Don’t Vote

stop talking about the election

“The strong are always free by virtue of their superior strength. So long as government is a mere contest as to which of two parties shall rule the other, the weaker must always succumb. And whether the contest be carried on with ballots or bullets, the principle is the same; for under the theory of government now prevailing, the ballot either signifies a bullet, or it signifies nothing. And no one can consistently use a ballot, unless he intends to use a bullet, if the latter should be needed to insure submission to the former.” – Lysander Spooner, No Treason No. 1 Vol. 1, 1867

If there is one silver lining to the 2016 presidential election, it’s that it should make abundantly clear to many more individuals that politics is a sham, merely a clownish show where the biggest liars on Earth compete to see who can be the most deceitful while making less of an ass out of themselves than their opponents.

I mean, come on. For a while, it seemed like there might be a battle royale between the House of Clinton and the House of Bush – luckily for us, Jeb Bush had the good sense to drop out early. If only the rest of them had. At the time that I write this, the remaining (noteworthy) candidates are Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for the Democrats, and Donald Trump and Ted Cruz for the Republicans (Note: This article was written in February 2016).

If anyone but Trump ends up winning, the first Jewish, woman, or Hispanic president will have, at long last, been elected. What a triumph for social justice! And if Trump wins, then we’ll be blessed with the first president who is basically a cartoon character; in fact, back in 2000, The Simpsons predicted that Trump would become president and ruin the country.

It’s incredible that any of these people have made it this far. Bernie Sanders is 74 years old, so perhaps dementia is preventing this self-described socialist from remembering the abject failure of socialist nations around the world, and getting in the way of an understanding of basic economics.

Ted Cruz has been accused of enjoying the music of Nickelback, and he failed to renounce this position when asked. Somehow, this has not derailed his campaign.

Hillary Clinton is actively under investigation by the FBI for running her own private email server from home while head of the State Department – an immense security issue, if there ever was one. That’s just one of the many controversies surrounding her. Oddly enough, she’s the biggest warmonger of the lot, substantially more interested in military adventures abroad than the Republican front-runners. And she near single-handedly destroyed the country of Libya – the same Libya that has become the major “home away from home” for the Islamic State.

Donald Trump (aka Tronald Dump) has said so many boneheaded things that he hardly requires introduction. If anyone were to bring back internment camps, such as those used to house Japanese-Americans during World War 2, it’d be him. Don’t think it won’t happen again.

One of these dipshits will almost certainly become the next POTUS. And unlike many of you, I will have nothing to do with it. For you see, I have elected not to vote. In this post, I hope to convince you to do the same.


Your Vote Is Meaningless

I hate to break it to you, but your vote is meaningless. This is simply the reality, and there is no use in trying to deny it.

First of all, your vote has a truly negligible chance of swaying an election (and as the population increases, this chance becomes worse and worse with every election). But even if, mathematically speaking, your vote were to be the “deciding” one, the election would ultimately be decided in some shady, back-room deals. Worse still, that doesn’t even matter, since you elect politicians who have no obligation to abide by their campaign promises, and are far more likely to be swayed by their corporate cronies than by “the will of the people.” Besides, the candidates are nearly identical in most important ways, so it’s as though you had no choice at all.

This narrative conflicts with most peoples’ utopian views of democracy and its value. This doesn’t make it any less true. Your vote simply will not decide an election, as I’ve said before:

“In order for your vote to determine anything, the outcome of the election (excluding yourself) would need to either be a tie, or have a one vote difference, with your vote being for the candidate who was losing (thus making it a tie).

The chances of this happening in a national election are negligible, and for other elections, still miniscule. For instance, take a look at this list of close elections throughout the world. There were a handful of ties or elections determined by a single vote, but nearly all of these were more local elections within sparsely populated Canadian territories. Every one of these elections had less than 40,000 total votes cast, most with well under 10,000.”

Even the most optimistic of academic estimates that your vote will be the deciding factor in a national election are between 1 in 10 million and 1 in 100 million depending on the state you live in. The mathematics of voting are so clear that it is hardly worth belaboring the point, but I do want to say that you are literally more likely to die on your way to the polling station on election day than to have your vote matter (and for more on the math, see this).

But even in the unlikely event that your vote almost makes a difference, it still simply won’t matter. There’s no need for “kooky” conspiracy theories to see this. Consider the close call in Florida in 2000. Multiple recounts occurred, none of which ended in a tie. And the process, of course, got shadier and shadier as the counting went on. And now that we have electronic voting machines, there are many reasons to be skeptical of the integrity of elections. Voting machines that have been used in real life elections are highly susceptible to hacking and having votes changed. There is statistical evidence that voting machines have been tampered with and had vote counts changed across numerous election cycles. For more on how crappy electronic voting is, see Ross Anderson’s “Security Engineering”, section 23.5 (free PDF). Among many examples provided in that section:

“Many problems were reported in the 2002 elections [551]; then, the following summer, the leading voting-machine supplier Diebold left its voting system files on an open web site, a stunning security lapse. Avi Rubin and colleagues at Johns Hopkins trawled through them found that the equipment was far below even minimal standards of security expected in other contexts. Voters could cast unlimited votes, insiders could identify voters, and outsiders could also hack the system [731]. Almost on cue, Diebold CEO Walden O’Dell, who was active in the campaign to re-elect President Bush, and wrote ‘I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year’ [1320].”

It’s not as though voting fraud is unheard of; it became significant under Lincoln and during the “Reconstruction”.

“Lincoln was known to instruct his military commanders to furlough registered Republicans while keeping Democrats (and any others) in the field, where they could not vote. In border states like Maryland, where there was powerful opposition to the war, federal soldiers flooded the cities on election days and were instructed to vote, even though they were not residents of those states.”

“Almost all Southern males were disenfranchised, while virtually all of the male ex-slaves were registered to vote (Republican). No Southern male could vote who participated in the war effort in any way, including contributing food or clothing to the Confederate army. Voter registration required one to publicly proclaim that one was on the side of the federal armies during the war, something that no sane southerner who valued his life would do.”

Today, a well-known problem is gerrymandering, or creating odd borders for districts to sway elections based on known voter demographics. This stuff is common. Plus, as Robert Epstein showed in a brilliant essay, big tech companies like Google and Facebook have the power to sway elections by changing what we are exposed to, and we would never know. Do you think these big companies are looking out for the “public interest” or their bottom lines? Research shows that big business and special interests are the real factor that influences government policy, as I’ve stated in the past:

“…the most robust of modern research on the topic has concluded that even mass groups of voters have a minimal effect on public policy. Rather, it is interest groups and powerful business interests that control policy outcomes. How else would incumbents win in Congressional elections over 90% of the time, even in a year like 2010 where people were particularly unsatisfied with their representatives?”

no difference between democrats and republicans

Whoever wins the election – even in the off chance that they are truly public spirited, Leslie Knope-esque individuals – will be forced by their position to adjust their policies to conform to the whims of those powerful interests. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the two major candidates are nearly identical on most major issues, making the whole election an absurd political circus. As Jesse Ventura said of our two-party system,

“[W]hat you have today is like walking into the grocery store and you go to the soft drink department, and there is only Pepsi and Coke. Those are the two you get to choose from. There is no Mountain Dew, no Root Beer, no Orange. They’re both Colas; one is slightly sweeter than the other, depending on which side of the aisle you are on.”


Why Politicians Act Like Scumbags

“What is any political campaign save a concerted effort to turn out a set of politicians who are admittedly bad and put in a set who are thought to be better. The former assumption, I believe is always sound; the latter is just as certainly false. For if experience teaches us anything at all it teaches us this: that a good politician, under democracy, is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.” – H.L. Mencken

Your vote is meaningless, and politicians know this. And voting is a fundamentally different process than that of market forces, which leads to predictable behavior on the part of politicians, as documented by Mark Brandly.

Consider how the free market works: in the market, consumers decide exactly what they want to buy. Each consumer can buy completely different things and there is no reason for conflict, because my buying a blue shirt doesn’t impose the blue shirt on you, and you buying a red shirt doesn’t impose that red shirt on me. Each consumer can get whatever he wants, and doesn’t get anything he would prefer not to have. Each consumer has an incentive to be informed about the products he is buying, because he is spending his own money on them. Researching the possible items, particularly big ticket items, makes an actual difference in a consumer’s life. None of this is true in the political “market”.

“Choosing between two candidates is analogous going to Walmart and being presented with two shopping carts already filled with items. Everyone will leave the store with the same cart of goods. Each cart contains products that a person may want and products that one wouldn’t choose to have, but the voter is not able to take anything out of either cart.”

Also…the two carts are very similar. They contain many of the same items, the items that are different are still similar (e.g., both carts contain a shirt — one red and one blue), and the two carts cost about the same amount. In addition, each taxpayer will end up paying for one of the carts even though he wouldn’t voluntarily purchase this basket of items.

…when you are presented with the two carts, you are allowed to vote on which cart you want. However, you vote infrequently, say, once every four years, and your vote doesn’t matter. You will end up with the same cart regardless of your vote. In fact, even if you don’t vote, this will not affect the bundle that you receive in your cart.”

Democracy is even worse than this analogy suggests. A candidate can promise certain policies and completely renege on them when elected. With the shopping cart, you at least know that if something is in there, it’s in there. So how does the structure of political democracy encourage politicians to misbehave?

“The point, so far, is that in an election voters are faced with bundled choices, they vote infrequently, no individual’s vote will affect the election, voters have little incentive to be highly informed about the candidates’ policy positions, and the winning candidate is not obliged to deliver on his promises. Candidates who understand these simple facts about an election will have an advantage over political opponents who do not understand the nature of elections.

Realizing this, candidates need to make two important decisions. First, a candidate must consider which bundle of policies will give him the best chance of winning the election, and second, a candidate must devise a strategy that will give his supporters an incentive to vote in spite of the fact that no individual vote matters.”

First, candidates will tend to pick positions that are more centrist in order to appeal to the bulk of voters, who cluster around less “extreme” views. This means that both candidates will have very similar policies.

“The last two presidential administrations demonstrate this point. Even though they represent different political parties, many of the foreign-policy and financial advisors of the Bush administration would be comfortable in the Obama administration and in some cases the same individuals are in both administrations. Bush and Obama both support the welfare state and the military empire. They both have proposed budgets greatly expanding the budgetary size and legal reach of our federal government.”

This means that candidates are inclined to deceive the public about their positions in order to appeal to this median voter. But it’s a little bit more complicated than that.

“In order to gain political power in our system, a candidate must win two elections, the primary election and the general election. The difficulty for a candidate is that he needs to appeal to a different set of voters in each election. In order to win the primary election, a candidate must attract the median voter of his party’s primary voters. Then the candidate must change his position to gain the support of the median voter in the general election.”

This is tricky, but there are some strategies that politicians can employ to make this easier. Two keys to winning include being the first to accuse your opponent of flip-flopping, and buying favors with government power. These favors should have the costs dispersed among as many people as possible, but the benefits accruing to smaller groups of rent seekers who are more likely to organize on your behalf. You can also hide the costs, as in the Social Security system, where half of the tax is paid by the employer, even though that cost is ultimately borne by the employee anyways. Basically, candidates have strong incentives to lie to the voters. Candidates who are averse to being deceitful are at a huge disadvantage in an election.

“…a candidate will never claim that his main goal is to acquire political power so that he can enrich himself. He will use pet phrases that hide the true nature of his policies. No matter what policy he is defending, he may claim that the program is “for the children,” or that it will “strengthen the family.” Other possibilities include asserting that the policies will “grow the economy” or “help the environment.” In the current political atmosphere, saying that you are “fighting terrorism” will blind many people to your actual intent. The point is that simple platitudes will fool many people.

Another lie we hear is candidates’ assertion that (even though they would take similar positions when in office) there are major differences between them. Each will claim that their policies will lead to prosperity and security, and that their opponent’s positions will result in impoverishment and ruin. Convincing supporters that there is a major difference between the candidates will make it more likely that they will vote. A candidate needs to continually push his supporters to go to the polls.

A common tactic for gaining support is fear mongering. Fear often trumps logic. Voters can be scared into believing that there will be dire consequences if their candidate loses the election. A candidate can appeal to his followers by claiming that if the other candidate wins the election we will be attacked by terrorists, or our taxes will be raised, or we may lose our jobs, or our children will not get a good education, or we will run out of oil, or we may not get adequate health care, or the environment will be destroyed. While some of these claims may be correct, they are true regardless of which candidate wins the election, because either winning candidate will implement policies that will do us much harm. In making such claims, candidates rely on the fact that voters will not recognize that the candidates largely agree on the major issues regarding government policy.”

This also explains why politics tends to be so negative, and attack ads are used so frequently despite people generally being “against” them. Ultimately, this just leads to divisiveness and conflict.

“Selling your product in the private sector requires a customer to cast an affirmative vote to buy it. Just convincing a potential customer that a rival product should not be purchased does not mean a sale for you.

This is because a sales prospect can choose from among several sellers, or he can choose to not buy at all. But those options are unavailable in an election with only two major parties, where customers are effectively forced to “buy” from one of them.

In an essentially two-party election, convincing an uncommitted voter to vote against the “other guy” by tearing the opponent’s position down is as valuable to a candidate as convincing that voter of positive reasons to vote for him; either brings him a vote closer to a majority. That is not true in the private sector, as only votes for you–purchases–help you.

Similarly, talking a voter committed to a rival to switch to your side is worth two votes, since it adds one to your vote column and subtracts one from your rival’s. But you would only benefit from the single additional purchase/vote for you in the private sector. Further, in an election, finding a way to get someone who would have voted for your rival to not vote at all is as valuable as getting one more voter to vote for you.

This is why negative campaigns that turn voters off from political participation altogether are acceptable in politics, as long as a candidate thinks he will keep more of his competitor’s voters away from the polls than he will his own. In the private sector, such an approach would not be taken, as it would reduce, rather than increase, sales.“

I suspect that most people intuitively understand how messed up this all is, but have resigned that this is simply the way things are.

““Well, that’s the way the game is played,” I sometimes hear. “If you don’t fight dirty, you aren’t going to win, so even the good ones have to fight dirty. An honest candidate couldn’t win.” But if you have accidentally (let us hope) established a political system that excels at elevating psychopaths to positions of power and authority, maybe the answer is not to hope for a flock of honorable people who can impersonate psychopaths long enough to climb into power, but to stop propping up a process that installs psychopaths as your rulers, and, once these psychopaths have been successfully identified by their success in the electoral process, to stop giving them so much power to do evil.” – David Gross


The Ethics of Voting

“The state — or, to make the matter more concrete, the government — consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can’t get and to promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time is made good by looting A to satisfy B. In other words, government is a broker in pillage, and every election is sort of an advance auction sale of stolen goods.” – H.L. Mencken

You may or may not believe that voting is a decision in the realm of ethics, but there are serious moral considerations involved with the decision to vote or not. Most people do not fully consider the moral ramifications of the act of voting.

It helps to first consider what government is in the first place. A commonly accepted definition offered by famed sociologist Max Weber is that government is an institution that holds a monopoly on the legitimated use of force in a geographic area. While I would dispute the notion that governments’ use of force is in fact morally legitimate, I cannot deny that the force of government at least seems legitimate to most people. What this means is that, while you or I are not allowed to steal from each other, the government can steal from us (“taxation”). And while you and I are not allowed to kidnap people for behaving in ways that we don’t agree with, the government can imprison people for engaging in officially prohibited behaviors.

This is important. When a new law is created, that means a new instance of institutionalized violence has been born. Real people will be stolen from (“fined”, “taxed”) or sent to jail because of it. Even if nobody is directly stolen from or imprisoned, the law creates a threat of violence, which isn’t that much better.

When seen in this light – whether you view the law or government as legitimate or not – the moral implications of voting become somewhat more clear. If you vote for a political candidate and that person then helps to create or enforce laws, then you are in part responsible for the violence that ensues. Stated differently (emphasis mine):

“Voting is an act of consent…When you vote you agree to abide by the rules of the game and accept the outcome. By voting, the voter endorses the governmental system under which he or she lives and those in control of it. Each voter is saying: It is right and proper for some people, acting in the name of the State, to pass laws and to use violence to compel obedience to those laws if they are not obeyed regardless of the morality of those laws.

Note the crucially important clause “regardless of the morality of those laws.” If you vote, and then your government starts aggressive foreign wars, kills people without due process in drone strikes, imprisons nonviolent drug users, etc., then you have consented to and encouraged this needless violence. You are in part morally responsible for acts of violence done by an agent operating on your behalf (government) despite almost certainly never being willing to commit comparable acts of violence directly.

In this way, and many others, politics turns us into worse human beings.

“…politics doesn’t just make the world around us worse. It makes us worse, as well. When we participate in politics—by seeking office, by voting—we take part in a system where we attempt to decide for others while they attempt to decide for us, and where those decisions, whoever makes them, are backed by violence or, at the very least, the threat of violence. It’s a system where the participants say to each other, “I know what’s best for you, you need to do what I say, and if you don’t, these men with guns will threaten you or take your money or lock you in a cage or kill you.” Such a system encourages us to deal with each other in ways beneath the standards of behavior we ought to reach for, and it encourages us to see each other not as friends and companions and fellow seekers of the good life, but as enemies and rivals and obstacles in the way of finding happiness.

Politics inculcates pettiness, short-sightedness, Manichean thinking, tribal feuds, selfishness, and rage. It discourages reason and respect and a basic appreciation of the dignity of others, especially those who seek lives different from our own. It makes us less likely to find virtuous mentors or learn from the virtuous actions of others, because everyone we encounter will themselves suffer from its corrosive influence. Politics encourages extreme reactions instead of careful seeking of the proper, measured response. Politics distances decisions from local knowledge and so limits moral wisdom by making it less likely we will act to bring about virtuous outcomes even when motivated by virtuous impulses.”

The violence of government and the nature of democracy do bring up an interesting question though: can we vote in self-defense? After all, while we don’t normally condone shooting innocents, most people agree that it is okay to shoot someone who is shooting at you. In the same way, can we vote in order to counteract people who are voting “at” us?

Reasonable people can disagree on this question. For specific referendums on political questions, I believe the answer is yes, you can vote in self-defense. Usually, this means voting “no” to prevent some sort of aggression, but in rare circumstances, you may be able to vote “yes” to remove an existing aggression. For instance, I believe that you can vote to decriminalize drugs, prostitution, or other victimless crimes.

But what about elections for politicians? Is it self-defense to vote for “the lesser of two evils”? Libertarian Wendy McElroy tackles this question:

“But a libertarian senator would be a lesser evil, it is argued. He would be a good politician. Nonsense. It is not the particular man that is objectionable; it is the position of power itself. Moreover, a successful libertarian politician would take an oath to uphold massively unjust laws. Either he would be lying then or he would have been lying beforehand when he claimed to be libertarian. In either case, he is another lying politician.”

More theoretically,

“Voters defend themselves against a politician who would be more draconian than the candidate they favor. Instead of firing a bullet in self-defense, they fire a ballot to knock out worst alternatives. The problem is that a defensive bullet can be narrowly aimed at a deserving target. A ballot attacks innocent third parties who must endure the consequences of whichever politician is assisted into a position of unjust power. Innocent people will bear the brunt not only of government actions but also of being robbed to pay for them. Every voter bears moral responsibility for this injustice.”

Voting, therefore, is not analogous to other instances of self-defense. If someone were shooting at you, voting would be like shooting back at them – and all of the other people in the room. Obviously, voting does not have the same moral intensity as shooting people, but it is still immoral.


Reasons To Vote, Debunked

Despite the moral and practical reasons not to vote, countless platitudes are trotted out each election season in order to encourage people to vote. Most are just ridiculous appeals to “patriotism”. Some are mentioned so frequently and yet are so patently absurd that they need to be addressed individually.

 “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.”

This is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard, and it should only take a moment of thought to understand why. George Carlin does a great job of explaining it at around 2:10 into this video:

I hope that when people use this excuse for voting, they do not quite mean it literally – after all, everyone has a right to complain. That’s freedom of speech. Perhaps they mean that those who participate in some enterprise have a more legitimate grievance when things aren’t going well.

“In his 1851 book Social Statics, the English radical Herbert Spencer neatly describes the rhetorical jujitsu surrounding voting, consent, and complaint, then demolishes the argument. Say a man votes and his candidate wins. The voter is then “understood to have assented” to the acts of his representative. But what if he voted for the other guy? Well, then, the argument goes, “by taking part in such an election, he tacitly agreed to abide by the decision of the majority.” And what if he abstained? “Why then he cannot justly complain…seeing that he made no protest.” Spencer tidily sums up: “Curiously enough, it seems that he gave his consent in whatever way he acted—whether he said yes, whether he said no, or whether he remained neuter! A rather awkward doctrine this.””

By making the argument that not voting waives your right to complain, you essentially argue that nobody has a right to complain in the political realm! If anything, it is far more intuitive to assert that the act of voting forfeits your right to complain in the way that both George Carlin and Herbert Spencer mentioned above – you have provided consent to the system by voting. Don’t get me wrong though, everyone has a right to complain and should complain about politicians at every available opportunity. But the act of voting makes your opinion matter just a little bit less.

“People have sacrificed their lives for your right to vote!”

This is another curious one, considering how no major war was ever fought defending your right to vote. America has even lost some wars, but this hasn’t stopped voters. After Saigon fell in 1975, how have we managed to elect politicians since?

It’s even sillier to make this claim in light of the defeats during the 1930s of the Ludlow Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have required a national referendum in order to declare war, except when attacked first. Despite massive public support (75% of the population supported it), it was unable to gain traction in Congress and died in committee. I suspect that if enacted, this amendment would have made little difference (for instance, the US would still have entered Vietnam despite the Gulf of Tonkin incident being completely fabricated). That being said, how can we say that people have fought for our right to vote when we don’t even have a right to vote on the wars that they fight in?

And surely, even if people had died defending the right to vote, they would have supported the right to abstain as well. Especially if all of the options for who to support are evil.

 “Vote for the lesser of two evils.”

There is so much that is wrong with this “advice” that it makes me recoil a little bit when people recommend to “vote for the lesser of the two evils.” Imagine you are confronted with the following choice:

  • Endorse murder
  • Endorse rape
  • Abstain from endorsing either.

Clearly, we ought to abstain. But the person who suggests voting for the lesser evil may respond in this absurd, self-righteous way: “Oh, you don’t vote? Well I guess that means you would let murder win! I, on the other hand, support rape, the lesser of the two evils!”

When you vote for any evil, you are in part responsible for the evils that are then committed on your behalf. And if being evil doesn’t stop politicians from being elected by voters, then the quality of candidates will continuously degrade as they realize that they can get away with whatever they want.

I love the way Frank Chodorov frames this in his book Out of Step.

“Particularly was I impressed by the candidates’ evaluations of one another. Neither one had a good word to say of his opponent, and each was of the opinion that the other fellow was not the kind of man to whom the affairs of state could be safely entrusted. Now, I reasoned, these fellows were politicians, and as such should be better acquainted with their respective qualifications for office than I could be; it was their business to know such things. Therefore, I had to believe candidate A when he said that candidate B was untrustworthy, as I had to believe candidate B when he said the same of candidate A. In the circumstances, how could I vote for either? Judging by their respective evaluations of each other’s qualifications I was bound to make the wrong decision whichever way I voted.

Admitting that there is no difference in the political philosophies of the contending candidates, should I not choose the “lesser of two evils?” But, which of the two qualifies? If my man prevails, then those who voted against him are loaded down with the “greater evil,” while if my man loses, then it is they who have chosen the “lesser evil.” Voting for the “lesser of two evils” makes no sense, for it is only a matter of opinion as to which is the lesser. Usually, such a decision is based on prejudice, not on principle. Besides, why should I compromise with evil?

If I were to vote for the “lesser of two evils” I would in fact be subscribing to whatever that “evil” does in office. He could claim a mandate for his official acts, a sort of blank check, with my signature, into which he could enter his performances. My vote is indeed a moral sanction, upon which the official depends for support of his acts, and without which he would feel rather naked.”

Again, voting has ethical ramifications. When you vote for a candidate, you are not voting for a reduction of evil, but rather a continuation of it.

“Vote! It’s your civic duty.”

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what this means. I suspect that most people who use this platitude do not understand what they are saying either. Presumably, we must vote in order to be considered a “good citizen.” Unfortunately, elevating the importance of elections in this way tends to encourage people to conceive of these elected offices as ones that ought to hold great power.

“Those who exaggerate the importance of elections (usually as part of their campaign pitch about how important it is for you to vote, and in a particular way) also tend to exaggerate the power of office-holders and the abilities (and propensities) of the politicians who hold office. This has the unfortunate effect of getting people accustomed to the idea that these offices ought to have great powers concentrated in them, and ought to be looked on to solve our problems, create miracles, provide for our needs, and so forth. This in turn makes the psychopaths in power more dangerous.”

It not only makes those in power more dangerous, but it also makes your fellow citizens into dangerous enemies to be vanquished, rather than merely individuals with whom we have a difference of opinion. Politics and voting are not your “civic duty” – rather, they are an institutionalized mechanism which causes social chaos and divisiveness among good people.

“It’s not difficult to understand why politics plays such a central role in our lives: political decision-making increasingly determines so much of what we do and how we’re permitted to do it. We vote on what our children will learn in school and how they will be taught. We vote on what people are allowed to drink, smoke, and eat. We vote on which people are allowed to marry those they love. In such crucial life decisions, as well as countless others, we have given politics a substantial impact on the direction of our lives. No wonder it’s so important to so many people.

Politics takes a continuum of possibilities and turns it into a small group of discrete outcomes, often just two. Either this guy gets elected, or that guy does. Either a given policy becomes law or it doesn’t. As a result, political choices matter greatly to those most affected. An electoral loss is the loss of a possibility. These black and white choices mean politics will often manufacture problems that previously didn’t exist, such as the “problem” of whether we—as a community, as a nation—will teach children creation or evolution.”

These disagreements are a waste of time, and could easily be resolved by allowing voluntary communities to determine their own rules on such matters. Instead, these disagreements are elevated to a battle between Good and Evil, Virtue and Vice.

“What’s troubling about politics from a moral perspective is not that it encourages group mentalities, for a great many other activities encourage similar group thinking without raising significant moral concerns. Rather, it’s the way politics interacts with group mentalities, creating negative feedback leading directly to viciousness. Politics, all too often, makes us hate each other. Politics encourages us to behave toward each other in ways that, were they to occur in a different context, would repel us. No truly virtuous person ought to behave as politics so often makes us act.”

So no, voting is not your civic duty. No reasonable definition of a civic duty can require us to engage in behaviors that create a social war of all against all. If anything, you have a duty to abstain from voting in order to avoid fostering additional conflict.

“Voting is a way to speak your mind and let your voice be heard!”

“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” – H.L. Mencken

“When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost… All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” – H.L. Mencken

Or, a closely related slogan: “vote for change!” For some reason, this last one seems to work best on the young and ignorant; I recall the 2008 election where the majority of this demographic almost religiously got in line behind Obama, leading to creepy things like this song, “I believe in Barack Obama” by the Hush Sound.

Despite Obama doing things just about the same as Bush did, this same demographic has overwhelmingly been supporting Bernie Sanders with the same vigor. I suspect that if Bernie is elected, we’ll have about the same amount of “change”.

But by far the “best” variant on the “let your voice be heard!” argument is one that I read on this handout from an organization called the Partnership for Safety and Justice (emphasis in original):

“Last but not least, because it gives you credibility! Often times, we voice our concerns to elected officials, but if we aren’t voting, our concerns may not matter at all to them. Voting can actually give you the credibility to make your concerns a top priority for legislators.”

Read that again. Apparently, your vote captures your opinions about how the country should be run and the politicians are listening to you! Oh, come on now. As discussed above, your vote is meaningless, your concerns actually don’t matter at all to politicians – not when there are special interests to please.

In the market, there are ways to “let your voice be heard” that do not involve forcing your opinions on others. Voting can even be a decent method for this, such as members of an organization voting on proposed rules, or a group of friends voting on where to go for dinner. Voting in political elections is nothing like this.

“So what do I mean by “politics?” I mean the act of deciding for others via the mechanisms of the state. Choosing for others, and then getting government to make them go along with our choices. Granted, when we make decisions via those mechanisms—by, say, voting—we expect the outcome will apply to ourselves and not just to other people. But it’s misleading to say we are “deciding for ourselves” when we vote, because if what we vote for is something we would’ve done anyway, we could always choose to do it independent of a vote. If I think contributing money to a cause is worthwhile, I don’t need the state to make me do it. I can cut a check any time. By voting, by shifting from the personal and voluntary to the political and compulsory, we call for the application of force. A vote is the majority compelling the minority to comply with the majority’s wishes. Thus politics is a method of decision-making where choices are moved from individuals choosing privately to groups choosing collectively, and where the decisions those groups arrive at are backed by law and regulation. It’s this last aspect—the backing by the force of law—that distinguishes politics from, say, five friends voting on where to go for dinner.”

Contrary to what many say, voting is not a way to voice your opinion. It is a way to legitimize the rule of others. Two brief stories will help drive this point home. First, consider Wendy McElroy’s recitation of a parable by Larken Rose:

“The anarchist Larken Rose presented a realistic view of slaves voting in his parable, “The Jones Plantation.” Slave-owner Jones laments to slave-owner Smith about risking the disobedience of his slaves by pressing them to work harder. Smith offers a solution. He gathers the slaves and declares them to be free men who will work for themselves henceforth. He advises them to stay on the plantation, however, as slave-owning neighbors would recapture them immediately. He adds: Since only Jones has experience in running a plantation, Jones will remain as administrator. The ‘former’ slaves go to work in the cotton fields with the renewed vigor of free men.

The next day, a handful of ‘former’ slaves become supervisors to ensure the rules are followed in order “to benefit all equally.” The rest work with renewed vigor.

On day three, a man named Samuel is whipped for holding back some cotton for his own use; this is called “stealing” from everyone else. When Samuel complains there is no difference between freedom and slavery as long as Jones makes all the rules, Smith gathers the ‘former’ slaves and tells them there will be an election every three months in which either Jones or Jones’s cousin will be voted administrator; the ‘former’ slaves are in control. Moreover, everyone now has two minutes in which to speak out at each gathering.

Eventually, Samuel uses his two minutes to say that nothing has changed. Jones and his cousin are exactly the same; they take the wealth and leave next to nothing for the ‘former’ slaves. The other workers turn against Samuel.

Rose presents some of the key elements of voting, especially in the context of slavery. Voting provides an illusion of freedom, a delusion of control to which the slaves cling. It turns them against each other both as supervisors and as workers who are either pro-Jones or pro-cousin. It turns the slaves against the one man who speaks the truth in protest. And nothing, nothing about the conditions of slavery change…except the words describing it. Voting is called “freedom,” “democracy,” “civic responsibility,” or “self-defense.”“

Voting gives the masses a sense as though they have some control or freedom, but this is just an illusion.

A similar parable is Robert Nozick’s “Tale of the Slave”, from his award winning book Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

“Consider the following sequence of cases… and imagine it is about you.

  1. There is a slave completely at the mercy of his brutal master’s whims. He often is cruelly beaten, called out in the middle of the night, and so on.
  2. The master is kindlier and beats the slave only for stated infractions of his rules (not fulfilling the work quota, and so on). He gives the slave some free time.
  3. The master has a group of slaves, and he decides how things are to be allocated among them on nice grounds, taking into account their needs, merit, and so on.
  4. The master allows his slaves four days on their own and requires them to work only three days a week on his land. The rest of the time is their own.
  5. The master allows his slaves to go off and work in the city (or anywhere they wish) for wages. He requires only that they send back to him three-sevenths of their wages. He also retains the power to recall them to the plantation if some emergency threatens his land; and to raise or lower the three-sevenths amount required to be turned over to him. He further retains the right to restrict the slaves from participating in certain dangerous activities that threaten his financial return, for example, mountain climbing, cigarette smoking.
  6. The master allows all of his 10,000 slaves, except you, to vote, and the joint decision is made by all of them. There is open discussion, and so forth, among them, and they have the power to determine to what uses to put whatever percentage of your (and their) earnings they decide to take; what activities legitimately may be forbidden to you, and so on.
  7. Though still not having the vote, you are at liberty (and are given the right) to enter into the discussions of the 10,000, to try to persuade them to adopt various policies and to treat you and themselves in a certain way. They then go off to vote to decide upon policies covering the vast range of their powers.
  8. In appreciation of your useful contributions to discussion, the 10,000 allow you to vote if they are deadlocked; they commit themselves to this procedure. After the discussion you mark your vote on a slip of paper, and they go off and vote. In the eventuality that they divide evenly on some issue, 5,000 for and 5,000 against, they look at your ballot and count it in. This has never yet happened; they have never yet had occasion to open your ballot. (A single master also might commit himself to letting his slave decide any issue concerning him about which he, the master, was absolutely indifferent.)
  9. They throw your vote in with theirs. If they are exactly tied your vote carries the issue. Otherwise it makes no difference to the electoral outcome.

The question is: which transition from case 1 to case 9 made it no longer the tale of a slave?”



I don’t expect this essay to convince many. Those who believe that one “should” vote are unlikely to be pursuaded by reason. But hopefully I have at least planted the seed of understanding in some readers, such that one day, upon becoming fed up with the political process, they will awaken to the idea that perhaps participating in this charade is a waste of time.

The politicians and the democratic process that legitimizes their power will chug along just fine without you. As Frank Chodorov remarked,

“All in all, I see no good reason for voting and have refrained from doing so for about a half-century. During that time, my more conscientious compatriots (including, principally, the professional politicians and their ward heelers) have conveniently provided me with presidents and with governments, all of whom have run the political affairs of the country as they should be run — that is, for the benefit of the politicians.

Why should any self-respecting citizen endorse an institution grounded on thievery? For that is what one does when one votes. If it be argued that we must let bygones be bygones, see what can be done toward cleaning up the institution of the State so that it might be useful in the maintenance of orderly existence, the answer is that it cannot be done; you cannot clean up a brothel and yet leave the business intact. We have been voting for one “good government” after another, and what have we got?”

For those of you who vote despite this, I agree with George Carlin’s sarcastic quip: I’m sure that the country will improve dramatically after your guy gets elected.

Post-Scarcity Economics And The Basic Income Guarantee

Universal Basic Income

I’ve been hearing the term “post-scarcity economics” tossed around more frequently in recent memory, including by a lot of smart people, and usually in the same sentence as “basic income”. A college friend of mine (who I have economics debates with somewhat often) as well as the commenter “crocket” bring up post-scarcity quite often, and believe that this condition fundamentally changes the nature of our economic lives.

I must confess that I don’t fully understand what they mean when they refer to “post-scarcity”; having now done significantly more research into it, I can see that this is partly because the term is used inconsistently (some people even claim that we’ve already reached a post-scarcity world!). My initial reaction has always been: “Post-scarcity? There’s no such thing! Even if all goods and services became superabundant, there would still be scarcity in terms of time and space, so the laws of economics will still hold true! Ha!”

And yeah – to the straw man I had created in my head, this is still the correct response. But the actual arguments regarding post-scarcity are at least sometimes a bit more nuanced. In this article, I will explore this concept a little more thoroughly, with a particular emphasis on the alleged implications of a move towards a more post-scarcity world: massive technological unemployment and the need for a basic income guarantee (BIG – or universal basic income, UBI). While I will ultimately arrive at the same conclusions (that is, free markets are still the way to go), I will have to put in a little more effort to defeat those arguments and policy proposals.


What Does It Mean To Be In A “Post-Scarcity” World?

Here, I will attempt a sort of Ideological Turing Test with respect to arguments regarding post-scarcity economics. If I have not presented the arguments properly, my apologies – please leave a comment and let me know.

For a very rough idea of what a post-scarcity world would look like, consider Star Trek. Although far from a perfect example of a world beyond scarcity, a piece of technology called a replicator allows for the creation of any material good, quickly and easily, and at no cost. Want some beef tenderloin? Boom, you got it. How about a diamond-studded file cabinet? No problem. Why do you want that? Doesn’t matter.

Replicator Star Trek

It sounds implausible (and friggin awesome!), but it isn’t all that farfetched to think that as technology progresses, something close to a replicator may one day exist. Advances in nanotechnology are bringing us closer to that reality; as 3D printing gets more and more economical, it will certainly become cheaper and cheaper to produce nearly any material good, massively driving down scarcity. Perhaps in 100 years, individuals will be able to 3D print their own disposable private jets at a fraction of the cost of a flight today.

Ultimately, this could lead to a world where goods, services, and information are universally available to individuals without the need for employing capital or engaging in exchange with others in order to acquire them. But before getting carried away in fantasizing about this future, let’s consider what this would actually mean for real people. As manufacturing and services become automated, more and more of the jobs that people need to survive will disappear.

This is where people like me will usually chime in and accuse those espousing the idea of technological unemployment of succumbing to the Luddite fallacy. We argue that technological unemployment does not occur because, while automation may displace workers, the increase in productivity simultaneously leads to lower prices, which then stimulates demand in new industries, leading to the hiring of more workers. Clearly, this has been the case throughout most of human history. But automation is accelerating at an unprecedented pace (some estimate that 47% of jobs in the US will be automated within the next 20 years), so do we have any assurances that this will continue to hold true?

Scott Santens (thank you to “crocket” for pointing me to his articles) provides an example of this kind of acceleration:

“Web design is a newer job. It hasn’t been around very long. However, it’s already easier for people to create their own websites, and it’s also easy for someone in India or China to design a website at a much lower cost than others can possibly bid who have higher costs of living. A barber in the US doesn’t compete with barbers in India, but a website designer does. And the ease of website creation tools makes web designers less necessary, even though this was a job that was JUST created recently.”

Here’s my own formulation of this possible progression:

  1. Robots replace factory workers at creating some good.
  2. The price of that good decreases, leading to increased demand for all sorts of new things, leading to job creation in other industries. New workers need to be hired to design these robot workers as well.
  3. A robot-building robot is created, so the employees of the robotics company all lose their jobs too.

And even if the Luddite fallacy is correct and that, in the aggregate, jobs aren’t lost due to automation, there is still the issue of preventing the temporarily displaced workers from falling into poverty between jobs. When a new mousetrap is invented, how do we ensure that the employees at the obsolete mousetrap factory don’t starve? And what happens as better mousetraps are invented faster and faster?

First, let’s consider the nature of the new jobs that are created as technology progresses. If factory workers are displaced and robot-software writers are in higher demand, it’s not as though the low-skilled former factory worker will suddenly start designing robots. The new jobs may require certain skills – skills which the displaced workers won’t magically possess. This suggests things like unemployment insurance or retraining programs may be appropriate governmental responses.

Even that might be too optimistic, however. It assumes that the jobs that automation is destroying are low-skilled (and thus low paying) ones, and that more highly-skilled (and lucrative) jobs are being created. But what we’ve actually seen is that middle class jobs are largely disappearing, high-skilled jobs have been stagnant, and most job growth has been in low-skilled (and low-paid) industries – and those low-skilled jobs are at further risk of automation in the future anyways. In the meantime, of course, these low wage jobs aren’t necessarily the most satisfying ones. If technical progress is so great and not causing problems, then shouldn’t our lives be getting easier? Shouldn’t we be working less? After all, that was the case for most of history, where labor-saving technology has reduced working hours and increased standard of living.

But that doesn’t appear to be the case. Those who continue to work (and even that number is in decline) are working longer hours than before, as Scott Santens points out.

“The combined effects of technology and the globalization enabled by it are eating jobs, but for those left working (who are by and large earning less), they actually need to work more. Instead of jobs requiring the 5-6 hours of work a day they actually on average now require, we clock in more than 8 hours as a matter of survival. Instead of working one full-time job 40 hours a week, we work one full-time job 47 hours a week, or multiple part-time jobs even more than 50 hours per week to compensate for the lower pay.”

The solution that he proposes is to sever the connection between work and income – perhaps by instituting a basic income guarantee, where the government gives everyone some amount of money without any conditions or strings attached.

“If technology has reached the point where hardware and software are together doing much of our work for us, then we have to pay each other what our technology is not earning as income and not spending into the economy as a consumer. We have to give it to ourselves and spend it ourselves, because it’s not going to…We need to make sure everyone starts earning a non-work related income so that everyone can be consumers in an economy increasingly populated by non-human labor.”

Markets are sub-optimal under current conditions. People without money cannot “vote with their dollars” for the goods that they want, but a basic income could address this problem.

“Right now only those with the means to pay for bread have a voice for bread. We love to use the term, “voting with our dollars”. So is the outcome of that daily election accurate? Does everyone have a voice for bread? No, they don’t. There are people with no voice, because they have no dollars. The only way to make sure the market is working as efficiently and effectively as possible to determine what should be getting made, how much to make of it, and where to distribute it, is to make sure everyone has at the very minimum, the means to vote for bread. If they have that money and don’t buy bread, there’s no need to make and distribute that bread. If the bread is bought, that shows people actually want that bread.”

People such as myself often complain that a basic income would dramatically reduce work effort, but when tested, the reduction in employment or hours worked has been small.

“The findings from the accompanying large-scale experiments done in cities like Seattle and Denver found that surprisingly, hardly anyone actually stopped working, and instead reduced their hours slightly, with men reducing their hours the least – by a maximum of 8%. This slight reduction in hours was then replicated to even less of a degree in Canada’s Minimum Income (Mincome) experiment, with men choosing to work as little as 1% fewer hours.”

For a little while, the robotic revolution started to look bad – but with a basic income, it is something to be celebrated! We can work towards a future where jobs simply aren’t necessary. Everyone gets paid, everyone can afford to live, and time will be freed up for people to work on things they are passionate about. More art, more music, more leisure, more open-source collaboration….more creativity, in general. In other words, a basic income would help us truly usher in a more Star Trek-esque existence! From Rick Webb’s influential article on The Economics of Star Trek:

“Imagine there’s some level of welfare benefits in every country, including America. That’s easy. That’s true. Imagine that, as the economy became more efficient and wealthy, the society could afford to give more money in welfare benefits, and chooses to do so. Next, imagine that this kept happening until society could afford to give the equivalent of something like $10 million US dollars at current value to every man, woman and child. And imagine that, over the time that took to happen, society got its shit together on education, health, and the dignity of labor. Imagine if that self-same society frowned upon the conspicuous display of consumption and there was a large amount of societal pressure, though not laws, on people that evolved them into not being obsessed with wealth. Is any of that so crazy? Is it impossible?

“Citizens have no financial need to work, as their benefits are more than enough to provide a comfortable life, and there is, clearly, universal health care and education. The Federation has clearly taken the plunge to the other side of people’s fears about European socialist capitalism: yes, some people might not work. So What? Good for them. We think most still will.

“…presumably, you take whatever job you want, and your benefits allocations are adjusted accordingly. But by and large you just don’t care, because the base welfare allocation is more than enough. Some people might care, some people might still care about wealth, such as Carter Winston. More power to them. They can go try and be “rich” in some non-Federation-issued currency. But most people just don’t care. After all, if you were effectively “wealthy” why would you take a job to become wealthy? It pretty much becomes the least likely reason to take a job.”

Basic Income Robots Took My Job

But, as Marshall Brain argues, this is not inevitable, and we are at a fork in the road where society can either move towards this amazing future, or degenerate into a cesspool of inequality and poverty.

“With most of the rank and file employees replaced by robots and eliminated from the payroll, all of the money flowing into a large corporation has only one place to go — upward toward the executives and shareholders. The concentration of wealth will be dramatic when robots arrive.”

Workers will get none of this, because there will be no workers. The basic income will prevent the masses of unemployed from falling into abject poverty, while freeing people to innovate.

“It would be a huge boost to the American economy:

  • The economy would be strong because of all of the consumer spending.
  • The economy would be stable because income (and therefore spending) would be guaranteed.
  • With $25,000 per year to spend, innovators would no longer be forced to work — they could focus their energy on innovation, living off of the $25K per year they receive. Inventors would have time to invent, writers to write, entrepreneurs to breed new companies, etc. They could devote all of their time to innovation.
  • There would be billions of dollars for people to invest, especially in their own businesses. And investors would have a stable marketplace into which to introduce new products.

Most importantly, it would create a nation where the citizens are truly free. If every person had $25,000 per year in today’s dollars to spend, they would be able to live their lives even if they lost their jobs. If robots took their jobs it would not be catastrophic. People would be able to weather the robotic takeover, retrain and move into new careers.”

Of course, giving everyone $25k/year will be expensive – where will that money come from? He proposes a few suggestions, some better than others.

  • Sell ad space on the back of dollar bills
  • As in Alaska, the revenue from government selling natural resources can be put towards basic income
  • Fining corporations for flouting regulations
  • Auctions of state property [I like this one!]
  • Lotteries [but then the money is coming from the rubes who buy into the lottery…doesn’t seem like much of a solution to me]
  • “Extreme” income taxes on wealth above some high amount
  • “Extreme” estate taxes
  • “Excessive” profit taxes
  • Sin taxes and/or taxes on luxury items
  • Selling copyright extensions
  • Selling naming rights
  • Punitive damages from lawsuits can go into a central fund and be disbursed to the people instead of going into government coffers [I kind of like this idea…but shouldn’t the punitive damages go to the victim, rather than everyone?]
  • A national mutual fund, owning shares in every corporation in the US and that every citizen has equal ownership. When a company incorporates, some percentage of its shares are automatically given to the fund. Or, when a corporation declares retained earnings, some of these are used to buy up shares and provide them to the national mutual fund.

Of course, much of the funding would come from dramatically reducing or eliminating other welfare programs and subsuming all aid under the basic income banner.

By the way, for a more “moderate” view of what to expect during the progress toward post-scarcity, I recommend reading the essay “Economics of the Future” by Melanie Swan.


The Real Path To Post-Scarcity

Okay, Ideological Turing Test over. Note that many if not most supporters of the basic income would not think of their position in the way described above – not everyone supports it on the basis of technological unemployment and post-scarcity. I suspect that the majority of progressives who support basic income do so because it “helps the poor” or some generic platitude like that. There are even a good number of libertarian supporters of basic income, including Matt Zwolinski and Peter Vallentyne, who think that it would be a better replacement for the bloated and inefficient welfare state.

It’s also becoming more important to address the arguments over basic income considering how it is becoming more significant politically, and will likely become a reality in some places in the near future. But before discussing the issues with a basic income, I want to make a few comments regarding the post-scarcity argument sketched above.

The otherwise brilliant Stephen Hawking essentially summarizes the argument as follows:

“If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”

But how does this make sense? If goods are superabundant, how can people be miserably poor? Presumably, the massive class of poor people would exist if all of the superabundant goods are owned by a wealthy elite who refuse to share (and if they have more than they know what to do with, why wouldn’t some of it get shared?). This seems like an odd conclusion to me, for a few reasons.

First, if technology makes most goods ridiculously cheap or even free, then these goods would be accessible even to poor people. In particular, the prices of the factors of production, such as robots or other automation technology, will go down dramatically as we move towards this world. As 3D printing gets cheaper and cheaper, we get closer to the world of “replicators”. Since the means of production are cheap, they are easily available to a wide segment of the population, which allows this large group to become effectively self-sufficient. I don’t really need a job if I have a machine that lets me print my food, clothing, etc. There’s no need for a basic income or any kind of wealth redistribution here.

Not only that, but the proliferation of machinery doesn’t preclude people from working in exchange for money. So long as an individual’s marginal productivity is greater than zero, there is something that they can do (unless government regulations like the minimum wage get in the way, of course). Machine ownership doesn’t eliminate gains from trade, so machine-owning people will still specialize in things and exchange goods and services with others. If there is economic activity like this, then people will be capable of supporting themselves – with a vastly higher standard of living.

In general, it seems like those who support the basic income on the basis of post-scarcity economics do so as a step on the path to a post-scarcity world, but find it somewhat irrelevant once we have reached post-scarcity, since goods are freely available. But there are certain goods or industries where we have already reached post-scarcity; for instance, digital goods (intellectual property laws merely get in the way of true post-scarcity here). If we’ve reached post-scarcity in some industries without basic income, why would it be necessary for ushering in post-scarcity in general?

The reality is that, absent government intervention, the path towards post-scarcity will be a wonderful one. It has already been happening since the advent of capitalism, despite the ways in which governments and their corporate allies collude to produce artificial scarcity. Poverty has dramatically declined over the previous two centuries.

absolute poverty reduction

As scarcity continues to be reduced over time via capital accumulation, people will become increasingly rich, just as we are incredibly wealthy now compared to people in the Middle Ages. Back in the day, the norm was subsistence living. Nowadays, most of those we consider poor have things that would have been considered luxuries 100 years ago, and are certainly not living in their own filth like the masses did prior to capitalism. I’m not saying it’s great to be poor today (plus, there are still some living in truly abject poverty, but mostly in the third world), but the life of today’s poor is incomparably better than that of nearly everyone before capitalism and (relatively) free markets led to capital accumulation.

So, moving forward, what happens as this process of technological advancement and capital accumulation accelerates dramatically? Does technological unemployment become the serious issue that post-scarcity theorists (and Stephen Hawking) imagine?

More likely, as we got closer and closer to replicator-like devices, production costs would drop dramatically faster than wages would, such that real incomes would skyrocket. If a year’s worth of food costs a dollar, people would be willing to work for dramatically lower nominal wages. Someone making “merely” a dollar per day in this world would have access to more real resources than most of us are used to. Who cares if 90% of today’s jobs are wiped out by automation? Anyone would be happy to work for a dollar per day (or less), and anyone who does have resources would hire them to do whatever – perhaps things like creating art, music, and literature to increase culture in this post-scarcity world. What about the “worst” case scenario where machines replace all our jobs? That would be fantastic! We could just sit around and enjoy it!

The upshot is that robots and automation will make us incredibly wealthy, and our lives vastly easier. Comfort and even luxury will be available to the masses. This could very well reduce the “need” to work or “eliminate jobs” in a certain sense. It will allow people to pursue whatever they want – writing, making music, inventing things, coding, etc., with far less pressure to survive, and far more freedom. This is a fantastic thing, and does not require basic income at all. It makes surviving and thriving even without a basic income that much easier. In fact, a basic income is liable to delay or even prevent this future from occurring.

Let’s keep in mind that we will not reach post-scarcity due simply to technological advances alone. While necessary, the accumulation of sufficient capital is also necessary to allow us to utilize these technologies. And capital accumulation is far from a given – government policies that discourage production, savings, and investment will all slow it down, or even lead to capital destruction. The basic income discourages work, and thus production. It also discourages saving and investment, due to the higher taxes involved as well as the existence of a safety net which would leave little incentive to save. Those who argue for basic income seem to believe that production just happens on its own, and has nothing to do with the existing institutional structure.

Ultimately, technological unemployment comes from automation advancing more quickly than people can learn new skills. But perhaps technological advances will close this gap as well. Brain-computer interfaces could allow us to more directly upgrade the human mind so that we can easily adapt to new job demands as they crop up, should we so desire. This would arguably make the whole discussion moot.


Basic Income Problems

Basic Income Bad Time

The favored policy proposal of those futurists looking to usher in a post-scarcity world is some variation of basic income. I say “variation” because most of what has actually been tested in the real world is a negative income tax (NIT), something a little different from the basic income, which is just a flat payment for everybody. The NIT would be a single payment that supplements the income of the unemployed or low-paid, and gradually decreases as income rises. Both policies share the quality of providing a minimum income for everyone. In practice, the two are essentially the same, since basic income proponents generally concede that it would be necessary to “claw-back” some funding from the rich through the tax system in order to make it affordable. The NIT provides an amount of money that varies by income, and the basic income provides the same amount to everyone but taxes different amounts to make it back. As such, I will largely consider the two policies interchangeable in this section (and use the term “basic income” to mean either, unless otherwise specified), though technical details differ.

Supporters of basic income proposals often point to several experiments that were done during the 20th century and showed, according to them, that the primary fear of basic income detractors – reduced work hours and employment – did not materialize. Unfortunately for its proponents, these basic income experiments need not be interpreted so generously, and contain methodological flaws that are even more damaging. A great summary of some of these experiments is provided by John Goodman:

“The experiments were all controlled. Randomly selected people were assigned to a “control group” and an “experimental group.” The latter received a guaranteed income, and the program even used Milton Friedman’s term for it: a negative income tax. The largest, longest and best-evaluated of these experiments was SIME/DIME (Seattle Income Maintenance Experiment/Denver Income Maintenance Experiment) in Seattle and Denver. And the results were not pretty. To the dismay of the researchers, they largely confirmed what conventional wisdom had thought all along. As I reported in “Privatizing the Welfare State“:

  • The number of hours worked dropped 9% for husbands and 20% for wives, relative to the control group. For young male adults it dropped 43% more.
  • The length of unemployment increased 27% among husbands and 42% for wives, relative to the control group. For single female heads of households it increased 60% more.
  • Divorce increased 36% more among whites and 42% more among blacks. (In a New Jersey experiment, the divorce rate was 84% higher among Hispanics.)

BTW, these results have been studied and studied over and over again and there is a large literature on them ― almost all of it written by researchers who detested the outcomes. Good summaries are provided by Charles Murray and Martin Anderson.

Both authors point out that the results are even worse than they appear at first. For one thing, the “control group” had access to conventional welfare available in the 60s and 70s. So this was by no means a pure (welfare free) control group. Also, the enrollees were given different instructions about how long they could expect their guaranteed income to last. It turns out that the longer the guarantee, the worse the negative effects.” [emphasis mine]

In other words, these basic income experiments demonstrate what us detractors most fear – a demonstrable loss of work effort. Many of the post-scarcity writers look at this as a positive, but as we saw above, we need people to continue working and producing if we are ever to achieve this post-scarcity dream. 

A basic income supporter, Philip K Robins, analyzed the consensus estimate of labor supply effects of these negative income tax experiments. The conclusion is that males and heads of households worked two fewer weeks less per year, wives and single women head-of-households lost three weeks per year, and youths supplied four fewer weeks of labor. Since women and young people generally work fewer hours than men, the percentage decrease in their labor supply was dramatically greater. What social effects might this have, as youth grow up and become heads of households, but have significantly less work experience?

These estimates of labor supply lost may not seem catastrophic, but methodological issues with these studies suggest that the effects of basic income policies could be substantially worse. These experiments take place over a very limited time and space, so peoples’ expectations about the future of the program are very different. If the basic income experiment only exists in your town and for only a couple years, you know you will need to work in a few years or if you move, so you are more likely to continue working now in order to keep up your skills and employability (though in some experiments, recipients continued receiving benefits even if they did move). But if a basic income were widely applied, people wouldn’t expect to need to work a year later. In other words, the basic income experiments are heavily biased. Research (Halla et al) demonstrates that the effects of the welfare state take time to kick in, so these experiments that only lasted for a limited period of time are not accounting for the full employment effects.

“Our findings corroborate the theoretical literature which assumes that disincentive effects of a generous welfare state materialize only with some time lag. In particular we show that a high level of public social expenditures and a high unemployment rate are associated with small positive (or no) immediate impact on benefit morale, which is crowded out by adverse medium and long run effects…Our results are consistent with the fundamental supposition that individuals do not response [sic] to changes in economic incentives immediately, since they are constrained by social norms for some time. Essentially, our results suggest that the welfare state destroys its own (economic) foundation and we have to approve the hypothesis of the self-destructive welfare state.”

For what it’s worth, there is some empirical evidence that a basic income, as opposed to a negative income tax (the above experiments used a NIT), is likely to cause even greater labor supply issues. As the fraction of negative income tax recipients increases in a population, the number of labor hours decreases. The basic income, of course, raises that fraction to 100%.

In addition, these experiments do not create “closed” systems, where the costs of the program are borne in aggregate by the same group who benefits. The tax revenue for a larger geographic area is used to fund an experiment over a small subset of it, so only the positive aspects of basic income are studied, without looking at the costs. In other words, if the town where the experiment was conducted saw an uptick in economic activity, this is because they sucked money out of other areas. A properly run experiment would have Seattle taxpayers funding the Seattle basic income.

A study by the Boston Fed analyzed the basic income/negative income tax experiments in more detail, both positive and negative effects. Here are a few:

  • “As much as 40 to 58 percent of the added transfers for two-parent families would be offset by earnings reductions on the part of husbands and wives. The problem is less severe in the case of single mothers, where earnings would fall by only 16 to 20 percent of additional costs.”
  • Luckily, recipients did not squander their money on fancy cars and drugs, like some conservatives fear: “Consumption rose modestly, as would be expected with a slight rise in income, but the pattern of expenditures remained unchanged from that which existed in the absence of the payments.”
  • Youths spent additional time and money on education, at least during the experimental period. However, scholastic performance did not improve.
  • There was no beneficial impact on healthcare outcomes or psychological well-being.

The study also noted some issues with the experimental design.

“Arnold Zellner and Peter Rossi touched off a heated debate with their sharp criticism of the goals, design, execution, and analysis of the income maintenance experiments. In their opinion, inadequate attention was devoted to formulating clear-cut objectives. For example, to the extent that the goal was to estimate the cost of alternative negative income tax plans, the experiments were not really designed to provide the appropriate information. Feasibility studies or pilot projects were generally nonexistent. Serious measurement problems were not adequately resolved. Design statisticians, survey experts, and other specialists did not play an active enough role in the planning and execution of the experiments. Management and administration procedures were not completely satisfactory, Policymakers and researchers did not share clearly stated objectives. The experimental designs and the models on which they were based were frequently inadequate. Finally, the quality of reporting of results left much to be desired.”

“Charles Murray added three other reasons why the experiments failed to determine whether the negative income tax was good policy. First, no minimum baseline income standard exists that will enable everyone to have a decent standard of living. The conventional poverty index is meaningless, because it cannot discriminate between living a low-income life in the inner city and in a small town. A family at the poverty line might live decently in a civilized, functioning community, such as a small town in Missouri or Colorado, but be unable to survive on two or three times that amount in the South Bronx. Second, no one has considered what happens after a negative income tax is introduced nationwide and some people still have inadequate food and shelter; the merits of an income maintenance scheme that supplants the current system are very different from one that supplements it. Finally, the experiments were forced to focus on measurable outcomes and therefore provide no insights on noneconomic rewards, such as the psychic gains that people receive from earning their own income.” [emphasis mine]

There was an actual historical instance in Speenhamland, England, where a basic income guarantee was instituted which is far more instructive than looking at these flawed experiments.

“The experiment was the Speenhamland system, which was implemented in England 1795 and dismantled in 1834, was intended to make sure that country laborers had enough income to live. It was intended as an emergency measure to help the poor when grain prices had risen sharply due to meager harvests. The justices of Berkshire decided to offer income support to supplement wages, with the amount set in relation to the price of bread and the number of children in the household, so that the destitute would have a minimum income no matter what they earned.

Even though it was never codified as law, the Speenhamland approach was adopted in country towns all across England and in a weaker form in some factory towns. It was widely seen as a “right to live.” It was neither universal nor consistently implemented, but it nevertheless appears to have been fairly widespread. It reached its peak during the Napoleonic Wars, and was wound down in many small towns before it was effectively abolished by the new Poor Law of 1834. Not surprisingly, the Speenhamland system existed in its strongest and most durable embodiment in areas where the threat of violence by the impoverished was real. But another reason it lasted as long as it did despite the costs it imposed on local landlords was it kept the poor in place with their wages fixed at a bare subsistence level. Rural property owners wanted to keep workers from decamping to towns and cities in search of better paid employment. A smaller pool of local laborers would lead to higher wage levels.” [emphasis mine]

The basic income also dramatically reduced productivity. Quoting Karl Polanyi,

“Under the Speenhamland Law, a man was relieved even if he was in employment, as long as his wages amounted to less than the family income granted to him by the scale. Hence no laborer had any financial interest in satisfying his employer….Within a few years, the productivity of labor declined to pauper level, thus providing an added reason for employers not to raise wages above the scale. For once the intensity of labor, the care and efficiency with which it was performed, dropped below a definite level, it became indistinguishable from “boondogling”…” [emphasis mine]

How is this more humanitarian? How would this help usher in the prosperous, post-scarcity world that we seek? The effect was to make people complacent, but remain living at a subsistence level – while simultaneously decreasing overall productivity in the economy as a whole. Clearly, this result would hamper progress towards post-scarcity.

That being said, there are admittedly both pros and cons to a guaranteed basic income. Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute performed an analysis. Some advantages include

  • More transparency than our current system
  • Potential savings on administrative costs
  • It is less intrusive and paternalistic to the poor than the existing hodgepodge of programs.
  • If administered properly, it could replace some of the disincentive to work that current welfare programs provide, by not penalizing individuals who do choose to work. For more on this, see Ed Dolan’s articles here and here.
  • It could reduce the bias against marriage that current welfare schemes have.

Done properly, I believe that a libertarian could reasonably support a basic income if it completely substituted the awful welfare programs that already exist. However, it is poor policy on its own, and it is far from certain that it would end up replacing welfare rather than just getting added on top of it.

The cost of implementing a basic income would be enormous, particularly if it didn’t replace Social Security and Medicare – programs that, politically, would be vastly more difficult to replace than the standard welfare programs.

“The current poverty level for a single nonelderly individual is $12,316. Spread over 296 million U.S. citizens, the cost of such a program would be nearly $4.4 trillion, more than our entire federal budget today, and more than 4 times our current welfare expenditure (including both federal and state welfare spending). Even if the guaranteed national income replaced every existing anti-poverty program, we would still be some $3.4 trillion short.

“According to the most recent Congressional Budget Office estimates for the cost of federal programs, eliminating all income transfer programs—the entire edifice of the American welfare state—including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and so forth (but excluding tax expenditures), would yield only $2.13 trillion. If we also included so-called tax expenditures such as the mortgage interest deduction and the exclusion of employer contributions, as well as Social Security, and EITC and CTC related tax expenditures, we could add an additional $393 billion for a total of $2.5 trillion. That still wouldn’t be enough.” [emphasis mine]

The basic income would also provide an absurdly large windfall for families with lots of children. Each marginal child costs significantly less to raise, so large families could be raking in far more than the poverty level, particularly compared to single individuals. Surely, there would be abuses – parents who have children solely to collect the extra money, but don’t actually take care of their kids. Of course, this issue could be eliminated by only giving adults the benefit, rather than everyone. If payments were restricted in this way, the cost of the program would decrease to a “mere” $2.7 trillion, which is still too high (and the added complexity of the program would require further administrative costs).

income tax

As an aside, there are some who, following Georgist philosophy, believe that funding from natural resource rents could be used to provide a livable income for everyone. These people grossly overestimate the value of these rents. I will not go into detail here, but the interested reader can check out this and this.

Other factors will add to the practical complexity and difficulty in implementing a basic income guarantee. What is to be done about immigration? If the US had a basic income, the borders would need to be locked down in order to stem the influx of immigrants from poor countries, or else see the costs of the program skyrocket further. But a primary argument in favor of basic income is the humanitarian one of making sure everyone can live a life without abject poverty. It seems, to me at least, that excluding foreigners who most likely need that money more would run counter to this intent.

And what about people with disabilities? Are they paid the same amount as everyone else, despite clearly having a higher need? Do we need to bring disability insurance back into the overall welfare scheme? It seems highly unlikely that a basic income would actually be as simple as its proponents claim, or that it would eliminate all other welfare benefits. And all of this added complexity, of course, adds further administrative costs. Think of it this way: if someone gets sick, did not purchase health insurance, and requires more health care than they can afford with the basic income, do you honestly think people will just say “okay, it’s time for you to die now!”

There will also be regional differences in what a livable income would be, so payments could not simply be the same for everyone. A livable income for someone in rural Montana might be four times less than someone living in a major city. And what happens when people move? Or for people who travel frequently? Again, more administrative costs.

Political pressure will likely lead to increases in the per person expenditure as well, making the program more and more costly over time, more prone to special interests, and could add further complexity and administrative costs to the program.

A paper by Peter Boettke and Adam Martin explored the political issues surrounding a basic income. Making major changes to any redistributive program would lead to disharmonies of interests, and thus winners and losers…and the concomitant lobbying efforts to capture the benefits or avoid the losses that a basic income guarantee would entail. Either taxes need to be raised, or existing programs would need to be cut, or both; in any case, rent-seeking will surely occur.

“If the BIG were to be funded by new taxes, they would in all probability be progressive. Tax burdens apportioned “progressively” by definition fall asymmetrically across the population, laying the groundwork for both rent-seeking and countervailing distributional forces to work from the bottom up (c.f. Wagner 1989, Ch. 4). A tax burden concentrated on the rich creates a strong incentive for a small group to lobby to introduce various loopholes and provisions to offset the burden.”

There would be some small groups where a disproportionate share of the cost of the basic income would fall. These groups clearly have an incentive to lobby for restrictions on who receives the money. How long before former convicts are excluded? Or drug tests become mandatory?

How long before some opportunistic politicians are calling for a suspension in basic income payments to the wealthy, particularly during a fiscal crisis (and given the expense of a basic income, there surely will be some)? How long before that politician proposes that payments to the poor increase when the economy is doing poorly? It’s easy to see either of these measures succeeding, and they would both create interest groups that are likely to engage in rent-seeking.

“The same forces that make concentrate gains on special interests in the current system will be at play in any attempt to reform the system. But regardless of whether BIG replaced or were added to other policies, its passage would be at the mercy of special interests in order for it to be passed at all. How long would the debate proceed before a proposal like “supplements” to basic income for the needy or the deserving (i.e., public employees such as teachers) were proposed?”

I suppose, in theory, a constitutional amendment establishing basic income could reduce some of these problems. But then, how could all the complexity that IS necessary (for instance, regional differences) in a basic income policy be enshrined in the hard-to-alter constitution? How would any necessary changes be implemented effectively? And, perhaps most importantly, the constitutional has proven itself time and again insufficient for protecting the rights of Americans.



The dream of a post-scarcity world is an alluring one. The future may be filled with Star Trek-like replicators, allowing us to be live in comfort, free from the need to work, and with the time to pursue our personal interests at our leisure. Many futurologists and progressives believe that we are at a fork in the road – either adopt a basic income and move towards this fantastic post-scarcity world, or live in a dystopian world with a tiny elite that own all the machines and a mass of unemployed living in poverty.

These theorists lack a basic grasp of economics. We may one day approach something like that post-scarcity world, but it will require capital accumulation to get there. A basic income would result in a loss of productivity from a decreased work effort and withdrawal from the labor force. This could lead to the consumption of capital, or at least slow its growth; in either case, the basic income takes us further away from post-scarcity.

Political Obligations: Are We Morally Obligated To Obey Our Governments?

A man without a government is like a fish without a bicycle

Imagine you live in a town, and there is a problem.

Perhaps the problem is crime – some people do bad things like steal, murder, and rape. Or maybe you think that the moral fabric of your town is being corrupted by homosexuals, drug users, prostitutes, payday lenders, unscrupulous merchants, or people who look at you funny.

One day, you decide to do something about it. Sick of all the criminals in town, you begin to investigate crimes yourself, apprehend the criminals, and then lock them up in your basement. Then you walk over to your neighbor’s house and say “Hey there! I’ve been locking away the criminals in our town, and this is a mighty costly endeavor. Since I’ve provided this service to you, it’s time for you to pay your fair share. Please provide me with a check for $500.”

How do you think people would react to you? I’d venture a guess and say that people would slam the door in your face and laugh.

Having just been rejected, you knock on their door again. When they answer, you say “Hey now. I’m locking up the criminals in our town, and if you don’t pay up, I will consider you a criminal. Give me my money, or you’ll spend the next five years living in a cage in my basement.”

Morally speaking, is this justified? Of course not! What you are doing is robbing someone and threatening to kidnap them – actions that we can agree are morally wrong.

Nearly anyone would recognize this. And yet, when the government does exactly the same thing, it is almost universally considered “taxation” and “criminal justice,” things that most believe are morally legitimate actions for a government to take. And that very well may be true – but since our moral intuitions about the actions a private individual can do and what the government can do reveal a double-standard, it is necessary for the state to have some kind of moral authority that enables it to legitimately do things that you and I cannot. To justify a law, one must justify the use of physical coercion against those who violate the law. Causing harm to others is prima facie wrong, so some account must be given to why governments are allowed to violate our common sense moral intuitions.

This is the problem of political obligation, which is the moral property that gives governments the right to coerce people in a way that these people cannot themselves, and in which the subjects of a government are obligated to obey its dictates despite individuals not normally being required to obey other people. In other words, what makes a state morally unique and differentiated from the individuals who comprise it (and everyone else)?

For centuries, political philosophers have discussed this problem and have proposed theories justifying political obligations. My intention in this essay is to show why the most prominent of these theories of political obligation fail. The arguments presented here are drawn from two wonderful books, and if you are curious to see them fleshed out in more detail, you can do no better than to check them out:

Alright, let’s get started!


The Problem of Political Obligation

When you have an obligation to do something, that obligation is not an absolute moral claim on your actions. If you have an obligation or duty to do something, that is a very good reason for acting in a particular way, but not a conclusive reason for doing so. In other words, obligations don’t override other moral considerations for acting.

Let’s say we agree to meet for lunch. I now have an obligation to go to lunch at the agreed upon time and location. But if on my way to lunch I come across a child drowning in a pond, my obligation does not mean that I ought to let the child die and continue to lunch. Clearly, other moral considerations dominate the obligation to meet for lunch.

What this means is that even if it can be established that political obligations exist and bind us to our governments, that does not mean that we are morally required to obey the government in all cases. It would provide a very strong prima facie reason to do so – but if obeying the law meant that some significantly greater harm would occur, the morally correct action is to disobey. This is an important bound to what I am attempting to prove in this article: the existence of political obligations does not automatically entail counterintuitive results such as “supporting the Nazis was morally correct for Germans.” What it would mean is that there was a good reason to support the Nazis (or any government), but it was (heavily) outweighed by other moral considerations.

With that out of the way, let’s define obligations with more precision. An obligation is a moral requirement satisfying the following conditions:

  1. An obligation is a requirement generated by the performance of some voluntary act or omission. This is contrasted with duties, which can exist without performing some special action.
  2. An obligation is owed by a specific person to a specific person or persons. Duties, by contrast, are owed by all people to everyone else. That’s why you can “fulfill” your obligations, but cannot ever discharge of a moral duty.
  3. Every obligation that is generated establishes a corresponding right that is generated at the same time. If person A has an obligation to do X for person B, then person B has a right to the performance of X by A.
  4. It is not the nature of the required act that generates the obligation, but rather the nature of the relationship between the obligor and the obligee. Just because an act is moral or praiseworthy does not make the act obligatory.

These conditions help separate the concept of “obligations” from the very similar concept of “duties”. Most of this post will focus on obligations, but John Rawls proposed a “natural duty of justice” which will also be discussed in a later section.

An important concept is that of a “positional duty” – a duty that arises due to the nature of a position itself. For instance, a part of a soldier’s positional duties would be to shoot at an advancing enemy when the commander says so. Positional duties of this sort do not have moral weight. To say that someone has a positional duty is to say that, because of some position that the agent is in, the agent is required to do something specified by that position. But this says nothing about the nature of that position, which could be a Nazi guard who has a positional duty to aid in the extermination of Jews. If a positional duty is in fact morally binding, it is because of some other grounds for morality that is not related to the position. Therefore, we do not have a duty to obey the government simply in virtue of the fact that we are citizens of that government; something else must explain this duty. What most people would call “legal obligations” are thus morally neutral. Just because the legal obligation of a Nazi guard is to help exterminate Jews, this does not make murdering Jews morally justified.

slavery and government

Similarly, just because a particular institution exists and its rules apply to someone does not mean that they are morally bound to that institution. Tyrannical governments are not morally entitled to the support of those who live under them.

In this essay, I will not assume any particular moral theories are correct. But before moving on, let’s consider utilitarianism, which offers a different approach to generating obligations than that outlined in this article. Utilitarianism, very roughly, is the doctrine that the morally correct action is always the one that maximizes “utility” or “happiness”. Utilitarian deliberations can at times lead us to conclude that we are obligated to obey the government, but just as easily in other cases that we are not obligated to obey. As such, there is no utilitarian approach to creating a moral requirement to support or comply with a given political institution. Since utilitarianism bases the moral rightness of something on a single condition, it doesn’t seem that it is capable of leading to a theory of obligation in general. Any potential obligation is immediately superseded by concerns about utility. Any obligations generated from utilitarian calculations is due to the amount of utility that results from one’s actions, not due to the nature of political institutions themselves.

A common concern that many people have with this result can be phrased as the question: what if everyone disobeyed the law? This brings us to rule-utilitarianism, which stipulates that we ought to act in accordance with rules that, if generally adopted, would lead to the greatest utility. But our decisions are somewhat independent of each other. For instance, if I decide to become a math teacher, this seems fine. But what if everyone became a math teacher? Everyone would starve. That doesn’t make becoming a math teacher morally wrong. To phrase it all as a rule: “I can break the law when the content of the law isn’t independently morally required (don’t murder, for example), provided that there are not too many people breaking the law.” Therefore, rule-utilitarianism, like act-utilitarianism, is unable to generate an account of political obligation.

Furthermore, as Huemer points out,

“Presumably, if individuals are obligated to maintain social order, the state is similarly obligated. If disobedience to any law risks causing a collapse of social order, then the state, in making laws that are not necessary to maintaining social order and that are likely to be widely disobeyed, is itself threatening social order far more than a single individual who disobeys one of these laws. Furthermore, asking the state to renounce its desire to make such unnecessary laws is more reasonable and less onerous than asking an individual to renounce his personal liberties.”

So, what would a successful account of political obligations look like? According to Huemer, it must satisfy the following five conditions:

  1. The state’s authority applies to citizens generally. The great majority of individuals should have political obligations, and the state must be justified in using coercion against the majority of its citizens.
  2. The state’s authority is limited to those citizens and residents within its territory.
  3. The state’s authority is not tied to the content of its laws or other commands. Even if a law is “bad”, citizens must have obligations to obey. An account of political obligation should explain why citizens ought not to jaywalk because the state says so. Of course, as discussed earlier, citizens might be morally required not to act in accordance with this law, if other moral considerations outweigh it.
  4. The state is entitled to regulate a broad range of human activities, and individuals must obey the state’s directives within this range.
  5. Within the sphere of action that the state is entitled to regulate, it is the final and highest human authority.

Let’s explore condition (2) for a moment. This is what Simmons dubbed the “particularity requirement”. We are only interested in moral requirements that make an individual bound to a particular political community or institution in order to create obligations based upon citizenship. Let’s say we had an obligation to support just governments (however defined). While living under a just government, I would be obliged to support it. I would be equally obliged to support every other just government to the same degree. But political authority is supposed to explain why we are bound to “our” particular government, not governments in general.

With this in mind, let’s tackle the most important theories of political obligation.


Consent Theories And The Social Contract

Consent theories of political obligation are those that argue that no man is obligated to support or comply with any political power unless he has personally consented to its authority over him. In other words, political obligations are grounded in the citizen performing some voluntary act in order to deliberately undertake the obligation.

This is a very popular theory, and is supported by philosophical heavyweights such as John Locke. Consent theory is attractive because it prevents man from being bound to a government which he does not choose. It respects our belief that men should determine the course of their own life as much as possible. It protects an individual’s freedom to determine which particular institution will get his political allegiance.

The major assumptions behind consent theories are:

  1. Man is naturally free. The “state of nature”, therefore, is discussing men during a time prior to them having voluntarily acted in a way that morally binds them.
  2. Man gives up his natural freedom only by voluntarily providing a clear sign that he intends to do so.
  3. The method of consent protects man from injury by the state. Only a government which has been “chosen” by the individual has any legitimate power over them.
  4. The state is an instrument for serving the interests of its citizens. Neither the state nor another individual can determine what is in the interests of another; one must provide consent that would indicate that the individual considers his interests served by the government.

Prior to the existence of governments, man lives in the state of nature, where he can do whatever he wants. But then he performs some kind of act which binds him to a government by signaling his consent. If he does not consent to the government, than that government does not have legitimate authority over him. However, he may choose to become bound to a state if he believes it would serve his interests.

A consent theory would hold that only unanimous consent by the citizens would make that government a legitimate political authority. This is clearly implausible. The solution to this problem that many political philosophers have provided is “tacit consent”, primarily via residence. This seems problematic as well, since it would suggest that all governments are legitimate. Consent theorists need to find some kind of “sign of consent” that we can reasonably assume most men have undertaken.

This sign of consent must be given knowingly, intentionally, and voluntarily. If “consent” is given because of a direct threat or while under duress, it isn’t really consent now, is it? Nor is it consent if the actor didn’t know that he was providing “consent”. The fact is, most of us have never been in a position to express consent to a government authority, let alone actually performed such an act. Here’s where the importance of tacit consent comes into play, where the consent is signaled by remaining silent or inactive.

Under what conditions can silence be taken as a sign of consent, and thus justify political obligations for the consent theorist?

  1. It must be clear in the situation that consenting is appropriate and the individual is aware of this.
  2. There must be a definite period of reasonable duration where objecting is appropriate, and the methods to object must be known to a potential dissenter. The method to object must pertain to goods that people have rights over.
  3. The point at which dissent is no longer possible must be made obvious.
  4. The means acceptable for signaling dissent must be reasonable.
  5. The consequences to a potential dissenter mustn’t be extremely detrimental to the dissenter.

Consider a board meeting, where the chairman says that he will change the time of the meeting unless anyone has any objection. If the meeting attendees remain silent, then they have tacitly consented to the time change. If the chairman does not make clear that he is seeking consent, then this violates condition (1); since the attendees don’t realize that this is a situation where they can provide consent (or not), then they have not even had the opportunity to tacitly consent. Clearly, there is no deliberate and voluntary aspect to this “consent”.

By changing the example slightly, we can show why the above conditions are necessary. Let’s say the chairman says “If you do not support the time change, you can let us know by paying $5.” Because the chairman does not have a preexisting right to this money, then failing to pay cannot signal genuine tacit consent, because it violates condition (2).

Condition (3) guarantees that the attendees’ silence is not simply a reflection of a misunderstanding regarding how much time they have to dissent. The chairman cannot consider the attendees to have consented by claiming that whatever dissent that has occurred past the deadline doesn’t count, when no explicit deadline was provided.

Now, let’s say that the chairman says “If you don’t accept the time change, you can let me know by playing a round of Russian roulette.” This violates condition (4) – clearly, one cannot be considered to have provided tacit consent when the means to do would be so unreasonable. The vagueness in the term “unreasonable” should not impact the strength of the arguments in this section.

Finally, the chairman might say “If you do not accept the time change, I will lock you in a cage in my office.” This violates condition (5). “Consent” that is given due to coercion isn’t really consent, and cannot generate obligations.

Huemer adds several other conditions that must be satisfied for an agreement, or contract, to be considered valid. Explicitly dissenting from an agreement trumps any implicit acceptance. If I go into a restaurant and tell the waitress that I will not pay for my meal but want it anyways (and then she brings it to me), I am not obligated to pay. Normally, ordering at a restaurant would make you obligated to pay, but by explicitly stating that you will not, the waitress could (and should) have simply not served you. Additionally, an action can only be taken to signal consent if the actor can assume that, without performing that act, the scheme would not be forced upon them anyways. If the chairman says “I want to switch the meeting time, and will do so regardless of whether you disagree or not,” then it is not a valid agreement. Finally, a contractual obligation is mutual and conditional; if one side fails to live up to the agreement, then the obligations stemming from it are considered void.

Any possible “social contract” must fulfill these conditions, but it appears to fail on all of them. Explicit dissent doesn’t seem to trump implicit consent, as every anarchist knows. As Huemer puts it:

“…the state’s well-known refusal to recognize explicit dissent calls into question the validity of any tacit consent allegedly given by even those who have not explicitly expressed dissent. Even for those who would not in fact wish to dissent, it remains true that they were not given the option of explicitly turning down the social contract.”

The state will apply the same laws and taxes to you even if you object to government, use its roads, vote, etc. Therefore, failing to object, or agreeing to take part in the political process or accept benefits from government cannot be said to signal consent.

Social contract

A social contract would imply that the state has some obligations toward its citizens (or else the contract isn’t mutual). Presumably, one of these is that the state protects citizens from crime. Suppose you are the victim of a crime that the state could have prevented had it made a reasonable effort to do so. In this case, isn’t the state failing in its mutual obligation? This is exactly the situation we have in the US, where police have no obligation to protect citizens from crime.

Clearly, the social contract would violate our common sense intuitions about contracts and agreements in general.

But let’s return to the idea of tacit consent. Can we even say that most individuals have tacitly consented to their government’s rule? For Locke and many others, tacit consent can be signaled by voting, residing in a state, using public roads, etc. But this means that living within a tyrannical society would still result in individuals being bound to that government. North Koreans perform these actions just as readily as Americans do, but we don’t consider North Koreans to be morally bound to their government.

Here it is important to draw a distinction between an act being a “sign of consent” and an act “implying consent.” When an act “implies consent” it does not necessarily mean that the actor intended to consent or that the act would normally be taken as an attempt to signal consent. Here are ways to imply consent:

  1. An act can lead us to conclude that the actor would consent if the right conditions arose. If he had been asked to, he would have consented.
  2. An act might commit an actor to consenting. Spending hours going on a rant about how anyone who doesn’t consent to their government is an idiot would under normal conditions imply that this individual consents to be governed.
  3. An act might morally bind the actor to the same performance to which he would be bound if he in fact did consent. Joining a baseball game would imply consent to abide by the rules and dictates of the umpires.

These kinds of acts were not necessarily performed as deliberate or intentional acts of consent, and thus we cannot merely assume that they were intended as acts of consent. Remember: an act of consent must be a deliberate undertaking, otherwise any benefits that consent theory has for political obligations no longer exist.

People like Locke would argue that things like using public roads or voting, which imply consent, can be grounds for political obligations. But these instances of implied consent are not typically deliberate undertakings. Although participating in the political process might imply consent, under current arrangements, it is not a sign of consent. The average man votes with minimal awareness and no intention of having it be an act of consent to anything. If these types of actions could ground political obligations, then this would be within the realm of some other theory, not consent theory.

Let’s also note that an attitude of approval does not signal consent and is irrelevant to political obligations. Merely approving or having a positive attitude towards government is not a sign of consent; again, a sign of consent must be a deliberate undertaking. When a man consents to something, he is morally bound, regardless of his attitudes.

It is clear that very few individuals today have signaled (tacit) consent to governmental authority (even if that is only because most people have not had the opportunity to do so), which makes it unsuitable as a general grounds for political obligations. It would show that in most modern states, a trivial fraction of the citizens of any state would be morally bound.

Finally, let’s turn our attention to the argument that continued residence within a specific territory qualifies as providing consent. “Love it or leave it,” as they say. For continued residence to qualify as consent, there would need to be some kind of choice presented which allowed people to voice their dissent, otherwise conditions (1)-(3) above would be violated. For instance, at a particular age, every citizen can be asked whether they agree to be bound by political obligations, and would be allowed to leave without punishment if they do not. In general, residence as a potential signal of consent violates condition (5), that the consequences of dissent must not be too extreme. Man’s most valuable possessions, such as family and friends, would need to be left behind to leave a state, placing a very significant weight in favor of continued residence. As Simmons asks:

“Does a man choose freely to remain in prison because he has a knife with which he can wound himself seriously enough to be removed to a hospital?”

Surely not! The choice procedure specified in order to make continued residence a signal of consent may never be able to overcome condition (5), though theoretically there is room for it to do so. But the onus is on the consent theorist to propose a choice procedure that can be designed to fulfill the above conditions. In addition, the “love it or leave it” argument presupposes that the government has a valid property right over the property within its borders, or else the request to leave involves demanding of someone to sacrifice something they have rights over (like the chairman who insists people pay $5 to dissent).

At this point, we can see that consent theories ultimately come up short.


Hypothetical Social Contracts

Another strand of justifications for political obligation would be appealing to a hypothetical social contract. Proponents of these theories argue that people would consent to the state’s authority under certain hypothetical conditions.

In order for this line of argument to succeed, these theorists must show that not only would people consent, but that the hypothetical consent has moral significance that generates obligations. For instance, an unconscious patient is rushed to the hospital and cannot give explicit consent to treatment, but it is reasonable to believe that the patient would consent if he were conscious. Is our consenting to be bound to our governments analogous to this situation?

For hypothetical consent to apply, obtaining actual consent must be infeasible (for reasons other than peoples’ unwillingness to consent in the first place). If a patient is conscious, then the doctors must get their actual (not assumed) consent. Also, the parties’ hypothetical consent must be consistent with their relevant pre-existing values and beliefs. If an unconscious patient had a religious objection to some kind of surgery (that the doctor knew about), we cannot say they have hypothetically consented to surgery just because they are unconscious and cannot make it explicit.

It is possible for the state to get explicit consent to its rule, since (most) of the people that it rules over are not unconscious or otherwise incapable. In addition, there are individuals who have values that are against certain types of government (or government in general), so hypothetical consent cannot be assumed for these individuals. For instance, some people might only consent to a government that is a direct democracy, but if living in a representative democracy, they would not.

One might argue that a hypothetical social contract is valid if all “reasonable” people would consent to it. This consent need not apply to every detail of the state, but it should at least include consent to the basic forms and structures of that government. But there is no reason to think that all reasonable people will reach agreement on the basic principles of government any more than all reasonable people agreeing to the same religion or ethical theory.

The hypothetical social contract theorist must hold that one may coercively impose an arrangement on individuals when they would be “unreasonable” to reject the arrangement. If someone offered you a job that was better in every way than your current job, you might be “unreasonable” to reject it; nevertheless, most people wouldn’t say that this gives the employer the right to coerce you into accepting the job. The unreasonableness of rejecting an offer in the private sphere clearly does not generate a license to coerce, and yet the unreasonableness of rejecting the social contract is enough for many theorists to (inconsistently and incorrectly) claim that the terms of a social contract can be forced on its citizens.

Rawls’s Natural Duty of Justice

John Rawls is without question the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century, so it is worth investigating his arguments more explicitly.

Rawls imagines a hypothetical “original position,” where individuals select the basic social structure that they would like to live under. They do this from behind the “veil of ignorance” – nobody in the original position is aware of their characteristics in the real world. The parties negotiating the principles are unaware of their race, sex, religion, social status, talents, and so on. Rawls says that all reasonable people behind the veil of ignorance would agree to certain principles of government. The cause of disagreements, according to Rawls, are the influence of irrationality, personal biases, and ignorance – all factors that disappear under the veil of ignorance.

anarchy frightens people

But given that reasonable people disagree over many philosophical issues for intellectual reasons, why should we assume that disagreements would be explained away in political philosophy? There is no reason to think that (reasonable and rational) anarchists disagree with Rawls’s principles because of their knowledge of their position in society. While Rawls may have identified certain necessary conditions (people should be rational, free from personal biases, etc.), it is not clear that these conditions are sufficient. But even if one could identify all of the conditions necessary for persuasive moral reasoning, it is possible that the conclusions that Rawls draws are not accurate. For that to be the case, it would be necessary for everyone in the original position to have the complete and correct values – but the correct moral values are highly contentious in philosophy. Therefore, it becomes difficult or impossible for Rawls or any other theorist to determine what principles people would actually agree to.

That is enough to render Rawls’s theory inadequate, but let’s assume away those problems for a moment. Rawls claims that the natural duty of justice binds each member “irrespective of his voluntary acts, performative or otherwise.” (Note that it is this factor that makes it a duty rather than an obligation, but I digress).This duty of justice has two parts:

“First, we are to comply with and do our share in just institutions when they exist and apply to us; and second, we are to assist in the establishment of just arrangements when they do not exist, at least when this can be done at little cost to ourselves.”

But what does it mean for an institution to “apply to us”? We shouldn’t be required to go along with just any institution that forces itself upon us, or which applies to us because of descriptions that we happen to meet. The NAACP doesn’t “apply to” all black people. The Writer’s Guild doesn’t “apply to” me merely because I am a writer. Birth is not an act that I perform or am responsible for, so being born in an area shouldn’t make that institution “apply to” me in a morally significant way.

One must consent or accept benefits or something along those lines in order for the institution to “apply to” me in a morally significant way. The acts that a citizen must perform in order to have the institution “apply” to him in this stronger sense are ones which would generate obligations anyways (under consent or fair play theories, coming up next). What if we tried to get rid of the “application” clause in Rawls’s natural duty of justice? Then we would be obligated to comply with and support every just institution, wherever it exists – an implausible demand, to be sure, and one which violates the particularity principle.


The Principle of Fair Play

The principle of fair play suggests that the beneficiary of some kind of scheme has a moral obligation to do his “fair share” to shoulder the burden of the scheme. Others who have cooperated in this scheme have a right to the beneficiary’s submission to the rules.

Obligations stemming from this principle can arise when the following conditions hold (Simmons):

  1. There must be an active scheme of social cooperation.
  2. Cooperation under the scheme involves at least a restriction of one’s liberty.
  3. The benefits yielded from the scheme can be, at least in some cases, enjoyed by someone who does not cooperate (related to public goods/free rider problem).

Under this conception of obligations, citizens are considered to stand in a cooperative relationship with their fellow citizens rather than in an adversarial relationship with their government (as consent theories seem to suggest). This sentiment might be reflected in some common statements that people will make, such as “we are the government.”

In order to assess this argument, we must draw a distinction between merely receiving benefits and accepting benefits. To accept a benefit, one must have wanted it when it was received, or have made an effort to get the benefit, or at least not have actively attempted to avoid getting it. This is the difference between you sneaking onto my lawn while I’m away and mowing it (I receive a benefit), or asking me if you could come by to mow my lawn (I accept a benefit). It would be silly to claim that I “accept” the benefit of you mowing my lawn if you did it while I was completely unaware. And it would also fly against our intuitions to say that we owe this phantom lawn-mower for their services provided. What if I were growing it out for some reason?

With this distinction in mind, we have the choice of saying that the principle of fair play applies to either all beneficiaries of a scheme, or merely all of those who have accepted the benefits of that scheme. Is it enough for someone to have merely received the benefit? Robert Nozick, in “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” provides a thought experiment that convincingly demonstrates that receiving a benefit is not sufficient to bind someone under considerations of fair play.

“Suppose some of the people in your neighborhood (there are 364 other adults) have found a public address system and decide to institute a system of public entertainment. They post a list of names, one for each day, yours among them. On his assigned day (one can easily switch days) a person is to run the public address system, play records over it, give news bulletins, tell amusing stories he has heard, and so on. After 138 days on which each person has done his part, your day arrives. Are you obligated to take your turn? You have benefited from it, occasionally opening your window to listen, enjoying some music or chuckling at someone’s funny story. The other people have put themselves out. But must you answer the call when it is your turn to do so? As it stands, surely not. Though you benefit from the arrangement, you may know all along that 364 days of entertainment supplied by others will not be worth your giving up one day. You would rather not have any of it and not give up a day than have it all and spend one of your days at it. Given these preferences, how can it be that you are required to participate when your scheduled time comes? It would be nice to have philosophy readings on the radio to which one could tune in at any time, perhaps late at night when tired. But it may not be nice enough for you to want to give up one whole day of your own as a reader on the program. Whatever you want, can others create an obligation for you to do so by going ahead and starting the program themselves? In this case you can choose to forgo the benefit by not turning on the radio; in other cases the benefits may be unavoidable. If each day a different person on your street sweeps the entire street, must you do so when your time comes? Even if you don’t care that much about a clean street? Must you imagine dirt as you traverse the street, so as not to benefit as a free rider? Must you refrain from turning on the radio to hear the philosophy readings? Must you mow your front lawn as often as your neighbors mow theirs?”

We conclude that in order to have obligations derived from fair play, one must accept the benefits of the scheme, and not merely receive the benefits. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

It also appears that considerations of fair play would only arise if the beneficiary is also a participant in the cooperative scheme (for instance, Canadians benefit from the rule of law that the American government provides, but they are not obligated to pay US taxes). To be a participant, one must a) pledge support or tacitly agree to be governed by the scheme’s rules, or b) play an active role in the scheme after it is instituted.

In other words, fair play would only bind “insiders” of the scheme. This means that it would only bind those who have already become bound to do their part as “insiders,” leading the principle of fair play to collapse into a theory of consent. But this critique no longer holds once we define a participant as someone who has agreed to accept benefits. One can accept benefits from a scheme without signaling consent, and this would still make that person a participant (“Yes, I’m accepting the benefits of government, but I will NOT pay for it! It is a terrible idea!”). Thus, the theory no longer collapses into consent theory. Bummer.

Let’s return to the idea of accepting benefits. Benefits that we actively resist getting, we get unknowingly, or in ways in which we had no control, appear to be benefits that we did not accept. To accept the benefit, we must have tried (and succeeded) to get the benefit or taken the benefit willingly and knowingly. We cannot regard the benefits as having been forced upon us against our will or think that they were not worth the price we must pay for them. Let us define an “open” benefit as one that cannot be avoided without a change in lifestyle, such as the PA system example that Nozick provides (we can contrast this with “readily available” benefits that can be obtained easily, but require some kind of action to benefit from). In the case of open benefits in a cooperative scheme, in order to be considered to have “accepted” the benefits, one must have understood that the benefits were provided by the scheme itself (as opposed to just being free for the taking, entitlements, etc.).

Most benefits of government are “open,” and thus it is difficult to see how anyone has really accepted them. Many citizens likely don’t believe that the benefits that they receive are worth the price they must pay. Most people don’t think it is worth it to buy loads of bombs and get involved in wars, to pay for police to fight the “drug war,” or otherwise spend money interfering in peoples’ personal lives. And most people regard these benefits not as something arising from the cooperative effort of their fellow citizens, but rather as something that they have “purchased” from the government with their taxes. As Simmons says,

“Even among the thoughtful and “morally aware”, it must be a rare individual who regards himself as engaged in an ongoing cooperative venture, obeying the law because fair play demands it, and with all of the citizens of his state as fellow participants.”

As such, the principle of fair play cannot generate political obligations for the majority of individuals, and is thus not a sufficiently general principle of political obligation. But before moving on to the next theory, we should take a moment to reflect on our intuitions regarding fair play.

As a thought experiment (Simmons provides this example), imagine that homeowners in a given area create a scheme to have everyone maintain their own yards during the week and do some yard work in the communal areas on weekends. Two individuals, Oscar and Willie, refuse to partake in this scheme. Oscar hates clean yards, so he isn’t really benefiting from the scheme. The residents in that area don’t feel like he is freeloading (though they would prefer he leave the community), because he is not benefitting from the arrangement at all.

Willie, on the other hand, does like well-kept yards. But he would prefer to live in an ugly neighborhood than to spend his weekend cleaning. The rest of the residents feel that Willie is obligated to help and that he is not fulfilling these obligations.

scared of those who believe in authority

But then there is Sam, a businessman who comes into the neighborhood for much of the week and benefits just as much from the scheme as Willie does, but also does not contribute. Anyone who would accuse Sam of avoiding obligations would be laughed at. But neither Willie nor Sam has accepted the benefits or made any sort of commitment to the yard-cleaning scheme – they appear to be in largely the same position relative to the scheme. So why is Willie accused of failing to discharge his obligations while Sam is not?

The answer is that peoples’ intuitions about Willie are wrong. Sorry guys. We are born into our political communities (or schemes, as I’ve been calling them), which seems qualitatively the same as having the scheme built up around you, as in the examples of Willie and the PA system.


The Principle of Gratitude

Perhaps political obligations are generated from the receipt (and not necessarily acceptance) of benefits of government due to the principle of gratitude, which stipulates that we repay our benefactors. This principle might apply, for instance, to say that we owe our parents because of the benefits they have provided us.

For starters, it is an open question whether or not considerations of gratitude are relevant to moral theory at all. The triviality of most potential debts of gratitude makes it seem as though it would fall under etiquette rather than morality. Nevertheless, let us consider the possibility that debts of gratitude could be morally significant.

There are at least five necessary conditions for an obligation of gratitude to be generated. These conditions are necessary, but likely not sufficient.

  1. The benefit must be granted by means of some effort or sacrifice. If someone benefits us by merely going about their business-as-usual, it is difficult to see how any kind of special debt would be generated.
  2. The benefit must not be given unintentionally, involuntarily, or for any other disqualifying reasons (selfishness, for instance).
  3. The benefit must not be forced (unjustifiably) against the beneficiary’s will.
  4. The beneficiary must want the benefit, or the beneficiary would want the benefit if certain impairing conditions were corrected (for instance, if the person were not drunk).
  5. The beneficiary must not want the benefit not to be provided by the benefactor (they would want the benefits to come from someone else), or the beneficiary wouldn’t feel this way if impairing conditions were corrected.

Let’s say that all of these conditions (and any other necessary conditions) were satisfied with respect to the benefits we receive from government. Even in the case where we are bound by a debt of gratitude to our government, this would not imply that we ought to obey the government, since other countervailing considerations could predominate in that moral deliberation.

Darth Vader not guilty

But political obligation requires a very specific kind of “payment” to the government. Namely, it requires obedience. But while obedience to the law and support for government institutions are one way of discharging a debt of gratitude, they are not the only way. And even if a debt of gratitude required fulfilling a particular need of the benefactor (obedience is something the state needs to exist), this does not mean we must do everything in our power to fulfill this need. Obeying the law most of the time would fulfill this need, so we don’t need to obey the law all the time. But it also isn’t clear why a benefactor having a particular need implies that the beneficiary must fulfill this need in the first place. Therefore, the best that the principle of gratitude can do is to require that citizens do something for their governments, but that something is not the same as a political obligation. It could just mean that we are morally required to say “thank you” to politicians.

But it is also clear that the necessary conditions above are not met by our relationship with our government. For starters, a citizen who honestly claims that he did not want the benefits that government provided, or that he didn’t want to receive them from his government, would have no political obligations under the gratitude account.

Furthermore, condition (1) fails because the government is hardly making any sacrifice or effort on my behalf. The marginal cost of providing me benefits must be negligible. And the state’s money comes from tax revenue (other citizens), so it is not really sacrificing at all. Additionally, condition (2) fails because government rarely if ever has the proper motivations that a debt of gratitude would require. Even in the best states, so much of the benefit that is received is about vote-buying, dispensing political favors, and so on.

We are forced to conclude that the principle of gratitude is unable to generate political obligations.



The arguments presented in this essay demonstrate that the most significant accounts of political obligations ultimately fail to accomplish what their proponents want. How can we reconcile this with the clear empirical fact that the majority of people seem to believe that political obligations do in fact exist? Popular opinion would seem to provide at least prima facie evidence that political obligations exist. For the majority of people to be wrong, a cognitive malfunction with the same end result must occur in a large percentage of people. Can we identify a systemic bias that would lead to the vast majority of individuals to draw the wrong conclusions about political obligations?

It seems to me that we can. Numerous psychological principles would tend to steer many individuals in this direction. For instance, the Milgram experiment showed that people are far more likely to obey perceived authority figures than they would have thought, and certainly more than could be thought justified. Obedient subjects rationalized their behavior as “just following orders.” In this experiment, psychologically healthy individuals administered fake electric shocks to someone, despite that person complaining of a heart condition, crying out in pain, and eventually becoming nonresponsive. All it took was for someone in a lab coat to tell them that they should continue administering shocks. Despite showing signs of anxiety and resistance, a full 65% of subjects completed the experiment, thinking they were sending 450 volts of electricity through a presumably lifeless or unconscious body.

People also tend to adjust their beliefs and values in order to make their own choices appear better and deal with the “cognitive dissonance” that arises from acting in ways that are inconsistent with their beliefs. And since we generally obey governments, pay taxes, etc., we may rationalize this action by appealing to political authority. It is nicer to imagine that we are caring and conscientious people who are just doing our duty in society than it is to imagine we are authorizing coercion on our behalf.

There is also the “status quo bias”, where individuals tend to consider any change from a baseline state (the status quo) to be a loss. This creates a tendency to imagine that what our society practices must be true and good.

Finally, a citizen’s relationship with his state fulfills the conditions that psychologists have shown to cause Stockholm Syndrome, where captives develop an attachment or even love for their captors. This is a defensive mechanism that may have survival value in extreme situations, and it might partly explain our acceptance of state power or even generate a certain love and attachment to the state. This issue deserves further exploration, but as I have written about it before, I will leave it at that for now.

Your confidence in your beliefs is too damn high!

Together, these systemic biases can explain the popular support for the idea of political authority, and this support does not provide additional evidence that political authority exists. Even if all governments are illegitimate and political obligations don’t exist, it is quite likely that we would still feel as though they were and do.

A lack of political authority means that we are not obligated to obey the law merely because it is the law (we have other moral reasons not to murder or steal, though), and that agents of the state are not morally entitled to coerce citizens in ways that private citizens are morally prohibited from doing. I’ll close with a great summary from Huemer:

“For any coercive act by the state, we should first ask what reason the state has for exercising coercion in this way. We should then consider whether a private individual or organization would be justified in exercising a similar kind and degree of coercion, with similar effects on the victims, for similar reasons. If the answer is no, then coercion by the state is not justified either.”

Japanese Internment: The Constitution Will Not Protect Americans From Their Government

Japanese Internment

The term “concentration camp” is generally associated with Nazi Germany, but it was actually popularized during the Second Boer War at the turn of the 20th century. While this was not the first time civilians were interned during war (for instance, the United States had an extensive system of concentration camps during the war with the Philippines), it was the first time that the entirety of a nation was systematically targeted and depopulated.

A concentration camp is a compound for noncombatants in a war zone. Auschwitz and the other infamous sites under Nazi control would more accurately be called death camps.

Whatever the term, rounding up innocent civilians and forcing them from their homes is clearly a heinous crime. It is the kind of thing that tyrants do. It is certainly not the kind of thing that happens in America, land of the free and home of the brave.

Of course, this isn’t true. By Executive Order 9066 on February 19th, 1942 (just 74 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor), more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans, primarily US citizens, were sent to concentration camps, where they were forced to live for an average of 3 years. And yes, concentration camp is the correct term here; even FDR and other government officials called them concentration camps.

It is of the utmost importance that we remember what happened to the Japanese living in America during World War 2, because many naïve Americans either forget that it happened or refuse to believe that something similar could happen again. People place entirely too much faith in their government, and the constitution that is supposed to constrain it.

In this post, I will discuss some of the history of Japanese internment, the constitutional issues and failures surrounding it, and how these issues have only grown stronger in the post-9/11 world.


Japanese Internment

The vast majority of the 130,000 Japanese in the US during the early 1940s were living on the west coast in California, Oregon, and Washington. Nearly all of them were incarcerated. The majority of those incarcerated were US citizens who had committed no crime whatsoever. According to history professor Roger Daniels,

More than two-thirds of them were native-born American citizens. Their parents, most of whom had immigrated to the United States between 1890 and 1924 (when Congress barred further immigration of Japanese), were “aliens ineligible to citizenship” because of their race. Like all persons of color in the United States, both generations of Japanese Americans experienced systematic discrimination. The immigrant Issei generation, in addition to being barred from citizenship, were legally forbidden to enter a number of professions and trades and, even more importantly for a farming people, were forbidden to own agricultural land in the states where most of them lived. The second or Nisei generation, although legally citizens, were not accorded equal rights. In California, for example, they were segregated in theaters, barred from swimming pools, and limited in employment.”

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, a smaller subset of the Japanese were rounded up based on prior suspicion. Reasonable people could debate whether or not this was justified, but at least it was legal (though regular readers of this blog should understand that “legal” does not equal “moral”).

“The outbreak of war put the Issei generation at peril—they were “alien enemies” and, as such, some eight thousand, mostly men, were interned beginning on the night of 7-8 December 1941…While it is clear that some of those interned did not receive “justice,” their confinement did conform to the law of the land, which had provided for wartime internment since the War of 1812.What happened to the rest of the West Coast Japanese Americans was without precedent in American law…”

We will go over the legal aspects of setting up concentration camps for US citizens later. For now, I’d like to point out a truism about government action and its perceived authority: it’s quite common for people to accept highly questionable directives without resistance. Large segments of the population will even support such measures, be it out of fear or ignorance. There’s no reason to think that, if America begins going down the road towards concentration camps again, it won’t be a popular decision and that there won’t be similar collaborators. Even the victims themselves are likely to go along with it.

“The reaction of the Japanese American people to all of this was remarkable. The vast majority accepted the various government decisions with what appeared to be patient resignation. The leading national organization of the citizen generation, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), advocated a policy of acquiescence and even collaboration with the government’s plans hoping by such behavior to “earn” a better place for Japanese Americans in the postwar world. This kind of accommodation is not unknown among other American minority groups.”

A little known fact is that the American government also kidnapped and interned Japanese in Latin America. As described by Natsu Taylor Saito,

“The plaintiffs lost homes and possessions; some were forced to clear jungle in the Canal Zone; and men, women and children were transported under armed guard to prison camps in the Texas desert where they were incarcerated indefinitely without charge or hearing. Families were torn apart and scattered across the globe. Held as hostages, some Japanese Latin Americans were exchanged for U.S. citizens, and others were imprisoned past the end of the war, when the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (“INS”) declared them to be “illegal aliens” and deported them, against their will, to Japan.”

While some of the Japanese were deported at the end of the war, others refused to leave the camps.

“Ironically, in 1945, as the war was ending, the WRA [War Relocation Authority] had great difficulty in getting some Japanese Americans—mostly older members of the Issei generation—to leave the camps. Many had lost their means of livelihood and even though they had once been willing to take the great risk of emigration to a strange land, they were now afraid to return to the places where they had lived for decades.”

This is despite the deplorable living conditions in the camps. Summarized by Brian Masaru Hayashi,

“…they endured four years of cramped living quarters, inadequate facilities, low wages, and a general lack of freedom and privacy. The majority–approximately five out of every six–pledged their allegiance to the United States or promised obedience to its laws over Japan’s when confronted with questions regarding which country the aliens would support and concerning the U.S. citizens’ willingness to serve in the American armed forces during the infamous Loyalty Registration of 1943.

What is this about a “loyalty registration”? The WRA attempted to divide the prisoners into “loyal” and “disloyal” groups and separate them, based on a simple questionnaire. How American! Again, remember that these are US citizens who were not charged with any crimes.

While being rounded up, the Japanese exiles weren’t told where they were going or how long they’d be gone for. They were given a very short period of time to sell their possessions before being interned, so property was usually sold for significantly below market value. In addition, having been forced out of the labor market for several years, Japanese had significantly reduced earnings upon leaving the camps, according to research by Aimee Chin.

“Using individual-level data from the 1970 Census, I find that the labor market withdrawal induced by the internment reduced the annual earnings of males by as much as nine to thirteen percent twenty-five years afterwards. Additionally, internment increased the probability of self-employment, and reduced the probability of holding high-status professional and technical occupations. These findings are consistent with the predictions of an economic model that equates the labor market withdrawal induced by the internment with a loss of civilian labor market experience or a loss of advantageous job matches.”

This study used the youngest birth cohort whose labor would have been affected by internment.

“Older cohorts were probably even more adversely impacted, since they were more likely to be foreign-born, to have held an agricultural occupation prior to internment, and to have owned a farm or small business prior to internment (and therefore possessing more firm-specific human capital).”

All in all, the internment resulted in considerable losses in both property and income for Japanese-Americans.

The experience of life in the camps didn’t help. Families were often split up, and then people were forced to live communally with strangers, including communal latrines without partitions, and communal showers in open areas. There were partitions dividing the rooms most of the time, but they did not extend from the floor to the ceiling. You can easily imagine the privacy issues this would create. Some were housed in animal stables with the stench of manure, and many had no roof. Attempted escape or disobeying orders were punishable by death – and Roger Daniels claims that in at least three separate camps, armed soldiers shot and killed unarmed, incarcerated American citizens.

In the rush to incarcerate such a large number of people, the camps were hastily and shoddily built. Most camps were located in areas with wild temperature changes from day to night and winter to summer. They were located in barren, desolate locations, hardly suitable for the people who were forced to inhabit them.

“In May officials tried to put the best face on the construction of housing and other buildings at the camps. One description called the initial housing “basic”: “That is, the structures are soundly constructed and provide minimum essentials for decent living. As evacuees move in, they will have an opportunity to improve their quarters by their own work.” But feeling pressure from the WRA, civilian construction contractors built the centers very quickly during the spring and summer of 1942. Camp designs were based on military barracks, making them ill suited for family living. And along with the speed came shoddy construction and other deficiencies. A 1943 WRA report described “tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind.” While the spartan buildings may have satisfied international laws, they left much to be desired.

The less than ideal design and construction quality of the housing was magnified by the desert location of the camps. The heat was blistering in the summer and generally came with dust. One internee recalled: “Inside of our houses, in the laundry, in the latrines, in the mess halls, dust and more dust, dust everywhere.” Winters could be equally difficult. For example, at Heart Mountain in northern Wyoming, internees endured temperatures of 30 degrees below zero in the winter. Residents there resorted to banking the earth against their barracks to block the icy winds. The situation was made worse by the hasty evacuation process to the assembly center. Evacuees leaving the milder coastal climate had not been told of their ultimate destinations, and as a result, many failed to pack clothing that would have been appropriate for the bitter desert winters.”

An independent report by someone working in the camps presents a gloomy picture of camp conditions.

“Ralph Smeltzer, a member of the Brethren Church, worked within the camps and produced his own reports documenting the condition of the internees.  His reports present a group of people confined to almost unbearable situations.  Within the April 21, 1942 report, Smeltzer describes how “bathing facilities were quite inadequate, running water was late in being made available and two weeks elapsed before hot water was available.”  In the second report, dated May 5, 1942, a lack of plumbing supplies creates a “serious lack of sanitary facilities” leading to widespread dysentery.  In a third report, dated June 8, 1942, Smeltzer describes a story wherein “some Caucasians set up tables outside the barb-wire fences and handed their Japanese friends additional food over and through the fence.”  None of these conditions are to be found in any War Relocation Authority reports.

In his sixth report, dated November 6, 1942, a full seven and a half months after the camps had opened, Smeltzer describes what continues to provide the internees with low morale and high discontent.  He details how “The rooms are too small.  Two or more families live in many rooms.  An average room is 20 feet by 24 feet” allowing each person in the room a personal space of “4 feet by 20 feet;” the living facilities have “poorly fitting windows and gaping barn-like doors;” “the poorest lumbar is used throughout,” and the “rooms are nearly always cold.”  In essence, living conditions are abhorrent.”

Naturally, this was all done for the sake of “national security.” America was at war, and Japan was the enemy. Of course the Japanese-Americans would be spies, attempting to subvert the war effort! But according to Roger Daniels,

There was not one case of espionage or sabotage by a Japanese person in the United States during the entire war. One West Coast law enforcement officer, California Attorney General Earl Warren, admitted to a congressional committee on 21 February 1942 that there had been no such acts in California, but found that fact “most ominous.” It convinced him that “we are just being lulled into a false sense of security and that the only reason we haven’t had a disaster in California is because it is timed for a different date.” “Our day of reckoning is bound to come,” he testified in arguing for incarceration. Of course, if there had been sabotage by Japanese Americans in California, Warren would have used that to argue for the same thing. As far as Japanese Americans were concerned, it was a no-win situation.”


Was It Constitutional?

Those Americans who have a special faith in government because the precious constitution will keep the government honest should study the Japanese internment. It should be obvious to even the most dimwitted American boob that the constitution provided no protection to a huge group of individuals who needed it the most.

Eugene Rostow, an influential legal scholar and former Dean of Yale Law School, wrote a scathing critique of the Supreme Court cases relevant to the Japanese internment. I will draw on his argument heavily here, and I would encourage you to read it yourself if you are into that kind of thing. The emphasis in any quotations included here is mine.

Of fundamental importance to the legal structure of a supposedly democratic society is the relationship between civil and military authority.

“What the Supreme Court has done in these cases, and especially in Korematsu v. United States, is to increase the strength of the military in relation to civil government. It has upheld an act of military power without a factual record in which the justification for the act was analyzed. Thus it has created doubt as to the standards of responsibility to which the military power will be held. For the first time in American legal history, the Court has seriously weakened the protection of our basic civil right, the writ of habeas corpus. It has established a precedent which may well be used to encourage attacks on the civil rights of citizens and aliens, and may make it possible for some of those attacks to succeed. It will give aid to reactionary political programs which use social division and racial prejudice as tools for conquering power.”

As mentioned previously, the internment of the Japanese was justified as a matter of military necessity. Allegedly, spies and saboteurs would be common among the Japanese population. But there was no evidence of Japanese sabotage, and certainly not enough to justify the suspension of habeas corpus, the right to challenge unlawful imprisonment before a court.

“Apart from the members of the group known to be under suspicion, there was no evidence beyond the vaguest fear to connect the Japanese on the West Coast with the unfavorable military events of 1941 and 1942. Both at Pearl Harbor and in sporadic attacks on the West Coast the enemy had shown that he had knowledge of our dispositions. There was some signaling to enemy ships at sea, both by radio and by lights, along the West Coast. It was said to be difficult to trace such signals because of limitations on the power of search without warrant. There had been several episodes of shelling the coast by submarine, although two of the three such episodes mentioned by General DeWitt as tending to create suspicion of the Japanese Americans had taken place after their removal from the Coast. These were the only such items in the Final Report which were not identified by date.” And it was positively known that no suspicions attached to the Japanese residents for sabotage at Pearl Harbor before, during or after the raid. Those subsequently arrested as Japanese agents were all white men. “To focus attention on local residents of Japanese descent, actually diverted attention from those who were busily engaged in espionage activity.””

Even in Hawaii, a far more militarily significant location than the west coast of the mainland US, and even under the martial law that was imposed there, those Japanese who were arrested or interned were done so on an individual basis rather than as a part of a group defined by race. The same was true in France and Great Britain (with respect to their German populations), despite being much closer to the action than America was.

“During the period of three and a half years after Pearl Harbor, military power was installed in Hawaii, constitutionally or not, and the normal controls against arrest on suspicion were not available. The population of Hawaii is 500,000, of whom some 160,000, or 32%, were of Japanese descent. Despite the confusions of the moment in Hawaii, only 700 to 800 Japanese aliens were arrested and sent to the mainland for internment. In addition, fewer than 1,100 persons of Japanese ancestry were transferred to the mainland to relocation centers. These Japanese were arrested on the basis of individual suspicion, resting on previous examination or observed behavior, or they were families of interned aliens, transferred voluntarily. Of those transferred from Hawaii to the mainland, 912 were citizens, the rest aliens. Even under a regime of martial law, men were arrested as individuals, and safety was assured without mass arrests.

In the period immediately after Pearl Harbor there was no special security program on the West Coast for persons of Japanese extraction, and no general conviction that a special program was needed. Known enemy sympathizers among the Japanese, like white traitors and enemy agents, were arrested. There was no sabotage on the part of persons of Japanese ancestry, either in Hawaii or on the West Coast. There was no reason to suppose that the 112,000 persons of Japanese descent on the West Coast, 1.2% of the population, constituted a greater menace to safety than such persons in Hawaii, 32% of the Territory’s population. Their access to military installations was not substantially different in the two areas; their status in society was quite similar; their proved record of loyalty in the war has been the same. Although many white persons were arrested, and convicted, as Japanese agents, no resident Japanese American has so far been convicted of sabotage or espionage as an agent of Japan.

But the courts alleged that it was impossible to investigate individual loyalty in the case of the Japanese – a claim that is clearly wrong. In fact, a major reason the Japanese were targeted was because they were a small enough group to target, unlike the Germans or Italians. You know, the other major Axis powers.

“The second part of the Court’s basic premise of fact was that it was impossible to investigate the question of loyalty individually. As to the validity of this proposition there was neither evidence in the record nor even discussion by the Court to indicate a basis for the conclusion which might appeal to a reasonable man, or even to a choleric and harassed general, faced with the danger of invasion and the specter of his own court martial. The issue was dismissed in a sentence. “We cannot say that the war-making branches of the Government did not have ground for believing that in a critical hour such persons could not readily be isolated and separately dealt with, and constituted a menace to the national defense and safety, which demanded that prompt and adequate measures be taken to guard against it.” In view of the history of security measures during the war, it would not have been easy to establish strong grounds for such a belief. There were about 110,000 persons subject to the exclusion orders, 43% of them being over 50 or under 15. At the time of the exclusion orders, they had lived in California without committing sabotage for five months after Pearl Harbor. The number of persons to be examined was not beyond the capacities of individual examination processes, in the light of experience with such security measures, both in the United States and abroad…Actually, the exclusion program was undertaken not because the Japanese were too numerous to be examined individually, but because they were a small enough group to be punished by confinement. It would have- been physically impossible to confine the Japanese and Japanese Americans in Hawaii, and it would have been both physically and politically impossible to undertake comparable measures against the 690,000 Italians or the 314,000 Germans living in the United States. The Japanese were being attacked because for some they provided the only possible outlet and expression for sentiments of group hostility.

By the time any cases actually made it to the Supreme Court, the tide of battle had changed and the Allies were winning against the Japanese. The military reality did not justify paranoia against the Japanese. The Supreme Court was tasked not just with seeing whether the concentration camps were allowed when they were made, but also whether they continued to be justified. This makes the failure to strike indefinite detention as unconstitutional all the more bewildering and, dare I say, evil. Instead, the courts basically just abdicated their authority to rule on these kinds of issues.

“In a bewildering and unimpressive series of opinions, relieved only by the dissents of Mr. Justice Roberts and of Mr. Justice ‘Murphy in Korematsu v. United States,”‘ the Court chose to assume that the main issue of the cases – the scope and method of judicial review of military decisions – did not exist. In the political process of American life, these decisions were a negative and reactionary act. The Court avoided the risks of overruling the Government on an issue of war policy. But it weakened society’s control over military authority-one of the polarizing forces on which the organization of our society depends. And it solemnly accepted and gave the prestige of its support to dangerous racial myths about a minority group, in arguments which can be applied easily to any other minority in our society.”

It should be clear that Justice Murphy’s dissent makes far more sense than this. Here it is, so you can judge for yourself:

Being an obvious racial discrimination, the order deprives all those within its scope of’ the equal protection of the laws as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. It further deprives these individuals of their constitutional rights to live and work where they will, to establish a home where they choose and to move about freely. In excommunicating, them without benefit of hearings, this order also deprives them of all their constitutional rights to procedural due process. Yet no reasonable relation to an ‘immediate, imminent, and impending’ public danger is evident to support this racial restriction which is one of the most sweeping and complete deprivations of constitutional rights in the history of this nation in the absence of martial law.”

Instead, it was held that people with the same race as the enemy constituted a more significant threat than other people (although as discussed before, this was applied inconsistently).

“The “facts” which were thus held to “afford a rational basis for decision” were that in time of war “residents having ethnic affiliations with an invading enemy may be a greater source of danger than those of different ancestry,” and that in time of war such persons could not readily be isolated and dealt with individually…Imagine applying an ethnic presumption of disloyalty in the circumstances of the Revolution or the Civil War! In the World War and in the present war, soldiers who had ethnic affiliations with the enemy-German, Austrian, Hungarian, Finnish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Japanese and Italian-fought uniformly as Americans in our armed forces, without any suggestion of group disloyalty.”

The justification for Japanese internment is all the more awkward considering the precedent set in the Ex parte Milligan case, which determined that the military did not have the constitutional authority to arrest or try civilians when civil courts were available – as they most certainly were in 1942.

“In Ex parte Milligan the Court said that the military could not constitutionally arrest, nor could a military tribunal constitutionally try, civilians charged with treason and conspiracy to destroy the state by force, at a time when the civil courts were open and functioning. Under the plan considered in the Japanese American cases, people not charged with crime are imprisoned for several years without even a military trial, on the ground that they have the taint of Japanese blood. Why doesn’t the Milligan case apply a fortiori? If it is illegal to arrest and confine people after an unwarranted military trial, it is surely even more illegal to arrest and confine them without any trial at all. The Supreme Court says that the issues of the Milligan case are not involved because the evacuees were committed to camps by military orders, not by military tribunals, and because their jailers did not wear uniforms. It is hard to see any sequence in the sentences. The Japanese Americans were ordered detained by a general, purporting to act on military grounds. The military order was enforceable, on pain of imprisonment. While a United States marshal, rather than a military policeman, assured obedience to the order, the ultimate sanction behind the marshal’s writ is the same as that of the military police: the bayonets of United States troops. It is hardly a ground for distinction that the general’s command was backed by the penalty of civil imprisonment, or that he obtained civilian aid in running the relocation camps.

There are then two basic constitutional problems concealed in the Court’s easy dismissal of Ex parte Milligan: the arrest, removal and confinement of persons without trial, pending examination of their loyalty; and the indefinite confinement of persons found to be disloyal. On both counts, at least as to citizens, the moral of Ex parte Milligan is plain. The Milligan case says little about the propriety of a curfew, or perhaps even of the exclusion orders as such. The military necessity of such steps are to be tested independently in the light of all the relevant circumstances. The Milligan case does say, however, that arrest and confinement are forms of action which cannot be taken as military necessities while courts are open. For such punitive measures it proposes a clear and forceful rule of thumb: the protection of the individual by normal trial does not under such circumstances interfere with the conduct of war.

The various Supreme Court cases (Hirabayashi, Korematsu, and Endo, if you’d like to look up these cases on your own) consider military officials as immune from the normal rules of public responsibility. If a General says something was militarily necessary, even though there is no obvious justification – that’s totally cool! The Justices will simply take their word for it, rather than burdening themselves with such silly things as the factual record.

Rostow summarizes fantastically what the Supreme Court decided in these cases. Take a moment to think about the precedent that was set, and how safe it makes you feel.

“The Japanese exclusion program thus rests on five propositions of the utmost potential menace: (1) protective custody, extending over three or four years, is a permitted form of imprisonment in the United States; (2) political opinions, not criminal acts, may contain enough clear and present danger to justify such imprisonment; (3) men, women and children of a given ethnic group, both Americans and resident aliens, can be presumed to possess the kind of dangerous ideas which require their imprisonment; (4) in time of war or emergency the military, perhaps without even the concurrence of the legislature, can decide what political opinions require imprisonment, and which ethnic groups are infected with them; and (5) the decision of the military can be carried out without indictment, trial, examination, jury, the confrontation of witnesses, counsel for the defense, the privilege against self-incrimination, or any of the other safeguards of the Bill of Rights.

We believe that the German people bear a common political responsibility for outrages secretly committed by the Gestapo and the SS. What are we to think of our own part in a program which violates every democratic social value, yet has been approved by the Congress, the President and the Supreme Court?”

The constitution means nothing.


Legal Changes Since 9/11

After September 11th, the US government gained broad new powers, such as mass surveillance of American citizens, in order to wage the so-called Global War on Terror. There is some irony to this, of course, with America being the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. But what about the power to detain American citizens?

There have been a handful of Supreme Court cases regarding this issue. In a lengthy but fascinating paper from 2006, Aya Gruber provided some analysis into these cases and how they are tied to those made during the Japanese internment (again, the emphasis in quotations is mine).

First of all, there is the issue of race. It is quite clear that Arabs have been singled out in post-9/11 America. And there has been popular support for race-based measures, even by other minorities.

“After 9/11, the government embraced an overt and extensive policy of racial decision making. The government began to use its broad immigration powers to selectively detain immigrants of Arab nationality and ethnicity. In addition, ethnic Arabs were systematically singled out for police investigation and detention…after 9/11, the public generally accepted the propriety of race-based measures in the name of terrorism prevention. Even African Americans and Latinas tended to favor ethnic and racial profiling so long as directed against “terrorists.”

I mention this not to say it is unjustified (one could make an argument that profiling works, but I am not attempting to investigate the accuracy or moral significance of that claim), but to point out that, yet again, the American public is not particularly concerned about peoples’ legal (and moral) rights when they are scared – and fear is a pretty easy emotion to cultivate. It is quite convenient to blame “outsiders” for problems; this has been the case time and again throughout history.

In any case, since 9/11, Arabs have been subject to incarceration without due process and without any compelling reasons to deny them due process.

“Scholars draw upon similar arguments to criticize the detentions of citizen Yaser Hamdi, citizen Jose Padilla, and the Guantanamo prisoners. Experts maintain that, like the Japanese, these individuals have been subject to incarceration with little or no process, without compelling reasons for denying process. Critics reject the government’s contentions that civilian criminal courts are ill equipped to handle terrorism cases and that detainees are not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Convention. Furthermore, scholars are highly critical of the process afforded to individuals who wish to challenge the detention. Although the Supreme Court ruled that Yaser Hamdi was entitled to a low-level evidentiary hearing to contest his status as an unlawful combatant, that process falls far short of even a pretrial detention hearing in criminal court. In addition, while Supreme Court has stated that U.S. courts have jurisdiction over Guantanamo detainees’ habeas corpus claims, the government continues to urge district courts to abstain from hearing such petitions. Moreover, the D.C. Circuit recently ruled that President Bush’s treatment of the Guantanamo detainees was perfectly legal. Internment invocations are accordingly used to emphasize grave harm of process-less incarceration in the name of national security. Critics warn that “some in government are seeking to resurrect . . . Korematsu to justify the Bush Administration’s present day national security curtailment of civil liberties.””

In the case of the Japanese during WW2, military necessity at least seems like a far more reasonable excuse for the curtailment of civil liberties than modern terrorism, though as discussed earlier, it still was not justified then. But at the very least, it is clear that WW2 was a significantly more dire situation, militarily speaking, than we currently face from terrorism.

“Even assuming that current deprivations are not as bad as in World War II, which is not necessarily true, the current security situation is also not as dire as in World War II, which involved an imminent invasion during a world war. The Roosevelt Administration thus set racist and extremely harmful policy in the face of a massive threat. The Bush Administration set racist and harmful, albeit less sweeping, policy in the face of a much less severe threat. In the wake of 9/11, a single attack carried out by a terrorist group, not a nation, the Bush Administration has initiated two wars and detained thousands of individuals.

With that context, let’s turn our attention to what the more recent Supreme Court rulings mean for civil liberties and detention in America. Hamdi vs. Rumsfeld gives the military the latitude to do anything in the name of terrorism that they could if there were a congressionally declared war. And given the extreme ambiguities in the word terrorism, this basically gives the military war authority from here on out. The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) issued the week after 9/11 basically counts as a general declaration of war until “the terrorists” are defeated.

“…even interpreting the case in the most restrictive manner as requiring both the AUMF (or a legislative equivalent) and factual war-like conditions to trigger war powers, those requirements still fall well short of a formal declaration of war, as contemplated in Hirabayashi, Korematsu, and Quirin. A formal declaration of war requires specificity on the part of Congress, such that congressional intent to engage in combat with a particular country is easily established. The AUMF, by contrast, generally authorizes “necessary” action against those parties responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Construing the AUMF as the functional equivalent of a declaration of war allows the President to exercise war power pursuant to a vague approval of military force against parties yet unknown. Under this approach, any military action in the name of terrorism prevention triggers the same powers as a declared war.

Moreover, a declaration of war contemplates a finite length of conflict, such that when a peace treaty is executed with the particular enemy country, the war power authority generally ends. In contrast, the AUMF is incredibly broad, allowing for the existence of war powers in perpetuity so long as the executive engages in military actions directed against Al Qaeda or related terrorist groups. As a result, the executive can assert, as the Fourth Circuit did, that any military detention in the name of terrorism prevention is an exercise of a war power…The problem is that in the absence of a formal declaration of war, the issue of the conditions triggering war power becomes more open to interpretation and expansion. Hamdi leaves open the possibility that the AUMF allows for military detention power, even when there is little indication of war-like conditions, for example, during continued military occupation, engagement in isolated skirmishes, ongoing police actions, or deployment as peacekeepers…In the end, the Hamdi case leaves open the possibility that war powers can be invoked absent a declaration of war, or even any congressional approval of military action, and/or in the absence of paradigmatic war-like conditions. This is a far more broad construction of “wartime” than in Hirabayashi, Korematsu, and Quirin…By elevating the current terrorism risk to the level of exigency facing the nation during The Prize Cases, the court endorsed the notion that the government may freely ignore the Constitution in any prosecution of alleged terrorists.

The Hamdi case also allows for the detention of US citizens by the military, even if there are civilian courts that are functioning.

“Unlike the internment cases, Hamdi answered the question of whether war power includes the power to detain U.S. citizens militarily in the affirmative, announcing concretely that the government can detain citizens as enemy combatants. The Court unequivocally stated, “There is no bar to this Nation’s holding one of its own citizens as an enemy combatant.” The Court reasoned that a U.S. citizen, just like a foreign soldier, could be detained during hostilities because “such a citizen, if released, would pose the same threat of returning to the front during the ongoing conflict.” This reasoning, however, completely ignores the contention, accepted in Milligan, that alternate detention procedures exist for citizens who consort with the enemy. The situation of a U.S. citizen combatant is extremely different from that of a foreign combatant who has not otherwise violated U.S. law and cannot be held except militarily… Consequently, the Supreme Court implicitly sanctioned the view that war powers include the ability to detain citizens for aiding the enemy domestically or abroad. This is a far more direct empowerment of the government, and hence a greater restriction of civil liberties, than the position represented in the internment cases.

So long as the vaguely defined “war on terror” continues, the US military has the authority to detain citizens as enemy combatants so long as they accuse that citizen of being a terrorist. It is very easy to be considered a terrorist in America – disliking the government can be enough. I’ll get into this more later.

The Supreme Court’s decision that the AUMF was sufficient congressional authority for the President to act and for war powers to be invoked is absurd.

“Turning to the language of the AUMF, the legislation is silent on military detention. The legislative history also fails to indicate that by passing the AUMF, Congress intended to authorize any military detention, much less the detention of U.S. civilians. In fact, some legislative history suggests that Congress was keenly aware of the differences between the AUMF and a declaration of war, which triggers presidential war powers. House Representative Conyers, for example, stated, “By not declaring war, the resolution preserves our precious civil liberties. This is important because declarations of war trigger broad statutes that not only criminalize interference with troops and recruitment but also authorize the President to apprehend ‘alien enemies.’”…As a result, the Supreme Court was forced to engage in an incredible feat of interpretive grasping to find that the AUMF authorized Hamdi’s detention. Bypassing both plain language and history, the Court asserted that given the background of the law of war, any authorization of military force must necessarily include endorsement of military detention, even citizen detention.

Thus, like the internment cases, Hamdi did not grant unilateral authority to the President to detain citizens militarily. Unlike the internment cases, however, it expanded the President’s ability to act without specific congressional approval. In the internment cases, the Court was careful to make sure that Congress did actually consent, not just to the war in general, but to the specific policies at issue in the cases. The Court in Hamdi did nearly the opposite. Rather than trying to ascertain the true intent of Congress, the Court was determined to find congressional assent by hook or crook so as to avoid addressing the problematic issue of executive unilateralism. In attempting to avoid the issue, however, the Court generously bolstered the executive’s power. The Court set up a precedent whereby the President may unilaterally initiate a program of citizen detention, which is constitutional so long as there has at some point been congressional authorization of military force against those with whom the citizen is alleged to be a sympathizer.

On the bright side, the process by which detained citizens can challenge their status has arguably improved, at least on the basis of race. But practically speaking, it is still nearly impossible to challenge the status of “enemy combatant.”

“If the government were to use the enemy combatant category to sweep thousands of Arab Americans into military detention asserting that they aided Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, insurgents in Iraq, or other disfavored groups, at least those detainees would have some ability to challenge their statuses as enemy combatants. Remember, however, that internment policies technically allowed the Japanese to demonstrate their loyalty and apply for release. For the Japanese, this was an option, but largely an unexercisable option. Likewise, for potential terrorism detainees, it is a near impossible hurdle for a military detainee (especially if there are thousands) to overcome a presumption of enemy status and disprove conclusory hearsay statements, particularly if such statements involve purportedly sensitive terrorism intelligence.

And, notably, the conditions of detainees in the War on Terror are vastly worse than those of the Japanese who were interned, as deplorable as those conditions may have been. For instance, rectal feeding, waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other torture tactics you’d expect to see in North Korean prisons. Of course, the extent of the torture wasn’t known when this legal argument was written, but the detention conditions were still clearly terrible.

“Hamdi and Padilla, perhaps as a product of the nonparadigmatic nature of their capture, were separated from members of the forces with whom they were alleged to have associated, stripped of their customs, and held in jail. While such incarceration might be justified if Hamdi and Padilla were dangerous criminal defendants who posed a risk of flight, the government has insisted that the nature of the detentions is not criminal, and the Court expressly ruled that Hamdi’s detention was justified solely by military necessity. The Court, however, did not state that Hamdi’s military detention must accord with the dictates of the Geneva Convention. Obviously, the Court was not unaware that Hamdi had been detained in a jail, in lockdown condition, without any access to family. By endorsing such detention, without qualification, the Court implicitly adopted the more conservative view that military detention could be as, or more, severe than criminal incarceration.

Not only that, but the terrorism cases also allow for much lengthier duration of detention. At least during the Japanese internment, the war was clearly defined and the internment could not continue after the cessation of hostilities.

“Consequently, to avoid sanctioning indefinite detention, it was imperative for the Court to set up a viable proxy for a peace treaty that would signify the termination of war for the purpose of ending the war power. A logical route might have been to deem the regime change as the triggering factor, given that the enemy fighter could not rejoin an army that no longer existed. The Court, however, instead used the presence of troops engaged in fighting to deny that hostilities had ended sufficiently to release military prisoners. Although the Court formally justified Hamdi’s detention by the need to prevent him from rejoining the enemy army, by the time the Court reviewed Hamdi’s case the enemy army had already fallen to U.S. forces. Thus, upon closer examination, the logic of detaining Hamdi was not the stated reason of preventing him from rejoining an enemy army, but rather preventing him from acting on any decision he might make in the future to participate in insurgent activity…The concept that wartime detentions may continue after the fall of the enemy government and installation of a U.S.-friendly government goes beyond the scope of even the Ludecke opinion and certainly beyond the time frame contemplated in the internment cases. The Ludecke opinion approved of limited exercise of war-related police powers in the months following termination of the shooting war. The Hamdi case greatly expands this principle to full detention years after the enemy government has fallen. This broad definition of the length of military detention has precedent neither in domestic law nor customary international law….Had the Court adopted a similar approach after World War II, the United States could have detained “security threats”—for example, unhappy Japanese internees—for many years after the shooting war, so long as the United States continued to maintain troops in Japan. As a result, the Hamdi decision greatly extended the duration of wartime and allowed for the possibility of prolonged, if not indefinite, detention, even if the military to which the detainee belonged had been dismantled.”

To summarize,

“The Court made it much easier for the political branches to exercise war power and detain individuals outside normal criminal processes. It definitively approved of military detention of U.S. citizens, resolving the conflict between Quirin and Milligan in the least progressive way, and cementing the precedential value of the oft-criticized Quirin opinion. While not going so far as granting the executive unilateral authority to exercise wartime detention powers, the Court greatly reduced the role of Congress in authorizing detentions. Relying on the sparse AUMF and the “clear” law of war, the Court required neither explicit nor implicit congressional approval for citizen detention. The Court moreover approved of military detention that was carried out, not according to the dictates of the Geneva Convention, but rather in jails, solitary confinement, and criminal conditions. Finally, the Court’s “troops on the ground” analysis allowed military detention to be prolonged beyond what was contemplated in the World War II cases and possibly indefinitely.”


The Constitution: Basically Worthless

People might look back at the internment of the Japanese in concentration camps and write it off as a piece of history that could never be repeated in a Free CountryTM such as America, certainly not in days like these, where the public is more progressive and enlightened. But the legal situation today is actually far worse than it was during WW2, and it would be trivially easy for a return of concentration camps – or worse, under the right conditions.

Now, I’m not the kind of person who is going to claim that there will be FEMA death camps in America in the next few years or anything like that. But those who do believe this are hardly the crackpot conspiracy theorists that your average American makes them out to be. The fact is, mass indefinite detention of American citizens without charge by the military is something that would be completely legal for the US government to do. The National Defense Authorization Act has made it clear that the US government has the “right” to indefinitely detain American citizens without charge.

Woodrow Wilson imprisoned Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs simply because Debs had been making speeches against the war. Abraham Lincoln imprisoned Confederate sympathizers without trial. Those Presidents who have done this are some of the most celebrated ones in US history! Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist, in his 1998 book, stated that “There is no reason to think that future wartime presidents will act differently from Lincoln, Wilson, or Roosevelt, or that future Justices of the Supreme Court will decide questions differently than their predecessors.” And current Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia remarked that you are “kidding yourself” if you don’t believe that internment camps will one day return to America.

This shouldn’t be all that surprising to anyone at this point. Obama, a scholar on constitutional law from Harvard University, has ordered the murder of multiple American citizens without trial. And other than a handful of anti-drone activists, Americans have accepted this uncritically and even supported it. And why wouldn’t they? Anything to stop The Terrorists!

Of course, it’s pretty easy to be considered suspicious of being a terrorist these days. I’ll quote myself here:

“…it is very easy to be considered an “extremist” or a “suspicious” person by the US government. For instance, the FBI considers people who care about online privacy to be potentially suspicious of terrorist activity, and even likened pro-privacy supporters of Edward Snowden to a “digital al-Qaeda.” And here is a list of 72 ways the government can consider you an “extremist” in America, including talking about individual liberties, wanting to make the world a better place, being a returning veteran, and believing in a right to bear arms.”

Remember the precedent that the internment cases set: political opinions, not just overt criminal acts, are enough to justify a citizen being detained during wartime – which, nowadays, is all the time. Given the powers of mass surveillance that the government has now that were completely unavailable in the 1940s, this should be a terrifying prospect for every American. And consider this: the Department of Defense Law of War manual states that journalists can be considered “unprivileged belligerents,” giving them even fewer protections than enemy combatants!

In 2012, there was a leaked military document called “Army Field Manual 3-39.40: Internment and Resettlement Operations” which provides specific guidance for interning Americans on US soil – including how to silence political activists.

Clearly, the constitution of the United States does not offer the protection that so many people assume. No constitution can. For a constitution to work, there would need to be an adequate mechanism in place to ensure compliance with it, but this is not and cannot be the case. No other organization has the power to coerce the government itself, so the government is responsible for enforcing its own compliance with the words on a piece of paper. The Supreme Court cases regarding Japanese internment and detaining “terrorists” have clearly demonstrated that this simply isn’t going to happen.

Democracy in general is a utopian myth, but that is particularly evident in the United States.

Environmental Issues: An Anarchist Perspective, Part 2 – Global Warming

This piece is continued from part 1, which argued that the environment would be better protected in an anarchist society due to respect for private property rights. Read that post here.


global warming did it

By far, the most talked about environmental issue of our time is climate change, or global warming. It is critically important to separate the political and the scientific elements of the global warming hypothesis. Unfortunately, almost nobody does this. Instead, the typical narrative is something along the lines of:

  1. Anthropogenic (man-made) global warming (AGW) is happening due to carbon emissions, and the science is settled.
  2. Therefore, the government must act to curb carbon emissions, thereby saving humanity.

That’s roughly what the majority of leftists think. Here’s what most conservatives would say:

  1. AGW is false.
  2. Therefore, government need not do anything.

In other words, the political debate is mostly about the science – is the AGW hypothesis true or not? Consider that none of the politicians who actually have some sway over environmental policy are experts in climate science. Consider that very few of the random people who claim that “the science is settled” know even the basics of how science works. On what basis are these people determining that AGW is true or false?

The answer, of course, is that there is no basis. Conservatives think the science has a different conclusion than liberals do. This is a huge red flag; science ought to be non-partisan.

But here’s the rub: for both sides of the debate, if AGW is true, this automatically implies that government action is necessary to mitigate its effects. This is logically fallacious. There are many reasons why government action would not be appropriate in this situation, which I will detail in the remainder of this post.

I am not a climate science expert myself. However, I am a nerd, and have done significant amounts of research on the subject. I will remain agnostic on the science of AGW – it’s certainly possible and plausible, but it is not certain. My argument for anarchy being superior for the environment does not hinge on any scientific arguments. However, since the majority of people who I would be attempting to persuade with this post are most likely those who believe AGW to be true, I will present some of the arguments for why scientists do not believe humans are causing catastrophic global warming.

The climate narrative presented above is very far from complete. Liberals say AGW is true, so government must act. But here are a few things that must be demonstrated in order to complete this narrative, most of which have yet to be shown conclusively:

  • It must be proven that global warming is occurring.
  • This global warming must be caused by human action.
  • If AGW is true, it must still be shown that this will definitively lead to particular changes in climate over the next 100 years or so.
  • These changes must be drastic rather than “lukewarm.” In other words, the climate must change to a degree that matters in a practical rather than just academic sense.
  • It must be shown that global warming is a bad thing. In other words, the effects of global warming must on the whole be destructive rather than helpful. The economic costs of this harm would then need to be estimated with some precision.
  • It must be shown that it is not too late to stop the destructive global warming; human action must be capable of slowing or stopping it. The cost of stopping/slowing global warming must be estimated with some precision.
  • It must be shown that the costs of attempting to stop or slow global warming are less than that of trying to adapt to it.
  • It must be shown that the (cost-effective) method used to attempt to stop or slow global warming is feasible and politically workable. In other words, it must be possible to actually implement whatever reforms would be necessary.

As you can see, the mainstream narrative is sorely lacking. Each of the above points needs to be studied and verified before drawing the conclusion that government action is necessary. For the remainder of this article, I will attempt to pick these points apart in order to demonstrate that AGW is not a sufficient reason to justify government action.


The Alleged “Consensus”

The first thing that nearly any layperson will say about anthropogenic global warming is that “the science is settled.” It boggles my mind that even scientists who ostensibly are familiar with the scientific method can say this. What matters in science isn’t how many people believe a theory, but rather how successful that theory is in predicting real life events. If that weren’t the relevant metric, then the Earth would still be flat and the sun would still be revolving around us.

The idea of a scientific theory being “settled” is anathema to the scientific process itself. In any empirical science, climate science included, our knowledge is always just a theory subject to being disproven. Some theories are far more established than others; for instance, the theory of gravitation is pretty damn well-established. But even gravity has its challengers (see this and this). AGW is a theory that is only a few decades old, and runs counter to climate science’s global cooling orthodoxy during the 1970s. To claim that the science is “settled” is to have incredible hubris, particularly given the numerous scientists who would argue otherwise.

I have no doubt that many climate scientists today support the idea that humans are causing global warming. A commonly cited study claims that 97% of scientists agree that humans are causing global warming, but the study says no such thing. However, peer-reviewed research has shown that the majority of geoscientists and meteorologists do not think that there is catastrophic, man-made global warming. The Petition Project also has the signatures of nearly 32,000 scientists in relevant disciplines who disagree with the hypothesis. You can find here over 1300 peer-reviewed papers that are skeptical of AGW. Even the founder of Greenpeace, the radical environmental organization, thinks that carbon dioxide emissions are more likely to save humanity than to doom it!

Richard Lindzen, former MIT professor and contributor to IPCC reports on climate change, is one of the more prominent climate skeptics. He questions the odd attempts to characterize climate scientists as universally agreeing on AGW.

“Why, one might wonder, is there such insistence on scientific unanimity on the warming issue? After all, unanimity in science is virtually nonexistent on far less complex matters. Unanimity on an issue as uncertain as “global warming” would be surprising and suspicious. Moreover, why are the opinions of scientists sought regardless of their field of expertise? Biologists and physicians are rarely asked to endorse some theory in high energy physics. Apparently, when one comes to “global warming,” any scientist’s agreement will do.

…The answer almost certainly lies in politics. For example, at the Earth Summit in Rio, attempts were made to negotiate international carbon emission agreements. The potential costs and implications of such agreements are likely to be profound for both industrial and developing countries. Under the circumstances, it would be very risky for politicians to undertake such agreements unless scientists “insisted.””

It is political realities that make the supposed “consensus” so critically important. Few things would give the government such power and supposed “legitimacy” as saving the world from destruction by controlling nearly all human behavior. And then there is the big money involved.

“U.S. companies and interest groups involved with climate change hired 2,430 lobbyists just last year, up 300% from five years ago. Fifty of the biggest U.S. electric utilities…spent $51 million on lobbyists in just six months.”

Climate skeptics are routinely vilified for not disclosing their funding sources, but climate alarmists seem to be held to a different standard. The reality is that there is a lot of money on both sides corrupting the narrative, making it difficult to know what to believe.

But for most people, it does seem that the choice of what to believe is primarily partisan and has nothing to do with science. That might be why people seem to care so much about this issue (some even advocate that climate skeptics be thrown in jail). As Lindzen said, “Rarely has such meager science provoked such an outpouring of popularization by individuals who do not understand the subject in the first place.”

The supposed consensus is purely a political concept, not a reality.


There’s Reason To Be Skeptical

Despite what many ignorant people will tell you, there are many reasons why one might be skeptical of the idea of man-made global warming. Unfortunately, I cannot speak to the climate science itself, but there are enough questions about the theory to at least make it worth, well, questioning. More importantly, there are theoretical reasons why one ought to be skeptical of the claims made by AGW supporters.

Scientists generally agree that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere directly increases the temperature. Most of the climate models’ predicted increase in temperature is due to feedback mechanisms. Those who believe in AGW think that there is a positive feedback loop that will exacerbate that temperature increase. But there are also some reasons to believe that there would be negative feedback that might dampen the effects of global warming. There are thousands of feedback mechanisms, most that are not well-understood or even known, each with its own positive or negative effects. The only way to check is through gathering data and testing the hypothesis – and climate change models have almost universally overstated the effects of global warming thus far.

For a more thorough defense of global warming skepticism, I suggest reading this paper by William Irwin and Brian Williams. Among other arguments, they bring up the fact that

  • The increase in global temperature from 1980 to 2010 is similar to that of the increase in 1910-1940, which is typically not attributed to human activity. And from 1940-1980, temperatures did not increase the way AGW climate models would predict.
  • Recent changes in global temperature are insignificant compared to historical changes that were not caused by humans, such as the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age. In fact, we’re just coming out of the Little Ice Age now, which could explain the warming.

They also call attention to what appears to be a flaw in climate alarmists’ reasoning.

“Everyone acknowledges that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Skeptics, however, believe that human contributions will likely not result in catastrophic warming, since combinations of other forces play a larger role in heating and cooling the planet. When proponents of AGW theory assert that the warming may be occurring beneath the cooling, this amounts to admitting the skeptic‘s position that there are other, more powerful factors that affect temperature and control the climate. It is inconsistent to say that anthropogenic infusions of CO2 will control the climate and cause catastrophic warming one minute and the next minute to say that the influence of this same CO2 is masked beneath larger factors.”

Despite far lower CO2 levels, it was significantly hotter during the Middle Ages than it is today. And there are historical periods with vastly higher CO2 levels where the Earth was covered in glaciers.

temperature fluctuations

For those of you interested in an overview of the scientific arguments, I suggest spending some time reading this article, written by David Siegel, an environmentalist who formerly believed in AGW but has since then done his research and changed his mind. I particularly suggest you read this if you are a liberal or consider yourself an environmentalist, because this is the perspective that he is coming from.

It’s certainly possible that supporters of AGW have answers to each of these. Again, I’m not a scientist and I don’t want to debate the merits of the specific scientific positions of each side. My point here is to show that there are reasons why the claims of AGW supporters shouldn’t be accepted uncritically. More importantly, there are structural and institutional reasons to question the climate orthodoxy, which will be covered in the next sections.

Chaos Theory, Or Why We Can’t Trust Climate Models

“In climate research and modelling, we should recognize that we are dealing with a coupled non-linear chaotic system, and therefore that the long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible.” – IPCC 2007

What makes a scientific theory a theory? There are three conditions, and AGW fails them:

Is the theory testable? Can we formulate hypotheses grounded in the theory, then figure out a way to test the hypotheses?

Is the theory falsifiable? Is there evidence that could call the theory into question? What evidence would exclude the theory?

Does the theory unify? Does the theory unify seemingly unrelated phenomena under a single explanatory framework?”

Many natural phenomena are not testable, so I will not consider this as a strike against AGW. However, AGW is not falsifiable; when the evidence doesn’t match the conclusion, climate alarmists can simply say that the time scale of the investigation is not wide enough. This is telling, because the predictions of AGW supporters and their climate models are routinely wrong and overstate the observed warming effects. AGW purportedly explains all sorts of environmental phenomena in a unifying way – except that again, most of these phenomena (ocean acidification, melting ice) either have not occurred as predicted, or there are alternative explanations that are also plausible.

The primary reason why these models are failing at prediction and should be dismissed is due to the nonlinear dynamics of climate systems. Nonlinear dynamics, or “complex” or “chaotic” systems show sensitive dependence on initial conditions. This means that the data used as inputs in any model, if even trivially different from the “real” values, could potentially lead to huge changes in the behavior that would be predicted by the model. Given the issues with data collection in climate science (placement of temperature sensors, changes in the microenvironment near the sensors, deliberate fudging of data), this is a huge limitation.

But that assumes that we know the appropriate model for the climate in the first place. If we did know the complete model, then in order to accurately predict future climate, we would need to be able to measure present conditions of every variable precisely. Rounding off a single piece of data could result in wildly different predictions. We don’t have the means to precisely measure our environment, and we most likely never will.

The reality is that we don’t know the correct model of the climate. These models are developed by looking at real-world (imprecise) data, and don’t reflect all determinants of the climate. In other words, we are using imprecise data to formulate imprecise models to feed that imprecise data back into. Mathematical modeling is certainly valuable as a tool for comprehending the climate, but it is simply unsuitable for making predictions, which is exactly what the debate over what to do about climate change is about!

Policy makers and the more wonky among us routinely misuse mathematics this way when dealing with chaotic systems, as Ralph Abraham documents in a fascinating paper. Even qualitative predictions are unreliable, making climate forecasts practically useless.

“The interpretation of nearly all dynamical models has to be carried out cautiously due to the likelihood of structural instability. This means that the behavior of the model might change drastically due to a small change in the model. It would be nice if a given model could be simply tested for structural stability, but there is no such test. Thus, the goal of modeling is pedagogic, not predictive in the long term. For example, global climate models cannot tell us how much sea level will rise, nor how long a given rise will take, and not even, if the current rise will be followed by an ice age, or a permanent interglacial climate.

“In summary, we have this conundrum: yes, climate is warming, as it periodically does. Even if this warming tops all prior warmings due to human-produced greenhouse gas emissions, we still cannot predict, on the basis of a mathematical model, whether the climate will stay warm, or rather, cool down again in a new ice age, as it has eight times in the past 650,000 years.”

I don’t doubt that the models that climate scientists have come up with have valuable lessons to teach us. These models can help clarify our understanding of how the climate works and to formulate more hypotheses about it. But there are very real uncertainties regarding these models, which the more honest among AGW supporters will acknowledge. For a look at some of these uncertainties from someone sympathetic to AGW, see this paper. An even better paper written by an AGW supporter describing sources of uncertainty concludes:

“The severity of model inadequacy suggests a more qualitative interpretation than one might wish. In particular, it is not at all clear that weighted combinations of results from today’s complex climate models based on their ability to reproduce a set of observations can provide decision-relevant probabilities. Furthermore, they are liable to be misleading because the conclusions, usually in the form of PDFs [probability density functions], imply much greater confidence than the underlying assumptions justify; we know our current models are inadequate and we know many of the reasons why they are so.”

Even if the weight of the evidence from modeling the climate suggests that AGW is true, this doesn’t imply anything about our ability to predict how much warming we will see or what its effects will be. This means that it is impossible for governments to rationally determine how to respond to climate change.

Politics And Science Don’t Mix

An additional reason to be skeptical of AGW is the institutional framework that much of the relevant research is being conducted in and influenced by. This is largely due to the influence of government funding, but the structure of our scientific institutions is also a factor. The most notorious example (dubbed “Climategate”) can be read about here and here, where pro-AGW insiders at the IPCC were caught manipulating the scientific process to suit their agenda.

Richard Lindzen discusses numerous reasons why climate science today is ill-suited to answer scientific questions. Here are a few:

  • Prominent members of the environmentalist movement hold important positions within scientific administration organizations, despite oftentimes not being scientists themselves.
  • Small executive councils speak on behalf of thousands of scientists who don’t necessarily agree. These councils control access to funding and can sanction those who don’t get in line behind the official opinion.
  • Global warming has become a core issue of political correctness. Questioning the orthodoxy often leads to ostracism.
  • Data is regularly manipulated in order to more adequately fit with models that support the AGW hypothesis. For examples, see this and this.
  • To get published or supported in peer review, many papers are adding irrelevant comments in support of AGW, despite being unrelated to the point of the paper.
  • Climate skeptics are being depicted as having retracted their beliefs on their deathbeds in obituaries, which is a disturbing development.

Environmentalists will manipulate the public into thinking that their information is scientific, even though they are just activist organizations (I wouldn’t be surprised if this is true for some skeptical organizations as well).

“For example, the environmental movement often cloaks its propaganda in scientific garb without the aid of any existing scientific body. One technique is simply to give a name to an environmental advocacy group that will suggest to the public, that the group is a scientific rather than an environmental group. Two obvious examples are the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Woods Hole Research Center. The former conducted an intensive advertising campaign about ten years ago in which they urged people to look to them for authoritative information on global warming.”

Papers that are skeptical of AGW are routinely attacked in unfair ways, creating a double-standard for scientists studying climate change.

“Even in the present unhealthy state of science, papers that are overtly contradictory to the catastrophic warming scenario do get published (though not without generally being substantially watered down during the review process). They are then often subject to the remarkable process of ‘discreditation.’ This process consists in immediately soliciting attack papers that are published quickly as independent articles rather than comments. The importance of this procedure is as follows. Normally such criticisms are published as comments, and the original authors are able to respond immediately following the comment. Both the comment and reply are published together. By publishing the criticism as an article, the reply is published as a correspondence, which is usually delayed by several months, and the critics are permitted an immediate reply. As a rule, the reply of the original authors is ignored in subsequent references.”

In addition, the most highly respected organizations discussing climate change are political bodies rather than scientific ones. These political organizations have their own agendas.

“The charge to the IPCC is not simply to summarize, but rather to provide the science with which to support the negotiating process whose aim is to control greenhouse gas levels. This is a political rather than a scientific charge. That said, the participating scientists have some leeway in which to reasonably describe matters, since the primary document that the public associates with the IPCC is not the extensive report prepared by the scientists, but rather the Summary for Policymakers which is written by an assemblage of representative from governments and NGO’s, with only a small scientific representation.”

Another way in which the scientific deck is stacked in favor of AGW is the influence of government funding. State-funded scientific research tends to corrupt the conclusions. A working paper by David Wojick and Patrick Michaels describes ways in which this corruption might occur. Government funding introduces biases (commercial funding does as well, of course) which can alter results, even without any dishonesty being involved. These biases are then amplified when, for instance, the hype present in a press release is then further exaggerated in the media, often without including the qualifications that the researchers included.

“1) An agency receives biased funding for research from Congress. 2) They issue multiple biased Requests for Proposals (RFPs), and 3) multiple biased projects are selected for each RFP. 4) Many projects produce multiple biased articles, press releases, etc, 5) many of these articles and releases generate multiple biased news stories, and 6) the resulting amplified bias is communicated to the public on a large scale.”

But what are these biases in the first place? Funding for scientific projects is often directed towards research related to an existing policy or developing a specific new policy. In other words, the mission of the funding agency may result in asking the wrong questions.

“In the climate debate an example of this sort of bias might be the heavy funding of carbon cycle research compared to sun-climate research in the USGCRP budget. The government’s policy on climate change is based on the hypothesis that carbon dioxide emissions are the principal driver. That climate change is driven by solar activity is a competing hypothesis.”

Biased peer review of research proposals may lead to rejecting research that doesn’t fit with the reigning paradigm. Similarly, there could be biases in the actual peer review of the articles themselves. Funding agencies may choose reviewers who will be more inclined to favor the government’s interest.

There may be biased preferences for models that support the reigning paradigm or have biased assumptions. Meta-analyses can be biased. For instance, the selection of articles used by the IPCC in their meta-analyses is based on political goals rather than scientific objectivity. Bias can also be introduced from the failure to report negative results.

“Journals are not normally federally funded, but they may well be involved in or sensitive to Federal policies. This is likely to be especially true in the applied fields. An example might be renewable energy research. There is also the case of open access or hybrid journals where author publication charges are paid out of Federal grants.”

Data can be manipulated to bias results (and as mentioned earlier, it often has been). Climate data is routinely adjusted, and seems to be regularly adjusted in ways that support the AGW hypothesis. Similarly, there can be a tendency to refuse to share data with potential critics.

“There are several prominent examples of researchers refusing to share important climate data with skeptics. One of the best known involves the University of East Anglia.”

Federal funding can lead to false confidence in tentative findings.

“A more recent example might be the numerous studies (or reports thereof) which claim to have explained why there has been no statistically significant warming for over two decades. This is sometimes called the problem of the pause, or the hiatus in global warming. Various inconsistent explanations have been offered, so it is likely that most are incorrect, yet each is often presented as though it solved the problem.”

Finally, the importance of findings by researchers and funding agencies is often exaggerated.

“Researcher and agency press releases sometimes claim that results are very important when they merely suggest an important possibility, which may actually turn out to be a dead end. Such claims may tend to bias the science in question, including future funding decisions.”

None of this is to disprove AGW – however, it should be clear by now that there is reason to be critical of the hypothesis. At the very least, we should not just assume that AGW is the case and that “the science is settled.” Some degree of skepticism is warranted.


Would Proposed Policies Even Work?

Let’s assume AGW is completely true, and that there will be a significant temperature rise in the next century or so. Most people at this point would say that clearly the government must “do something” to stop global warming. But why should this be the case?

Some scientists think that no matter what we do, it’s too late to stop global warming. Oddly enough, some of them continue to advocate for governments to act; clearly, these people are not economists. If it is too late to stop global warming, then why would we want to destroy industrial civilization? If we’re all going to die fiery deaths anyways, I think I can speak for most people when I say that it would be preferable to do so with the amenities that western civilization has provided.

But let’s say we could stop global warming. Would we even want to? Perhaps rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere might even be beneficial. In fact, global warming has thus far been beneficial to mankind, and it likely will continue to be. Research by Richard Tol, reported on by respected science writer Matt Ridley, suggests that the benefits of global warming thus far have amounted to about 1.4% of global economic output, and that this reflects the scientific consensus of today.

“There are many likely effects of climate change: positive and negative, economic and ecological, humanitarian and financial. And if you aggregate them all, the overall effect is positive today — and likely to stay positive until around 2080. That was the conclusion of Professor Richard Tol of Sussex University after he reviewed 14 different studies of the effects of future climate trends.

To be precise, Prof Tol calculated that climate change would be beneficial up to 2.2˚C of warming from 2009 (when he wrote his paper). This means approximately 3˚C from pre-industrial levels, since about 0.8˚C of warming has happened in the last 150 years. The latest estimates of climate sensitivity suggest that such temperatures may not be reached till the end of the century — if at all. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose reports define the consensis [sic], is sticking to older assumptions, however, which would mean net benefits till about 2080. Either way, it’s a long way off.“

The benefits of global warming include lower energy costs, better agricultural yields, increased biodiversity, fewer droughts, and fewer winter deaths. Research by Indur Goklany corroborates this (it’s a very interesting paper, and I strongly recommend reading it if you are so inclined).

“Carbon dioxide levels have risen inexorably since the 1700s. Yet despite this, climate sensitive indicators of human and environmental wellbeing that carbon dioxide affects directly, such as crop yields, food production, prevalence of hunger, access to cleaner water and biological productivity, and those that it affects indirectly, such as living standards and life expectancies, have improved virtually everywhere. In most areas they have never been higher, nor do they show any sustained signs of reversing.”

To summarize his perspective,

“…the benefits of increasing carbon dioxide have been underestimated, that the risks from increasing carbon dioxide have been overestimated, and that carbon dioxide emission reduction policies will start to reduce the benefits of higher carbon dioxide concentrations immediately, without reducing climate change and its associated costs until much later, if at all.”

If anything, global warming ought to be welcomed, according to the bulk of the research out there.

But let’s say even that is wrong, and that the alarmist position is correct. Let’s assume that AGW is real, it will have negative consequences, and it is theoretically possible to stop it. Shouldn’t government act to stop global warming under these conditions?

Not necessarily. For that to make sense, the benefits of government action must outweigh the costs, and this is an analysis that most environmentalists completely ignore.

William Nordhaus, a leading researcher on the carbon tax, has calculated that the benefits of implementing this tax would outweigh the costs…under certain assumed conditions which are very unlikely to hold. There are reasons to believe that future greenhouse gas concentrations may be overstated, climate sensitivity to GHGs are overstated, and economic damages from a given temperature increase may be overstated. But even Nordhaus calculated that certain climate plans, like that proposed by Al Gore, would have a net loss of over $20 trillion. Yeah, let’s not do that.

Robert Murphy, Patrick Michaels, and Paul Knappenberger make a definitive case against a carbon tax from an economic perspective. Carbon taxes that have been implemented in Australia and British Columbia have not been nearly as successful as proponents claim, both in terms of emission reductions and economic harms.

“Ironically, the latest U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report indicated that a popular climate target cannot be justified in cost/benefit terms. Specifically, in the middle‐of‐the‐road scenarios, the economic compliance costs of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius would likely be higher than the climate change damages that such a cap would avoid. In other words, the U.N.’s own report shows that aggressive emission cutbacks—even if achieved through an “efficient” carbon tax—would probably cause more harm than good.”

Again, the reason the carbon tax doesn’t work out economically is because of many of the assumptions built into the climate models. For instance, choice of parameter values in these models has a huge impact on the results. Reasonable people can disagree on what these parameters should be. For instance, and perhaps most importantly, the discount rate is an economic variable that changes the social cost of carbon (SCC) dramatically.

“To see just how significant some of the apparently innocuous assumptions can be, consider the latest estimates of the SCC put out by the Obama Administration’s Working Group. For an additional ton of emissions in the year 2015, using a 3% discount rate the SCC is $36. However, if we use a 2.5% discount rate, the SCC rises to $56/ton, while a 5% discount rate yields a SCC of only $11/ton. Note that this huge swing in the estimated “social cost” of carbon relies on the same underlying models of climate change and economic growth; the only change is in adjustments of the discount rate which are quite plausible. Indeed, the Administration’s Working Group came under harsh criticism because it ignored explicit OMB guidance to include a 7 percent discount rate in all federal cost/benefit analyses, presumably because the SCC at such a discount rate would be close to $0/ton or even negative.”

And, as argued by Graham Dawson,

“…a carbon tax will be effective only if it is internationally harmonised. Otherwise, firms in high-tax countries will be placed at a competitive disadvantage and might relocate to low-tax countries. This would reduce the effectiveness of the tax, which is intended to reduce carbon intensive activities rather than redistribute them across countries. Unfortunately, the four Scandinavian countries that introduced carbon taxes in the early 1990s ‘have not been able to harmonise their approaches— demonstrating the difficulty of co-ordinating tax policy internationally, even among a relatively small group of countries’. The US policy stance is not sympathetic to taxes, while the developing countries are unwilling to take action because they see climate change as the product of carbon emitted by industrial countries in the past. Harmonising a carbon tax on a global scale is achievable only in the very long term, if at all.”

In other words, not only is a carbon tax ineffective and destructive, but it is politically unfeasible as well. To see just how useless a carbon tax would be, use this calculator to see how minuscule an effect that a massive cut in carbon dioxide output would have on global temperature.

An alternative to a carbon tax is the so-called “cap and trade” scheme, where an emissions target is chosen and then a market in tradeable “pollution rights” is created. But this scheme would be highly regressive, harming the poor for the benefits of special interests.

“The combination of baseline and credit approach and free distribution of permits can have unwelcome effects on the distribution of income. For example, firms such as electricity generators may increase prices in anticipation of receiving insufficient permits and having to purchase extra permits at the predicted market price. If the quota is sufficient to cover actual emissions for most firms, the carbon price (the price of permits) will collapse and the funds raised for purchasing will become windfall profits. The distributive effects on society as a whole are likely to be regressive, with money being redistributed from electricity customers, many of whom will be on low incomes, to shareholders who may be expected on average to be more affluent.”

And, as with the carbon tax, this kind of scheme would require global collaboration on a scale that is inconceivable.

Finally, neither of these proposed policies mean much if the wrong climate “goal” is chosen by policy makers. There can be enormous net costs if policies reduce emissions by too much or too little. If the goal is too drastic, the world will be made massively poorer unnecessarily. If the goal isn’t drastic enough, the economy will be weakened and we might still see runaway global warming and the alleged catastrophes that would result.

There’s got to be a better solution.


The Solution To Global Warming

“Although climate change can lead to a deterioration of many human health and environmental metrics, that does not tell us what we really want to know. What we want to know is this: Will human health and environmental quality be better under richer but warmer scenarios than under poorer but cooler scenarios? That’s primarily because wealth creation, human capital, and new or improved technologies often reduce the extent of the human health and environmental “bads” associated with climate change more than temperature increases exacerbate them.” – Indur Goklany

The best way to deal with global warming is to allow economic growth to help humanity adapt. Once again, anarchism and free markets are a viable solution to this environmental problem. Having governments attempt to mitigate global warming, as we have already seen, would be fraught with difficulty, the benefits wouldn’t be noticeable until decades in the future, the costs would be immediate and enormous, and there’s no guarantees that it would even be effective. In fact, mitigation would prevent humanity from reaping the benefits of global warming and increased CO2, whereas adapting will allow us to experience those benefits and selectively reduce the harms.

A fantastic paper written by Indur Goklany in 2008 compares the costs and benefits of mitigation vs adaptation to climate change under assumptions generous to the global warming alarmists. He brings up a crucial point: climate change is hardly the most significant environmental issue of today.

“Data from the WHO…indicates that climate change doesn’t even make the top 10 global health risk factors related to food, nutrition, and environmental and occupational exposure. Specifically, the WHO attributes

  • 1.12 million deaths in 2001 to malaria;
  • 3.24 million deaths to malnutrition;
  • 1.73 million deaths to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, and hygiene;
  • 1.62 million deaths to indoor air pollution from indoor heating and cooking with wood, coal, and dung; • 0.8 million deaths to urban air pollution; and
  • 0.23 million deaths to lead exposure.

Climate change is clearly not the most important environmental, let alone public health, problem facing the world today.”

Would it not make more sense to address these immediate environmental issues with significant human costs than to address the speculative issues caused by climate change? But even this is too generous to those who would suggest destroying industrial civilization to attempt to save humanity, since addressing environmental problems that are unrelated to climate change would subsequently resolve those same issues when caused by climate change. For example, developing a malaria vaccine would help reduce malaria cases in general, whether they would have been caused by global warming or something else.

In addition, adapting to climate change does not require knowledge of the impact of climate change. This is important considering the massive uncertainties with regards to whatever effects climate change might have.

“Significantly, work on focused adaptation measures can commence, and in some areas has already begun, without detailed knowledge of the impacts of climate change. Cases in point are the development of malaria vaccines, transferable property rights for water resources, development of early warning systems for climate-sensitive events ranging from storms to potential epidemics of various kinds, and elucidation of mechanisms that confer resistance in crops to drought, water logging, or saline soils. To the extent that such measures do not rely on the location-specific details of impacts analyses, focused adaptation reduces the risk of having wasted resources by pouring them into problems that may or may not occur at specific locations.”

As our understanding of global warming improves, we can then work on adapting to the specific threats that we uncover. But in the meantime, there are many ways that we can adapt to the risks that most global warming alarmists expect, all at a drastically lower cost than mitigation.

“…at a cost of less than $34 billion per year (for 2010–2015), focused adaptation would deliver far greater benefits than would even halting climate change. Moreover, it would do so at one fifth the cost of the ineffectual Kyoto Protocol.”

Not bad, huh? Let’s dive into the specifics, including rough costs and the kinds of adaptations that can be developed over the coming years and decades. Malaria:

“The UN Millennium project reports that the global death toll from malaria could be reduced by 75 percent at a cost of $3 billion per year. Adaptations focused on reducing current vulnerabilities to malaria include measures targeted specifically at malaria as well as measures that would generally enhance the capacity to respond to public health problems and deliver public health services more effectively and efficiently. Malaria-specific measures include indoor residual (home) spraying with insecticides, insecticide-treated bed nets, improved case management, more comprehensive antenatal care, and development of safe, effective, and cheap vaccines and therapies.”

Focusing on economic growth and adaptation would also be the appropriate strategy to counter world hunger:

“An additional $5 billion annual investment in agricultural R&D—approximately 15 percent of global funding of agricultural research and development during the 1990s—should raise productivity sufficiently to more than compensate for the estimated 0.02 percent annual shortfall in productivity caused by climate change…Current agricultural problems that could be exacerbated by warming and should be the focus of vulnerability-reduction measures include growing crops in poor climatic or soil conditions (e.g., low-soil moisture in some areas, too much water in others, or soils with high salinity, alkalinity, or acidity). Because of warming, such conditions could become more prevalent and agriculture might have to expand into areas with poorer soils, or both. Actions focused on increasing agricultural productivity under current marginal conditions would alleviate hunger in the future whether or not the climate changes.”

Another common fear is that global warming will cause the sea level to rise and threaten coastal communities with flooding.

“According to estimates in the latest IPCC (2007) report, the annual cost of protecting against a sea level rise of about 0.66 meters in 2100—equivalent to about 0.52 meters in 2085 compared with 0.34 meters under the warmest (A1FI) scenario—would vary from $2.6 to $10 billion during the 21st century. I will assume $10 billion for the purposes of this paper. Governments could, moreover, discourage maladaptation by refusing to subsidize insurance and/or protective measures that allow individuals to offload private risks to the broader public.”

Finally, proponents of AGW fear that global warming will lead to stress on water resources. Yet again, there are free-market ways to adapt to this threat.

“…there are many measures that would help societies cope with present and future water stress regardless of their cause. Among them are institutional reforms to treat water as an economic commodity by allowing market pricing and transferable property rights to water. Such reforms should stimulate widespread adoption of existing but underused conservation technologies and lead to more private-sector investment in R&D, which would reduce the demand for water by all sectors. For example, new or improved crops and techniques for more efficient use of water in agriculture could enhance agricultural productivity. That would provide numerous ancillary benefits, including reductions in the risk of hunger and pressures on freshwater biodiversity while also enhancing the opportunity for other in-stream uses (e.g., recreation). Notably, diversion of water to agricultural uses might be the largest current threat to freshwater biodiversity.”

Goklany’s research found that, even under assumptions very generous to AGW alarmists, humanity would be better off in warmer-but-wealthier scenarios than ones in which we attempt to mitigate global warming.

“If future well-being is measured by per capita income adjusted for welfare losses due to climate change, the surprising conclusion using the Stern Review’s own estimates is that future generations will be better off in the richest but warmest world (A1FI). This suggests that, if protecting future well-being is the objective of public policy, governmental intervention to address climate change ought to be aimed at maximizing wealth creation, not minimizing CO2 emissions.”

And the best way to maximize wealth creation is to let the market do its thing, rather than having significant government intervention. Let’s discuss a few of the ways that market anarchism would address the potential threat of climate change in a far superior way to that of government efforts.

For starters, the government has historically supported and continues to subsidize fossil fuel usage. Gene Callahan writes:

“The U.S. government has subsidized many activities that burn carbon: it has seized land through eminent domain to build highways, funded rural electrification projects, and fought wars to ensure Americans’ access to oil. After World War II it played a key role in the mass exodus of the middle class from urban centers to the suburbs, chiefly through encouraging mortgage lending.”

In addition, the government has gotten in the way of preventing emissions.

“While myriad government policies have thus encouraged carbon emissions, at the same time the government has restricted activities that would have reduced them. For example, there would probably be far more reliance on nuclear power were it not for the overblown regulations of this energy source. For a different example, imagine the reduction in emissions if the government would merely allow market-clearing pricing for the nation’s major roads, thereby eliminating traffic jams! The pollution from vehicles in major urban areas could be drastically cut overnight if the government set tolls to whatever the market could bear—or better yet, sold bridges and highways to private owners.”

In other words, without government, we could have had far fewer emissions than we have thus far, and would likely have fewer in the future as well. Under an anarchist system with private roadways, driving cars that cause pollution would no longer be subsidized.

The anarchist system would also address the issues relating to coastal flooding more directly than government action. Insurers would have to take the threat of global warming into account when setting prices for policies. If the threat of flooding is legitimate, then the areas most threatened would also be the most costly to live, naturally reducing the issue of mass migration that global warming might cause. And since global warming would also make some locations more hospitable, people will naturally migrate from the least hospitable to most hospitable areas.

“Private insurers have a strong incentive to assess the potential effects of global warming without bias in order to price their policies optimally—if they overestimate the risk, they will lose business to lower-priced rivals; if they are too sanguine about the dangers, they will lose money once the claims start rolling in. Individuals finding their homes or businesses threatened by rising sea levels will find it easier to relocate to the extent that unfettered markets have made them wealthier.”

In fact, markets would generally allow a superior way of aggregating information about global warming and how to respond to it through the development of various financial products.

“For example, the financial industry, by creating new securities and derivative markets, could crystallize the “dispersed knowledge” that many different experts held in order to coordinate and mobilize mankind’s total response to global warming. For instance, weather futures can serve to spread the risk of bad weather beyond the local area affected. Perhaps there could arise a market betting on the areas most likely to be permanently flooded. That may seem ghoulish, but by betting on their own area, inhabitants could offset the cost of relocating should the flooding occur.”

This would provide a vastly more fair response to the costs of global warming.

Let’s say that, despite the many reasons to suspect that things will be fine, the global warming alarmists are correct. Then we can use the extra wealth that humanity has accumulated in the next several decades to come up with exotic “geoengineering” solutions to climate change. Maybe we’ll place mirrors in space, fill the atmosphere with aerosols that reflect sunlight, develop technologies to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, or even colonize outer space!

None of this requires government involvement in any way. If AGW is true, then insurance companies in an anarchist system will have a strong incentive to mitigate it or adapt to it – just as described earlier in the “mass collective pollution” section above. In addition, social pressures can effectively address the negative externalities of global warming without resorting to coercion by the state. Large companies and wealthy individuals are rather sensitive to these types of campaigns, as evidenced by the PR successes of the global warming alarmists and the “green” movement today.

What do you think would be better: destroying civilization in the name of what is only an uncertain threat, or continuing to lift billions out of poverty while addressing that threat anyways?

“The alternative offered by the proponents of global warming regulation – pushing much of the developing world back into abject poverty – would be sure to bring something far worse, such as endless civil wars among populations where had a middle-class lifestyle within sight, but was then ripped away by the global elites in the name of saving the world. So, if global warming is indeed on our horizon, it would appear that perfecting technologies like water desalinization, aqueducts, improved agricultural practices, and lowering the costs of basic staples such as housing and labor-saving appliances would be essential. Much of the world has already been working on these problems, and global warming has had nothing to do with it. The Israelis have been developing better and better water and agriculture systems for decades. Many desert countries (including the western United States) have been working on better water filtration and delivery systems. Many societies, such as The Netherlands and Singapore already deal with various issues related to dense populations.”



The modern environmentalist movement is almost universally made up of collectivists who support central planning. However, as we have seen, it need not be this way. In fact, people who truly want to protect the environment ought to be supporters of private property, free markets, and anarchy.

Environmental Issues: An Anarchist Perspective, Part 1

We humans live on planet Earth (for the time being), and utilize resources that have existed long before we came around. Many of these resources are scarce – due to their finite supply and importance to our well-being, the way these resources are managed is of highly related to our ability to survive and thrive.

As such, there is a very strong prima facie case for protecting the environment. The modern environmentalist movement considers itself the vanguard attempting to save the environment from greedy, ruthless capitalists, who are more than happy to destroy the environment in the pursuit of profit. To do so, they suggest assorted government policies, ranging from simple regulations to the intentional extermination of billions of humans.

No doubt, the institutional structure that we live under today, with giant corporations protected by big government, has led to significant environmental distress. Nevertheless, the effect of capitalism and market-based economies has been among the greatest boons for environmental protection.

This may at first seem like a contradiction, but in this article, I intend to argue that it is in fact private property rights that, as an institutional structure, are necessary for the protection of our environment. The political system that fully embodies a respect for private property is called “anarchy,” “anarcho-capitalism,” or “voluntaryism.”

As an anarchist, I often hear people object to my beliefs on the basis that pollution would run rampant and the environment would be destroyed if anarchy were put into practice. This is the most common concern people have, second only to how security and law would work in an anarchist society. For some reason, it is very difficult for most people to envision how the environment might survive without the protection of the government. In reality, however, the government is the greatest enemy of the environment, and markets are the most effective way of preventing environmental devastation largely caused by the state and its crony-capitalist cronies.

Since this is an extremely long post (over 22,000 words), I will present a brief outline of the content to follow, which is divided into two separate posts. First, I describe the modern environmentalist movement and the fallacies underlying their dogma, particularly the idea that nature has some kind of “intrinsic value.” Next, I document how governments are far and away the worst polluters on the planet. I then walk through multiple cases in the US where government policies have led to environmental catastrophe, and thoroughly document the extreme environmental destruction that socialism has caused in the world. Then I will present an alternative paradigm: respect for private property rights. I provide some historical background on how the legal climate for environmental issues has changed, and then describe the way that issues surrounding environmental damage ought to be handled. Using this private property paradigm, I discuss numerous environmental issues that could be more easily resolved under anarchy as opposed to resorting to state coercion. In the second post, I describe what is generally considered the biggest and most challenging environmental issue of our time: global warming. I discuss why the narrative surrounding global warming is heavily warped and politicized, why it is valid to be skeptical of the mainstream position, and how global warming could be addressed far more adequately under anarchy than via government.


Environmentalism: How Much Does “The Environment” Really Matter?

remember to shower

As alluded to before, environmentalists differ in terms of how extreme their proposals and intentions are. The majority of people who consider themselves environmentalists are moderate – they are outdoorsy-types who want to ensure that there are still green spaces for their children, for instance. But then there are environmental extremists, who think that humanity is a great scourge on this world, and that the planet would be better off without us. They go as far as to recommend the intentional extinction of humanity. In fact, Australian government-funded environmentalist propaganda is telling children that they should die at the age of 9 so that they don’t use more than their “fair share” of resources!

Surely, most of the people reading this are not in the latter category. That being said, both rely on the same fallacy to arrive at their policy conclusions – it’s just that the more extreme take this fallacy further. Modern environmentalists all believe that nature has intrinsic value, a notion that I will soon demonstrate is absurd.

But the alleged intrinsic value of nature is just one tenet of the environmentalist religion. Consider the narrative of environmentalism, which claims that there was an initial Eden, a sacred environment that was pure until humanity destroyed it in a fall from grace. Supposedly, native people lived happy lives in perfect peace with the environment before capitalism came along. Of course, this ignores the terrible record of indigenous people as stewards of the environment, and the horrid conditions in which most of them lived. As the late author Michael Crichton said:

“In short, the romantic view of the natural world as a blissful Eden is only held by people who have no actual experience of nature. People who live in nature are not romantic about it at all. They may hold spiritual beliefs about the world around them, they may have a sense of the unity of nature or the aliveness of all things, but they still kill the animals and uproot the plants in order to eat, to live. If they don’t, they will die.”

And then there are the doomsday predictions that are repeatedly proven wrong. This happens time and again, but like a religious cultist whose doomsday date passed without incident, the environmentalist will just pick a new date and push their prediction further down the line. Consider the mass starvation that was predicted due to population pressures, the resource depletion that always seems right around the corner, and global cooling in the 1970s which has now morphed into global warming. Another example:

“Near the end of the 19th Century…city planners warned of the impending danger of the streets being covered with dozens of feet of horse manure as the population of humans and animals would surely grow in those imperiled cities. The reviled automobile, it turns out, saved us from that horrible fate.”

Ironic, right? But the most important of the tenets of environmentalism is the sacredness of nature, the value that nature possesses in and of itself. But if nature has intrinsic value, what does this imply? It isn’t only humans who act in some way to “harm” nature or the environment, yet it seems only humans are held responsible. As George Reisman argues (emphasis mine):

“The doctrine of intrinsic value is itself only a rationalization for a preexisting hatred of man. It is invoked not because one attaches any actual value to what is alleged to have intrinsic value, but simply to serve as a pretext for denying values to man. For example, caribou feed upon vegetation, wolves eat caribou, and microbes attack wolves. Each of these, the vegetation, the caribou, the wolves, and the microbes, is alleged by the environmentalists to possess intrinsic value. Yet absolutely no course of action is indicated for man. Should man act to protect the intrinsic value of the vegetation from destruction by the caribou? Should he act to protect the intrinsic value of the caribou from destruction by the wolves? Should he act to protect the intrinsic value of the wolves from destruction by the microbes? Even though each of these alleged intrinsic values is at stake, man is not called upon to do anything. When does the doctrine of intrinsic value serve as a guide to what man should do? Only when man comes to attach value to something. Then it is invoked to deny him the value he seeks. For example, the intrinsic value of the vegetation et al. is invoked as a guide to man’s action only when there is something man wants, such as oil, and then, as in the case of Northern Alaska, its invocation serves to stop him from having it. In other words, the doctrine of intrinsic value is nothing but a doctrine of the negation of human values. It is pure nihilism.”

It is often held that man is an agent of destruction of nature, but isn’t man a part of nature? If a beaver is allowed to chop down trees, why should I not be allowed to?

Beyond the nonsense inherent in this doctrine, considering nature to have intrinsic value makes it impossible to rationally guide ourselves with respect to how to treat the environment. How are we supposed to behave if we cannot use nature for our own ends? And if we are allowed to use nature to further goals of man, then – if nature has intrinsic value and we can’t discriminate between various elements of nature – how are we to determine which environment-altering behaviors are kosher and which are not? We live in a world of scarcity, so some means of determining priorities is necessary.

Nature does not have intrinsic value. This doesn’t imply that the natural world doesn’t have value, of course, but rather that its value is related to the ends that nature can be used to achieve. I don’t intend to belabor this point philosophically; I just mean to point out that there is nothing immoral about man manipulating his natural environment to achieve his goals.

In fact, it seems that this is an inevitable result of existing. Humans act in order to achieve desired aims, and we use existing means, including that of the surrounding environment, in order to do so.

Despite this, an environmentalist might argue, it is still in man’s best interest to preserve the natural environment and avoid depleting the resources that we need in order to improve our lives. It’s certainly true that wasting resources is, well, wasteful. At any given moment, it is no doubt the case that there are only so many resources available for human use. But this static view ignores the fact that as human knowledge of the physical world increases (and as capital accumulates, allowing us to take advantage of this knowledge), the amount of resources available for our use increases….arguably, without a practical limit. George Reisman spells this out explicitly:

“And this brings me to what I consider to be the revolutionary view of natural resources that is implied in Menger’s theory of goods. Namely, not only does man create the goods-character of natural resources—by obtaining knowledge of their useful properties and then creating their useability and accessibility by virtue of establishing the necessary command over them—but he also has the ability to go on indefinitely increasing the supply of natural resources possessing goods-character. He enlarges the supply of useable, accessible natural resources—that is, natural resources possessing goods-character—as he expands his knowledge of and physical power over nature.

The prevailing view, that dominates the thinking of the environmentalists and the conservationists, that there is a scarce, precious stock of natural resources that man’s productive activity serves merely to deplete is wrong. Seen in its full context, man’s productive activity serves to enlarge the supply of useable, accessible natural resources by converting a larger, though still tiny, fraction of nature into natural resources possessing goods-character. The essential question concerning natural resources is what fraction of the virtual infinity that is nature does man possess sufficient knowledge concerning and sufficient physical command over to be able to direct it to the satisfaction of his needs. This fraction will always be very small indeed and will always be capable of vastly greater further enlargement.

“Nature presents the earth as an immense solidly packed ball of chemical elements. It has also provided comparably incredible amounts of energy in connection with this mass of chemical elements. If, over and against this massive contribution from nature stands motivated human intelligence—the kind of motivated human intelligence that a free, capitalist society so greatly encourages, with its prospect of earning a substantial personal fortune as the result of almost every significant advance, there can be little doubt as to the outcome: Man will succeed in progressively enlarging the fraction of nature’s contribution that constitutes goods; that is, he will succeed in progressively enlarging the supply of useable, accessible natural resources.”

Consider the many resources we use today that wouldn’t have necessarily been considered resources many years ago. Petroleum wasn’t a natural resource until humanity made it one. The same is true of iron, aluminum, copper, bronze, zinc, gold, silver, and uranium. But even after discovering the goods-character of these resources, advances in technology have allowed us to mine with less effort or at greater depth, find more of the resource where it wasn’t previously visible, access the resource from previously inaccessible locations (offshore oil drilling, for instance), and so on.

The solution to the “problem” of limited resources is to increase the amount of resources, by improving the state of human knowledge and through capital accumulation to allow us to take advantage of this knowledge. Contrast this with the “solution” presented by environmentalists: use less stuff. How about instead of impoverishing us all, we invent ways to adapt to environmental change and the use of resources?

“If we destroy the energy base needed to produce and operate the construction equipment required to build strong, well-made, comfortable houses for hundreds of millions of people, we shall be safer from the wind and rain, the environmental movement alleges, than if we retain and enlarge that energy base. If we destroy our capacity to produce and operate refrigerators and air conditioners, we shall be better protected from hot weather than if we retain and enlarge that capacity, the environmental movement claims. If we destroy our capacity to produce and operate tractors and harvesters, to can and freeze food, to build and operate hospitals and produce medicines, we shall secure our food supply and our health better than if we retain and enlarge that capacity, the environmental movement asserts.”

If global warming is happening, we should develop more and better air conditioners. Instead, the environmentalists would have us destroying industrial civilization, condemning millions or billions to starvation and death.

As alluded to earlier, environmentalists have a habit of catastrophizing the impact of environmental issues, and of ignoring the consequences of their proposed policy fixes.

“Consider, for example, the recent case of Alar, a chemical spray used for many years on apples in order to preserve their color and freshness. Here, it turned out that even if the environmentalists’ claims had actually been true, and the use of Alar would result in 4.2 deaths per million over a seventy-year lifetime, all that would have been signified was that eating apples sprayed with Alar would then have been less dangerous than driving to the supermarket to buy the apples! (Consider: 4.2 deaths per million over a seventy year period means that in any one year in the United States, with its population of roughly two hundred and fifty million people, approximately fifteen deaths would be attributable to Alar! This is the result obtained by multiplying 4.2 per million times 250 million and then dividing by 70. In the same one-year period of time, approximately fifty thousand deaths occur in motor vehicle accidents in the United States, most of them within a few miles of the victims’ homes, and undoubtedly far more than fifteen of them on trips to or from supermarkets.) Nevertheless, a panic ensued, followed by a plunge in the sale of apples, the financial ruin of an untold number of apple growers, and the virtual disappearance of Alar.”

Contrast this with the miracle of the market.

“Famine has been ended, because the industrial civilization so hated by the environmentalists has produced the greatest abundance and variety of food in the history of the world, and created the transportation system required to bring it to everyone. This same hated civilization has produced the iron and steel pipe, and the chemical purification and pumping systems that enable everyone to have instant access to safe drinking water, hot or cold, every minute of the day. It has produced the sewage systems and the automobiles that have removed the filth of human and animal waste from the streets of cities and towns.”


Governments Are The Largest Polluters

One of the great ironies of environmentalism is that its proponents’ solutions always seem to involve government action. And yet they routinely ignore the god-awful record that governments have as stewards of the environment.

In fact, the US federal government is the largest polluter on the planet, but state governments are pretty bad too. The US Department of Defense is the largest contributor to this pollution. Military bases, of which there are a gazillion, pollute their locations heavily, which causes serious health issues among soldiers and their families. During wars, the government has leveled forests using chemicals and big machines. The US government is also the 4th largest greenhouse gas emitter in America, trailing only behind energy companies. But the environmental impact of the government goes beyond directly polluting:

“The federal government provides subsidies to many activities through direct transfers as well as through the provision of free or below-cost access. For example, recreational activities in the national forests and parks are heavily subsidized; most users pay low (or no) fees. Such subsidies encourage people to “consume” more of those public resources than they would be likely to in a market system. In addition, subsidies for favored providers of environmental amenities tend to squeeze out private alternatives. Other well-known subsidies that can unintentionally degrade the environment include agricultural subsidies, grazing subsidies, and water and hydropower project subsidies, among others. Unfortunately, the political process finds it almost impossible to deal honestly with the issue of subsidies. Only free markets are able to assess the full costs of resource use. Until property rights-based policies are instituted, environmental issues – from waste disposal to wetlands protection – will be poorly managed.”

There are also massive subsidies to Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), which leads to environmental issues with excess manure. The government botches the management of forest fires by letting deadwood accumulate, leading to massive blazes.

Just recently, the EPA, which is supposed to be protecting the environment, dumped millions of gallons of toxic waste into the Animus River in Colorado, which may have been done intentionally for money! Predictably, leading environmentalist groups have been covering for the EPA on this one, even though they vehemently attack private companies for far less.

Some additional examples would be instructive. Take Seattle’s Ravenna Park. It was once privately owned and well-preserved. But the local government was afraid that it wouldn’t continue to be preserved, so they took over and then proceeded to let it fall into disrepair.

“At the turn of the twentieth century it [Ravenna Park] was a privately owned park that contained magnificent Douglas firs. A husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Beck, had developed it into a family recreation area that, in good weather, brought in thousands of people a day. Concern that a future owner might not take proper care of it, however, caused the local government to “preserve” this beautiful place. The owners did not want to part with it, but the city initiated condemnation proceedings and bought the park.

But since they had no personal property or income at stake, local officials allowed the park to deteriorate. In fact, the tall trees began to disappear soon after the city bought it in 1911. A group of concerned citizens brought the theft of the trees to officials’ attention, but the logging continued. Gradually, the park became unattractive. By 1972 it was an ugly, dangerous hangout for drug users. The Becks, operating privately at no cost to taxpayers, but supported instead by user fees, had done a far better job of managing the park they had created.”

The BP Gulf Oil Spill

In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico began gushing oil into the ocean, and wasn’t successfully capped for 87 days, with about 5 million barrels of oil discharged in total. The company that owned this rig, BP, was trashed by environmentalists and the media in the aftermath of this tragedy. What they ignore is the crucial role of government regulations that made this spill so much more likely. Of course, much of this legislation was likely the result of oil industry lobbying, so the corporate-state nexus is really the blameworthy institution here, not merely the government.

How did regulation help lead to the worst accidental oil spill in history? The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 established a measly $75 million liability cap on oil spills, which created an immense moral hazard by reducing the risk to oil companies while drilling, and reducing their incentive to ensure the safety of their actions. Without a cap like this, oil companies would be responsible for the full cost of the damages that they cause, which would make them far more cautious and safety-prone.

It gets worse. Why was BP drilling in such a deep area to begin with? Wouldn’t it be far safer to drill closer to the surface? Unfortunately, oil companies are often barred from exploring less risky oil-rich areas.

“Because most private lands have been explored, public lands offer the most potential for oil and gas development. However, the NIMBY [“not in my back yard”] principle has significantly restricted development on those lands. According to 2008 Energy Department figures, nearly 80% of potentially oil-rich offshore lands are off limits to oil and gas development, and 60% of onshore lands are.”

You see, politicians don’t like those unsightly oil rigs near their territory, so they explicitly disallow it.

“I’ve seen the total number of platforms estimated at around 4,000, with up to 100 drilling rigs operating at a time. One of the interesting things to me about this map is that it shows no rigs in the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico. It turns out this is due to a moratorium on drilling first put in place by President Bush in 1990. In 1998, President Clinton extended the moratorium until 2012. So, one government intervention has resulted in a situation in which drilling operations are constrained west of the border between Alabama and Mississippi, with a concentration of drilling off the coast of Louisiana.”

And then there are the federal subsidies (“royalty relief”) for drilling in deep waters rather than water closer to shore. These subsidies result in a five-fold increase in the incentive for companies to drill in deep water rather than shallow water.

It’s not just in America where mismanagement of land and regulation causes issues with oil spills. In Nigeria, for instance, state ownership of oil assets has led to repeated spills.

Love Canal

My favorite example that demonstrates the ineptitude of governments with respect to the environment is the infamous Love Canal fiasco. Investigative reporter Eric Zuesse documented the whole story here, but I’ll provide a summary.

The Love Canal was a site in upstate New York that was owned by Hooker Chemical Co., which they used as a dumping site for toxic chemicals (the Army was also dumping toxic waste at Love Canal, but for some reason people only blame Hooker). The Niagara Falls Board of Education desperately wanted to own this land to build a school on, but Hooker did not want to sell it. Nevertheless, the BoE used their power of eminent domain to threaten Hooker with seizing the land, so it was ultimately sold to the government for one dollar. The sell was done specifically so that there would be a contractual record where Hooker could spell out the dangers of building on this land for all future owners (if the land were seized by eminent domain, Hooker would have been free of liability for the chemicals anyways, so it was with the public good in mind that they sold instead). Hooker made it very clear to the BoE that there were chemicals underground and that no building should take place on that site beyond mere surface construction (like a park). When the BoE tried to sell the site to real estate developers in 1957, Hooker came to those meetings and forcefully advised against it. Ultimately, Niagara Falls ended up building a school on this land anyways, disturbing the chemicals and letting the seep into the community that was soon built there.

“Practically every level of government has been involved over the years in violating either the Canal’s walls or the protective clay cover that Hooker says it had laid four feet thick on top of its wastes. Even the New York State Department of Transportation, which now shares major responsibility for remedial work on the Canal with New York’s Department of Health and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, ripped into the Canal in 1968, at the southern end where Hooker had done most of its dumping. In the construction of an expressway and the moving of Frontier Boulevard northward, chemicals were contacted, and Hooker was requested to, and did, cart away 40 truckloads of chemical wastes. Just as Hooker had worried in 1957, as time passed the possible hazards of construction on the property had been put totally out of mind.”

Such ineptitude! But the narrative about what occurred at Love Canal was that a greedy corporation took advantage of and poisoned a community.

“Despite the popular myth that Love Canal is the result of a single corporation’s greed and heartlessness, the actual explanation is far more complex. It’s clear to anyone who digs into this matter that Hooker may well have been the only party to the affair to behave responsibly. Hooker chose an exceptionally fine chemical dumpsite; it ceded the dump to the School Board under circumstances in which the threat of condemnation was real and the reality of condemnation was already under way for adjoining properties; it warned the School Board that the chemicals could kill and insisted that the Board pass this warning on to any subsequent owner of the property; it urged the Board not to construct the school or any other buildings directly over the Canal; it protested the prospect of any subsurface construction on the Canal.

These warnings were repeatedly ignored, however, by the governmental bodies involved in desecrating this chemical tomb: the School Board itself, the City Planning Board, the city engineer, and the state Department of Transportation. In addition, other governmental agencies have been busy spreading misinformation about the Canal: the Niagara County Health Department, the state Department of Health, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the US Department of Justice.”

And the icing on the cake is that the EPA has since then positioned private industry as blameworthy and the government as the savior. They need to justify their existence somehow.

Socialism And The Environment

Environmentalists, as I said before, always seem to think that environmental protection requires an expansion of government. If this were true, one might expect that socialist countries would have a sterling record of environmental stewardship, right? Luckily, since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have plenty of case studies to verify that this is not the case.

Before diving into these examples, let’s reflect for a moment on why socialism might prove to be a poor economic system from an environmental perspective. In the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, there were explicit protections for the environment both at the legal and ideological level. However, without a profit motive operating, industrial managers were not sensitive to economic incentives to protect the environment. Ed Dolan describes several ways in which the socialist system leads to economic harm:

“Where there are property rights, there is always an owner to resist trespass, whether by people on foot or noxious chemicals wafting through the air. True, the legal system doesn’t work perfectly. Sometimes owners can’t adequately protect their rights, but the rights are there. Furthermore, where there is widespread ownership of at least small scraps of property, respect for the property rights of others also becomes widespread, although, alas, not universal.”

Private property is central to the reason why markets protect the environment better than government, but there are also political realities that make socialist countries ignore environmental concerns.

“In a socialist system, producers have a stronger grip on the levers of political power. After all, as state enterprises, they are not mere lobbyists—they are themselves a part of the government structure. For example…there were protests in the Soviet Union when paper mills first started dumping waste into Lake Baikal. However, the protesters themselves were always one government institution, say, the Limnological Institute of the Academy of Sciences, working against another, in that case the Ministry of Timber, Paper, and Woodworking. Sometimes the protesters were able to exploit personal rivalries within the government in order to plant articles in government newspapers, but in the end, they always lost. The whole incentive system of the Soviet economy, from the Politburo down to the local plant manager, was focused on just one thing: meeting the impossibly demanding production targets of the Five Year Plan. The environment always lost.”

For a thorough account of why socialism tends to destroy the environment, I recommend reading this paper by Peter Hill (1992). Under socialism, there is no incentive to prevent waste, which leads to excess consumption of resources.

“The general inefficiency of production under socialism is another indicator of the lack of incentives to prevent waste. Czechoslovakia consumes about three times the energy of the average western nation per unit of output. In the former Soviet Republics manufacturing uses four times as much energy per unit of GNP as in the United States. Chemical plants in the Soviet Union for many years emitted large amounts of a potent pollutant, fluorine, into the atmosphere. Despite numerous studies by engineers that showed that the fluorine could be recovered at a profit and sold to other enterprises, the plant managers found it easier to continue to pollute. There was no effective system in place whereby a manager was rewarded for taking such cost reducing and environment improving actions.”

While free markets certainly would not have a perfect record with respect to preventing waste and protecting the environment, they would be far superior to socialist incentives. If the theoretical account of socialism’s environment failings is damning, the real life experience is catastrophic. Thomas DiLorenzo (1992) has done research on this, which I will now draw upon.

Soviet Union

In the Soviet Union (which, again, had extensive legal protections for the environment), central planning proved devastating for the natural world. The Aral and Caspian seas were destroyed, as Soviet authorities diverted water away from them for other projects, and hundreds of factories dumped untreated chemical wastes into them. This sort of industrial prioritization was common.

“A typical example of the environmental damage caused by the Soviet economic system is the exploitation of the Black Sea. To comply with five-year plans for housing and building construction, gravel, sand, and trees around the beaches were used for decades as construction materials. Because there is no private property, “no value is attached to the gravel along the seashore. Since, in effect, it is free, the contractors haul it away. This practice caused massive beach erosion which reduced the Black Sea coast by 50 percent between 1920 and 1960. Eventually, hotels, hospitals, and of all things, a military sanitarium collapsed into the sea as the shoreline gave way. Frequent landslides–as many as 300 per year–have been reported.”

Toxic waste was dumped into rivers and destroyed these ecosystems because there was no private property.

“Effluent from a chemical plant killed almost all the fish in the Oka River in 1965, and similar fish kills have occurred in the Volga, Ob, Yenesei, Ural, and Northern Dvina rivers. Most Russian factories discharge their waste without cleaning it at all. Mines, oil wells, and ships freely dump waste and ballast into any available body of water, since it is all one big (and tragic) “commons.”

“Islands of alkaline sewage have been observed floating on the lake, including one that was 18 miles long and three miles wide. These “islands” have polluted the air around the lake as well as the water in it. Thousands of acres of forest surrounding the lake have been denuded, causing such erosion that dust storms have been reported. So much forest land in the Lake Baikal region has been destroyed that some observers reported shifting sands that link up with the Gobi Desert; there are fears that the desert may sweep into Siberia and destroy the lake.”

Arguably the worst of these cases was the Volga River. So much oil was dumped into this river that smoking had to be banned for sailors on ships traversing it – not for paternalistic health reasons, as in the West, but because throwing spent cigarette butts overboard would cause raging fires.

Of course, let’s not forget the Chernobyl disaster.

“The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the world’s worst, caused not just by operating errors but by a reckless design that provided no containment vessel in case of accident. The nuclear accident that had been considered the world’s worst up to that time also occurred in the Soviet Union, the 1957 explosion of a waste storage pond at the Mayak nuclear weapons complex.”

The Soviets also killed at least 45,000 humpback whales between 1946 and 1986. Why? To satisfy obscure line items in five year plans. Barely 30% of these whales were actually used, and the remainder were left to rot.


Chinese cities are well-known to have a thick layer of smog covering them.

“The Chinese state’s arrogation of all pollution litigation to its own courts is a clear collectivization of environmental property rights — most notably rights to air and property surfaces, most of which are covered in soot after a few years of operation.

The state’s subsequent, systematic refusal to enforce property owners’ claims against pollution damages to the serviceability of their air and the appearances of their structures’ outward surfaces, then, constitutes a redistribution of these collectivized rights to “dirty” industries and other heavy polluters.”

Massive industrial projects initiated by the socialist government in China also led to serious environmental issues.

“China’s current Three Gorges Dam has displaced over a million people and flooded 13 cities, 140 towns and 1,350 villages. There’s no way the capitalists of Wall Street could compete with that flooding.”

Water pollution is another serious issue:

“An official report showed that 90% of all environmental protests in 2012 were linked to water pollution. It found that 57.3% of the groundwater in 198 cities in 2012 was ‘bad’ or ‘extremely bad’. One third of rivers and 75% of lakes are seriously polluted, and around 1,000 lakes have disappeared. Unsafe drinking water is being used by 320 million people, and 190 million are sick every year due to water pollution.”

Central planning has led to massive environmental destruction of forests and waterways in China.

“According to the Worldwatch Institute, more than 90 percent of the trees in the pine forests in China’s Sichuan province have died because of air pollution. In Chungking, the biggest city in southwest China, a 4, 500-acre forest has been reduced by half. Acid rain has reportedly caused massive crop losses.

There also have been reports of waterworks and landfill projects severely hampering fish migration. Fish breeding was so seriously neglected that fish has largely vanished from the national diet. Depletion of government-owned forests has turned them into deserts, and millions of acres of grazing and farm land in the northern Chinese plains were made alkaline and unproductive during the “Great Leap Forward.””


The Polish people under communism did not fare much better.

“According to the Polish Academy of Sciences, “a third of the nation’s 38 million people live in areas of ecological disaster.” In the heavily industrialized Katowice region of Poland, the people suffer 15 percent more circulatory disease, 30 percent more tumors, and 47 percent more respiratory disease than other Poles. Physicians and scientists believe pollution is a major contributor to these health problems.

“Half of Poland’s cities, including Warsaw, don’t even treat their wastes, and 41 animal species have reportedly become extinct in Poland in recent years. While health statistics are spotty — they were not a priority of the Communist government–available data are alarming. A recent study of the Katowice region found that 21 percent of the children up to 4 years old are sick almost constantly, while 41 percent of the children under 6 have serious health problems.”

Coal mining caused major issues because property rights were not respected, and the health of the land did not need to be taken into account by the socialist planners.

“Continuous pumping of water from coal mines has caused so much land to subside that over 300,000 apartments were destroyed as buildings collapsed. The mine sludge has been pumped into rivers and streams along with untreated sewage which has made 95 percent of the water unfit for human consumption. More than 65 percent of the nation’s water is even unfit for industrial use because it is so toxic that it would destroy heavy metals used by industry.”


Here’s a summary of the environmental devastation that occurred in communist Czechoslovakia:

“Because of the overuse of fertilizers, farmland in some areas of Czechoslovakia is toxic to more than one foot in depth. In Bohemia, in northwestern Czechoslovakia, hills stand bare because their vegetation has died in air so foul it can be tasted. One report describes the Czech countryside as a place where “barren plateaus stretch for miles, studded with the stumps and skeletons of pine trees. Under the snow lie thousands of acres of poisoned ground, where for centuries thick forests had grown.” There is a stretch of over 350 miles where more than 300,000 acres of forest have disappeared and the remaining trees are dying. A thick, brown haze hangs over much of northern Czechoslovakia for about eight months of the year. Sometimes it takes on the sting of tear gas, according to local officials. There are environmental laws, but they aren’t enforced. Sulfur in the air has been reported at 20 times the permissible level. Soil in some regions is so acidic that aluminum trapped in the clay is released. Scientists discovered that the aluminum has poisoned groundwater, killing tree and plant roots and filtering into the drinking water.”

East Germany

East Germany is a classic case of socialism, and particularly, the issues that socialism has wrought for the environment. Note that West Germany did not have nearly so egregious exploitation of the environment.

“Much of the East German landscape has been devastated. Fifteen to 20 percent of its forests are dead, and another 40 percent are said to be dying. Between 1960 and 1980 at least 70 villages were destroyed and their inhabitants uprooted by the government, which wanted to mine high-sulfur brown coal. The countryside is now “pitted with moon-like craters” and “laced with the remains of what were once spruce and pine trees, nestled amid clouds of rancid smog.” The air in some cities is so polluted that residents use their car headlights during the day, and visitors have been known to vomit from breathing the air.

Nearly identical problems exist in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia.

Visiting scientists have concluded that pollution in Central and Eastern Europe “is more dangerous and widespread than anything they have seen in the Western industrial nations.””

Colin Grabow adds:

“An estimated 44 percent of East German forests were damaged by acid rain — little surprise given that the country produced proportionally more sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and coal dust than any other in the world. In some areas of East Germany the level of air pollution was between eight and twelve times greater than that found in West Germany, and 40 percent of East Germany’s population lived in conditions that would have justified a smog warning across the border. Only one power station in East Germany had the necessary equipment to clean sulphur from emissions.”

Even the greatest excesses of the Western world and capitalism can’t compare with the extreme environmental devastation brought on by socialism. So why do environmentalists continue to promote big government policies? And why are so many environmentalists also socialists?


Private Property As A Solution

“[Those] who wonder what all the fuss is about when environmentalists raise alarms about the effects of acid rain on the forests react with outrage when the neighbour’s dog performs squatus smellibus on their own front lawns. It may be said that this is different—after all, the front lawn is private property— but this is precisely the point.

If the same dog-owning neighbour happens to own an industrial plant that dumps a chemical effluent on some remote forest land, we have little reaction, even if we know about it. After all, the forest land isn’t our private property. It’s government land. The question is, how do we ensure that the protective reactions of private property ownership will leap to the aid of the forest in the same way that they protect front lawns? The answer is that as long as we persist in the myth of public ownership, it will be very difficult.” – Walter Block

The United States doesn’t have a great record as an environmental steward, and many environmentalists will seize upon this to argue that privatization and free markets are to blame. Environmental costs of business are externalities – companies that pollute are not required to pay the cost of their pollution, so the pollution is subsidized.

Without a doubt, this is true today. However, it was not always like this in America. There used to be legal ways to internalize those externalities and to make polluters responsible for the damage they caused. This was the case when private property rights were more respected and legally protected in America, a reality that changed in the mid-1800s. Walter Block discusses the old system:

“Up to the 1820s and 1830s, the legal jurisprudence in Great Britain and the U.S. was more or less predicated upon the libertarian vision of non-invasiveness. Typically, a farmer would complain that a railroad engine had emitted sparks which set ablaze his haystacks or other crops. Or a woman would accuse a factory of sending airborne pollutants to her property, which would dirty her clean laundry hanging on a clothesline. Or someone would object to the foreign matter imposed in one’s lungs without permission. Almost invariably, the courts would take cognizance of this violation of plaintiff’s rights. The usual result during this epoch was injunctive relief, plus an award of damages.”

This respect for private property had positive effects from an environmental standpoint. In fact, these positive effects are essentially the flip-side of the negative impact of socialism.

“First of all, there was an incentive to use clean burning, but slightly more expensive anthracite coal rather than the cheaper but dirtier high sulfur content variety; less risk of lawsuits. Second, it paid to install scrubbers, and other techniques for reducing pollution output. Third there was an impetus to engage in research and development of new and better methods for the internalization of externalities: keeping one’s pollutants to oneself. Fourth, there was a movement toward the use better chimneys and other smoke prevention devices. Fifth, an incipient forensic pollution industry was in the process of being developed. Sixth, the locational decisions of manufacturing firms was intimately effected. The law implied that it would be more profitable to establish a plant in an area with very few people, or none at all; setting up shop in a residential area, for example, would subject the firm to debilitating lawsuits.”

Clearly, these incentives would lead to far superior environmental outcomes. Unfortunately, the legal climate in America soon changed.

“But then in the 1840s and 1850s a new legal philosophy took hold. No longer were private property rights upheld. Now, there was an even more important consideration: the public good. And of what did the public good consist in this new dispensation? The growth and progress of the U.S. economy. Toward this end it was decided that the jurisprudence of the 1820s and 1830s was a needless indulgence. Accordingly, when an environmental plaintiff came to court under this new system, he was given short shrift. He was told, in effect, that of course his private property rights were being violated; but that this was entirely proper, since there is something even more important than selfish, individualistic property rights. And this was the “public good” of encouraging manufacturing.”

Since then, America has never turned back. Legal protections for victims of pollution have not been reinstated, and unfortunately, it doesn’t look like they will be anytime soon. Nevertheless, a regime of private property rights that includes consistent enforcement is the solution to the environmental problem. Environmentalists, unfortunately, do not have a good understanding of how private property rights work, as evidenced by their rhetoric surrounding environmental issues:

“Even when the term “rights” is employed by ecologists in what is seemingly its more traditional, negative sense, as, for example, when environmentalists write of “the right to live free from pollutants” it is often so used without any regard to the context in which these rights are situated. When one refers to “the right to a smoke-free environment,” as numerous spokesmen of the anti-smoking campaign often do, surely it makes sense to ask “of just whose environment are we speaking?” While I might indeed have such a right to demand of others that they not smoke on my property, have I the same right when it comes to the property of others? But even put in such bald form, the majority of environmentalists would argue that, in most cases, I would indeed have such a right. Such rights obtain, they argue (and in this they are by no means alone), because most private property is not, in reality, private at all, since members of the public (either all members of the public, as is the case with, say, a department store, or certain specific members of the public, as is the case with a business office) are invited onto the property. By virtue of this fact, nominal private property is transmuted into commonly owned property, the disposal of which can justifiably be determined by political means. Indeed, most environmentalists have extended this notion of public ownership to the whole of the natural world. They write of the “common heritage of all humanity” and of “sharing the world’s resources equitably.” It is as if each of us, when born, inherits our pro rata share of all the wealth of the world, the land and the oceans of the earth, and all that is on, above, or below it, without regard to the prevailing ownership of these resources.”

Because today’s system is so far removed from a system of private property rights, thinking about environmental issues this way requires a paradigm shift. Instead of thinking about pollution as a crime against “the environment,” we need to think of it as a conflict between human beings.

“Pollution is…not about harming the environment but about human conflict over the use of physical resources. Generally formulated, a pollution or environmental problem arises when individual or group A and individual or group B are simultaneously attempting or planning to use resource X for conflicting purposes. Unless emissions into the air, discharge into a river, or the extraction of fish from the ocean give rise to such a conflict then there is no economic, i.e., efficiency problem. Humans cannot harm the environment. Instead, they can change the environment in such a way that it harms others who might be planning to use it for conflicting purposes.”

Conflict, in this sense, is essentially a dispute over the rights to use a given resource. The conflict arises when peoples’ plans regarding the use of resources differ. This requires well-defined property rights in order to determine the proper solution.

“In a setting where rights are clearly defined and strictly enforced, plans may conflict but the resolution to that conflict is embedded in the exchange process. In other words, conflict may arise at the planning stages but is resolved before the actors proceed with implementation of those plans. For example, persons A and B may have conflicting plans with respect to resource X, but if ownership to X is clearly defined as being in the hands of A, B, or a third party C, then there will not be a conflict over the actual use of X. It will be understood by A or B that before proceeding with their plan they must gain rights to X.”

In this paradigm, pollution issues take on a very different character than they do in today’s system. Ray Cordato describes a hypothetical conflict and resolution in this way:

“There is a conflict over the use of a resource. The source of that conflict is the generation of a production byproduct that crosses from property that is owned and controlled by the generator of the byproduct to property that is owned and therefore should be controlled by a nonconsenting party. The responsibility for ending the conflict lies with the polluter who should be responsible for truly internalizing the costs of the conflict generating activity. In this case, internalizing the costs of the pollution does not simply mean facing a new supply curve that has shifted to the left by the right amount. For the polluter it instead means eliminating the costs of his polluting activities to those whose property usage is being curtailed. This might be done by eliminating the emissions, confining them to his own property, or by compensating the victims of the polluting activity by an amount that fully addresses the grievance.”

Obviously, this new paradigm requires some kind of legal system. By far, the best explication of libertarian legal theory with respect to environmental issues comes from Murray Rothbard’s brilliant paper “Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution.” If you are interested in this, I suggest reading that essay in full, but I will provide the most important insights here. The most fundamental aspect of this legal system is a commitment to nonviolent interaction.

“No action should be considered illicit or illegal unless it invades, or aggresses against, the person or just property of another. Only invasive actions should be declared illegal, and combated with the full power of the law. The invasion must be concrete and physical. There are degrees of seriousness of such invasion, and hence, different proper degrees of restitution or punishment.”

Note that the key thing here is not whether or not someone is “harmed” by a given action, but rather that a physical invasion happened. In other words, I have no legal claim against you if you call me names or offend me, but I would have a claim if you, say, punched me in the face.

“Legal and political theory have committed much mischief by failing to pinpoint physical invasion as the only human action that should be illegal and that justifies the use of physical violence to combat it. The vague concept of “harm” is substituted for the precise one of physical violence…Jim is courting Susan and is just about to win her hand in marriage, when suddenly Bob appears on the scene and wins her away. Surely Bob has done great “harm” to Jim. Once a nonphysical-invasion sense of harm is adopted, almost any outlaw act might be justified. Should Jim be able to “enjoin” Bob’s very existence?”

An obvious prerequisite for determining whether a physical invasion has occurred is to establish who owns what. Rothbard’s solution is the application of Lockean homesteading principles to determine ownership, and the homesteader can establish an easement of pollution rights for the surrounding area. This is best demonstrated through an example.

“Suppose…that an airport is established with a great deal of empty land around it. The airport exudes a noise level of, say, X decibels, with the sound waves traveling over the empty land. A housing development then buys land near the airport. Some time later, the homeowners sue the airport for excessive noise interfering with the use and quiet enjoyment of the houses.

Excessive noise can be considered a form of aggression but in this case the airport has already homesteaded X decibels worth of noise. By its prior claim, the airport now “owns the right” to emit X decibels of noise in the surrounding area. In legal terms, we can then say that the airport, through homesteading, has earned an easement right to creating X decibels of noise. This homesteaded easement is an example of the ancient legal concept of “prescription,” in which a certain activity earns a prescriptive property right to the person engaging in the action.

On the other hand, if the airport starts to increase noise levels, then the homeowners could sue or enjoin the airport from its noise aggression for the extra decibels, which had not been homesteaded. Of course if a new airport is built and begins to send out noise of X decibels onto the existing surrounding homes, the airport becomes fully liable for the noise invasion.”

The next question this leads to is how much of a resource becomes owned when someone is the first user. How would this be determined?

“If A uses a certain amount of a resource, how much of that resource is to accrue to his ownership? Our answer is that he owns the technological unit of the resource. The size of that unit depends on the type of good or resource in question, and must be determined by judges, juries, or arbitrators who are expert in the particular resource or industry in question. If resource X is owned by A, then A must own enough of it so as to include necessary appurtenances. For example, in the courts’ determination of radio frequency ownership in the 1920s, the extent of ownership depended on the technological unit of the radio wave — its width on the electromagnetic spectrum so that another wave would not interfere with the signal, and its length over space. The ownership of the frequency then was determined by width, length, and location.”

In other words, there is no cut and dry answer. This is the kind of thing that needs to be determined by relevant case law and by experts. Expectations set by custom will play an important role here. For specifics regarding the establishment of a legal order under anarchy, see my earlier post on the subject. With or without government, disputes will arise and can be settled via arbitration, and pollution lawsuits (and other environmental damage issues) would be considered torts.

“Air pollution is a private nuisance generated from one person’s landed property onto another and is an invasion of the airspace appurtenant to land and, often, of the person of the landowner. Basic to libertarian theory of property rights is the concept of homesteading, in which the first occupier and user of a resource thereby makes it his property. Therefore, where a “polluter” has come first to the pollution and has preceded the landowner in emitting air pollution or excessive noise onto empty land, he has thereby homesteaded a pollution or excessive noise easement. Such an easement becomes his legitimate property right rather than that of the later, adjacent landowner. Air pollution, then, is not a tort but only the ineluctable right of the polluter if he is simply acting on a homestead easement. But where there is no easement and air pollution is evident to the senses, pollution is a tort per se because it interferes with the possession and use of another’s air. Boundary crossing — say by radio waves or low-level radiation — cannot be considered aggression because it does not interfere with the owner’s use or enjoyment of his person or property. Only if such a boundary crossing commits provable harm — according to principles of strict causality and beyond a reasonable doubt — can it be considered a tort and subject to liability and injunction.”

Rothbard summarizes the conditions necessary for a pollution-related claim to be considered a violation of property rights:

“We have established that everyone may do as he wishes provided he does not initiate an overt act of aggression against the person or property of anyone else. Anyone who initiates such aggression must be strictly liable for damages against the victim, even if the action is “reasonable” or accidental. Finally, such aggression may take the form of pollution of someone else’s air, including his owned effective airspace, injury against his person, or a nuisance interfering with his possession or use of his land.

This is the case, provided that:

  1. the polluter has not previously established a homestead easement;

  2. while visible pollutants or noxious odors are per se aggression, in the case of invisible and insensible pollutants the plaintiff must prove actual harm;

  3. the burden of proof of such aggression rests upon the plaintiff;

  4. the plaintiff must prove strict causality from the actions of the defendant to the victimization of the plaintiff;

  5. the plaintiff must prove such causality and aggression beyond a reasonable doubt; and

  6. there is no vicarious liability, but only liability for those who actually commit the deed.”


Environmental Problems and Private Property Solutions

plastic bags are beautiful

This is all actually quite simple and obvious, but is not the way pollution claims work in court today. Polluters are unfairly given legal sanction to harm others. When the law no longer considers private property rights sacrosanct, even public-spirited factory owners have a difficult time protecting the environment. By implementing expensive technologies or processes that would reduce pollution, they create a more expensive product that has a harder time competing on the market.

Consider the issue of waste management. Because the government controls waste management, for instance, it is unclear how to act in the most environmentally friendly way. As Walter Block argues in his essay “Environmental Problems, Private Property Rights Solutions”,

“We cannot calculate the economic cost to society of disposing of a non-biodegradable diaper because government has perverted market signals through its programme of ownership and management of waste disposal. Nor can we calculate the ecological cost of washing dirty cloth diapers or recycling plastic ones. Given the absence of the relevant markets, we certainly cannot compare these costs, whether financial or ecological, but no less is required to determine which of these items, cloth or disposable diapers, is the least harmful to the environment.”

Mark Pennington elaborates on and generalizes this concept.

“Suppose that an individual is altruistically motivated as a concerned citizen to reduce his water consumption to a “socially responsible” amount. In the absence of property rights and market prices for water, the individual has no way to ascertain how much to adjust his consumption to take the interests of others properly into account….even the most altruistically inclined person faced with this situation is likely to consume as much water as he personally requires because at least he knows what that amount is, whereas the “socially responsible” amount of consumption is shrouded in a fog of ignorance. Such problems will be multiplied many times over, of course, when the choice is between the vast array of production and consumption possibilities that make up an advanced economy and the complex environmental consequences of these possibilities. In short, without the information provided by market-generated relative prices, citizens will find it impossible to communicate their values to one another and to adjust their behavior accordingly.”

In order to make sound judgments regarding the use of resources, we need a market-generated price system. With the government controlling environmental policy in a centralized way, solutions to environmental problems are less likely to be found. A decentralized, dispersed system with private property rights and which provides freedom to go against the majority opinion will find solutions that a government simply cannot.

“As Michael Polanyi has shown, the spread of knowledge in markets, the arts, and academia does not proceed by collective deliberation, but rather advances best when individuals and groups have a private sphere that secures the freedom to experiment with projects that do not conform to majority opinions. Then, as a result, the prevailing wisdom changes incrementally over time. With regard to “green” consumption, for example, it is doubtful whether the massive growth in the organic food market that has occurred in recent years would ever have developed if production decisions in the agricultural sector had been subject to collectivist procedures. For years, organic food was viewed as the concern of hapless eccentrics. Precisely because private property affords minorities the space to try out experimental ideas (the merits of which may be indiscernible) rather than simply talking about them, more and more people are now able to emulate such role models as the benefits become more visible.”

The market system may be imperfect, but it provides the best opportunity to resolve those imperfections. Governments suffer from the same kinds of issues with externalities and transaction costs as markets do with respect to environmental protection, but at least the market provides clear-cut incentives to fix or reduce those problems.

“Although proponents of free-market environmentalism recognize that environmental markets have limits owing to the prevalence of transaction costs, they contend that these problems are more likely to be overcome within an institutional framework supportive of private contractual arrangements. In this perspective, all environmental externalities represent potential profit opportunities for entrepreneurs who can devise ways of defining private-property rights and arranging contracts (via technological innovations, for example) so that those currently free riding on collective goods or imposing negative external effects (for example, water pollution) on their neighbors are required to bear the full costs of their actions. A land owner, for example, may introduce fences and install entrance points to the grounds of a park in order to exclude nonpayers from the park’s aesthetic benefits. Likewise, if technologies develop in the future that enable the “fencing” of the atmosphere, then entrepreneurs will have incentives to define property rights to the air and to charge those who are currently polluting without compensating those injured by their action. In the market economy, therefore, if people are imposing costs on others or are benefiting from the provision of certain goods without payment, entrepreneurs have incentives to find ways of eliminating such involuntary transfers over time.”

Let’s consider another example, oil spills, which I briefly discussed in an earlier section on the state’s failure to protect the environment. Changing the regulatory structure (reducing subsidies for deep sea drilling, ending limited liability for oil companies, etc.) would go a long way towards reducing the risk of oil spills. Additionally, privatizing the oceans would create an incentive for owners to use their ocean property responsibly, unlike the unowned state of oceans today. Walter Block explains:

“If people owned various patches of the ocean, they would have an economic incentive to protect their holdings. For example, they might well insist that any ship passing through their property with a cargo of oil be double-hulled. Additionally, they would have more of a selfish interest not only in demanding that inebriated sailors be prohibited access to their property but in actually ensuring that this policy is enforced.”

Of course, there are some difficulties with privatizing the oceans. The technology to implement this effectively might not exist yet. But that’s the thing: until the ocean is privatized, there will be no incentive for entrepreneurs to tackle these problems. Perhaps someone can implement some sort of EZ Pass buoy system to delineate property lines and charge ships passing through.

Now, let’s talk about how pollution might be handled in an anarchist society. Stefan Molyneux has a good discussion of this problem here. In his account, there are companies (“Dispute Resolution Organizations” or DROs) that play the role of crime insurance. I heavily elaborate on the concept here.

Let’s say Sally owns land that she wants to convert into a factory, and there are a group of homeowners downwind, including Ahmed. Naturally, any concerned homeowners will purchase pollution insurance from their DRO. Ahmed takes out a policy that will pay him $2 million if a certain predefined type of and amount of pollution is found on his property.

When Sally begins preparations to build her factory, Ahmed’s DRO takes notice – if this factory is going to cause pollution, they might be on the hook for $2 million in claims! The DRO can spend some amount less than $2 million to either buy up Sally’s land and sell it to a non-polluter or get legal assurances from Sally that she will not pollute. If the DRO succeeds, great! If not, they have a $2 million budget to encourage Sally to install chemical scrubbers or other technologies that may reduce the pollution to a low enough level. Now, if this isn’t good enough to solve the issue, the DRO will pay Ahmed his $2 million, which he can use to move to a less polluted neighborhood if he so chooses. And it likely won’t just be Ahmed; we could be talking about vastly higher sums of money as hundreds or thousands of individuals get pollution insurance.

Similarly, Sally, fearing potential pollution claims against her, will need a DRO to represent her and reduce her risk. Her DRO won’t like her polluting activities, since that opens them up to significant claims payouts from pollution damages downwind. Chances are good that she won’t even be able to contract for services with a reputable DRO unless she can prove that pollution activities will be below a certain threshold. And without a DRO backing her, it is highly doubtful that she’ll be able to get the capital to build and maintain her factory anyways!

What about a situation where the pollution is more complicated?

“Imagine that Sally’s smokestacks are so high that her air pollution sails over Achmed’s house and lands on Reginald’s house, a hundred miles away. Reginald then complains to his DRO that his property is being damaged. His DRO will examine the air contents and wind currents, then trace the pollution back to its source and resolve the dispute with Sally’s DRO. If the air pollution is particularly complicated, then Reginald’s DRO will place non-volatile compounds into Sally’s smokestacks and follow them to where they land. This can be used in a situation where a number of different factories may be contributing pollutants.”

And again, as private property rights are reestablished, the incentive to develop these kinds of compounds and other solutions to problems of this nature increases.

Before moving on to a couple of the larger applications of the private property solution to environmental issues, I’d like to again contrast market solutions with that of government. Consider certain massive government (or government sponsored) projects, including the interstate highways, airports, stadiums, railways, etc. Under a regime of private property and anarchy, then each of these environmentally destructive projects would have required the consent of all landowners in order to be built, making them far less likely. But the state can simply use eminent domain to seize the land, and then subsidize its development. Can you imagine how much less pollution there would be today if the interstate highway system didn’t exist (at least not in its current form)?

Conservation And The Tragedy of The Commons

When governments attempt to solve environmental issues, the solutions are at best temporary. The government can always change its mind, and is particularly likely to do so in the face of moneyed interests. Any pro-conservation bill is liable to be overturned. What the government provides, it can also take away. Private property provides a solution to this problem.

“The environment in the United States does not stand a chance for long term preservation in its current direction. If a group of people can democratically decide what to do with the land you are trying to save, then the land is not protected. The reality is that the land “preserved” is actually just a lease from the government. The earth is “secure” until the whims of rulers find a better use than appeasing a few disgruntled environmentalist voters.

“A simple question for environmentalists using political action: “If the price of gas goes up to $5/gallon, what are you going to do in order to convince a voter making $8/hour at Wal-Mart to vote in favor of preserving caribou over drilling for oil?”

“Environmentalism is based entirely on thinking about the future of the planet. In the present, supporters do the exact opposite. Their policies are temporary patch jobs at best without consideration that the same country that voted for preservation this time can change its mind. Political action conservationists showing the benefits of their lobbying are exercising a performative contradiction. They are attempting to solve the problems of the long term by only considering the short term.”

Political realities are likely to preclude any environmental policy from being truly successful over longer time scales. But private property rights can resolve conservation related issues for the long term. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club can buy up tracts of land that they believe require some kind of protection, and then can own and administer that land forever. The Land Trust Alliance, for instance, has already been doing this. If you want land (or some endangered species on that land) protected, who would you trust more: a fickle government or a group of dedicated environmentalists?

There is a well-known issue related to land and resource conservation dubbed “the tragedy of the commons.” When a resource is collectively owned, it tends to be depleted much more quickly because there is no incentive to preserve the resource if someone else will simply take advantage of what you fail to harvest. If a forest is collectively owned, everyone has an incentive to log as quickly as possible before everyone else does the same. Quickly, the forest ends up destroyed. If the forest were privately owned, however, the owner would have every incentive to maximize the present value of his property by logging in a sustainable way, which would leave him a source of income for years to come.

Robert Smith studied this issue, and provides examples of the tragedy of the commons. Consider the wild eider, the bird that produces the most valuable down in the world.

“Iceland’s management of the wild eider as a private property resource has been a great success. The private eider farms have benefited both the property owners and the eider population. The farmers have protected the birds from overexploitation, from poachers, and from natural predators. They have also created artificial nesting sites in which the female will nest. The combined provision of protected nesting areas and artificial nesting sites has served to maintain a thriving population.

“If the eider had been treated as a common property resource, the only way the Icelanders could have captured any economic value from the resource would have been to take all they could before other users did the same. It would not have been profitable to wait for the eider to line their nests with down; someone else might have collected it first. The rational course of action for each user would have been to kill the eider and immediately appropriate all of the down. It also would not have been in anyone’s self-interest to invest in conservation programs, such as nest site construction or predator control. All of the other down collectors would have benefited from the actions of the conservationist.”

This principle seems obvious, yet in America, there are a huge number of national parks that continue to fall victim to the tragedy of the commons.

“Many of the most beautiful national parks are suffering from severe overuse and a near destruction of their recreational values, but most private parks are maintained in far better condition. The National Audubon Society does a better job of preserving its wildlife refuges and protecting wildlife than do many federal wildlife refuges. The public grazing lands have been repeatedly over-grazed, while lush private grazing lands are maintained by private ranchers. National forests are carelessly logged and overharvested, but private forests are carefully managed and cut on a sustained-yield basis, and costly nursery tree farms have been developed. In addition, the basic concept of self-interest explains why people don’t litter their own yards but do litter public parks and streets, and why people don’t dump old refrigerators and tires in their own farm ponds or swimming pools, but repeatedly dump them in the unowned streams, rivers, and swamps.” (emphasis mine)

To protect and preserve wildlife would be as easy as privatizing the land that this wildlife lives on. In some cases, environmental groups can purchase the land and leave it exactly as it is, but they can also charge fees for people to go into these parks and view the scenery. Some might do this ideologically as a form of charity, but others may protect the environment because it is good business.

One highly controversial example of conservation-based businesses would be game ranches or hunting preserves. Environmentalists don’t like them because….well, I’m not sure exactly. Something about profits being evil. Nevertheless, they work.

“Another example of how private ownership can successfully preserve wildlife is found on game ranches, hunting preserves, safari parks, and animal and bird farms…Many of the animals they stock are rapidly disappearing in their native countries because of pressures resulting from a rapidly expanding human population. Native habitats are disappearing through the encroachment of agriculture, cattle grazing, timber harvesting, and desertification arising from overexploitation of common property water resources, overgrazing of grasslands, and overutilization of brush, scrub, and trees for firewood and shelter. So serious are these problems and so insoluble under a common property system that there is little hope of saving many species of wildlife in the developing countries. Indeed, some of the more spectacular and most sought-after big-game mammals may now have healthier and more stable populations on some of the game ranches than in their native countries.

“If the profits gained by giving hunters access to exotic game can provide the economic incentive for these landowners to manage the animals on a sustained-yield basis, some species will be saved. The same holds for the profits to be derived from visitors to game parks and preserves. In fact, the protection provided at some of the parks, preserves, and gardens has actually produced a glut of some animals. There have been well-publicized efforts by some preserves to return their surplus animals to Africa, Lions from America have even been taken to Africa to appear in movies that were filmed there. While we read of zoological parks attempting to discover reversible birth control techniques in order to control their tiger populations, we continue to read about the never-ending difficulties of preserving the remaining tigers in the wild.”

In some cases, species were discovered living only on private land and have been rescued because of this. In addition, privately owned animals in captive breeding programs can reduce potential pressures on wild populations.

“The familiar budgerigar, or budgie, is commonly kept as a pet in the United States and is bred in enormous numbers by thousands of breeders. Practically the entire trade is supplied by captive-bred birds. This demonstrates another conservation aspect of extending private property rights to wildlife, as captive breeding can supply the market demand for the birds and reduce or eliminate the demand on wild populations.”

As much as limousine liberals and environmentalists bloviate about the environmental horrors of private property and their moral outrage (outrage!) that animals can be hunted for profit, the system obviously works better than anything they’ve come up with. And it’s not as though private conservation needs to be done out of a desire for profit – surely, in an anarchist society, environmental protection organizations could work together to preserve wildlife for its own sake.

“Under private property ownership, others were prevented from exploiting the resource, and there were incentives for the owners to preserve them. Furthermore, these incentives were not solely motivated by the possibility of economic gain. With the exception of game ranches, economic gain has seldom been the primary motivation behind most captive breeding projects. Many of these examples were fostered for the pleasure of owning and breeding attractive or rare wildlife, as well as for more “altruistic” reasons, such as a deep commitment to the preservation of vanishing wildlife. Private ownership includes not only hunting preserves, commercial bird breeders, parrot jungles, and safari parks, it also includes wildlife sanctuaries, Audubon Society refuges, World Wildlife Fund preserves, and a multitude of private, nonprofit conservation and preservation projects.”

But what is important here is that private conservation efforts could be done without appealing to any particular environmental values – it would just be good business. Surely, people would be willing to pay to go on a safari and watch three lions and a leopard compete over a dead impala. Commercializing trade in certain animals or animal parts (or hunting them) will lead to an increase in animal farms which will breed more and more of these endangered species. And of course, private game reserves do everything they can to stop poachers. Having rare and difficult to replace animals killed does not serve their business interests. Contrast this with national parks, where this incentive no longer exists. In fact, there is a stronger incentive for park rangers to get involved with poaching themselves for personal gain!

Consider the recent uproar over the hunting and killing of the beloved Cecil the Lion. Cecil was a huge attraction to the park he lived in, and was not supposed to be killed – it was an illegal poaching group that set up the hunt. But the outrage over this hunt has led to various airlines disallowing hunting trophies to be flown back to the US or EU, and activists working to ban or restrict hunting. This approach is completely backwards – and can be contrasted with a legitimate hunt.

“American Corey Knowlton paid $350,000 for a permit to hunt a black rhino in Namibia under the auspices of the Dallas Safari Club back in January 2014. Black rhinos are critically endangered, and Knowlton received death threats after the permit auction, but the details of his hunt are likely to win over all but the most ardent hunting opponents.

For starters, the money will go to fight poaching. (That’s right: this pay-to-play hunt will help fund efforts to prevent exactly the kind of crappy practices used by Palmer’s team) The permit from the Namibian government authorized only the killing of one of 18 elderly male black rhinos, which are actually considered a net negative for overall species survival, since they are past their breeding years but remain territorial and are therefore a threat to the younger males. Knowlton and his well-vetted team whittled that list to just four animals and were obsessively carefully about finding the right rhino to kill.”

Clearly, this type of hunt could be a huge boon to conservation efforts. A great example of private property protecting endangered species where government action failed is with the American bison. Originally, the bison lived on territory that white people had not ventured into yet, and the population of Native Americans was too small to reduce their numbers significantly. But as white people started closing in on this land, the bison was subject to the tragedy of the commons, as the property was considered unowned. The US government forced Native Americans off of this land and into “reservations”, slaughtering the bison in the process of waging scorched-earth warfare. Eventually, the government tried to save the species, did a crappy job, and private individuals had to save the bison from extinction with their “greed”.

“Although Idaho, Texas, New Mexico and other states passed laws similar to the Endangered Species Act, they often failed to do so before it was too late and the buffalo were already gone. In 1872 Yellowstone National Park was opened as a safe haven, but poaching still remained a substantial problem. Henry Yount, remembered for his time at Yellowstone as the first national park ranger, resigned after only 14 months on the job because he knew his efforts alone were hopeless.

Thankfully for the bison, Charles Goodnight, James McKay, William and Charles Alloway, as well as a host of other private ranchers began to scoop up wild buffalo throughout the 1860s and 70’s. From 1884 to 1902, the bison population in Yellowstone actually decreased from 25 to 23, but also by 1902, an estimated 700 were privately owned. This trend has continued for more than a century, as by the 1990s the ratio was 25,000 publicly-owned to 250,000 privately-owned bison.”

The principle of private property as a solution to the tragedy of the commons and environmental issues affects not just animals but other kinds of resources as well. Private ownership is why there is no shortage of trees in the American south, and yet there are tree shortages in the west, where the forests are publicly owned. Similarly, a functioning free market in water would solve the shortage that has recently plagued Californians.

Mass Collective Pollution

A slightly trickier problem is that of mass pollution. A classic example of this would be climate change, which will be addressed in the next section. More generally, I define mass pollution as the kind where an individual contributor does not have any appreciable impact on the pollution that is occurring, but there are negative externalities created by the collective pollution of each contributor. For instance, each car driver contributes a negligible amount to the smog in an urban area, but that smog still exists and has a negative effect. How can free market anarchism address this kind of issue?

Let’s start by noting that the most obvious example of this kind of pollution, that which comes from cars, is heavily subsidized by government (publicly owned/built roads, etc.). The government can reduce this kind of pollution via regulation, but markets can provide this kind of regulation in an even more responsive way, which I will demonstrate in a moment.

Legally speaking, collective pollution like this is a different problem from the torts described in other pollution cases. With mass pollution, it is impossible to prove that a specific defendant directly aggressed against a particular plaintiff. This means that a simple appeal to respecting private property does not as clearly resolve this issue.

But that doesn’t mean there are no free market solutions to the problem of mass collective pollution! Mass pollution can lead to specific real risks – risks which can be insured against. For instance, the pollution from cars may increase the risk of asthma. People can insure themselves against the risk of developing asthma, and then insurance companies will have to pay out claims when this occurs. This gives the insurers an incentive to reduce the pollution that increases their liabilities.

Let’s say that insurers that are giving policies to people in a given geographic area expect to pay out $100 million in claims for asthma cases due to pollution (they have the incentive to study issues like this and come to that conclusion). These insurance companies then collectively have an interest in reducing pollution and could spend up to $99 million on these efforts while still coming out ahead. That money can go towards research on exhaust filters, alternative energy sources, etc. They can pay local car dealerships to implement these pollution reducing technologies. They can implement technologies that reduce pollution in an area – maybe there are ways to suck the smog out of the air. And if not, there is certainly a strong incentive to develop them; insurers could invest in companies hoping to solve this problem. Where there are problems to be solved, there is money to be made.

In addition, insurers would be able to charge those directly responsible for pollution – say, car manufacturers, drivers, road owners, etc. – in order to help internalize the externality.

On top of this, there are always social pressures. Stefan Molyneux provides an example of how this could work:

“Let’s say that for some reason DROs didn’t care about the rising costs of air pollution. The first thing I would do is start a Clean Air Company, which would, for a fee, guarantee air quality in certain neighborhoods. How would I achieve this lofty end? Simple: emotional advertising and social pressure. First, I would start running ads showing kids and grandmothers keeling over from asthma. Then I would offer bright yellow “clean air” stickers to anyone who signed up for my program – and for cars which met certain low-pollution guidelines. That way, anyone in a neighborhood who didn’t sign up for my clean air program would be highly visible – all their neighbors would know, and social pressure would do the rest.”

The combination of these incentives would help an anarchist society reach an optimal level of collective pollution. Make no mistake – zero pollution is not optimal, as it would completely destroy industrial civilization. But pollution can be reduced significantly this way, because the incentives in an anarchist system would be properly aligned.


For a discussion of global warming, continue on to part 2.

Bitcoin: The Ultimate Guerrilla Guide


Bitcoin symbol


There’s a good chance you’ve heard of it by now. Maybe one of your friends has been calling it “the most revolutionary technology since the Internet.” Or “buttcoin.” Or just a fad. Or a horrible thing used to do illegal stuff.

I’d like to clarify what Bitcoin is, why people believe it is a big friggin deal, and how to get started using it.

In this post you’ll learn:

  • How Bitcoin works
  • Why Bitcoin is the coolest thing since the Internet
  • Bitcoin myths
  • How to get your first bitcoin

Before diving into the meat of this post, it will be helpful to have an understanding of what Bitcoin is and how it works.


What Is Bitcoin?

Put simply, Bitcoin is a payment system, or a means of transferring value. The technology was proposed by an individual or group of developers under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008 (read the white paper that originally described Bitcoin here), and implemented in 2009

Question: We already have payment systems – credit card processors, PayPal, the ACH system, the SWIFT system, and newcomers like Apple Pay, Venmo, and so on. Why and how is bitcoin special??

To answer this question, it helps to know how Bitcoin works. The Bitcoin protocol is a peer-to-peer network of nodes where transactions are verified by “miners” and then recorded in a distributed ledger called the “blockchain”. Yes, I know this sounds complicated, but in practice it’s simple.

As a peer to peer network, Bitcoin does not rely on a central authority to work properly. If I want to pay you with a credit card, there must be an entity that will actually process that transaction. With Bitcoin, there is no one corporation, government, bank, or server that must process it. That means there is no entity or “gatekeeper” that can cheat you or screw up when you are trying to hold or transfer value.

If there is no central authority that processes transactions on the Bitcoin network, then who or what does? This is where the miners come in. The non-technical explanation is that these miners compete with each other to solve very difficult math problems. The solution to these math problems supplies the “proof-of-work” necessary to say that a transaction has been verified. This adds a new “block” of transactions to the blockchain. For supplying this computing power, the miner is rewarded with newly created bitcoins. This is the cryptographic equivalent of mining gold or any other resource. Instead of using machines to dig into the ground, separate the resource from the useless stuff around it, and bring it to surface, bitcoin miners use machines to solve these math problems.

The blockchain is a ledger of all transactions that have ever happened on the Bitcoin network. Transaction details are stored in a block, and each block connected to the previous one in a chain that stretches back to the creation of the first bitcoin. But unlike your average ledger, the blockchain is distributed over, copied to, and maintained by thousands of nodes (instances of the software that are downloaded and running) that are operated independently. If you destroy my copy of it, the blockchain will continue to exist. If you try to change it, you will need to muster more computer power than the rest of the network, which is not easy.

Because of the way Bitcoin works, it has many unique advantages as a currency and payment system. Here are four main ones::

  • Low fees. Credit cards charge 2-3% per transaction, and remittance services like Western Union often charge 10% or more to move money around. Many Bitcoin transactions are free, and nearly all of them cost under 40 cents.
  • Irreversible transactions. Once you send bitcoin to somebody else, the transaction cannot be undone. This eliminates a lot of fraud and chargeback risks, which cost merchants almost $200 billion in 2009.
  • Limited supply. There will only ever be 21 million bitcoin, and they are being created on a set schedule known in advance. This means that the value of bitcoin compared to fiat (government created, unbacked) currencies is inclined to increase over time. It also means that you need not worry about inflation, which is endemic to fiat currencies.
  • Pseudonymity. Bitcoin is the most transparent payment system in existence. All relevant information is stored on the blockchain and can’t be tampered with, so it is easier to create more accountable systems off of it. But because it is pseudonymous, it also offers privacy benefits that legacy payment systems don’t have. If you use a credit card to pay for something, you surrender information that can easily be used to identify you (and possibly steal your identity or money). If you send bitcoin, you do not run this risk.


Why Bitcoin Technology Will Change Everything

what people think about bitcoin

Many people will compare Bitcoin to the Internet in the early 1990s. Early adopters considered the internet revolutionary, but most people didn’t have an adequate answer to that most important question: so what?

My dad recently told me that in the early days of computers the most vocal defenders of the technology predicted they would be used to store recipes and manage checkbooks. Perhaps the applications of Bitcoin may far surpass even what its proponents claim.

And as with the Internet, there is a ridiculous amount of venture capital being thrown into Bitcoin and blockchain startups. A whopping $314.7 million was invested in Bitcoin startups in 2014, which is three times more than the previous year. In 2015, we’ve already seen Coinbase rake in $75 million, and 21 Inc get $116 million (see this for a list of VC funding rounds).

This money is going towards building a maturer Bitcoin ecosystem. These companies are creating services that make Bitcoin easier to use, more secure, and more awesome. They are creating some of the applications that will enable us to do spectacular things on top of the blockchain.

Note: Not everything described in this section is happening specifically with Bitcoin, but all of this was made possible by technological advances initiated by Bitcoin.

The Underbanked and the Overbanked

Before getting into the revolutionary applications of this new technology, I’d like to give another reason why you should fully expect (and root for!) Bitcoin to keep growing.

Over half of the world’s adult population, or 2.5 billion people, do not have a bank account. These are primarily poor people in poor countries. Mobile phones, however, are far more widespread. This is how the innovative payment system, M-Pesa, has taken off in Kenya in just a couple years: it basically turns your phone into a wallet. Bitcoin should appeal to the same underbanked demographic, but is both cheaper and not dependent on a single entity that must be trusted. It also isn’t liable to the delays, fraud, and chargeback risks that M-Pesa is subject to.

While people in the third world may benefit the most from Bitcoin, millennials are another large group that seems poised to adopt and use it. According to a recent survey by Goldman Sachs, 33% of millennials don’t expect to need a bank in five years, and only half said they expect to use cash on a weekly basis by 2020. Another GS survey had 22% of millennials saying they already use bitcoin and would use it again, plus an additional 22% that hasn’t used it but intends to. There is a deep distrust of traditional banking and financial institutions, and using bitcoin lets people “be their own bank.” It is transparent, with no hidden fees, doesn’t require giving up tons of personal info, and doesn’t come with the limitations and capital controls of standard banking.

Remittances And International Payments

Probably the most obvious sector that Bitcoin is poised to disrupt is remittances, or migrant workers sending money back to people in their home country. According to the World Bank, global remittances topped $580 billion in 2014, so this is big money.

The average remittance fee paid is over 8%, and can be as high as 20%! Contrast this with the cost of sending bitcoin, which is generally somewhere between free or practically free. In fact, someone moved $150 million in bitcoin, and didn’t pay a transaction fee at all!

As a related benefit, the ease of sending money across state borders makes bitcoin ideal for charity aid work in emergencies, such as the recent earthquake in Nepal.

Identity Management and Trust

The blockchain is effectively immutable. As a result, it completely changes the dynamic of trust in society. Instead of trusting governments, corporations, and other third party entities, we can trust the mathematics that powers the blockchain. Distributed ledgers like the Bitcoin blockchain allow us to record things and know for sure that they are correct.

You can already have your identity verified on the blockchain and use it to gain access to websites, and soon enough you’ll be able to use that identity to unlock the doors of your house. You can think of this as essentially an impossible to forge key to the things you want to keep secured. Username and password combinations can be hacked or stolen, and keys can be spoofed and copied, but a blockchain ID cannot be faked.

This might not sound super exciting, but things change when you consider how many of the things we do that rely on trusting others, and how the blockchain can make that friction disappear. All the websites you log into, all the traveling you do, all the property you own, all the domain names you register or visit, all the bars you enter – all of these things could be handled instantaneously, cheaply, and with no risk of identity theft.

Honduras, a nation plagued with costly land disputes, is already beginning to experiment with managing their land registry on the Bitcoin blockchain. This could have massive ramifications for reducing corruption (officials could easily change the land registry and give themselves some prime beachfront property) and its effects on the poor by giving them recourse in land disputes.

There are all sorts of other services that the blockchain’s enhanced identity management can provide, including better medical record management for increased privacy and transparency on product supply chains.


What I find most exciting about bitcoin is that it allows for micropayments. Because bitcoin transactions involve trivial fees (and because a bitcoin is divided into 10 million units, called “Satoshis”), it is suddenly possible to transfer tiny amounts of money efficiently.

This may not sound all that impressive, but the implications are enormous. What if social networks and email systems wouldn’t accept incoming messages unless a tiny amount of bitcoin was included with it? The price would be trivial to the sender, but would deter spammers who can send a gazillion messages today for free.

Something that is already catching on is tipping. If you thought someone made a brilliant post on Reddit, you could send them $5, or $1, or a few cents’ worth of bitcoin. Or you can tip a particularly nice customer service rep, the guy who let you turn at that tough intersection, or anyone else you’d like to thank.

Micropayments could also change the way content monetization works, making it much easier for content producers to make money without relying on large advertisers. Marc Andreessen, a major figure in the Bitcoin community, writes:

One reason media businesses such as newspapers struggle to charge for content is because they need to charge either all (pay the entire subscription fee for all the content) or nothing (which then results in all those terrible banner ads everywhere on the web). All of a sudden, with Bitcoin, there is an economically viable way to charge arbitrarily small amounts of money per article, or per section, or per hour, or per video play, or per archive access, or per news alert.

This may help make the media more objective by reducing the influence of large advertisers.

Another  area where bitcoin micropayments could be revolutionary is in integrating with the Internet of Things, or the trend where all sorts of electronics and appliances are being connected to the Internet. What if you could use a smart meter that gave you real-time access to the sensor that measures energy usage and allowed you to only pay for exactly what you use? What if you could connect to a Wi-Fi network for just the few minutes you need and pay for that miniscule amount?

Startup 21 Inc is working on making that a reality. They have developed a bitcoin mining chip that can be included in most devices, which will turn spare power from wall sockets into bitcoin, which can then be spent on things like extra bandwidth and ad-free access to things.

Smart Contracts

Things start getting really wild once you consider the ramifications of smart contracts: programmable contracts that automatically execute when their conditions are met. In other words, smart contracts are like any other computer program – except that they can interact with real-world assets.

How might this look? Let me borrow an example from Jay Cassano’s great article on smart contracts:

Imagine if allocating your assets after your death was as simple as moving an adjustable slider that determines who gets how much…once the smart contract can verify the triggering condition—in this case, your death—the contract goes into effect and your assets are divvied up.

When combined with the Internet of Things, smart contracts look even more interesting.

Let’s say all the locks are Internet-enabled and they’ve all got network connections. When you make a bitcoin transaction for the rent, the smart contract you and I agreed to automatically unlocks the house for you. You just go in using keys stored on your smartphone.

In this way, smart contracts could help poor people get better access to legal services. For those who cannot afford lawyers, smart contracts could be a great boon.

There are an infinite number of applications for this. Almost anything where a lawyer or accountant would be necessary can be done automatically on the blockchain.

Smart contracts can also allow you to “be your own Kickstarter” and run a decentralized crowdfunding campaign. Backers can send their bitcoin into escrow, and they will be released to you when you hit your goal, or returned if you do not. This practically nullifies the idea of public goods – goods where nonpayers cannot be excluded from its benefits – via technology!

Finally, the blockchain allows for decentralized governance and voting. This could allow for provably fair democratic elections (political or otherwise). Different rules could be written in a fully transparent way (certain people get a higher stake, for instance), and the result of the election can be automatically enforced via smart contract.

Polling and surveys can easily be done and the data won’t get fudged. Corporate governance can be done transparently (shareholders electing the board of directors, for instance). Stakeholders in any given decision can vote on how to proceed, with the decision executing automatically with no funny business. An example of this is the Dash cryptocurrency, where large stakeholders get to vote on what new features should be developed, and funding is automatically released to the developers to work on them.

The political, social, and economic ramifications are enormous.

The Libertarian/Political Angle

There is a perception that bitcoin is a toy for white male libertarians. There are strong reasons why a libertarian would support bitcoin, but some on the left also favor bitcoin for its political implications.

Before diving into how bitcoin may radically alter political relations, I’d like to emphasize that there is nothing inherently political about bitcoin.

Nevertheless, bitcoin is a cypherpunk or crypto-anarchist’s wet dream. It has the potential to disrupt modern power structures in ways that are difficult for most to even comprehend.

The most obvious thing Bitcoin does is take power away from the elite central bankers by returning control of the money supply to the people. The Federal Reserve and other central banks have monopoly powers that grant them the privilege of debasing currencies at will, which is done to promote warfare and militarism, leading to inflation. Bitcoin can destroy this most important lever of control.

Similarly, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are resistant to capital controls, a feature that has been giving bitcoin some attention recently because of events in Greece, where the government is defaulting on its loans. The Greek government’s heavy-handed response included closing the banks for several weeks, making it illegal to move money out of the country, and imposing a 60 euro daily limit on ATM withdrawals. Bitcoin makes it harder for law enforcement and the tax man to steal people’s money, prevent transactions (think Silk Road), or apply sanctions against other states or individuals.

It also creates new and immutable ways of preventing censorship. Decentralized, peer-to-peer communication technologies are already being built on the blockchain. For instance, there is Twister, which is basically Twitter – except that third parties can’t access the data, you can communicate in a private and encrypted way, and it cannot be shut down by governments or other malicious actors. A similar project worth following is Synereo, which provides vastly more privacy than Facebook. These are just two of several applications making communication “NSA-proof”. Bitcoin may even enable efficient “homomorphic encryption,” which would let people share data on the cloud without it ever being unencrypted and vulnerable.

The blockchain can benefit free speech in other ways; it can be used to create a historical record that cannot be manipulated by the powers that be. And it can be used to fund dissident organizations – it was bitcoin donations that kept WikiLeaks alive when all other payment processors boycotted them.

By now, it should be obvious that Bitcoin is an incredible boon for women, minorities, the poor, and the persecuted, and yet it is still popular to view bitcoin as a plaything for white patriarchy. This view is dangerously misguided. Bitcoin has yet to catch on with much of the black community, but it would help marginalized African-Americans secure easier access to loans, microloans, and financial services in general, allowing black neighborhoods to better support themselves. Bitcoin has already empowered tens of thousands of women in the developing world, where women are often excluded from the financial system entirely. And soon enough, smart contracts will improve legal access for those who wouldn’t normally have much recourse to the justice system. Without central control, everyone has equal access, so people won’t be able to be excluded due to racism, sexism, ageism, or any other –ism.

The best part is that this process is nearly unstoppable. Soon there will be trusted, decentralized cryptocurrency exchanges built on the blockchain, which will make it impossible to prevent people from buying into bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. A small example of this already exists with Multigateway.

Banning Bitcoin

There will also be decentralized markets, where individuals can meet in a secure, peer-to-peer environment to buy and sell whatever they wish – and unlike the Silk Road, the infamous online drug market taken down by the FBI in 2013, a decentralized market can’t be shut down. Well known projects in this space include OpenBazaar and the NXT FreeMarket, but there are several others.

Once decentralized exchanges and markets begin to take off, it will be literally impossible to stop the spread of crypto-anarchy short of a nuclear war or worldwide EMP blast.

As these technologies expand, it will become increasingly obvious to a growing segment of the population that there is no need for governments or traditional nation-states; society can be organized in a more voluntary, peaceful manner. In my opinion, this could lead to a rapid decline in the state as an institution, leaving behind a decentralized, voluntaryist world. As Nozomi Hayase wrote:

Bitcoin is the world’s first stateless currency that transcends borders in a similar way as the Internet. Its unmediated flow delivers more power to the periphery. As a result it could dissolve the hegemony of U.S. empire and end the monarchy of the petrodollar that controls flows of oil, finance and global geopolitics. This could potentially shrink the wealth gap between the Global South and the North. For the first time in history, humanity has the option to really heal the wound of long history of brutal colonization; to end major wars, transform poverty and inequality and move toward a more humane world. Humanity has a chance to embark on a new path, where technology of Western society is used to serve for the wisdom of indigenous cultures and together create a new civilization.


Doesn’t Bitcoin Get Hacked All The Time?

A common concern when dealing with bitcoin is that of security. If I had a Satoshi for every time I’ve heard that “Bitcoin has been hacked!!!1!1!” I would probably have a bit by now (sorry, bitcoin humor).

This is understandable, given the high-profile thefts from places like Mt. Gox and Bitstamp. But what is important is that these are third party services that have been hacked, NOT Bitcoin itself. In fact, in the six years that Bitcoin has existed, it has never been hacked. For anyone who works with software at all, this is ridiculously impressive. With each passing day, it becomes less and less likely that there is some “fatal flaw” in the Bitcoin protocol. By comparison, at least 527 banks have failed since 2008.

And when exchanges and other services become more decentralized, much of the issue of security becomes moot – without a centralized exchange, there is no target for hackers.

That said,, there are potential weaknesses in the Bitcoin protocol. Most are not serious, but one in particular, the 51% attack, deserves mention. If an attacker controls the majority of the network’s computing power, he will gain the ability to potentially double-spend transactions and deny other transactions from being confirmed by the network. While technically possible, this attack is highly unlikely, and does not give the attacker that much power. It would be a bad thing, but it is not an existential threat to Bitcoin.

Another empty critique of note is that, Bitcoin is bad for the environment and unsustainable. On the contrary, emissions from Bitcoin network are a miniscule fraction of current payment systems.

And finally, there are hundreds of other cryptocurrencies (“altcoins”) that work in different ways or rely on different codebases to Bitcoin. If there does happen to be some kind of “fatal flaw” with Bitcoin, one or many of these altcoins could be used instead.

In a nutshell: cryptocurrency is secure and here to stay.

Securing Your Bitcoin: Best Practices

All Bitcoin users should be conscious of how to keep their own bitcoin secure. If your bitcoin are stolen, I don’t think you’ll feel any better knowing that it was due to your ignorance rather than the Bitcoin protocol itself.

The bitcoin you own is stored in what is called a wallet, and is defined by a secret number called the private key. Whoever controls this key controls your bitcoin. The aim of securing your bitcoin is to make it as difficult as possible for a malicious actor to access to this private key.

There are different wallets you can have, each with unique security ramifications. In a moment, I will recommend an online wallet, but the bulk of your bitcoin should be stored offline. Numerous exchanges have been hacked, so leaving your bitcoin there is risky. Online wallets are convenient, but leave the control of your private key in a third party’s hands – that means a hacker, malicious employee, or government subpoena could get access to it. If you use an online wallet, make sure you use a strong password (ideally 20+ randomly generated characters) and 2-factor authentication.

For privacy and security, you’ll also want a local wallet on your phone or computer. If they are stolen, your house burns down, or your hard drive crashes, you’ll want to have backups of your local wallets. Have extra backups on USB keys, CDs, or hard drives. You should encrypt your wallet with a strong passphrase, and keep all your software up to date.

Here are a few more ways to keep your bitcoin secure:

  • Keep your coins in cold storage. You can keep your “savings account” that you don’t plan to use offline, away from the malware and hackers of the Internet. See guides on how to do this here and here.
  • Hardware wallets will cost you some money ($30-$200), but they turn your wallets into bitcoin fortresses. Malware can’t be installed on them, and some have their own keypads for you to enter your passphrases in case there are keyloggers or screen reading malware on your computer.
  • A “brainwallet” essentially lets you secure your bitcoin in your mind. You have to memorize a (strong!) passphrase, and this passphrase can generate your public and private keys via strong cryptographic protocols. Use a method such as Diceware to create your passphrase – DO NOT come up with it yourself. Seriously, I can’t emphasize this enough: if you create your passphrase yourself, it will be terrible, and your bitcoin WILL be stolen. If you set up your brainwallet properly, the only attack vector that could succeed is if someone put a gun to your head and forced you to reveal the passphrase. To counter this, create a decoy brainwallet with a smaller bitcoin balance that you are willing to give up in this situation. Instructions on how to create a brainwallet are here. This method is only recommended for advanced users.
  • A paper wallet stores bitcoin offline as a physical document, safe from hackers. It’s like a brainwallet, but instead of protecting a passphrase, you protect a document. Here are instructions on how to create a secure a paper wallet, and this page contains more paper wallet security tips and offers a way to do so.
  • Multi-signature transactions are a more “advanced” security feature. These can require more than one person to sign off on a transaction before it begins. For instance, you could specify that both the husband and wife must sign off on the transaction, but neither party can disburse funds individually. A little more technical info on multi-signature can be found in this article.


Bitcoin and Anonymity

Bitcoin is NOT anonymous. It is pseudonymous – the activity of a particular Bitcoin address can be tracked precisely on the blockchain, but finding the real identity corresponding to that address is complex but can be done fairly easily if you know how.

For general identity protection, I strongly suggest you use a different bitcoin address for every transaction (your wallet should let you do this). In addition, it’s a good idea to use different wallets for different purposes. You can have a more anonymous wallet to hide from your soon-to-be-ex-wife’s divorce lawyer, and then a less anonymous one for everyday transactions.

If you want to anonymize some bitcoin, you can use a service called a “mixer” which will hold deposits from you and others, and then send you different coins than the ones you put in. It’s basically cryptographic money laundering. Even better, by avoiding exchanges and using certain other services, you can acquire bitcoin anonymously in the first place, usually for a premium. If you really want to remain anonymous while using bitcoin, read through this guide.


Getting Started With Bitcoin

There are so many ways to get started with Bitcoin, and I think this leads to “analysis paralysis” for potential new bitcoiners. There are dozens of different wallets out there with different features, and numerous exchanges off of which you can buy bitcoin.

It is worth your time to educate yourself on these matters. My recommendation is to get started using the easiest method possible, and then begin incorporating other wallets, exchanges, and even other cryptocurrencies into your portfolio. The quickest way to get bitcoin securely is via a web wallet, such as Coinbase.

(Disclaimer: I am a former Coinbase employee.)

You should think of your Coinbase account as your “on ramp” to the Bitcoin universe. You can use them both as a wallet (send, receive, and store bitcoin) as well as an exchange (buy and sell bitcoin). Here’s how:

  1. To get started, go here. As of the date of publication of this post, Coinbase is running a referral program such that if you sign up for an account from the link I provided and then convert $100 into bitcoin, we each receive a $10 bonus in bitcoin.
  2. You will need to verify an email address, a phone number, and link a bank account before you can buy or sell bitcoin. If you have difficulty verifying your bank account, check out this guide.
  3. Once your bank account is verified, you’ll be able to place your first purchase at this page. It normally takes 4 business days for the buy order to complete, but you can verify a credit card to enable instant purchases.

If you have any troubles with this process, check the support page to see if your question has been answered.

It really is that simple to get started. At this point, you should start exploring the more “advanced” things you can do. For instance, if you are particularly security conscious, Coinbase offers a multisig vault so that you don’t need to trust anyone else to control your bitcoin. If Coinbase is ever offline or goes out of business, you can use this open-source tool to recover your bitcoin from the multisig vault. In addition, ALL users should have 2-factor authentication enabled to secure their account further.

I’ve focused on Coinbase, but there are plenty of other wallet providers and exchange services. You should learn about these alternatives as well, and ultimately split your bitcoin balance up into multiple wallets. I suggest reading this guide for more basic information on getting started with Bitcoin, and has many trusted resources.

Not sure what to do with your new bitcoin? Go create an account with Purse, and then get 20% discounts on anything you buy off of Amazon when you use bitcoin. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars this way.


Where Can You Learn More?

The world of Bitcoin is massive and growing. Although this post was long, it was only just an introduction.

If this article has intrigued you, I recommend you do some research on your own. Besides the mountains of information on the Internet, there are a few books I would recommend for learning more:

Given the likelihood of Bitcoin radically changing the world as we know it, you would be doing yourself a favor by educating yourself about it and by getting involved.

How Anarchy Works: Security Without The State

Anarcho-capitalist flag

“It is all the more curious, incidentally, that while laissez-faireists should by the logic of their position, be ardent believers in a single, unified world government, so that no one will live in a state of “anarchy” in relation to anyone else, they almost never are. And once one concedes that a single world government is not necessary, then where does one logically stop at the permissibility of separate states? If Canada and the United States can be separate nations without being denounced as being in a state of impermissible “anarchy,” why may not the South secede from the United States? New York State from the Union? New York City from the state? Why may not Manhattan secede? Each neighborhood? Each block? Each house? Each person? But, of course, if each person may secede from government, we have virtually arrived at the purely free society, where defense is supplied along with all other services by the free market and where the invasive State has ceased to exist.” – Murray Rothbard, Power and Market

Whenever someone is exposed to the ideas of market anarchy, their first thought is “but what about the roads?” Soon after this, more interesting questions arise, mostly relating to security issues. How would the law work? How would an anarchist society repel armed invaders? Who stops the bad guys? What’s to stop a powerful gang from looting everyone else (as though that isn’t precisely the situation we have with governments)? And so on.

Unfortunately, there is no way to answer these questions in a way that would completely satisfy the skeptic. Society is composed of humans, which implies a degree of uncertainty. This is unavoidable, whether we are discussing how anarchy works or how democratic government works. People feel comfortable with the system they know, so to most people, government “works.” But many innocent people go to jail (or are executed), many crimes go unpunished, and for every “winner” of a war, there is at least one loser. If you are a skeptic, I understand – nearly all of us crazy anarchists were once statists too.

This post is intended to be a comprehensive resource (for libertarians and skeptics alike) on some of the basic questions of how security might work in an anarchist society. The key word here is “might”; anarchist (and quasi-anarchist) societies have existed, and they have handled security issues in different ways. As such, nothing here is guaranteed.

But guarantees aren’t the point. Rather, I want the reader to come away with the understanding that security issues can be handled adequately under anarchy. Furthermore, it is highly likely that security would be considerably better under anarchy than under any statist conditions.


Human Nature – Are Anarchists Too Optimistic?

A common complaint levied against anarchists is that we must believe that humans are inherently good; how else would we trust everyone to behave under anarchy? I can understand the appeal of this objection on the surface. The state is the primary institution that supposedly fights crime, so without the state, criminals will run rampant and take advantage of those with a heightened sense of morality.

But upon closer examination, this objection doesn’t hold up. First of all, the state is not the only institution that aims to prevent crime or immorality. Consider, for instance, private security companies. There are neighborhood watch groups. There are companies that sell home defense systems. There are guns, locks, and guard dogs. In other words, there are already plenty of market mechanisms in place to prevent bad behavior. I will go into much more detail later on, but for now, the point is that the state is not the only thing that gets in the way of bad people doing nefarious things.

On a more theoretical level, the objection breaks down even further. Let me quote Stefan Molyneaux:

“The first and most obvious problem with this position is that if evil people exist in society, they will also exist within the State and be far more dangerous thereby. Citizens are able to protect themselves against evil individuals, but stand no chance against an aggressive State armed to the teeth with police and military might. Thus the argument that we need the State because evil people exist is false. If evil people exist, the State must be dismantled, since evil people will be drawn to use its power for their own ends and, unlike private thugs, evil people in government have the police and military to inflict their whims on a helpless (and usually disarmed!) population.”

In other words, the existence of immoral individuals provides a stronger argument against the state than against anarchy. One could make the argument that a state can provide checks and balances to prevent these kinds of abuses of power, but taking a quick look around at the world (and perhaps reading the next section) should make it obvious that this is no solution at all.

A more rational system can evolve to handle the evildoers without any change in human nature.


How Do States Fare In Defense/Justice?

Status quo bias causes people to support the current system. But it doesn’t take much analysis to conclude that the current system is horribly broken.

States And “National Defense”

People often wonder how a stateless society could defend itself. But realistically, how effective are states at protecting their citizens from foreign governments? To anyone who is honest about the facts, the answer is “not very.”

Any system of collective defense can only be considered good or successful if it is used primarily defensively (not for aggressive purposes or invasions), is applied consistently and effectively, and is done for a reasonable cost. State-based national defense fails on each of these grounds.

States have a natural tendency towards aggressive war, certainly as compared to organizations that exist under anarchy. States acquire their funding via taxation (aka theft), so those who make the decisions regarding war and peace are NOT the same people who are paying for it. In economic terms, the costs of aggression have been externalized – which implies a strong tendency towards aggressive war. Companies operating under freed markets do not have this issue – if a private company wants to invade another country, they need to pay the costs of this themselves (note that this is true with freed markets, but not the current “crony-capitalist” system we live under today). In addition, wars tend to help politicians accumulate power and silence critics, providing a built-in incentive to create enemies.

Some Americans may respond that their government isn’t aggressive. Given the propaganda we are constantly subject to, it is understandable that some people might think this. Allow me to quote myself from a recent article about the evils of war:

“In fact, most Americans are likely unaware of how militarily aggressive their government truly is. Since America’s founding, there have been hundreds of instances of military use in foreign lands. There are only a handful of years throughout American history where America has not been at war abroad.

In addition, William Blum counts at least 55 instances since World War 2 where the United States has attempted to overthrow a foreign government (often a democratically elected one), many times successfully.”

This aggressive foreign policy is also inconsistent. Why else would the US government be vociferously backing neo-Nazis in Ukraine? Or arming al-Qaeda terrorists in Syria, Libya, and across the globe? States can do these things, but the incentives to behave in such ridiculous ways simply does not exist under anarchy.

And this destructive behavior doesn’t come cheaply, either. The Pentagon has spent $8.5 trillion since 1996, but nobody has a clue what this money has been spent on. They’ve illegally avoided an audit for that entire time, at least in part because they’ve been cooking the books and due to repeated boondoggles:

“In one example, the DLA had stockpiled 15,000 Humvee front suspensions as of 2008, which is the equivalent of a 14-year supply. Yet somehow between 2010-2012, defying both logic and prudence entirely, the agency purchased 7,437 more of those same parts—at significantly higher cost than those already gathering dust on warehouse shelves—at a time when demand had been cut in half.

As of September 2012, the DLA and military had already ordered $733 million in duplicates of existing supernumerary supplies, which was a 21% increase from the $609 million it spent on the same asinine duplication the previous year. All this stuff makes a comprehensive inventory impossible, and a worker in the DLA’s largest warehouse explained there is no system for verifying that items are stored correctly or even to track or estimate how much is lost to employee theft.”

The Department of Defense’s budget in 2014 was $581 billion, more than the next ten military spenders combined, and a full one-third of the amount spent on defense worldwide. And many war hawks claim that “budget cuts” are gutting the military, which is simply absurd.

The reality is that in a state-based system of “defense,” the citizens will always lose. The only things being defended under the current monopoly-defense system are politicians lustful for power and the war profiteers.

States And “Justice”

It would be a cruel joke to claim that the justice system in America “works.”

Unfortunately, it would be impossible for me to document here all the ways in which justice is sorely lacking under our current system, so I will have to be satisfied with merely painting a brief picture of the issues. To anyone who has been paying any attention at all, this section should be unnecessary. Nevertheless, many of the same people who point out the flaws of our current justice system object to anarchy because they think justice will be distributed “unfairly.”

Naturally, any decent and functioning justice system should catch as many bad guys as possible, while leaving the innocent spared. But in America, 86% of those in the Federal prison population are incarcerated for victimless crimes. These millions of individuals are victims themselves, not criminals, and so the justice system is clearly a failure so long as victimless crimes are being prosecuted. Here are some more statistics from that article (emphasis in original):

“In 2008, according to the Department of Justice, there were 7,308,200 persons in the US corrections system, of whom 4,270,917 were on probation, 828,169 were on parole, 785,556 were in jails, and 1,518,559 were in state and federal prisons.  This means that the U.S. alone is responsible for holding roughly 15% of all the prisoners in the world.

In other words, 1 in 42 Americans is under correctional supervision.  This constitutes over 2% of the entire U.S. population.  That percentage jumps up drastically if we limit the comparison to working aged adult males, of which there are around 100 million.  Over 5% of the adult male population is under some form of correctional supervision, alternatively stated, 1 in 20 adult males are under correctional supervision in the U.S.”

No reasonable person can believe that a full 5% of the adult male population of the US are violent criminals or deserve to be under correctional supervision.

But even ignoring victimless crimes (and the actual violent crimes that the government commits by prosecuting them), there are many innocent people currently locked up. According to the Innocence Project, between 2.3% and 5% of the prison population is innocent (or up to 100,000 individuals). Many of these people are executed, and many more will be. And according to some of the boobs in the Supreme Court, innocence is not a sufficient precondition for being exonerated!

This should be terrifying to everyone, particularly in light of the many ways that the justice system is stacked against the defendant. For instance, the FBI recently was forced to admit that all their forensic experts falsified hair evidence in every trial for over 20 years for the benefit of prosecutors. This led to 32 individuals being sentenced to death, 14 of whom have already been executed. In fact, many state crime labs are incentivized to produce results that would lead to a guilty verdict – an absolute perversion of justice. There are many reasons why the justice system is heavily stacked in favor of prosecutors, and malicious prosecutors are almost never held accountable (prosecutors win 95% of cases, 90% of those without ever going to trial).

And what about the police? Turns out they like to abuse their power too, from faking 911 calls in order to conduct illegal warrantless searches on homes to disappearing individuals and then torturing them into making false confessions at illegal black sites. The law has provided these same police with “qualified immunity” – in effect, a license to kill. And they’ve taken advantage of it, slaughtering literally thousands of individuals without consequence; only 54 police officers have been charged since 2005, most of whom were cleared or acquitted.

And police aren’t even required to help civilians, a fact they take full advantage of. For instance, Seattle police have been allowing car break-ins to occur, even when a citizen found the culprit himself. And as we saw in Ferguson, Baltimore, and surely soon to be more locations, the police aggressively work against peaceful protesters while letting violent rioters go unmolested as they destroy innocent peoples’ property. Hell, police dogs have a higher status than civilians in America.

So, how much has this top-notch protection been costing Americans? That depends on whether you count civil asset forfeiture, the practice by which cops and prosecutors can legally seize a person’s assets without even being charged with a crime. Apparently, your cash and your car are guilty of dealing drugs, even when you aren’t. According to the Institute for Justice, these state-sanctioned armed robberies are costing Americans hundreds of millions of dollars per year, and 80 percent of those who are victimized aren’t even charged with a crime. Some of this money is going towards paying off police officers’ student loans, and buying others drugs and prostitutes. And naturally, this creates a strong incentive for police departments to go after innocent drug users rather than legitimate criminals.

But what if you don’t count these highway robberies, but only the normal costs of policing and “justice”? The states and the Federal government spent $80 billion on incarceration in 2010, and it costs $30,000 per year to house an inmate. As a point of comparison, the median household income in 2013 was just $52,250.

If we are comparing the existing system to a possible anarchist system, the bar is being set quite low. As skeptical as you may be about justice under anarchy, it really doesn’t need to do much to improve upon the current system.


Transitioning To A Stateless Society

When it comes to discussions regarding how security will be provided in a stateless society, a highly relevant but often overlooked factor is how exactly anarchy comes about. This has serious implications for the feasibility of the new system.

Most of those who are not anarchists are stuck in a mental framework of living in a world dominated by states, and this makes stateless security seem far-fetched. As with most of the other reasons why people are skeptical of anarchy, this is completely understandable.

But if anarchy is to come about, an ideological and cultural change will most likely be necessary. While there may be some that I’m unfamiliar with, I know of no anarchist who would claim otherwise. A critical mass of anarchists would need to exist – in this writer’s opinion, that would be somewhere between 1% and 5% of the population of a given area. And a large segment of the population will need to stop looking to the state to solve all their problems, even if they are not anarchists per se.

When a statist imagines an anarchic system, they are usually imagining what would happen if, right now, the state simply evaporated. Of course, this is nonsensical. People are still clamoring for political rulers, so if a particular government collapsed, the state as an institution would continue to exist. If anarchy is to occur, it is likely to be a more gradual development, developing over months or years as opposed to days. Technological advances will continue to make the state more and more obviously superfluous, so that ultimately it will just wither away. Institutions will arise parallel to the state, not just after the state ends.

I will not argue here for why I am optimistic that anarchy will ultimately win out. But our discussion of how anarchy could work is not predicated on any kind of optimism. One can think that the likelihood of anarchy ultimately winning out in human society is highly improbable yet still understand that if it did arise, it would work. This is crucial – no matter how implausible you may think it is that anarchy will actually become the way of the world, it has no bearing on any of the arguments presented in this article.

Ideology and culture are important factors in the ultimate success of a stateless society. And anarchists realize that for statelessness to be successful, anarchist ideals will need to become more prevalent. Statists will reason that if anarchy were truly a superior system, then it would already exist (in a certain sense, it already does exist, in that there is still political anarchy, but I digress). But this ignores the role of ideology – and the numerous historical cases of anarchy or quasi-anarchy that have existed, which will be discussed later.

The Will To Be Free

How exactly does ideology fit into the picture? The most obvious way is that anarchists will refuse to support individuals that comprise potential ruling classes that desire to form a new state. In other words, there will be far more individuals who are not clamoring to invite a new ruling class into power and surrender their rights. States can never maintain their power through brute force alone; to a large extent, the subjects themselves will need to accept the state’s legitimacy for it to be able to rule.

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel summarizes well the argument I’ve provided thus far:

“The territory constituting the United States is in a very real sense already conquered—by the United States government. Only when Americans have liberated themselves from that conqueror will they have effectively denationalized defense. In other words, the policy question—Can private alternatives provide more effective protection from foreign aggressors?—and the strategic question—Can any people mobilize the ideological muscle to smash the state?—are intimately intertwined.

…although it makes good sense to try to imagine what society would look like if minimum wages were repealed without any other change, it makes far less sense to imagine what society would look like if government were abolished—and especially to ask how such a stateless society might protect itself—without any other change. By the very act of overthrowing the domestic government, whether peacefully or forcibly, the former subjects will have forged powerful tools for protecting themselves from foreign governments. The same social consensus, the same institutions, and the same ideological imperatives that had gained them liberation from their own state would be automatically in place to defend against any other states that tried to fill the vacuum.”

Consider that military conquerors routinely use existing local government structures in order to maintain control of the subject population. These structures are already viewed as legitimate, unlike the far-away conquerors. Hummel writes:

“The effective dominance of would-be conquerors who possess military superiority but face the implacable hostility of an ideologically united population is more problematic. The English hold on Ireland was, owing to this factor, always tenuous, and one can find similar instances into the modern era. Cultural coherence is another advantage that hunter gatherers and primitive agriculturists sometimes possessed in their struggles with more centralized societies. Contrast Spain’s fairly rapid conquest of the Indians of Central and South America, already habituated to indigenous state rule, with the much more drawn out European campaigns against the North American Indians, who were slowly expropriated, expelled, and exterminated over several centuries but never really fully subjugated until the twentieth.”

In other words, a people who have an ideological appreciation for statelessness are going to be far more difficult for an existing state to subdue than is common in more modern warfare (consider how quickly the Nazis took over and subdued multiple European countries).

Hummel mentions another advantage that stateless societies would possess while defending themselves:

“Posing no threat of conquest themselves, they could tap into the sympathies of a foreign ruler’s subjects better than any other opponent such rulers might take on. Would-be conquerors could find their own legitimization seriously compromised. Just as the American Revolution sent forth sparks that helped to ignite revolutionary conflagrations in many other countries, a vibrant economy free from all government would arouse such admiration and emulation that it would surely tend to expand. In short, a future stateless society would have the best prospects of enjoying beneficial ideological dynamics, both internally and externally.”

To sum up, any feasible stateless society would be far more difficult to conquer than what people imagine today.


Anarchy – An Unknown Ideal?

Before diving into the mechanics of how an anarchic society can provide security and legal order, I want to emphasize the fact that anarchistic and quasi-anarchistic societies have in fact existed and thrived. If you think that without government, it would be impossible to settle interpersonal disputes and survive in a world of states, consider the many historical instances to the contrary.

Statelessness seems to have been a feature of many primitive societies, where

“…the costs of violence and the benefits of order in primitive societies were enough to induce the establishment of recognized rules of conduct with emphasis on individual rights and private property-that is, the type of laws necessary for maintenance of a free market system in more complex societies. Furthermore, voluntary participatory mechanisms to enforce those rules, to adjudicate disputes, and…to allow for further legal growth, also developed.”

Furthermore, according to a scholar of primitive societies, E. Adamson Hoebel:

“The community group, although it may be ethnologically a segment of a tribe is autonomous and independent. There is no tribal state. Leadership resides in family or local group headmen who have little coercive authority and are hence lacking both means to exploit and the means to judge…They are not explicitly elected to office; rather, they lead by the tacit consent of their followers, and they lose their leadership when their people begin no longer to accept their suggestions. . . . As it is, their leadership is confined to action in routine matters. The patriarchal tyrant of the primitive horde is nothing but a figment of nineteenth century speculation. The simplest primitive societies are democratic to the point of near-anarchy. But primitive anarchy does not mean disorder. Anarchv as synonymous with disorder occurs only temporarily in complex societies when in a social cataclysm the regulating restraints of government and law are suddenly and disastrously removed.’”

None of the following cases are a perfect description of what I would consider a modern-day anarchy to be. Most are fairly old, and it can be difficult to extrapolate legal insights from societies that existed hundreds of years ago. My intent in this section isn’t to say “look at these successful anarchist societies that we should emulate,” but rather that other societies have dealt with the problems of security without resorting to the state, so it should be plausible that contemporary or future societies can as well.

Anarchy In America

The continent of North America has seen a number of historical instances of anarchic legal institutions, where justice is provided without government.

Many of the Native American tribes in North America relied on a customary legal system rather than law defined by states. Notable examples are the Yurok and Comanche tribes, whose legal systems were described by Bruce Benson:

“Few Indian groups had any sort of strong central legal authority before Europeans began to exert various types of influence on the evolution of Indian law. This does not mean that there was no law, however. Evolving unwritten social contracts among Indian groups had produced well-developed legal systems based on customary rules of conduct which emphasized individual rights and private property. Adjudication procedures were in place to solve disputes without violence. No state-like centralized authority applied sanctions, but sanctions were applied, primarily in the form of economic restitution. These sanctions were enforceable because of reciprocal arrangements between individuals for recognition of law, support of judgments, and community wide ostracism.

These features [of Native American legal systems] are: (1) rules of conduct which emphasized a predominant concern for individual rights and private property; (2) the responsibility of law enforcement falling to the victim backed by reciprocal arrangements for protection and support when a dispute arose; (3) standard adjudicative procedures established in order to avoid violent forms of dispute resolution; (4) offenses treated as torts punishable by economic payments in restitution; (5) strong incentives to yield to prescribed punishment when guilty of an offense due to the reciprocally established threat of social ostracism which led to physical retribution; and (6) legal change arising through an evolutionary process of developing customs and norms.”

The colony of Pennsylvania had a brief stint of anarchy between 1684 and 1688. During this period, there was technically a government; it just never did anything. The governing council didn’t meet and taxes weren’t collected. Murray Rothbard explains:

“If for most of 1684-88 there was no colonywide government in existence, what of the local officials? Were they not around to provide that evidence of the state’s continued existence, which so many people through the ages have deemed vital to man’s very survival? The answer is no. The lower courts met only a few days a year, and the county officials were, again, private citizens who devoted very little time to upholding the law. No, the reality must be faced that the new, but rather large, colony of Pennsylvania lived for the greater part of four years in a de facto condition of individual anarchism, and seemed none the worse for the experience. Furthermore, the Assembly passed no laws after 1686, as it was involved in a continual wrangle over attempts to increase its powers and to amend, rather than just reject, legislation.”

Another example of a legal order arising without a central government is that of the so-called “wild, wild West,” which was nowhere near as chaotic as popular culture makes it out to be. Terry Anderson and PJ Hill studied this period and concluded:

“The West during this time often is perceived as a place of great chaos, with little respect for property or life. Our research indicates that this was not the case; property rights were protected and civil order prevailed. Private agencies provided the necessary basis for an orderly society in which property was protected and conflicts were resolved. These agencies often did not qualify as governments because they did not have a legal monopoly on “keeping order.” They soon discovered that “warfare” was a costly way of resolving disputes and lower cost methods of settlement (arbitration, courts, etc.) resulted.”

Numerous kinds of organizations arose to deal with disputes among individuals. Land clubs allowed property rights to be established in areas that the federal government had yet to survey; cattlemen’s associations enforced property rights in areas with large amounts of cattle but lacking in government police; mining camps helped establish the rules for adjudicating mining claims without lawyers; and wagon trains provided means of enforcement for those who were traveling West and had left the federal government’s jurisdiction.

These associations were all voluntary, allowed a variety of legal systems to flourish in parallel to each other, and resolved disputes in ways that minimized the risk of violence (the West seemed to have far lower homicide rates under these arrangements than when government police were present). Individuals who wanted to leave an existing group and start a new one could do so at will – unlike with governments.

Anarchy In Asia

In Western New Guinea, the Kapauku people maintained a form of legal order without government or a central coercive power. The legal system involved establishing reciprocal relationships with a tonowi, who was a respected person within the community. Bruce Benson describes the arrangement:

“Each individual in the society could choose to contract with any available tonowi (availability generally involved kinship). Typically, followers became debtors to a tonowi in exchange for agreeing to perform certain duties in support of the tonowi. The followers got much more than a loan, however: “The expectation of future favors and advantages is probably the most potent motivation for most of the headman’s followers…. Even individuals from neighboring confederations may yield to the wishes of a tonowi in case his help may be needed in the future.” Thus, tonowi leadership was given, not taken, and reflected to a great extent an ability to “persuade the unit to support a man in a dispute or to fight for his cause.” Thus, this position of leadership was achieved through reciprocal exchange of support between a tonowi and his followers, support that could be freely withdrawn by either party (e.g., upon payment of debt or demand for repayment). The informality and contractual characteristics of Kapauku leadership led many Western observers to conclude that Kapauku society lacked law, but there is clear evidence that law was recognized, and that processes for adjudication and change existed in the Kapauku’s legal system.”

From this basis, a complex legal system allowed the Kapauku to maintain peace with each other, and allowed for changes in the law as needed.

In addition, the people living in the highlands of Southeast Asia (called Zomia) had a stateless society that survived for an extended period of time. Parts of India, Burma, China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia chose to remain out of reach of state control for thousands of years. Today, many in this region have been absorbed into existing states, but there are still many who remain outside of state control (an estimated 80-100 million people live in this region).

The people of Zomia engaged in intentional behaviors to avoid becoming subject to states, as Edward Stringham and Caleb Miles show.

“The Zomia have chosen to live and conduct economic activity in places that have been difficult for states to control or tax. Zomian peoples have organized their agriculture so that their crops cannot easily be confiscated or measured. They have also adopted religions and ideologies that make them resistant to control by external or internally grown states.”

Perhaps we can learn from them!

Anarchy In Europe

Europe has also seen numerous experiments in anarchy.

Let’s take medieval Iceland for starters. Between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, Iceland had a system of private law that is quite interesting. David Friedman explains:

“Killing was a civil offense resulting in a fine paid to the survivors of the victim. Laws were made by a “parliament,” seats in which were a marketable commodity. Enforcement of law was entirely a private affair. And yet these extraordinary institutions survived for over three hundred years, and the society in which they survived appears to have been in many ways an attractive one. Its citizens were, by medieval standards, free; differences in status based on rank or sex were relatively small; and its literary output in relation to its size has been compared, with some justice, to that of Athens.”

The Icelandic system managed to solve some of the common problems that statists instinctively think of when they try to picture what anarchy would look like. For instance:

“One obvious objection to a system of private enforcement is that the poor (or weak) would be defenseless. The Icelandic system dealt with this problem by giving the victim a property right – the right to be reimbursed by the criminal and making that right transferable. The victim could turn over his case to someone else, either gratis or in return for a consideration. A man who did not have sufficient resources to prosecute a case or enforce a verdict could sell it to another who did and who expected to make a profit in both money and reputation by winning the case and collecting the fine. This meant that an attack on even the poorest victim could lead to eventual punishment.”

On the other hand, some complain that those who lose in court would simply refuse to pay up. But that can be addressed as well:

“A man who refused to pay his fines was outlawed and would probably not be supported by as many of his friends as the plaintiff seeking to enforce judgment, since in case of violent conflict his defenders would find themselves legally in the wrong. If the lawbreaker defended himself by force, every injury inflicted on the partisans of the other side would result in another suit, and every refusal to pay another fine would pull more people into the coalition against him.”

In a later section sketching out possible ways anarchist law could work, the insights from the Icelandic system will come in handy.

Another anarchic justice system was that which prevailed in medieval Celtic Ireland for nearly 1000 years. Joseph Peden studied this system and concluded:

“My survey of the literature indicates that (1) private ownership of property played a crucial and essential role in the legal and social’ institutions of ancient Irish society; (2) that the Irish law as developed by the professional jurists – the brehons – outside the institutions of the State, was able to evolve an extremely sophisticated and flexible legal response to changing social and cultural conditions while preserving principles of equity and the protection of property rights; (3) that this flexibility and development can be best seen in the development of the legal capacity and rights of women and in the role of the Church in assimilating to native Irish institutions and law; (4) that the English invasion, conquest and colonization in Ireland resulted in the gradual imposition of English feudal concepts and common law which were incompatible with the principles of Irish law, and resulted in the wholesale destruction of the property rights of the Irish Church and the Irish people.”

The legal status of women was particularly noteworthy; they were centuries ahead of the English in this respect. Women could own property, initiate divorces, and make contracts. Many types of sexual relationships were legally permitted and protected – and in some cases, men were entirely responsible for the support of children.

Other European areas have also experienced anarchy, including the region called Moresnet between Prussia and The Netherlands, which was a disputed territory after the Napoleonic Wars. The people of this small town lived in peace and prosperity, unmolested by nearby states, and with a market for legal recourse, from 1816 until World War 1, when it was absorbed into Belgium.

The final example I will mention here is the tiny Republic of Cospaia, which survived for nearly 400 years as an enclave in central Italy that was free from government. The denizens of Cospaia prospered, largely because there were no taxes. Despite having no government, there is no indication that the people of Cospaia had to contend with violence or a breakdown of society.

Modern Somalia

“Why don’t you move to Somalia?” is one of the most common things I hear when I tell people that I am an anarchist. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about this region, but I have already written an extensive article on what anarchists can learn from Somalia.

I’ll let you read that post if you want all the details, but here’s the short version. Many people are surprised (or refuse to believe) that Somalia has actually seen dramatic improvements since the loss of central government in 1991 in a large number of development indicators, even relative to its neighbors that do have states. This is largely because of the Xeer, the traditional clan-based legal system that has existed in Somalia since the 7th century, and doesn’t involve the state at all:

“The Xeer outlaws homicide, assault, torture, battery, rape, accidental wounding, kidnapping, abduction, robbery, burglary, theft, arson, extortion, fraud, and property damage (Van Notten 2005:49). The legal system focuses on the restitution of victims, not the punishment of criminals. For violations of the law, maximum payments to compensate victims are specified in camels (payment can be made in equivalent monetary value). Typical compensation to the family of a murder victim is 100 camels for a man and 50 for a woman; an animal thief usually must return two animals for every one he stole.”

There’s a lot more to it, of course. For those of you who are interested in exploring the subject of Somalia in more detail, I strongly suggest you read the article linked above.


Security Against Crime: Law In An Anarchist Society

We have already dealt with many of the objections that you may have with regards to the provision of law in a free society, but most people still will have a difficult time visualizing how anarchy would work when dealing with criminals.

Certainly, we anarchists are not utopians, and we acknowledge that there will still be criminals, whether the state exists or not. The question then becomes: how does society deal with them?

I intend to answer that question in this section. As mentioned before, this is just a sketch of ways that criminality can be addressed under anarchy. I’m sure that legal entrepreneurs will come up with far more innovative solutions than I am including here, but I hope to help you recognize that the problems of justice in a free society are solvable.

Polycentric Law – How Does Law Evolve?

Most people think of “the” law as specifically the rules created by the state that they live under, and that law is created because the government says so. The law is legislated, or in other words, the law is “made.”

But we can also think of law as being something that is “found” – and in fact, this is far superior to the reigning paradigm. Law should be thought of as principles to be discovered by judges, not just whatever legislators want. The law is decentralized, since no single body determines all the rules of conduct. Because of this decentralization, multiple types of law can coexist in what we’d call a polycentric legal order.

In a sense, we already live under polycentric law. Consider the competition among governments and their respective legal systems, and the rules of homeowners’ associations, clubs, religions, and employment. Consider the rules you must abide by to live in a residential co-op, to buy or sell goods in a mall, and even the cultural norms that we abide by.

Norms are discovered, and written and unwritten rules are developed as a consequence, because of the natural process of human action. But when the law is monopolized by the state, the natural process of the discovery of law is destroyed. True law is formed in a bottom-up process rather than the top-down way of our current system.

There are quite a few arguments for a more decentralized evolution of law than the centralized method of legislation. Most fundamentally, polycentric law provides far more certainty than a legislative system, although that may seem paradoxical at first. But since the legislature has the ability to change the law from day to day, the system creates uncertainty with regards to what rules will apply tomorrow. Stephan Kinsella explains:

“First, judges can only make decisions when asked to do so by the parties concerned. Second, the judge’s decision is less far-reaching than legislation because it primarily affects the parties to the dispute, and only occasionally affects third parties or others with no connection to the parties involved…Third, a judge’s discretion is further limited by the necessity of referring to similar precedents.”

Legislation can override agreements that have already been voluntarily accepted, which, in the long run, makes it difficult to rely on any existing conventions or to keep the agreements that have already been made. If the rules are likely to change, then it makes it more difficult to trust the rules.

When rules are less trustworthy, the future becomes more unpredictable than it otherwise would be. Future goods, actions, and expectations become less likely to occur due to this unpredictability. The result is that people further shift their preferences away from future goods and more towards present goods. This makes everyone poorer, since it is saving (delaying gratification) that builds wealth. Not only that, it increases the amount of crime.

“As a person becomes more present-oriented, immediate (criminal) gratifications become relatively more attractive, and future, uncertain punishment becomes less of a disincentive. Thus many people on the margin — those who are just deterred from committing crimes by the threat of possible future punishment under normal time-preference conditions in a free society — will not be deterred from committing crimes in a society with legislation and its concomitant increase in time preference. In other words, there are individuals today who are committing violent crimes solely because of the increased uncertainty in society caused by the existence of legislation. Further, when the increased uncertainty tends to impoverish us by shortening the structure of production, more people are poor and impoverished, which also tends to increase the amount of crime in society.”

Legislation also suffers from a knowledge problem, similar to all forms of central planning.

“A crucial reason for the systematic ignorance of central planners and legislators alike is “the decentralized, fragmentary character of knowledge.” This makes central planners and central law-makers systematically unable to ever have enough knowledge to make informed decisions that affect entire economic or legal systems. Moreover, not only is a central planner “unable” to gather information only present in a dynamic price structure, but the attempt to plan actually destroys the price structure because the private property system at the base of a price structure is outlawed. Similarly, not only does a legislator face a severe ignorance problem — he could never hope to have a comprehensive and continually updated view of all the interactions, rules, relationships, and customs that exist among the people — he also subverts the very spontaneous legal order that would form in the absence of legislative interference.”

The end result is law that is simply worse.

“…legislators, even if they wanted to enact rules that truly take into account the actual situation, customs, expectations, and practices of individuals, simply can never collect enough information about the near-infinite variety of human interactions. The legislator, like a communist central planner, can only grope in the dark. And unlike a blind man who literally has to grope in the dark but at least knows when he has finally run into a wall or found the door, the legislator (or central planner) have no reliable guide for knowing whether they have constructed the “right” law (or economic allocation) or not. Further, not only can legislators not know the actual situation of the individuals they intend to cast their legislative net over, but they cannot predict the often far-reaching effects of legislation. Legislation routinely has unintended consequences, a fact that cannot be gotten around since it is necessitated by the systematic ignorance that legislators face.”

Decentralized, polycentric law gets around this problem. Cases can and will be reviewed by peers, and market actors can determine whether they agree or not. It’s a natural form of checks and balances.

It also reduces the impact of special interests on the legislative process. When law is discovered by judges, the scope of a decision is far smaller, and special interests have vastly less to gain from manipulating the process.

This is not to say that there won’t be any mistakes made in rulings by judges under a polycentric legal order. Of course there will. But if all the courts are private and competing, there is at least a real incentive to have the rules improved. Legislators have no such incentive, and don’t really provide a solution to the possibility of judges making mistakes.

“Another problem with urging legislation as a solution to common law gone astray, is that this assumes that the legislature can be convinced to make the correct legal reform. First, this is a very dubious assumption, especially given the special interest lobbying that legislators face, and also given the fact that legislators tend to be people who are interested in power rather than philosopher-kings who want to do the right thing. Second, if a proponent of legislation assumes that reasonable and humane legislators can see the light of reason and correctly reform the law, why is it not at least as likely that judges can be persuaded as well?”

Clearly, polycentric law is far superior to what governments have to offer.

Okay, But What Would Law Actually Look Like Under Anarchy?

Hopefully I’ve convinced you of the merits of polycentric law, but it can still be difficult to picture how this would play out in real life. By its very nature, I couldn’t tell you how it would look with certainty, but I can at least sketch out some possibilities.

Needless to say, there will need to be some kind of organization tasked with resolving disputes. A natural candidate for this kind of organization would be an insurance company – in this case, you are insuring yourself and your property from crime.

Not everything can be insured; if you have partial or total control over that risk, then insurance is not a viable business model. For instance, I cannot insure myself against committing suicide, or not wanting to get up in the morning. As such, insurance companies would only insure you against unprovoked crime, and would therefore regulate certain behaviors that would provoke others in order to contract with them. This implies that known aggressors would be unable to procure insurance, and those who wanted more insurance would need to conform to certain non-aggressive norms (for instance, the policy would stipulate that you cannot steal from others). They would likely also subsidize any means of increasing their clients’ security, either by lowering premiums or just supplying them outright. For instance, insurers may want to subsidize alarm systems, more advanced locks or access systems, fences, guard dogs, armored vehicles, mace, rape whistles, self-defense training and education, and handguns. Perhaps they would aid in the creation of neighborhood watch groups. It is in the insurers’ interest to make clients as secure as possible in order to reduce the number of claims they will need to pay out.

You can also think about crime insurers under anarchy as “cosigners” for one’s agreements. In other words, they act as a guarantor of their clientele’s contracts, with the premium charged being a reflection of the risk that a particular client may get into costly disputes with others.

Because different insurance companies would be competing, different sets of norms would be available. In other words, people would get to choose the type of rules they submit themselves to. There could be all kinds of firms with different types of laws: religious laws, hippy laws, or bro codes. This should drastically reduce conflict in and of itself, since people aren’t forced to live under rules that were imposed upon them, and they are fully aware of the rules at the outset. Compare this with government law, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe wittily does (emphasis mine):

“The state, as ultimate decision-maker and judge, operates in a contract-less legal vacuum. There exists no contract between the state and its citizens. It is not contractually fixed, what is actually owned by whom, and what, accordingly, is to be protected. It is not fixed, what service the state is to provide, what is to happen if the state fails in its duty, nor what the price is that the “customer” of such “service” must pay. Rather, the state unilaterally fixes the rules of the game and can change them, per legislation, during the game. Obviously, such behavior is inconceivable for freely financed security providers. Just imagine a security provider, whether police, insurer or arbitrator, whose offer consisted in something like this: I will not contractually guarantee you anything. I will not tell you what specific things I will regard as your to-be-protected property, nor will I tell you what I oblige myself to do if, according to your opinion, I do not fulfill my service to you but in any case, I reserve the right to unilaterally determine the price that you must pay me for such undefined service. Any such security provider would immediately disappear from the market due to a complete lack of customers.”

Things get only slightly more complicated when you consider conflicts that occur between people living under different legal codes. Insurance companies will establish certain procedures for how they handle this kind of situation, quite likely involving arbitration from a third party. These procedures will tend toward standardization, since it makes it so that insurers can interact with each other as efficiently as possible, just as different banks, credit cards, and merchants have standardized themselves to become highly interoperable. And of course, these procedures would be specified in advance in any insurance policy.

Arbiters would be chosen largely based on their reputation for fairness. The whole point of arbitration is to find a peaceful resolution to interpersonal disputes, and this requires a point of agreement regarding the procedure for resolving the conflict. For each party to the dispute, proposing an arbiter biased in their favor does nothing to reach this point of agreement; if they weren’t interested in a peaceful resolution, they could simply fight, rather than try hiring a biased or corrupt arbiter. In other words, both parties have an interest in using an arbiter that is generally seen by society as fair and impartial.

This perception of fairness is the most important asset of any arbitration agency – if they develop a reputation as unfair or corrupt, they will quickly lose business. Nevertheless, it’s certainly plausible that one or more parties in a dispute will find the judge’s verdict unfair. But the arbiter can at least aim to render a verdict (and explain their reasoning) in a way that seems fair to as many third parties as possible. This is imperfect, for sure, but compare it to law under government, where even highly corrupt/unfair/inefficient judges are shielded from market competition.

If you are a party to a dispute and refuse arbitration, your protection agency, as well as most others, will likely perceive this as evidence that you are in the wrong. Those who refuse, therefore, are unlikely to continue receiving protection. Similarly, if you accept arbitration but then refuse to abide by the ruling, you will be left to fend for yourself. You may be added to blacklists or have your “crime score” (analogous to a credit score) raised, and people will refuse to do business with you, or at least charge a high premium for it.

Catching And Punishing Criminals

This is all well and good for contract disputes and other instances where both the plaintiff and the defendant are known ahead of time. But what about instances of crime where the criminal has escaped? Someone will need to investigate the crime and catch the bad guy, but without government police, who will be responsible?

The insurer/protection agencies can fulfill this function as well. Perhaps the insurer has their own detective division, or perhaps they contract out with a private police agency to conduct the forensic work necessary – the exact setup will of course depend on how entrepreneurs and consumers act. On the subject of policing in a stateless society, Edward Stringham writes:

“There are many cases of private law enforcement, one of the most common can be seen at institutions of higher learning. Although private security officers and dean’s offices differ greatly from their bureaucratic counterparts, they nevertheless perform the job supposedly only government police and courts are capable. Many other entities also produce a safe atmosphere in a similar manner: shopping malls, amusement parks, resorts, and private housing developments are cases in point. Just because they are not as ostentatious as the state does not mean that they are not providing protection. These institutions show that not only is the notion of private security possible, but that it is widespread.”

(Look how elegantly the market can solve the “market failure” of so-called “public goods.” Take the example of homeowners’ associations (HOA), which I predict would be common under anarchy. They are quite capable of providing security without the need for a government; in fact, they have several significant advantages. For one thing, HOAs are non-coercive institutions where all of the members have agreed to abide by their terms, in distinct contrast to government. Members of an HOA are almost certain to have more influence over its policies than they would over their government’s policies, particularly due to their smaller size and the shared community. Finally, competition between HOAs is far more significant than that of governments, even local ones.)

Let’s say someone robs you of $10,000. Your crime insurance policy stipulates that in the case of theft, you will be reimbursed for, say, 1.25 times the value of what was stolen (a little something extra for mental anguish, perhaps). You, the victim, are immediately reimbursed and made whole again, and in exchange, your insurer now has the rights to pursue the criminal and recover damages from them. Today, victims of crime don’t get their money back or any kind of compensation.

If the insurer catches the alleged criminal, then there can be a trial to determine whether they are guilty. If the arbitrator finds them guilty, what happens then?

Most likely, the guilty party will be required to pay the protection agency a fine, which could be based off the insurance payout, plus the cost of pursuing and apprehending the criminal. (As an aside, this would create an incentive for criminals to immediately turn themselves in, since the cost of apprehending them, and thus the cost of being found guilty, will increase otherwise.) In other words, the criminal would owe the insurer $X.

As mentioned in the previous section, the guilty party has very strong incentives to accept the terms of the arbiter peacefully. To not do so would result in social ostracism that is likely at least as damaging as the fine. An obvious issue at this point is: what if the criminal can’t pay up?

An institution analogous to a prison can fulfill this role under anarchy. I describe in detail how private prisons could work under anarchy as well as major issues with our current prison system here, but I’ll let Robert Murphy explain:

“But where would these ne’er-do-wells be taken, once they were brought into “custody”? Specialized firms would develop, offering high-security analogs to the current jailhouse. However, the “jails” in market anarchy would compete with each other to attract criminals.

Consider: No insurance company would vouch for a serial killer if he applied for a job at the local library, but they would deal with him if he agreed to live in a secure building under close scrutiny. The insurance company would make sure that the “jail” that held him was well-run. After all, if the person escaped and killed again, the insurance company would be held liable, since it pledges to make good on any damages its clients commit.

On the other hand, there would be no undue cruelty for the prisoners in such a system. Although they would have no chance of escape (unlike government prisons), they wouldn’t be beaten by sadistic guards. If they were, they’d simply switch to a different jail, just as travelers can switch hotels if they view the staff as discourteous. Again, the insurance company (which vouches for a violent person) doesn’t care which jail its client chooses, so long as its inspectors have determined that the jail will not let its client escape into the general population.”

This is worlds apart from our current system, where victims have the double-whammy of paying for the incarceration of criminals via taxation in addition to the loss from the crime itself. These “prisons” would still keep dangerous people “off the streets,” but unlike our current system, would actually have a shot at rehabilitating criminals by having them take responsibility for their actions. And the conditions would be vastly superior to the incredible abuse that you see in prisons today.

Some Common Objections And Responses

The above was just a rough sketch of how an anarchist society could provide law and order. But if you are reading this and not an anarchist, chances are you have some questions or issues regarding how this system would work. In this section, I’d like to address some of the most common ones. If you can think of one that isn’t included here, please leave a comment.

Won’t protection agencies go to war with each other?

By far the most common practical objection to anarchy is that there would be chaos, as marauding protection agencies battled it out with each other. The argument goes something like this: I am insured by protection agency A, and you are insured by protection agency B. We get into a dispute, and then our protection agencies go to war with each other. Multiply this by all of the disputes at any given time, and you have absolute chaos. A Hobbesian jungle.

Upon closer reflection, this objection has no legs. First of all, even if the above account were true, it is significant that populations living under states fall into civil war constantly. To use this as a justification for government, one would need to show that this kind of civil strife would be more common under anarchy than it is with states – no easy task.

After all, there are good reasons why we wouldn’t expect chaos and civil war between protection agencies. Most importantly, these protection agencies would own their own assets, whereas decision-makers in government do not. If two agencies were to go to war, both would suffer severe costs in money and manpower. Even the “winner” would lose quite a bit, and both would lose market share to any other protection agencies that are operating nearby. This is true regardless of the relative size and strength of the protection agencies. Robert Murphy elucidates this principle by asking a question about the American Civil War:

“In the 1860s, would large scale combat have broken out on anywhere near the same scale if, instead of the two factions controlling hundreds of thousands of conscripts, all military commanders had to hire voluntary mercenaries and pay them a market wage for their services?”

To ask the question is to answer it. When people are responsible for paying the cost of their actions, highly destructive behavior such as war becomes far less likely.

But there’s another reason why war breaking out between protection agencies is unlikely. The employees of security agencies can make their own decisions, and I suspect there are very few who would be willing to risk their lives in order to (potentially) increase their bosses’ profits. Most people are strongly opposed to and disgusted by the idea of murdering other members of society, and would agree that they want to settle their disputes peacefully and without resorting to violence. Were this not so, the point would be moot, as governments are hardly a solution to the problem of people wanting to murder each other.

Since people generally do not want to resort to violence,

“…why would we expect such virtuous people, as consumers, to patronize defense agencies that routinely used force against weak opponents?  Why wouldn’t the vast bulk of reasonable customers patronize defense agencies that had interlocking arbitration agreements, and submitted their legitimate disputes to reputable, disinterested arbitrators?”

Finally, if there were rogue protection agencies that decided to go to war, it would be in nearly everyone’s best interest to stop them. Banks could start freezing their assets. Utility companies could shut off their water and electricity. There would be market mechanisms to prevent the rogue agency from warring.

So long as arbitration is viewed as a cheaper way to resolve disputes than violence (and this will be true under almost all conditions), war between rival protection agencies is highly unlikely.

Wouldn’t these insurance agencies become states? Wouldn’t they collude and form a cartel?

Many people will read the above description of justice in a stateless society and dismiss it, claiming that the insurance or protection agencies would just be states. Often, this comes from the fallacious association people have in their minds between government and criminal justice – whatever organization that is mediating disputes is the government, in this view.

And if you would like to call it a government, or “competing governments,” or whatever you want, that’s fine. The semantics don’t really matter. That being said, there is one fundamental difference between government and the system described above: the role of coercion.

The key feature of states is that they have a monopoly on “legitimate” coercive authority within a given territory. In contrast, individuals can withdraw their support for their protection agency (which they voluntarily chose in the first place) and take their business elsewhere.

But what if an individual’s protection agency decided that they wanted to subjugate their current, paying clients? This is the kind of problem that would be very easy to anticipate, so individuals shopping around for crime insurance will only become clients if their contract has a stipulation regarding how disputes between the insurer and the insured are resolved that is favorable to them. Perhaps a particular arbiter is specified at the outset, or perhaps the arbiter will be of the client’s choosing. If the protection agency doesn’t heed this procedure, then they – just like the criminals discussed above – would become pariahs, and lose all their business and all their power.

Of course, this assumes that the protection agencies don’t form a cartel, backed by coercive violence, and thus bring the state in through the back door. But protection agencies forming a cartel is unlikely for the same reasons that they are unlikely to go to war against each other. Presumably, the reason to join a cartel is economic self-interest, so it is logically inconsistent to suggest that an agency will join a cartel but then engage in self-destructive behavior. The cartelized agencies are essentially in a prisoner’s dilemma with each other; the payoff to a given agency of reneging on an agreement to punish “outsider” agencies is higher than going along with it.

How would the poor get access to the legal system? What about the uninsured?

This problem should be negligible, since those who have less property also have less to insure, and thus would have lower premiums. And in the most extreme of edge cases, surely charity and pro bono work could help. It’s easy to envision arbiters doing some pro bono work for the poor in order to improve their reputation, which will help them get more paying clients. Contrast this with our governmental system, where legal fees price even middle-class people out of legal representation.

In any system, government or not, there will be a small segment that slips between the cracks, and doesn’t receive justice. Unfortunately, the only solution to this is for criminals to agree to stop committing crimes, and everyone else agreeing to stop getting into disputes.

A related objection is that some people don’t believe that justice is something people should need to pay for. But whether there is a government or not, justice has a cost, and it must be paid. I will dismiss this with a clever quote from Michael Huemer:

“If we decide that it is wrong to charge money for a vital service such as rights protection, whereas one can charge whatever one likes for inessential goods such as Twinkies and cell phones, then we will build a society with plenty of Twinkies, cell phones, and rights violations.”

Does this let people get whatever weapons they want, like nukes and assault weapons?

Some people think that we need government so that there aren’t random people building nuclear weapons in their basements. How would anarchy deal with things like weapons proliferation and gun control? A stateless society could handle this issue peacefully, and in a way that ought to satisfy both those in favor of gun rights and those who lean toward gun control.

Consider weapons from the standpoint of a crime insurance agency, which will need to pay a large sum to the estate of anyone whom their clients kill. One of the first things you’d want to know is what kind of heat they are packing, right?

Different insurers will handle the situation differently, and I’m sure a variety of policies will be available. But my bet is that someone who keeps assault rifles and sawed off shotguns in their house is more likely to hurt others, so insurance companies will either charge a significantly higher premium, or refuse to insure them entirely. Similarly, I think you’d be hard pressed to find an insurer who is willing to underwrite a policy for someone who is tinkering with biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons.

This presents a beautiful solution to the gun control problem. Actuaries could determine the relative risk of people carrying certain types of weapons, and a rational, market-based approach would result. I cannot predict what the end result of this would be, but here’s my guess: most insurers would probably reduce a client’s premium if they own a handgun and verify that they have taken a gun safety course, since this will allow the client to defend themselves and reduce claims. Other weapons are likely to increase premiums, perhaps drastically. For those individuals who really want to own an assault rifle, no coercive force will be used to stop them – but the full force of society’s values will be used to discourage it.

What happens when the arbiters make incorrect judgments?

In any given case, there are two main ways that judges could make errors: letting a criminal go free, or proclaiming an innocent person guilty. Unfortunately, no one has yet devised a social system that can prevent these kinds of issues from occurring, but anarchy can help mitigate the effects of these errors.

Let’s say that an obvious murderer has been judged innocent. Today, it is completely feasible that someone widely viewed as guilty can be acquitted (think OJ Simpson). When this happens, the murderer gets away with it – no further punishment is meted out. Under anarchy, however, you can be quite sure that the murderer’s insurer will hike up their premiums for continued service, or refuse to do business with them entirely. Remember: the insurer is concerned about the likelihood that their client will be convicted of a crime in the future (and then need to pay damages), and someone who is generally recognized as a murderer would be considered a liability.

What about the wrongfully convicted? For starters, it defies imagination that a stateless society could wrongfully convict more people than America’s current “justice” system, particularly if you include all of the victimless “crimes” that innocent people are sent away to prison to rot for. No doubt, people will continue to be wrongfully convicted under anarchy. The difference is that someone will actually be responsible for it, and can be held accountable. If John is wrongfully convicted of murder, the protection agency that caught and prosecuted him could be brought to court for the damages they’ve done to him. This means that any insurer will want a high-confidence that they found the right guy, otherwise they may be on the hook for a lot of money. In addition, John has a legally enforceable right to this money, so he can offer to pay anyone who can find evidence proving his innocence (or his insurance agency can look for evidence as well). Under government, once a conviction happens, nobody has any reason to look for evidence of John’s innocence.

Clearly, this system is imperfect, as are all social systems. But it is equally clear that anarchy would handle mistakes of justice far better than government.


Security Against States: “National Defense” Under Anarchy

Having discussed how a stateless society could handle conflicts internally, we now come to another issue: how would a stateless society defend itself from attacks from foreign governments? After all, it is highly unlikely that all governments will disappear at once, so what is to stop a government from invading and taking over a region under anarchy?

It is critical to anarchist theory that this question be answered. After all, “national defense” is the prototypical “public good” – one in which non-payers cannot be excluded from enjoying its benefits, and use by one individual does not make it less available to others. According to this theory, a free market would be unable to provide for common security because of free riders – individuals who will not pay for protection because they know they can get it for free so long as others pay for it. It would be difficult for an army to say “we will protect house A from foreign aggression, but we will not protect house B.” Since everyone has the incentive to be a free rider, defense from foreign aggression will be under-produced on the market.

This view is fallacious. For one thing, all goods that tend to be considered public goods have been adequately provided by the market (lighthouses are a classic example). Things like software and radio or television broadcasting would fit the definition of public goods, but do not require government intervention to produce in sufficient quantities. In my mind, it is likely that the idea of public goods have been deliberately promoted in order to provide an aura of legitimacy to government – but I digress.

What it comes down to is that public goods theorists simply aren’t creative enough. They ignore the many ways in which humans overcome the free rider problem, and refuse to consider that these means could be possible. I’m pleased to say that as cryptographic technology improves, the public goods justification for the state will completely fade. The Lighthouse app (still in beta), a peer-to-peer crowdfunding app relying on smart contracts, has officially and mathematically solved the problem of how to provide public goods in general. That’s how human progress works – entrepreneurs come up with solutions to problems.

As for collective security in particular, it is crucial to remember that the state is distinct from its subjects, and the state is designed to protect itself, not the people residing within its borders. Those who make up the state have strong incentives to provide defense that will secure the state itself – but the incentive to protect the people living under that state is minimal. After all, the state (or those who make up the state) is just another special interest group. But defense of the public remains a public good, so it is very unlikely to be adequately supplied by a government.

The free rider problem can be overcome and collective security can be produced efficiently, but seeing this may require some imagination as well as remembering that the ideological milieu would be different under anarchy. Psychological factors can help to overcome the free rider problem, as described by Keith Preston:

“But there are many other reasons why individuals would choose to fight an enemy invader or contribute voluntarily towards such an effort [besides economic reasons]. Psychological attachments of the “blood and soil” variety, loyalty to one’s family, community, religion or culture might be a motivating factor for many people. For example, gays might be eager fight against a potential conqueror known for its persecution of homosexuals. Racists might fight an invader out of base racial hatred for the dominant ethnic group among the enemy. Believers in virtues such as honor and courage or adherents to particular ideals (“justice”, “freedom”, “humanity”) would have their own reasons for fighting beyond the mere economic. Some may choose to fight for the sheer adventure of it all or out of a simple taste for violence and bloodshed.”

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel writes:

“…national defense, in the sense of protecting the people from a foreign State, is a subset of the general problem of protecting them from any State, domestic or foreign. Consequently, the factors that already provide protection from the domestic State are the very factors which on the market would provide protection from foreign States. To put it concretely, the same social consensus that has voluntarily overcome the free-rider obstacle to protect the United States, one of the most free, if not the most free, nation in the world would voluntarily overcome the free-rider obstacle to protect American freedom from foreign States.”

If we can expect the state to provide for collective defense, then we can even more strongly expect an anarchist society to do so.

Avoiding Conflict

Without a doubt, the best strategy for collective defense of a society is to avoid armed conflict in the first place. Anarchist societies can do a far better job of avoiding conflict than states can.

While certainly not the only factor in decisions regarding whether or not to go to war, the most important one is a cost/benefit analysis. It can generally be said that if a potential war will provide little utility to those who decide to embark on it, but will be costly, it most likely will not happen.

This of course implies that states are likely to be highly aggressive – the costs of war are not borne by the politicians, but them and their military-industrial complex cronies can certainly get significant benefits from it! Stateless societies, where those who choose to make war must fund it fully themselves, are far less likely to be aggressive. And luckily, what is needed for effective defense is far less expensive than what is required for military aggression.

A stateless society can drastically reduce the chance of conflict by making it costly to invade, and with as little benefit as possible. Without an already existing state in place, there will be no command center for the foreign aggressor to take over. Rather than simply taking over the capitol and using the already existing and “legitimized” state apparatus to extract taxes from the populace, the invader will need to win the war neighborhood by neighborhood. And if they succeed, they’ll need to create all the infrastructure needed to govern the hostile territory before being able to take from it. For example,

“…during the American Revolution the British focused their energies on conquering Philadelphia, at that time the nominal capital of the United States, on the assumption that once the capital had fallen the rest of the country would be theirs as well. What the British failed to realize was that the United States was a loose-knit confederation, not a centralized nation-state, and the government in Philadelphia had almost no authority. When Philadelphia fell, the rest of the country went about its business as usual; Americans were not accustomed to living their lives according to directives from Philadelphia, and so the British troops ended up simply sitting uselessly in the occupied capital, achieving nothing. Hence Benjamin Franklin, when he heard that the British army had captured Philadelphia, is said to have replied, ‘Nay, I think Philadelphia has captured the British army.’”

In short, there would likely be very little to gain from attacking a stateless territory, at least financially. Contrast this with the possibility of invading a small state with a weak military. There is already an apparatus for control and administration in place, and likely only government defense institutions rather than a decentralized network of private ones. Given that there are many governments today with weak militaries, they would be superior targets for invasion than a stateless region. And since these weaker states aren’t being constantly invaded in today’s world, that provides some evidence that large states may not be all that aggressive against a stateless society. In fact, today there are more than 20 nations without a standing army, including noteworthy examples like Costa Rica and Liechtenstein, which hasn’t had a military since 1868 (and wasn’t taken over by the Nazis!).

As time progresses and technology advances, the benefits of warring also become lower. If wealth is mobile, then the potential gain from an aggressive attack is decreased substantially. With more and more economic activity taking place on the internet, physical invasion becomes less profitable. Consider this example from Bruce Benson:

“While land certainly remains an important source of wealth in much of the world, it is increasingly less important. Wealth is increasingly tied to capital, which is increasingly mobile. If the defenders can escape and take much of their wealth with them, the expected gains from invasion are reduced. Note what has been happening to Hong Kong as the date for China’s take-over of the city approaches, for instance. Much of the city’s wealth has been relocated to Vancouver, San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney, and elsewhere, as entrepreneurs and capital owners seek relatively free societies where their property rights will be more secure.”

Along the same lines, Mark Lutter makes a convincing argument that war is becoming less and less likely as trade becomes easier.

“I propose history to be interpreted as a gradual reduction in transaction costs. Institutional evolution is leading to a world where anonymous exchange is possible with any actor. It is the lowering of transaction costs that has led to the highest standard of living mankind has ever enjoyed, as well as the most peaceful time in human history. It is now more profitable than ever to cooperate.”

Since it is quite likely that the stateless society will be engaging in some form of trade with the people of any potential aggressor nation, the price of going to war drastically increases for an aggressor.

This is all well and good in terms of the economic motivations for war, but war is sometimes about more than that. There can be ideological or geopolitical motivations as well. In a stateless society, there would be no government to engage in significant disputes with foreign governments, and thus eliminate many of the potential causes for war. There may be individuals in the ungoverned area that are hostile to a particular state, but that foreign government will feel far less threatened by some hostile individuals than a hostile government. In addition, stateless societies would not be players in the power games and competition for domination in an area. There would be no standing army, and the society would not act as a single agent, so foreign governments will feel less threatened by the “power” of a stateless society. It would be clear to the subjects of a state that is aggressing against a stateless society that it is their government that is in the wrong, which will decrease the state’s legitimacy in their eyes. With legitimacy being the source of the state’s power, this would be a dangerous game for them to play.

Nevertheless, it would be naïve to argue that a stateless society will never be invaded. But there are some easy ways that the anarchists could make it as costly as possible. For instance, protection agencies (being those who are most threatened by a potential foreign invasion) can put bounties on the heads of state officials to encourage insurrection and privateering. They can also assassinate those public officials, or create the credible threat that they could do so. Since protection agencies will be practiced at capturing/apprehending people, assassination or kidnap might be something they’re good at. Government decision makers are far less likely to go to war if they know that it is their heads which are on the line.

Protection agencies should ensure that the threat of retaliation is squarely on the political/military leaders, and not the soldiers and civilians of the foreign country. In fact, they can offer sanctuary or perhaps money to foreign soldiers in exchange for their desertion. If deserters bring some weapons with them, surely protection agencies would be willing to pay for those as well.

Couldn’t states just nuke the stateless regions? Technically yes, but remember that states can also nuke other states, and would have more reason to do so. Nuking a stateless region would offer no gain, would have long-lasting environmental impacts that could damage the aggressor state, and there would almost certainly be a loss of legitimacy internally.

To sum up, there are many reasons to believe that a stateless society would have drastically lower needs for defense than a state would, and is unlikely to be attacked. This is truer under some conditions than others. Philosopher Michael Huemer provides seven conditions of an anarchist society that make it very likely that it could avoid warfare:

  1. Established in a region otherwise dominated by liberal democracies
  2. The society itself embraced liberal values
  3. Strong social and economic relations with its neighbors
  4. No large internal ethnic or religious tensions
  5. Not established in a region with a long-standing territorial dispute
  6. Established through an indigenous movement rather than being imposed by a foreign power
  7. Established with the consent of the state previously controlling the territory.

All but #7 seem highly likely, but even that would be quite plausible as ideology evolves and becomes more anarchist-friendly. And if not – well, they can still assassinate the generals.

Guerrilla Warfare

Even if the risk of a stateless society going to war is lower, it still exists; the people must be able to defend themselves when this happens.

History has shown time and again that a small group can beat even a great empire via guerrilla warfare. And a stateless society could handle guerrilla warfare quite well, including an advanced division of labor, as Keith Preston describes:

“The anarcho-military forces would likely differentiate between ordinary infantry and militia fighters on one hand and more professionalized specialists on the other. The militia itself would include ordinary people of all ages and backgrounds. The responsibility of these groups would be to secure supply centers, transportation systems and medical facilities along with ordinary community institutions, businesses and homes. They would likely be armed with weapons that are easy to maintain, transport, supply and use such as high-powered rifles with a good scope, semi-automatic handguns and regular shotguns sawed off as low as possible. An invading army would have to fight on a community-to-community, street-to-street, house-to-house basis. Enemy troops attempting conquest would face an endless barrage of sniper fire, Molotov cocktails, ambushes, sabotage, bombings and assassinations. Guerrilla attacks would be launched from forest areas adjacent to highways where enemy military units were traveling. Anti-aircraft artillery would be placed atop mountains and skyscrapers. Those charged with the use of more powerful or sophisticated weaponry – tanks, laser technology, rocket launchers, land mines, machine guns, grenades, fighter planes, missiles – would likely be drawn from the ranks of mercenaries and other military professionals specifically trained for certain functions.”

How would a stateless society secure the manpower for these militias?

“Organizations that sponsor immigrants might make membership in a defensive militia a condition of a grant of assistance. The same might be true of homeless organizations, proprietary communities or professional guilds. Mercenary groups might sell their services to businesses or communities during a time of invasion. These groups might support themselves during peacetime through contracting out for other types of labor including street patrol, private security or bodyguard services, fire and rescue services, construction work, park maintenance, environmental cleanup or disaster relief. Militia recruits might come from some unusual sources. Gangs and outlaw motorcycle clubs might serve as mercenaries during a time of war. (The Hell’s Angels volunteered for service in Vietnam but were refused.) Criminals might work off their restitution debts through service in a militia.”

And in the event of invasion, protection agencies could arm their clients or lift restrictions on their weapons. There could even be a “draft” clause within the policy that mandates the signatory to become part of a militia in times of need, perhaps in exchange for a reduced premium. It’s also quite likely that protections agencies would stockpile some good guerrilla weaponry during peacetime, including roadside explosives, antitank weapons, sniper rifles, and so on.

Instead of having a government Navy, shipping-related industries could supply protection for their own vessels and could maintain a fleet of warships, or pay mercenaries/privateers to do so. Aviation related industries could supply air defense by having a few fighter jets or attack helicopters. It’s easy to imagine industry groups doing this collectively – not every small shipper needs its own battleships.

And in today’s world, cyber-warfare is becoming more and more important, and this helps distribute power away from states as well. Stateless hackers could be very effective in gathering intelligence, messing with the aggressor’s communications and supply lines, or even damaging infrastructure directly.

Along with all of this war-making ability, a civil defense system could coexist.

“…a non-statist military defense would likely include an elaborate civil defense system. This might involve a large network of radar monitor services, scout ships and planes, sirens and broadcast systems that could be used to notify the public of an eminent invasion, vaccines, antidotes, gas masks, decontamination centers, bomb shelters, underground tunnels, radiation suits, body armor, emergency food and medical supplies, emergency evacuation plans, intelligence services, arsenals and emergency communications centers. These programs, organized and funded by Red Cross or March of Dimes-like organizations, could co-exist along with the private, voluntary militias of the type already described.”

Finally, the stateless society is likely to receive aid from other foreign governments who are enemies of the invading government. This could include air defense, intelligence, small arms…you name it.

Through guerrilla warfare, the stateless society could fight back against aggressive states, and become incredibly difficult to pacify.

Nonviolent Resistance

The most important component of collective security without a state (in my opinion) is nonviolent resistance, such as hunger strikes, marches and demonstrations, sit-ins, boycotts, labor strikes, refusal to pay taxes, and ostracism of collaborators. Bertrand Russell once pondered:

“Let us imagine that England were to disband its army, after a generation of instruction in the principles of passive resistance as a better defense than war. Let us suppose that England at the same time publicly announced that no armed opposition would be offered to any invader, that all might come freely, but that no obedience would be yielded to any commands that a foreign authority might issue. What would happen in this case?”

Any potential invader who actually followed through on it would have their brutality immediately revealed, which is likely to garner sympathy for the stateless side, lead to additional foreign aid, and potentially foster insurrection against the invading government.

When governments resort to violence against nonviolent protesters, previously uninvolved individuals will become partisans, expanding the resistance. As the aggressive government’s authority becomes delegitimized, the source of its power dwindles as citizens refuse to cooperate.

This may sound outlandish to some, but it is actually quite common. The historical success rate of nonviolent action seems to be at least comparable if not better than violence. We all know about Gandhi and the British, the civil rights movement, and the fall of communism, for instance. There are numerous advantages to nonviolent action, a few of which are described by Bryan Caplan:

“Because it seems less dangerous and radical than violence, it more easily…wins broad public support. The costs of participation are lower, so more people are likely to participate. Traditional noncombatants like children, women, and the old can effectively participate in nonviolent struggle. It is more likely to convert opponents and produce internal disagreement within the ruling class. It generally leads to far fewer casualties and material losses than violence. And since it is more decentralized than violent action, it is less likely to give rise to an even more oppressive state if it succeeds.”

Another benefit is that there is no such thing as final defeat so long as there exist individuals whose spirit has not yet been bent to the invaders’ will. It can also be done with less planning, strategy, or organization than violent methods such as military conflict.

Historically, most nonviolent resistance movements have been sporadic and fairly disorganized. But it can be significantly more effective if people are trained in civil disobedience and nonviolent protest tactics. This could be a good area for a charity/volunteer organization, and could lead to a sort of “National Civil Disobedience Reserve Army.”

Nonviolent resistance, done properly, is incredibly difficult to defeat.



If you have spent little time contemplating anarchy in the past, chances are you have a ton of questions or concerns about how it would work. I attempted to address many of the most common ones in the body of this article, but surely I’ve missed some. If you have any thoughts about this, please leave a comment and I will do my best to address it.

There are also numerous books out there which cover this subject matter in far more detail than I have. Here are a handful that I would recommend:

I’d like to end with a quote from Murray Rothbard:

“Suppose…that we were all suddenly dropped down on the earth de novo and that we were all then confronted with the question of what societal arrangements to adopt. And suppose then that someone suggested: “We are all bound to suffer from those of us who wish to aggress against their fellow men. Let us then solve this problem of crime by handing all of our weapons to the Jones family, over there, by giving all of our ultimate power to settle disputes to that family. In that way, with their monopoly of coercion and of ultimate decision making, the Jones family will be able to protect each of us from each other.” I submit that this proposal would get very short shrift, except perhaps from the Jones family themselves. And yet this is precisely the common argument for the existence of the state.”

War Is Evil

Injured child

Image courtesy of

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues –

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

(The Latin phrase is roughly translated as “It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country”) – William Owen, a British soldier who died in the trenches just seven days before the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918

Of all the things that I find frustrating and despicable about modern American society, it is the cavalier attitude towards war exhibited by the vast majority of Americans. There are some pockets of genuine anti-war sentiment on the fringe left and the “isolationist” Old Right and libertarians. But there is a bipartisan agreement, in deed if not in word, that war is tolerable, acceptable, good, or even morally required in an increasing number of cases.

I wasn’t always the whack-job libertarian that I am now; up until about my junior year in high school, I looked at the world as though it was a chess board, with America and her allies being “the good guys.” At the time, war had merely seemed like a means to an end. To make the world safe, America needed to be the dominant power at all costs. And since we were America – the “indispensable” nation, the “exceptional” nation, and the clear occupants of the moral high ground – we could do no wrong. Sure, innocent people will die in war, but it’s for The Greater Good. The Iraqi people may not believe it right now, but once we’ve dealt with some bad apples and established a functioning democracy there, surely they will come around and appreciate the favor we have done for them.

It’s hard for me to believe now that this is the way I felt back then. I was probably even more pro-war than the average American. But it does give me some perspective on why people are so deluded about war, and reinforces my belief that ending foreign aggression in all its forms is the single most important thing that we as activists must be working toward.


America – Reluctant Fighter Of “Just Wars”

It is very difficult to garner support for wars of conquest in a modern, liberal democracy. In the past, religion was often used to justify war (“Kill the heathens!”), but this justification has lost much of its appeal.

But while that justification is no longer so effective, the need for the elite to wage war and line their pockets with the proceeds hasn’t ceased. A new way of deluding the public was necessary.

Westerners love to think of themselves as advanced, progressive, humanitarian, and morally righteous. This is true all across the political spectrum (that’s right, liberals. Even the neocons believe that they are doing a good thing, as silly as that sounds). In order to get your average American to support war, you just need to convince them that it is for humanitarian reasons: the enemy is evil, slaughtering his own people, and a new “Hitler.” We can use our military might to change the enemy, to liberate the people who are victims of some monster, and to bring them democracy and responsible governance.

I can do no better than to cite David Swanson from his book War Is A Lie here (you can read chapter 1 here, and I strongly suggest you do):

“The long-standing tradition of making war on foreigners and converting those not killed to the proper religion “for their own good” is similar to the current practice of killing hated foreigners for the stated reason that their governments ignore women’s rights. From among the rights of women encompassed by such an approach, one is missing: the right to life, as women’s groups in Afghanistan have tried to explain to those who use their plight to justify the war. The believed evil of our opponents allows us to avoid counting the non-American women or men or children killed. Western media reinforce our skewed perspective with endless images of women in burqas, but they never risk offending us with pictures of women and children killed by our troops and air strikes.”

If there is a positive intention behind any given war, many Americans will support it almost unquestioningly. Invading Afghanistan = Liberating women and catching Osama. Bombing Libya and/or Syria = saving the people from a ruthless dictator. These justifications are even used to revise the past; many people consider World War 2 to be a paradigmatic example of a just war because it ended the holocaust. Of course, there were many opportunities to save the Jews without going to war, and saving the Jews was never used as a part of World War 2 propaganda at the time (which was mostly focused on dehumanizing the Japanese).

On a slightly more academic level, pundits and philosophers have tried to ascertain what conditions can be used to determine whether a potential war is, in fact, a just war. Damon Linker elaborates:

“[There are] six criteria just war theorists…use to determine when a war is morally justified. The war must be undertaken with the intention of establishing a just peace. It must be defensive. It must be aimed at protecting the innocent against unjust aggression. It must have a reasonable chance of success. It must be declared and waged by a competent governing authority. And it must be undertaken as a last resort. If the war meets these six criteria, it can be considered morally justified.”

In theory, this would sound highly limiting. Very few, if any, wars would actually fulfill each of these criteria. And yet Americans can justify practically every single war based on these criteria.

“We always have a moral rationale for undertaking military action. We always consider our actions defensive (even if the aggression hasn’t happened yet) and aimed at protecting the innocent. We always think we have a reasonable chance of success. We always consider ourselves to be a competent authority. And we always claim to have waited as long as possible to act.”

We delude ourselves into believing we have great reasons to act, that if we don’t act now, something horrible will happen, and that we are just protecting ourselves and the helpless, downtrodden victims of whoever the enemy-of-the-day is. If anything, “just war” theory simply provides a self-righteous justification for whatever war the elite are planning. Not only that, but it grants the United States government and her allies the moral “authority” to play judge, jury, and executioner as the world’s policeman (incidentally, this seems to be the way actual police in America are behaving as well).

Americans fail to realize that their government is not acting defensively, and certainly does not have a moral rationale for much of the military adventurism that is obediently and unquestioningly supported.

In fact, most Americans are likely unaware of how militarily aggressive their government truly is. Since America’s founding, there have been hundreds of instances of military use in foreign lands. There are only a handful of years throughout American history where America has not been at war abroad.

In addition, William Blum counts at least 55 instances since World War 2 where the United States has attempted to overthrow a foreign government (often a democratically elected one), many times successfully.

Interventions Map

And while the United States has often attempted to take down truly evil people, this is a red herring. For every petty dictator the US tries to overthrow, there are more who the US emphatically supports. The US is even backing the fascist, neo-Nazi government in Ukraine, and supporting the use of child soldiers in South Sudan. For all the railing against ISIS and how barbaric they are to behead people, the United States stands firmly behind Saudi Arabia, which beheads far more people for such “crimes” as sorcery and pleading not guilty of a crime. Better yet, the US government itself has been supporting ISIS, I kid you not.

Of course, America can do no wrong, so Americans routinely ignore these inconvenient facts. The illusion must be maintained that it is only the enemy who commits atrocities. David Swanson provides this example:

“It is as important, in selling a war, to deny or excuse one’s own atrocities as to highlight or invent the enemy’s. President Theodore Roosevelt alleged atrocities by the Filipinos, while dismissing those committed by U.S. troops in the Philippines as of no consequence and no worse than what had been done at the massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee, as if mere mass murder were the standard of acceptability. One U.S. atrocity in the Philippines involved slaughtering over 600, mostly unarmed, men, women, and children trapped in the crater of a dormant volcano. The General in command of that operation openly favored the extermination of all Filipinos.”

This type of hypocrisy, buttressed by massive propaganda efforts, is so standard that it boggles the mind. Once you begin to recognize it, you see it everywhere. You see it in so many places that you wish you did not. Occasionally I question my own sanity when I observe the absurdity of Americans continuing to believe the same lies and ignore the same hypocrisies over and over and over again.

Take the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for instance. To justify this war, we were repeatedly told that Saddam Hussein had been using chemical weapons on his own people. This is certainly true. What is universally ignored is the fact that the United States supplied Saddam with chemicals weapons during the 80s in order to use against Iran (and supplied him with intelligence so he could use them more effectively). Just one of many reasons why the Iranian government doesn’t trust us.

That’s a sin of omission. How about a sin of commission?

“On October 9, 1990, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl told a U.S. congressional committee that she’d seen Iraqi soldiers take 15 babies out of an incubator in a Kuwaiti hospital and leave them on the cold floor to die. Some congress members, including the late Tom Lantos (D., Calif.), knew but did not tell the U.S. public that the girl was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, that she’d been coached by a major U.S. public relations company paid by the Kuwaiti government, and that there was no other evidence for the story.  President George H. W. Bush used the dead babies story 10 times in the next 40 days, and seven senators used it in the Senate debate on whether to approve military action. The Kuwaiti disinformation campaign for the Gulf War would be successfully reprised by Iraqi groups favoring Iraqi regime change twelve years later.”

These kinds of lies are so routine that even providing that single example may do my argument a disservice. I can’t possibly list even a miniscule fraction of them, and any attempt to do so would inevitably result in important omissions.

Nevertheless, it is clear that, for war to have public support, the government must convince its subjects that they are acting on the side of righteousness, that they are The Good Guys who must defeat The Bad Guys. And most Americans will go along, because we want to believe that “we” are the good guys. As the great George W. Bush once said:

“We’re taking action against evil people. Because this great nation of many religions understands, our war is not against Islam, or against faith practiced by the Muslim people. Our war is a war against evil. This is clearly a case of good versus evil, and make no mistake about it – good will prevail.”

In every war, the enemy is made out to be pure evil – it makes it far easier to get your soldiers to kill those people and your civilians to cheer them on or buy war bonds. But while the manipulation may serve elite interests, it makes no logical sense.

“But just as the supposedly irredeemable heathen were converted to the correct religion when the screaming and dying stopped, so too do our wars eventually come to an end, or at least a permanent occupation of a pacified puppet state. At that point, the irredeemably evil opponents become admirable or at least tolerable allies. Were they evil to begin with or did saying so just make it easier to take a nation to war and persuade its soldiers to aim and fire? Did the people of Germany become subhuman monsters each time we had to make war on them, and then revert to being full humans when peace came? How did our Russian allies become an evil empire the moment they stopped doing the good humanitarian work of killing Germans? Or were we only pretending they were good, when actually they were evil all along? Or were we pretending they were evil when they were only somewhat confused human beings, just like us? How did Afghans and Iraqis all become demonic when a group of Saudis flew airplanes into buildings in the United States, and how did the Saudi people stay human? Don’t look for logic.” – David Swanson


Ignoring The Costs Of War

What war really looks like

This is what war really looks like, courtesy of

For Americans to fully support a war, it often isn’t enough to whip them into a frenzy of fear and jingoistic sentiment. War is expensive in terms of blood, treasure, and its toll on society, so it is important that the impact of these costs of war be minimized.

Americans happen to be very lucky when it comes to war. Surrounded by two oceans and two far weaker allies, it is very unlikely that any war the United States gets involved in would have drastic consequences for American civilians. Other than a couple of Japanese weather balloon experiments during World War 2, Americans haven’t experienced attacks at home since the Civil War ended.

War is also very expensive from a strictly financial perspective. But Americans don’t pay for war directly – the United States simply goes into huge amounts of debt and prints massive quantities of money in order to fund the war effort. This helps mask the true cost of war; instead of actually paying for it directly, Americans pay via higher prices and enslaving their children with debt.

Consider this: the total cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will likely amount to somewhere between $4 and $6 trillion dollars. This comes out to between $35,000 and $52,000 per household in the United States. According to the US Census Bureau, the median household income in 2013 was just under $52,000. Here’s a thought experiment: if Americans were told at the outset that they would have to sacrifice a full year of income to pay for these wars, how many people would have supported them? To ask the question is to answer it.

The result of all of this is that for the average American, war is simply no big deal. It happens “over there” and has no immediate effect on our lives (other than expanded mass surveillance and loss of liberties, a concession it seems most Americans are quite willing to make). This makes it easy for many Americans to forget what a horrendous thing war is – and to come up with some twisted justifications for it. War means little to the majority of Americans, but to the neoconservatives and the “humanitarian” interventionists with their “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine, it provides a cheap excuse to feel good about themselves.

Even if using the military to intervene in foreign affairs were likely to help people – and there are many reasons to believe that regional interventions are misguided and counterproductive – this hardly makes war morally justified.

Think of it this way: nearly everyone would agree that it is morally wrong to murder a random person and harvest their organs in order to save five other peoples’ lives. Many might put the ratio far higher than five to one. This means that for a war to be justified as “humanitarian,” at least five innocent lives would need to be saved for every one innocent life lost, and this is ignoring the massive uncertainty inherent in the actual decision-making process, the propensity to underestimate casualties, etc. As we will see later, it is highly unlikely that this would ever be the case.

And yet, in large part because Americans are so far removed from the costs of war, they can come up with all kinds of utilitarian justifications for it. It is a “necessary evil.” “We’ve got to crack a few eggs to make an omelet.” And so on. Tolstoy’s words ring true here: war, he said, “is not a polite recreation, but the vilest thing in life, and we ought to understand that and not play at war.”

How can wars be used to fight against evil when there is nothing more evil than war?


Forgetting The Human Element

The ultimate result of everything covered thus far – the propaganda, the hypocrisy, the remoteness of war – leads to the failure to look at people as individuals and as real human beings.

Stalin famously said that a single death was a tragedy, but a million deaths was just a statistic. The reality is that a million deaths are a million tragedies; unfortunately, people choose not to see it that way. There are many reasons to be against war, but ultimately it comes down to the sheer scale of the human cost, the million individual tragedies.

Napalm girl

A victim of napalm, after it has already burned off all her clothes.

It is not easy to count the dead in war, but people have done their best to compile estimates. World War 1 resulted in approximately 15 million deaths. World War 2 resulted in about 66 million dead, primarily civilians. Approximately 3 million died in the Korean War, and another several million in Vietnam. Over a million people, almost entirely civilians, have died as a result of the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan (despite the Pentagon’s attempts to fudge the numbers), which is only one part of the incredible human cost of these wars.

And those figures ignore the particular atrocities of war: massacres, rapes, displacement of people. In fact, 90% of all war deaths are civilians. Take Vietnam:

“According to study by Harvard Medical School and the University of Washington, there were 3.8 million violent war deaths, of which two million were civilian, with similar estimates reached by the Vietnamese government and Robert McNamara himself. Up to 500,000 Vietnamese women turned to sex work. 14,000 South Vietnamese civilians were killed, mostly by U.S. firepower, during the Tet Offensive. 70 million liters of herbicidal agents, notably Agent Orange, were dumped across the countryside. (“Only you can prevent forests” was the travestied Smokey the Bear slogan.) 3.4 million combat sorties were launched by the U.S. and South Vietnam between 1965 and 1972. The amount of ammunition fired per soldier was 26 times higher than in World War II. In the northernmost province of South Vietnam, Quang Tri, only 11 out of 35,000 villages were not damaged by bombing or artillery. A survey found that 96 percent of Marine Corps second lieutenants said they would torture prisoners to obtain information.”

Another inconvenient truth that most Americans don’t hear about is that due to American sanctions, up to half a million Iraqi children starved to death during the 1990s.

“There are disputes over the exact number of children who died as result of the sanctions, but most everyone agrees that the number ranges between 225,000 and 500,000…Let that sink in: Our own government — the U.S. government — knowingly and deliberately implemented and maintained a cruel and brutal policy with the intent to target the civilian population of Iraq, with the full knowledge that it would cost the lives of countless innocent people, including innocent children.

Even worse, year after year, knowing full well that economic privation, near-starvation, and death were the actual results of the embargo — and that it was not producing the ouster of Saddam Hussein from power — U.S. officials nonetheless steadfastly continued it.”

When asked about the effects of these sanctions, US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright said they were “worth it.”

Worth it for whom?

Oh yeah, and the United States is the only nation to ever use nuclear weapons. In particular, they were used on civilian populations, resulting in hundreds of thousands of innocent deaths.

I’m afraid that, in the spirit of Stalin’s words, the magnitude of these atrocities can get lost in the minds of most people. Many people claim they cannot “understand” or “believe” or “comprehend” these kinds of atrocities.

Let me try to help you understand.

Each one of those dead is a parent who will never see their child grow up, leaving behind a kid who must grow up without them. Each one of those dead is a child who could have lived a full life. Instead, they are the cause of the greatest sadness that a parent can experience.

Each one of those dead is a brother, sister, husband, wife, cousin, or friend. They are a human being.

When our politicians talk about the sacrifices that “we” make to “liberate” another country, they are not talking about their own sacrifices. Their “sacrifice” is to collect more money for their next campaign cycle and ensure that they have lucrative jobs in the military-industrial complex when they leave office.

No, it is everyone else who had no say in the decision to go to war who must sacrifice. More accurately, they are sacrificed on the altar of power. These people did not sign up for war. They did not ask to be murdered. They did nothing to deserve being murdered.

But these people are dead. That means no more life, no more learning, no more career, no more sharing happy moments with each other, no more music, no more friendship, no more love.

These people will never get to taste delicious food, watch a sunset, feel a cool breeze on their skin, smell freshly cut grass, or hear a beautiful melody.

Each and every one of these people meant something. They had family and friends who loved them, they had jobs and contributed to their communities, and they had hopes and dreams and aspirations. Just like you, me, or anyone else.

Iraqi burned alive in jeep

Attempting to escape his jeep, this Iraqi was burnt alive while struggling to survive.

These lives have been stolen by the elite political and corporate warmongers, and they can never be brought back. The last memory a child will have of his parents is of them being burned alive by a drone strike so badly that their skin is indistinguishable from cattle. The last memory a parent will have of their child is of them screaming in pain and terror, confused as to what they have done to deserve their fate.

These people are dead. Barack Obama murdered them. George Bush murdered them. As Harry Browne said, they murdered these people “as certainly as though [they] personally had fired a rocket launcher at their homes.”

All this death is meaningless. The only purpose of war is so that psychopathic politicians can enjoy their little power trips, and so that big defense and energy companies can make a few extra billion dollars. War is a racket, pure and simple.

Many will euphemistically and irresponsibly talk of “collateral damage.” They will say these deaths are unintended, as though somehow that implies that they don’t count. But innocent people WILL die in war. If you support war, you support innocent people dying, being maimed for life, and losing everything they have. You cannot simply separate war from the tragedies that it spawns. Those who launch wars do so knowing full well that they are causing innocent people to die, and those who support them are advocating for death and destruction.

Under normal circumstances, this is called mass murder. War turns otherwise normal people into sociopaths. What the average war supporter is advocating others to do on their behalf, they would never do on their own. War supporters would not go out and shoot innocent people, but they will happily delegate that task to someone else. Meanwhile, they feel proud of themselves and may even put a bumper sticker on their car saying as much.

This all stems from the failure of people to look at others as individuals, as fellow human beings. It is far easier to cheer on the deaths of some ambiguous, generic Iraqis than to cheer on the death of a person who is real to you. As Lucy Steigerwald said:

“Being anti-war requires a faith in people of a different religion who live in places most of us will never visit. It demands empathy and recognizing their humanity, regardless of culture clashes.”

This may require putting yourself in their shoes. Imagine how you would feel if the roles were reversed – if bombs were raining down on your city, your family and friends were getting maimed and murdered. It is this kind of empathy that is required to stop people from worshipping cowardly monsters like Chris Kyle, the famed “American Sniper.” Imagine what would happen if some Middle Eastern country really did try to take over America, and Americans fought back. Enter an Arabian Sniper:

“A guy named Abdul is hiding on a roof top in Wichita, using a scoped rifle to shoot people he believes are intending to kill other members of his army of invaders. If the person in his scope looks American- in other words, if the person obviously isn’t one of his guys- and is armed, he shoots. Man, woman, child- it makes no difference. After all, he tells himself, these dogs deserve it because they are all the same, and they want to kill him and his guys.”

When Abdul returns to his home country, his people consider him a hero. As an American, do you?

Such is the irrationality that must be overcome. If it is not okay for them to kill us, then it is not okay for us to kill them. War is just mass hypnotic psychosis. It is always wrong. But powerful interests will always be pushing for more war and more death. It is the job of each and every one of us to have empathy for others and to refuse to resolve our disputes through violence.

Those who make the wars never have to fight the wars.  The Great Deciders will never be in a night ambush, where the fear is so overpowering that their bodily control abandons them, and they shit themselves.  And the defense contractors, engorged on obscene profits, will never have to kick open a mud hut door after strafing it with automatic weapons fire, and discover a heap of dead children beneath a wounded mother, who is so traumatized that she cannot even scream.  And the media tycoons cheerleading for more carnage, will never rush to the flag-draped coffin of a dead son or daughter and wrap themselves around it in fury as the military band tries to sound heroic.”

A Modest Proposal To End Dating Anarchy And Regulate The Dating Market

Dating is cool

Dating and sex, as the means to procreate, are our biological imperative. How can we leave something so critically important to the very future of humanity up to the free market? How can we stand by while so many people are unhappy with the quality and quantity of romance in their lives? How can we justify the veritable anarchy that is the dating world when we accept government regulation in so many other areas of our lives that are deeply personal and important?

We all recognize the importance of, for example, occupational safety regulations, food safety regulations, and regulation over the substances that people choose to put in their bodies. And we all acknowledge that without these regulations, suffering would be far more widespread.

That’s why government regulation of the dating market is long overdue. Few “industries” have been as responsible for such a massive scale of suffering as the anarchy that is the dating world. Chances are, you’ve experienced some of it yourself.

It would be impossible to calculate the full cost of dating anarchy, because the damages that come from it are often long-standing and can have wide-ranging social effects. Let’s look at just a few of the problems that are a direct consequence of this unconscionable lack of regulation.

Emotional pain. No one reading this can say with a straight face that dating hasn’t caused them significant emotional pain at some point in their lives, and often several times. Nasty breakups, unrequited love, shyness and anxiety, lovesickness, embarrassment, and self-esteem issues are all common features of the current dating anarchy.

Poor matches. Between 40% and 50% of married couples end up getting divorced in America. This does not include the countless unhappy couples who choose not to get divorced for whatever reason (kids, religion, etc.). And this is just marriages – think about how many more unmarried couples are also not right for each other! This isn’t just bad for the couple; oftentimes, children can be the victims. Consider all the kids growing up with single parents or who witness discord and even nasty divorces in their home lives. The negative psychological impact of this can affect the child well into adulthood or even for their entire life – and potentially get passed on down to their own children one day.

Compare this with arranged marriages, which have only a 4% divorce rate; the divorce rate in India, where most marriages are arranged, is the world’s lowest at 1.1%. If this isn’t proof that central planning works, I don’t know what is.

Ugly man or pretty girl

False advertising. There is a lot of lying, misrepresentation, and general attempts to mislead others under dating anarchy. It is nearly a universal phenomenon that people will attempt to portray themselves in as positive a light as they can when dating, and to hide their negative qualities. This is true for both men and women. Consider men who will claim they are making significantly more money than they actually are, and women who wear makeup and dress in such ways to cover up their faults while accentuating their positive qualities.

And now, with the advent of online dating, things have gotten a whole lot worse. According to the Huffington Post, a full 54% of online daters found someone who “seriously misrepresented themselves.” The numbers may be even worse than that. According to an article in the New York Times citing various studies of online dating,

  • 81% of people misrepresent their height, weight, or age in their profiles
  • Women described themselves as 8.5 pounds thinner in their profile than they really are, while men were generous to themselves by about 2 pounds
  • Men rounded up their height by half an inch
  • Women’s profile pictures were on average a year and a half old, while men’s were six months old.

With all of this lying going on, people cannot make informed decisions about whom they should date. This results in immense amounts of wasted time and heartache, and surely contributes to the problem of poor matchups. And it could largely be prevented with a suitable regulatory regime.

Because we have laws that prevent it, it is far less frequent for people to lie about, say, what ingredients are contained in foods (and those who do lie can be prosecuted). It’s time we extend this into the realm of dating.

Inequality. This is another big one. Some people have lots of sexual partners, yet others remain virgins. Some people, due to factors beyond their control, are simply at an unfair disadvantage under dating anarchy. You can think of this as just like a problem of unequal market power – the same way that large corporations have their pick of job candidates and can enforce their will on those they employ, extremely rich or good looking people command an unfair advantage over their poor and ugly counterparts.

Unsurprisingly, research has shown that attractive men and women have a serious advantage in choice of sexual partner – they get their pick of the litter far more easily than less attractive people. Men have a strong preference for dating beautiful women, and women have a strong preference for dating wealthy men. This just further exacerbates other forms of inequality; men who are already wealthy get the most dating success – the rich get richer.

Physically unsafe. Perhaps the most serious issue with modern anarchic dating is that it is physically unsafe. The dangers are manifold, well-known, and have caused irreparable damage to millions of people. A national survey found that 57% of rapes happened on dates. Similarly, domestic abuse is incredibly common. One out of every three female homicide victims every year are killed by their current or former partner. This is clear, irrefutable evidence that people cannot be left to their own devices in choosing a partner.

Besides violence, there are other dramatically life-altering consequences of an unfettered dating “market.” The CDC reports that 20 million new sexually transmitted infections occur every year, half of which occur in the 15-24 age group. On top of that, half of all pregnancies in this country are unintended. How long will we allow this to go on?


A Modest Proposal For Dating Regulations

Based on the above arguments, it is clear that regulations regarding dating are well past due. This is fairly new territory for the government, and legal minds better than mine will be far more capable of hammering out the details and plugging the loopholes. Nevertheless, I would like to propose a framework for some of the regulations that can go a long way towards remedying the ills of anarchic dating.

For starters, there will need to be a new office created under the Department of Health and Human Services tasked with writing and enforcing the relevant rules. This office (let’s call it the National Dating Bureau, or NDB) will be responsible for maintaining a database of all those Americans who are registered to date in this country.

All Americans who wish to date must register with the NDB and receive a permit before they can do so. I recognize that there is some ambiguity in what constitutes a “date”, but most of us have a fairly intuitive grasp of what this means (and legal scholars, in tandem with relationship experts, will come up with a suitable definition).

Of course, the process of obtaining a dating permit must remain as frictionless as possible, while still ensuring improved safety and quality of dates, as well as a more equitable dating system. I propose that we borrow from the already successful Drivers’ Education model for teaching teenagers how to drive. For one quarter of all students’ freshman year of high school, pupils will complete the Dating Education program in lieu of Phys. Ed. For parents who do not want their children dating so early for religious reasons, there will be an exemption.

Experts will design the curriculum, of course, but I have a few suggestions for topics that should be covered. Courses about the qualities of successful relationships, what to look for in a partner, sexual health, tolerance, compromise and conflict resolution, honesty and transparency, and self-respect. With this background, youngsters will be far more prepared for the challenges of dating. Upon the successful completion of an exam on these materials, students will be granted their dating permits, which will be issued by the individual states.

That works for the next generation, but what about those of us who are already out of school? I acknowledge how busy most adult Americans are, and the government will respect this with a lighter touch of regulations. Rather than a full course of study, centers will be set up in each state where adults can sign up to take an abridged version of the class with only twenty hours of class time (this can be done over a single intensive weekend). In addition to passing the exam, adults will also need an STD screening and a background check before permits are issued.

Just like the many other areas in which occupational licensure and safety regulations help deal with market failure, dating permits will ensure that those in the dating pool are qualified to be there.

Additional regulations will be necessary to ensure that those authorized to date have equal access to quality dates, regardless of their privilege. There are numerous ways that this could be implemented, and policymakers should consider the pros and cons of each before deciding which is ultimately best. Two specific ideas come to mind:

  • Strict dating quotas
  • A “cap and trade”-like system for dates, analogous to the proposed carbon emissions scheme.

In the first case, anyone with a dating permit is free to go on two dates per week, and perhaps after an advanced dating class, a third. This is the ideal way to prevent the 1% from rigging the dating market and exploiting everyone else.

Under a cap and trade scheme, dates become a commodity with dollar value. This is a more flexible system than the first case, because it allows people to sell off dates on weeks where they don’t feel like dating as much, and gives people leeway to date more if they are feeling particularly amorous. As a side benefit, by taxing trade in dates, the government will have a huge new revenue source. Based on the most recent models, this could lead to an incredible $200 billion per year in tax revenue, making the NDB arguably the most efficient government agency to date. The problem with cap and trade is that it still allows those with greater means to potentially exploit the system and go on more than their fair share of dates.

Cat dating profile

In an effort to improve transparency in dating while simultaneously making it more equitable, the government will support efforts to facilitate information sharing among prospective daters. The NDB will work with states to set up their own dating sites (, so that everyone has access to an online dating profile. Naturally, it won’t be mandatory that people use the state’s site; other approved online dating sites will be available as well. In order to obtain a license to operate a private dating site, site administrators will be required to observe relevant “know your customer” laws, so that people cannot date anonymously in order to hide their faults and commit fraud. In addition, new information sharing laws will need to be implemented in order to prevent the hacking and theft of peoples’ private information that is so prevalent these days. It is a priority of this new legislation that as much information be made available to daters in order to prevent wasted time on dates that never would have worked out, and to generally make the process more honest. It is also a safety measure, so that bad apples can be more easily removed from the dating system.

In order to make this process as equitable as possible, we must recognize that many individuals have more limited means than others. To combat the effects of this inequality, the government will provide date stipends to be used only at approved venues (specific restaurants, movie theaters, and so on, after they have applied and been approved by the NDB). This Supplemental Courtship Assistance Program (SCAP) will issue its payouts discretely, so as not to subconsciously influence partners’ perceptions of each other.

Once an aspiring couple has gone on sufficient dates and gotten to know each other well enough, they must apply to the NDB and receive approval before being considered in an official relationship. Since the vast majority of relationships end in failure, this is a critical step to help minimize the consequences of the poor decisions that we all so often make! The application will include providing the NDB access to the prospective partners’ medical records to ensure genetic compatibility as well as a full psychiatric evaluation in order to determine that both partners are truly ready for a relationship. A writing sample, answering the question “For what reasons would ___ and I make a great couple?” will also be required. The NDB will work with Facebook to make sure that nobody changes their relationship status without prior approval. Finally, the relationship will undergo an annual review process involving an STD screening and personal interviews with the NDB’s licensed relationship experts. If the NDB determines that a relationship is unhealthy, it has the authority to nullify an existing relationship, subject to an appeals process for these couples.

I don't have ex's

Possibly the biggest emotional minefield under dating anarchy is the issue of breakups. Too often, the reasons one person breaks up with another are simply unjust. This isn’t merely a waste of time and resources; it is inherently unfair. As such, a panel of experts will determine which reasons for breakup are appropriate. Breaking up with someone for reasons related to race, gender, or sexual orientation is unethical and should already be considered illegal discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. Approved breakup reasons will center on issues of gross incompetence or neglect. A party to an official relationship can upload a Termination of Relationship form through a secure portal on the site, including sufficient documentary evidence to demonstrate that their breakup is for an approved reason. If a breakup is approved, there will of course be an appeals process for breakup victims in order to further protect their rights.

In order to implement these proposals, the cooperation of law enforcement at the local and national level will be paramount. Expanded surveillance will be necessary in order to catch those who are dating without a permit. In addition, there is a very real possibility that unlicensed daters will callously forego their social responsibility and attempt to avoid this regulatory system by bringing dates into international waters via cruise ships or across the border into Mexico or Canada. To prevent this, undercover agents will be placed on every cruise ship, and will make arrests when the ship is back in American territory. A Fugitive American Dating Control Act (FADCA) will require all foreign hotels to report to the NDB pertinent data on Americans who lodge with them. Failure to satisfactorily report this information will result in sanctions.

While I anticipate some controversy over these proposals from the more conservative and reactionary segments of America, their fears and complaints are ungrounded. There is precedent for every aspect of these proposals. To quote directly from the United States Constitution:

“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States” [emphasis mine]

The very same Constitution that conservatives so often use to justify their hate-spewing and exploitation-loving policies clearly grants Congress the power to legislate on behalf of the general welfare of the United States. Tell me: in what way does fixing one of the greatest problems known to man not serve the general welfare?

In the same way that no one would ever want to go back to the days of the robber barons in terms of how society regulates employment relations, 100 years from now people will think the same thing about romantic relationships.


Just Kidding – Propaganda Techniques I’ve Used In This Proposal

In case you have not figured it out by now, the preceding was purely satire. Unfortunately, I cannot assume that everyone reading this would recognize it as such. I suspect that there may even be a few people out there who would read this and conclude that I’ve had a brilliant idea. Sometimes, real life imitates the absurd and can be indistinguishable from parody. Oh well.

In any case, other than the handful of jabs that I couldn’t resist throwing into the above, I tried to write it as though this were a legitimate proposal. In doing so, I employed a handful of misleading and propagandistic techniques and logical fallacies to “bolster” my argument. Going through these would be instructive, because I have found that similar methods of argument are often used when discussing other existing and proposed regulations. Discerning readers can likely find many more, but I want to draw attention to at least a handful of them here.

  • All of the problems with dating were ascribed to anarchy, with the implicit assumption that regulation would cure these ills – even though no evidence was cited to back that up. This is easy to get away with, because the proposed solutions have the intent of fixing the problems. So long as the intent is positive and the proposal seems like it could plausibly work, most people will be convinced.
  • In describing the current dating anarchy, only the negative aspects were mentioned, and positives were completely ignored. There is simply no acknowledgement that, for the most part, dating “anarchy” works great.
  • The biological importance of dating and reproduction was cited as a reason for regulation. But the importance of any given industry or issue is irrelevant to whether regulation is good policy or not. The effects of the proposed policy are what matters.
  • I argued that arranged marriages were equivalent to central planning. It is incredibly common for statists to argue that because libertarians don’t think something should be regulated by the government, it must therefore not be regulated at all. It is beyond the scope of this article to delve deeply into this; nevertheless, it should be clear that there is a huge difference between having your parents decide who you marry and having a bureaucrat make the decision. Government central planning is backed up by force; presumably, arranged marriage is a cultural phenomenon enforced by social norms rather than violence.
  • I have employed the “won’t somebody PLEASE think of the children!” argument. You can justify nearly anything by even attempting to show that it is “good for our children.”

  • I’ve created “bad guys” or enemies whom a large percentage of the population are naturally envious of. People who, for whatever reason, get the most dates…well, this must be either because of some unwarranted “privilege” that they have (wealth, status, good looks), or because they cheated the system by lying and misrepresenting themselves.
  • A lot more was made of the fact that people misrepresent themselves while dating than is deserved. Sometimes the misrepresentations people make are truly bad (think catfishing), or are bad idea because communicating your values honestly is important in a relationship. But girls wearing makeup or certain kinds of clothing, for instance, is something that men appreciate. And saying that you are an inch taller than you are is hardly consequential; if it means anything to someone, they can figure that out on the first date and not go on a second one. But here, I have turned the whole thing into an issue of asymmetric information causing power imbalances and other problems. Then I mention that you don’t see as much lying in the food industry because of relevant food labeling laws – but this is not an empirical fact, and it is unsubstantiated.
  • I’ve taken completely natural subjective preferences (women prefer wealth and men prefer beauty) and used them to argue about inequality. Completely ignored is the fact that regulations can’t possibly change these preferences, even if they could force people to act outside their preferences. Also ignored is the evolutionary and/or rational basis for these preferences.
  • Statistics were used misleadingly (big surprise!). First, I said that 57% of rapes occurred on dates, and then I claimed that this is clear evidence that people choose partners poorly. But the two have no connection whatsoever. An appropriate statistic would be what percentage of people are raped on dates, not how often rapes occur on dates. The STD/pregnancy statistics were just fear-mongering. For that to be evidence that regulation is warranted, we need to assume that regulation would solve those problems, precisely what the proposal is trying to show. Circular logic.
  • I mention that information sharing agreements are necessary for dating sites to operate legally in order to prevent hackers from stealing private information. Completely ignored is how this is simply giving the government access to this information, and it is assumed that it won’t be used maliciously by actors from within the government. It also assumes that the government has some kind of right to this personal information that others do not. Finally, it assumes that this kind of information sharing somehow increases information security, which is most certainly not the case.
  • I mention that transparency and honesty is critical between partners, but then the SCAP program (subsidized dates) involves hiding peoples’ wealth from each other. Similarly, requiring pre-approved reasons to break up fosters dishonesty – both between partners and certainly toward the government. These kinds of ironies and unintended consequences are rather common components of regulations.
  • Approval is required to start a relationship because people so often make mistakes. But then it follows that bureaucrats are equally liable to make mistakes, and arguably more liable because they are not intimately familiar with our individual thoughts and feelings. This type of faulty reasoning is so prevalent in arguments for regulation, it makes me sick. How often do you hear that “people need to be protected from themselves.”?
  • Precedent is used to justify the entire thing. These regulations are morally acceptable because comparable regulations have been implemented in the past. But what if the rationale for those precedents is equally as mistaken as it is for arguments to regulate dating?

It’s very easy to write a convincing argument for just about anything.


The Moral Absurdity Of Regulation

While I’m certain there are some people who would read the above proposal and nod approvingly, I believe (or at least I hope) that most people would reject it as absurd. Unfortunately, most people don’t seem to recognize that ALL regulation is absurd, and for the same reasons.

What is it specifically that makes regulating the dating market so repulsive and unjust? Before answering that question myself, I’d like to consider what answers a statist might give.

Many would likely argue that dating regulations would never work. This is certainly correct. But that would imply that regulations are only just if they do work (also correct, but in my opinion, an insufficient condition). Given that other existing health and safety regulations (and all regulations, really) don’t achieve their desired social benefits (more on this later), then these other regulations ought to also be abandoned on consequentialist grounds. I suspect that most liberals would be quite unhappy with this result.

A related argument is that personal relationships are too complex to regulate, as opposed to far more straightforward work and commercial relationships. But this isn’t true at all. Consider how nobody wants to work with someone who has a “bad attitude,” however difficult that is to define. How can you possibly regulate around that type of consideration? Is a “bad attitude” a “just” cause to fire someone? What if the person with a “bad attitude” was black or disabled?

Perhaps it is the personal and private nature of romantic relationships that make them immoral to regulate. But again, this does not stand up to scrutiny. What makes a romantic relationship more private than any other kind? It is completely subjective and arbitrary to make this claim. Many people are downright vocal about their sex lives (sometimes to the chagrin of those near them), and many people are quite reserved about telling others how much money they make.

alderaan places

I submit that the reason why these proposed dating regulations are repulsive is that they involve the use of unprovoked coercion in order to prevent people from interacting in a way that would be voluntary for all involved parties. In other words, a regulation is a threat of violence against innocent people. Behind every law there is a gun – if you do not comply, state goons will resort to violence against you. Sometimes, that means murdering innocent people because they were selling loose cigarettes. Sometimes, that means molesting someone for walking the streets of New York while black, or because they needed to fly somewhere. Sometimes, that means shutting down a little girl’s lemonade stand because they didn’t have a permit. But at least that helped keep us healthy and safe, right?


Regulations Don’t Work

As stated in the previous section, a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for a regulation to be morally just would be for it to actually succeed in whatever its positive intentions are. Generally, this means improving safety and quality.

In fact, it must not only be shown that the regulations would work, but also that the benefits outweigh the costs. And given that, according to a report from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, regulations have cost the US economy $1.806 trillion per year (more than half of the federal budget, and more than 10% of total US GDP!), a very substantial safety benefit would need to be demonstrated. Keep in mind, also, that the brunt of this cost is borne by the poor, who are forced to pay higher prices and are excluded from competing in markets with higher regulatory barriers.

The costs are not merely financial, however; regulations have negative implications in other domains. For instance, were we to allow the government to regulate dating, there could be substantial repercussions in terms of individual freedom. In fact, the government already does this to some extent – that’s why gay marriage is still, ridiculously enough, illegal in some places. But it’s easy to envision other costs of further dating regulations – any sexual taboo could be regulated. Not only that, but well-connected individuals might get access to the most attractive people or otherwise flaunt the rules. This is exactly the way regulation already works in other areas.

The total costs of regulation are impossible to measure. Without going into too much detail, this is because our valuations of things are subjective. How can you possibly quantify the cost of lost liberty? You can’t, of course, and this has implications in all regulations, not just the romantic kind:

““There’s no accounting for taste” isn’t just something one can say to shrug off his buddy’s dating someone he finds unattractive. It’s an explanation of our individuality. In dating, there are millions of unique tastes and subjective valuations. This range of valuations makes regulation inherently unjust, because the perceived value of another person as a romantic partner cannot be quantified.

But the same may be said of most any government regulation. What government agent should have the authority to say that a certain job pays “too little” or is “too dangerous” to be legal? Such decisions must be left up to the people applying for those jobs, who are more familiar with their own situations than a bureaucrat in Washington could ever be. If Cathy badly needs work experience, that job that pays $5 per hour may be perfect for her, even though it would be a poor fit for someone else who is looking to pay his mortgage.”

But even though we can’t do a fully accurate cost-benefit analysis on regulations, we can try to look at the effects that regulations have had in terms of their stated goal: improving quality and safety. I do not have space to go into great detail here, but will provide links for further study if you are interested.

Occupational licensure, ostensibly aimed at making sure practitioners (any job, but health care is specifically what comes to mind) are qualified, has substantially increased costs for services without a substantial improvement in quality. This is because licensing requirements decrease the quantity of practitioners available, leading people to use lower quality substitutes and generally decreasing their access. The link above shows that this has led to reduced quality in electrical work, dentistry, plumbing, real estate, and animal care, though it should be generally true as well.

Then there was the 1906 Meat Inspection Act, which was supposed to protect consumers from the evils of the unregulated meat packing industry (and everyone knows that Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” proved this was necessary, right?). Government inspectors would go to the meat packing plant, poke meat with a rod, smell it, and deem the meat safe if the rod smelled fine. Then they’d repeat the process over and over with the same rod. The (predictable) result? Pathogens would be spread from bad meat to good meat, potentially infecting entire plants. Here’s the best part: this ridiculous method was continued through the late 1990s! The FDA can be very slow in approving new food safety processes for commercial use, the implications of which are difficult to measure. Not to be outdone, the Agriculture Department has prevented small meat packers from testing their own animals for Mad Cow Disease at the behest of larger companies that are afraid that market forces will force them to do their own expensive testing as well.

Worst of all is the FDA regulating the entire drug safety process. Dr. Mary Ruwart estimates that 4.7 million people have died needlessly over a 40 year period because they were denied access to potentially lifesaving drugs that the FDA had not yet deemed safe. Aspirin and penicillin would likely flunk the FDA approval process today.

Feeling safer yet?

Here’s a few more. Houses built under FEMA guidelines suffer more damage than houses that weren’t. The Federal Railroad Administration makes us less safe by mandating antiquated safety standards from the 1910s. Air bags were known to kill children, but were mandated for many years anyways. Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards led to smaller, less safe cars, resulting in 2500 needless deaths per year. In general, regulatory overload makes Americans less safe.

What about labor regulations and workplace safety? Free markets didn’t create child labor; they ended it. Had children not worked prior to the Industrial Revolution, they would have starved to death. If ending child labor was as easy as pushing a button/writing a law, every legislator would have done so, and far sooner. Similarly, improvements in occupational safety and shorter workweeks are a consequence of capital accumulation under market competition, not unions. For a good explanation of how markets improve workplace safety, see this.

And that brings us to our next subject: if the government is not enforcing safety regulations, then who would? How can we be kept safe? The answer, in short, is that the market process itself fosters safety improvements.

Let’s use dating as an example. Julian Adorney, whose insightful articles inspired this post in the first place, writes:

“No doubt there’s potential for abuse in the dating market. Sleazy men can treat women poorly; dishonest women can cheat on men. Some people get too drunk and do things they regret. Break-ups can cause immense emotional distress. We as a society recognize this, but we do not believe that this danger calls for government intervention. Instead, individuals take action to mitigate the damages above. A girl who dates a sleazy man will tell her friends about him, essentially giving him a negative review to steer others clear. People who drink too much and engage in behavior they later regret will learn from their mistakes and avoid similar behavior in the future. They make the similar mistakes again, but on the whole, the dating market contains a variety of complex mechanisms through which social pressure is applied to discriminate against those who break the rules of dating while favoring those who function within the established rules.”

online dating fail

An example of suggested self-regulation.

Markets are self-regulating. If safety is what consumers want, then that is what the market provides. I will not go into too much detail here, but things like Consumer Reports, the Better Business Bureau, product reviews, feedback mechanisms such as that of eBay, escrow services, insurance, and so on, can all be used to make life safer and products of higher quality. And they do this without resorting to violence, unlike government regulation.

Consider the Jewish practice of eating kosher. An entire industry of kosher certifications has evolved in a purely bottom-up process. There are several competing organizations that provide food labeling services and certify that the product is kosher. Read more about how kosher labeling is a model of private regulation here.

My previous job was at a healthcare IT firm. A private company, KLAS, did research and analytics on healthcare technology, and my company (and surely our competitors) was constantly striving to improve how we scored with them. The result was better information for hospitals deciding what type of medical record software to use – and ultimately, a better experience for hospital patients.

And you’ve probably never heard of Underwriters Laboratories (UL), but they do safety and quality tests on tens of thousands of products every year, likely including several in your home right now. They largely solve the problem of how you can trust that products which are purchased infrequently (and thus it is harder to “vote with your dollars” in future purchases) are safe and effective. It is truly a remarkable organization, and you can and should read more about it here. More:

“The Lab was the first to set standards for certifying the safety of pilots and planes before the government intervened. It set the standards for building materials, fire-fighting equipment, air conditioners, and household chemicals. It employs safecrackers and pyrotechnicians to test safes, and a variety of unique machines and devices to test thousands of other products each year. It has been testing multicolored Christmas lights since 1905, and entered the building-code business right after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.”

Voluntary organizations can be (and have been) established in many other fields in order to promote consumer safety. For an interesting discussion of self-regulation, particularly in the context of privacy, see this.

Ultimately, we must conclude that regulations in general are equally as absurd as my ridiculous proposal about regulating dating.



To finish off this article, I can do no better than to quote Mr. Adorney at length:

“This dating market is almost pure anarchy. No government bureaucrat tells you who to date. Straight white women aren’t legally obligated to only date straight white men. While sexual conduct with minors is forbidden, anyone over age eighteen can date anyone else over age eighteen.

And once you begin dating someone, no government agent steps in to tell you how the relationship must progress. There are no laws around what restaurants are “appropriate” for a first date; no burdensome rules around how many hours a date can last or how many drinks one party can imbibe.

And in the absence of government rules, unofficial codes of behavior spring up. Social norms emerge, crowd-sourced and shaped by society as a whole. It’s appropriate for a guy to buy the girl dinner. Getting drunk on a first date is frowned upon. Dating someone else on the side — cheating — is immoral and is generally cause for break-up.

No government official made these rules. No Department of Safe and Responsible Dating set these codes down in law. Instead, they form organically. Culture, from television shows like Friends to love songs, shape our social mores. How our friends behave when they date impacts how we behave. If your friends say that it’s wrong to cheat on a boy you’re seeing, you’ll probably absorb that as a rule of romance.

The result is anarchy: not an absence of rules, but an absence of rulers dictating how we behave and throwing those in jail who do not comply.”