By Carl Watner
Seldom does one find a book that embraces statism to the hilt, but THE COST OF RIGHTS (New York: W. W. Norton: 1999), by Stephen Holmes and Cass R. Sunstein, is one such. From its subtitle, Why Liberty Depends on Taxes, to the assertion in the second paragraph of the dust jacket, that our rights to property, speech and religion … would not exist if government could not collect taxes to codify, protect, and enforce them, we find the authors turning liberty upon its head, making us slaves of the state, and our ownership of property dependent upon the legislature. Let us first offer a few definitions and then let our authors speak for themselves.
As I have previously explained in my articles about Freedom As Self-Control, freedom is an attitude of mind, a spiritual quality which cannot be conquered by iron jail bars or even death. Freedom is an inner spirit which allows each person to seek and speak the truth to the best of their ability. Freedom is bulletproof in the sense that one cannot shoot a truth. One’s body may be shot, but that does not affect the validity of one’s ideas. Liberty is a condition of not being molested by other human beings, either in one’s own body or in one’s rightfully owned property. In other words, each person has rights as an individual, that do not depend on their place of birth or the privileges granted to them by the political system within which they live.
Holmes and Sunstein might not dispute these assertions, but they completely ignore the possibility that rights might be protected by entities other than coercive governments. They define rights as important interests that can be reliably protected by individuals or groups using the instrumentalities of government. [p. 16, italics in original] To our authors, individual rights and freedoms depend fundamentally on vigorous state action. [p. 14] Personal liberty … presupposes social cooperation managed by government officials. [p. 15] Without government … there would be no right to use, enjoy, destroy, or dispose of the things we own. [p. 59] Property rights exist because possession and use are created and regulated by law. [p. 60] As Daniel Klein put it in his analysis, Holmes and Sunstein hold that all things are owned, fundamentally and ultimately by the government. ˜Private property [is] a creation of state action, [and] ˜laws [enable property owners] to acquire and hold what is ˜theirs’. [pp. 66, 230] 1 Holmes and Sunstein never defend the implication of their definition, that all rights stem from the government. Nor do they ever explain why and how governments have the right to protect us. 2
The reason that Holmes and Sunstein say that government depends on taxes is because governments require money to exist. Without money to pay soldiers, police, judicial officials, office workers, and other bureaucratic employees, governments would not be able to provide the services they now perform for their citizens. Fire protection, police, the army, the courts all require paid personnel, equipment, buildings, and roads to access these facilities. In short, these things cost money. Since governments are not charities, they do not solicit voluntary contributions. Since governments are not competitive businesses, they do not charge for their services. Instead, governments get their funds via taxation: the compulsory collection of revenue from their citizens. How much governments collect is not limited by what its competition charges (since the government will permit no one to compete with it, there is no competition), but simply by how much robbery the public will stand for before its members refuse to pay or revolt, or both.
But the truth is Holmes and Sunstein miss their mark. Most people desire some sort of professional protection from thieves, fires, and access to some type of professional dispute resolution service. Holmes and Sunstein never ask the most important question: Is it necessary that these services be provided by a coercive and monopolistic government? The answer is, No, and there are clear historical cases – when and where governments were not present to provide these services – that we find such services being provided on a competitive and voluntary basis. Such services do not depend on the existence of governments, but rather on the need, desire, and willingness of consumers to pay for them (on a competitive market, where they are not monopolized or prohibited by a coercive government). In American history, this has happened innumerable times. Both travelers going west on the Overland Trail and people in California during the early days of the Gold Rush, had no government to provide basic public services. Does this mean they had no right to their property or that anarchy and chaos ensued? Surely not. Listen to one contemporary observer of the Gold Rush:
The first consequence of the unprecedented rush of emigration from all parts of the world into the country almost unknown, and but half reclaimed from its original barbarism, was to render all law virtually null, … . From the beginning, a state of things little short of anarchy might have been reasonably awaited.
Instead of this, a disposition to maintain order and secure the rights of all, was shown throughout the mining districts. In the absence of all law or available protection, the people met and adopted rules for their mutual security – rules adapted to their situation, where they neither had guards nor prisons, and where the slightest license given to crime or trespass of any kind would inevitably lead to terrible disorders. …
In all the large diggings, which had been worked for some time, there were established regulations, which were faithfully observed. … When a new placer or gulch was discovered, the first thing done was to elect officers and extend the area of order. The result was that in a district five hundred miles long, and inhabited by 100,000 people, who had neither government, regular laws, rules, military protection, nor even locks or bolts, and a great part of whom possessed wealth enough to tempt the vicious and depraved, there was as much security to life and property as in any part of the Union, and as small a proportion of crime.3
At other times, on the American western frontier, the federal government could not adequately maintain a circulating currency. So businessmen set up their own mints and began providing coined money that effectively competed with government coinage. The point is that while the western frontier may have been stateless, due to the absence of the federal government and its employees, it was not lawless. Property on the western frontier existed despite the fact that state and federal governments were not there to enforce their statutory laws.
The fact of the matter is that Holmes and Sunstein have it all backwards. If there were no property, there would be nothing for the parasitic state to expropriate. If members of civil society did not work and produce, what would there be for the members of the state apparatus to confiscate? There can be no thievery if there is nothing to steal, and there can be nothing to steal if something is not first produced. As Carroll Quigley observed, when public authority in the Western world disappeared around 900 A.D., society continued. … It was discovered that man can live without a state; … . It was discovered that economic life, religious life, law, and private property can all exist and function effectively without a state.4 Or as John Zane put it in THE STORY OF LAW: Nothing is more silly than to say that the law made private property. The fact is the exact opposite. Private property came to exist [independently of the state] and it made the law.5
Government protection (alleged) of property rights is one of those political myths which governments use quite effectively to legitimize their conquest over us. In reality, government can only negate property rights, not protect them. This is true for a number of reasons, both theoretical and historical. First of all, governments have historically derived their revenues from taxation. This necessarily violates the rights of those who would not voluntarily support them. If those people do not willingly surrender their property, which is demanded by the government in the form of taxes, then government agents will ultimately either seize their property or imprison them for refusal to pay.
Secondly, all governments presume to establish a compulsory monopoly of defense (police, courts, law) services over a given geographical area. Individual property owners who do not wish to be included are protected nonetheless. If they resist the enforcement of government laws, they will eventually be jailed for obstruction of governmental administration of justice, or killed for resisting armed government officers. Furthermore, as commentators such as Murray Rothbard, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, and Walter Block have noted, the idea that the state can provide any sort of legitimate protection is inherently contradictory. How can government protect us by stealing from us? Governments do not protect our property from thieves; instead governments steal our property under the guise of taxation and call it protecting us. Or as Hans-Hermann Hoppe put it, A tax-funded protection agency is a contradiction in terms.6
In the last paragraph of their book, Holmes and Sunstein write that only through government can a complex modern society achieve the degree of social cooperation necessary to attain the liberty of the individual. [p. 232] I whole heartedly disagree with their statement. The history of voluntaryism in America, and other parts of the world, proves them wrong. From the evolution of the English language, to the establishment of time zones, to the standardization of railroad track gauges, to the establishment of industrial standards, to the evolution of private mediation and arbitration, voluntaryism has shown itself capable of creating vibrant communities. Social cooperation does not depend on government compulsion, nor does co-operation happen at the point of the government’s gun. It occurs when people interact for mutual benefit.
Another example of world-wide voluntary co-operation is the credit card industry. Credit card associations, such as Visa, MasterCard, and Discover make it possible for cardholders to use their charge cards almost anywhere. Yet as Edward Stringham has pointed out government did not create this system. No one is forced to use a credit card, nor is anyone harmed by not using one.7 The difficult problem of verifying the credit worthiness of individual customers is solved by their use of a reputable credit card. If debit and credit cards can operate all over the world, in the absence of a single unified world government, what other services might exist if their was no government to inhibit their creation?
To Holmes and Sunstein I say, yes: rights have costs; but governments have even greater costs and drawbacks. Give us, the members of society, a choice. Let us spend our money, freely, as we choose! My guess is that very little money would go to coercive government. As soon as people realized they could get more bang for the buck from the competition, government as we know it would become bankrupt. Voluntaryism and liberty depend on respect for individual rights and free choice, not on coercive government and taxes. Pay your money, and make your choice: Which would you rather have?