Montreal, November 12, 2006 No 201




Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.


(Part One)


by Bradley Doucet

          We will only make significant inroads toward building a truly free society when enough people understand why such a society is desirable. Some can spread this understanding through writing or art, but all of us can do our bit simply by talking to other people about our convictions. In the course of trying to explain to others the benefits that would arise from vastly expanded freedom, libertarians are likely to encounter a wide variety of mistaken beliefs that keep people from accepting what we have to say and embracing our vision of a better world. The more we seek to understand those beliefs, the better we will be able to counter them and address the concerns that underlie them.


          What follows is the first in a series of articles briefly addressing these beliefs. The list I have come up with is not exhaustive, nor, of course, is the treatment given to each item on the list. It is merely an outline of the kinds of issues we should be prepared to face, and the broad strokes of the kinds of responses I believe can be helpful. It is meant as a springboard to further study and reflection.

          A final note of caution: when discussing our ideas with others, I believe we should always strive to remain respectful. The goal is to lead people to re-examine their existing beliefs. No one likes to be told that his beliefs are stupid or evil, and most of us shut down when confronted with such accusations. As much as we might feel offended by what we consider the obvious consequences of someone's beliefs, these consequences are in all likelihood not obvious to our interlocutors. Of course, explaining those consequences is an excellent way to open people's minds, but only if it is done respectfully. It may be helpful to remember that once upon a time, these consequences were probably not obvious to us either.

1) Government is good

          Many people are under the mistaken assumption that government is good: good at what it does and morally good. Although they might think that a particular government is either inefficient or unethical, they still believe at least that government can be good, if only the right people would grab hold of the reins. Indeed, while they may hold a quite low opinion of people in general, they are likely to believe that the people in power are a cut above, or at least that those people who are a cut above could, in theory, grab hold of the reins and make everything better.

          In reality, the people in power are no better and no worse (well, maybe a little worse) than the populace at large. Pointing out all of the historical and ongoing examples of inefficiency and unethical behaviour in governments of every stripe is a necessary part of spreading the ethos of freedom to an expanding section of society. It is an inevitable structural problem that whatever human activity the government controls is invariably beset by shortages, shoddy quality, high prices, or some combination of these failings.

2) Order comes from above

          Many people do not fully appreciate how order can arise spontaneously. This same basic error explains both why the religious right believes the orderly universe had to be consciously designed by some entity (God) and also why the "progressive" left believes the orderly market has to be consciously designed and maintained by some group of entities (the Government). It seems humanity is predisposed to worship some idol or other, whether we have to make Him up out of whole cloth or merely endow Them with preternatural wisdom and benevolence.

          It doesn't have to be this way. Explaining how spontaneous order arises and describing examples of it is the way to go here. Wikipedia, Linux, and the internet itself are good examples of the complex order that can arise with only a few simple rules in place. Of course, two of the best examples are evolutionary theory, which shows how life arose spontaneously from the primordial soup, and economic theory, which shows how human beings can spontaneously order their lives with only the most basic rules in place and virtually no guidance from above.

3) Theft can be justified

          Many okay, most people believe that governments have the moral right to steal from their citizens. They believe this theft, which they disguise by the name "taxation," can be justified in any number of ways. It can be justified because it is for a good cause, like healthcare for all, or the support of higher culture, or the financing of a new football stadium. It can be justified by simple appeal to the will of the majority, as though democratic polling itself could make a thing right or wrong. It can be justified as a way of correcting for negative externalities or market failures in which some are harmed or merely poorly served by certain players in the market. Or again, it can be justified on the basis that since "property is theft," redistributing the spoils can hardly be a crime.

"Many okay, most people believe that governments have the moral right to steal from their citizens. They believe this theft, which they disguise by the name "taxation," can be justified in any number of ways."

          Thankfully, in their private lives most people do not behave like hooligans. Most people recognize the simple truth that theft is an act of aggression, and as such must be banned from civilized human relations. This basic decency is the thin edge of the wedge upon which lovers of freedom must capitalize. It is only through the sleight of hand of government taxation that people are able to convince themselves that theft is justified. We must challenge these justifications by pointing out that people would not accept it if a petty burglar stole from them even if they were told it was for a good cause (with which they might or might not agree) or that the rest of the burglars voted on it first. We must also show that externalities are usually the results of earlier government interventions, and that market failures can be seen as entrepreneurial opportunities rather than as problems to be dealt with by the blunt instruments of heavy-handed dictates. As for the idea that property is theft, this definition is circular: property cannot be theft since theft is the forced removal of property. That some property is acquired by theft is indisputable, but justice demands that these cases be investigated and prosecuted separately, and that the vast majority of us not be treated like criminals.

4) We are our brothers' keepers

          Another widespread belief that stands in the way of freedom is the notion that we have a duty to help others, and more, a duty to place the interests of others before our own interests. This is not to be confused with the idea that it is good to help others in times of need, when we are able to do so. It is the notion that we should do absolutely everything in our power to help others, that we should renounce our own selfish interests and devote our very lives to helping others, and that it is morally wrong to do otherwise. This kind of thinking leads to the now widely accepted idea that we should be forced to help others, through the expedient of involuntary taxation (see above).

          As Ayn Rand pointed out over and over again, if we have a duty to help others, then they have a claim on our lives. This makes us all either masters or slaves, with those of us who are most able to "master" our own lives enslaved to help those who cannot or will not take the trouble to master theirs. Those who believe this kind of talk to be hyperbolic should not be allowed to lose sight of how conditional our freedom really is. The demonstration of this is that steadfastly refusing to pay one's taxes will result in armed representatives of the government showing up at one's door, followed by a lengthy stint in prison. Benevolence and generosity do have an important place in human affairs, but involuntary servitude is a perversion of that, and an affront to the dignity of those thrust into the roles of masters and slaves.

5) Charity must be enforced

          Some people who will agree that in theory no one should be forced to help others might still have concerns of a more practical nature. Specifically, they might feel that charity must be enforced and administered through government welfare programs because private charity would not suffice to meet the needs of the destitute and desperate. If people are not forced to give up half of their salaries to ensure a caring society, then they won't do it and we will be left with a dog-eat-dog world in which the needy are left to suffer and die in the streets.

          It is undoubtedly true that very few people would give up anywhere in the neighbourhood of half of their earnings if they were not forced to do so. What is not true is that society as we know it would crumble as a result. Instead, it would flourish. Allowing people to keep more (dare we dream: all?) of their earnings would be a great incentive for people to work harder, because the extra effort would be fully rewarded. On the flipside, knowing that they will not be automatically taken care of is a great incentive for the unemployed who are able but unwilling to work to get off their butts already. As for those recipients of welfare programs who are truly unable to care for themselves, they would be able to rely on the voluntary charity of a society that will be even wealthier than the one we have right now and whose productive members will not feel that they "already gave at the office" to the tune of half of their earnings. There is simply no grounds for believing that the bulk of humanity is so uncaring as to let the truly needy suffer and die when helping them is readily within their reach.