Thursday, August 03, 2006

On Pushing the Button

Yesterday I mentioned Leonard Read's proposal to "push the button" if a button existed to eliminate "the government." Here is a response to that idea:
An interesting thought experiment, that. All coercion ends tomorrow. There is no national defense, no police, no courts. Further, there is no way to enforce contracts, save individuals taking matters into their own hands. All transit systems stop. All airline travel stops, for there is no air traffic control. Most water and sewage systems stop. Street lights go off. Nuclear missile silos are abandoned, or commandeered. With all this going on, few would go to work, in both the government and the private sector. Why work when you can’t get there, and your paycheck is worthless?

Sure, some things might still function, but clearly there would be a profound setback in everyone’s standard of living. Perhaps there would gradually spring up new, non-coercive mechanisms to keep the peace. But, then again, perhaps not.

In the post-anarchy-button-pushed world, we would be in a state of nature. The concepts of “rights” and “property” would be as meaningless as they are to flora and fauna.

This kind of fear-mongering inhibits all movement towards a libertarian society. It is psychologically impossible for most people to get involved in cutting the size of government because of this fear of going "too far."

We live in an essentially socialist culture. Most of our lives, most of the decisions we make, are regulated by the government. We accept pervasive socialism as inescapable. One can imagine a movement to abolish a particularly egregious government pork barrel, but nobody wants to join a "movement" to cut all government programs because the fear of cutting too much government is greater than the fear of growing too much government. We worry about "anarchy," but nobody worries about totalitarian tyranny, because that only happens to "them." "We" would never allow that to happen here. Never mind that the government that exists today is many times more tyrannical than the government abolished by America's Founding Fathers in 1776, and would horrify the Founders.

It is the nature of political change that "movements" are required to make political changes. A majority of people might be opposed to a government project that only benefits one special interest, but the lobby of that special interest is politically stronger than the diffused desires of a majority of voters. The special interest stands to gain a million dollars, while a hundred million people each stand to lose only a penny. Political change is always orchestrated.

I believe an explicitly "anarchist" movement is needed to orchestrate a cut in government, that is, to actually begin reducing the size of government. (I'll let the PR Dept. come up with a marketable substitute for "anarchist.")

(Now that I write that, a position I've long held, I doubt myself, and wonder about a movement to cut every government program by 10%. Call it a "reverse-tithe" movement, based on the idea that God only requires 10%, but the government requires 5 times more than that, and shouldn't we make a start to cut goverment by 10%: every program, every grant, every agency -- every number in the budget is cut 10%. An almost purely-symbolic gesture, but still important. Could a "reverse-tithe" movement ever get off the ground? I doubt it, because the special interests would all say
  • "But MY budget was already cut!" (By which they mean, "We asked for a 20% budget increase, but those mean ol' nasty Republicans slashed our requested increase by FIFTY PERCENT and our special interest's budget was only increased by 10%!" [and of course the Republicans boast to their constituents, "I helped cut government spending by 50%!")
  • or "My cause is exceptional, and should actually be INCREASED!"

When it comes to actually cutting the size of a government budget, most people are unwilling to "push the button."

When Americans abolished the government of Britain in the American Colonies, stiff psychological resistance had to be overcome. Historian David McCullough, author of 1776, and John Adams, wrote:

Adams more than anyone got the Continental Congress to vote for the Declaration [of Independence]. Keep in mind that only about a third of the country supported the Revolution. Another third was opposed –– the Loyalists or Tories, who saw themselves as the true patriots because they were standing by their King. The remaining third, in the human way, were waiting to see who won. But Adams got the Congress to vote for the Declaration and many wrote about it afterwards.
America's Founding Fathers "pushed the button." They did not simply gradually diminish the power of the British Monarch. They abolished it entirely. This is why only 30% supported the movement: it was radical. America's Founding Fathers created an entirely new system of government. They abolished the King altogether. People around the world -- not just most Americans -- did not believe that society could survive without a king, with the people governing themselves ("consent of the governed"). Surely such a headless nation would collapse into chaos and "anarchy." Conservative Christian Physician Benjamin Rush eventually signed the Declaration of Independence, but at first he was very skeptical about the idea of a society remaining organized without a king:
Never before had I heard the authority of kings called in question. I had been taught to consider them nearly as essential to political order as the sun is to the order of our solar system.
The blogger we quoted above is held captive by the same kind of thinking. Most Americans are. But America prospered without a king.

And America can prosper without any "government" at all.

If America could prosper without the minimal monarchy of 1775, certainly America doesn't need the vast, dominating, suffocating "Administrative State" that exists today.

We need to recapture the vision of 1776, and then continue onward.

Let's consider the paranoia of the blogger we quoted above. This is what he said would happen if we were to "push the button":

All coercion ends tomorrow. There is no national defense, no police, no courts.

And that's just the beginning of the chaos and "anarchy."

Of course, it isn't going to happen like this. There has to be political movements, debate, and a Congressional vote. Money has already been allocated for this fiscal year, so let's imagine that pushing the button means ending government at the end of this fiscal year. What would your local police department do if they knew that all their funding was going to dry up in 30, 60, or 90 days?

Can we assume that they care about the people they serve, and would continue working during the transition? Or are they only in it for the money?

If you owned a gas station, and a patrolman pulled in and asked for a tank of gas on credit, would you give the policeman any gas? If not, and if nobody in the country would support the police in any way, who gets to overrule those decisions and impose on millions of Americans a law requiring support of the police?

If you were a policeman, and were willing to work for a week or two without pay while a committee was appointed to do fund-raising, would you walk the beat, or if you had a desk job, would you put in some time volunteering with the fund-raising committee?

Would the fund-raising committee, or a coalition of fund-raising committees across the nation, calculate the amount the average person in their jurisdiction had been paying for police services, and send a letter saying,

Dear Consumer,
Last year you paid $X.00 for police services. If you wish continued police services, please enclose a check for that amount.
Your local Police Department.

Of course someone in the police department might anticipate that with the end of the government monopoly, consumers might also receive a letter like this, from a competitor:

Dear Consumer,
We represent a coalition of Detectives, Patrolmen, and Administrators who are planning on resigning from the government police department when government funding expires next month. We are familiar with the waste, abuse, and inefficiencies of government police, and we are starting a new firm offering you better police protection at a lower price.
We will not be investigating or arresting anyone for recreational or medical drug use, but will instead concentrate on protecting you and your property and securing restitution for damage done. Last year you paid $x.00 for police services. We are guaranteeing you the same level of protection for 20% less or your money back.
Sign up today!
Police Services, Inc.

There are dozens of books, articles, and other studies on how courts, sewage systems, utilities, air traffic control, street lights, and other government functions can be provided by a Free Market. Among the basics are Murray Rothbard's For a New Liberty, and David Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom. Also valuable in this context is Thomas Sowell's Knowledge and Decisions. The Free Market -- millions of consumers and millions of entrepreneurs -- contains the knowledge needed to make the decisions on how to provide vital services with the greatest efficiency. The government does not have all this knowledge, and cannot make correct decisions. These books also help understand why the Free Market can best provide goods and services which haven't even been invented yet, using market mechanisms which themselves have not yet come into existence.

Every day in the world, old businesses fold and new businesses take their place. The Market decides which ones should go, how their assets should be distributed, which aspects of each business should be undertaken by which new businesses, and this transition from old to new is best handled by the Free Market, that is, by the millions of people who are directly involved in each industry and have the knowledge necessary to make efficient decisions.

To say that America would collapse into chaos, and hundreds of millions of consumers and millions of entrepreneurs would just sit around wringing their hands instead of rapidly re-designing the infrastructure that keeps life going is myopic, misanthropic, and elitist. It reflects the same thinking that leads to socialism. It is a denial of the ability of the Free Market to create the transition from old businesses to new.

The essential question is, Does life work better under (a) the Free Market, or under (b) some form of Socialism. If the answer is (a), then the Free Market itself will spontaneously evolve the mechanisms necessary to make the transition from socialism to a Free Market. We can't anticipate these solutions, any more than we could have anticipated how a Free Market would put a television in every American household. But if our theory of the Free Market is correct, these solutions will evolve.

We should push the button.

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