By Peter Spotswood Dillard
As a voluntaryist, I want to secede from The United States of America, the State of Pennsylvania where I now live, the County of Chester, and the Township of Pennsbury without relocating. To borrow a phrase from the sixties, I want to “opt out” and live my life without having to participate in the coercive schemes of these authorities. Others can set up a state if they want to–but leave me alone.
I can already hear the objections from some of my statist neighbors. I’d like to anticipate them with a few perfectly logical replies that might prove useful to other voluntaryists under fire.
Objection: Doesn’t government provide you with a lot of benefits: police protection, defense, road maintenance, etc.? Doesn’t your enjoyment of these benefits mean you have a duty to obey the state?
Reply: No one asked me if I wanted any of this stuff. I never signed any contract. I just found myself in circumstances where forcing people to pay for things they never requested was a fait accompli. Sure, I enjoy these benefits. Yet, it doesn’t follow that I have a duty to pay for them. Suppose someone started mowing my lawn without asking my permission. Clearly that doesn’t give him the right to show up one day and force me to pay for his “service.” Furthermore, police protection, defense, road maintenance, and other services currently provided by government can be provided more efficiently by private contractors on the open market because they must voluntarily obtain the business. For example, when it snows a guy plows my driveway for me. If he charges what I think is “too” much, or does a poor job, then I look for someone else to provide the service. Since government generally “outlaws” the competition, there is no incentive to provide a better job at a lower price.
Objection: You preach one thing and practice something else. You’ve spent your whole life obeying the state’s authority by paying your taxes. Doesn’t that show you’ve given your tacit consent to government?
Reply: The notion of tacit consent goes at least as far back as John Locke, but it didn’t make sense in the seventeenth century, and it still doesn’t make sense today. What would tacit dissent be like? Moreover, when I hand my wallet over to a crook who threatens to blow me away with a .38 if I refuse, I’m not giving my tacit consent that robbery is morally acceptable. So when I pay my taxes to a government that threatens to imprison me if I don’t comply, it’s hard to see how I’m giving my tacit consent–whatever that is–that state coercion is morally acceptable. Just because many of us have spent our lives following the dictates of the state, it doesn’t follow that we believe in the legitimacy of government. Maybe there are lots of closet voluntaryists!
Objection: Love it or leave it. You’re free to move someplace where there isn’t any government. Why not build a house on the moon?
Reply: First, why should I incur the sizeable cost of relocating to a stateless place? If the fellow mowing my lawn without permission promised to stop if I moved to a desert island at my own expense I’d say he was extremely illogical, if not daft. More importantly, the objector is willing to let me opt out, so long as I opt out far away from here. But what difference does it make whether I opt out here or a thousand miles from here? In either case, I won’t interfere with anybody else and I won’t be paying any taxes. I conclude that if I can be allowed to opt out on the moon, I should also be allowed to opt out right smack in the middle of the good old U.S. of A.
Objection: You make it sound like you don’t have any say in the matter. But you do. In the next election you can always vote against authorities and ballot initiatives you feel are too coercive. All it takes is a majority of voters to change things.
Reply: The very idea of majority rule is irrational. If given the option, no liberty-loving individualist would ever subjugate himself to a group in which a majority of members called the shots. The majority might decide it was okay to sacrifice virgins. They might decide, with George Wallace, that segregation of blacks and whites should be state policy. The majority might decide, with socialistic communitarians like Hillary Clinton, that everyone should be strong-armed into mediocre, state-run health care. The majority might decide, with fascistic communitarians like Robert Bork, that gay people should be treated like dogs. The voluntaryist doesn’t want anything to do with majority rule since the majority, no more than the minority, have no right to violate my self-ownership or property rights.
Objection: What about the mechanisms we have to protect individual liberties against the tyranny of the majority? You know, the Supreme Court, the Bill of Rights.
Reply: The Supreme Court is a government institution. The justices are government employees that receive tax money for life. Once they get in, a simple majority renders decisions in a manner that is absolutely unaccountable to the people those decisions affect. Worse than the tyranny of a majority over a minority, the Court gives us the tyranny of a minority over a majority. Even the Bill of Rights doesn’t go far enough, because it still permits the use of force to collect taxes. Even if the Bill of Rights ever offered any protection against government, it has clearly failed to protect us today.
Objection: What if everybody seceded? Wouldn’t that lead to total chaos?
Reply: If everybody–my fellow inhabitants of Pennsbury Township, the Eskimos, the Red Chinese, etc.–seceded from government and minded his or her own business, the world would be a better place. However, we need to remember it still wouldn’t be perfect. Trouble arises when one group chooses voluntaryism, another doesn’t, and the statists set out to conquer the voluntaryists. But, as Thomas Paine observed long ago, by cultivating mutually beneficial free trade with partners around the globe–China, Cuba, Iraq, North Korea, whomever–the voluntaryists would create a strong incentive for their trading partners not to initiate force against them. After all, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
In the case of a determined aggressor, the voluntaryists could use all the money they save by abolishing taxes to devise effective defense systems that minimize casualities. For example, instead of funneling billions of tax dollars to the military-industrial complex before it produces products that work, the voluntaryists could take competive bids from independent contractors to design a truly effective missile shield–not like the one President Bush is proposing, which at best is sixty percent effective when the wind isn’t blowing. Continued funding would be contingent on results, not talk. Smart, non-violent alternatives, such as hacking into an aggressor’s computer network and disabling programs that coordinate attacks, could finally be developed and utilized, making the world a safer place.
Objection: Some people don’t have the same opportunities you have. They need better food, adequate housing, better education, better jobs, and affordable health care. Government is a way to increase opportunity by satisfying these needs.
Reply: I agree it would be good for more people to have more opportunities. The question is, does a third party have a right to provide those opportunities by forcing other people to fund them? Suppose Terry needs $20,000 to buy a new car that would increase his opportunities by enabling him to start his own delivery business. Does that give you the right to point a gun at my head or threaten me with imprisonment unless I give Terry $20,000? Certainly not. From the fact that I have X and Terry wants or needs X, it doesn’t follow that you have the right to make me give Terry X. Substitute “better food,” “adequate housing,” etc. for X and say good-by to the welfare state. Of course, people should be allowed to contribute to the welfare of others–but please, no arm-twisting.
Objection: What’s so bad about coercion? Remember the classic case of the mad doctor who has the only supply of a medicine that can cure a plague that will kill thousands but refuses to share any? Would any one be justified in taking the medicine away from the doctor?
Reply: Coercion corrupts, political power corrupts, and the use of coercion sets a precedent that soon boomerangs out of control. If you permit someone to use violence for a “good” cause, how do you object when someone else grabs power to use violence on behalf of a “bad” cause? Then, all you can argue about is whether the cause is “good” or “bad,” not whether violence should be used. Violence inevitably violates someone’s rights, so it best be left alone except in self-defense.
Let’s get clear about what the classic case does and does not establish. It may establish that it’s all right for SOMEBODY to deal with the mad doctor. It does not establish the legitimacy of a STATE with broad coercive authority, including the authority to take the medicine away from the mad doctor. So, how would voluntaryists deal with him if he won’t listen to reason? First of all, the voluntaryist remembers that the doctor is not the cause of the plague. He is thankful the doctor knows the remedy. If the doctor won’t sell, that’s his right, but without a government-backed patent, someone else might be able to produce a generic version of the medicine. The voluntaryists might ostracize the doctor, refusing to sell him food, water, and other necessities, leaving him helpless until he agrees to share the medicine. In the worst case scenario–the plague will kill thousands by tomorrow unless the voluntaryists administer the medicine today, the mad doctor is the only person in the world who knows the secret ingredients, no one else can figure them out before tomorrow–someone might steal the medicine. But no one would euphemistically call such “stealing,” charity or taxation or dub it by some other name. No state with a monopoly on the use of force is needed to do the job. However, this worst case scenario is highly unlikely, and the voluntaryists would still recognize that the doctor’s rights had been violated. They, themselves, would probably be more content with recognizing that “if you take care of the means, the end will take care of itself.” That is all that they, as voluntaryists, could do.
*Thanks to Carl Watner for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.