The Practical Perspective

By Carl Watner
(Excerpted from Issue 141)

Objection 1: What would happen to the poor in a voluntaryist society?

Americans have often been referred to as the most generous people on earth. Although there has never been a true voluntaryist society, America, from its colonial roots to the early 20th Century, more closely approximated voluntaryist parameters than many other nations. What did we find happening in such circumstances?

In early America, private and community care for the poor often preceded government’s assumption of those responsibilities. If Americans wanted a school, a library, an orphanage, or a hospital they simply built it for themselves. The vitality and success of American communities rested on their voluntary nature. History and theory demonstrate that a free people produce many more goods and services than their counterparts in a centrally organized economy. Thus, there is more to go around in a free society, and the poor generally have a higher standard of living than the poor in a collectivist society. This economic largess is largely the result of the investment in tools and individual savings which are promoted by the free market economy.

Not only were there probably fewer “poor” in America, but those of the lower classes were able to better care for themselves and their poorer kin. Until the advent of State welfare in the early 20th Century, mutual aid societies, church, and fraternal organizations flourished. By 1920, about 18 million Americans belonged to some type of mutual aid society or fraternal order, which often provided some form of health, disability, and death benefits to their members. With the advent of the Great Depression (which voluntaryists assert was caused by government financial policies), government welfare programs began crowding out private efforts.

The private sector in America has not only proved itself capable of producing and creating large amounts of wealth, but it has also demonstrated its willingness to contribute to community causes and helping the poor. The record of American philanthropy is so impressive that it would require several books to list its achievements. So when one asks, “What would happen to the poor in a free society?” one only has to look at American history for an answer. As James Bryce writing in 1888 observed, “In works of active beneficence, no country has surpassed, perhaps none has equaled the United States.” [13]

Objection 2: The voluntaryist insight points out that the State depends on the cooperation of its citizens. Aren’t these citizens showing by their actions that they are consenting to the government they have?

Answer: Yes, citizens may obey their governments, but they are no more consenting to their “voluntary” enslavement than a victim of a robbery consents to his victimization. The victim of a robbery (your money or your life) “voluntarily” hands over his wallet to prevent a worse occurrence (his own death). When governments eliminate criminal penalties for failure to file and pay taxes, we can begin looking at how much real support governments might obtain voluntarily.

Objection 3: If there were no government, what would prevent criminals from taking over control of society?

Answer: First of all, voluntaryists would point out that criminals have taken over control of our society. It is only the fact that our criminal governors have so legitimated themselves in the eyes of most people that they are no longer considered criminal.

The existence of a peaceful society depends upon the fact that the large majority of people residing therein respect other people and their property. In the absence of coercive government to “protect” these peaceful people, there would be private defense and mutual protection agencies, voluntarily funded, to protect people from would-be aggressors. Each patron would contract for the level of protection he or she desired and could afford. In such a society, sureties and insurance companies would probably provide a great deal of protection, since they would have the most to lose from destruction and theft of property and life. Sureties or bonding companies would ultimately be responsible for the good behavior of those they covered.

Objection 4: Who would pay for the roads?

Answer: Those who use them and require their existence. Although roads have been a government monopoly throughout much of history, there is much historical evidence that roads could built and operated on a for-profit basis. Government monopolization and control of the roads has led to many inefficiencies, deaths, and environmental destruction. [14]

Objection 5: Is it right that voluntaryists benefit from government services and yet do not wish to pay for them?

Answer: Voluntaryists recognize that there is no such thing as a free lunch. They are not asking for government services in the first place. Governments by their coercive provision of certain services eliminates the voluntaryist’s range of choice among providers. The voluntaryist may need to know “what time it is,” but that doesn’t mean that the government has a right to eliminate all competitors and force the consumer to purchase from only a government agency. If a thief steals your watch, outlaws all other forms of telling time, tells you the time, and then demands that you pay him for providing you with this service, would you consider yourself obligated to pay him? Of course not. Similarly, the voluntaryist holds that the government should not be providing any services in the first place (any more than the thief should have stolen your watch or outlawed would-be competitors). When government uses coercion to enforce its will, many problematic situations arise. Voluntaryists try to resolve them by abandoning government, and using private services when available and affordable.