Who will build the roads? We will.

 

 [This was written as a speech and delivered at Libertarian Home in September 2014]

I’ve spoken and written before on the topic of ‘the road to liberty needs a strategy’. I’d like to elaborate on this topic with some subsequent thoughts I’ve had. All libertarians accept that we want to reduce or remove the state, so how do we get to that libertarian nirvana; or at least closer to it?

There is no simple answer.

Murray Rothbard said:

“Only liberty can achieve man’s prosperity, fulfilment and happiness. In short, libertarianism will win because it is true, because it is the correct policy for mankind, and truth will eventually out.”

Whilst I agree with the sentiment I don’t think it’s as easy or inevitable as Rothbard imagined. I don’t believe that we can currently win against the state and its supporters solely via political means. The state has too powerful an incentive to relinquish its existence, and the people are as yet unconvinced of its inherently violent nature.

As Macchiaveli said:

“It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.”

As I’ve said before there’s no point getting involved in political parties – they’re corrupt and still require taxation, which is ultimately obtained through the threat of violence. And in a democracy they rely on hoodwinking the electorate, buying them off with money stolen from us.

Instead I propose a multi-faceted approach to achieve our libertarian society, utilising anti-political and entrepreneurial economic methods. Some of you may say that I am proposing an agorist approach towards achieving a libertarian society, as described by [Samuel Edward] Konkin III in the New Libertarian Manifesto. Well, while I see some advantages in this approach as a strategy, I am personally closer aligned to Rothbard’s vision of anarcho-capitalism. And I am definitely not going so far as to propose any of the currently-illegal counter-economics tactics that J Neil Shulman introduced to Agorism! Getting into a violent confrontation with the state would not be advantageous; at least not at this stage while it is so powerful.

The first facet of my approach is education.

We can, and should, educate the public about the dangers of the state and how we believe that liberty is the best philosophy for the human race. But how successful is this approach? In the UK the IEA has existed since 1955 and the ASI since 1977; yet they haven’t brought about any discernibly radical change in the thinking of the electorate. In fact a recent (11 May 2014) YouGov poll showed that 60% of respondents wanted rail renationalised compared to 20% who didn’t. Of those who supported renationalisation only 21% thought the trains would then run on time and 22% thought customer service would improve. How has the pro-market argument been lost so badly when less than a quarter of people who want trains renationalised think it will improve the service???

This is shocking!

People are happy to buy innovative or inexpensive products that only the free market can create, yet they want state-owned railways and more NHS?!

Fellow libertarians, we are losing this debate!

We need to educate with facts – we must always take the debate back to empirical evidence of why the market is better than the state. We must destroy their claims with that evidence and thereby expose their ideas as empty rhetoric and lies. For example, almost any scare-story that Ed Miliband brings to the forefront of debate is quickly dismissible with evidence (e.g. his blathering on about “irresponsible capitalism”). We know we have the stronger moral argument: a state based on violence cannot be more moral than a free society built on consent.

However, it’s not enough just to educate, we need to do more than win the debate: we need to encourage people to think differently about the state; we need to alter their perception of it. People need to start questioning the state’s motives and see that its actions are not for the greater good as it claims. To do this we need to control the language of debate, as the statists previously have. This way we can break people’s mental adherence to statist language and encourage them to think about how they are controlled by the state.

We should start by always refer to the state as requiring violence to enact its will, point out that if it couldn’t rely on violence then it would fail. We should always talk about taxes as penalties and benefits as subsidies. We should criticise the concept of tax as indentured labour, and especially criticise sin taxes and their impact on the poor. [For example, of a £12 bottle of spirits only £2.10 goes to the entire value chain – whereas £9.90 goes to the Exchequer. We need to show how sin taxes disproportionately affect the poor, and how most taxes fall heaviest on the poor and working class.]

Most importantly we need to create disillusionment in the state and its agencies.

How do we do that?

You only have to look at the news to find cases that we can talk, blog and tweet about. We should adopt the outrage that statists stir up for our own ends – as the underlying cause of their latest campaign-du-jour is often state failure, not market failure.

For example:

  • power prices – affected by state restrictions, climate levies and pricing controls;
  • rail pricing – affected by state monopoly of the infrastructure and regionally franchised (outsourced) to the highest bidder;
  • crime – affected by state criminalisation of victimless crimes (10,000 out of 84,000 prisoners were in for drug-related offences; 20,000 in for robbery, burglary, theft & handling);
  • youth unemployment – exacerbated by the national minimum wage;
  • bankers’ bonuses – government bailout of banks which market would have let fail;
  • hedge funds – how they increase value, not destroy;
  • finally, holiday prices outside of school terms – state distortion of the market caused by treating schools as prisons and pupils as prisoners; etc.

I propose that we should always use current affairs as a focal point, enabling us to frame the debate around liberty versus the state. Where possible we should utilise contemporary news stories to talk about how evil the state is. We can discuss these on social media, in conversations, in blogs, etc.

For example, recent UK news stories that are appropriate include:

  • Ashya King – taken from NHS by parents to get the treatment they want for him, and are prepared to sell their home to pay for, but were subjected to arrest and imprisonment because they dare to question our national religion of the NHS;
  • Rotherham – police and council ignore or cover up 1,400 cases of child abuse.

And internationally:

  • Police brutality – in the US the murder by police of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri;
  • The plight of Gazans – innocent people being killed in a dispute between two bloodthirsty states (and both were democratically elected, if you want to demonstrate that democracy <> freedom);
  • State surveillance – Snowden’s leaks: revelations to some, no surprise to many of us.

Other historical stories, but still in the public consciousness:

  • Hillsborough – police cover up their incompetence with lies and falsified statements;
  • Bloody Sunday – British army gun down peaceful protesters;
  • Ian Tomlinson – unlawfully killed by Met Police during G20 protests;
  • Jean Charles de Menezes – innocent electrician executed with seven shots to the head after police had held him down and first evacuated a crowded tube train; incidentally, did you know that their shoot-to-kill policy is still in place?

All the above cases can be utilised to demonstrate the power of the state and the fact that it’s only there to protect itself and its agents. Finally, dismiss democracy wherever possible and don’t engage with it. Tell people that you don’t vote and they’ll always respond with “then you have no say”. This is easily countered by firstly pointing out that a bad decision made by millions is no more morally right than a bad decision made by one, or a thousand. Secondly, you can point out that by voting they’re validating 5 years of incompetent and interfering political decisions. They cannot complain as they participated in the election and so implicitly support the winner, whether they voted for them or not.

The second facet is taking action. Talking alone won’t change anything

While it’s very enjoyable, there’s no point sitting month after month, talking about the differences between agorism, voluntaryism, anarchocapitalism, Georgism, objectivism, etc., if nothing comes out of it.

We need to act if we want this new society – nobody else will do it for us.

Marx and Engels may have sat in a room and wrote their philosophy without personally doing anything about enacting it, but the people who did so could see the power they could grab; with libertarianism there is no power structure, so no incentive for power-hungry politicians. We want to liberate people – so to provide for them with alternative market solutions we rely on entrepreneurs. They will be our agents of change…

…and, in fact, they already are. But I’ll come on to that shortly.

So how do we build a strategy to actively undermine the state? The answer is through acts of resistance and even civil disobedience.

Here are a few example ideas:

  • police the police (there are many accounts on Facebook, Twitter and even YouTube that expose police brutality and their ignorance of the laws they claim to be upholding);
  • attend council meetings, film them and blog about them;
  • expose corruption and incompetence of any public officials you encounter (note: Private Eye is great for this);
  • FoI requests (remarkably easy, though often resisted by the challenged organisation);
  • object to legislative in writing at the Green Paper consultation stage;
  • use encryption technologies for communication;
  • Support human rights organisations in their fight against state oppression of the individual;
  • Sit in on public enquiries and blog/tweet about them;
  • write letters to newspapers – blogging doesn’t provide as wide an audience;
  • withdraw from paying for the TV licence;
  • protest on the streets or via petitions (against the latest war, etc.);
  • tax resistance – potentially costly though.

Though these actions will help us undermine public confidence in the state and win the moral argument, people will still primarily care about all the things that affect them – health care, benefits, etc.

So that brings me onto the third facet…

The third facet of my proposed approach: let’s build the society that we want.

Let’s do it ourselves.

Rather than try to change the state let’s make it obsolete.

WE need to identify private solutions and publicise these. There are many existing services that replace the state systems that we complain about. And those services that don’t exist we need to create.

Let’s look at a few examples:

Health care.

One of the most common complaints about the NHS is getting to see a GP, especially in crowded urban areas. As the price of consulting a GP is currently zero, and supply is limited, there is always over-demand. This causes service rationing, demonstrated best by waiting lists.

However, there are alternatives:

  • Technology is making remote care possible over videoconferencing services. For example the US firm MeMD offers an instant consultation for $49.95.
  • There are many primary health care providers in the UK offering private consultations for as little as £70 for 15 minutes.
  • Most interesting however a new subscription method of medical care is emerging in the US called concierge medicine (aka ‘retainer medicine’ or ‘direct care’). Simon knows more about this topic than me, having written several articles on it, but a quick Google search and I found ‘My Healthcare Clinic’, based in south London. A £25 per month subscription provides you unlimited 20 minute appointments and an annual health examination.

The great thing about this service rationing is that charging for GP appointments is back on the political agenda. This will instantly make all the above services comparatively less expensive, thereby encouraging more people to go outside the NHS. There is already a large market in UK residents travelling to have surgery in cheaper countries, such as those in the former eastern bloc.

Welfare

  • Most insurers offer better schemes for serious illness and death than the state schemes, we should be encouraging people to investigate these more;
  • Friendly Societies still exist and as mutual societies provide all of their profits back to their members.
  • Many trade unions offer benevolent funds for hardship cases, as well as many other excellent member services. Some examples from Unite include free legal and financial advice, credit union facilities for the ‘financially disenfranchised’ and a tax refund service. (Unions suggesting their members utilise legal tax avoidance? Surely not!)

Pensions

There is one challenge in withering the state: how do we unwind the Ponzi scheme that is ‘national insurance’ and pensions within the ‘welfare state’? This will concern many who wrongly believe that they have paid into some fictional pension scheme. This isn’t easy to answer, but it’s an important answer if we are to progress. Interestingly, the coalition government has implemented legislation that requires all but the smallest employers to force all of their staff into contributory private pension schemes, albeit with low contributions initially. However, this could be seen as the first small step towards removing state pensions for all but the poorest.

Education

Whilst private education is still prohibitive (except for children of MPs, and prospective MPs, and MPs), there is an alternative that many parents have utilised: home education. This has become increasingly popular in general, but particularly with libertarians. Also, with the advent of the internet, there are now many primary, secondary and even tertiary education courses available for free online now.

There’s even a Facebook support group called The Libertarian Homeschooler.

Transport

  • Who will build the roads? Entrepreneurs will. You may have read about the private road in Kelston, near Bath – the local council closed a road causing a 14 mile diversion. This increased fuels bills and travel time for thousands of commuters; an entrepreneur (Mike Watts) has built a private road and charges £2 per journey.
  • Avoiding state licensing and monopolies of taxis has been recognised as beneficial to customers and Uber was founded with this in mind. However, some states are fighting back – it has recently been banned in Germany.

Currencies

States that issue their own currency can constantly devalue it; this is a hidden tax that most don’t recognise as such and never get to vote for or against.

As many of you know there has been an explosion of private or ‘cryptocurrencies’ in recent years as stable technological solutions become available: Bitcoin is but one example of these. Interestingly I was recently reading the European Central Bank’s October 2012 document entitled ‘Virtual Currency Schemes’ and was pleased to see the invention of Bitcoin credited to the concepts of the Austrian school. There was even a sidebar mentioning Mises and Hayek, a footnote mentioning Rothbard and a reference to Hayek’s 1976 publication ‘Denationalisation of Money’. HMRC has even recognised Bitcoin this year, albeit primarily to tax transactions.

So those are some easy areas; how about the really difficult areas where even the various strands of libertarianism frequently disagree, such as private policing and private courts?

Justice

There are already many private alternatives to courts, such as arbitration and mediation. For example, family law solicitors advise that you should first attempt private mediation to negotiate financial divorce settlements rather than go to court, as it’s faster and cheaper. In employment matters there are many arbitration services, including ACAS, that an employee, employer, customer or supplier can utilise. In fact The London Court of International Arbitration is one of the world’s leading international institutions for commercial dispute resolution and currently hears 300 commercial cases per year.

Policing

This is always a difficult area, as many imagine policing to just be limited to the uniformed thugs you occasionally see after a crime has been committed. But surely preventing crime is better than solving it afterwards?

The first of the nine principles of good policing, as defined by Sir Robert Peel in 1829, is crime prevention. Police judge their success by the number of arrests they make, whereas the public judge their success by the absence of crime; this is a fundamental difference.

So how do you deter crime?

My business office is fitted with an alarm that is connected to a manned security centre 24 x 7; it costs £230+VAT per year, whereas just to be issued by the police with a unique reference number for our alarm service costs £40.51+VAT. Did you know that there are 330,000 private security staff in the UK compared to around 132,000 police officers? Increasingly in recent years residents are clubbing together and procuring private security guards to patrol their streets. I found a company called 1st Class Protection which has many contracts for protecting residential streets in London. In one publicised example seventy residents across five streets in St. John’s Wood have clubbed together and pay £1,000 per annum each for a patrol service.

Summary

As you can see there are already many private alternatives available to state services. We need to encourage use of these services, as they contrast well against the state’s poor services. Its inability to provide the assistance that it uses to justify its existence will just make more people discontent with having taxes extracted from them. And where private alternatives don’t already exist then why don’t you invent them? Are there any gaps in the market that you can think of that can undermine the state? If so then why don’t you create a service to fill those gaps?

So why aren’t you helping? How can you help personally?

Most importantly, be an entrepreneur: they are the only ones that can create a society based on libertarian ideals. We need to out-deliver, out-manoeuvre and out-compete the state; only private business can do this. If you don’t feel you can effect this societal change personally, then at least investigate and use alternatives to state services. If you find that these services are good then publicise them widely. It all undermines the perception of the state as mankind’s saviour and provider.

Conclusion

My proposed strategy is threefold:

  • Firstly, educate people as to how consensual market solutions are better, and that the state can only adversely distort the market;
  • Secondly, undermine the public’s confidence in the state by exposing its corruption, violence and other failings;
  • Lastly, show them examples of how the market can and does provide better solutions than the state.

In his book Civil Disobedience Henry David Thoreau said:

“I heartily accept the motto,—“That government is best which governs least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe, —“That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.”

So are we libertarians really prepared for that kind of government, the one that governs least?

2014 is the 70th anniversary of the publication of Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom’. Instead of travelling along that road to serfdom we should start building the road to liberty.

Our liberty.

Who will build that road?

We will.

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The Road To Liberty Needs A Strategy

“Life is what happens while you’re making other plans”

John Lennon

Introduction

Sixty-nine years ago Friedrich von Hayek warned of the consequences of following the Road to Serfdom. Three months later Allied forces invaded Nazi-occupied France to start the long slog to retake western Europe from the forces of National Socialism. We now live in a socialist dystopia that our ancestors who fought in that war would struggle to recognise; this is despite the overwhelming volume of philosophical and economic literature supporting the efficacy of libertarian economics and societies. While in many areas we have won the argument we have struggled to make any significant impact towards a truly free society anywhere in the world; various shades of statism occupy every country. So I have been thinking about why we have failed in our endeavour.

Winning The Argument

We libertarians are great at arguing exactly how the minutiae of a perfect libertarian society would work, from policing and courts with contract disputes, health care, welfare, drugs, and even national defence. While we may not agree on the ideal society, whether it would involve minarchy or anarchy, we damn well know how its mechanisms would work in detail!

So how do we get to our ideal free society, or just closer to the free society that we yearn for? Well as the old joke goes “you don’t want to start from here”. That punchline sums up the uphill struggle we have.

If we are ever to achieve our goal of a free society then we libertarians need to define a strategy for how to achieve this fundamental change.

Barriers To A Free Society

Let us start by considering the status quo:

  • Public choice theory suggests that government will be influenced to legislate in favour of minorities who have more to gain from their subsidies, grants or anti-competitive levies than the sums charged in general taxation by the losers.
  • The ‘ratchet effect’ of ever-increasing taxation and/or legislation by the state that needs to justify its increasing budget to meet election promises to its constituents. Few people complain when an additional penny disappears in taxes each month; but the benefit to the state is £700,000, which it will never give up. Reducing taxation requires fighting the many ‘good causes’ that are beneficiaries of this expenditure which can be politically uncomfortable (for example the recent discussions about disability benefits).
  • The power structure unwilling to cede its authority, whether it is the civil service or professional politicians. These vested interests are paid from taxes taken from the populace, so are unlikely to want to reduce or forgo them. This can be seen by increasing salaries, expenses and index-linked pensions for many ‘public servants’.
  • A large bloc of the electorate that is reliant on welfare payments, from unemployment benefits needed as government sucks the productive private-sector economy dry, to ‘tax-credits’, the Milton Friedman-inspired negative income tax, that distorts the market. (‘Tax credits’ enable employers to pay their workforces less directly, with the subsidies coming from the employees’ own taxes and corporation tax.)
  • Democracy supports the status quo, for any who propose radical change cannot get established in the system.
  • Global institutions that require their own funding though cannot levy their own taxes, such as the EU, UN, NATO, WTO, World Bank, etc.
  • The corruption of politics, not only tainting people of principle who have to join in with the tribal political games, but the actual corruption of lobbyists and expenses, as displayed in the last few years.

The state has become its own living, breathing, self-replicating entity. I am surprised that nobody has thought to apply James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory to a theory of the state: it organises; it metabolises; it grows; it adapts; it breeds; and, most importantly, it responds to stimuli – it defends itself.

The humour of Yes Minister, where Sir Humphrey Appleby is happy to discuss reducing the size of the civil service, but wants a huge task force to study the subject, is far from fictional.

So this is the environment that we have to consider when contemplating any strategy for liberty.

How To Remove The State From Our Lives

So how can we make our ideal free society, how can we remove the state from our lives? Before you get your hopes up – I don’t have an answer to this problem, but there are various approaches that can be considered and I discuss some of them below.

  1. Entryism: infiltrating an existing political party with like-minded activists seems a quick win, as it enables the libertarian to leverage the existing democratic system and existing party apparatus. This was tried by the libertarians of FCS into the Conservative Party in the 1980s, with little success. There are also pockets of libertarians within other parties, such as the Liberal Democrats (sic) and UK Independence Party. Sadly it quickly becomes apparent that the existing party power structure will not cede power easily, and often a reaction is provoked that ends any libertarian aspirations.
  2. A libertarian party: The example of the United States is sufficient here. David Nolan who founded the Libertarian Party in 1971 has now given up on this strategy. With only 16% of people holding libertarian beliefs (in the US, probably less in the UK) it is highly unlikely that this approach can ever succeed in isolation. In my personal view even participating in the democratic political system taints the politicians, whether libertarian or not, and no libertarian party will ever succeed (sorry Pro-Liberty Party).
  3. Education: I have for a long time been an advocate of utilising ‘think tanks’ and ‘folk activism’ to educate the general populace of the efficacy of the market and that they state is simply not needed. However after 70 years of post-war state education promoting Bevan’s cradle-to-grave statist strategy, people just don’t realise that they can live without the all-encompassing state. However, I still believe that we need to educate people, weaning them off the narcotic that is the modern state, as no other method of transition will work by itself.
  4. Revolution: Let’s not be silly! Revolution, even with the benevolent dictator model, is more likely to lead to despotism even faster than democracy does. As stated earlier, the state responds to stimuli: in the UK even discussing revolution is effectively illegal – a terrorist act under our legislation. The state defends itself first and foremost, hence the frequent proposal of laws with heavier sentences for cop-killers than for those that would kill us.
  5. Seasteading: Although this is still currently the realm of fiction this method of creating a new stateless society is at least theoretically achievable. The Seasteading Institute was founded by Patri Friedman (David’s son and Milton’s grandson) and has attracted many supporters and investors, including Peter Thiel.
  6. Free States: Jason Sorens proposed the idea of concentrating libertarians in one area to effect political change, thereby inspiring the Free State Project in the US. New Hampshire was nominated as the target state and so far over 1,000 libertarians have moved there; the goal is 20,000 This project is already showing returns, as can be seen in this recent article in Reason ‘The Free State Project Grows Up‘. However it needs an autonomous political entity to succeed, such as a US state that has control over much of its legislation, and it needs to be small enough for the incoming libertarians to win or influence democratic votes. Whilst it is an attractive idea for all UK libertarians to move to a county to establish a libertarian society, it is worthless
  7. Fabianism: The infiltration of the intelligentsia and associated ruling class by the Fabian movement proved successful for promoting socialist ideals. A similar libertarian-minded project given time could sway the body politic, though it is unlikely to be enough by itself.
  8. Do-It-Ourselves: This is my only contribution to the debate. Let’s stop whingeing about the state institutions running our lives badly, let’s create our own institutions and aim for David Friedman’s Market Anarchism. Many businesses already exist that provide the same, or better, services than the state. Let’s publicise these. And where they don’t exist let’s build our own. If we can demonstrate to the populace that private health, transport, social housing, welfare, education, policing and arbitration are more cost-effective than the state’s versions, then how long before consumers vote with their feet?

A Suggested Strategy

I’ve not got any single magic answer to how we get to our objective of a stateless, or near-stateless, society. Personally I think the Folk Activism approach is useful for gaining much-needed support through education, but it alone cannot succeed. Like many other libertarians I don’t think we will ever have sufficient support to use the democratic system in our favour. Whilst the seasteading is the most likely to create small viable libertarian communities at some point in the future I don’t think it’s a viable alternative for most of us. The Free State Project has the most likelihood to succeed to a limited extent, but only within the constraints that the US Federal government will allow it to.

The solution I think is most likely to create a libertarian society is to Do-It-Ourselves. We can only convince the non-libertarians that a society best functions without state interference by demonstrating that to them. We must build the non-state institutions we want to see, and proselytise about those that already exist, here or elsewhere. We must demonstrate each and every aspect of a free society and explain why this is better than the state alternative.

Now this sounds impossible I admit – but we don’t need to eat the elephant whole.

While the state may have a virtual monopoly in many areas, which gives it an inherent cost advantage as it’s funded by mandatory taxes, we can compete with it by innovating, using technology to our advantage by creating new business models. We can be agile and move faster than the cumbersome leviathan state.

Imagine if, for instance, you were to set up a business to offer videoconference access to GPs over the internet using qualified doctors in, say, India? What could you charge for that service on a pay-per-visit basis? I imagine that £10 per visit would cover the costs with a healthy profit margin. What happens when that model becomes successful and increasing numbers of customers prefer that to the NHS? The government would have to either outlaw it, with much public controversy and legal challenges, compete, which is unlikely, or exit the market. A libertarian goal could be achieved peacefully without resorting to democracy or the distorting power of the state. After all if the game is weighted in their favour let’s not play by their rules.

Evolution Not Revolution

The successes of the Free State Project have come at a slow pace. Jason Sorens said in the Reason article that the strategy was “rather than build a new society [Free Staters] opted for incrementalism, making small but noticeable, meaningful changes“. This has proved somewhat successful in that new ideas are proposed and implemented, then can be tested against the objectors’ worries, one step at a time; this incremental approach to liberty is slowly undoing the ratchet effect, educating the people that society can exist without the state’s constant interference. We need to make small incremental changes towards freedom, changes that are testable with demonstrable results. As Patri Friedman says “power has inertia” – we cannot move this leviathan quickly.

Conclusion

We know what we want a free society to look like, but I don’t think that we will get there unless we start planning how to do it. If we just keep proselytising then we may never get to a free society, we need to act.

So this is my challenge to libertarians: go build the new society that you want. If we can outcompete the state, which I believe that we can, then the state must wither and die. We know that the free market is better, in competition with the state we will win: this is natural selection in action.

Postscript

I started writing this article based on a number of ideas I’d had for some time around our strategy for liberty. Whilst writing I came across a pertinent debate on Cato Unbound‘s website. An excellent essay by Patri Friedman called ‘Beyond Folk Activism‘ provoked thoughtful response essays from Jason Sorens, Brian Doherty and Peter Thiel. If you’re interested in this topic then I strongly recommend you read them all.