were marked by relatively restricted democratic rights.7 It goes without saying that the Soviet Union was a collectivist nightmare that condemned tens of millions of its citizens to death while leaving the survivors to languish in misery. On the other hand, it is clear that Hong Kong is nothing like this at all, and that it is more than likely that the citizens of Hong Kong believe that this state serves them to a degree far in excess of how the Soviet Union served the needs of its dead and dying population. There is, therefore, a clear qualitative difference between a state such as the Soviet Union, which leans heavily towards being a statist collective, and a state such as Hong Kong which leans more towards being a libertarian-style collective. Consequently, a viable libertarian strategy would be to try and ensure that the world is populated more by states of the Hong Kong variety and less by states that resemble the Soviet Union. Given that places such as Hong Kong existed before and continue to exist after the lifespan of the Soviet Union the chances of accomplishing this are far from slim.
Therefore, identifying the characteristics that are likely to denote a collective as being “more” or “less” of the libertarian variety of collective is the task to which we shall now turn. For the purposes of clarity in this discussion, it may help if we refer to the libertarian variety of collective as an “association” while reserving the word “collective” for the statist-collectivist version. When referring to either possibility in a neutral sense we will use the word “organisation”.
The Use of Force
First, a collective nearly always needs to use force against the individual to ensure its own survival; an association, on the other hand, merely has to furnish a net benefit in order to persuade the individual to stay. In other words, the survival of a collective depends upon its ability to suppress the desires of the individual; the survival of an association depends upon its ability to satisfy those desires. For libertarians who, of course, subscribe to the non-aggression principle, variations in the use of force is the deciding factor when judging whether an organisation is more like a collective or an association.
At one extreme, a person can enter and exit an association as often he pleases; at the opposite extreme, he is a slave in a collective. The best visualisation of the difference is perhaps provided by George Reisman when he contrasts wage labour on the one hand with slave labour on the other:
The slave is someone who is kept at his work against his will: by chains, whips, and guns – i.e. by physical force applied by other people. In the absence of such things, he would run off. A free worker, on the other hand, is someone who works of his own choice and who, more likely, can be kept from his work only by means of physical force.8
Applying this to our discussion of organisations, we can see that collectives have to shoot at people to keep them in; associations, however, have to shoot at people to keep them out. East Germany, for example, needed to erect the Berlin Wall to stop its productive population from fleeing. On the other hand, if my football club decided that I was no longer welcome then it may have to call the police to eject me if I refuse this dismissal. Even in cases where the situation is not as dire as it was in East Germany, the direction of expatriation – the places where people are running from compared to the places where they are running to – is often an accurate enough short hand for identifying the freest and least free locations on the globe.
Most collectives, rather than threatening to shoot you, will simply make the costs of leaving artificially high. Democratic states, for example, nearly all permit us to emigrate but a number of them levy an expatriation tax for doing so, which may become more onerous the greater your net worth (as in the US). Leaving an association, however, may be either costless, or, more likely, any leaving costs will have been understood as a condition of joining in the first place and are likely to be proportionate to any loss suffered by the remaining members as a result of the departure. If a married couple decides to divorce, for instance, one or the other may have to pay a divorce settlement. However, regardless of the vagaries of the state’s management of family law, this possibility was understood prior to the agreement to marry and the sum paid is likely to reflect the legitimate costs that one’s former spouse will incur (e.g. the costs of raising the children). If I resign from my job part way through the year I may forfeit entirely my right to an annual bonus, even though I may have contributed pro rata to that year’s profit margin. But this penalty was agreed to by me as a term of employment and is a modest cost that reflects the more deserving contributions of those who stay for the whole year.
A corollary of this is that a collective will be characterised by the active enforcement of its rules and edicts; in an association, on the other hand, such enforcement is likely to be the exception rather than the rule. For example, to ensure the payment of income taxes, many states enforce a “withholding tax” (such as the Pay-As-You-Earn system in the UK), in which an employer is required to act as an unpaid tax collector for the government by deducting each employee’s income tax liability from their salary payment before remitting it to the government directly. The implication of this is that the state does not trust the average citizen to declare and pay his/her tax liability accurately. Indeed, it is probably no exaggeration to say that, in the absence of such systems, the vast majority of people either would fail to pay their income tax or would pay the incorrect amount. A withholding tax permits a state’s revenue bureaucracy to concentrate its efforts on fewer and easier targets such as corporations and wealthy individuals, safe in the knowledge that everyone else has been forcibly taken care of. Moreover, deliberate non-payment of taxes can attract criminal liability, whereas the failure to settle a private debt, at least in the absence of fraud, is normally a civil affair.
It is true, of course, that many state laws are obeyed with perfect willingness by the citizenry. However, the incidence of this is only likely to be high where the law is prohibiting an obvious moral abhorrence. Most of us abstain from murdering, raping, and stealing, for instance, not because the state tells us that we should not do these things but because they are inherently evil acts – so evil that the majority of us would still not do them even if there were no repercussions from the state. When, however, state laws are simply arbitrary decrees or, for example, have a prohibitionist intent with regards to the indulgence in alcohol, narcotics, gambling or prostitution, the incidence of compliance is much lower and, consequently, the state must work much harder to secure it. This is why the state is fighting endless drug wars, in which even the confiscation of a large shipment barely makes a dent in the supply.
In an association however, such as the workplace, incidents such as employees arriving late in the morning are likely to be the exception. The benefits of the wage packet are enough to motivate one to turn up on time; the company does not need to send a gang of heavies round to everyone’s house to drag them out of bed each morning. Thus we might summarise by saying that enforcement in an association is by way of incentive towards a good that the association provides; in a collective, it by way of avoiding a bad that the collective will inflict.
Similar to this are the differing responses to transgressions of an organisation’s rules. In an association, exclusion is usually the ultimate sanction – deprivation of the association’s benefits is punishment enough. For lesser offences, proportionate withdrawal of benefits (such as docking pay for late arrival at work) would usually suffice. In a collective, however, the suffering individual may regard leaving as a blessing and, moreover, this may be the aim of his transgression in the first place. Therefore, simply handing over to him on a plate what he wanted anyway would hardly be a worthy punishment. Rather, punishments are administered within the boundaries of the collective. Serious failures to conform, or a level of disobedience that threatens the collective’s ability to operate, are often a leap out of the frying pan into the fire, being met with imprisonment or, in a worst case scenario, death.
The second major difference between an association on the one hand and a collective on the other is that an association is likely to consist of a relatively small number of people whereas a collective is likely to consist of a relatively large number. There are several important reasons why this is so.
First, the individual is a more significant unit vis-à-vis an organisation if the latter is small, and so its ability to defy the desires of its members is curtailed by its relatively weaker power. The opposite is true of a collective – it is able to more easily subjugate the individual to its own desires the bigger it gets.
Second, the larger the scope of an organisation the less likely there is to be any kind of homogeneity or agreement among its members. Consequently, trying to satisfy all of them from policy making at the centre becomes a lot more difficult. This fact owes itself not just to the wider variety of individual tastes and preferences that people happen to have; there is also the fact that if an organisation absorbs more members over a wider geographical area then it finds itself having to deal with a variety of different topographies, climates, resource availabilities and so on. All of these will present their own, unique advantages and challenges which will, in turn, be reflected in the differing needs and desires of the people who have to deal with them. What is appropriate for a coastal community may not be appropriate for a community that is inland; what is right for somewhere hot and sunny may be completely disastrous for somewhere cold and wet; a place that is rich in iron ore may have different requirements from somewhere that has an abundance of oil. As a result, the implementation of any “one-size-fits-all” solutions in a large organisation is bound to be unable to satisfy, or be suitable for, a wide variety of different people faced with specific challenges dictated to them by their environments.
A corollary of this is that a large organisation will find it very difficult to establish and promulgate its own unique culture. This is because cultures and cultural practices did not just spring up randomly as if the choice to embrace them was made in a vacuum. Rather, culture is itself the result of the unique challenges and opportunities presented by each specific location. To take just some basic examples, the Mediterranean practice of taking a siesta in the middle of the day originated because the temperature was too hot to work at that time. Indian food makes use of spices because of the difficulties in preserving food in such a hot climate, a difficulty that was not quite so prevalent in regions further from the equator. The practice of circumcision was born out of the challenges posed to male hygiene and comfort in a hot desert environment. As a society becomes more culturally sophisticated, its unique problems and advantages determine and shape its particular language, morality, philosophy, technology, art, literature, folklore, music, religion, and ritualistic traditions. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why a policy of multiculturalism – to the extent that it tries to mix cultures in places where they did not originate – is so ridiculous, amounting to the sociological equivalent of to trying to put either a jungle or a mountain (or both) in New York City. Consequently, it is all but impossible for a large organisation to create some kind of cultural cohesion when the different natural environments of their members are itching to beget differing cultures and attitudes.
An association, on the other hand, is likely to consist of relatively like minded individuals faced by similar environments which the association can satisfy in similar ways. Consequently its actions are more likely to be tailored towards the needs of each individual. The maximum size of an association is likely to be dictated by the point at which the advantages of economies of scale are overtaken by the disadvantages of remote and centralised decision making. A collective does not have this concern.
The aspect of size seems to be demonstrated by the evidence. If we compare the size of private companies with the size of states, we can see that the largest examples of the former languish in the shadows of state behemoths. The world’s largest private employer is Walmart, which has approximately 2 million employees. There are only two other private employers (McDonalds and China National Petroleum) which each have more than 1 million employees. However, there are at least 140 states – approximately three quarters of the world’s total – which have a population greater than this. China and India together account for a whopping 2.7 billion people – more than a thousand times bigger than Walmart. From this it is not unreasonable to conclude that states are more likely to be collectives whereas private companies are more likely to operate as associations.9
If an association is large then it will normally be characterised by a hierarchical or otherwise divided structure which cedes considerable autonomy to the divisional level. McDonalds, for example, operates largely on a franchising business model; the relative power of the cantons of Switzerland may lead us to suggest that this state as a whole possesses the qualities of an association more than that of a collective. On the other hand, Britain, in spite of its idiosyncratic and bizarre devolvement structure, remains a heavily centralised state, leading us to suggest that this is more like a collective than an association.
The relative size of organisations vis-à-vis each other may not, in and of itself, determine whether each one is an association or a collective; but a disparity in size may cause a relatively larger association to morph into a collective if it is motivated to gobble up smaller or weaker associations too readily. Disparities, or, at least, perceived disparities in size, are a fundamental cause of international conflict.10
The problems of size and relative size can be seen also in the evolution of a corporation from a small start up to a multinational entity. There comes a point when such outfits begin to turn their sights away from satisfying their customers towards gaining legislative and regulatory privileges from states that serve to suppress competition or otherwise protect them from market forces. In other words, the survival of the corporation becomes an end in itself which indicates that it is morphing into a collective. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that the financial services industry and internet giants such as Google and Facebook occupy this grey area.
Similar to the aspect of size is the fact that an association will normally have a clear or specialised purpose to provide for its individual members a limited number of their needs. A supermarket, for example, will sell groceries but not cars; a country club may allow you to play golf or tennis but not football; you can worship in Church but you can’t throw a party in one. Minarchist states, which resemble most closely the libertarian ideal, focus their efforts solely on providing defence, law and order. This is contrast to collectivist states which attempt to provide a wide array of cradle to grave services that cover many aspects of an individual’s existence.
A specialised organisation is more likely to be serving the needs of its members as the scope of agreement between everyone needs to be relatively narrow, viz. limited to what is relevant for fulfilling one or a handful of particular purposes. This is because even in the most ethnically and culturally homogenous of communities there will be differences of opinion on how to meet different ends.11 For example, Bob, John and Sam may have broad agreement with each other on how to arrange cricket matches and so they may all be part of the same cricket club; but they may differ with each other on where and how to arrange hiking expeditions (or one or more of them might not care for hiking at all) and so they will join different hiking clubs. If, on the other hand, the cricket club was to also make decisions concerning hiking expeditions then it is clear that there would be more tension and conflict than if these decisions were handled in some other forum – and the victory of one person’s point of view will be at the expense of another person’s. Obviously this is a relatively trivial example (or perhaps not so trivial to anyone with an experience of village life) but it illustrates the ridiculousness of a large modern state such as Britain or the US requiring everyone’s vote, once every handful of years, to constitute a decision on a wide array of different issues and areas – for example, defence, energy, healthcare, transport, education, housing, social policy, and so on. How a single organisation and its concomitant proliferation of “one size fits all” policies are supposed to account for everyone’s needs in all of these areas is unfathomable, and it is the attempt to enforce them across a wide area encompassing many different kinds of people that leads to conflict and strife. Ironically, it is in large collectives, which statists and socialists advocate as the vehicle for “common purpose” and “co-operation”, that one can witness the starkest divisions and most virulent disagreement. It is also no accident, in the private sphere, that successful companies often begin to wane the moment they step too far out of their initial area of expertise. But even if they do then at least if you trade with a conglomerate, such as Virgin, you can choose which of its companies or brand licensees to deal with – buying a Virgin record would not force you to fly with Virgin Atlantic. When, however, you vote in a particular government on account of, say, its energy policy you also have to suffer its healthcare policy.
A fourth and final difference between associations and collectives is that the genesis of an association will normally be in peaceful or voluntary circumstances. The founding of a company, for instance, does not normally require anyone to shoot a gun. Collectives, on the other hand, are usually cradled in some form of violence (as is befitting for their violent nature) – i.e., revolution, invasion, war or conquest. The origins of many past and modern states (or, at least, their present boundaries of political sovereignty) can be attributed to such circumstances. The smaller Anglo-Saxon kingdoms merged into “England” as a result of various defeats and victories against Scandinavian invaders – a unification that was finally cemented by the Norman Conquest. The considerable blow to the rights of states as a result of the American Civil War placed the US on its trajectory of centralisation and the consolidation of power in the Federal government. And, of course, most empires resulted from military conquest.
Although, on the face of it, revolutions that aim to throw off the yoke of some despot or monarch may appear to be motivated by a liberating spirit, the conclusion that this leads to better outcomes is more than highly questionable. More often than not, instead of eliminating power, revolutions have served to create a vacuum that was filled quickly by an even worse regime (such as in Russia). The idealism of popular myth mixed with the plausibility of Marxist theory views revolutions as the result of the ordinary folk being depressed so low that they can no longer tolerate the overwhelming burden of oppression and misery. Hence, they rise up and topple their evil masters. Such a romanticised vision of revolutions has rarely, if ever, been the case. In the first place, revolutionary fervour is often stimulated not by the lowest stratum of society but, rather, by the social layer just below the very top. Most of the major revolutionary names that we remember were of aristocratic or of middle class stock. The US founding fathers, for example, were mostly landowners, merchants or professionals; Robespierre and Castro were lawyers; Lenin and Trotsky were intellectuals born into wealthy families. This recurring feature is not difficult to understand. Apart from the fact that the classes from which these individuals originated would have the most to gain from a change of the political landscape, the motivation towards revolution is ideas spread by the printed word in newspapers, journals and pamphlets – hardly the province of the illiterate unwashed. This does not mean to say, of course, that revolutions are necessarily won without the support of the masses – to paraphrase Mao Zedong, the people are the water through which the revolutionary fish must swim. But the bulk of their motivation, and their organisation into revolting forces were at the behest of middle class ideologues. Many of these ideologues, such as Thomas Jefferson, have penned some of the greatest words ever written in support of liberty. Many others, however, have promulgated ideologies that have ended up being antithetical to liberty, even though the struggle for some kind of “freedom” and “liberation” is part and parcel of any revolutionary spirit. Worse still many of those genuinely freedom loving ideologues have fallen way short of the mark once they have achieved victory. For instance, one can hardly regard President Jefferson’s draconian enforcement of the Embargo Act of 1807 as his finest achievement. Finally, revolutions tend to occur not when conditions are necessarily at their worst (which may be accepted as an irredeemable fact of life) but when expectations of improvement have been impeded by a combination of crises (especially wars) and perceived injustices. For example, the aspirations of the highest layers of the Third Estate, motivated by enlightenment philosophy and frustrated by fiscal and economic turmoil, resulted in the French Revolution.
These facts should advise the libertarian to approach any judgement of revolutions with at least a degree of caution. Certainly there is a wealth of revolutionary ideas, both theoretical and strategic, from which libertarians can draw important understanding and inspiration. Indeed, the proliferation of ideas may be the most important achievement of actual revolution. Regardless of the condition of the United States today, it is unlikely that the ideal of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” would ever have become so ingrained without the American Revolution. Similarly, the French Revolution swept away the remnants of mercantilism and feudalism that characterised the Ancien Régime. That aside, however, the important factor in the long run is likely to be whether a specific revolutionary event serves to eliminate power or simply transfers it from one ruler to another. The former is likely to foster an organisation that more closely resembles an association, whereas the latter is likely to end up in the sustenance of a collective. There can be few better examples of a relatively peaceful dissolution of power than the end of Soviet communism in Eastern Europe. Even nearly thirty years later the unspectacular end of humanity’s most strident effort at recreating hell on earth is a cause for optimism.
Armed with the knowledge of the features of associations on the one hand and of collectives on the other, there are at least three key lessons that libertarians can apply when attempting to formulate a viable libertarian strategy that steers states away from behaving like collectives and more towards behaving like associations:
- First, we need to reduce the size of states, either through outright secession or through some kind of decentralisation that scatters administrative and revenue raising authority into smaller localities. In other words, we should attempt to steer states away from becoming vast, monolithic, Soviet Union-like entities and more towards becoming a patchwork quilt of Swiss canton-style jurisdictions;
- Second, we need to reduce the scope of the state’s activity from smothering its citizens with cradle to grave services through one-size-fits-all-policies down to providing as few services as possible; this could be achieved in tandem with reducing size;
- Finally, these things should be achieved preferably through non-violent, “bottom-up” measures that serve to eliminate power rather than simply replacing one regime with another. Liberty can only be won if the state is axed near its roots – not by giving it a haircut at the top.
As we indicated earlier, the motivation towards these outcomes is unlikely to be some kind of mass education of the virtues of non-aggression and libertarian political philosophy. It would, of course, be wonderful if everyone did understand these virtues but a critical mass of the world’s seven billion people is unlikely to read Mises and Rothbard before crying “to hell” with the state. Drastically reducing the incidence of violence and aggression is the practical priority. There is one important, further difference between associations and collectives which is crucial in this regard.
States that behave more like associations rather than collectives are likely to be built upon older, more established and relatively local cultures, customs and traditions. On the other hand, in seeking to consolidate and centralise state power and to create artificial, monolithic and overreaching collectives over vast geographic areas, statist projects have always had to try and destroy these established and competing traditions by replacing them with new ones. Possibly the most terrible example of this was the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China, but every similar regime has infiltrated the existing cultural and religious infrastructure in order to saturate idolatry, architecture, art, literature, music, scholarship, education and so on with new, imposed ideals and values.12
Today, in order to further the progress of consolidating projects such as the European Union, statists and leftists are trying to destroy our established traditions through the importation and promotion of alien ones by way of mass immigration, enforced multiculturalism, enforced “diversity”, anti-discrimination, and the denigration of any celebration of local and national pride as being somehow “racist”.13 This is in addition to legal and constitutional changes to rights and conventions that have existed for hundreds of years.14 It follows that counteracting this destruction, by inspiring a pride and passion for local customs, cultures, and values is likely to be an important bulwark against collectivising projects.
To avoid misunderstanding, this should not be taken to mean that all values have equal worth and that libertarians have to champion in pure blindness whatever it is that people want to do just because they may end up doing it in smaller territories. For instance, female genital mutilation should be condemned for the evil practice that it is. The important point is that creating a resistance to the consolidation of states and state entities is likely to maximise liberty in the long run, in spite of whatever smaller entities may wish to do by themselves. Cutting the power of the state by cutting down its size will mean that anti-libertarian values promulgating violence and aggression using the state as a conduit will, in turn, have their power and effectiveness drained; moreover, this neutered power will be contained to places where it cannot be inflicted on everyone else. For example, it would be better, if not ideal, to have to put up with the socialist paradise of a seceded California rather than the aggressive, invasive, imperialist, behemoth that is the whole United States.
One should not, of course, trivialise the political struggles of the time in which we live, nor should one underestimate the importance of political theorising. A decentralising victory such as Brexit, however, was achieved by the fact that the British want to live as the British governed from Britain, rather than as Europeans governed by Brussels. Consequently, the fight for liberty may boil down to sentiments such as those aroused in Yes Minister’s “Eurosausage” parody15 as much as on the tomes of Mises and Rothbard.
1Karl Hess, Where are the Specifics? in Joseph R Peden (Pub.), Murray N Rothbard (Ed.), The Libertarian Forum, June 15, 1969, Vol. 1, no. VI.
3Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism.
4This view is described in Hans-Hermann Hoppe, A Short History of Man – Progress and Decline; An Austro-Libertarian Reconstruction, Chapter 1.
5Ludwig von Mises, Human Action – A Treatise on Economics, The Scholar’s Edition, p. 143.
6This fact was observable in the debate over Britain’s membership of the European Union. When the pro-remain, political elite were discussing what is “best for Britain” it is clear that, in some instances at least, they were talking about what is best for fulfilling their societal visions and for maximising their personal prestige in world political forums as a representative of a large continental collective rather than of a small island nation. In other words, they were arguing for what they, as government officials, could achieve through the EU and assumed that this translated into achievements for Britain. The same was true of the undue attention given to the views of business representatives such as the CBI. The view that “Brexit is bad for business” is tacitly assumed to mean that Brexit is bad for the British. Clearly the peddlers of such an assumption failed to heed the advice of Adam Smith when he says “People of the same trade seldom meet together even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public or some contrivance to raise prices.” (Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 10, Part 2.) No doubt many politicians on the leave side were guilty of a similar exercise.
7Technically Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, but its autonomy is sufficient for this to be an irrelevant detail.
8George Reisman, Capitalism – A Treatise on Economics, p. 331.
10For an excellent analysis in this regard, see Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations. We might as well mention also that war and the concomitant, permanent erosion of the liberties of warring peoples simply in order to sustain the war effort are themselves the biggest catalysts for collectivisation.
11This fact – that there is often at least as much difference within broadly defined social groups as there is between them – is often ignored by champions of so-called “diversity”.
12This is one of the reasons why the popular equation of rule by a monarch with rule by a dictator is an error. Monarchies are built upon old, established orders and traditions; dictators usually try to sweep all of that away.
14For instance, in the UK the past generation has seen the erosion of free speech, habeas corpus and double jeopardy, as well as substantial changes to ancient institutions such as the House of Lords and the senior judiciary.