(to table of contents of FNF archives) (to start of Part IV)
Part I: Can We? Should We?
--Who Are They?
--How Did They Get There?
--May They Legitimately Stay There?
--The Principled Objection to Political Action
--Political Action as Self-Defense; or, Peril in Smallville
--Three Cheers for Casuistry
--The Principled Objection, Improved
(to top of outline)
Part II: The Process of Reform
--The Problem of Libertarian Reform
--Services: Abolish or Phase Out?
--Regulation: Abolish or Phase Out?
--Taxation: Abolish or Phase Out?
(to top of outline)
Part III: Is Libertarian Political Action Self-Defeating?
--The Pragmatic Objection to Political Action
--First Pragmatic Pitfall: Top-Down Reform
--Second Pragmatic Pitfall: Dancing with the Devil
--Third Pragmatic Pitfall: Loss of Credibility
(to top of outline)
Part IV: The Sons of Brutus
--Fourth Pragmatic Pitfall: Reactionary Backlash
--Welcome to East Zimiamvia
(to outline) (to top of page)
I began this series by asking you to imagine that libertarians had come to power in the tiny country of East Zimiamvia, and were preparing to dismantle the apparatus of state power and create a free society. What practical barriers would they face? What moral barriers would they face?
In the first installment ("Can We? Should We?," Formulations Vol. II, No. 4), I considered what I called the Principled Objection, according to which, since political power is inherently a form of aggression, it is immoral for libertarians to exercise political power, even with the intention of decreasing or abolishing that power. In response, I argued that seizing political power could be justified as a form of self-defense.
In the second installment ("The Process of Reform," Formulations Vol. III, No. 1) I considered a more subtle version of the Principled Objection. According to this version, no program of dismantling the state from within can be both moral and effective, since morality requires that government activities be terminated immediately, whereas pragmatic considerations suggest that the liberalization process must be gradual if it is to be effective. In response, I argued that those aspects of government whose immediate cessation is ethically mandatory are distinct from the aspects which must for practical reasons be phased out over time, so that an effective state-dismantling program can take an abolitionist attitude toward the former and a gradualist attitude toward the latter, consistent with both libertarian moral scruples and pragmatic requirements.
In the third installment ("Is Libertarian Political Action Self-Defeating?," Formulations, Vol. III, No. 2), I turned from the Principled Objection to the Pragmatic Objection, the argument that dismantling state power from within, even if morally permissible, is simply not practically feasible. I considered three "pragmatic pitfalls": first, that reliance on political rather than educational solutions flies in the face of the libertarian recognition that the bottom-up approaches are more effective than top-down ones; second, that trying to put libertarians in power ignores the fact that power tends to corrupt its holders, even if those holders are libertarian; and third, that by engaging in political action libertarians would be perceived as hypocritical and so would undermine their own effectiveness. I argued that each of these objections was mistaken. In this final installment, I shall deal with a fourth difficulty for libertarian state-dismantlers.
(to outline) (to top of page)
Fourth Pragmatic Pitfall: Reactionary Backlash
The fourth pitfall is the threat that those who stand (or believe they stand) to lose from the establishment of a libertarian régime will be able to mount a successful policy of obstructionism unless there exists sufficient bottom-up grass-roots support for libertarian ideas to hold the reactionaries in check.
This objection is correct as far as it goes, I think, but it is more effective against a purely top-down approach than against a mixed approach. Still, it's worth considering who the enemies of the new régime are likely to be, and what power they can be expected to wield.
One important threat to consider, if the new free nation (say, East Zimiamvia) has been ceded its territory by a parent nation (say, Greater Zimiamvia), is that parent nation itself. Once the cession has been made, what incentive does the Greater Zimiamvian government have to abide by it? In How to Start Your Own Country, a study of the new-country movement, Erwin Strauss presented the problem as follows:
Furthermore ... there are reasons for existing countries to be reluctant to sell sovereignty over pieces of their territories. ... there is only so much land a nation has to which to sell sovereignty (even if it is willing to weather the emotional reaction among the population to selling off part of the sacred soil of the Motherland); and once it's sold, there is no further income to be had ....
There is also the great-power factor. In past centuries, there were corners of the world that the great powers were not interested in and/or were unable to influence. ... Nowadays, the interests of the great powers extend worldwide and even into space. They have networks of grants-in-aid, favorable trade terms, military assistance programs, etc., to make it worth any small country's while to accomodate [sic] one or more of them. These great powers tend to want to see the status quo maintained. Especially, they want to see the number of countries held down, because the fewer the players there are in the international game, the easier it is for the great powers to manage things to their own advantage. A country selling sovereignty would face being cut off from the aid, trade, etc., that the great powers can offer. Thus they are only interested in doing such things if there's a large, ongoing profit to be realized .... The small countries really aren't interested in taking the grief that would be involved in selling sovereignty just for a few, one-shot payments from buyers ...."
(Erwin S. Strauss, How to Start Your Own Country, Second Edition (Loompanics, Port Townsend WA, 1984), pp. 11-13.)
Second, the negotiations for territory in which to create a "libertarian homeland" should be constructed with as much publicity and P. R. as possible, in order to win sympathy and support in the forum of world opinion and thus discourage other nations from hindering us.
Third, we need to make it worth Greater Zimiamvia's while both to cede sovereignty in the first place and then to continue to respect that cession later on. This is where a 99-year lease of sovereignty, with continuing payments on the installment plan, might prove more feasible than a permanent cession of sovereignty for a one-time fee. The prospect of a continuing source of revenue — assuming we can make this credible to the Greater Zimiamvian politicians — might tempt them into agreeing to cede sovereignty. (We had better sweeten the deal, and lessen the financial risk for Greater Zimiamvia, by making the down payment fairly substantial.) The temporary character of the cession should make it easier for the Greater Zimiamvian government to sell the deal to its own citizens. And Greater Zimiamvia will have less incentive to repudiate the deal afterward if the lease proves a continuing source of revenue.
But how will the libertarian government (or at any rate, the organization that calls itself a government) in East Zimiamvia be able to afford these periodic payments? Well, payoffs to the Greater Zimiamvian government will form a crucial part of East Zimiamvia's national defense; and I have discussed elsewhere ("Funding Public Goods: Six Solutions," Formulations, Vol. II, No. 1 (Autumn 1994)) how sufficient revenues for national defense can be raised by voluntary means.
Two obvious objections to this scheme are these:
First, these periodic payments to Greater Zimiamvia are in effect a form of tribute, or "protection money"; and, as the saying goes, those who once pay Danegeld are never free of the Dane. Can a free nation really count as free if its freedom is mortgaged to a hostile government? What is sovereignty worth, with this threat hanging forever overhead? What has become of the patriotic cry: "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!"
Second, a 99-year lease is all very well for the living, but do we not want to secure the blessings of liberty not only to ourselves but to our posterity? When the lease expires in 99 years and sovereignty reverts to Greater Zimiamvia, will the East Zimiamvians of tomorrow be in the same helpless position as the residents of Hong Kong today, forcibly repatriated from freedom into bondage?
To both these objections I answer simply that if even half of what we libertarians believe about the capacities of a free society for production, innovation, and growth is true, then within a few decades of its inception a libertarian nation should be in a much better position — economically, diplomatically, and militarily — to renegotiate its contract and win more favorable terms.
But what of domestic threats to the fledgling libertarian régime? Machiavelli offers the following warning:
If then one desires to remedy these difficulties and to cure the disorders which the aforesaid difficulties bring about, there is no way more efficient, more sure, more safe or more necessary, than to kill the sons of Brutus, who, as history shows would not together with other Roman youths have been induced to conspire against their country if it had not been that, under consuls, they could not attain to an outstanding position, as they could under the kings; so that the freedom of the people was, from their point of view, but servitude.
He then who sets out to govern ... in a free state ... and does not secure himself against those who are hostile to the new order, is setting up a form of government which will be but short-lived."
(Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I. 16 (pp. 153-155).)
"It should be borne in mind that there is nothing more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes in a state's constitution. The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old order, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new. Their support is lukewarm partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the existing laws on their side, and partly because men are generally incredulous, never really trusting new things unless they have tested them by experience. In consequence, whenever those who oppose the changes can do so, they attack vigorously, and the defence made by the others is only lukewarm. So both the innovator and his friends come to grief."
(Machiavelli, The Prince, VI; trans. George Bull (Penguin, London, 1985), p. 51.)
The army — if one comes with the territory, which of course it may not — represents a special case. In most countries of the world, the army plays an active and public political role, a situation relatively unfamiliar to Americans. Is the army under civilian control, or is it fairly independent? Is it unified in its outlook, or divided into factions? Do its members come from and identify with the common people (in which case they may fall under Machiavelli's second category), or do they constitute a privileged élite (in which case they probably fall under the first)? Will the army be weakened or strengthened by new plans for a libertarian defense force? Can its members be counted on to fight against Greater Zimiamvians if necessary? The army can play either a constructive or an obstructive role; sufficient opposition from the armed forces will make any plans to establish a libertarian society doomed from the start.
Machiavelli advises wiping out the old guard as quickly as possible — "killing the sons of Brutus"1 — and goes on to praise Clearchus, the reformer of Heraclea, who, faced with "an arrogant upper class which he could in no way satisfy or correct," chose a "suitable opportunity" and proceeded to "cut to pieces all the nobles to the immense satisfaction of the popular party." But even if this option were feasible, it would be unlikely to appeal to libertarian scruples.
Instead of killing the vested interests off, another possibility is to buy them off; but with what? A libertarian government can hardly offer them much in the way of political power or privilege, and is presumably going to be strapped for cash. Perhaps one could try to placate them with British-style titles of nobility conferring no actual power — but exactly how dumb are these folks?
Those in Machiavelli's other category, the common people who stand to prosper under the new régime, also pose a problem, since it may be far from obvious to them that the new order will benefit them. It seems advisable to reassure them, and at the same time promote economic productivity, by getting sound currency into their hands — as much as possible, as fast as possible — through privatization vouchers, massive "tax refunds," or what have you. In F. Paul Wilson's libertarian science-fiction novel An Enemy of the State, a key element in the free nation movement's strategy is to build up a hoard of gold over the years, for rapid distribution to the populace of the prospective free nation when the hour of transition arrives. But this approach is not exactly cheap.
Another potential problem, especially acute in proportion as the transition process is top-down rather than bottom-up, is that a long-governed population that has built up habits of dependence may panic or flounder at the prospect of genuine responsibility and self-reliance:
(Discourses on Livy, I. 16-18 (pp. 153-164).)
(Discourses on Livy, I. 16 (p. 156).)
Machiavelli may be forgiven this oversight, since he is not considering democratic régimes. But a second oversight is less excusable, since it applies to every form of government: Machiavelli is ignoring the fact that governments customarily operate by a system of patronage designed to convince their subject populations that they have a stake in the existing despotic régime. In this respect Machiavelli seems surprisingly un-Machiavellian;2 for a greater insight into the realities of power politics, we must turn to the analysis offered by Étienne de la Boétie, born three years after Machiavelli's death:
(Étienne de la Boétie, The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, trans. Harry Kurz (Free Life Editions, New York, 1975, pp. 77-78.)
Once again the Czech privatization model (described in Part II, "The Process of Reform") offers reasons for optimism. Emerging from decades of communist rule, the Czechs were faced with the very problems we've been discussing: on the one hand, an entrenched old guard, committed to statism, and reluctant to yield their power; on the other hand, an impoverished populace, eager for change — but habituated to dependence, and distrustful of any reform policies that might plunge the all-too-fragile economy into a period of dislocation and austerity it could ill afford.
The Czech reformers' solution was the famous privatization voucher scheme, and the spontaneous IPF system it inspired. (See Part II.) Privatization, as we've seen, brought swift improvements in living standards, while the IPFs (investment privatization funds) got cash quickly into everyone's hands; all this served to reassure the common people and win their allegiance to the new régime. But not only did the Czech approach win the masses over — but it also managed, incredibly, to defuse the opposition of the old guard:
[T]he Czech liberals believed that the only way to keep the reform flame on high was to overwhelm the public with so much opportunity that Czechs would not have time to quarrel over details. Dumping massive amounts of state property into private hands would not only achieve efficiency — production goes up as socialism goes down — but create a feeding frenzy on the corpse of the socialist state. This frantic cleansing process channeled society's political energy in a most productive way. Instead of decades-long maneuvers to position this or that interest group for the next well-considered round of privatization, the most calculating men and women snatched their opportunities to become vested in the property now (briefly) available. ... The gold rush was on, and Czechoslovakians were given one brief shining moment to either become capitalists or to sit on the sidelines of history. Entrepreneurs overwhelmed the political fixers, and the Czech Miracle was born. ...
The instant the process began in earnest, thousands of prospective entrepreneurs ... began to push hard for privatization. Since state managers were intimately involved in this competitive process, it removed them from the ranks of another competitive process: obstruction. In every post-communist country, these apparatchiks form the core of opposition to reform: Why help privatize what you (as a state manager) can pilfer? The Czech answer: If you don't help us privatize, someone else will. ...
Workers or others knowledgeable about a business were typically high bidders, and entrepreneurial talents were immediately unleashed. Managers who had adroitly pilfered state assets were turned into profit-minded capitalists in the stroke of a winning bid. Resources became efficiently utilized, and consumers gained a new importance. ... "
(Thomas W. Hazlett, "The Czech Miracle: Why Privatization Went Right in the Czech Republic," Reason, April 1995, pp. 29-33.)
The Czech model may also provide a solution to the troubling problem of land reform. In most nations, a substantial proportion of private land has been redistributed either directly to the government or indirectly to the government's cronies. In trying to solve this problem, libertarians are pulled two ways. On the one hand, libertarian justice demands that stolen property be returned to its rightful owners. On the other hand, endless litigation over property titles going back decades or even centuries can condemn the current occupants (who may themselves be relatively innocent) to perpetual uncertainty about their rights to the land — and often there may be no one obvious candidate for the rightful claimant. (Fred's land was seized by the bank over a default on a debt Fred disputes; the land in question was originally sold to Fred by Anna, who now claims she was swindled out of it, and Anna in turn received the land as a grant from the government, which expropriated it earlier from Michael, whose ancestors stole it from the Apache Indians, who in turn stole it from the Navajo.) In situations like this, where the absolute right may be impossible to determine, the Czech Republic's approach may be the nearest right:
("The Czech Miracle," p. 30.)
(to outline) (to top of page)
Welcome to East Zimiamvia!
Over the course of this four-part series I have argued that the top-down project of dismantling Leviathan from within, while both morally risky and practically difficult, is nevertheless permissible and possible. It must, however, be accompanied by a robust bottom-up approach as well. I would simply add, in closing, that if ever Leviathan is successfully dismantled, the bottom-up libertarian movement will still be needed as much as ever — to make sure the people retain the freedom they have won. D
(to outline) (to top of page)
1 The reference is not to Marcus Junius Brutus, the famous assassin of Cæsar, but to the much earlier Lucius Junius Brutus, who led the overthrow of the tyrannical rule of the Tarquin monarchs, and established the Roman Republic. When his own sons plotted to betray the fledgling Republic and restore the old order, Brutus sat in judgment on them and sentenced them to death.
2 Throughout his writings Machiavelli is strangely blind to the phenomenon of patronage. For example, when Machiavelli tries to explain why the plebeian class of ancient Rome, having finally after many long struggles won the right to elect members of their own class to the consulship (the chief executive power of the Roman Republic, shared between two men), nevertheless continued to pass over plebeian candidates in order to elect patricians to the office of consul, he writes:
(Discourses on Livy, I. 47 (pp. 225-226).)
The historian M. I. Finley has studied this question, and come to the conclusion that the ruling classes maintained their power through the device of patronage .... In effect, the wealthy classes kept control by buying off the poor. Each wealthy family had a large following of commoners who served their patrons' interests (e.g., supporting aristocratic policies in the public assembly) in exchange for the family's largess. ...
Even the patricians' losses were seldom serious. For example, the plebeians eventually won ... the right to elect plebeians to the consulship — but thanks to an effective patronage system, the plebeians almost always elected patricians to the office anyway."
("Can We Escape the Ruling Class?," Formulations, Vol. II, No. 1 (Autumn 1994).)