If libertarians want to change how nonlibertarians’ think about government, they will need to understand how nonlibertarians think about government. By “nonlibertarians,” I mean the majority of people who spend little if any time pondering political theory, or what Murray Rothbard called political ethics. They may focus at times on particular government programs and actions, or on proposals for new programs, but rarely about government as an institution.
This is not hard to understand. We all come into a world full of national governments that present themselves as providers of a social safety net, guarantors of products and services, protectors of workers, defenders of the national borders, and dispensers of benefits to an assortment of deserving groups (farmers, exporters, too-big-to-fail banks, low-income people, and so on). This is all represented as indispensable to the general welfare.
So for most people, the welfare, or social-service, state is a natural, ever-present part of the landscape. This is reinforced through their “education” in government schools. Few ever question its necessity, much less wonder what life would be like without it. Some people may think the government goes too far (or not far enough) in this matter or that, but the social-service state itself never comes under examination. Its morality is implicitly assumed on the basis of how commonplace it is.
So how can libertarians speak to these people in a way they will understand? How do we get them to question deeply held beliefs that may never have been articulated? My basic advice is to start by trying to see government as they see it. This may be distasteful, but if you want to persuade people, what else are you going to do? Without this, you might as well be speaking in a foreign language.
It is self-defeating to seem to be condemning people for their reliance on or support of the various welfare-state programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Exhorting them to self-reliance will have little effect, especially since it exposes the libertarian to an apparent contradiction. After all, no libertarian would criticize people who buy insurance policies on their homes, cars, health or lives. Nor would we disparage members of the old mutual-aid societies, who drew cash benefits when sick, injured, or unemployed. Why not? Doesn’t this show a lack of self-reliance, a rejection of “rugged individualism”?
“That’s different,” some will say. “Unlike insurance and mutual aid, government assistance is coercive.”
Exactly! What I’m getting at is that people’s attraction to government-provided social services is not the problem (they believe they pay for them through taxes), because similar services offered in the voluntary sector (for-profit or mutual) would be not only unobjectionable but salutary.
Since that’s the case, the libertarian approach should focus on the flawed political method by which the services are provided, not the purported objects of the services themselves — security. We must demonstrate that people cooperating in freed markets (not to be confused with today’s corporatist economy) would be better providers than the state.
This principle is applicable in a variety of other areas. The government regulates or inspects products and services, and licenses an increasing number of occupations, in the name of consumer protection. Since people’s preference for consumer protection in itself is unassailable, the libertarian critique of government in this area shouldn’t imply that those who want help in looking out for shoddy products and dishonest, incompetent providers are irrational. They are just unaware of a better, more moral alternative.
The same goes for workers who worry about their vulnerability to arbitrary dismissal or onerous demands. Again, libertarians do not look askance at individuals who sign contracts specifying the conditions, including the term, of employment. The quest for some certainty about such things seems reasonable in that context. Other things equal, most people would prefer not to be in a position in which they could lose their jobs without notice because the boss had a bad day. This is especially so when the government’s central bank is in the habit of generating bubbles and consequent busts, which can bring long-term layoffs and permanent unemployment — something that could not happen in a freed market.
In all these cases, the problem, again, is with the means — provision through the state — not the ends. The world is inherently uncertain. No one can be sure what tomorrow will bring. So the wish to create islands of relative security in an insecure world — a safety net, if you will — is only rational. The libertarian job is to convince people that, on two counts, government provision is a bad way to secure a good end. First, it is morally wrong because it requires compulsion — the threat of physical violence — starting with taxation. And second, as a consequence of the first feature, state provision is inferior to private provision because it is outside the free and competitive market, a process that, unlike the political realm, ties rewards to customer service and stimulates entrepreneurial discovery, which makes products and services better and cheaper.
For example, market-based consumer protection would be superior to the government’s ersatz version precisely because it would be market-based — that is, offered by competitors trying to prosper by demonstrating competence, establishing reputations, and winning the favor of customers. We see such organizations today — Underwriters Laboratories, Consumer Reports, and, thanks to the Internet, Angie’s List and many others — but they would become even more widespread and more important with the removal of the government’s illusion of protection. (That people use these services demonstrates that they have little faith in government protection.)
Consumers would also be better protected if producers had no shelter whatever from free competition (which all licensing, permits, and costly regulation provide to some extent) and no prospect of government subsidies, bailouts, or other privileges, such as limited liability for damages or immunity from lawsuits because minimum government standards were complied with.
Bureaucrats face perverse incentives compared with those faced by participants in freed markets. The officials who run government agencies have no money at risk, and the people (as taxpayers) have no choice but to put up with them. (What do you do if you think the head of the FDA, FCC, FTC is incompetent?) Moreover, government agencies are easily subject to regulatory capture, by which the well-connected among the regulated influence or control the regulators — leaving consumers out in the cold with only a false sense of security, which is worse than none at all. (Historically, big firms have favored government regulation over the unpredictable competition of the marketplace, which can make market share a fleeting thing.)
In other words, consumers would be safer without government protection. But that counterintuitive claim must be patiently demonstrated, not merely insisted on. (One disadvantage for libertarians is that most people are ignorant of economics.)
Similarly, workers who look to government for protection from capricious bosses unwittingly leave themselves vulnerable to insidious co-optation by “labor leaders” whose higher priority is sitting at the corporate state’s conference table with the big boys. Real protection would be found in truly worker-based organizations whose rules were not written by a Washington bureaucracy to accommodate the insiders.
Even more important, abolition of the myriad ways by which government rigs the market would maximize workers’ bargaining power. These ways include the many impediments to starting small-scale home-based businesses and cooperative neighborhood enterprises, impediments that harm low-income people most of all, who are already hampered by the rotten product delivered by government schools. Killing occupational licensing, permit regimes, zoning, intellectual property, and eminent domain would only begin to free us from this virtually guild-ridden economic system.
Libertarians understand that government — because it operates through force and faces no market test from customers free to say no — offers inferior services even when they would be perfectly legitimate if offered privately. (However, not everything the government does would have a legitimate counterpart in the private sector. Some “services” are intrinsically aggressive.) Libertarians also understand that trusting government to provide those services is a tragic mistake, because bureaucracies inexorably come under the control of those with the most political sway, no matter what the progressives say. On net and contrary to the politicians’ propaganda, wealth tends to be transferred up, not down. That’s how things work.
Libertarians understand these things, or ought to, but most other people don’t. Instead, they see government as a vast mutual-aid society (even if they are unfamiliar with that term): You pay your dues (taxes) and you draw benefits when you qualify under the various programs. If you don’t pay your dues, you are penalized because you agreed to pay them. (Agreed? Presumably by not leaving the country — a highly dubious assumption.) If you don’t like the rules, vote for people who will change them.
Advocates of individual freedom are unlikely to make progress if they don’t educate other people on what’s wrong with this picture.