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Leave Me Out of It!
Debates between libertarians and those who advocate any kind of statist intervention frequently take the form of “X should happen vs. X should not happen”. For example a budding libertarian might argue “the post office should be privatised!” whereas his opponent may cry “the post office should be state owned!”
Lost in these kinds of exchanges is the fact that libertarianism is a norm concerning the application of violence and nothing more (and, ultimately, all political philosophies are theories concerning which rights to property may be enforced by violence). Libertarians do not, therefore, necessarily stand against any kind of social or economic organisation per se; even socialised or communal property is perfectly fine so long as all of the participants in the commune have contributed their shares voluntarily, and have agreed to abide by its rules of distribution. Rather, our strenuous objection is to the use of use of violence to enforce these forms of social organisation upon unwilling participants.
There is, of course, much that the state does which is irrevocably violent and, thus, indefensible to libertarians, whether its offensive wars, assassinations, spying on the citizenry, and so on. Indeed, most of these things are simply indefinable without reference to their violent nature, and so whoever perpetrates them on whichever terms would be breaching the libertarian ethic.But there is a whole lot else that the state does which is not necessarily violent, and could be carried out peacefully or voluntarily: healthcare, policing, roads, and so on. Carrying out these functions becomes violent only through a) the fact that people are forced to pay for them through their taxes, and b) competing services can be forcibly prevented from (or otherwise hindered in) operating.
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With this in mind then, let us suggest some novel retorts in debates that may cause one’s opponent – whether the latter is either part of the statist intellectual bodyguard or merely an Average Joe expressing a casual opinion - to sharpen his/her mind towards consideration of the fact that what they are really asking for is unilateral, violent enforcement by the state.
Statist: “All healthcare should be run by the state. It should be free. The NHS is a great thing”.
Libertarian: “I have no problem whatsoever with you paying into something called the “National Health Service” if you want to alleviate the burden of you falling ill. But why do you want to force me to do it as well when I don’t want it?”
Statist: “Of course we need the state to build the roads!!!”
Libertarian: “If you want to pay the state to build your roads then go ahead and do so. I, however, would like to patronise privately built roads, and I won’t go anywhere near the roads that you are paying for. Why do you want to force me to pay for the roads that you want when I don’t want to force you to pay for the ones that I want?”
Statist: [Ignoring the fact that Britain’s railways are emphatically not privatised]: “Bring back British Rail! The railways should be state owned!”
Libertarian: “I’m perfectly happy for you to choose to pay this organisation that you call “the state” to run railways you want to travel on. But I don’t want to travel on those trains. Why must I be forced to support them?”
Statist: “Of course we need the state! What would happen to crime if there wasn’t the police!”
Libertarian: “If you wish to make contributions to the state’s policing so that they will protect you from crime then go right ahead. I really don’t want to stop you at all, it’s your money. But I would rather pay someone else to protect me from crime. Why do you want to force me to pay for your preferred provider and not mine?”
Statist: “Taxes should be raised to provide vital funding for important state functions”.
Libertarian: “If you want to write a cheque to the Treasury then go right ahead, the freedom is all yours. But why are you forcing me to pay for an organisation that I despise and wish to have nothing to do with? I’m perfectly happy to let you spend your money just the way you want it, but when I want to spend my money just the way I want it you’re saying I should be thrown in jail! Why?!”
Statist: “All industries should be nationalised and run for the people, not for greedy profit-seeking shareholders”.
Libertarian: “It’s perfectly fine for you to pool all your money and your possessions with those of like-minded people so as to set up socialised industry. There is absolutely nothing wrong with mutual organisations, co-operatives, or even communes if that’s what you want to do yourself. But I want to invest my money in profit-making industry and earn a return on my investment. I’m more than willing to leave you alone to do what you want with your money, just leave me alone to do what I want with mine.”
No doubt many other examples could be imagined by the reader, but, in short, your reply to all of them is “just leave me out of it!” The key effect of this is your opponent’s realisation that, whereas you, the libertarian, are advocating peaceful co-existence (and have absolutely no problem with organisations that they may champion), they, on the other hand, are arguing for the violent imposition of what they want on you. Few who argue in favour of statist intervention are likely to understand that they are, in fact, proposing a solution of violence to society’s alleged ills, and that they are, therefore, thoroughly violent people.
So next time you, as a libertarian, are stuck in such a debate, see how kindly your opponent takes to the realisation that, when laid bare and shorn of any fanciful rhetoric, their arguments are advocating nothing more than for society to be run by guns pointed at the many by the few.
The state itself is also an organisation defined by its use of violence, i.e. its claim to the right to levy taxation and to enforce its decisions violently over a given territory. As such, the state is the one institution which libertarians oppose by virtue of its existence.