Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Continuing Push For Freedom

I thoroughly enjoyed reading an article in Issue 26 by Butler Shaffer titled “Constitutions: No Authority.” This article was originally published in the Libertarian Party NEWS in 1986.

Shaffer shares an experience he had during a conference where he was speaking about the Constitution and its ability to protect human liberty. Shaffer believes that no constitution can guarantee freedoms because it’s impossible to hand over power and then have the ability to limit that power.

In describing what happened at the conference, I saw that his fellow participant reacted to his views in a manner that I think many of us have experienced before: if you challenge and criticize America’s government, then you must be equating our lack of freedom to the lack of freedom in other, harsher governments around the world.

You’ve probably heard the argument this way: “If you think it’s so bad here, why don’t you just go live in (insert any nation-state that is harsher than ours, preferably one that is making the news).”

Shaffer makes an excellent point that people such as this conference participant struggle with criticism of the U.S. government because they believe government is a necessary evil and the best you can do with such a belief is focus on which government is the lesser evil. Therefore, all that is left to say when people start criticizing even the “lesser evil” is to continue to compare it to worse alternatives, “greater evils.”

This paragraph in his piece is particularly awesome as Shaffer addresses the accusation that criticism of our form of government places it on equal footing with harsher governments:

“Of course America is a freer nation than the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, or Albania; of course I would rather live in America than any of these other tyrannical regimes; and of course I am more likely to prevail in a politically-motivated trial against me in America than in the Soviet Union. What does this obvious fact have to do with our understanding of what it means to be free? Even if the United States is the freest society in which to live today, ought that to relieve us of the task of increasing our liberties, of discovering how to abandon the political institutions—including our constitutional form of government —that restrict our liberty? Even if we have come further than other nations along on the road to a truly free society ought we to stop along the way and content ourselves with making favorable comparisons with those whose journeys have taken them along the paths to tyranny and oppression? It we can learn how to live without politics, without nation-states, without wars, without even the slightest restriction upon any of us, ought we to give up such a pursuit simply because others have chosen to remain locked in chains?”

I love that. For people who think we live in the freest nation on the planet, I would like to see a continuing open-mindedness to keep pushing and questioning in the effort to gain even more freedom. The people who founded the United States did not have it all figured out and we need to keep pushing on, critically analyzing the results of their actions and not stop because we may happen to compare more favorably than those in other parts of the world.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Mystique of Government

The feature article in Issue 26 of The Voluntaryist, written by Murray Rothbard, is an excerpt from an introduction to a reprinting of Etienne Boetie’s The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. (PDF link to the book on

The Politics of Obedience is considered to be one of the first books to note that coercive power cannot really be sustained without the consent of the people so all people need to do is withdraw that consent.

As Rothbard explains:

“La Boetie’s celebrated and creatively original call for civil disobedience, for mass non-violent resistance as a method for the overthrow of tyranny, stems directly from the above two premises: the fact that all rule rests on the consent of the subject masses, and the great value of natural liberty. For if tyranny really rests on mass consent, then the obvious means for its overthrow is simply by mass withdrawal of that consent. The weight of tyranny would quickly and suddenly collapse under such a non-violent revolution.”

This sounds like it should be so simple and easy and yet, it’s obviously not. After all, La Boetie wrote his thoughts in the 1500s and look where we are today. So why is it so hard?

One reason, Boetie points out, is that there are always a considerable number of people who benefit, directly or indirectly, no matter how tyrannical the rule.

But I think a second reason may be more important. People are not just dropped into society as full-fledged adults, we grow up inside them; we are trained throughout childhood to accept the situation. Our ability and desire to question authority is gradually and successfully shut down.

This is why I don’t think the problem can be defined so much as consent, but rather indoctrination. We have all sorts of ideas presented to us as absolute truths and there is rarely any opportunity to question authority or critically analyze these truth statements.

Rothbard thinks Boetie’s book helps modern libertarians to see that educating people should not just be focused on government “errors’ or inefficiencies, but we should also be pointing out who is benefiting from the state. In particular, pointing out those who benefit by pushing government propaganda.

I would agree with Rothbard on education but maybe it would be more clear if we said re-education. There is arguably more to unlearn than there is to learn.

The other strategy we get from Boetie is withdrawing consent by mass non-violent civil disobedience. I don’t understand how that happens though. A certain percentage of people have to be equally disillusioned at the exact same time, and also willing to act in a non-violent manner. That’s a lot to line up at a specific moment in time. Rothbard gives an example of a city in Connecticut where residents rejected the city budget 3 times, ending in a tax cut. But is this really withdrawing consent?

He’s also optimistic that in the post Watergate world, (his piece was written in 1975) more people are rebelling against the “whole, carefully nurtured mystique of government.”

I don’t know what he thought was happening at the time but right now we’ve been experiencing a good bit of mass discontent, and the only thing that has happened, on a mass level anyway, is the tea party movement, not a group I’d consider to be against the mystique of government, just against the current version of government.

So far, mass discontent seems to always focus on varying specifics of government, not on government itself. I don’t see this changing as long as we continue to pass along ideas and traditions to the young while stifling difficult questions.

When society stops indoctrinating the young to believe in the mystique of government, maybe one day a mass withdrawal of consent will actually occur.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

New Section on

Back in June, I wrote a post about Carl Watner's desire to collect stories from fellow voluntaryists describing their individual paths to liberty.

The response was large enough for Carl to create a dedicated page to the topic which he's titled "How I Became A Voluntaryist." A couple of the stories are from past issues of The Voluntaryist and many of them are new.

If you click on the link, you will see the stories of some people you've probably heard about in some way, or maybe someone you know personally. You'll also see stories and snippets from people you may not know. I found all of them to be interesting.

I think this can be a great resource to share. Who knows, maybe a reader will relate or understand the ideas of voluntaryism in a way that didn't occur to him or her before reading the real-life personal experience of another individual.

So feel free to spread the link around to those you think may be interested. A big thank you from Carl and I to all of you who participated. And for those who haven't, it's never too late.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Property On My Mind

I clearly remember one of my “Oh, now I get it!” moments when learning more about libertarian ideas. It was when I read Murray Rothbard’s take on controversies surrounding burning and other kinds of flag "desecration." In his essay, The Flag Flap, Rothbard put the controversy and conflict into terms of property rights. If it’s your flag, then it’s yours to do as you wish. So simple!

I can’t tell you how much this helped to simplify and clarify issues and conflicts at the time. Well yeah, I thought, if we say people can own stuff, then we can’t also tell them how they should use their stuff. I don’t want them telling me. I shouldn’t tell them.

I even referred to this essay in one of my columns back in 2006.

It’s always amazing and fun to grasp an insight like I did when I read his piece.

So when I began to read Carl’s article in Issue 25, “Beyond the First Amendment,” and realized he was framing freedom of the press in terms of property rights, rather than words on a piece of paper (constitution and bill of rights), I knew I would like his explanation.

Carl points out that even though Americans think the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, there have been many times when it has been ignored:

“In 1798, seven years after the First Amendment's ratification, the Alien and Sedition Laws mandated punishment for printed or oral publications that promoted resistance to the federal government. The idea of postal censorship originated in 1835, when Southern lawmakers attempted to forbid the mailing of abolitionist newspapers into the South. During the Civil War certain newspaper offices in Missouri, Chicago and New York City were actually seized by northern troops and issues of papers suppressed. After the United States entered World War I, another Sedition Act was passed with the result that the government more widely interfered with the press than at any other time in American history.”

As Rothbard did with the flag issue, Carl simplifies freedom of the press by putting it in terms of property rights:

“Freedom of the press is simply a subset of the right of property, of the right of the creator to "express" himself by creating the product of his or her choice. The right of the creator is the right of the manufacturer, advertiser, book author, newspaper publisher, or any other productive person. Each is expressing him or her self without violating the rights of another property owner. Each creator's and productive person's right is just as important as the next. Therefore, to single out freedom of the press for special treatment is to obfuscate the basis upon which that particular freedom is based.

Viewing freedom of the press as a total property right allows it to accommodate itself to technological advances in the expression of opinion. The endless debates as to whether and how the First Amendment applies to radio and television would become instantly clear if property rights were respected in those spectrums. If broadcast frequencies were privately owned, rather than being operated under government license, then it would be apparent that each frequency owner and station owner would have the right to express whatever opinions he or she wished. The government would not be able to censor content or demand a certain amount of public programming time.”

Carl originally wrote this for an essay contest on the First Amendment sponsored by Phillip Morris Magazine and he explains how a government ban on cigarette advertising is an example of the property right violation.

(At the time, Congress was considering the Health Protection Act of 1986, which was intended to ban all cigarette advertising. I found a link to videos of the hearings here.)

It’s interesting that cigarettes are used as an example because that’s another area (smoking bans in restaurants/bars, etc.) where I (and many others) have tried to really focus on property rights as the issue.

But it’s been difficult to get people to accept the issue as one of property rights, many people now want to frame it as a health issue, as if people have a “right” to force business owners to ban smoking so they are “free” to patronize and work wherever they “choose.”

It’s amazing to me sometimes how people can twist issues around like that. But that’s exactly what you’d expect to happen if there is no focus and clarity on the principle of basic property rights.

If we can’t get this principle foremost in people’s minds, I’m afraid we’re going to be singing a sad song of loss like Ray Charles and it will be called “Property on my Mind,”

(Image Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Learning From Those Who Came Before

The feature article in Issue 25 has quite a long title, “Thinkers and Groups of Individuals Who Have Contributed Significant Ideas or Major Written Materials To the Radical Libertarian Tradition.”

This list, prepared by Carl is about, well, the title says what it’s about so I won’t repeat it. :)

I have of course heard of many of these individuals by now, but some of the people mentioned were new to me. And although the names of a few were not new, Carl included information about their contribution that I was unaware of before.

For example, I had heard of Bartolome De Las Casas. I could have told you he lived around the time of Columbus but that’s it. But Carl mentions that he and a fellow I don’t remember every hearing of at all, Francisco De Vitoria “elucidated a proprietary theory of justice by which they denounced the violent invasion and conquest of the New World and supported the rights of the native inhabitants.”

Gee, I don't remember hearing anything about this particular rights argument while I was in a United States government school.

Another person mentioned in Carl’s list was a John Lilburne (1614-1657). In Carl’s remarks, I noticed he was known as “Freeborn John” and this caught my eye because I had just recently come across that same name in a recent article I saw online that was written by Wendy McElroy. I’m glad people like Wendy are out there referring to people from the past who did hard work and/or went through truly trying personal times and helped grow libertarian ideas and philosophy.

Then in a paragraph about John Locke, who I know of already of course, there is the name of William Molyneux. The reason that caught my eye is simply because the last name is the same as that of Stefan Molyneux, a moral philosopher who currently resides in Canada and has been literally pouring out podcasts, videos, books, etc. on his site Freedomain Radio and in my view is one person I would say is currently contributing significantly to the “radical libertarian tradition.” I wonder if they are related. I guess they are.

The reason Carl mentions William Molyneux is because he was a friend of Locke and “insisted on a literal interpretation of Locke’s ideas on consent of the governed and proprietary justice.”

Carl quotes Molyneux, “To tax me without consent, is little better, if at all, than downright robbing me.” Whether they are related or not, I can say that Stefan and William both agree that taxation is theft!

Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912) is a fellow whose name I’ve heard before but I didn’t know prior to reading this article that he was “the first economist (1849) to suggest that all legitimate services provided by the monopolistic State could be performed by competitive protection agencies on the free market.”

I was surprised it’s been that long ago that someone actually started thinking about competitive protection agencies. But then again, I’ve been surprised that a lot of ideas I’ve run into since embarking on my libertarian educational path are actually ideas that have been presented to society a long time ago.

I think we can learn from the past and from those who came before us. But we have to actually be informed that these thinkers, writers and interesting people in the past even existed.

So spread the word.