Tag Archives: Ludwig von Mises Institute

Is Libertarianism Compatible With Religion?

by Laurence M. Vance

Recently by Laurence M. Vance: The Fluoridation Question Revisited


This talk was given at the 2011 Austrian Scholars Conference at the Mises Institute.

I never met Murray Rothbard. I still remember the day when I received a postcard in the mail announcing that he had died. I think that he, an agnostic Jew, and I, a devout Christian, would have gotten along just fine since we shared a common enemy – the state. I still have the postcard and the admiration for Rothbard that I had sixteen years ago.

I think that libertarianism has reached the point where we can safely say that more than at any time in the last fifty years a great number of libertarians are religious people. It was twenty-three years ago – a time when many of us still identified ourselves as liberals or conservatives, and some of you were not old enough to know the difference – when Rothbard opined that “the libertarian movement, and the Libertarian Party, will get nowhere in America – or throughout the world – so long as it is perceived, as it generally is, as a movement dedicated to atheism.” “Nock, Morley, Chodorov, Flynn et al. were not atheists,” he continued, “but for various accidental reasons of history, the libertarian movement after the 1950’s consisted almost exclusively of atheists.” “There is nothing inherently of wrong with this,” explained Rothbard, “except that many libertarians have habitually and wrongly acted as if religious people in general and Christians in particular are pariahs and equivalent to statists.” Just a few months before this, Rothbard had lamented that he was “getting tired of the offhanded smearing of religion that has long been endemic to the libertarian movement.” “Religion,” he said “is generally dismissed as imbecilic at best, inherently evil at worst.”

Although I think that things have greatly improved, many libertarians today are no more accommodating of religion than those in Rothbard’s day. Even though many religious people perhaps deserve the disdain of libertarians because of their faith-based statism, religion itself certainly doesn’t. It was the nonreligious Rothbard who acknowledged that “the greatest and most creative minds in the history of mankind have been deeply and profoundly religious, most of them Christian.”

The question I want to address today is simply this: Is libertarianism compatible with religion? Many libertarians say no, the two are not compatible. Some of them even consider religion to be a greater enemy of human liberty than the state, a proposition that Walter Block has debunked. Many religious people also say no, the two are not compatible. In the minds of some of them, libertarianism is just a synonym for libertinism, an erroneous idea that has also been debunked by Walter Block. (Is there any false notion about libertarianism that Walter Block hasn’t debunked?) Even some conservatives say no, the two are not compatible. Thomas Fleming, the editor of Chronicles magazine, considers the phrase “Christian libertarians” to be “as oxymoronic as Christian socialists.”

Now, although I have some strong opinions about religion – and enough degrees in theology to make sure I offend the greatest number of people – what I personally believe about religion is totally irrelevant. The question of “Is libertarianism compatible with religion?” is a question that Walter Block or the most militant Randian could ask and answer without changing the content of this talk. What you personally believe about religion is also completely immaterial. Whether you think that a particular religion is the absolute truth that you would be willing to die for or that all religions are just a collection of myths and stories mixed with history doesn’t affect the importance of the question. In the end, people are going to side with their religion over the ideas of dead Austrian economists. It is therefore imperative that the question be answered.

Libertarians who ignore the question do so at their peril. If libertarianism is not compatible with religion, then we who believe that the principles of libertarianism are true, just, and right must engage in the futile task of trying to get people to abandon their religion to accept libertarianism. We would face the impossible task of destroying someone’s faith in his God and/or scripture before we could convince him of the truth of libertarianism. Now, you may be both a hard-core atheist and a libertarian, but as Rothbard warned: “We libertarians will never win the hearts and minds of Americans or of the rest of the world if we persist in wrongly identifying libertarianism with atheism. If even Stalin couldn’t stamp out religion, libertarians are not going to succeed with a few Randian syllogisms.”

The title of my paper is no accident. I think religious people have more of a problem with libertarianism than libertarians have with religion. I think it is harder to convince a religious person that libertarianism doesn’t violate the tenets of his religion than to convince a libertarian that religion doesn’t violate the tenets of libertarianism. Although some libertarians deserve the disdain of religious people for their libertinism, I put most of the blame for the need for this talk on religious people because of their ignorance of both libertarianism and religion.

So, all that being said, my short answer to the question of whether libertarianism is compatible with is religion yes. But since it would not be enough just to say “I am religious, I am libertarian, so the answer to the question has to be yes, thank you and good day,” my long answer is what follows.

In order to determine if libertarianism is compatible with religion we must first understand what libertarianism is. The world is full of mistaken notions about libertarianism. It is often misunderstood and mischaracterized by its opponents as discounting human nature and disdaining morality while being grossly naïve and overly utopian. We have all heard the standard clichés, usually out of the mouth of conservatives, religious or otherwise:

  • Libertarians are for abortion.
  • Libertarians are for drug use.
  • Libertarians are against religion.
  • Libertarians are against traditional values.

True, some libertarians might be for and against these things, but so might someone who is not a libertarian.

To get a proper perspective of what libertarianism really is, I turn to two of its greatest proponents: Murray Rothbard and Walter Block.

As described by Rothbard:

Libertarianism is not and does not pretend to be a complete moral, or aesthetic theory; it is only a political theory, that is, the important subset of moral theory that deals with the proper role of violence in social life. . . . Libertarianism holds that the only proper role of violence is to defend person and property against violence, that any use of violence that goes beyond such just defense is itself aggressive, unjust, and criminal. Libertarianism, therefore, is a theory which states that everyone should be free of violent invasion, should be free to do as he sees fit except invade the person or property of another. What a person does with his or her life is vital and important, but is simply irrelevant to libertarianism.

And as explained by Block:

The non-aggression axiom is the lynchpin of the philosophy of libertarianism. It states, simply, that it shall be legal for anyone to do anything he wants, provided only that he not initiate (or threaten) violence against the person or legitimately owned property of another. That is, in the free society, one has the right to manufacture, buy or sell any good or service at any mutually agreeable terms.

In his seminal article “Libertarianism or Libertinism,” Block compactly states the essence of libertarianism:

Libertarianism is a political philosophy. It [is] concerned solely with the proper use of force. Its core premise is that it should be illegal to threaten or initiate violence against a person or his property without his permission; force is justified only in defense or retaliation. That is it, in a nutshell. The rest is mere explanation, elaboration, and qualification – and answering misconceived objections.

And in an article on plumb-line libertarianism, Block simply says: “Libertarianism is solely a political philosophy. It asks one and only one question: Under what conditions is the use of violence justified? And it gives one and only one answer: Violence can be used only in response, or in reaction to, a prior violation of private property rights.” Clearly, libertarianism cannot be simplistically defined, like some Cato guys recently did, as “fiscally conservative, socially liberal.” And I should also say that libertarianism is a way of life, not a lifestyle.

Now that we know what libertarianism is, in order to determine if it is compatible with religion it we must next look at what we mean by religion. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism – these are all considered to be the world’s great religions. That, however, is where their similarity begins and ends. Although they do have some common tenets, the constraints of my talent and your time mean that we are going to have to narrow our scope.

The focus of my talk will therefore be on Christianity – but not just because I am a Christian. I suspect that most of the people listening to me right now, or who will listen to a recording or read a transcript of this talk in the future, would identify themselves as Christians. This is not surprising since a majority of Americans still identify themselves as Christians. This does not mean that America is a Christian nation – regardless of what Islamic countries and God and country Red-State Christian fascists think (who would have thought those two groups would be in agreement on anything). It does mean that if we are to reach the majority of Americans with the message of liberty that we should know whether libertarianism is compatible with their religion.

This is a significant year in the history of Christianity. The year 2011 is the four-hundredth anniversary of the publication of the Authorized Version, better known as the King James Version of the Bible because it was translated under the authority of King James I of England, beginning in 1604.

But regardless of which version of Bible is used, to the Christian, the Bible is the supreme authority, not the works of Mises or Rothbard, however highly we may regard them.

The Bible is not only the book that has had the greatest impact on Western Civilization; it is the foundation of Christianity. Christians may differ on certain aspects of their religion, but they are all united in their belief that the Bible is some kind of an authority. For a Christian to say otherwise is to reveal that his religion is really meaningless.

For a Christian to respect the Bible as some kind of an authority to the extent that he might reject libertarianism because of it generally means that such an individual holds to a high view of Scripture or a literal view of the Bible. Obviously, not everything in the Bible is meant to be taken literally. The Bible contains idioms and figures of speech just like any other form of writing. And clearly, Christians have genuine differences of interpretation on certain portions of Scripture. A literal view of the Bible simply means that one accepts literally things in the Bible unless it is clear that they are not to be taken so. Miracles and other supernatural events actually happened. The virgin birth was an actual virgin birth. The resurrection of Christ is a real historical event. And most relevant to the question at hand, the precepts of Christ and the Apostles are meant to be obeyed and followed; they are not just opinions or suggestions to be accepted or rejected at will.

I only mention all this because some people wrongly believe that a literal view of the Bible is just a tenet of fundamentalist Christians. True, it is usually those who are the most ardent Bible literalists that are the toughest nuts to crack when it comes to libertarianism. It shouldn’t be that way, as I will argue in this talk, but that’s the reality. But if those who believe the Bible most literally can be persuaded of the compatibility of libertarianism with their version of Christianity, then those who take a somewhat less literal view of the Bible will not be far behind.

Let me reiterate that what you or I personally believe about the Bible is irrelevant. At issue is simply this: If libertarianism iscompatible with a Christianity grounded on the authority of the Bible, then we have many possible “converts” to the cause of liberty and a free society. But on the other hand, if libertarianism is not compatible with a Christianity grounded on the authority of the Bible, then many Christian Americans, if they take their religion seriously, will be forever hostile or indifferent to liberty and a free society since the primary objections to libertarianism are moral.

So, why do I think that religion – in this case the Christian religion – is compatible with libertarianism? Let me give you two verses of Scripture, one from the Old Testament and one from the New, since Christians accept the authority of both:

Proverbs 3:30 – “Strive not with a man without cause, if he have done thee no harm.”

1 Peter 4:15 – “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters.”

These verses, my friends, embody the essence of libertarianism. Don’t kill anyone, don’t take what’s not yours, don’t do anyone wrong, don’t stick your nose in someone else’s business, and don’t bother anyone if he hasn’t bothered you. Other than that do whatever you want – “Anything that’s peaceful,” as Leonard Read says, for “ye have been called unto liberty,” as the Apostle Paul says. The only caveats for Christians when it comes to liberty are to not let their liberty become a stumbling block to weaker brothers and to not use their liberty for an occasion to the flesh; that is, don’t be a libertine.

And you thought I was going to give you some complicated theological or philosophical argument. The Bible commands the Christian to devise not evil against his neighbor (Proverbs 3:29), love his neighbor as himself (Romans 13:9), show meekness unto all men (Titus 3:2), do good unto all men (Galatians 6:10), provide things honest in the sight of all men (Romans 12:21), and live peaceably with all men (Romans 12:18). If libertarianism is not compatible with these things then it is not compatible with anything.

The Christian is also told in the Bible:

And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him. (Colossians 3:17)

And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men. (Colossians 3:23)

Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Can a Christian assault someone in the name of the Lord Jesus? Can a Christian steal from someone heartily, as to the Lord? Can a Christian kill someone to the glory of God? I think the answer to these questions is obvious. And I also think it is apparent that libertarianism is compatible with the Christian religion.

But I would go a step further. Not only is libertarianism compatible with the most strict, most biblically literal form of Christianity, it is demanded by it. The Christian is enjoined in Scripture to go even beyond the non-aggression principle.

He is told, not to just turn the other cheek, but to “endure hardness” (2 Timothy 2:3), “endure afflictions” (2 Timothy 4:5), and “endure grief” (1 Peter 2:19). Revenge and retaliation for the Christian are not options. Some Christians get hung up on Romans 13 and end up making apologies for the state and its wars. It’s too bad they skipped over Romans 12:

Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not. (Romans 12:14)

Recompense to no man evil for evil. (Romans 12:17)

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. (Romans 12:19)

Overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)

So, if libertarianism is more than compatible with the Christian religion, why do religious people – Christians – reject libertarianism? Why aren’t the majority of Christians libertarians instead of liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, and other assorted statists? Let me briefly give you some reasons. One, misconstruing libertarianism as a hedonistic philosophy instead of a political philosophy. Two, the poor presentation of libertarianism by libertarians. Three, wrongly thinking that libertarianism demands that one be pro-abortion. Four, morality; the two-fold failure to make a distinction between vices and crimes and crimes and sins. And five, social justice; wrongly applying to the government admonitions given to individuals.

I have developed these latter three points elsewhere. On abortion, see my LRC article “Is Ron Paul Wrong on Abortion?” On morality, see my Liberty magazine article “An Open Letter to My Fellow Christians,” which is based on my 2006 ASC lecture “Christianity and Victimless Crimes.” And on social justice, see my little book The Myth of the Just Price, which is the text of my 2008 Lou Church lecture of the same name in which I argue that there should be no government intervention in society or the economy.

I have tried in this talk to show why I believe libertarianism is scripturally compatible with religion. Is everything that has been done in the name of libertarianism compatible with religion? Of course not. But neither is everything that has been done in the name of religion compatible with libertarianism or even with religion. I think it is possible that it might someday be said not only that the greatest and most creative minds in the history of religion have been deeply and profoundly libertarian, but that the greatest and most creative minds in the history of libertarianism have been deeply and profoundly religious.

March 15, 2011


Laurence M. Vance [send him mail] writes from central Florida. He is the author of Christianity and War and Other Essays Against the Warfare State, The Revolution that Wasn’t, and Rethinking the Good War. His latest book is The Quatercentenary of the King James Bible. Visit his website.


How To Win An Election

Mises Daily: Wednesday, February 16, 2011 by 

[An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Steven Ng, is available for download.]

In his superb analysis of democracy, Hans-Hermann Hoppe observes that “prime ministers and presidents are selected for their proven efficiency as morally uninhibited demagogues. Thus, democracy virtually assures that only bad and dangerous men will ever rise to the top of government.”[1] Those who seek political office appear to be eager to break the moral code that most of us are willing to follow. The greater the power of the political office that a candidate is seeking, the more likely it is that that individual has no sense of right and wrong.

At the local level, we sometimes find elected officials that we respect, but at the federal level, such candidates are few and far between. With few exceptions, Congressman Ron Paul comes to mind, it seems that the minimum requirement to be a viable congressional or presidential candidate is the ability to exploit others.[2]

George W. Bush is a prime example of candidates’ apparent willingness to be unscrupulous in order to acquire and wield political power. The deceit of his administration during his eight years of reign was readily apparent to unbiased observers, and we see the same characteristics in the Barack Obama administration.

Questions arise from the preceding observation: Why are scoundrels successful in the political arena? Even if we recognize that morally corrupt individuals will seek to rule over others,[3] why do voters support such candidates? Would we not expect people to vote for morally upright candidates? Do corrupt candidates have an advantage over candidates with integrity?

This essay attempts to answer these questions and explain why moral corruption tends to be a characteristic of successful political candidates. Applying economic analysis to political decision making provides us with conclusions regarding the necessary attributes of winning political candidates.

The Nature of an Election

Understanding the nature of an election is the first step in winning an election. Let’s begin by comparing an election to private-sector decisions. Think about how consumers make their daily purchases. A consumer will go to Walmart, grab a shopping cart, and fill the cart with items that he wants and is willing to pay for. There’s nothing in the cart that the consumer does not want and every item is worth more to the buyer than its price.

Such purchases represent market democracy in action. As Ludwig von Mises explained, in a market economy,

the lord of production is the consumer. From this point of view the capitalist society is a democracy in which every penny represents a ballot paper. It is a democracy with an imperative and immediately revocable mandate to its deputies.[4]

In a market, each consumer decides exactly what he wants to buy; he votes every time he purchases goods and services.

In a market democracy, voting is registered by spending money. You can have a blue shirt by voting for the blue shirt with your money. In other words, your vote matters. Each consumer chooses the goods that he wants and he ends up with nothing that he would rather not have.

Also, everybody gets to have a different cart. Some buyers leave with carts full of costly goods, while others walk out with only a few items. You buy the blue shirt, another buyer purchases a red shirt, and I decide to not buy a shirt. The fact that you want a blue shirt does no harm to me. This is an important point. In market democracy, there is no reason for consumers’ disagreements to lead to conflict. Each consumer may vote differently, but one consumer’s purchase of a shopping cart of goods does not compel other consumers to take home the same set of goods.

Finally, each consumer has an incentive to be informed to some degree about his purchases. Because acquiring information about products allows one to make better decisions, buyers take time to know something about these products. This is especially true for expensive items. For items that are a large part of a consumer’s budget, it’s worth the effort to research the available options. One is rewarded for finding high quality items at relatively low prices.

Things are quite different in a political democracy. 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.

This demonstrates the concept of bundled choices in political decision making. The carts represent candidates and the products are the political positions of those candidates. The candidates might support policies that a particular citizen favors, but that individual won’t agree with everything a candidate stands for. In private decisions, one chooses only the items he wants, since the choices are not bundled, but in political decisions, you don’t have this option. If you support a candidate, you realize that you are accepting a bundled choice that includes some policies that you do not favor.

Also, for reasons that will be explained later, 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.

We see here the conflict present in political decisions. You want a blue shirt, someone else wants a red shirt, and I don’t want a shirt. Your wishes conflict with mine. In order for you to be satisfied, you support policies that are harmful to me. We don’t see this type of conflict in market democracy.

Returning to the Walmart shopping cart analogy, 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.

It’s the same way in any major election. The chance of any single vote changing the outcome of an election is remote. Therefore, voters have little incentive to be informed about the items in the two carts. Going to the effort of learning about the two carts generates few rewards. Even being fully informed about the items in the carts will not change anything, since any individual vote will not change the outcome of the election.

Finally, even though the voters are promised a particular set of goods in the shopping cart that won the election, that doesn’t mean that the voters will receive that set of goods. The candidate could promise to deliver a specific set of policies, but after the election, the office holder is free to deliver a different set of policies to the voters, either because the candidate changed his position on some issues or because he was being deceitful during the campaign in order to gain political support.

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. I will consider these two issues in order.

Which Political Bundle Will Win the Election?

Consider a spectrum of possible political positions. There are extremists, such as libertarians and Marxists, at the edges of the spectrum. Most voters are not at these extremes of the spectrum. Many voters tend to have somewhat similar views and they are in what we might call the center of the spectrum. I realize that one might argue that the bulk of voters are nearer to one edge of the spectrum than other edges, but my point is that there is a centrist position in this spectrum and voters tend to be clustered in this region of the spectrum.

In order to win the election, a candidate needs to appeal to this center position. If candidate D takes a position much to the left of center and candidate R takes a position just slightly to the right of candidate D, then R will probably win the election. Similarly, if candidate R takes a right-of-center position, candidate D can win the election by taking a position slightly to the left of R. Therefore, in order to win the election, each candidate wants to appeal to the center of the political spectrum.

The analysis above is a watered down version of the median-voter theorem. Candidates of both parties need to get the support of the middle-of-the-road voter, the “median” voter.[5] This conclusion has some important implications.

First of all, since both candidates are trying to appeal to the median voter, we should expect the candidates to hold similar positions. 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.

Federal debt nearly doubled during Bush’s reign and it appears that it may double again under Obama. Both presidents supported massive healthcare bills that increased federal spending and federal control over the healthcare industry. And, importantly, both presidents support loose monetary policies and the Federal Reserve system, the primary cause of the current economic crisis.[6]

Second, we should expect many voters to be unhappy with the outcome of the election. Those who agree with the political preferences of the median voter may be satisfied with the winning candidate’s positions, but many voters hold positions that are considerably different than the centrist position and will find little comfort in the political positions of the winning candidate.

Third, the need to appeal to the center of the political spectrum creates a dilemma for the candidates. 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.

In our common political language, the Republican needs to take a right-wing position in the primary and then move to the center for the general election. The Democrat makes a similar change from a left-wing position to a centrist position.

There are at least two keys for a candidate to change his position and still hold his political support. First, a candidate needs to appeal to his base during the primary election, without taking firm positions. At this point, he needs to avoid being too specific. He wants to be able to change his position while at the same time denying that any such change occurred. After the primary, he can swing to the middle of the road.

Each candidate knows that he is changing his positions, but he also knows that the other candidate is acting in a similar manner. The winning strategy here is to be the first to accuse your opponent of flip-flopping, and point to his obvious change of heart, while all the time maintaining that you haven’t changed your position at all. The goal is to shine the spotlight on your opponent’s deceptiveness and assert that you are a straight talker who never waivers in his convictions, all the while ignoring the fact that the only convictions most candidates have is the willingness to do anything to acquire political power. Such deceptiveness pays off for reasons that will be explained later.

Next, we must consider which bundle of political positions will appeal to the center of the political spectrum. The obvious conclusion is that a candidate needs to pick a bundle that contains positions that reward his followers for their support.

Voters will support a candidate who will give them political favors. Various groups are willing to lobby government officials — economists call this lobbying rent seeking — to gain these benefits. Think of it as an exchange. Groups are willing to provide money and political support to candidates and in return candidates transfer wealth to these groups.

A candidate can buy votes by providing concentrated benefits to special-interest groups. These favors can take the form of transfer payments, where the state simply takes money from some people and gives it to others, or some market intervention such as price supports for agricultural products or various protectionist policies. The main budgetary task of the federal government is to hand out these political favors, as the bulk of federal spending is made up of transfer payments. On top of this spending, laws and regulations tend to be aimed at benefitting the politically favored classes.

The downside of handing out favors in exchange for political support is that someone has to pay for these policies. The trick, politically, is to gain support by providing concentrated benefits to various groups while losing a minimal amount of support from those who are harmed by the policies.

Therefore, it’s important to disperse the costs of government largesse. If you take $10 apiece from 10 million people, these victims will have little incentive to oppose this policy. Few would find it worth their time to lobby against a policy that only costs a person $10. However, if you take this $100 million and offer $100,000 to each of 1,000 people, then this group will find it profitable to organize a political action committee and give you votes and cash. In order to get other people’s money, the favored group will be willing to organize, hire lobbyists, send campaign contributions to the appropriate officials, and campaign for the candidate that has organized this wealth transfer.

In addition to dispersing the costs of government programs, it’s also sometimes possible to hide the costs from the taxpayers. For example, few workers understand the tax burden of the Social Security system. On their paychecks, workers see that 6.2 percent of their gross pay is taken from them to pay for Social Security. What they don’t see is that employers match this tax payment with an equal additional payment. It seems that employers are paying half of the Social Security taxes. That’s not the case. Even though the employers are legally liable for the tax, they shift the tax on to workers in the form of lower wages. The Social Security tax burden, 12.4 percent of each worker’s gross pay, falls on workers. This is just one of the many ways that politicos hide the costs of government policies.

When running for office, it’s important to emphasize the benefits of the wealth transfers to the recipients of the transfers and ignore the costs to the victims of the policies. Henry Hazlitt explained that the “art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”[7] Hazlitt illustrated this idea by considering a broken window. Breaking the window creates a job for the glazier, an immediate effect, but repairing the window reduces spending in other sectors of the economy. The long-run effects include the negative effects on the workers in these sectors.

A key to winning an election is to reverse Hazlitt’s wisdom. The art of political campaigning is to look only at the immediate effects for one group, the group that benefits from the policy in question, and ignore the negative effects on other groups. By ignoring the overall effects of a policy, candidates can support destructive policies that harm social welfare. We saw an obvious example of this broken-window fallacy in the 2009 “cash for clunkers” program, when the Obama administration made the ridiculous claim that destroying 700,000 cars in the United States would help our economy. Elected officials have turned the famous broken-window fallacy into the broken-window excuse for handing out political favors.

Candidates know how to play this game. Therefore, they all tend to favor increased government spending, more burdensome regulations, and additional central planning. The country is headed down the road towards totalitarian socialism[8] and the Democratic and Republican candidates are arguing about how fast we should drive the car.

So, in order to gain political support, a candidate needs to cater to special interests by supporting policies with concentrated benefits and dispersed costs, and, to the degree possible, he must hide the costs of the policies. The lesson here is that a candidate that respects private property is at a disadvantage and is likely to lose the election. A willingness to take others’ property — in everyday life we would call this thievery — is critical to gaining political power.

Your Vote Doesn’t Matter

Once a candidate has bribed voters for their support, he next needs to find a way to get his supporters to vote, all the while recognizing that individual votes will have no effect on the election. The odds of a single vote changing the outcome of an election are about 1/N, where N is the number of voters in the election. Roughly 130 million people voted in the 2008 presidential election, so the chance of a single vote making a difference was, roughly speaking, less than one millionth of one percent.[9]

A lot of potential voters, however, can be convinced that their vote will make a difference. In order to win support, candidates stress that each vote does matter. They claim that the election hinges on every single vote and that the upcoming election is always the most important election in a lifetime. Since voting is infrequent, voters will have forgotten that the last election was also the most important election ever.

Linking voting to patriotism or claiming that practicing democracy is equivalent to living in a free country are also successful tactics. Of course, such statements are false, but many people still fall for these claims. It helps that the government schools reinforce these ideas and teach students that it’s their civic duty to vote. After 12 years of hearing this propaganda, many people will accept this position. History shows that this works.

What Role Does Deceptiveness Play in an Election?

The analysis above leads us to the conclusion that candidates will engage in deception. A major problem with supporting policies that have concentrated benefits and dispersed costs is that such policies are not in the public’s interest. Militarism, price controls, protectionist policies, transfer payments, and socializing various industries impoverish the country. When candidates use these schemes to get elected, they generally hide the fact that their proposals harm the country. Instead of being truthful, candidates claim that the destructive policies are good for society. Of course, these policies centralize political power and are therefore good for those closely associated with the state, but the candidates are lying when they claim that the programs generate net benefits to the overall country. Consider a few of the fallacious claims that we should expect to hear from those running for political office:

For instance, 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.

Asserting that your positions will help the country works particularly well if you are an incumbent. During time in office, whenever there is good news, an incumbent will claim that his policies created the good news. If the unemployment rate drops, we will hear him claim that this is his doing. The claim that event A (some government policy) preceded event B (some positive outcome) and therefore event A must have caused event B is the post hoc fallacy. Most people will not recognize this as a fallacy, however, so office holders can get away with this sleight of hand.

For those that are skeptical of your claims, it may be necessary to have some “experts,” bought and paid for by the government, back up your claims. Many economists and other academics seek to work for the government and they see that it’s in their interest to draw conclusions that fit the positions of elected officials in order to be rewarded with money and power. Such experts gain fame and riches and elected officials gain by being able to assert that authorities support their policies. Only the public loses out in this game.

As mentioned before, another complication of gaining political office is that you often need to win two elections, a primary election and then a general election. The problem here is the need to appeal to the voters in a particular political party for the primary election and to the general population for the general election. This may require the candidate to switch positions. The set of bundled choices that will win the primary election may be different than the political positions that will win the general election. Candidates will therefore be vague and try to avoid specifics in the primary election.

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 to make such claims, candidates rely on the fact that voters will not recognize that the candidates largely agree on the major issues regarding government policy.

Voting is another area where candidates lie. Candidates, or their handlers, know that individual votes do not matter. Yet these same candidates continually encourage their supporters to vote by alleging that each vote could make a difference.

This long list of deceptions leads us to another important lesson. A candidate that is averse to being deceitful is at a disadvantage and is likely to lose the election. Successful candidates tend to be liars.

Won’t people generally discover that elected officials and candidates for elected office lie? Probably not, since most people are rationally ignorant. In other words, it’s not worth it to most people to be well-informed about political issues.

Consider again the shopping-cart analogy. For most people, the cost of understanding the political bundle in the cart is higher than the benefits of gaining this knowledge. Even if a voter has perfect knowledge about the candidates, his individual vote will not have any bearing on the election. Therefore, most voters have little incentive to be informed. It’s rational to be ignorant about the details of candidates’ positions and government policies, and ignorant voters may fail to recognize the candidates’ lies.


This essay considered the question: why are scoundrels successful in the political arena? Analyzing the nature of an election provides us with an answer. In order to win an election, candidates need to offer their supporters other people’s wealth, and candidates must convince their supporters to vote in spite of the fact that individual votes will not affect the election. Accomplishing these two goals requires deception. Therefore, candidates who are willing to violate property rights — to steal — and be deceptive have an advantage over candidates with stronger moral convictions. So of course elected officials are corrupt. Candidates with moral integrity are at a severe disadvantage in the political sphere. Do not put your hope in political solutions.

Mark Brandly is a professor of economics at Ferris State University and an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Send him mail. See Mark Brandly’s article archives.

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[1] Hans-Hermann Hoppe. 2001. Democracy: The God That Failed. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, p. 88. If the reader is interested in a comprehensive analysis of democratic institutions, this is the book to read.

[2] For an Austrian view of class analysis and exploitation theory, see Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s “Marxist and Austrian Class Analysis.”Download PDF

[3] Friedrich A. Hayek provides a wonderful explanation of this point in “Why the Worst Get on Top,” chapter 10 of The Road to Serfdom.

[4] Ludwig von Mises. 1981. Socialism:An Economic and Sociological Analysis. Indianapolis, Liberty Classics, p.400.

[5] Agents of the state have monopolistic advantages that allow them to support policies at the expense of voters in general, and some may argue that elected officials can ignore voters’ preferences, even the preferences of the median voter. This argument has merit. For this reason, strictly speaking, the median-voter theorem is flawed. However, I am arguing that candidates, during an election, must appear to cater to voters’ wants in general, and specifically to the voters that are clustered in the political center. Once in office, political officials may ignore voters’ preferences. The system protects the officeholders from political repercussions when the officeholders support policies opposed by the majority of voters.

[6] For an explanation of the Federal Reserve’s role in causing the ongoing economic crisis, see Tom Woods’Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse.

[7] Henry Hazlitt. 1979. Economics in One Lesson. New York, Crown Trade Paperbacks, p.17.

[8] For more analysis of our move to a socialized economy, see Tom Woods’ Back on the Road to Serfdom: The Resurgence of Statism.

[9] See Cecil E. Bohannon and T. Normal Van Cott’s “Now More Than Ever, Your Vote Doesn’t Matter” for an explanation of the point that a single vote is unlikely to affect the outcome of an election with many voters.Download PDF



Jesus and Soldiers

The following is written up at The Libertarian Standard. The whole evangelical christian warmongering thing is of great concern to me. Most people in that genre consider Oliver North a hero even though the evidence of his crimes makes him a traitor to America and probably a major player in the drug distribution system in the late 70’s through the early 80’s. (E)

The Libertarian Standard

by Stephan Kinsella on November 12, 2010 @ 10:34 am

Last night, I attended “Heal Our Heroes: Ministering to the Military in Our Midst,” an event here in Houston featuring keynote speaker Colonel Oliver North. (I was invited by a friend who had a table.) It was a fundraising dinner for Military Ministry, which provides various spiritual counseling and resources to soldiers. There were parents and a singer who had lost loved ones or suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) etc. from the Iraq or Afghanistan war, various testimonials, etc. It was very Protestant in that Jesus was mentioned repeatedly and they explicitly pushed for us to give money at the end (Catholics are a bit more discreet when they ask for money–they just pass the basket).

I can understand wanting to help those who are suffering from the effects of war–even the soldiers. But after showcasing all the soldiers’ whose lives have been ruined by the military and by war, you would think there might be a word about peace or stopping the fighting that causes such devastation. But no, not a word. I suppose this is understandable: their mission was to raise money, so they focused on that.

But two other things really shocked me, both regarding the degree to which American Protestant Christians have intermingled their faith with patriotism and love of the state. For one, an award was given out, which was a miniature replica of a statue of Jesus hugging a soldier. Now I have no doubt the idea of a loving, compassionate savior giving succor to someone damaged by war is compatible with Christianity, but this seemed to go beyond that. And this impression was reinforced by the words of a young lady who spoke on behalf of MM. She said that in this world there are only two classes of people who have directly given their lives for you: Jesus, who gave his life to save your soul; and the soldier, who gives his life to save your freedom. Jesus comforting and forgiving the soldier–fine. Comparing soldiers to Jesus? Sacrilege. I don’t think Jesus is supposed to have had guilt or PTSD over what He did. Soldiers do, for a reason: War is hell. Jesus didn’t kill and murder people. Soldiers do.

Christians in America, especially Protestants and the “right-wing” types, it seems to me, have their priorities a bit out of place. Statolatry crowds out true faith and religion.

Heal our Heroes-1

Heal our Heroes-2

Stephan is an attorney and libertarian writer in Houston, Senior Fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and the founder and editor of Libertarian Papers. His most recent book is Property, Freedom, and Society: Essays in Honor of Hans-Hermann Hoppe (co-editor, with Jörg Guido Hülsmann; Mises Institute, 2009).

Stephan Kinsella

Nullification: What You’ll Never Learn in School


Mises Daily: Friday, October 29, 2010 by

Having just finished a course on the New Deal for the Mises Academy, I’m nowoffering one on state nullification, the subject of my most recent book. I thought my New Deal course covered issues and sources left out of the typical classroom, but in that respect this course has that one beat.

Nullification is the Jeffersonian idea that the states of the American Union must judge the constitutionality of the acts of their agent, the federal government, since no impartial arbiter between them exists. When the federal government exercises a particularly dangerous power not delegated to it, the states must refuse to allow its enforcement within their borders.

I can hear people saying that such a response doesn’t go nearly far enough. No argument there. The trouble with nullification is not that it is too “extreme,” as the enforcers of opinion would say, but that it is too timid. But it gets people thinking in terms of resistance, which has to be a good thing, and it defies the unexamined premise of the entire political spectrum, according to which society must be organized with a single, irresistible power center issuing infallible commands from the top.

That’s at least a pretty good start.

The course, Nullification: A Jeffersonian Bulwark Against Tyranny, will cover the basics, to be sure, and after the first week everyone will be well-grounded in the relevant issues. But then I want to dig into the primary sources. I want to examine the long-forgotten debates on this subject in detail. In particular, we’ll study the exchanges between Daniel Webster and Robert Hayne, Andrew Jackson and Littleton Waller Tazewell, and Joseph Story and Abel Upshur.

Hardly anyone, including graduate students in American history, has actually read these texts as opposed to just knowing of their existence — and if my own experience at Columbia University is any indication, even that is more than some grad students know.

The various commissars who have taken it upon themselves to ensure that no one strays from officially approved opinion — or to appropriately scold anyone who in fact does so — have become apoplectic at the return of nullification. I confess to taking mischievous delight in this. They are accustomed to setting the terms of debate. They are not used to seeing people promote ideas of their own.

And the commissars have not read these sources, either. But you will. You will know the arguments of both sides inside and out.

You will also enjoy the discussions that ensue at the end of each lecture. You can sign off whenever you like, of course, but during the course I just completed on the New Deal I stayed around for an hour and a half to two extra hours answering questions and directing discussion, and then shooting the breeze about anything people wanted to discuss. We had a great time. As always, the lectures are available for viewing, along with a full transcript of the chat box, for people who cannot watch them live.

Mises Academy: Tom Woods teaches Nullification: A Jeffersonian Bulwark Against Tyranny

I understand the impatience that many of us feel regarding nullification, particularly the complaints that

  1. the Constitution per se isn’t what matters anyway; what matters is freedom; and
  2. the states are no angels, either.

These criticisms are by no means misplaced. But nullification remains a useful quiver in the liberty arsenal all the same. As I’ve said, it gets people thinking in healthy ways. And it can be employed for good purposes, as when the Principles of ’98 (as the ideas culminating in nullification came to be known) were cited on behalf of free speech and free trade, and against unconstitutional searches and seizures, military conscription, and fugitive-slave laws. In our own day, Janet Napolitano said the reason the Real ID Act failed was that the states refused to cooperate in its enforcement.

And the states are indeed rotten, too — which is why we may as well put them to some good use by pursuing nullification. Liberty is more likely to have room to flourish in a world of many competing jurisdictions rather than under a single, irresistible jurisdiction.

In short, this course will introduce you to a chapter of American history that has fallen down the memory hole but which is much too interesting and valuable to leave down there. In the process of pulling it out, you’ll acquire a much deeper understanding of American history.

I hope you’ll join me.

Here is the Mises Institute‘s Jeffrey Tucker interviewing me on the subject:

(You can also watch this video on YouTube.)

Thomas E. Woods, Jr. (visit his website) is a senior fellow at the Mises Institute, where he will be teaching “Nullification: A Jeffersonian Bulwark Against Tyranny” this fall at the Mises Academy. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse. His other recent books include 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask, The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy, Nullification, and The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (a New York Times bestseller). Send him mail. See Thomas E. Woods, Jr.’s article archives.

Fantastic Libertarian Rapper: Neema V


by Stephan Kinsella on September 22, 2009

in Culture,LewRockwell.com Blog Posts

As noted on LewRockwell.com, there’s a wonderful Rap video by a young libertarian rapper, Neema V (from Houston, so he’s my homie). See the video below, and a great short interview by him on FreeTalkLive, in which Neema V goes on about the influence Ron Paul, Lew Rockwell, and Butler Shaffer had on him (Shaffer’s book Boundaries of Order is featured in the video). This young man is intelligent, thoughtful, pleasant, interesting, and talented (amazing video and song for a home-made solo production). Go Neema V! FYNV!!

One Nation, Under God, and Its Child Soldiers

by C.J. Maloney
Recently by CJ Maloney: Good Luck and Good Hunting

Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
~ Matthew 18:2–6

My brain did not begin the day thinking about war, the base activity which Lew Rockwell once termed “the murder end of the state.” (Rockwell, Jr, Llewellyn H. Speaking of Liberty. Auburn, AL, Ludwig Von Mises Institute, 2003, p.139) It was thinking about the beach, a far more pleasant activity. This being modern America, though, it wasn’t long, not even five minutes after our arrival, when my wife exclaimed an “Oh…my…God.” That’s when I noticed she’d bought along The New York Times and the war crawled onto the beach with us.

She handed the paper to me in disgust, as if it were covered in filth. Shielding my eyes from the sun to read the article I see we’ve been arming and training Somalia’s army, at least the one we favor, and they in turn are using that money to arm children (some as young as nine) to fight our War of Terror. As I read further into it I am, needless to say, dripping in proud patriotism. What fresh hell is this? We’re back in Somalia?

I have vague memories of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, a nice tale of our last disastrous fool’s errand into Somalia. Granted, we left once but an empire never truly leaves anywhere forever. Now, not wanting to put our own soldiers at risk this go round we are instead using locals as armed proxies to do our bidding. In this case, that means fighting whomever we’ve designated as the enemy for this month and, to make the American flag unfurl even more proudly in the sun, we’re arming and training child soldiers to do it.

All these little boy soldiers are funded and armed by a tentacle of the Pentagon called AFRICON, which was created in 2008 to make certain that no matter where in Africa mayhem may erupt an American weapons dealer will be there to cash in. Some of the latest entries onto the list of our “allies in the War of Terror” include Nigeria, Ethiopia, Liberia, Uganda, and now Somalia’s “Transitional Government.” To the informed, that reads as if the local police department has been funding and arming the local pimps, drug dealers, Mafia dons, and cutthroats, but our War of Terror requires these types of compromises, so I am told.

The more historical minded could sit back and wonder what all the (little bit of an) uproar was about, and would point to the ubiquitous drummer boys used by both sides during America’s Civil War. The American use of children in battle is nothing new; it merely faded as we climbed up the ladder of civilization. Over the past decades we’ve come tumbling back down that ladder and here we are, 2010, knowingly arming children to fight on the empire’s behalf. What we are seeing is what one always sees in a militarized society – the slow devolution away from civilized behavior and towards what the soldier-scholars call “total war,” sparing no woman or child. It is the American Way.

Of course, all the guilty parties are just shocked to the very core of their shrunken, shriveled souls that American taxpayers have been (and are) arming children. “Now, now,” the U.S. State Department says to the Somalia faction that we back, “Don’t you go using children as soldiers, you hear?” The head master of our Somalia proxy, a Fagin-like thug named Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, has ordered his army chief to conduct a “full review” to get to the bottom of things. The United Nations estimates that up to 25% of our allied army in Somalia consists of child soldiers, so it shouldn’t be too tough a task for him to find one of our little armed urchins.

While our political masters are upset, no doubt, over the embarrassment this caused them (for a few moments, until the story quickly faded) don’t think for a moment that this has made them cut off the flow of money, weapons, and ammo to these child soldiers. Our army of little African boys is “a critical piece” of our War of Terror in the Horn of Africa, say the experts. Plus, consider the cost savings, as doubtless Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has. Not too long ago he whined that an all-volunteer force was getting awful expensive, and according to The New York Times our little boy soldiers are getting paid, if at all, only $1.50 per day, and that’s quite a bargain by any measure.

So as not to appear too one-sided, it must be admitted that AFRICON has provided (and is providing) these children with certain job skills that they can fall back on until the end of their days. For instance little Ahmed, all of 15-years-old, was sent to Uganda at the age of 12 and taught by American trainers “how to kill with a knife.” His fellow soldier Awil, now 12-years-old, says he “loves the gun.”

And to be fair, while the political grandees around the globe have laws (specifically the Convention on the Rights of the Child) that prohibit the use of children in combat, neither the United States or Somalia ever signed it, so it’s a bit of a stretch to expect us to adhere to something we are not signatories on.

Enough. I stop reading the paper and watch my son running the length of the shoreline with the ocean waves his backdrop, and I think of all the children, barely older than he, that part of my every workday is spent to supply with weapons. I gag on a surge of patriotism.

There are many predictions on this site for the coming demise of the American empire, and with God’s mercy that blessed day can’t come soon enough.

October 18, 2010

CJ Maloney [send him mail] lives and works in New York City. He blogs for Liberty & Power on the History News Network website and the DailyKos. His first book (on Arthurdale, West Virginia during the New Deal) is to be released by John Wiley and Sons in February 2011.

Copyright © 2010 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.

The Best of C.J. Maloney

If Men Were Angels

Ludwig von Mises Institute

Tu Ne Cede Malis

Mises Daily: Friday, October 15, 2010 by

[Excerpted from “If Men Were Angels,” Journal of Libertarian Studies, 2007.]

In The Federalist No. 51, arguably the most important one of all, James Madison wrote in defense of a proposed national constitution that would establish a structure of “checks and balances between the different departments” of the government and, as a result, constrain the government’s oppression of the public. In making his argument, Madison penned the following paragraph, which comes close to being a short course in political science:

The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.[1]

The passage that refers to the angels is a rhetorical masterpiece, so memorable that it has become almost a cliché. In Madison’s argument, however, it does more than emphasize that human nature is something less than angelic. It also serves as a springboard that propels Madison directly into a consideration of “framing a government which is to be administered by men over men,” which is “but the greatest of all reflections on human nature.”

In short, it moves Madison directly to a consideration of government as we have known it for the past several thousand years — a monopoly operating ultimately by threat or actual use of violence, making rules for and extracting tribute from the residents of the territory it controls. Henceforth, for clarity, I refer to this all-too-familiar type of organization as “the state.”

Perhaps everyone will agree that if we were all angels, no state would be necessary, and if angels were the governors, they would require neither internal nor external constraints to ensure that they governed justly. In terms of Table 1, we would be indifferent between the two cells in the first row.

Table 1 — Madison’s Model
No state State
Men are angels OK OK
Men are not angels Not conceivable Best conceivable

In Madison’s mind, the no-state option was inconceivable, for reasons he expressed obliquely when he wrote:

In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger; and as, in the latter state, even the stronger individuals are prompted, by the uncertainty of their condition, to submit to a government which may protect the weak as well as themselves; so, in the former state, will the more powerful factions or parties be gradually induced, by a like motive, to wish for a government which will protect all parties, the weaker as well as the more powerful.[2]

Thus, Madison, apparently following Locke, believed that individuals would not choose to remain in a stateless condition and would submit to the authority of a state in order to attain greater security of person and property. Countless other thinkers over the years have reasoned likewise, as Mancur Olson did in his final book when he concluded, “If a population acts to serve its common interest, it will never choose anarchy.”[3]

Disorder, Liberty, and the State

Nothing is more common than the assumption that without a state, a society will fall necessarily and immediately into violent disorder; indeed, anarchy and chaos are often used as synonyms. The Random House Dictionary gives the following four definitions for anarchy:

  1. a state of society without government or law
  2. political and social disorder due to absence of governmental control
  3. a theory that regards the absence of all direct or coercive government as a political ideal and that proposes the cooperative and voluntary association of individuals and groups as the principal mode of organized society
  4. confusion; chaos; disorder

Suppose, however, that the situation described by the third definition were not merely an ideal, but a genuine possibility, perhaps even a historically instantiated condition.

Locke, Madison, Olson, and nearly everybody else, of course, have concluded from their theoretical deliberations that the stateless option cannot exist — at least, not for long — because its deficiencies make it so manifestly inferior to life in a society under a state. The alleged absence of significant historical examples of large, stateless societies during the past several thousand years buttresses these theory-based conclusions: just as “the poor we have always with us,” so except among primitive peoples, society and the state are taken to have always coexisted.

One need not spend much time, however, to find theoretical arguments — some of them worked out in great detail and at considerable length[4] — about why and how a stateless society could work successfully. Moreover, researchers have adduced historical examples of large stateless societies, ranging from the ancient Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley[5] to Somalia during the greater part of the past decade and a half.[6] Given the enormous literature that has accumulated on stateless societies in theory and in actual operation, we may conclude that, if nothing else, such societies are conceivable.[7]

In this light, both cells in the second row of Madison’s model must be seen as live options, whose most likely outcomes are, I suggest, as indicated in the More Realistic Model shown in Table 2:

Table 2 — More Realistic Model
No state State
Men are angels OK OK
Men are not angels Bad situation Worse situation

Although I admit that the outcome in a stateless society will be bad, because not only are people not angels, but many of them are irredeemably vicious in the extreme, I conjecture that the outcome in a society under a state will be worse, indeed much worse, because, first, the most vicious people in society will tend to gain control of the state[8] and, second, by virtue of this control over the state’s powerful engines of death and destruction, they will wreak vastly more harm than they ever could have caused outside the state.[9] It is unfortunate that some individuals commit crimes, but it is stunningly worse when such criminally inclined individuals wield state powers.

Lest anyone protest that the state’s true “function” or “duty” or “end” is, as Locke, Madison, and countless others have argued, to protect individuals’ rights to life, liberty, and property, the evidence of history clearly shows that, as a rule, real states do not behave accordingly. The idea that states actually function along such lines or that they strive to carry out such a duty or to achieve such an end resides in the realm of wishful thinking.

“It is unfortunate that some individuals commit crimes, but it is stunningly worse when such criminally inclined individuals wield state powers.”

Although some states in their own self-interest may at some times protect some residents of their territories (other than the state’s own functionaries), such protection is at best highly unreliable and all too often nothing but a solemn farce. Moreover, it is invariably mixed with crimes against the very people the state purports to protect, because the state cannot even exist without committing the crimes of extortion and robbery, which states call taxation;[10] and as a rule, this existential state crime is but the merest beginning of its assaults on the lives, liberties, and property of its resident population.

In the United States, for example, the state at one time or another during recent decades has confined millions of persons in dreadful steel cages because they had the temerity to engage in the wholly voluntary buying and selling or the mere possession of officially disapproved products. Compounding these state crimes (of kidnapping and unjust confinement) with impudence, state officials brazenly claim credit for their assaults on the victims of their so-called War on Drugs.

State functionaries have yet to explain how their rampant unprovoked crimes comport with the archetype described and justified in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. In vain do many of us yearn for relief from the state’s duplicitous cruelty: Where is the state of nature when we really need it?

An Application of the Precautionary Principle

In pondering the suitability of the More Realistic Model, we might well apply the precautionary principle, which has been much discussed (and nearly always misapplied) in recent years in relation to environmental policy. This principle holds that if an action or policy might cause great, irreparable harm, then, notwithstanding a lack of scientific consensus, those who support the action or policy should shoulder the burden of proof. In applying this principle to the state’s establishment and operation, the state’s supporters would appear to stagger under a burden of proof they cannot support with either logic or evidence.

Everyone can see the immense harm the state causes day in and day out, not to mention its periodic orgies of mass death and destruction. In the past century alone, states caused hundreds of millions of deaths, not to the combatants on both sides of the many wars they launched, whose casualties loom large enough, but to “their own” populations, whom they have chosen to shoot, bomb, shell, hack, stab, beat, gas, starve, work to death, and otherwise obliterate in ways too grotesque to contemplate calmly.[11]

Yet, almost incomprehensibly, people fear that without the state’s supposedly all-important protection, society will lapse into disorder and people will suffer grave harm. Even an analyst so astute as Olson, who speaks frankly of “governments and all the good and bad things they do,” proceeds immediately to contrast “the horrible anarchies that emerge in their absence,”[12] although he gives no examples or citations to support his characterization of anarchy. But the state’s harms — “the bad things they do” — are here and now, undeniable, immense, and horrifying, whereas the harms allegedly to be suffered without the state are specters of the mind and almost entirely conjectural.

This debate would not appear to be evenly matched. Defending the continued existence of the state, despite having absolute certainty of a corresponding continuation of its intrinsic engagement in robbery, destruction, murder, and countless other crimes, requires that one imagine nonstate chaos, disorder, and death on a scale that nonstate actors seem incapable of causing. Nor, to my knowledge, does any historical example attest to such large-scale nonstate mayhem. With regard to large-scale death and destruction, no person, group, or private organization can even begin to compare to the state, which is easily the greatest instrument of destruction known to man.

All nonstate threats to life, liberty, and property appear to be relatively petty and therefore can be dealt with. Only states can pose truly massive threats, and sooner or later the horrors with which they menace mankind invariably come to pass.

The lesson of the precautionary principle is plain: Because people are vile and corruptible, the state, which holds by far the greatest potential for harm and tends to be captured by the worst of the worst, is much too risky for anyone to justify its continuation. To tolerate it is not simply to play with fire, but to chance the total destruction of the human race.

Robert Higgs is senior fellow in political economy for the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. He is the 2007 recipient of the Gary G. Schlarbaum Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Cause of Liberty. Send him mail. See Robert Higgs’s article archives.

This article is excerpted from “If Men Were Angels: The Basic Analytics of the State versus Self-Government,” Journal of Libertarian Studies, vol 21, no. 4 (Winter 2007): pp. 55–68.Download PDF

You can subscribe to future articles by Robert Higgs via this RSS feed.


[1] James Madison, “The Federalist No. 51,” The Federalist (New York: Modern Library), p. 337.

[2] Ibid., p. 340.

[3] Mancur Olson, Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p. 65.

[4] See, e.g., Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, rev. ed. (New York: Collier Books, 1978); and David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism, 2nd ed. (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1989).

[5] Thomas J. Thompson, “An Ancient Stateless Civilization: Bronze Age India and the State in History,” Independent Review, vol. 10 (Winter 2006), pp. 365–384.Download PDF

[6] Robert Higgs, Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society, (Oakland, CA: The Independent Institute, 2004), pp. 374, 376; Yummi Kim, “Stateless in Somalia and Loving It,” Mises Daily, February 21, 2006.

[7] For a far-reaching compendium on the entire subject, see Edward P. Stringham, Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice (Oakland, CA: The Independent Institute, 2007).

[8] Frierich A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944), pp. 134–152; F.G. Bailey, Humbuggery and Manipulation: The Art of Leadership (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988); and Higgs, Against Leviathan, pp. 33–56.

[9] Higgs, Against Leviathan, pp. 101–105.

[10] Albert Nock, “The Criminality of the State,” American Mercury (March 1939).

[11] R.J. Rummel’s latest estimate of twentieth-century democide stands at 262 million persons; the details are available at his Web site.

[12] Olson, Power and Prosperity, p. 66 (emphasis added).

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