Thursday, October 23, 2014

On the radical incoherence of statism, reasons for its near-universal acceptance, and effective ways of getting rid of it

Statism is the doctrine that the foundation of every well-functioning society is its subjection to a territorial monopoly of violence. Non-statist doctrines, on the other hand, claim that any given society is able to function really well only when it is free from the influence of such monopolies.

Upon encountering in this context the claim that non-statist doctrines are practically unsafe due to their radical character, it is worthwhile to point to the glaring radicalism of every form of statism. Having thus suggested, however, that it is not radicalism per se that is a problem with any given socio-economic doctrine, it is even more worthwhile to underscore that statism is not simply radical, but radical in its incoherence. It seems a very fitting description for the theory which claims, among others:

1. That the only sure way of protecting oneself against violence, aggression and coercion is to help institute and continually support a vast, monopolistic apparatus of institutionalized violence, aggression and coercion.

2. That the only sure way of protecting one’s private property rights is to help institute and continually support a coercive entity whose representatives do not own any of the said entity’s assets, and yet arrogate to themselves the right to expropriate any private property owner for the purposes whose utility it is up to them to appraise.

3. That the free market economy, whose participants – in order to prosper – have to supply one another with productive goods and services, as well as bear the full financial responsibility for the potential failures of their actions, can survive only when subjected to the regulation of a monopolistic group of non-producers, who can always shift the costs of their failures onto the shoulders of producers.

4. That statist coercion is necessary to enforce contracts, and yet the alleged “social contract” that is supposed to establish the state needs no meta-state to enforce it, thus effectively becoming a self-enforcing anomaly.

5. That the wielders of any given monopolistic apparatus of compulsion and aggression use it out of altruistic motives, but if they were to stop using coercive methods (political activity) and instead turn to voluntary methods (market activity), their altruism would be immediately supplanted by base, greed-driven egoism.

6. That states, institutions responsible for some 200.000.000 cruel deaths in the 20th century alone, are supposed to offer protection from “private criminals”, who even in their most organized form of international mafia networks never managed to take even the tiniest fraction of the statist death toll.

7. That the state of anarchy among individuals, each of whom can generally finance his activities out of his private pocket only, would lead to an intolerable escalation of violence and bloodshed, but the state of anarchy among states, each of which can impose the costs of its activities (including warfare) on private individuals, is at least a tolerable and relatively peaceful arrangement.

8. That the lack of an external, monopolistic enforcer of agreements among individuals would lead to endless conflict, but the lack of an external, monopolistic enforcer of agreements among various organs of the state does not prevent them from cooperating effectively and even benevolently.

9. That ceding the task of maintaining justice onto an entity that is both monopolistic and coercive will not lead to it continually perverting justice in its favor. 10. That the notion of checks and balances whereby the rulers control the ruled and the ruled control the rulers does not violate the principle of Occam’s razor, suggestive of the vision in which a single group of self-ruling individuals keeps itself in peaceful balance just fine.

11. That the ruled are wise enough to choose their rulers, but not wise enough to choose the way to use their own money.

12. That a pair of travelers bumping into each other in the middle of a desolate forest do not immediately get at each other’s throats only because they fear being punished by the state.

13. That an institution which forcibly imposes its protective services on others, unilaterally determines their price and excludes all competition in this area will not attempt to benefit from initiating conflicts or letting them develop rather them resolving them or preventing their occurrence.

14. That compulsory expropriation of an individual’s private property need not be considered as a violation of anyone’s rights (given unilaterally determined “due monetary compensation”), but refusing to give up a portion of one’s independently created or contractually acquired belongings is a straightforward violation.

15. That political rights precede property rights, which presumably means that the supposed original social contract was concluded by a bonfire in a cave and written down on the cave wall, or else that the conditions of the pre-contract world allowed for creating the capital necessary to (at least) house the social contractors and provide them with ink and paper in some mysterious, propertyless way.

16. That having a sufficiently large clientele turns what is normally considered a robbery into what is commonly accepted as part of a necessary social service.

17. That a relatively small group of people is capable of possessing more knowledge and making more informed decisions with regard to directing the activities of any given society than the whole rest of the society in question.

18. That the notion of equality before the law leaves place for functional privileges.

19. That unconditional respect for the principle of non-aggression is ‘absolutist’, but unconditional respect for state-legislated law is not.

20. That the prevalence of statism indicates the advantageousness of statism, as if the same could not be once said about astrology, witch-hunting, slavery and legal racial discrimination.

21. That each of the above assertions is solidly justified, both theoretically and empirically, while the negation of any of them lies essentially beyond the pale of reasonable discussion.

Having enumerated these (or other) reasons, it is worthwhile to confront the statist with the task of defending the allegedly moderate character of the doctrine he espouses. And even if he bites the bullet on this one and acknowledges statism’s radicalism, one should unhesitatingly confront him with another, equally difficult task – that of defending statism’s putative coherence. If he admits failure on this score as well, we should not be intellectually surprised, but we might at least feel tactically satisfied.

However, despite feeling thus satisfied, one should not forget that it seems scarcely an exaggeration to say that today’s inhabited world is almost universally statist. Thus, the task facing libertarians remains comprehensive and formidable. Since the shape of social reality is ultimately determined by the ideas people hold, undermining the influence of any given doctrine requires prior understanding of the reasons for both its active espousal and its passive acceptance. Consequently, in order to oppose statism effectively, it is necessary to get a grasp of the factors that make the societies of the world endorse or at least consent to the existence of centralized monopolies of aggression, violence and coercion. What follows is a succinct list of what appear to be the main driving forces behind the phenomenon just described:

1. Intellectual propaganda. The statized education system managed to accomplish a formidable task of creating a number of very potent mental viruses – the theory of social contract, the theory of public and collective goods, the theory of political obligation, various theories of monopoly and other “market failures”, various theories of “positive legislation”, the doctrine of the divine right of kings, etc. The examples could be multiplied ad infinitum. To non-intellectuals these propagandist concoctions oftentimes seem to be serious, rational justifications for obeying the dictates of monopolies of force. To intellectuals, on the other hand, even if they see the (quite flagrant) logical inadequacies of these sophistical constructions, their adoption and propagation usually appears to be one of the safest ways to secure permanent, lucrative and influential job positions.

2. Emotional propaganda. People whose life is by their own admission bland and uninteresting often turn their attention to the antics of various celebrities. Statism never fails to jump on this opportunity to make people emotionally attached to public figures by trying to confer as much notability as possible on politicians, bureaucrats and other high-ranking representatives of the apparatus of institutionalized violence. As a result, the majority of the state’s subjects fall prey to the large-scale version of the Stockholm Syndrome, feeling genuine sympathy for their oppressors even if they do not belong to their immediate electoral clientele.

3. Self-deception. It would seem quite natural to suppose that for the majority of right-minded, decent people the realization that one is being systematically robbed and threatened with severe violence in case of non-subordination is abhorrent to the point of being psychologically unbearable. And yet, since this is precisely what happens under statism, a natural psychological self-defense mechanism for such people is to engage in self-deception and attempt to justify the systematic depravities inflicted upon them. Thus, they are browbeaten into accepting the double “morality” that every rationalization for the ethical distinction between the rulers and the ruled has to rely on.

4. Simple ignorance. It is a sad testimony to the quality of intellectual perspicacity of the majority of the human race that in principle statism can flourish even in the absence of any additional intellectual propaganda on the part of its adherents. As was acutely observed by Bastiat (and reiterated by Hazlitt), it is enough for people to look only at the short-term consequences of a given action, or only at its consequences for a given group, to accept the notion that the apparatus of institutional coercion can create prosperity for some without destroying the prosperity of others. It is of course imperative for the statists to exploit these widespread cognitive deficiencies to the utmost extent.

5. Fear. This element could be understood in a twofold manner. On the one hand, it is fear of responsibility for one’s own life and its shape, which culminates in the conviction that it is desirable to be able to have recourse to an institution capable of forcibly shifting this responsibility onto others. On the other hand, it is a more general horror vacui – fear of independent thinking and acting, fear of living in a world devoid of any ultimate temporal disciplinarian, whose final, indisputable argument is the authoritative argumentum ad baculum, the ability to subordinate a recalcitrant reality by means of legalized (or even sanctified) coercion. After all, it might be quite dispiriting to realize how difficult it would be to accomplish one’s wishes were they not aligned with those of the unquestionable institution just mentioned.

6. Laziness. Drawing on Oppenheimer’s distinction between the economic means and the political means, it can immediately be noticed that using the former to earn one’s bread is time- and effort-consuming, whereas the latter – as soon as the apparatus of institutionalized violence is already in place – can be utilized relatively quickly and effortlessly. Modern-day social democracy epitomizes the redistributive function of the political means. If one can regularly “vote himself” the property of others rather than obtain it through voluntary exchange of independently produced, valuable goods, why shouldn’t he – in the absence of any inhibiting scruples – opt for the former alternative and support the system that enshrines it?

7. Envy. The egalitarian ideology of modern statism, based on the coercive demand that the stream of politically redistributed goods and valuables flow specifically into the hands of those who did nothing to deserve their acquisition, is exceptionally useful in channeling envy and dog-in-the-manger resentment into support for the system that institutionalizes these low and base instincts. Unlike meritocracy, whose results come about through the medium of the totality of voluntary interpersonal interactions, egalitarianism needs to marry statism in order to achieve its envy-driven aims. And since envy is unfortunately a very widespread characteristic, we should not be surprised by the level of backing for the monopolization and centralization of force that it generates.

8. Lust for power. There might be good evolutionary reasons for the contention that human beings are naturally prone to trying to dominate their fellow brothers and sisters. Perhaps noticing that others enjoy a higher standard of living, and consequently higher chances of passing their genes into the future, creates in many an instinctive eagerness to gain similar opportunities in the most convenient manner, even if that means forcibly appropriating someone else’s resources. Be that as it may, we should not forget that a rational morality can be argued to be precisely the tool for disposing of some of the more questionable elements of our putative evolutionary inheritance.

9. Habituation. Statism and its destructive offspring – war, slavery, expropriation and intellectual corruption – have proven themselves to be very resilient and long-lived social plagues. Consequently, it is relatively easy for statists to describe these phenomena as historical, civilizational or even metaphysical necessities. Furthermore, the apparent robustness of monopolies of force allows its rulers and employees to depict non-statist social arrangements as, at best, a radical an precarious unknown, and, at worst, a system prone to endless conflict of everyone against all. Under such conditions, becoming aware and convinced of the viability of voluntarist alternatives, as well as working towards their implementation, is all the more difficult.

10. Resignation. The ultimate goal of statism is to throw every single individual into the state of passivity and lethargic inaction as regards the efforts to shake the parasitic classes off one’s back. This goal is exemplified by fostering the all too known “taxes and death” attitude. Thus, even those unconvinced of the moral or economic necessity of the existence of monopolistic apparatuses of coercion, or even those actively opposed to their existence on intellectual grounds, are supposed to reconcile themselves to the fact that their doubts and objections have absolutely no influence on the shape of binding social arrangements, neither today nor at any time in the future.

Having clearly identified the above factors, libertarians should be able to pursue their fundamental aims with much greater efficiency. As I emphasized at the outset, social reality is ultimately shaped by the ideas held by its inhabitants. Pinpointing the most prevailingly pernicious among them should make it far easier for supporters of freedom to counter their symptoms and fight their root causes successfully.

I would argue that the following count among the most effective methods of pursuing this fight:

1. Entrepreneurship, which is the fullest expression of liberty, is based on shrewdness, ingenuity, and tactical perspicacity. Political power, which is the diametric opposite of liberty, is ponderous, anachronistic, and perpetually behind the curve. Hence, a great window of opportunity to prove themselves opens up for all those who possess entrepreneurial talent – especially if it is coupled with technological talent – a window of opportunity to create solutions that allow for circumventing political power’s sphere of influence, and thus for undermining the belief in its indispensability. This is precisely how Bitcoin slowly sterilizes the power of central banks, the Internet erodes political control over the flow of information and the enforceability of “intellectual property rights”, and arbitration agencies reduce the role of legislation. In addition, the emergence of such solutions offers a clear illustration of the fact that effective entrepreneurship not only does not need political protection, but actually thrives to the extent that it is free from its influence.

2. One should use every possible opportunity to promote sound economic knowledge, which describes the process whereby individuals and their voluntary associations build their well-being on the basis of free exchange of goods and services in an environment of respect for property rights, unhampered competition, and spontaneously emerging price system. In other words, there is never too much of Bastiat and Hazlitt, be it among family members, friends, or colleagues. The more widespread this knowledge gets, and the more obvious its message becomes, the greater will be the social pressure to regain ever more areas of freedom of action understood as a precondition of personal well-being.

3. It is worthwhile to use every possible opportunity to promote the feeling of self-reliance, self-governance, and entrepreneurial initiative at the most local level possible. The goal of this activity is to bring about the greatest possible fragmentation and decentralization of all kinds of political structures, which is likely to lead to much greater economic integration of the territories under their control. This is a logical conclusion stemming from the fact that the smaller a given political organism is, the less capable it is of draining the vital forces of the local economy and hampering its spontaneous development, and the less resources it can devote to that purpose. In the most optimistic case, the ultimate culmination of such a decentralization process would be the emergence of a genuinely free and genuinely global economy composed of hundreds of thousands or even millions of independent economic zones, neighborhood associations, charter cities, and other forms of contractual, propertarian arrangements integrated through free trade and the global division of labor.

4. It is worthwhile to build in our social circles the most cosmopolitan atmosphere possible, an atmosphere that underscores the moral irrelevance of all affiliations that are not the result of a voluntary choice (including, for instance, ethnic affiliations), the moral universality of the principles of peaceful human coexistence, and the economic benefits stemming from it. It is important to bear in mind that in all likelihood it is precisely the instinctive attribution of moral meaning to ethnic affiliations that is the main driving force of oppressive political entities known as nation-states, together will all the armed conflicts that take place between them. Relegating all sentiments associated with such affiliations to purely aesthetic categories would be a very significant step on the road to initiating the decentralization processes described in the previous point, together with all their positive consequences.

5. Finally, as time and opportunities permit, it is worthwhile to engage in all kinds of charitable and philanthropic activities, especially if one can make one’s efforts in this context truly effective thanks to one’s entrepreneurial talent. The existence of such enterprises is always a clear sign for the broader community that effective help for the needy has its origin not in the will of “political authorities”, but in the grassroots efforts of free individuals and their voluntary associations, whose philanthropic initiative does not die even when the bulk of their resources is confiscated by the “authorities” in question. In other words, it is a signal showing that a consistent diminution of the influence of political power not only increases the scope of freedom of action, but also the scope of the most morally beneficial, natural consequence of this freedom, which is authentic charity.

Persistent implementation of the above methods of advancing the cause of liberty, which comprise the evolutionary process of technological progress, development of free enterprise, universalization of access to free knowledge, and increasing cultural interconnection should eventually lead humankind to reject the most irrational and destructive elements of its historical heritage, whose most well-organized and pernicious manifestation is precisely statism. One should hope that supporters of liberty will remain patient and determined in pursuing this goal.

The Methodology of the Austrian School of Economics: The Present State of Knowledge

This paper is an attempt to systematize the methodological insights and contributions of the Austrian School of Economics and present them in their most up-to-date elaboration, thereby building on the earlier literature on the subject. It aims to improve on the publications listed above in two aspects. First, it takes into account the most recent conceptual developments that address some of the common misunderstandings of the Austrian methodological position, as well as some of its more insightful contemporary criticisms. Second, it organizes the presentation of the relevant material around several clearly specified methodological dimensions, while, in contrast to most of the abovementioned literature, keeping the description of the historical background behind the development of the Austrian method to an absolute minimum, as well as leaving out the non-methodological differences between the ASE and its intellectual rivals, thus aiming to make the presentation in question maximally focused and thematically unified.

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Three Reasons Why There is No Such Thing as Positive Rights

1. Rights, by definition, are universal, meaning that everyone can exercise them, even simultaneously. For instance, everyone can simultaneously exercise one’s right to property without generating any necessary conflict of interests, let alone a logical contradiction. But since exercising a "positive right" means coercing another to provide one with a specific good or service, everyone attempting to exercise a "positive right" simultaneously results in no one being able to exercise it, since where everyone wants to take, there is no one left to take from.

2. Rights, being by definition universal, hold true regardless of time and place. For instance, the right to property was as valid in the early Neolithic as it is today. However, “positive rights” are often “rights” to goods and services whose wide availability is a recent phenomenon. It would be preposterous to claim that, say, the “right” to education held true in the early Neolithic, since education in the modern sense of the term did not exist at that time. This indicates that this and other recently invented “rights” are not genuine rights, but modern privileges.

3. Genuine rights cannot clash. For instance, exercising one’s right to property does not violate any right of anyone else. On the contrary, since exercising a "positive right" means coercing another to provide one with a specific good or service, it necessarily violates another’s right to liberty and property, and thus necessarily generates a clash of rights. This indicates that only one of these rights – the one that can be exercised without generating a necessary conflict of interests – is a genuine right rather than a disguised privilege.