Libertarians believe that individuals should be free to engage in any peaceful activity without governmental permission or interference. It is one of the duties of government, libertarians hold, to protect, not regulate or obstruct, peaceful activities. Thus, libertarians believe that all licensure laws should be abolished because individuals have the right to engage in any enterprise without political interference. All taxes — especially income taxes — should be abolished because individuals have the right to accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth without political interference.
All welfare programs should be abolished because it is morally wrong for a person to take what doesn’t belong to him, even when it is done through the political process. All regulatory laws should be abolished because individuals have the right to pursue mutually beneficial transactions with others without political interference.
The contrast with Democrats and Republicans, then, is marked. They believe that people are simply cogs in a great national wheel and that they exist for the primary purpose of serving the greater good of society. Leftists and conservatives also believe that an evil act, such as theft, can be converted into a moral, compassionate deed by simply running it through the political process. Thus, they favor — and ardently embrace — such schemes of political plunder as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and public schooling.
Democrats and Republicans believe that there is nothing wrong with the state’s requiring people to seek a license or other form of permission to engage in work. And they see nothing wrong with the state’s regulating the peaceful activities of people. After all, since (in the minds of leftists and conservatives) people exist to serve society, why shouldn’t the state regulate how people engage in such service?
Central to the leftist and conservative mindset is one central principle: It is legitimate and proper for the state to initiate force against people in the attempt to alter or regulate their peaceful behavior.
This is in stark contrast to the central tenet of libertarianism: It is morally wrong to initiate force against others who are simply pursuing peaceful ends in their lives. Pursuant to this principle of nonaggression, libertarians believe that the proper role of governmental force is defensive: to punish murderers, rapists, thieves, and the like; to protect the United States from attack or invasion; and, through the judiciary, to arbitrate disputes between people. Libertarians would end all governmental functions that fall outside those principles: for example, the governmental wars on drugs, illiteracy, racism, immigrants, and poverty. Libertarians would end all social-welfare and regulatory departments and agencies of government, including HUD, HHS, Labor, Agriculture, Energy, Education, Commerce, DEA, and ATF. In sum, libertarians would end, not reduce or reform, all nonessential functions of government.
It is not difficult, then, to differentiate the political goals of leftists and conservatives from those of libertarians. The former wish to gain control over the levers of power in order to preside over the billions of dollars spent by the socialistic welfare state and to exercise the power and influence that comes with such largess. Libertarians wish to gain control over the levers of power to dismantle all of this junk.
In the last few years, however, a serious problem has arisen within the libertarian movement, especially in the political realm, that threatens to push libertarians into the camp of leftists and conservatives. More and more libertarians are taking positions that call not for the dismantling of the state’s welfare and regulatory functions, but rather for their more efficient operation. Moreover, the positions they are taking entail a violation of the core tenet of libertarianism — the noninitiation of force against a person engaged simply in peaceful pursuits.
For example, some libertarians, both in the ideological and political arenas, are calling for replacing the national income tax with a national sales tax. They say that it is necessary for libertarians to gain the respect of the public at large and, therefore, that it is necessary to be practical by compromising the principles of libertarianism. But what these libertarians refuse to address are the moral consequences associated with their abandonment of principle.
A sales tax, like any other tax, involves the initiation of force against a peaceful person. Suppose a libertarian is elected president and persuades the Congress to adopt his plan to replace the national income tax with a national sales tax. Suppose that several months later, a businessman refuses to remit to the government the sales tax revenues he has collected. The businessman declares, “I’ve decided not to send this money to the government. I can spend the money better than politicians and bureaucrats.”
At this point, the government’s sales-tax agents levy a lien on the businessman’s property and initiate foreclosure proceedings. A foreclosure sale is held at the federal courthouse, and the property is sold to a third party. The buyer takes his deed and claims his property. The tax resister says, “You’re not taking my property.”
The new owner shows up with sheriffs and marshals and a writ of possession issued by a federal judge. The law-enforcement officers surround the building and order the tax resister to vacate, pursuant to the court order. The tax resister says, “You’re not taking my property from me — not without a fight.”
What does the libertarian president do at this point? Does he permit the governmental agents to go in shooting? If so, how does he reconcile that with the libertarian nonaggression principle?
Or does he unilaterally cancel the new owner’s deed and the judicial writ of possession? Or does he order the law-enforcement officers simply to ignore the deed and the federal judge’s writ? Would those be grounds for impeachment? What would be the president’s explanation and defense? That he doesn’t believe in taxation? But it’s his sales tax!
Suppose a libertarian is elected sheriff or constable, a realistic possibility today. Does he serve a warrant for the arrest of a drug suspect? Suppose the suspect resists arrest. Does the libertarian use necessary force to take him into custody? What about a libertarian prosecutor? Does he prosecute drug defendants? Does he tell juries that their consciences should reign supreme over the drug laws and the instructions of the judge? What if a libertarian is elected state district judge? Does he sentence a drug user to time in the penitentiary?
The underlying issue here is: Should libertarians be seeking offices in which they become, directly or indirectly, enforcing agents of the tyrannical state? Or should they limit the offices they seek to those positions that have the power to repeal, dismantle, abolish, and terminate the tyrannical aspects of the state?
Recently, there has been a movement by some libertarians toward gaining positions on regulatory boards and agencies. These offices interfere with people’s peaceful pursuits but have no power of abolition. What is the role of a libertarian in such cases?
There seem to be four main rationales for seeking these bureaucratic positions. First, to use the position as a platform to continually call for the abolition of the agency. Second, to obstruct the operation of the agency, e.g., by denying meetings their quorum by deliberate nonattendance. Third, to limit the damage that would be done if a libertarian were not on the board. Fourth, to gain respectability and credibility among nonlibertarian citizens.
All of these justifications for bureaucratic power are fraught with danger. Once a libertarian becomes an agent of the socialistic welfare state or a state regulator, it is relatively easy to become seduced into trying to do a good job. To be constantly calling for the abolition of the agency won’t address the hard, real-world problems that arise in the regular business of the agency. People might grow tired of hearing the libertarian bureaucrat constantly haranguing each meeting with “I think this agency should be abolished.” He might even come off looking a little foolish. After all, if he believes the agency should be abolished, people might wonder what he’s doing serving on it.
While obstruction of most bureaucratic operations would certainly be beneficial, shouldn’t a libertarian be up front with his intentions when he seeks appointment or election? If not, won’t people consider the libertarian something of a fraud for not being totally candid about why he was seeking the position in the first place? And if the libertarian is honest about his intent to obstruct, how likely is he to gain the bureaucratic position?
The third and fourth reasons seem to be the most popular among libertarians seeking roles within the socialistic welfare state and regulated society. They are often given by libertarians seeking positions on local school boards. Such libertarians claim that by reducing “waste, fraud, and abuse” in public schooling, they are gaining credibility and respect from their fellow citizens.
It would be difficult to find a better example of socialistic central planning than public schooling. A central board of governmental officials — whether at a national, state, or local level — plan, in a top-down fashion, the educational decisions of thousands or millions of children. The officials are guilty of what Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek called a “pretense of knowledge” — believing that they possess the requisite knowledge to plan the educational needs and interests of every single child.
The results of public schooling are the same as with every other socialistic program. The product is shoddy. And the love of learning among many young people is destroyed. But most important, libertarians know that as a socialistic program, public schooling can never be made to work. This point cannot be sufficiently emphasized: Public schooling is inherently defective, no matter who is running it. Moreover, public schooling boards have no power of abolition. Only the state legislature can abolish public schooling.
But some libertarians insist that they can run these types of socialistic programs better and more efficiently than Democrats and Republicans. They also want to use public schooling to expose children to libertarian thought.
Is this what we want libertarianism to become? Libertarians becoming better managers of the socialistic welfare and regulatory state than leftists and conservatives? Libertarians using coercion and indoctrination to achieve their ends? And how does the libertarian morally justify his initiation of force against peaceful people with his forcible collection of school taxes? Does he respond that he’s not personally collecting the taxes? Wouldn’t that apply to most bureaucrats?
Another example: zoning, an activity in which the government controls what people do with their own property. Traditionally, libertarians have called for the abolition of zoning. But some libertarians are now saying, “Let’s get on the zoning boards so that we can run them more efficiently and perhaps even help our friends with zoning variances.”
Is this what we want libertarianism to become? Libertarians gaining bureaucratic power in order to more effectively utilize the power of the state? Is this the message that libertarians wish to give to the American people — that libertarians will make better, more efficient plunderers and regulators than Democrats and Republicans?
There is also the possibility that libertarian bureaucrats will become part of the problem. I learned this danger long ago when I lived along the Texas-Mexican border. The Mexican political party — the PRI — which had virtually the same monopolistic powers over the Mexican political system the Democratic-Republican machine has over the American political system, always knew how to deal with a popular dissident outside the party. They would offer him a job within the bureaucracy. They knew that once the dissident became part of the PRI political machine, he would, slowly but surely, become one of them.
Libertarians are as subject to Lord Acton’s dictum as anyone else. Power, influence, prestige, and adulation are intoxicating. With enough of the bureaucratic elixir, even the most ardent libertarian purist can become drunk.
The achievement of freedom in the near term is possible. But it will come only through an unswerving devotion to the dismantling, not the reduction or reform, of the socialistic welfare state and the regulated society. Compromise and concealment of libertarian principles are not the road to take. And neither is making libertarians efficient managers of tyranny. Only an unwavering dedication to libertarian principles — and the persistent determination to achieve our goal — will get us the freedom for which we yearn.