The Libertarian Answer to Everything Is…
‘Who would build the roads in a society without a government?’ It’s a seemingly damning question that stumps most half-hearted libertarians. And it was the title of a speech at the Mises Seminar I attended over the weekend.
Ludwig von Mises is the famed economist of the Austrian School of Economics. The name ‘Austrian’ was an insult from the German School, by the way. It’s kind of like calling it the ‘Kiwi School of Economics’ or the ‘Tasmanian School’.
Anyway, the Austrians, few of whom are actually Austrian, believe in a very different kind of economics to the mainstream. Austrian economics supports the libertarian ideology with economic ideas rather than philosophic ones. Before we get to those ideas, who would build the roads in a society without government?
It took the world’s leading expert on the matter, Walter Block, about half an hour to get through his speech on the topic.
He explained that roads were a private sector invention. He pointed out that the government allows thousands of people to die each year on its roads. If the private sector performed like that, it would have all sorts of consequences for the company providing the road.
Block argued that road rules would continuously improve under a private system as the road owners competed to provide the best service. They would realise that abolishing all rules leads to the safest and most efficient system, as shown in Bristol.
I know, the idea of a completely private road system may seem a difficult and crazy concept to grasp, especially as most people have grown up with socialised roads. But if you stop and think about it, it’s not so crazy after all.
Anyway, after all these arguments and many more, Walter asked for questions. And for the next twenty minutes Walter handled the questions admirably. After all, he literally ‘wrote the book’ on this topic. Most of the audience seemed convinced…except for the guy next to me. He had a sceptical frown on his face the entire time.
Eager for a challenge, I introduced myself to him. I can’t remember his name, but he was from Mackay, Queensland. ‘So what do you do?‘ I asked. ‘I build roads,’ he answered. Suddenly it all made sense.
‘So you work for the government,‘ I said with a smile. I was impressed he had decided to come to a libertarian conference, considering the nature of his work.
‘No, I don’t work for the government.‘
For a few seconds, he stared at me as blankly as I stared at him.
The quiet fellow worked for a company that built roads. Not government roads for the government. Roads for companies, people and anyone else who pays to have a road built.
All through a speech about whether private roads were possible, the private road builder next to me said nothing. Yet he spends his time doing the very thing so many people consider impossible – building private roads. At any point, he could have stood up and answered the question ‘Who would build the roads?’ with the ultimate answer: ‘How much are you paying?’
And that, my friends, is the libertarian answer to everything. Austrian economics explains why it works, but consider the ethical arguments.
Government versus the Free Market
The government’s version of running society is, ‘How much can I take away from you without losing the majority of the vote? Then, how do I dish out that amount to get votes?’
But libertarians don’t believe in taking. They believe in voluntary and mutually beneficial exchange. Money and prices are the best way of doing that on a large scale. Hence the question, ‘How much are you paying?’
There are plenty of other examples where you can apply the libertarian answer to everything. Some of them came up at the Mises Seminar.
For instance, ‘Should blackmail be legal?’ Well, gossip is legal. And paying someone is. So surely paying someone money to shut up should be legal. The question is, ‘How much money would you pay to shut me up?’
The same goes for dwarf bowling. That’s when people throw dwarves instead of bowling balls down the bowling lane. As bad as dwarf bowling is, do we have the right to ban a dwarf from doing it if he wants to? Surely not.
And whether he wants to is usually determined by that libertarian question. How much are people willing to pay for the dwarf to agree to being bowled down a bowling alley?
Or put another way, I dare say that if someone paid you enough money to be bowled at 10 pins, you would do it. It’s just a matter of price. If so, why should dwarves be discriminated against by not letting them enter into a contract to do something that’s perfectly legal for non-dwarves?
Two Principles of Libertarianism
There are two principles operating behind these arguments. You’ll agree with the principles, but nobody has the stomach to actually believe in them without reservation. Most people start to disagree with the principles when it comes to legalising dwarf bowling and blackmail. (My weakness is annoying advertising jingles – I think they should be banned.)
The first principle is the non-aggression principle. You can’t initiate unwanted harm. I’m not sure why it’s relevant, considering the second principle covers this as well. That’s the principle of property rights – the idea that you own what you own. You own your body, which is why the non-aggression principle seems a bit pointless.
Anyway, the idea of property rights is something you’ll agree with. But most people also agree with the income tax. Even though it goes against property rights. In fact, the income tax is just modern slavery.
A slave produces something and his owner takes some proportion. The slave has no choice, just like the tax payer. If the slave owner wanted to take 100% of his slave’s production, he could. The Australian government could do the same to its slaves, err taxpayers. It just has to vote on it.
Of course, neither the government nor the slave owner take 100% of the slave’s production. That would be self defeating. The government would get voted out and the slave or tax payer would die from the lack of food. The slave needs to be able to keep some of his productive labour, even if it’s in the form of bare necessities like food and shelter.
The point is that the income tax lets government claim part of your property without your consent. You cannot possibly claim to own something that someone can take away from you. You are the government’s slave, whether you like it or not.
How to Enjoy Slavery
There are some things the government cannot take away. Slaves whistled while they worked. The late and great entrepreneur and sponsor of the Mises Seminar, Neville Kennard (owner of the Kennard’s hire business), jaywalked when he could get away with it.
Many Australian parents home school their children. One speaker at the conference pointed all this out. His message was that you can remain free in your mind, no matter what your owner, the government, gets up to.
The trick to accepting your fate under government, and then enjoying your life anyway, is in your mind too. That’s what the speech by the seminar’s organiser was about. Ben Marks explained how libertarian writer H.L. Mencken turned his famed pessimistic cynicism into pleasure.
Ben criticised the audience for being too enthusiastic, romantic and ambitious about the ideas we were hearing (at the conference he organised). And explained that being a realistic, pessimistic libertarian is not necessarily the same as being a nihilistic one:
How can pessimism and cynicism about the government be enjoyably held? Here’s Mencken’s way of going about it:
It’s interesting to understand and think about a libertarian society. And trying to live as a libertarian would in a free society is a worthwhile undertaking.
But I think there are more important things for people to focus on when it comes to being a libertarian. We should all take pleasure in the ridiculousness of our society, like Mencken did. And never lose sight of the fact that pessimism and cynicism that are founded in fact and reason are good things.
I don’t see how anyone can get anywhere in their pursuit of happiness without holding both of these beliefs.
Editor, Money for Life
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