That truth should be silent I had almost forgot.
Antony and Cleopatra,  Act 1, Scene 2

Unsilent Truth
May 14, 2002


The benchmark



Last week I attended a gathering at which Nathaniel Branden spoke on the difficulties of bringing people to see the merits and requirements of political liberty. At the end of the question-and-answer period, he expressed his doubt that libertarians would ever achieve their full vision of a free society, which in his view includes and requires the existence of a limited government. The reason he gave was this: once libertarians have achieved 70 percent of what they want, things will be so wonderful and citizens so prosperous that no one will have the energy to work for the other 30 percent; there will be so little need for it that it just won't get done.

Jacob Hornberger — whose Future of Freedom Foundation sponsored the event — closed the evening by remarking that the benchmark he has in mind is the closing of the IRS by the last IRS employee, who locks the doors to the empty office building and walks down a street crowded with cheering libertarians.

And on many occasions I have heard another champion of liberty (who was not at the FFF event) say that if only we could get back to the Constitution, as far as he was concerned, "You can keep the change."

In short, all three of these men, who have spent their lives defending the life of liberty against the assertions and incursions of tyranny, have said that they would be willing to settle for something less than full political liberty. Certainly none of them would object if a higher level of liberty were attained — who would? — but each of them describes a point short of complete liberty at which he would be satisfied. Since none of them is a policy wonk — we expect policy wonks to sell out liberty and make compromises all the time — what is there about them that might explain why they would be willing for some small measure of tyranny to survive and continue in an otherwise largely free society?

The theme that unites them, I submit, is that they all start out advocating or tolerating what they call a limited government. All of them reject free-market anarchism completely or are at least uneasy about it and doubt its feasibility.

When you see the state (or "government" as they prefer to call it) as necessary — even as a necessary evil — you perforce accept the use of initiated force and violence as socially necessary. And if necessary, then legitimate. These writers would all deny that government represents an initiation of force, but not one of them can tell you how a government could come into existence without it. Not one of them can design or describe a government that does not engage in inherently criminal behavior. Not one of them can even imagine a government that does not invade markets and create special interests. They might all talk about such governments, but that is not quite the same thing. It's easy to talk about a perpetual-motion machine, quite another to design one, and still another to build it.

Once having conceded the necessity of initiating force in order to create the imaginary limited government, an intellectual will be led by the logic of his position to find similarly acceptable whatever level of force is necessary to maintain the existence of that state. That explains why so many supposed libertarians — though not the ones I was speaking of — have found the War on Terrorism unobjectionable: this limited government, this "freest government that has ever existed" is thought to be under attack and in danger. Therefore, some violations of liberty are acceptable, perhaps necessary, in order to defend it — and in that case, they must say, those violations are justified, moral, and virtuous. Just what they will accept in the way of violations differs from one to another, but that is not the point. The point is that, for them, it is necessary in some circumstances to "do something," even when there are no constitutional alternatives available for the doing. What they imagine is that unless we tolerate some infractions, liberty will be totally lost; therefore we must tolerate the infractions and then work to undo them later. We must suppose that "later" means "some time at which liberty is not under assault from outside."

It is bad enough that liberty can always be thought to be under assault from some outside force, but even worse is that there is no objective standard by which one can determine how much infraction of liberty is acceptable, even after all our enemies have been subdued; there is no objective standard by which one can determine how limited or how unlimited the state is supposed to be or to what extent liberty can be compromised. Being the creation of force, not of reason, the state admits of no rationally imposed limits. Shall we be governed by many or few? in how many groups? chosen how? how often? by whom? May they count us or not? be paid to count us or not? And every government official who ever speaks in favor of a position for the government to take is a man paid by the citizenry to promote a view which we may or may not share. Before he even opens his mouth, some who disagree with him are nevertheless paying for him to advance whatever he has in mind.

Often, it feels as though free-market anarchists — all seven or eight of us — and the limited-state libertarians are fighting essentially the same battle. If that is so, can we not wait until after we have dealt the final blows to tyranny to concern ourselves with the details of whether there should be a state? One reason it feels that way is that for the most part our arguments against liberals, socialists, communists, Republicans, fascists, monarchists, and conservatives overlap. In terms of the inventory of activities that we object to, there certainly seems to be a lot of overlap.

But the overlap is in some measure superficial. The reason that advocates of the limited state have differing benchmarks for when we can declare victory and go home is that the difference between what we have and what they call for is, in the end, a difference in degree. A big difference in degree, to be sure, but a difference in degree nonetheless. There's a difference in degree between desert heat and comfortable sunbathing weather, and a difference in the manner in which one survives in them. But both can give you skin cancer. And there's no way of telling in advance how dangerous the cancer will be or how much exposure will give rise to it.

Moreover, the end result of limited-government theories looks somewhat like what we already have — a state that claims to be founded on morality and that claims to be limited. Limited-government libertarians recognize a fundamental similarity between what their ideal is and what something less than that ideal is. They do not confuse the ideal with the nonideal, but in their benchmarks they implicitly recognize the similarity.

Because the limited state and the total state are on a continuum, the limited state — even the limited state of the Objectivists, who reject taxation as a method of funding it — can fade gradually into a socialist tyranny over the years. And it may take enough years that those who are to be oppressed are not those who founded the original state. The transformation could take place over generations, and it might even pass unnoticed for a while, for between the two there is no discontinuity.

Free-market anarchists recognize no such similarity; the existence and nonexistence of the state are completely discontinuous states of affairs. They are not on a continuum at all. Consequently, the free-market anarchist can give a very clear benchmark for when liberty is achieved: when the state has been destroyed, when no man can make a claim of statish authority over another without being laughed at by some and stoned by others. A free-market anarchism could not fade into tyranny over generations. Once an attempt at forming a state were made, a fundamental breach of liberty would be in the offing. There would be no mistaking when the march to tyranny had begun.

A limited state is just less tyrannical than the total state; the stateless society is quite different. To stop short of that goal is to concede that some level of tyranny is tolerable, perhaps necessary, and finally justified and moral.

© 2002 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

If you found this article to be interesting, please donate to our cause. You should make your check or m.o. payable in U.S. dollars to WTM Enterprises and send it to:

WTM Enterprises
P.O. Box 224
Roanoke, IN 46783

Thanks for helping to assure a future for TLD! Here's some info on what you'll get as a donor.

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