January 30, 2021

Polite Totalitarianism: the nub of a theory

A libertarian connection in 1973

Mr. Neff is senior editor of The Last Ditch.

In 1968, Natalee Hall and Skye D'Aureous (noms de guerre of Sandy Shaw and Durk Pearson) founded the anarcho-free-market publication Libertarian Connection (LC). Subscribers to the publication not only received their issues (approximately every six weeks), but they were entitled to publish in LC. Subscribers could send in two pages per issue (more pages at $1 per page), typed on mimeograph stencils. Their articles were published without being edited (or corrected). The whole issue was run off with page numbers and a table of contents on a mimeograph machine. Empty spaces were filled in with ads or brief remarks from the publishers. The issue was held together by staples. Each issue could be anywhere from 30 to 70 pages long, and each subscription lasted until the subscriber had received more than 200 pages. Every now and then a "special issue" would appear.

In some ways, it was the precursor of websites, blogs (with their comments), and Twitter.

Even Murray Rothbard, Karl Hess, and Roy Childs published articles in LC. Other writers who showed up from time to time were Tibor Machan, Steve Holbrook, Phillip Abbott Luce, Sharon Presley, Robert Poole, Louis Rollins (who later copied the format for his own periodical, INVICTU$), Paul Varnell, and David Friedman.

One of the themes that Hall and D'Aureous developed (in more than one issue) was that justice (like beauty) was a "first order" economic good, even though we don't feel about them the way we feel about other economic goods (e.g., bars of soap). Therefore, making use of Ludwig von Mises's insight that producers' goods were inherently more efficiently produced by the free market than by the controlled market, they concluded that states were inherently inefficient and, indeed, cybernetically unstable.

While I recognized the essential validity of their argument, there was a sticking point for me. I wrote an article asking Lee (as she was called) and Skye to address the point, and they did, in the same issue, although not entirely to my satisfaction. I later recognized that my "sticking point" was the nub of what I came to call Polite Totalitarianism.

In the interest of tracking the origin of an idea, then, I offer that article for reprinting. It comes from Libertarian Connection, Issue No. 13, August 26, 1973.


What Goes? A Question for Natalee and Skye

I have been impressed by Natalee's and Skye's recent articles on the economic status of abstract goods and the implications their arguments have for libertarian strategy. There is, however, one fact that seems to me to stand in contradiction to their position and I am surprised that no one has said anything about it before now. I raise the issue here not because I think they can have no answer, but because I can't think of one and I'd like to see it answered. Hopefully, they will publish a reply in this issue.

The fact I have in mind is the production of a certain good. It is an economic good because there are (unfortunately, many) people who want it and it is scarce. (Actually, it is abundant and is becoming more so. But because there is not so much that those who want it can have all they want, it is economically scarce.) The disturbing fact about this good is that its production is not guided by a profit/loss error signal. The good is slavery.

The enslavement of others is the goal of every statist in the world and is the object of their action. To be sure, most statists do not themselves want to be slaves, but they do want others to be slaves and they spend much of their time and energy seeing that they (the statists) get to be masters. Like the "first order goods" of beauty and freedom, we do not feel the same about slavery as we do about bars of soap, but slavery, like freedom, can only be achieved by reordering natural resources (in the old days these resources were used to make whips and chains; today they are used to make computers, paper, etc.) and by mixing those resources with labor (in the old days, they hired overseers and guards; today they hire tax collectors, secret police, etc.).

The rub is that slavery is being produced more and more efficiently without the benefit of the kind of information profits yield. Indeed, the most efficient producers of slavery — governments — seem to come closer to complete slavery by losing money and by inefficiently allocating their resources. To make matters worse, governments are not market phenomena. (Imagine a laissez-faire statist — contradiction? not anymore! — saying: "Since slavery is an economic good, we could probably produce it better by putting it on the free market!" But the whole point of free-market anarchism is that slavery would be less likely to emerge in a free-market society than elsewhere.)

It will not do simply to say that since slavery involves the use of initiated force it is not an economic good and therefore that enslavement is not a market phenomenon. Employing the same test Natalee and Skye used to show that justice is an economic good, I have shown that slavery also is an economic good. Consequently, more is required than just countering my argument with another argument; it must be shown where my argument has gone wrong.

Here, then, is how things stand: slavery, an economic good, is being efficiently produced by non-market phenomena and without the benefit of a profit-loss feedback mechanism. But Natalee's and Skye's case depends on the universal that all economic goods can be produced efficiently only by market phenomena using profits as an error signal. What goes? Ω

January 30, 2021

© 2021 Ronald N. Neff
Published in 2021 by WTM Enterprises.

Notice to visitors who came straight to this document from off site: You are deep in The Last Ditch. Please check out our home page and table of contents.