With this website and my book Freedom of Government – The New Human Right , I want to launch a worldwide movement for freedom of government. Just as all human beings are entitled to freedom of religion and freedom of opinion, all people should have freedom of government: the right to choose under which and what kind of government they want to live. I believe that recognition of freedom of government would, in the course of time, lead to a world populated with “friendly”, voluntary societies instead of the 200 all-powerful states that own the earth today. Here I present my philosophy as succinctly as I can.
Which problem are you trying to solve with “freedom of government”?
How can we make sure the world will be a good place for all peaceful people? That’s the main question for me. My answer in a nutshell: by abolishing political power. The basic idea behind this website and my book Freedom of Government is that the injustice in the world is mostly caused by the fact that some people have power over others. And conversely, that the good things in the world come from voluntary action and cooperation.
What do you mean by political power?
I am talking about the power that some people have to force others, with violence or the threat of violence, to do their bidding. In our current world order, this kind of power rests with states, that is to say, with the people that control the state apparatus. The state is based on inequality of power. It is an organization that claims a monopoly on legalized force in a certain territory and that can issue laws and rules the population must obey.
Why is power a problem?
Power allows some people to use others as means to their ends. Power forms the basis of aggression, war, exploitation, corruption and injustice. If people can get rid of those who have power over them, they have the chance to shape their own lives, make their own choices, establish voluntary relations with other people. That will lead to a more just and harmonious world.
Isn’t the big problem in the world inequality – the fact that there is a small group of haves and a large group of have-nots? And don’t we need power to end inequality?
If you ask people what they regard as the big problem in the world, most will indeed say: inequality – of wealth and opportunity. And they try to fight this with redistribution schemes, taxes, subsidies, rules – in other words, by using the power of the state. This is exactly where things go wrong in my view.
What is ignored here is that there are two forms of inequality. First there is inequality that is the result of differences in talent, diligence, and other qualities of people. People are all different. Some are talented, productive and hard-working, others less so. This is how in a free society, without power, differences in wealth will emerge. However, these differences do not harm anyone. The larger wealth of more productive people does not come at the expense of less productive people. On the contrary, less productive people profit from the productive activities undertaken by more productive people, and by the knowledge and innovations these people generate. Ask yourself: regardless of your own talents and wealth, where would you be better off, in a society with a lot of productive and talented people, or in one with very few productive and talented people? And if you fight this kind of inequality by limiting and hindering productive and talented people, would that make anybody better off?
However, inequality of wealth can also be the result of inequality of power. That’s a totally different story. In that case, people owe their larger wealth to the fact that they are able to exploit or rob others, or to issue rules that are favorable to themselves. With this kind of inequality, the wealth of some people does come at the expense of others.
Thus, if you want to change the world for the better, you should try to fight inequality in power. If everyone is equal in power, if everyone “owns” their own life, and is equal before the law, everyone can have a decent life, even if there are differences in wealth.
If instead you try to create a better world by fighting inequality of wealth, regardless of what that wealth is based on, you will punish the people who owe their wealth to their greater productivity. That will only harm the growth of wealth, knowledge and productivity, which will be bad for everyone, including the poor.
What is more, when you fight inequality of wealth regardless of the source of wealth, you can only do this by exercising power. After all, someone will have to enforce this type equality, since it will not happen automatically. That means that another kind of inequality will replace the inequality of wealth: there will be a group of people with the power to enforce equality. This, in other words, will inevitably lead to dictatorship, as we have seen so often in history.
I am convinced that for most people in the world the problem is not that they are not able to support themselves and their loved ones and to make something of their own lives; their problem is they are obstructed and exploited by people who rule them. I would like to call on all good-willing progressive people not to focus on fighting inequality in wealth, but on inequality in power.
So you don’t think it’s a problem if CEOs of multinationals and banks walk away with tens of millions of dollars because they are apparently millions of times more “productive” than their employees?
I have just been reading that the CEO of Boeing was fired because he screwed up and left with 55 million dollars to ease the pain. Do I find that acceptable? No. But I don’t think of Boeing as a private company. It is a company that is in cahoots with the state and lives off countless of privileges it gets from the state. For example, loans against favorable conditions (to “support” U.S. exports), loans from the state ($70 billion on the books in 2019), multi-billion dollar contracts from the Department of Defense ($23.4 billion in 2017), and so on.
What I’m trying to say: we do not live in a society where the state has no power. On the contrary, in our society the power of the state has penetrated into all the veins and arteries of the economy. This makes it very difficult to say when wealth is truly earned, based on voluntary decisions from customers or shareholders, or when it is ill-gotten, based on the power of the state. Drugs manufacturers profit from state-granted patents and countless rules skewed in their favor. Agricultural companies benefit from huge subsidies. Military-industrial companies profit from government contracts. All publicly quoted companies from the huge amounts of fiat money created by the state-run monetary system, a lot of which finds its way to the stock markets. Banks are the worst of all, as they are able to create money out of nothing and are bailed out by the state when they threaten to go bankrupt. The CEOs of all these companies owe their large salaries at least in part to these state privileges.
But they are not the only ones who profit from the state. There are also many bureaucrats and civil servants that enjoy high wages and favorable terms of employment from the state. Or think of artists and researchers and broadcasting companies and so on who profit from state subsidies. And there are many rich people in the world today who owe their wealth to violence, corruption or plunder in the past, sanctioned by the state. Think of most landowners in developing countries.
So our whole system, in particular the inflationary monetary system, benefits the powerful, many of whom are rich, and hurts the powerless poor, especially people with fixed incomes or people who are unable to buy a house because all this money creation and the zero interest rates are driving housing prices up.
This is the kind of injustice and inequality that we should fight. But we can only fight it by putting an end to the state, not by trying to achieve “equality” regardless of personal efforts, talents or productive ability.
But doesn’t the state do a lot to fight inequality in wealth? The government offers a safety net for the poor, takes care of social insurance, medical care, education, and so on. Do you want abolish all of that?
This is what I regard as the greatest illusion of our age. The idea that Our Father The State takes care of us. It does seem like that, I know. It does seem that the state takes care of welfare, social security (pensions), education, health care, and many other things. That it builds infrastructure, monitors the quality of our food, provides “public” goods, subsidizes “public” activities, and so on.
Yet, in reality, all these good things that the state seems to do for us are in a very fundamental sense only an illusion. It is true that states control activities such as education, health care, welfare, social security, and many others, even the post office in some “free” countries. They have taken it upon themselves to “organize” all these things. That is to say, they collect taxes from people and spend that money on these activities. They also decide how the activities should be carried out, according to what rules, who should do what, how much money should be spent on them, and so on. But that’s not the same as providing anything.
The state controls our healthcare system, it doesn’t provide health care. It controls our social security system. It doesn’t provide social security. It controls labor relations. It doesn’t provide minimum wages or safe working places. It is teachers who teach, doctors and nurses that offer health care, construction workers who build roads, social workers who help the disadvantaged, entrepreneurs that create businesses and offer employment, artists that make art. As to pensions and welfare benefits, people pay for them through taxes and insurance premiums.
If the state was not there, we would still have all these things – but in different forms. We would still have health care and education, but not controlled by the state. We would still have pensions and aid for dependent people, but not controlled by the state. We would still have safety standards and labor relations, but not controlled by the state. To think otherwise is like believing that we wouldn’t have a mail service if there was no state.
So the question is not whether or not the state does any good things. Of course it does. Who wouldn’t do some good if they could collect hundreds of billions from people and be able to order them around? The real question is whether the poor and disadvantaged – and everyone else – are better off with the state controlling – or interfering in – most of our activities, or with the state not controlling them. To illustrate my point, think about slavery. Surely some masters did some good things for their slaves. They gave them food, clothes, shelter, let them go to church on Sundays. But that’s hardly relevant. The question is whether the slaves would have been better off as free people.
Perhaps the state does not provide anything, but doesn’t it redistribute wealth in favor of the poor and ensure that all people have equal access to necessities such as education and health care?
It does seem like that to most people, but that’s because most people don’t realize the price they pay for the state’s interventions. They think they would be worse off without the state, but the reverse is true. Let me mention some of the costs of state intervention, both seen and unseen costs.
-The state wastes money. Lots of money. The British National Health Service once managed to squander 10 billion pounds on a failed ICT project. The Washington Post reported (in 2016) that an internal report of the Pentagon showed they could save $125 billion in five years just by being more careful with their money. That’s the Pentagon talking about the Pentagon.
Greece received €682 million in EU funds when it joined the European Union in 1981. From 1982 on, it received 6.8 billion ECU (the predecessor of the euro) in agricultural support every year. Between 1989 and 1993 it received an additional 7.2 billion ECU. During this time, from 1952 to 2001 the number of civil servants in Greece grew from 73,000 to 768,000 (excluding nationalized sectors). In 2009, 55% of the state budget went to salaries and pensions of civil servants.
In Italy public managers working for the government get extremely generous salaries, while that same government spends billions without anyone knowing where the money goes. Italy gets about €10 billion in EU funds every year, and again, nobody knows how that money is spent. Italy at the moment I write this spends €78 billion a year in interest to service its national debt. Other countries also pay large amounts. In the Netherlands, a relatively fiscally conservative country, the amount was €37 billion in 2020, the fourth largest item in the national budget.
You will understand: I am just listing a couple of random examples. Multiply them by millions and you get some little idea of how much money goes down the drain courtesy of the states in the world. Yet note that no government agency ever went bankrupt and no bureaucratic manager was ever hounded by creditors because of his or her mismanagement. When you don’t pay your taxes you are thrown in jail. When you waste taxes you can do what you want.
-The power of the state also engenders fraud and corruption. This usually involves private parties collaborating with the state, but it is the power of the state that makes the fraud and corruption possible. One obvious example are military contractors in the U.S. who not only waste hundreds of billions of dollars but also defraud the public of hundreds of billions. According to a Department of Defense report to Congress, as reported by the Federation of American scientists, “during the five year period from 2013-2017, there were 1,059 criminal cases of defense contracting fraud resulting in the conviction of 1,087 defendants, including 409 businesses … There were another 443 fraud-related civil cases resulting in judgments against 546 defendants. During that same period, the Department of Defense entered into more than 15 million contracts with contractors who had been indicted, fined, and/or convicted of fraud, or who reached settlement agreements.” The value of those contracts exceeded $334 billion, according to the DoD report.
EU funds are another example. According to a news item on a European website in 2016, “The EU has disbursed billions of euros to Ukraine, largely for budget support, but the European Court of Auditors (ECA) admitted yesterday (6 December) it was unable to say how the money was spent. Speaking to the press hours ahead of the publication of the ECA report on EU assistance to Ukraine, Szabolcs Fazakas, who led the audit, admitted that the EU had no chance to analyse the spending.”
A 2013 report from Accenture which I stumbled on notes: “In the United Kingdom, the National Fraud Authority estimates that £21 billion ($33B USD) is lost to fraud in the public sector each year. Overpayments in Ireland increased by 65 percent in just three years. And in the United States, improper payments by government agencies reached $125 billion in FY10.” According to the Accenture report, “Estimates by government and law enforcement agencies such as the FBI place the loss due to healthcare fraud as high as 10 percent of annual healthcare expenditure (around $226 billion).”
Aid to developing countries is also a notorious source of waste and fraud. An example: Honduras is one of the largest recipients of aid from the EU. According to a report from the European Court of Auditors (ECA), the country received €223 million in the period 2007-2013, and that amount was to be raised to €235 million in 2014-2020. According to the ECA, this money goes largely for “budget support”, which is to say that the Honduran government can spend it in whatever way it likes. The ECA notes that “there are considerable risks to this kind of support”, such as “fraud and corruption”. The EU “does not have the expertise to monitor the spending on location.” Interestingly, the EU was only the fourth largest (!) of the twelve largest donors to the country, meaning that Honduras, a country with a population of less than 10 million, receives hundreds of millions annually in development aid on a continual basis, yet its people are fleeing the country to escape from poverty and repression.
Corruption is particularly pervasive and killing in developing countries. One research report, called The plunder route to Panama, noted that African presidents of countries like Togo, Burundi, Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana and Rwanda have siphoned off billions of euros from their own country. For example, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, every year some $15 billion is secretly taken out of the country by its leaders, notes the report. This, according to the CIA Factbook, is “a nation endowed with vast natural resource wealth”. It is also in some rankings the poorest country in the world. This kind of self-enrichment also goes on in developed countries of course, though in more subtle ways. The members of the European Parliament and people in the European Commission all get huge salaries with fantastic perks that people like you and me will never be able to touch. Politicians and bureaucrats everywhere have great pensions and great terms of employment. The three richest counties in the U.S. are all in Washington DC. What I find interesting is that you never the hear critics of capitalism, the likes of Thomas Piketty, hear about this kind of fraud. The only way they can think of to solve “inequality” is to raise taxes.
Well, so the state costs money, a lot of money, we all know that…
Hold on, I have barely started. The effects of state intervention go much further and much deeper than this. There are also, for example, the effects of favoritism, bureaucracy and regulation to consider. Bureaucracy is an inevitable effect of state power. It is the way in which state functionaries function. They rule by edicts and regulations. They couldn’t exercise their power in any other way. Not that they mind usually It is in their own interest to maximize bureaucracy and they are only human after all.
The cost bureaucracy imposes on society can only be guessed at. The annual Ten Thousand Commandments report from the Competitive Enterprise Institute estimated that federal regulation in the U.S. (only federal) imposed a hidden tax of nearly $15,000 per household in 2017 alone. A study from the Mercator Center of George Mason University concluded that regulation cost businesses in the U.S. $4,000 billion in the period 1980-2012. According to this study, the U.S. economy would be 25% bigger without this regulation! A study in the June 2013 issue of the Journal of Economic Growth by John Dawson of Appalachian State University and John Seater of North Carolina State University came to the conclusion that federal regulations reduced economic growth by 2% per year between 1949 and 2005. That may not seem like much, but what this means is that “annual output by 2005 is about 28 percent of what it would have been had regulation remained at its 1949 level.” As Lee Friday wrote on the website of Mises.org, taking these figures forward to 2011, “nominal GDP in 2011 would have been $53.9 trillion instead of $15.1 trillion”. This “annual loss of $38.8 trillion converts to about $277,100 per household and $129,300 per person.”
Yes, these are incredible numbers. Think about them next time when you hear someone complaining that “capitalism” is causing poverty or when you hear people demanding a universal basic income. Note that none of these costs appear in state budgets or spending figures or in tax rates. They are hidden costs, extra burdens on citizens that do not appear in any financial account.
This is a point that most people – understandably – fail to grasp, because the effects of state intervention can’t be seen. You can see the taxes you have to pay, you don’t see the costs of favoritism, regulation and bureaucracy. You don’t see all the things that would exist if the state had not been there.
Whenever government takes money from us and wastes or misspends it, or drives up costs through regulations, this money does not go to saving, investment, business, private activities. We will never know how much wealth would have been created if that money had come into private hands. If people, say, in Greece, had not all wanted to become civil servants and profit from the state, they might have created a totally different, productive society. What would that have done for those who now live below the poverty line in Greece? What would their lives have looked like today?
Bureaucracy has a similar hidden cost. It not only imposes direct compliance cost on businesses and organizations, it also means that the people who have to do the complying, who for instance have to spend days filling in useless forms, can spend so much less time on productive activities. We will never know how much or what they would have produced if they had not had to waste their time as a result of state directives.
And there is another pernicious effect of state power on our society that you can’t directly see: it stimulates dependence, parasitism, laziness. When government programs are in place, people have an obvious incentive to make use of them. At the same time, government functionaries also have an incentive to maximize the number of people who use them. So, what you see is a huge circus of lobbyists and interests all sucking up government money that ultimately is taken away from productive purposes. Artists, football clubs, schools, media, journalists, academics, lawyers, transgenders, stamp collectors, environmental activists, doctors, patients, researchers, businesses – they all try to obtain money from the state, because they know there is money to be had, and because they know if they don’t do it, others will. The result is a society in which people, rather than trading value for value with each other, and becoming wealthier together, will become each other’s adversaries and will try to steal from each other by means of the state. As the great French economist Frédéric Bastiat wrote: the state is “that great fictional entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.”
So there are costs to state intervention, and maybe more than most people imagine. But still, there will always be people that won’t be able to take care of themselves. I think no one can deny that we need a state to do this.
You’re wrong. I do deny it and I am not the only one. I will even go one step further. I am arguing that the state makes the poor worse off. The poor especially. Much more than the wealthy or well-educated. There are two reasons for this. First of all, as I have argued above, our whole society would be immensely wealthier without the state, and this would immensely profit people at the bottom of the ladder. Everyone would have higher incomes, more jobs, more opportunities, a higher standard of living, which is more important for the poor than for the well-off.
Secondly, it is pretty naïve to think that the rich and well-educated will be the losers in the state’s redistribution game. They are after all much better able to organize themselves than the poor – to discover loopholes in legislation and influence legislation in their favor. However, the way in which the well-connected profit from state favors goes far beyond crude redistribution schemes. The most important method they use is by bending the rules in their favor. The state offers numerous ways of doing so. To mention a few: subsidies, lucrative government contracts, occupational and other licensing laws, consumer protection laws, environmental protection laws, zoning restrictions, favorable corporate legislation, intellectual property rights, foreign aid schemes (to favor “allied” foreign states as well as domestic exporting companies and financial institutions), bailouts (of banks, corporations, foreign states), tariffs, price interventions, resource monopolies, interest rate manipulation, cheap credits and loan guarantees, money creation.
In their 2017 book “The Captured Economy – How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth and Increase Inequality”, economists Brink Lindsey and Steven M. Teles give many examples of how this kind of political pull benefits some at the expense of others, such as high trade barriers and price supports for farm products, cushy cost-plus government contracts, bailouts of financial institutions (savings and loan banks in the U.S. in the 1980s, Continental Illinois in 1984, the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s, the peso crisis of 1994, the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, Long Term Capital Management in 1998, and of course the financial crisis of 2007-2009), and occupational licensing (which widens the gap between rich and poor by restricting job opportunities for lower educated people, and inflating the compensation of higher educated ones, with an estimated toll of 2.85 million jobs).
Then there is the great scourge of inflation. As you no doubt know it is the official policy of our central banks to “inflate” the money supply. This constantly erodes the value of our money and thereby leads to constantly rising prices. This is downright criminal. It’s outright theft: the ECB and other central banks are deliberately reducing the value of people’s savings in this way. They say they do this to “stimulate” the economy, which is nonsense. Just look at the EU today or at Japan and you can see it is nonsense. The real reason why the central banks create money all the time is that in this way they and their beneficiaries – governments, banks, financial institutions – are provided with a constant, endless stream of money for free. For the rest of the people, though, inflation is a permanent added tax which keeps them in a rat race. Imagine what the result would be if government did not inflate the money supply and prices would go down on average, year after year. People wouldn’t have to be worried anymore about their pensions! Their savings would become worth more. And inflation hurts the people at the bottom of the pile the most. Pensioners, people who have no inflation-proof salaries, who are dependent on social security or unemployment benefits or work for minimum wages, people who don’t own houses (since house prices keep going up as a result of the constant growth of the money supply and the artificially low interest rates set by the central banks). These people keep finding themselves further and further behind. Again, though, Mr Piketty and all these other critics of capitalism, who say the free market leads to inequality, never mention any of this.
But still, if you take out all this state intervention, you would still have people who wouldn’t be able to use the opportunities because they don’t have the skills or the brains or have been abused by their parents when they were young, and so on. You would still need to help those people.
Yes, but why do you need a state for this? Virtually everyone in our society agrees we should help the needy if they are needy through no fault of their own. So why would this not happen unless we are forced to do so by the state? That does not make sense. People are social creatures. They realize that they need each other’s help and are generally prepared to help others whom they feel deserve help, especially if they belong to the same group, but often also when they are total strangers. A voluntary society would leave people free – and give them the means – to take care of each other. Each society would find its own ways of helping the needy in their midst. The smaller the society the more likely it is that it will have voluntary collective ways of helping people.
Well, you may say that, but we all know what happened in the 19th Century when the state did not take care of the poor. And just look at the United States today. All the homeless people on the streets and the poverty there.
It’s true that the U.S. does not have the same level of welfare spending that European countries have, but that does not mean that poverty in that country is caused by the lack of welfare spending.
Whatever you can say about the United States, a country with a public debt of $22,000 billion (as I am writing this), an annual government budget of $4,000 billion, a central bank that controls the monetary system, hundreds of thousands of laws and regulations, more people in jail than any other country, by far the highest military budget in the world, whose federal government is, with 2.7 million civilian employees, the largest single employer in the country, whose state and local governments employ another 20 million people and the armed forces another 1.35 million uniformed personnel, is not a “free-market” country, let alone a “night watchman” state, as many people seem to think. The U.S. has one of the most powerful and intrusive governments that has ever existed. But rather than being run by socialist types, it is mostly run by well-connected businessmen and academics at the expense of the rest of the population. It may spend less on social welfare than European countries, it spends vast sums on “corporate welfare” – as well as on “warfare”. For example, U.S. military expenditures, as everyone knows, tower far above military expenditures of European and all other nations in the world. By my own rough calculations, based on public sources, I calculate that military spending in the U.S. in the period 1946-2018 amounts to over $27,000 billion. If the U.S. had just spent 10% of that money on the military (roughly the same as Russia has done), it would have been perfectly capable of defending itself and every man, woman and child in the U.S. who lived during that period would have been roughly $50,000 richer, without even counting interest. And then we are only talking about defense spending, which is around 15% of the federal budget. Multiply the $50,000 by 6.6 and you get an idea of what the U.S. may have looked like with a much smaller government.
As to the 19th Century this was a period of rapid economic growth in America and Europe, with unprecedented population growth, in which millions of people for the first time were able to escape from the grinding poverty that had been the fate of the masses since time immemorial. Yes, working and living conditions were horrible by modern standards, but they had always been like that.
The fact that the great mass of people was poor was normal. The abnormality rather lay in the fact that they were in the process of becoming wealthier. The Industrial Revolution for the first time in history enabled masses of poor people to escape from poverty.
This does not justify all the inequality and injustice that existed in the 19th Century, but the wrongs that existed in those days can’t be blamed on “capitalism”, not if that means “the free market”. The state had dominated the economy for centuries. The classical liberalism of the 18th Century was a revolt against the prevailing and pervasive mercantilist state control of the economy, but the state hardly melted away in the 19th Century. Liberalism and individualism did make inroads into the old power structures, which did lead to unprecedented economic growth, but the old structures were not simply swept away.
But there is another point to be made about the 19th Century: the idea that common people in those days were left to their own devices is a myth. People – ordinary, common, working-class people – took care of each other. As there were no state-welfare systems, workers in Great Britain and the U.S. (and no doubt in other countries), formed mutual aid societies to help each other in times of need. These “friendly societies” (called “fraternal societies” in the U.S.) were a huge phenomenon. They had for more members than the trade unions. Membership in registered friendly societies in Britain grew from 2.8 million in 1877 to an astounding 6.6 million in 1910 (in addition to those in unregistered societies). In that year over 9 million people were covered by insurance through the friendly societies in Britain, over 20% of the population. The fraternal societies in the U.S. were also a resounding success. Historian David Beito has documented “how Americans used their freedom of association to create a vast network of mutual-aid societies. With the possible exception of churches, fraternal societies were the leading providers of social welfare in the United States before the Great Depression. Their membership reached an estimated 30 percent of the adult male population and they were especially strong among immigrants and African Americans.” He also notes that “unlike the adversarial relationships engendered by governmental welfare programs and private charity, fraternal social welfare rested on a foundation of reciprocity between donor and recipient.”
Similarly, historian David Green writes that “prior to their displacement by the welfare state, there was a remarkable proliferation of voluntary institutions to help people to deal with the problems of life, from the need for medical care during times of misfortune to a friendly hand up when life had gotten one down. Historians have documented the remarkable story of the ‘friendly societies’ that provided such ‘mutual aid’ before the welfare state crushed them. Such societies provided social solidarity, insurance against misfortune, moral support, and much more, all on a voluntary basis.” (I recommend the book The Voluntary City, edited by David T. Beito, Peter Gordon and Alexander Tabarrok, published by the Independent Institute in 2002, if you want to know more about this bit of history which has been totally neglected by mainstream historians who all uncritically admire the state. The ideological critics of capitalism prefer to create the impression that we can’t do without the state. The friendly and fraternal societies show that this is a myth. Any voluntary society – in particular any small voluntary society – will look for ways to help those who need help for the simple reason that most people prefer a caring society to a heartless society. They don’t need to be forced to be caring by politicians and bureaucrats.
So you really want a society without a state? But apart from social security, there are things that need to be decided on together, right? Things like how to fight pollution or crime and how to use public spaces. You need rules to be able to live peacefully together. How will you do that without a state?
I agree a society needs rules, that is to say, some form of government or governance. But that’s not the same as a state. I define the state in the terms of sociologist Max Weber as an “institution claiming to exercise a monopoly of legitimate force within a particular territory”. Characteristic of the state is that it represents a fundamental inequality of power. In the state there are rulers and ruled. Those who are in control of the state apparatus make the rules, the others have to obey the rules. This means, by the way, that under the state the rules are not the same for everybody. As political philosopher Albert Jay Nock put it: “The State forbids private murder, but itself organizes murder on a colossal scale. It punishes private theft, but itself lays unscrupulous hands on anything it wants, whether the property of citizen or alien.”
By contrast, government – in the way I use the word – does not necessarily involve force, inequality of power or legal or territorial monopoly. Government can be based on laws and decision-making processes that are adopted or accepted by people voluntarily. Government can also allow people to withdraw their consent to its rules and establish new, alternative government. States do not allow this. So, although government does function coercively, it does not necessarily involve subjugation. Its laws can evolve bottom-up and can be employed to defend people’s self-ownership rights. Its political decisions can be based on consent (and consensus). This is why I advocate freedom of government. If people are free to choose their own government, their choice implies consent to its rules and decisions.
Note that government can be conceived of as limited. People could choose to live under a government that has only few rules and that would leave them free for the rest to pursue their own education, to decide on their own goals in life, and so on. The state, by contrast, recognizes no limitations. It may permit its citizens certain freedoms and grant them certain rights, but it holds ultimate power. It can always withdraw its permissions. It remains the highest authority in the territory it controls. It holds complete power over the people within that territory. It can call on them, for example, to perform military service. You cannot as the subject of a state refuse this. If you do, you will be locked up or killed. And that is true for modern democratic states just as much as for absolutist states. This is why states are called “sovereign”, which means possessing supreme power. We don’t speak of “sovereign governments”. We do speak of “sovereign states”. And this is why I can speak of “freedom of government”. I couldn’t speak of “freedom of state”. That would be a contradiction in terms.
And yes, any society will need a government or a form of governance to establish rules for matters that concern the entire society, for instance, about the use of public space, or environmental rules. But this does not have to go any further, not if people don’t want any more rules. I believe decisions on public issues should be taken as locally as possible, in local democratic processes. Small is beautiful in government.
What about protection against crime and invasion?
The idea that power can protect us against violence is an illusion. It is a contradiction in terms. Power is always a two-edged sword. It can be used to protect but also to repress. Of course people need to protect themselves against violence. They can do so by organizing their own police or militias or by employing private protection services and using private courts.
Nowadays people are so used to the state making laws and ensuring protection that they can’t think of any alternatives. But law for a long time was made outside of the state. This is called judge-made law, which existed for many centuries in Roman times, in Medieval times, and in the Anglo-Saxon tradition of common law. As the great Italian legal expert Bruno Leoni observed: “Everybody today pays lip service to the Romans no less than to the English for their legal wisdom. Very few realize, however, what this wisdom consisted in, that is, how independent of legislation [i.e. the state] those systems were in so far as the ordinary life of the people was concerned, and consequently how great the sphere of individual freedom was both in Rome and in England during the very centuries when their respective legal systems were most flourishing and successful….”
According to Leoni, “Both the Romans and the English shared the idea that the law is something to be discovered more than to be enacted and that nobody is so powerful in his society as to be in a position to identify his own will with the law of the land. The task of ‘discovering’ the law was entrusted … to the jurisconsults and the judges, respectively …”
As Leoni noted, one great advantage of this kind of common law is that it usually only intervenes when people ask it to do so. Contrast this to state-made law: the state is constantly making new laws that intervene in our lives. A country like the U.S. now literally has hundreds of thousands of pages of laws. Our societies have become bureaucratized through and through. Rules and regulations are so pervasive that most people can’t even conceive anymore of what a free society means. It’s sad.
As to the police, police forces were established by state authorities in the 19th Century as much to control their own population as to protect people against violence or crime. In the U.S. police were often used as strike breakers or to enforce morals on people or to capture runaway slaves, just as the army was used to murder Indians and to conquer other countries.
The problem with state police and armed forces is that they have all the wrong incentives. They have no incentive to prevent or reduce crime. That will put them out of work. They have no incentive to recover property for citizens. They don’t get rewarded for that. They are actually rewarded for their failures: when crime rises, they get more budget. By contrast, private police and militias would have to compete for customers. They would have to deliver services people actually wanted.
How would this work out in practice? Would our present states have to be abolished?
I believe that every group of people who have a legitimate claim to a piece of land should be able to establish their own society with their own form of governance if they so wish. I see this as a process that will take place gradually, by which the present 200 states will eventually be broken up into thousands, maybe several tens of thousands of voluntary societies. These will also include many “free cities”, in which citizens are part-owners of the city, in the way shareholders are part owners of companies. This will lead to competition in governance which will ensure that best practices will be widely adopted and people will have a choice in what kind of society they prefer to live.
But who decides in the end where people can live? What if some people have no place to live because others have taken all the land?
That is indeed a key question. Who owns the earth? Observe that at this moment just 200 states control all of the earth. That is to say, the rulers of those states are the owners of the earth. Their ownership claims rest purely on physical force. If we want a better world this is precisely what we have to change.
I believe that people can legitimately claim ownership of land if they settle somewhere first and “mix their labor with the land”, as John Locke put it. But there are conditions. They must leave enough land for others to live on. And they must only use the land to live and work on. The key point is that land ownership claims must be based on the right of people – all people – to their lives, which means, the right of people to sustain their lives. If some people are denied the possibility to sustain their lives – to have access to resources, and freedom of movement – their rights are violated. Land ownership claims can never be a justification to violate people’s rights to life. On the contrary, they can only be legitimate if they are directly tied to people’s rights to life.
I think most people intuitively accept the legitimacy of land ownership claims formed in this way. We respect that a Spanish orange grower has a legitimate claim on his orchard. We wouldn’t accept that the orange grower would own an entire region or be able to keep people from moving across his land or that he would pollute his land and endanger or harm others in this way.
What matters is that we all have a right to a piece of the earth, and a place under the sun. In my book, Freedom of Government – the New Human Right, I discuss the topic of land ownership in more detail.
Is there enough space on earth and are there enough natural resources for everyone to have a decent life?
Not everyone can become a farmer, but that’s not necessary. Thanks to our brains, human beings are able to increase their productivity and production, including of food, without using ever more natural resources or even soil. What is more, in a society based on production and the exchange of knowledge, goods, and services, people are able to grow wealthier together. In other words, human life, if based on knowledge and production, is not a dog-eat-dog survival-of-the-fittest affair. One person’s increase in wealth does not come at the expense of another’s. This is easy to prove: since the Industrial Revolution, global population has exploded and living standards have on average increased. This would not have been possible in a zero-sum world.
A different issue is whether we will take adequate care of our environment. That is in the end a choice people must make. But smaller, decentralized societies, in which people have control over their own environment, are likely to take much better care of the environment than centralized societies, in which people have little to say about their own environment and decisions are taken by a small group of rulers. To the rulers of nation states, size, power, material wealth, military might and even population size are all crucially important. This is what defines their status and power. They are always trying to become bigger, richer, mightier than others, even to the point of deliberately stimulating population growth (of their own subjects). Thus, they have little incentive or inclination to reduce their society’s “environmental footprint” or to worry about long-term global issues like carbon emissions. By contrast, private citizens who have attained a certain level of wealth tend to attach great importance to their natural environment. People who have to take care of their own lives, tend to be frugal and think long-term. They will also take few children, since they don’t need children to take care of them when they are old. Think about this: the great environmentalist slogan “small is beautiful” was made famous by E.F. Schumacher who learned it from his teacher, Leopold Kohr, whose most important work, The Breakdown of Nations, was an attack on the state and a plea for self-government.
So what about democracy? Isn’t that the same as freedom of government? In a democracy everyone can participate in the political decision-making process and for the rest people are pretty much left free to live their own lives they want to.
This is the biggest myth there is in the world today! The idea that democracy has anything to do with self-government or individual rights. The most important thing to understand about democracy – that is, the democratic nation-state, I am not talking about forms of local democracy – is that under this form of government all important decisions about society are made at a centralized level, by the state authorities. They are the absolute rulers over society and they can issue any rule they like which all people are forced to obey. If you doubt this, I challenge you to come up with a counterexample. Please send it to my email address and I will publish it here.
You can see immediately then that there is a huge difference between democracy and freedom of government. When you have freedom of government, you can take your own decisions about life and what sort of rules you want to follow. You have the right, for example, to choose how you wish to arrange your own health care or your own education or that of your children. In a democracy, you can’t do that. The state decides how health care and education are organized, how much money is spent on them, how much you have to pay for them, who is allowed to provide health care and education, what they are allowed to do, what rules they need to follow, and so on. And this goes for everything else in a national democratic society. Yes, you as a citizen have a right to vote who will be in the government, who your rulers will be, but that is the only right you have. It’s a form of slavery, but with one difference: you can take part in a mass election to choose who your masters will be. Once these masters are in place, they can take any decision they like without consulting you or anyone else. This has nothing to do with individual freedom or freedom of government.
Of course you will tell me that “western” democracies have constitutions, and independent courts, and separation of powers, and freedom of opinion and freedom of religion, all of which limit the powers of the state. However, all of these limitations on the power of the state are ideas that were invented by classical liberals in the 18th Century and were introduced before there was any democracy to speak of. They were aimed at limiting the power of absolute monarchs, not democratic governments. Classical liberals tended to regard democracy as just as dangerous to freedom as absolute monarchs. The classical liberals who founded the United States were very wary of democracy. The word democracy does not even appear in the U.S. Constitution or in the Declaration of Independence. So it is true that in some democratic nation states, those with a classical liberal past, there are vestiges of individual freedom left. But they are not democratic mechanisms. On the contrary, they are anti-democratic – they serve to protect the freedom of the individual against the power of the majority, against mob rule. Note that in democratic states that don’t have a classical liberal past there are no limits on the power of the state. Think of Turkey, Venezuela, Indonesia, Russia, Iran, virtually all democratic African and Latin American states. What is more, even in “western” democratic states, the democratic system is steadily eroding whatever individual freedoms are left. Look at the ever-growing economic powers of the state, the ever-more intrusive rules limiting freedom of speech and lifestyle choices. The truth is that in our democratic countries, the state has the power to write its own constitutions and its own rules in whatever way it sees fit and it is doing this every day. Under democracy, the limitations on the power of the state will wither away, not the state itself. (For more on this see the book Beyond Democracy written by Frank Karsten and myself in 2011.)
But who guarantees that individual rights are upheld in your voluntary societies? Can’t they just as well become tyrannies as any nation state or democracy for that matter?
Yes, they could. Some people will even choose forms of “repression”. They may want to live in a communist or fundamentalist-religious society. They have the right to do so. But the foundation for freedom of government is the right of any person to choose the form of government he or she likes. That right is based on every person’s right to his or her own life. Their self-ownership. This is the opposite of tyranny. Of course this right will always have to be defended. There will always be people who will try to gain power over others. No political system can prevent that. As the saying goes, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” But at least if tyrannies emerge in small voluntary societies they can do a lot less harm than the mega-tyrannies of today’s nation states which have the power to kill hundreds of millions and destroy the world.
So where do you stand in the political spectrum? Are you right-wing? Left-wing? Libertarian? Anarchist? A defender of capitalism?
The problem with all such labels is that they tend to be regarded as complete packages by people. I have my own set of beliefs which doesn’t fit any predetermined category. I have been inspired by many admirable thinkers, including libertarian “anarcho-capitalists”, such as Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell, Walter Block and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, but also by “left-libertarians”, such as Roderic T. Long and Kevin Carson, iconoclastic thinkers like Ayn Rand and the Flemish legal expert Frank van Dun, Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, and many others. But I certainly don’t agree with everything they say and vice versa, I’m sure. Also, I don’t subscribe to any particular ideology in the sense of a fixed set of beliefs. I am open to new ideas. I agree with a lot of “liberal”(progressive) ideals, but not in the way the left wants to achieve them: by forcing them on people. I call on all “progressive” people to foreswear the use of power in whatever they try to achieve. This is what really matters in my view. No one has the right to force their beliefs on anyone else. So my personal preferences, how I want to live, with whom, under what rules, shouldn’t matter too much to you. I am not trying to put anyone into some system that I dreamed up. I believe you are perfectly capable of making your own choices and giving meaning to your own life. I want to help create a world in which everyone can do this. Democracy is not, in my view, how we will get there. Freedom of government is.
Doesn’t freedom of government imply moral relativism? Doesn’t it imply that people can do what they like and set up their own society in any way they want? How can you fight things like racism or fundamentalism or other evils if you allow this?
I think there are two confusions here. First of all, the point of self-government is that every person has a right to their own life. In other words, no one, including fundamentalists, racists, greens, capitalists, atheists, believers, liberals, or whoever, has a right to force their ideas on others. This is not moral relativism. On the contrary! It puts clear limits on the types of actions and the types of society that are morally acceptable. If socialism means the forced redistribution of resources, if fascism means the repression of minorities, if fundamentalism means the subjugation of people with different ideas, if capitalism means forced labor, then they are all not acceptable. Self-government is based on the moral notion of self-ownership which means you have the right to accept any kind of moral rule voluntarily. Not that you have a right to impose any kind of rule on others.
However, and that’s the second confusion, just because you have no right to use force against others doesn’t mean you can’t help to make this world a better place! Respecting other people’s right to make their own choices does not mean you have to be indifferent to them. Obviously in any society there are constant debates taking place on what constitutes proper behavior. There is nothing wrong with that. And there is a lot you can do to advance your moral ideals. If you have a newspaper or website or other publication, you can publish ideas you believe in. If you are the owner of a sports stadium, or a shop, or a pub, or a company, you can forbid racist utterances on your premises. If you disagree with whatever a company or institution does, you can boycott them or organize a boycott against them. If you want to fight alcohol or drugs abuse of prostitution, you can try to convince people they should adopt a different way of life. And so on.
In the end, the only way you are ever going to make a better world is if you are able to convince people of your ideas and if they adopt moral views voluntarily. If self-government were to result in people all over the world setting up racist, fascist, Nazi, fundamentalist societies, this would imply that people all over the world are racists, fascists, Nazis, fundamentalists at heart. But if this were true, how could any kind of political structure result in a better world? How could democracy, if most people were like that?
Is freedom of government your own idea?
No, there is a long tradition of thinkers who reject power and the state and who have argued that everyone has the right to their own lives, and no one has a right to use others as means to their own ends. But this idea is usually presented in terms of “freedom from government”. I am expressing the same idea in terms of “freedom of government”. I think that’s a new approach. I have not come across it in those terms, but correct me if I’m wrong. What matters is that I believe freedom of government is more inspirational than freedom of government. It gives people a more positive perspective on the future.
Isn’t freedom of government a totally utopian idea?
This is a question that can be interpreted in two ways. First, do I claim that freedom of government will lead to a perfect world? No, I don’t. There will be plenty of problems left, no need to worry about that! Aggression won’t disappear, nor will power lust, or envy, or social tensions, or corruption or abuse or superstition or religious mania, or you name it. In this sense freedom of government is not utopian. What I do believe is that the existence of power magnifies problems. Taking power away will give people a better to chance to solve the other problems they face. The more control people have over their own lives, the better they will be able to make something good of their lives. And I think it’s a definite improvement if we get rid of our almighty rulers who have amassed so much destructive power that they are able to destroy the world many times over. There is nothing utopian about such a project.
Secondly, do I really believe that freedom of government can become a reality? Well, I am sure many people at some point did not believe that democracy could become a reality or communism. Yet they did. And freedom of government is not even a revolutionary idea. That is to say, it does not call for a revolution. It does not call on people to radically change their lives. On the contrary, it cherishes and supports the way people are living their lives today, together with others, their loved ones, their social relations, the way they work and produce and create and innovate. With just one difference: it takes out the possibility of some people ruling over others. Why wouldn’t that be possible?
Okay, you have me convinced! So what do you want to do? Do you want to start a political movement?
I certainly do not want to start a political party if that’s what you mean or to connect myself to any kind of political party. I see politics as the problem, not the solution. As Jeff Deist, a libertarian author, has written: “Unless and until we learn to reject politics as the overarching method for organizing society, hatred and fear of ‘the other’ will remain pervasive.” What I do believe in is political and social reforms, and even better: voluntary initiatives that make the state superfluous.
Can you give concrete examples?
Yes. Here are some ideas.
- Draw up real, enforceable contracts between citizens and state.
- Make politicians and state functionaries legally accountable for their actions and for any kind of mismanagement they perpetrate.
- Replace elections by a system in which citizens serve in parliament in turn just like with juries.
- Introduce maximum terms for civil servants and let government jobs rotate among citizens by lot, so that everyone gets a chance to temporarily profit from the perks of government (and no one a chance to profit from these a whole life long).
- Limit democratic decision-making to matters that really concern everyone, such as the use of public spaces, protection of the environment, nuisance laws, and that sort of thing.
- Decentralize democratic decision-making as much as possible.
- For Europe: abolish the EU.
- For the rest of the world: abolish the United Nations, which is an organization by and for states, and set up a United Societies to allow voluntary societies everywhere to cooperate with each other.
- Abolish central banks and the power of banks to create fiat money. Give the monetary system back to whom it belongs: people themselves.
- Abolish all victimless crimes, i.e. all state intervention into the personal lives and lifestyles of people.
- Abolish all privileges that people obtain from the state, such as subsidies, tax constructions, price interventions, trade interventions, intellectual property rights.
- Start “free economic zones” in which people can interact free from bureaucracy and other state interventions.
- Start “free social zones”, in which people can “experiment” with free education, free healthcare, free money, and so on, so we will be able to see whether real freedom works or not. If it does, we can expand them to cover the rest of society.
- Support all initiatives for peace in the world.
- Limit defense to defense, bring the troops home.
- Support land reforms that remove land ownership claims based on past injustices.
- Start private courts and private tribunals where people can bring their disputes.
- Support any group of people who want to set up their own voluntary society as long as they respect everyone’s self-ownership rights and base themselves on reasonable land ownership claims.
- Set up international tribunals with respected legal experts who can adjudicate over land ownership conflicts. Their verdicts won’t be “binding” on states perhaps but they can send out a powerful message.
- Support any measure or initiative that reduces power.
This is not an exhaustive list. If you have ideas, do let me know, I will add them here!
Great, let’s get started! What’s the next step?
Well, that’s a good question. I find it difficult to say at this point. There is a chance that my idea won’t catch on right away! In that case, the main thing to do will be to continue to convince people. To spread the word. To deepen our understanding of what it would take to make freedom of government come true. I invite anyone to contribute content (in whatever form) to this website. You can also take whatever content you find here and reproduce it through your own outlets, under Creative Commons rules. If you want to take up the cause on social media, please be my guest. It would be a great help, because I’m not very good at social media.
As to real concrete next steps, they depend on initiatives that people will take. I am sure there are many groups of people in the world who want to set up their own societies apart from the state they live in. We should support them as much as we can. If you know of any such initiatives, do let me know. There are also initiatives by some people to set up “free cities”, just as in Medieval times in Europe. Wouldn’t it be great if we could set up such free cities for refugees who are currently stuck in places where they have no hope for the future? I know this sounds ambitious, but this is the sort of thing that should be happening. Less ambitious initiatives can also make a huge difference, for instance, in sectors such as education and healthcare or in finance. As long as they help to reduce the power of the state they are worth undertaking. If we work on this we may find that at some point the power of the state will dissolve in front of our eyes.