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The Path to Liberty – Developing an Anarchist Heuristic for Change

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In the last few years there have been several high profile secession movements in Europe. The Scots barely lost their bid for independent from Great Britain, the Greeks have been pushing to separate from the EU, and the Catalonians are drawing closer to formal separation from Spain. Interestingly, all of these secession movements are driven by socialists. This is somewhat counterintuitive, because socialists believe in a more interventionist government. To be philosophically consistent, they should want a world government, which would be more effective in confiscating the means of production, and forcing the entire world into their crazy redistributionist schemes. But, of course, the socialists are not philosophically consistent. They don’t actually fight for any principle, despite their claims. Instead, they want to secede because they think that by being independent, they will achieve greater socialism on a local scale. Their movement has gained support because they are offering people something tangible: more government handouts.

Like the European socialists, anarchists love secession. Unlike them, we love it out of principle. We love secession because it weakens the state. The state is nothing without a sizable geographic territory under its monopolistic command. Therefore, anarchists want a world of progressively smaller and smaller states, until the day that each individual is sovereign in his or her own right. So, when anarchists observe what is happening in Europe, they might ask themselves “Should we support the socialists’ efforts to secede? Should we support them even though we know their dastardly motivations? Should we support them, even though we know that if they succeed people who live in those regions will enjoy less freedom?” This is the key question that I will explore in this essay. To abstract and rephrase it: Which is preferable? A state of large geographic size that is largely laissez-faire or a geographically small state that is more interventionist? When faced with a choice between the two, which should anarchists prefer?

The question is critical because if anarchists ever hope to bring about a stateless world, we will need to think about how to deal with the existing state. Assuming our message spreads and our numbers grow, one day we will have political power. When that day arrives, we will need a clear heuristic to help us decide how to wield that power. We will need a heuristic which will instruct us about which government initiatives we should support and which we should fight. We will need a clear rule of thumb to guide us. There is currently no consensus on this issue. People who love liberty are divided. They ascribe to two diametrically opposed decision frameworks. The first, I will refer to as the “maximize aggregate liberty” (MAL) view. MAL is more popular with libertarians and minarchists. Supporters of MAL argue: “People who love liberty should support any government initiative that increases liberty.” MAL supporters are not overly concerned with centralization or the geographic size of a state. Instead they focus on what that state actually does – how much does it intervene in the lives of “its” citizens? Supporters of MAL might, in theory, support a world state assuming it was largely laissez-faire and protected individual liberty. What matters to them is the aggregate amount of individual liberty. That is their primary concern. The second view I will refer to as the “decentralize the power of the state” (DPS) view. DPS is even simpler than MAL, and it is more popular among anarchists. DPS supporters argue simply: “We should always support the decentralization of power and reduction in the geographic size of the state, for any reason, no matter the motivation.” I will argue for the DPS heuristic in this essay.

Imagine how a supporter of the two different schools of thought might respond to the modern European secession movements. A proponent of MAL might argue “We should not support any secession movement driven by socialists. They have impure motives. If they win, they will be free to impose their socialist system on people who would otherwise enjoy greater economic liberty. Therefore, the aggregate amount of liberty will decrease. Since our goal is more liberty, we must oppose these movements.” A proponent of DPS would argue differently, and come to the opposite conclusion. He might say “We should support the secession movements in Europe. Yes, they are unfortunately driven by socialists, but in this case, our goal aligns with the socialists. Any reduction in the geographic size of a state is a victory, even if it leads to a proportionately stronger, more interventionist local state. In the end, the reduction in the geographic size of the state will bring us closer to our goal of individual sovereignty. Therefore, we should support these movements, even though their success may temporarily harm the people in that particular region.” You can see how both sides have seemingly sound arguments. In fact, in a lot of ways, MAL appears more practical. Why then do I support DPS?

Before answering, let me bring forward a few other historical examples to further illustrate the difference between the two schools of thought. Consider the American Civil War. How would proponents of MAL and DPS view it differently? Proponents of the MAL approach, would look at the Civil War and ask a seemingly simple question: Did it increase individual liberty, in aggregate? As debits in their calculation they might take into consideration the forcible conscription of northern citizens, the suppression of dissent in northern newspapers, and Lincoln’s innovations in government. On the credit side, they would include the liberation of millions of slaves, and maybe the constitutional amendments against slavery. After they have listed all the debits and credits attributable to the Civil War, they would aggregate them and come to a conclusion. If, in aggregate, the Civil War increased the amount of liberty then it would be just. In that case, they would approve of the war even though it prevented the reduction in the geographic territory controlled by the central government. Proponents of DPS reason differently, and reach a different conclusion. They support any secession movement for any reason, because every secession movement aims to reduce the geographic size of a state. Their support is independent of the motivation of the people who are leading the movement. They might despise the socialists in Europe, or the slave owners in the American south, but in both cases they would still support their attempts to gain independence.

Another more modern example of the differences between the two schools of thought involve binding trade agreements between states. The TPP is a perfect example. The TPP sets up a sort of binding international arbitration regime. States that participate in the TPP do not have the option of withdrawing from it, without facing severe sanctions. So, the agreement establishes a type of super national sovereignty. Proponents of MAL are not ideologically against this type of agreement. Just as they are not ideologically against a world state. The size of government or centralization of power is not their primary concern. It might not even be a consideration of theirs. All that matters to them is the amount of liberty granted by the state. So, the TPP and similar agreements would not be viewed by proponents of the MAL as necessarily bad. Instead, they would judge it by its terms. If the TPP, increases the amount of liberty, in aggregate, they would support it. You see this happening today. Some free market think tanks are lending support to the TPP because they have decided it will be good for liberty.

Proponents of the DPS heuristic reason differently and reach the opposite conclusion. According to them, any centralization and concentration of political power, any increase in the size of monopolistic state sovereignty, should be opposed. DPS proponents claim that the state has no legitimacy to bind them to a larger agreement. Whether such an agreement is “good” and will deliver them short term benefits or “bad” is not relevant to their judgment. They don’t care “what’s in it”. They reject all trade deals brokered by the state, and are against them in principle, a priori.

I hope I have illustrated how the two separate heuristics can lead two people, both passionate about liberty, to take opposite sides of the same issues. Both heuristics offer a simple rule of thumb to a person trying to decide whether to support a government initiative or not. Both have an internal logic that seems to makes sense. And some people who have not given the matter much thought might claim there is more logic to the MAL approach. They might argue: “We should just support what works best!” But the MAL approach suffers fatal flaws. Next, I will argue why anarchists should reject it, and adopt the DPS heuristic. DPS should be our north star, our decision guide, which will lead us to a permanently stateless future.

The state is impotent if it does not control a sufficiently large geographic area. The greater the area, the more state employees can get away with. As the size of the state increases arithmetically, its power over its citizens increases geometrically. The inverse is also true. As the geographic size of a state is reduced arithmetically, its power over its citizens is reduced geometrically. Consider that many of the functions of the modern state would not be possible in states smaller than a certain geographic size. Money and a cartelized banking system are good examples. If all 50 states in the US were sovereign nations, their governments would be unable to collectively impose a single currency on their citizens. Nor would any fractional reserve bank last long. Each state government might attempt to establish their own central bank and issue and manage their own currency, but neighboring states would do the same. In the absence of a unifying sovereign, there would be competition between the different currencies. Consumers would have a choice. Some currencies would be better managed, backed by commodities or higher reserve ratios. They would not be devalued during economic shocks, and would gradually develop a reputation as safer than the others. Citizens of neighboring states would begin to use these relatively safe currencies, frustrating their own state government’s attempt to control money. Pushing the hypothetical further, you could image an even more competitive situation wherein each city was sovereign and managed its own currency. In that scenario, it would be impossible for the (city) state to prevent competition in money.

The lesson here is that the smaller the state, the more it starts to approximate a private business, subjected to market forces and free competition. The inverse is also true. The larger the state, the more it’s employees can free themselves from the discipline of market forces and impose their whims on others. When a single state dominates a region the size of the United States, it’s employees can get away with forcing their currency on everyone. There is no realistic competition. An American citizen is not likely to adopt the Canadian dollar, nor the Mexican peso. Those countries are too far away for their currencies to be an effective competitive check against the dollar.

So when it comes to states, size matters. It matters in a qualitative sense, not just quantitative. A big state is not just like a small state, only bigger. It is something altogether different. Consider another issue. Slavery. Slavery is an artificial institution that would not survive without a state. And not just any state. To sustain slavery requires a state commanding a geographically large enough area to prevent escape. People do not like being enslaved. If you attempt to enslave them and they believe they have a good chance of escaping, they will attempt to do so. If the political unit which sanctions their slavery is limited to the size of a single city, all the slave would have to do to get free is to escape from that city into a neighboring city that will protect him. A two hour walk at night at most and he is free. Easy. However, if the political unit that sanctions his slavery is the size of a US state he has a more difficult decision. Escaping is not as easy. To gain freedom, he would have to travel much further. Perhaps two full days of walking or more. Doable, but significantly harder and more perilous. Finally, if the political unit that sanctions slavery is the size of a modern nation state, than the slave has a nearly impossible task if he wants to escape. He must travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to cross the boundary into the next sovereign territory. So, with slavery, as with money, the smaller the geography controlled by a particular state, the harder it is for that state’s employees to effectively control “their” citizens.

As with money and slavery, so with many other controls that state employees attempt to put on “their” citizens. A person can easily avoid high sales taxes if there is a tax haven a short drive away. He cannot do so if a uniform tax regime covers a vast area. A small business can engage in regulatory arbitrage if all that is required is moving offices a few miles down the road. But it cannot do so if there is a unified regulatory scheme over a large area. A person can purchase alcohol when he wants or drugs or prostitutes or gamble on what he wants much more easily if there a separate sovereign nation close by that permits these things, even if his own does not. But this is not true if the border is far away. There are many more example I could provide, but I think you get the point. Geographic size is key to a state’s power and control.

This is why decentralization and the reduction of the size of sovereign states should be the most important thing to anarchists. We should focus on it more than what a particular state actually does. The smaller the geographic reach of a state, the less control it will have over its citizens. This is true even if the state is formed by a secession movement whose leaders hope to exercise more control over their citizens. Let me demonstrate this point. Assume that Catalonia secedes from Spain. Then the Catalonian government, controlled by socialists, begins nationalizing industries, and redistributing wealth. Assume that the rest of Spain continues par for the course. Its citizens enjoy relative economic freedom. Smart business people from Catalonia begin relocating. They set up shop outside the border of the Catalonian state. Wealthy Catalonians also begin moving their wealth to Spain to protect it from the relatively avaricious Catalonian state. Workers abandon Catalonia because there are more opportunities outside its border. The Catalonian economy begins to suffer and tax receipts dry up. A day of reckoning looms. The anarchy between the Catalonian state, and the Spanish state has yielded positive good. The competitive pressure of Spain has punished the Catalonian people for their bad rulers and bad policies. They will be “forced” to reform. But assume that the socialists in Barcelona remain intransigent. Assume that like many socialists, they do not care to reconsider their position. They refuse to accept what they call the “austerity” imposed on them by the Catalonian government. They think it is a conspiracy of the capitalists. Assume they begin organizing another secession movement. This time they want Barcelona to secede from Catalonia. Assume they are successful. Watch how quickly the same process brings them to their knees. This time it will happen much faster. It will happen much faster because relocating from Barcelona to a suburb is much easier than leaving Catalonia altogether. Moving wealth to a suburban bank is simple. Finding a job in the suburbs might not even require a city dweller to move. The hurdle is lower, because the geographic size is smaller. The smaller the state, the more efficient the market discipline. I hope this example has illustrated how every reduction in geographic size accelerates the movement toward individual liberty. By focusing on reducing the geographic region controlled by each sovereign state, we can advance step by step toward a free society. This is true even if the people who ally with us do not share our ideology. They, like the socialists in Europe may be ignorant fools. They may not even understand their position. It doesn’t matter. If they want to fight for our ends and help us reduce the geographic size of the state we should encourage them to do so.

Another reason that anarchists should adopt the DPS heuristic is the moral argument. If a person does not think the state is legitimate then they should not support it, even when it does what they want. Even a state that partially protects individual liberty is still a state. By supporting it, a person validates its forcible theft of property. If a person resists the breaking up of a large state because they fear what the resulting smaller state government might do, they are in effect telling some people “I am supporting your subjugation to a large state because I don’t think other people should have to fight their own battles.” This is a morally flawed argument.

Let me illustrate this point. Assume that the Scottish government is controlled by socialists. They call for massive redistribution, economic controls, and nationalization. But they are prevented from implementing their plan by the government of Great Britain. Therefore, they spearhead an effort to break away from Great Britain. People around the world watch and weigh in. Sincere libertarians of the MAL heuristic look at the situation and decide that in aggregate liberty would be reduced if Scotland goes free. Therefore, they come out against Scottish independence. They argue: “The Scottish people are not ready to rule themselves. After all, the Scots have allowed the socialists to gain power, so they clearly are not responsible enough to be independent. Imagine the harm to liberty that would result from Scottish independence!” The error in this argument is that the Scottish people must be responsible for themselves. It is not properly the role of anyone else to decide their fate. If they are not responsible for themselves, who should be? If I am a citizen of Great Britain, and I want a reduction in the geographic scope of the state, how is it fair to artificially bind me to the Scottish people, simply because they are too irresponsible to place intelligent leaders in positions of power?

The MAL libertarian might respond: “Well it’s the socialist Scottish government that wants independence, not necessarily the Scottish people. We should not allow the Scottish government to be sovereign, because it does not represent the true wishes of the Scottish people.” This is the same argument made by Abraham Lincoln. To justify his war, Lincoln claimed that despite the southern governments wish to be independent, the southern citizens did not. The error in the argument is that it presumes a some standard of legitimacy exists by which to judge governments. But nobody explains that standard. What is it? All states are predicated on coercion. Whether a democracy, a monarchy, a dictatorship, an oligarchy etc… all states force themselves on at least some people who do not want them. A person might assert that democracy is the standard by which we judge legitimacy. But this is poor reasoning. A person cannot just assert “democracy” as if that’s some sort of magic word that ends all argument. For that argument to succeed, the person would first have to establish that the other person agrees that democracy should be the standard. But the person who rejects the democratic state, does not agree, by definition. In fact, no absolute standard for state legitimacy exists.

If the argument that the Scottish state is illegitimate was valid, the exact same criticism could be applied to the British state (in this scenario). A person could equally claim that the British state’s claim to represent its people is not legitimate, because it also has dissenters. Since neither government can be rationally defended, the proper course of action is one that advances toward a rationally defensible political system. The only rationally defensible political system is anarchy, or the rule of each individual over himself and his property. But, to achieve anarchy it will be necessary to break large states into small states, and continue that process until no states remain, and individuals are sovereign. Therefore, the only rationally defensible action is to move in that direction by promoting Scotland’s secession.

There is another problem with the MAL approach. The problem of quantifying liberty. MAL, to remind you, stands for “maximize aggregate liberty”. But how does one “measure” liberty? I purposely used the credit and debit metaphor when discussing the Civil War. It is the type of metaphor that supporters of MAL would use. They would “add up the pluses and minuses” of a particular proposal. But the metaphor fails. It can’t be applied to liberty. Credits and debits in accounting deal with hard numbers. Pluses and minuses are functions in mathematics. Liberty doesn’t work like that. It is qualitative. There is no objective measure of liberty. Yes, there are organizations that attempt to quantify liberty, but they all suffer from fatal methodological issues. When a policy maker or a libertarian following the MAL school of thought attempts to quantify a particular initiative (say the TPP, or the Civil War etc) he or she must necessarily inject their own subjective feelings or personal experiences into their judgment of the initiative. There is no way around it, because there is no objective measure. DPS, however, is objective. It is a much simpler rule: If an initiative decentralizes power, or reduces the geographic size of a state, we must support it. There is no confusion or ambiguity possible.

A related problem with the MAL heuristic is that the future is impossible to predict. As economists, we know that there are unforeseen, cascading consequences of any political action. Nevertheless, the MAL heuristic requires people to judge an initiative based on the aggregate liberty it will deliver. But how can anyone know the future? The politicians and policy makers might be lying. They may have hidden intentions. The initiative may turn out different from the expectation. Corruption may contravene the positives that the MAL advocate attributes to the initiative. We cannot know the future until it arrives. DPS does not suffer from this problem. Its proponents make no claim that the secession movement and/or decentralization will deliver “more liberty”. All they claim is that it is one step closer to anarchy.

To demonstrate the two points above, I’ll apply them to the TPP. As I conceded, the TPP may bring about some positive economic reforms. It might “force” some of the signatory states’ governments to free up sectors of their economy, allow easier flow of capital or raw materials, more trade and competition etc. But how can anyone calculate the aggregate amount of liberty it will deliver? The idea is preposterous. How far into the future would such a calculation extend? 5 years? 10 years? 50 years? Where would one stop? Wouldn’t an accurate calculation necessarily include every potential consequence no matter how remote or improbable? How would the MAL proponent calculate the trade off between the positive economic liberty gains of the TPP and the negative loss of political liberty? Even if a person could satisfactorily answer these questions, his calculations would be based on a guess about what the TPP might deliver in the future. What if his guess is wrong? The future is unknown and uncertain. What if the TPP is used as a stepping stone to a world state, similar to how the EEC became the EU? Would the MAL libertarian’s calculations include that potential loss of liberty? There is no end to the possibilities that would have to be included in the calculation. Given the impossibility of his task, the MAL libertarian will ultimately be forced to make a judgment based on his “feelings.” Does the initiative “feel right”? If so, he will support it. If it doesn’t, he won’t. DPS allows no similar room for subjectivity.

The subjectivity required by the MAL heuristic may lead people to make wrong decisions. Let’s consider a new topic and new scenario that will demonstrate why. Consider gun control. Imagine a new bill is proposed in Congress. It seeks to abolish the second amendment. Consequently, each state would have the right to regulate guns as their government sees fit. The proposed bill would decentralize power. If passed, gun control would no longer be a federal issue. Each state government would gain a bit more power, and the federal government would lose a significant amount of power. Supporters of DPS would therefore support the bill. They would support it even knowing that many state governments may outlaw guns. They would argue “That’s a fight which the people of each state have to have with their state government, but the federal government is not legitimate. It has no right to regulate guns.” Their position would be clear and consistent.

However, people who follow the MAL heuristic would not have such an easy decision. How would they calculate the total impact on liberty of abolishing the second amendment? On one hand, extant federal assault rifle bans would no longer apply. In pro gun states, citizens would be able to buy these rifles, and enjoy more liberty. On the other hand, some state governments might ban all guns. But, if some states permit the sale of assault rifles and machine guns, citizens of the states that don’t would be able to visit the pro gun states and purchase them. So the bill would result in both positives and negatives. How could someone calculate the aggregate impact? It’d be tough for all the reasons I’ve explained above. In addition, imagine that a MAL libertarian lives in a somewhat “liberal” state. He supports the right to own guns, and he owns a few himself. When the bill is proposed in Congress, he realizes that if it passes, his state will probably outlaw all guns. He would not like that. Therefore, he will have a personal interest in the bill’s failure. Is it unrealistic to imagine that his personal interest would not filter through into his “calculation?” Particularly because his calculation is itself problematic? By following a vague heuristic, he risks subjective distortion of his judgment.

Therefore, as anarchists we should always support the decentralization of political power. We should follow the simple MGS heuristic. Even if we do not think that the resulting smaller political entities will use their power as fairly the original larger entity did. Ultimately, our goal is for individuals to be free. The only way to get to that world is to relentlessly break monopolistic states into smaller and smaller units. Some small polities will probably misuse their sovereignty, particularly if they are new to self determination. But the smaller they are, the easier it will be for the competitive forces of the market to discipline them.  To be free, people must learn to be responsible. We cannot in good conscience refuse them the ability to make mistakes. It is the only way that some people will learn to value truth, the necessary prerequisite for adopting the anarchist philosophy.

– To hear this essay read aloud, please click here.

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Anarchist Standard

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