How to Fight for Liberty, Part Three – Inspiration and Motivation


How to Fight for Liberty, Part Three – Inspiration and Motivation

By Duncan Whitmore

“From all these indignities, such as the very beasts of the field would not endure, you can deliver yourselves if you try, not by taking action, but merely by willing to be free. Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces.”  

                   – Étienne de la Boétie1

In this third part of our continuing series on how to fight for liberty, we will build on our conclusion in Part Two that liberty depends primarily on people being motivated to reduce systematised forms of physical enforcement (i.e. the state), and to turn instead towards systematised forms of voluntary co-operation. Our task here is to try and orient ourselves onto this factor as the focus of a political strategy.

One of the questions that any advocate of a free society is asked time and time again is “how can a free society work?” What the enquirer wishes to know is, absent the state, which institutions will guarantee law and order, how will they be sustained, and how will we know that they will succeed? Often implicit, of course, is the presumption that a free society is a hopelessly impossible experiment doomed to failure – a presumption that is usually deemed to be confirmed if, no matter how good his argument otherwise, the libertarian is unable to furnish a satisfactory answer to a just a single part of this enquiry.

It does, of course, matter that a free society is not this kind of utopian pipe dream, and that it is neither physically impossible nor otherwise contrary to human nature – all of which we have explored here. We should also be able to persuade our interlocutor that, as per our analysis in Parts One and Two, the fact that a system of perfect liberty has neither existed (nor is ever likely to exist) should not cause us to doubt the validity of working towards a society that is more free than the one in which we live today. The persistence of force and political control throughout human history owes itself not the impossibility of freedom but to the fact that there has always been a class of people who have regarded systematised physical enforcement as the most productive means of meeting their ends. As a result, such people have always been working to push a given society towards greater physical enforcement and away from voluntary co-operation, with varying degrees of success. The existence of this motivation – which will always be with us for as long as we remain human – does not preclude its antithesis of voluntary co-operation from being a good and viable goal towards which we should work. As Joseph R Peden has said:

Like a Christian awaiting the Second Coming of Christ when the reign of Justice shall be established and evil men receive their just punishment, the libertarian awaits the coming of the rational and anarchic age. But to lose one’s faith in the validity of Christianity because evil continues to thrive in the world makes as much sense as losing one’s faith in libertarianism because the New Order has not yet triumphed over the Old.2

To give a less lofty analogy, it is unlikely that there has ever been a world without rapists and murderers. However, the fact that there will always be people who wish to murder and rape should not distract us from our endeavours to eliminate such heinous acts as much as possible. Indeed, if rapes and murders were increasing (and/or were increasingly viewed as legitimate practices) no sensible person would take this as a reason to give up on our goal of trying to eradicate them; rather it would be an indication that we have to work harder in our efforts to do so.3

So the fact that nation-state rule is presently extensive (and that the authority of at least some kind of state structure seems beyond question) should not distract us from the libertarian goal. In fact, given that the quality of states in recent history has varied enormously – all the way from the relative tranquillity of the Swiss canton up to the despotic behemoth of the Soviet Union – there is much that can be achieved on behalf of liberty even within the paradigm of state rule. Indeed, most libertarians would probably be satisfied enough if we were living in a world populated by states that resembled the Swiss canton more than the Soviet Union, and to put an end to the impulse for imperialism and global grandstanding to which large and powerful states tend to succumb. Moreover, as we suggested in Part Two, in spite of its de jure ability to infringe liberty, the smaller a state gets the more it has to operate as a de facto voluntary association because of the relatively stronger position of the ruled vis-à-vis the rulers. As we shall see later, there are good reasons for focussing on the state as the primary enemy of freedom, but it doesn’t follow from this that total elimination needs to be achieved in order to find ourselves in a more satisfactory position. As Jeff Deist has said, “better, not perfect ought to be our motto”.

Neither should anyone be discouraged by the fact that so much of human history seems to be have been dominated by physical enforcement and, thus, eras of relative freedom seem to have been the exception rather than the rule. This is particularly so if one is predisposed to the cynical conclusion that the capacity of humans for evil outweighs their capacity to do good.4 To this, we can make two observations.

First, much of recorded history – and much of the history that we like to read about – tends to focus on key individuals and events. There are dozens of sources telling us about kings, emperors, popes, wars and battles, about giant armies and navies, and plenty that relay the grandeur of conquests and revolutions. Indeed, when we think of “British history” what springs to mind is Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Horatio Nelson or Winston Churchill; if asked to name the most important historical events, we are likely to list moments such as the Spanish Armada, the Gunpowder Plot or the Napoleonic Wars. However, it is all too easy to draw an erroneous picture of what life was like in prior centuries by generalising from particular events that affected a relatively narrow set of people, and were often decades (or even centuries) apart – as if everyone was repeatedly having to drop what they were doing to go and fight a war, there was a plague every decade, one in three people was being hanged, drawn and quartered, or that the Bastille was stormed every Tuesday. For the very vast majority of ordinary people who have ever lived – knowledge of whose lives we have to glean mostly from the more painstaking process of archaeology – much of “important” history will have passed them by without even being noticed.

Second, prior to around 1800, the primary sources of productivity were land and human capital (while the primary good produced was food). As such, the temptation towards physical enforcement through a) conquest of territory and b) direct enslavement were all the more great, and so we can see why the land/labour based system of feudalism flourished during the Middle Ages. Following the advent of the Industrial Revolution, however, the importance of land and labour as factors of production was displaced by that of industrial capital – machines, tools, factories, and so on. As a consequence, the material incentive towards direct control over land and labour has waned considerably whereas the desire to control capital goods has risen. Indeed, it is no accident that nineteenth century socialist thinkers focussed on the confiscation of this industrial capital out of private hands. Today, for those seeking to live off of the backs of others, it is far more beneficial to leave labour generally free, incentivising (rather than forcing) people to accumulate and operate productive capital goods. Once they have done so, a portion of the resulting produce can be taxed away. When viewed from this angle, the fact that we have largely moved from the taking of people to the taking of things could be considered progress of sorts that is likely to persist so long as we maintain our stock of industrial capital.

Going back to the original question of how a free society will work, it is, moreover, useful to speculate on how law, justice and broader institutional arrangements in a free(r) society may be conducive to preserving liberty in the long run, all of which noted scholars have gleaned from historical examples.5

However, regardless of the extent to which all of these and similar matters are settled, the focus of a political strategy should be on motivating people towards freedom. If this goal is achieved, the institutional question of how a free(r) society will work is a secondary question, similar to how the precise mechanics of, say, the shoe industry is secondary to whether or not people want to have shoes. Such speculation is more of an intellectual curiosity than a burning issue, one that need not be settled a priori in anything more than a broad outline. If people regard the liberty of themselves and others as important then they will find a way to make it work in just the same way as those who value shoes sufficiently enough will find a way to produce them. Indeed, asking questions like “precisely how will X work” indicates a statist way of thinking – that society and social structures are there to be planned, designed and managed from the top down instead of built from the bottom up by millions of individual people. Even when we can make some general remarks about how institutions of law and justice will work, they would still have to be adapted to suit the circumstances of a particular society. Precisely how people will do this is not something that can be micromanaged by a theorist.

As we indicated earlier, doubt in this regard results primarily from familiarity bias – that a system of order imposed by nation states is all that we have ever known and, as such, it is difficult to conceive of how it could be maintained any other way. But if the state had, historically, usurped for itself the responsibility of manufacturing all shoes, critics of libertarianism would similarly be asking “just how will shoes be made without the state?” In fact, this is a question which is asked all too frequently with some of the simplest of problems, such as building roads – as if roads are so complicated that non-state actors could never figure out a way to make them work.

How does the State Work?

The best way to dispel the question “how will a free society work?” when it comes to the matter of law and order is, in fact, to redirect it by asking: how does the state work? Just why does the state structure apparently create order yet any alternative is unlikely to do so? What is so special about the state?

The typical answer to this is that the state acts as some kind of extra-societal “umpire” or “final arbiter” that would simply be lacking in a free society, and so the latter would descend either into chaos or into some kind of alternative state anyway. Without the consolidated authority of the umpire in a cricket match, or the referee in a football game, the calling of sixes, outs, goals or whatever would be a free for all.6

But this raises the question: why does anyone listen to the umpire? An umpire in, say, a cricket match is obeyed only because the combined weight of players, spectators and cricket associations serves to cement his authority on the field. If all of these, or just a significant number of them, were to withdraw that endorsement then the umpire could shout “Six!” and “Out!” until he was blue in the face, but it would have no effect on the game.

Similarly, therefore, why is it that, in Great Britain, the relatively insignificant number of 650 MPs (and, in practice, just a few dozen government ministers) can declare a rule to be a “law” which is then implemented, enforced and adhered to by 65 million people? Why is it that all of the different components of the state – Parliament, the judiciary, the police, the civil service, etc. – together with the general public work towards enforcing and obeying what a bare handful of them has written down on a piece of paper? Why don’t the state agencies just feel free to ignore each other and do their own thing, and why don’t the public – which outnumbers them heavily – just ignore all of them? If all of this was to happen, who would step in as the “umpire” to resolve the situation, and how would he enforce what he says? When framed in this manner, does not the prospect of the state “working” seem to be the absurd proposition?

These, and similar questions, have been addressed by anarchist philosopher Roderick Long:

Who […] is the “final arbiter” in the U.S. system? The president? He can be impeached. The Congress? Its laws can be declared unconstitutional. The Supreme Court? Its rulings can be ignored (as Andrew Jackson did), or it can be bullied into acquiescence (as Franklin Roosevelt did). The voters? They can be disenfranchised by state law. The state governments themselves? Ask Jefferson Davis. Sovereignty does not reside at any single point in the governmental structure; any ruling by one part can in principle be appealed, or overruled, or simply ignored, by another — just as under anarchy. If most of the time the various components of government achieve relatively harmonious coordination, what enables them to do so is not a “final arbiter.”

[…]

[G]overnments are composed of people, not impersonal robots; and being part of a government doesn’t make people any less likely to have disagreements […] What happens, then, if, say, a legislature makes a determination […] and a court strikes it down as unconstitutional? Well, sometimes such disagreements lead to violent conflict — civil wars, coups d’état, and the like — but usually they don’t, because the existing incentive structures tend toward cooperation. Economic theory and historical evidence alike indicate that the answer is much the same under anarchist legal systems.

A government is not an individual; it is a large number of different people, with different interests, interacting. And no one member of that group, unless he or she is a Kryptonian, can by his or her own personal might secure compliance from the others. Moreover, all the members of government combined possess insufficient might of themselves to subdue all those they rule, as well. Thus no government can achieve anything unless there exists a substantial degree of cooperation, both within the government on the one hand, and between the government and the governed on the other. If such cooperation were impossible without some higher agency to direct and enforce it, then the higher agency itself would be impossible for the same reason. There is never a “final arbiter.” There is no such thing, actual or possible, on God’s green earth.

What is possible, and often actual, is that an existing pattern of institutions and practices proves stable and self-reinforcing — that people act in ways that give one another an incentive to keep cooperating, for the most part. Certainly no legal system can function unless most disputes end up getting practically resolved one way or another. But in real-world legal systems (whether state-based or stateless), most disputes do not go unresolved forever — not because there is a “final arbiter,” but because the patterns of activity in which most of the participants engage or acquiesce don’t allow the indefinite continuation of disputes.7

Thus, if a final arbiter does not hold the state together in harmony then there is no reason for it to be necessary for non-state social structures to operate either. Or, to put it another way, the kinds of “stable and self-reinforcing” “incentive structures” that cause people to co-operate in making the state “work” are precisely the same kinds of mechanism which will enable voluntary social structures to work too. The cricket umpire and the football referee never “conquered” their respective sports and enforced their authority as a “final arbiter”. Rather, it was in the interests of all the people who enjoy the game to provide a mechanism that prevented “the indefinite continuation of disputes”. The difficulty that libertarians face, therefore, is dissolving the network of incentives that have wedded people to the state structure. If people were to reject the state and to recognise alternative, more liberating social structures as good and beneficial, then the power of the state will wither and liberty would prevail. It is not impossible, utopian or contrary to “human nature” – it is solely a product of people being motivated to choose more peaceful social structures over more violent ones.

Entrenchment of the Status Quo

The foregoing observation should not be misunderstood as an attempt to evade difficult problems, nor should we reduce it to a caricature by suggesting that people simply need to “want” liberty in order to establish it forever and a day. Rather, what we are saying is that motivating people towards liberty (and away from the state) is the difficult problem, and, in fact, it is far more difficult than musing on how a free(r) society will work if it is achieved. Ultimately, if the will is not there, everything else will crumble, and so a political strategy needs to address this matter before it addresses any other concern.

For instance, it will, of course, be helpful for social structures to contain mechanisms that try to reinforce the values that underpin them to the extent that they can appear to become “self-sustaining” and “self-reinforcing”. The so-called “separation of powers” is one (albeit misguided) attempt to configure the structure of the state in such a way as to prevent the over-accumulation of power in any one individual or institution. However, while different systems will have different degrees of success in maintaining the stability of their resulting orders, much of the apparently self-sustaining nature of a given system actually results from two, similar economic phenomena which convey a natural advantage to the status quo, regardless of the particular characteristics of that system. These are path dependence and the sunk cost fallacy.

Path dependence means that the viability of choices that have to be made today is constrained by the choices that were made in the past, and so what may appear a “better” option in the abstract ends up being sub-optimal. For instance, if you wanted to drive somewhere, Route A may be the shortest route to your destination and Route B the longest. If you were to erroneously choose Route B, your journey will obviously be longer than if you had chosen Route A in the first place. However, if you have driven a good distance down the longer Route B before you realise your mistake, the quickest way to get to your destination from the point you are at now may be to continue down Route B rather than to drive all the way back to your starting point so as to proceed down Route A.

Path dependence has the ability to not only affect individual choices but also entire, societal wide standards. For example, take the fact that British power sockets consist of three holes for plugs bearing three pins. Let’s say that somebody invented a four pin plug and socket, and that – for the sake of argument – four pins were agreed to be technically better than three. In other words, switching from three pins to four would deliver a great many benefits. However, given that every building and every appliance has already been designed and built under the assumption that plugs will have three pins, one has to factor in the enormous cost of recalibrating all existing physical infrastructure (as well as retraining of electricians etc.) to accommodate four pins. As a result, it is likely to be more cost effective overall to continue with the “inferiority” of three pins than it is to switch to four.

From this we can see how pioneering manufacturers will attempt to exploit path dependence by aiming to set an “industry standard”, achieving an irreversible “lock in” that can deliver them all but permanent advantages. Thus, it is no surprise that path dependence is one of the concerns of so-called competition authorities. For instance, Microsoft’s domination of the market for PC operating systems meant that software always had to be designed according to the protocols of MS Windows, with all software designers and users having configured their operations with Windows primarily in mind. This is in spite of the fact that the various incarnations of Windows were frequently considered to be suboptimal (or even dreadful) operating systems.

Similarly, therefore, the mere existence of the current social system means that it has become entrenched by custom, habit, and familiarity, not to mention the fact that all economic investment will have been made with the legal structure of that system in mind. There is, therefore, a perceived cost barrier that prevents the movement to another system, even if that alternative seems “better” in the abstract. Indeed, it could be like trying to introduce a new language. The proposed language may be linguistically more perfect and sound much more beautiful than English, but so much of our society and culture is predicated on the use of English that the cost of adopting the alternative would clearly be too great. This phenomenon can explain why people sometimes take the apparently perverse choice of enduring regimes that inflict upon them great hardships. Particularly during times of poverty and economic depression, people have a tendency to cling onto the dwindling number of certainties rather than risk a giant leap into the unknown.

This problem is compounded by the fact that, by definition, the entrenchment and dominance of an existing system means that avenues that would provide a segue into an alternative are small, in their infancy, or simply non-existent. Possible alternative institutions of governance and regulation – families, communities, congregations, private associations, customs, cultures, traditions – have either been made redundant by the state structure, or otherwise weakened or destroyed by elements such as the welfare state. Such a dominance has left (at least) a significant minority of people who can only ever take their cues from the state, a factor which has blossomed into its full ugliness during the COVID-19 restrictions. Always and everywhere, it was state rules, state guidance and a clamouring for “leadership” to “navigate the crisis” that was demanded ahead of people dealing with the problem in a more autonomous fashion.

The sunk cost fallacy is slightly different but can actually cause a more potent bias in favour of the status quo. Basically, it means that a change from Path A to Path B is, in fact,the optimal decision for the future, but for whichever reasons, an individual is reluctant to abandon the (irrecoverable) costs he has invested in Path A. The result is that he continues to suffer losses into the future as a result of remaining on Path A, losses he would have avoided had he switched to Path B. A simple example would be purchasing a non-refundable gym membership for a year. After a month you find that you hate the gym and that you would be better off if you simply didn’t go, but a reluctance to regard the cost of the membership as effectively having been wasted means that you keep on enduring avoidable misery through regular attendance.

Needless to say, pride and the reluctance to admit past mistakes are frequent motivations for the sunk cost fallacy. Thus, it is often a prominent feature when it comes to the lifespan of political projects, particularly major manifesto commitments or those to which considerable expenditure has already been devoted. It may become apparent quite early on that a project will fail, but governments often choose to continue it for as long as possible. Such a choice may delay the eventual political fallout, but at the avoidable cost of increasing its impact once it eventually hits. Such action is usually referred to as “kicking the can down the road”.

When it comes to social systems, this phenomenon will occur if an individual has lived a considerable period of his life committed to the system’s values. However much one can demonstrate to that person the falsehood of those values, it can be extremely difficult for him to accept the fact that he has effectively lived his life in service of a lie.8

In our society today, most people are quite willing to accept that state actors, out of either malice or incompetence, harm the very people whom they are supposed to serve – indeed, sometimes it is undeniable. However, they usually regard these as localised failures, i.e. the wrong people were hired, the wrong policy was adopted or the wrong decision was made in one particular instance. They are far less willing to realise that the genesis of these failures lies in the nature of power itself. Accepting that the lofty ideals which have been drilled into them since they were children – “democracy”, “accountability”, “representation”, etc. – far from being good and legitimate are, in fact, the enablers of a system that is inherently harmful and exploitative, is a psychological barrier that is simply too high for most people. Hence, they go on to endure avoidable suffering under the system into the future.

In fact, it’s worth mentioning at this point that one of the biggest self-imposed hurdles which the right (and people generally) will face over the coming years is ridding itself of the belief that their nation states, with all of their glorious history, their constitutions, parliaments, presidents, offices of state etc. are basically good and noble institutions that are in need of “saving” from corruption by leftists who have temporarily gained control. Instead, it needs to be realised that these institutions are the problem, and it is in their nature to degenerate into the forms in which they are in now. Thus, their eradication – not their restoration to “rightful” hands – needs to be the goal if liberty is to prevail. Similarly difficult will be untangling the organs of state from the people – their culture, their history, their traditions, their flag, or anything that makes one proud to be “British” – more generally. This is something to which we will return in a later part.

What we can see from all of this is that much of the “self-sustaining” nature of a particular system is, in fact, little to do with the structure of the system itself and more to do with the costs and incentives that create a will to maintain the status quo. Moreover, it is also – as we have explained before – not a will that is required to be actively sustained by a majority. Rather, the majority simply has to remain passive and to not interfere. Indeed, the toppling of tyrants and despots it is not necessarily achieved by bands of peasants brandishing torches and pitchforks storming the palaces. Rather, their downfall usually follows the loss of support from a powerful minority.

If, however, this support remains intact, it is likely that any system could be sustained, however burdensome and chaotic it may seem. In a socialist system, the lack of private property rights and free exchange in capital goods will mean that economic progress falls woefully short of that in a capitalist economy. Hence, there is a tendency for free marketers to say that “socialism does not work”. But if people were to accept this reduced level of prosperity, and refused to challenge their subjection to surveillance and spying, then the situation will persist. Indeed, a government could literally keep its entire population in ankle chains if the latter accepted the arrangement. The conclusion that “socialism does not work” is predicated on the assumption that, in the real world, people do not actually want to be subjected to poverty and slavery. But, in principle, they could have as much misery and destitution as they want if they are prepared to let it happen.

Conversely, once a commitment is made to override or overthrow an existing system – either suddenly or incrementally – there is no power on earth that will stop it. Constitutions, “checks and balances”, rules, laws and so on will prove useless unless the people themselves have a passion for upholding them. However perfectly designed a particular constitution, however many rights are enshrined in your charter of freedoms, these are, at the end of the day, mere pieces of paper that will fail to stop the actions of determined people. Thus, no system is self-sustaining in the sense that it can be totally disconnected from the values and priorities of the people whom it serves.

For instance, the constitution of the Weimar Republic was, in many ways, the perfect model for a modern, liberal democracy. There was universal suffrage that elected a legislature under proportional representation; independence of the judiciary; and various rights and liberties were guaranteed. And yet, because it was born out of the humiliating defeat of World War I and effectively “imposed” by victorious outsiders, the German people possessed little of the fervour needed to defend it from eradication by the Nazi rise to power after a mere two decades.9  

In contrast, the US constitution, and the values which underpin it, have fared a lot better owing to the long lasting support of the people whom it has governed. But this too has been subject to a much longer erosion of its core tenets and the reinterpretation of its provisions given that its cornerstone of liberty has been nudged aside by the zeal for progressivism and big government.

Legitimacy as the Key to State Power

There is, however, one, over-arching element that cements power in place which, moreover, is the reason why libertarians focus on the state as the one, true enemy of liberty that reduces all other competitors to relative insignificance. It is an element that is overlooked if one assumes that the ability to inflict physical power itself is sufficient to sustain an institution such as the state, a belief held – unfortunately – by both libertarians and non-libertarians. For instance, a major premise in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia is that, from a situation of competing, private protection agencies, one of them would eventually emerge as dominant, effectively becoming a (minimal) state anyway. Thus, even if we were to succeed in dissolving the present state apparatus, some other, initially private agency would soon be able to take over and establish something akin to state authority.

We could accept, for the sake of argument, the notion that a particular security agency is likely to become dominant, at least in a given area.10 We can also accept that the modern nation state can trace its ancestry back to conquest and suppression.11 But, from what we have said already in this essay, it should be clear that it is not possible for a nominally private agency to initiate and sustain long standing, systematised physical enforcement against its people purely by virtue of its command of physical resources. Rather, a state has to achieve a wide degree of acceptance amongst the population it governs – acceptance which can be anything from active enthusiasm right down to mere indifference. For the net beneficiaries of states are always and everywhere a minority which is unable to persist without eliciting a widespread degree of co-operation from the populations over whom they rule.

Attaining this co-operation has always been a matter of establishing not just the physical might of state rule but, rather, its legitimacy – the notion that this rule is good, right and proper. As such, the fundamental hurdle we must jump in order to defeat the state is not its resources, its guns, its armies, its soldiers, or its torture chambers. Rather, it is in the sanction that the people lend to the state through this perception of legitimacy. As Benjamin R Tucker explained:

When we state as our purpose, then, the abolition of the State, the reader must not have in view a forcible raid upon the palace of some king, or a military expedition against some state house, parliament, or arsenal, even though at some later day circumstances should give rise to such incidents in our warfare. What we mean by the abolition of the state is the abolition of a false philosophy, or, rather, the overthrow of a gigantic fraud under which people consent to be coerced and restrained from minding their own business […] When we have substituted our philosophy for the old, then the palaces, cathedrals, and arsenals will naturally fall to pieces through neglect and the rust that is sure to corrupt tenantless and obsolete structures.12

Belief in the state’s legitimacy is the reason why all of the “working class” organs of the state – such as the police and the armed forces, i.e. those below the decision makers – co-operate in enforcing the state’s edicts without necessarily receiving much by way of any special, material privilege.13 Far from being achievable during an immediate takeover, legitimacy has actually taken the modern nation state centuries to accumulate, appearing in a number of different guises in different periods so as to cement the exclusive authority of the ruling system.

The oldest legitimising factor is likely to have been divine sanction. If, in a society which ascribed natural phenomena to the will of deities, you were able to convince your fellow people that you had a direct line to the will of the almighty then it is easy enough to see why your commands would be obeyed. For such commands would effectively be the commands of the gods, and so disobedience of those commands would be tantamount to inviting terror and destruction rained down from heaven if the errant infraction was to go unpunished. In Ancient Rome, it was typical to apotheosise deceased emperors, a practice which idolised and consolidated power by spawning a divine lineage that exalted both the imperial office and its holders. And, of course, the Emperor Caligula made a self-declaration of his godliness while still reigning, an act which exceeded the norm even for the extravagances of Ancient Rome.

Such practices were dealt a serious blow by the advent of Christianity, which held that there was only one God, that all men (including kings) were equal before God and, thus, that rulers were subject to divine law.14 This religious boundary resulted in the relative curtailment of state power during the Middle Ages, a situation that would persist until the Protestant Reformation. In England, Henry VIII’s split from the Church in Rome, and his concomitant establishment as Head of the Church of England, led once more to the fusion of state and religious authority, with the gradual reassertion of an undiluted form of the “divine right of kings”. This re-elevation of divine sanction as a legitimising ingredient of power subsequently waned during the seventeenth century, receiving a major (and quite literal) body blow with the execution of Charles I in 1649. Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the system of “constitutional monarchy” that persists to this day led to the permanent subordination of the monarch to the more earthly authority of Parliament.

Today, all other forms of legitimisation of state power in the West have been displaced by democracy. The “achievement” of democracy has been to blend the people and the state into effectively the same entity, with the result that all acts of the state are not the acts of the rulers but are, instead, of the people, by the people and for the people. Thus, anything that the state does to the people can be painted as the people doing it to themselves, nullifying with a stroke any notion that the state could be harmful or exploitative. Such a clever ruse has fuelled a growth in state power far in excess of that achieved under monarchy. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that democracy has been the most successful legitimising ingredient of state power in the whole of human history.

The importance of legitimacy is evident in the fact that the majority of people would never, in a million years, believe themselves to be advocates of murder, assault or theft, nor would they hesitate in condemning any private criminal who committed such acts. Yet they have no qualms in arguing for those very same acts when they suggest that the state should, say, raise taxes on X persons, that Y businesses should be regulated, or that bombs should be dropped on such-and-such a country. Thus, this perception of legitimacy somehow means that acts which are qualitatively identical are, nevertheless, morally distinguishable if they are committed by the democratic state.

An important consequence of this is that all those who seek power – or, to put it another way, those who wish to use force, theft and murder as a means of achieving their objectives – must do so through the legitimised, state apparatus. Thus, the state is always the dominant and senior partner in any relationship with private entities, whether this is Facebook, “Big Pharma”, Bill Gates, or any other wealthy faction. Indeed, if George Soros or Mark Zuckerberg was to unilaterally announce that he was displacing, say, the US presidency, or if Bill Gates nudged Boris Johnson out of 10 Downing Street, they would soon find themselves in isolation. Few, if any, of the state agencies would act on their commands, and practically none of the public would obey the edicts of obvious insurrectionists. So however much influence these people may be able to wield in the corridors of power, they cannot achieve their aims independently of co-opting state authorities under the aegis of elected leaders, and so it is critical that they keep states on their side.

In fact, while we like to imagine that a cadre of billionaires is pulling all of the strings in secret, they, rather than state leaders, probably bear the greatest risk of being knocked from their perch. Just as billionaires have the resources to fund smear campaigns against politicians whom they want out of the way, the latter can do the same to the billionaires – except that state officials have more techniques at their disposal. A criminal investigation into bribery, corruption, or insider trading, perhaps? May be allegations of labour exploitation? Or how about sending in the competition authorities to break up the billionaire’s “dominant” and “anti-competitive” firms?15 The extent of the state’s regulatory empire is now so vast that practically every businessman will have broken some rule at some point, furnishing his enemies with a pretext to get rid of him should he become an irritant – particularly if that individual is a serious threat to vested interests, as Michael Milken was. And should all of that fail there is, of course, the useful fallback of sex scandals or paedophilia, “evidence” of which could be manufactured and would be enough to destroy a reputation without setting foot into a courtroom.

Moreover, given that the public has been imbibed with an anti-capitalist mentality, an anti-billionaire frenzy is likely to be more potent than one calling for the head of a politician. For even if he was to err, the politician can usually fall back on the excuse that the people themselves elected him to his position, and he was acting in the “public interest” rather than for personal gain. The private billionaire has no such luxury. At the very least, it would be very difficult for a billionaire to maintain his wealth and status if he was to become genuinely disruptive outside of tacitly acknowledged boundaries. The only reason why Donald Trump was able to be so to a greater degree was that he was fortunate enough to catch the powers that be off guard, attaining elected office directly.16

Finally, let us imagine a moment in the future when everyone has come to believe that COVID-19 is a fraudulent pandemic, that mass vaccination is harmful, and that lockdowns and “vaccine passports” are quite obviously inroads to achieving digital regimentation and control. If this day was to arrive, who do we think is more likely to be thrown to the angry populace in order to be strung up? Will it be the state and its centuries of accumulated legitimacy? Or is it going to be the private wealth hoarders such as Bill Gates and Klaus Schwab, each of whom has been bold (or stupid) enough to have published in plain English his plans for medical experimentation upon mankind and dystopian visions of the future? Particularly in a milieu where the rich are getting richer, devoting their wealth to inflict poverty-inducing levels of de-civilisation under a veneer of green sustainability, a revolution by either the left or the right is unlikely to target the state in general. Instead, it will come for the globalist, corporate elite.

Thus, should a free society be established, the notion that it could one day encounter the rise of a wealthy and powerful sect – whether it’s a corporation or dominant security firm – which will establish itself as a replacement state is not a fundamental threat to the sustenance of freedom in the absence of values that would establish that sect as legitimate rulers. So long as people are motivated to deny them this aura of legitimacy, freedom will never be crushed, nor would it be difficult for voluntary institutions to take care of the residual number of private criminals. Focussing on this factor of motivating people towards establishing and building a free society, the institutions of which turn away from physical enforcement and towards voluntary co-operation, is the difficulty faced by a political movement for liberty. Overcoming this difficult is the task to which the remainder of this essay series will be devoted.

*    *     *     *     *

Notes

1Étienne de la Boétie, The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, Black Rose Books [c .1550] (1997), 53.

2Joseph R Peden, Liberty: From Rand to Christ, in Joseph R Peden (Pub.), Murray N Rothbard (Ed.), The Libertarian Forum, July – August 1971, Vol. III, nos. 6-7, 3-4 at 4.

 3Any ethical proposition – “a person should choose to do X” – must presuppose the existence of, and the ability to opt for, alternative paths such as Y and Z. Thus, all ethical propositions are, in some sense, “utopian” statements of perfection, the achievement of which will be marred by people making alternative choices. So to dismiss ethic X solely because Y and Z are (or can be) chosen is tantamount to obliterating entirely the science of ethics – the sifting of good choices from bad – in favour of the status quo.

4My view is that humans have equal capacity to do good and evil, but the former has a better chance of winning in the long run. Most acts that are conceived of as being good are so because they are mutually beneficial or positive sum and, thus, goodness has the ability to proliferate without impediment. To do evil, on the other hand, is nearly always to commit an act that is harmful and/or unwanted by another person, and so evil acts, by definition, encounter an inbuilt resistance mechanism which must be circumvented if evil is to be sustained. The state, for instance, is an institution that can only ever benefit a minority of people at the expense of the majority but it can subsist only if it secures the co-operation of that exploited majority. Thus, to do this, the state has to lie, cheat and deceive people into thinking that it produces benefits for all. Hence, we can see why truth, logic and reason are always casualties of increasingly systematised forms of physical enforcement. However, the need to maintain this web of deceit is a burden which grows in tandem with the growth of the state. Unless, therefore, the regime acts to check its own growth, the burden of maintaining an empire of lies becomes compounded, driving the regime towards eventual collapse.

5See, for instance, Terry L Anderson and Peter J Hill, The Not So Wild Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier, Stanford University Press (2004); Bruce L Benson, The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the State, Pacific Research Institute (1990); Gerard Casey, Libertarian Anarchy: Against the State, Continuum (2012).

6For an example of this view from a minarchist perspective, see Jordan Schneider, Contra Anarcho-Capitalism, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 21, No. 1 (Spring 2007): 101-110. Cf. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, Wiley-Blackwell (2001).

7Roderick Long, Anarchy Defended: Reply to Schneider,Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 21, No. 1 (Spring 2007), 111-21 at 114-5 [emphasis in the original].

8It is for this reason that “the bigger the lie the more likely it is to be believed” often turns out to be accurate – people are reluctant to admit that they have been duped on such a scale. Indeed, this is going to be one of the difficulties faced when overcoming the pretext of COVID-19 to usher in increasingly authoritarian governance].

9Technically, the Republic remained extant until the Nazi defeat in 1945 but it was a practical nonentity once the Enabling Act of 1933 had been passed.

10Rothbard, however, doubts that such dominance will emerge as an empirical reality. See, Murray N Rothbard, Robert Nozick and the Immaculate Conception of the State, Ch. 26 in The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press (1998), 234-7.

11The classic text in this regard is Franz Oppenheimer, Der Staat, B W Huebsch (1922).

12Benjamin R Tucker, Liberty, (April 15th, 1882), 2-3. The notion that power, or evil, can subsist only with the sanction of the victim is a recurring theme in libertarian and proto-libertarian thought. See, for instance, Oppenheimer, 94-95; Boétie, 53; Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 35th Anniversary Edition, Penguin Books [1957] (1992), 679-80.

13This is not to imply, of course, that such privilege has not been a factor, particularly when these organs have had to exercise a choice in determining whose authority to accede to.

14In the words of Oppenheimer:

The combination of Caesar and Pope tends in all cases to develop the extreme forms of despotism; while the partition of spiritual and temporal functions brings it about that their exponents mutually check and counterbalance one another.

See Oppenheimer, 184. For instance, while it is fashionable today to ridicule the biblical phrase “eye for an eye” as horribly barbaric, it actually imparted the dispensation of justice with a sense of equality and proportionality. For it meant that the king’s eye was no more important than anybody else’s eye, and that, should the king’s eye be taken, his retaliation was restricted to taking the eye of the perpetrator rather than, say, inflicting death.

15Microsoft was subjected to anti-trust investigations during the 1990s, and so it wouldn’t be surprising if one objective of the “philanthropic” efforts of Bill Gates and other wealthy individuals is to keep governments on side.

16Recently we explored the roles of both conspiracy and incompetence in growing state power, concluding that, rather than some “grand plan” directed with deftness by one or a few individuals, there is actually a disjointed network of wealthy and powerful people whose individual plans and interests sometimes cohere and sometimes collide. Thus, their relationship will consist of a conflicting mixture of co-operation and competition, and – whatever happens – their aims must be achieved through the inherently incompetent and inefficient state structure. This, and everything we have added here, fits into the generally “anarchic” character of Long’s analysis of state power from which quoted earlier.

3 thoughts on “How to Fight for Liberty, Part Three – Inspiration and Motivation

  1. Duncan,

    Again, you have made some really good points. Thank you.

    Once more, I’ll try to paraphrase them in my own way:

    (1) A free society must be built from the bottom up. It must grow organically, not through the ideas of some liberty philosopher – however good they might be – being imposed on people. You don’t say it here, but this is the reason why trying to build freedom by taking over a state can never work, even if the immediate goal of taking over that state is successful. The top-down nature of the state means that the state will always tend to be opposed to individual freedom.

    (2) Along the same lines, we should not try to specify in too much detail how our systems will work; simply because we don’t know in detail what they will evolve into. I see nothing wrong with exploring imaginary freedom Utopias, as long as it remains clear that they are “might be’s,” not “oughts” or “will be’s.” All the freedom philosopher should do is lay down the guidelines, and let people go.

    (3) You ask a good question “where does a cricket umpire get his authority from?” But your answer, that it comes from the endorsement of the cricketing fraternity as a whole, I think is only part way there. You can follow up with, “Why do all these people support this umpire, and other umpires like him?” For me, the authority of an umpire, ultimately, comes from the objectivity and justness of the decisions he makes. If he makes decisions that are clearly bad or biased, and continues to make such decisions, he will lose his authority. This actually happened in international cricket a few decades ago, when Pakistan umpires (in particular) lost their neutrality and so eventually their authority, and had to be replaced by umpires from an international panel.

    (4) I agree, though, that a workable society must not have or require a final arbiter. For me, this is because any arbiter can become corrupted; and so, in any system that has a final arbiter (including the state), if the final arbiter becomes corrupted, it will tend to corrupt all the rest. Leading to the thought that checks and balances in a free society should be reciprocal in nature, not hierarchical.

    (5) You are right that it is public acceptance of the state that holds the current system together. So, a big part of the liberty philosopher’s job must be to seek to dispel the “aura of legitimacy” (as you put it at the very end) that surrounds the state.

    Once again, thank you for a fine essay.

  2. Pingback: Finding the State’s Achilles’ Heel | Mises UK

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