The Ethics Of Liberty - The Nature Of The State


The Ethics Of Liberty by Murray Rothbard

The 22nd chapter starts a new section titled "The State Versus Liberty".   Rothbard then goes on to discuss what the State is, what it does, and how it justifies itself to the people.  Its nature is encapsulated in the motto all libertarians know and love, "taxation is theft".  This fact is inescapable.  Even if the State was the organization that is most efficient at serving society, we should still be suspicious because of how it acquires its funds.

Normally a person or an organization supports itself economically by providing a good or service and selling it to others on a voluntary basis.  An exception to this rule is criminals who use violence, threats of violence, or deception to take from others involuntarily.  We all consider them bad guys for doing so.  Another other exception is the State.  If you don't consider taxes a form of theft, then visualize what would happen if you refused to pay your income tax.  First, you fill out your W2 so that none of your income is withheld.  You submit that form to the federal government.  If you then you refuse to fill out an IRS tax return form and send in your check, you will experience this reality.

                "the State demands money at the equivalent of gunpoint; if the taxpayer refuses
                to pay, his assets are seized by force, and if he should resist such depredation,
                he will be arrested or shot if he should continue to resist."

If the concept of taxes can't be logically separated from the concept of theft, then you must realize that the State is a unique kind of criminal organization.  It is the only kind that asserts a monopoly on violence over a geographic region, some as large as a continent.  That means you can't call someone else to come protect you from their plunder.  They rule.  You comply.

In order to convince society that the state is either not criminal or is necessary regardless, some argue that taxes are not involuntary but voluntary, because the goods that the State provides are valued by every single person.  Think about the example of municipal governments providing water utilities or elementary schools.  If everyone wants to buy the thing anyway, you can't say the State is forcing people to pay.  In fact they say that taxation is a solution to the Free Rider problem.  The problem isn't that taxation is theft.  It is that some dishonest, greedy, immoral people want to enjoy what the government provides without paying for it.

This should sound ridiculous to you on its face.  There is no good the government provides that can't be funded through subscription or usage fees.  If a person doesn't pay, they don't get the service.  If you don't buy the stamp, you can't mail the letter.  If you don't pay for school, your child doesn't get enrolled in class.  If you don't pay the water bill, the utility shuts off the supply to your house.  Even policing fits within this paradigm.  If you don't pay the police department, you can't call them in an emergency.  Or you can't bring charges to them against someone who has committed a crime against you.

This argument is very easily applied to everything but the case of a military invasion.  If you haven't paid for the army, you still get protected by them as long as  the people around you are paying them.  The army can't allow one house to be conquered or one city to be conquered if surrounded by houses or cities who are paying customers of the US military.  On the other hand, if they repel an invading army, no property rights are harmed if  not every person pays.  Those who pay for the service enjoy the service they paid for.  If the US army fails, those who did pay the government could have paid more.  Those who chose not to pay accepted the risk of invasion.  You may think that decision was foolish or naïve.  But no individual's rights were violated by their fellow citizen.  Only the invading army is guilty of violating property rights.  Rothbard answers this question more elegantly with four reasons why taxes can't be considered voluntary.  The first is a mic drop.

                "the inner contradiction between voluntarism and coercion; a coercion
                of all-against-all does not make any of this coercion 'voluntary'."

Categorically coercion can't be voluntary.  He then appeals to economic observations for the rest of his arguments.  Second, even if everyone wants the service, no one knows if everyone would choose to buy it for the taxed price, since everybody values things differently.  Third, the supply of the service is artificially increased by coercing people to pay for it.  No one knows if the government is supplying the service to meet the actual demand.  Forcing an oversupply of a service is not voluntary.  Last, some people actually don't want the good or service at all.  They wouldn't pay any amount.  Those people necessarily are forced into paying taxes at gunpoint.

Even if everyone understood the nature of taxes at some point in history, the State didn't give up.  Their ongoing existence requires that the people see its rule as legitimate.  To that end they have built a variety of narratives.  The first is utilitarian in nature saying that the State is legitimate because it provides certain goods and services that society needs.

                "The State indeed performs many important and necessary functions: from
                provision of law to the supply of police and fire fighters, to building
                and maintaining the streets, to delivery of the mail."

Is it necessary for an organization to use coercion or compulsion to provide a service?  Obviously not.  There are a multitude of examples in history of businesses that are very successful which don't force customers to buy their product.

Do we need the State to provide goods because they are more efficient than private businesses?  Again obviously not.  The government is known for providing shoddy services at expensive prices.  This shouldn't be a surprise since governments enforce a monopoly for themselves over anything they produce.  That means that they don't have to compete with others to win consumers' loyalty.  In a market the consumer is sovereign and firms must compete to please the customer and even exceed his expectations.  In a monopoly the provider is sovereign.  Customers have no other choice.  Also, with a State monopoly they don't even have to worry about turning a profit.  They are free to provide whatever quality at whatever price in whatever quantity as long as it is politically feasible.

That is the other contrast.  The provided good no longer exists within a market system but within a political system.  Legitimacy or passive consent of the governed is what determines which political system survives.  Because the State is always a small minority compared to the rest of the nation they rule, their biggest concern is maintaining the acceptance of the people they govern.  

That leads the State to conjure a variety of other narratives through a variety of different sources.  Each narrative is aimed at a different section of society.  As a result the State proclaims their legitimacy to us through out our whole lives regardless of where we live, what age we are, or what industry employs us.

Intellectuals whose interests are aligned with the State carry out this work be they historians, economists, sociologists, literary analysts, medical experts, political scientists or natural scientists.  Very few of them could attain the level of status, power and wealth they have today without participating in "the engineering of consent".  Even the elites who run our military, religious organizations, and corporations can be counted on to spread the regime's message.

Intellectuals run the education system from elementary school through PhD programs training students to believe in the goodness and necessity of the State.  Economists work in government agencies, think tanks, and other kinds of NGOs crafting ideologies that support State intervention into more and more of the economy.  Private foundations like the Ford Foundation or the Gates Foundation work as a vanguard for building ideology and implementing policy.  The entertainment industry is full of intellectuals, or those trained or financed by them, who make sure that movies, TV Shows, and music reflect the regime's values in some way.  Now, even corporate and financial executives preach the moral values of the State to their employees.

It has worked.  The vast majority of people believe we wouldn't have safety, security, prosperity, or health without the existence of the State.  They believe in the inherent good of the government.  Nevermind that it takes a lifetime of propaganda to accomplish this task.

However, it is still possible to cut through the gloom to see the truth that taxation is indeed theft and the State is in fact a criminal organization.  Even if you don't agree with that, at least you can see the "long train of abuses and usurpations" American citizens suffer through every day.  Certainly, States who practice the kind of deception and cruelty you see in the news can not be considered legitimate.  Rothbard certainly saw through it and defined the State as an organization that fulfills at least one of the following two properties below.

                "(a) it acquires its revenue by physical coercion (taxation); and (b)
                it achieves a compulsory monopoly of force and of ultimate decision-making
                power over a given territorial area."

Don't believe the propaganda when you hear it.  "We need the government to take control over private property to deal with an emergency". "We need the government to mandate certain goods must be purchased or outlawed to for the common good". "We need the State to attack Iraq or Russia or China before they attack us".  "We need government regulation to protect us from unfettered capitalism".  "Inflation is good.  It is deflation that you should worry about".  That emperor has no clothes.


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