Projecting a free society

Is there a point to thinking about what a really free society could be like when freedom seems to be going down the drain? There is, as a matter of keeping a sane outlook. When we’re in a state of “war” with no prospect of an end, when governments are spending their way into bankruptcy and looking for more things to spend our money on, when we need to prove we’re allowed to work for a living, when traveling by air means submitting to the whims of goons, and when progressives and conservatives say that all this proves that we must have more government control as a remedy, it’s impossible to answer it all a piece at a time. It’s necessary to have an alternative vision rather than just fighting a futile defensive action. Even if there’s nothing left but to go down fighting, it’s better to fight for a vision worth having than just for the freedom to unlock a phone or to travel without having your luggage vandalized.

I don’t claim to have all the answers for what a fully free society would be like. There are serious issues to be resolved in finding non-coercive solutions to some situations. But the lack of an immediate solution is only a reason to look harder. To the extent that people coerce others in order to get what they want, there’s a moral problem. The big goal of libertarianism isn’t to reduce government spending or to increase its efficiency, but to get rid of coercion as a social tool.

There are several common objections to the possibility of non-coercive solutions to societal problems, and a thorough response requires addressing them. Here are some:

(1) The problem of poverty. “Without coercive redistribution of wealth, some people would starve.” This is one of the weakest arguments. Governments do more to create poverty than to alleviate it. Through history, poverty has been largely the result of unequal application of the law. Rulers and politicians need the poor in order to give the impression of helping them. Eliminate cronyism, barriers to entry in business, and burdens on hiring, and the level of poverty would be much lower. Private help would be more than capable of helping those genuinely incapable of earning a living.

(2) The free-rider problem. “There’s no way for private business to produce X and get paid by those who benefit from it, because people can get the benefits for free.” This is essentially the argument behind the DMCA and other draconian copyright legislation. This issue needs to be addressed in detail, but in many cases legislative attempts to make free riders pay just perpetuate ineffective business models. Letting some people have free rides may be the lesser evil in many cases.

(3) The natural monopoly problem. With some goods and services, economies of scale and distribution make sustainable competition difficult. Roads and water supplies are examples. This issue does need serious work, and some free market economists have addressed it. One part of the solution is recognizing that property rights don’t apply in the same way in all contexts. We already recognize that unauthorized parking in a parking lot can’t be treated quite the same way as unauthorized parking on your front lawn, and owners of private roads don’t have the right to charge a million dollars for crossing the street.

It isn’t necessary to solve all these problems completely for every possible case to regard the minimization (if not elimination) of coercive transactions as a moral ideal to pursue. If, in the ideal world, people still are compelled to pay for police patrols, it’s still a world worth aiming for.

For most of human history, people couldn’t imagine a world without slavery. Essential services wouldn’t be performed! The ex-slaves would starve! The economy would collapse! Yet slavery has been pushed to the corners of civilization, even if it’s never been eliminated. The vast majority, if not all, of the coercive means of getting one’s way can likewise be outlawed, made something to hunt down and eliminate rather than something to get elected to do. It’s a long road that could take centuries to follow, but I can hope that people will someday be much further along it, rather than backing into authoritarianism.

One Response to “Projecting a free society”

  1. Eyal Mozes Says:

    Gary, I really think that when you keep talking about how insane the US is and about how “freedom seems to be going down the drain”, you are looking at things out of context.

    Think back to what the US was like during your childhood and teens. There was a military draft. The federal income tax rate for the top income bracket was 91%. Many states had laws forbidding miscegenation and inter-racial marriage, abortions, and “sodomy”. I can go on with many such examples, but the basic point should be clear; during your and my lifetime the US has made great strides in achieving more freedom and a saner politics.

    Yes, since 2001 there have been some serious setbacks, and we should feel concerned and outraged about them. But they don’t come even close in magnitude to the gains we’ve had over the longer term.

    I have some advantage here in that any time I start feeling too depressed about loss of freedom in the US, all I have to do is go visit my family in Israel; this gives me a clear reminder of how much freedom we do have here compared to other countries. You may not be able to do that; but you should still be able to see the long-term trend here in the US. Concern about recent problems is no reason to lose perspective.

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