Wouldn’t it be great if we did not have to follow every law the state passes over us? But then, how would we enforce contracts? How would we enforce property rights? What if someone attacked us? If these concerns could be answered, if we could still have contracts and property and security without following the laws of the state, would you be interested?
Advocates of a minimal state (minarchists) spend considerable time debating which government functions can or should be handed over to the private sector. They may say the state should contract out utilities, social security or the military. However, under such an arrangement, the state would retain ultimate control of all those things, because it would have the prerogative of the law. The law is, in fact, the source of the state’s power.
But as I keep asking, why would we want to give the power to make and enforce laws to a small group of people? Is it that we can trust these people because “we” “elected” them, or threaten not to do so? Or that we do not trust others? Anarchists are not against all rules, contrary to the straw man thrust upon them, just against state laws. My post on state law can be found here; it is the why not of state law. Law that is determined not by one institution but by many is called polycentric, customary or privately-produced law. This post is about the why and how of polycentric law.
In The Market for Liberty, Morris and Linda Tannehill dismiss the idea that we need monopolistic law and force to solve disputes.
It is interesting to note that the advocates of government see initiated force ( the legal force of government ) as the only solution to social disputes. According to them, if everyone in society were not forced to use the same court system, and particularly the same final court of appeal, disputes would be insoluble. Apparently it doesn’t occur to them that disputing parties are capable of freely choosing their own arbiters, including the final arbiter, and that this final arbiter wouldn’t need to be the same agency for all disputes which occur in the society. They have not realized that disputants would, in fact, be far better off if they could choose among competing arbitration agencies so that they could reap the benefits of competition and specialization.
It should be obvious that a court system which has a monopoly guaranteed by the force of statutory law will not give as good quality service as will free-market arbitration agencies which must compete for their customers. Also, a multiplicity of agencies facilitates specialization, so that people with a dispute in some specialized field can hire arbitration by experts in that field . . . instead of being compelled to submit to the judgment of men who have little or no background in the matter.
As we will see, a better system is preferable and possible.
A simple rule is, the easier it is for normal people to do what they want without harming others, to do business and trade, to create and innovate, the better off the people around them. There are, in fact, things a government can do to aid an economy. One of the most important, as seen from the studies in The Mystery of Capital by Hernando de Soto, is upholding contracts and property rights. If there are ways to do these things in a free market, while lowering or eliminating the risks of abuse associated with state intervention, they are worth considering.
Law around the world
In his paper Privately-Produced Law, Tom W. Bell explains that people around the world and throughout history have used more equitable legal systems than the centralised model. Some legal systems that many would write off as “primitive” are in fact very effective at protecting individual freedom and property, resolving complex conflicts, avoiding violence and can legislate changes in the law. They do all these things without the inefficient, unsatisfying elite control of the system most civilised people are used to.
In such systems, people make reciprocal agreements and victims enforce them. Such agreements are necessary to belong to the community in the first place; and since they are mutually beneficial (unless one knows he or she is going to break the law), people believe in them. Economic restitution, proportionate to the severity of the crime, is the main form of punishment for torts. The guilty yield to the punishment largely due to the threat of ostracism.
Old Anglo-Saxon law made courts out of public assemblies. Interpreting the law was not a problem, as custom took care of it. The outcome of the dispute was about the facts of the case. There were no crimes against the state, or against society. There were only crimes against individuals.
Various other groups have come up with laws regarding the conduct of their members, including immigrant communities, merchants and guilds and communes. It is related to arbitration. Commercial arbitration has become a popular, fast and efficient form of resolving disputes for the insurance, construction and textile industries. (Find more on arbitration below.)
Contracts and reputation
In advanced capitalist countries, where legal contracts have a long history and a solid place in the culture, enforcing contracts is one the state does reasonably well. How could contracts work in a stateless society? Well, how did they work before the state began enforcing them? How do they work where there is no state? Generally, the answer is the same: reputation. If you are known for enforcing your contracts, you win new ones, and you make money. If you break a contract, you lose big time. You lose future contracts but you also lose face from all your peers. Nowadays, that could mean being smeared on the internet as well. Shame, and in more extreme cases, ostracism, is a common punishment throughout the world for anyone who breaks with his or her expected obligations.
Reputation is very important. In a small enough community, we would probably not need any kind of court system because if Johnny cheats Holly, everyone will find out, and will shame, attempt to rehabilitate or, at the extreme, ostracise Johnny. We could formalise this process for a larger society with some kind of reputation database, possibly along the lines of what eBay and Amazon use, or possibly more sophisticated, using arbitrators. Arbitrators would be judged on their reputation. They would likely specialise in a field. They could create permissions to add entries and create permissions to read the database, but cannot alter or remove entries.
When Johnny and Holly agree to enter into a contract, they take it to an arbitrator, Justine, who gets a fee. Justine makes an entry in the database. If Justine makes a ruling against Johnny the cheat, and Johnny does not comply with it, the arbitrator puts all of it in the database, showing that Johnny is not someone you would want to do business with. There could be a number of online and offline backup databases to ensure no one tampers with them.
A credit rating is a kind of reputation. Debts that are so small they are not worth taking to court or even arbitrators are still regularly paid off because of one’s credit rating. Stefan Molyneux explains (here and here) that we already operate under such a system, and that expanding it with dispute-resolution organisations, or DROs, could be advantageous to all.
Picture for a moment the infinite complexity of modern economic life. Most individuals bind themselves to dozens of contracts, from car loans and mortgages to cell phone contracts, gym membership, condo agreements and so on. To flourish in a free market, a man must honour his contracts. A reputation for honest dealing is the foundation of a successful economic life. Now, few DROs will want to represent a man who regularly breaks contracts, or associates with difficult and litigious people. (For instance, this writer once refrained from entering into a business partnership because the potential partner revealed that he had sued two previous partners.)
People will need to be represented by DROs because their being accepted into mainstream society will demand it. Without a contract with a DRO, one would have no credibility as an honest broker and thus no chance of entering into contracts—at least, contracts without very high fees and penalties for breaking them.
A DRO would be liable for crimes their clients commit. If a man murdered his wife, he would lose his contract (which would prohibit murder) and have to pay some penalty to the next of kin. That might mean forced labour under some kind of imprisonment. DROs “are as ancient as civilization itself, but have been shouldered aside by the constant escalation of State power over the last century or so…. [They make] all the information formerly known by the local community available to the world as whole, just as credit reports do.” And insurance can be created for just about anything.
Arbitration has made courts superfluous in many areas, with tens of thousands of arbitrations conducted every year. Arbitration is a kind of privately-produced law, as it involves two people voluntarily coming together, choosing their own terms and accepting someone else’s ruling. Arbitrators have been around since the Middle Ages, and developed the whole body of merchant law. None of them could violently enforce their rulings.
In a society of polycentric law, arbitrators would be chosen for their expertise, efficiency and integrity as impartial judges, as they are now. Arbitration has even gone online. Judge.me is a company that resolves international disputes in a matter of days based on common principles of justice. It is an efficient and very promising service.
Choosing the law
Private law means we can choose which laws to abide by, instead of hoping to impose them on others. Sure, people in polycentric legal societies will get things wrong; but they will get them less wrong, with less drastic, society-wide consequences, than state law. David Friedman’s argument is that, since the government does not do anything efficiently or better than the free market, why would we expect it to make laws right? A monopoly is rarely necessarily or preferable; why would a monopoly on the production of law be different?
In a free market for law, a large number of security firms would exist that, for a fee, would enforce the basic rights, including contracts, of their customers. Imagine my television goes missing. The camera my security agency has installed in my home saw the person who did it. The thief the agency identified denies the crime. I have a rights-enforcement agency, but so do you. The two agencies might go to war over my claim to get my TV back, right?
But wars are very expensive and private firms want to minimise costs. War only profits those who wage it when they steal the money used to pay for it from someone else through taxation. Instead, the agencies could decide on a netural arbitrator who will decide to whom the TV belongs. Since such disputes are likely to recur, policies will stipulate when the firms will approach an arbitrator.
Since such firms will deal with each other for a long time, they will be able to agree on rules and industry standards. Instead of fighting, they will have rules and mechanisms in place to enforce rulings of the arbitrators. If firms attempt to collude, it is likely that customers will desert them, as existing and potential customers find that legitimate claims are not redressed.
In order for a rights-enforcement agency, an arbitration agency or a private court to make money, people need to choose to use it. So who would their customers be? A polycentric legal order would resolve the debates over, say, the implementation of Islamic sharia, because Muslims who want sharia (which is not all Muslims, just so you know) can abide by it, and would not force others to follow it. Strict, Orthodox Jews would shop at a different agency. Libertarians who do not want too many rules would have their own. Pacifists might choose arbitration without enforcement.
Dealing with aggression
Contracts are a very useful way to solve disputes. Perhaps I sign a contract when I move somewhere that I am not going to let my grass grow too high or scatter car parts on the lawn, and if I break it, there is recourse to kick me out. But what about torts or crimes of aggression where there has been no contract? Murray Rothbard has some ideas. The free market offers endless possibilities—whatever people can offer that customers want. Insurance companies would pay the victims of crime, the breaking of contracts, the winners of arbitration, then pursue the aggressors in court to recoup their losses. Competing defense agencies would exist to protect people, and they would likely work closely with the insurance companies: the less crime there is, the less the insurance companies need to pay out. Insurance companies would probably lower the cost of burglary insurance to those with alarm systems, or trained gun owners. Thus, the incentives for swift, efficient restitution with a minimum of violence are built in to the system.
Holly accuses Johnny of a crime. Johnny gives her the finger and does not show up in court or send a representative. As a result, his side of the case is not heard. If he is found guilty, he might nonetheless accept the verdict. If not, he could go to another court, he could appeal, and so on. If courts and appeals continue to find Johnny guilty, they will have found him guilty of aggression. In a society based on the non-aggression principle, this is, in effect, a crime. Private defense agencies thus have the moral authority to demand restitution and employ violence if it is not forthcoming.
In a free society, people would be free not to press charges, or not to employ violence if other parties did not accept rulings against them. Nonetheless, in the eyes of anyone with access to a reputation or contract-rating database (which would be everyone), those who violate the NAP would have all manner of sanction against them. They would find it difficult to buy a car, for instance, because they would not be trusted to pay for it. Finally, crimes against “society” would not exist (and arguably do not exist at the moment).
I am sure that, like with everything an anarchist proposes, statists will be able to find holes in the theory and “what if” their ideas to death. A few holes in the presentation of a theory does not invalidate it, especially when it is something everyone will have the chance to influence, unlike the current way of dispensing law. They are free to continue to believe they are best represented by the “justice” system as it is now. All we ask is that they respect others’ opinions enough to let them try their own way of doing things. They could be attempted on a micro level, with a few hundred or a few thousand people.
A system of polycentric law would eliminate victimless crimes, because people could choose their own laws. It would be fairer, instead of today’s system of treating rich people’s crimes as misdemeanors and minorities or the poor’s crimes as murder. It would simplify laws, meaning far less need for expensive lawyers. It would lower costs, meaning everyone could afford it; or at least, it would be easy to raise money for those who could not. And we would not have every law and verdict handed down by a self-interested elite.
Freedom, including the freedom to build and trade and innovate, is the natural state of humanity (as agorists will tell you: see the principles underpinning agorist theory here). If the state is meant to protect us from the bad people (it is not, but that is its perpetual justification), it follows that, if we are peaceful people who do good things for ourselves and others, we have the right to ignore the state. If one must ask permission, one is not free. Agorism is voluntary exchange without asking permission; taking one’s freedom back and using it to make people better off.
Monopolies enable and encourage abuse. In Markets Not Capitalism (pp68-74), Charles W. Johnson explains that the state has a monopoly on huge swathes of the economy. It has a monopoly on security, and trillions of dollars’ worth of security apparatus to use as it likes. It owns land and natural resources, fabricating land titles, instituting complex land-use and construction codes, and the capture of others’ property by use of eminent domain. It controls the money supply, enriching bankers and criminalising alternative forms of currency that people could use to avoid inflation. It grants monopoly privilege to patent and copyright holders. It has a monopoly on the building of infrastructure, artificially lowering fees of transportation at the taxpayers’ expense, instead of turning it over to the private sector where it can save money and save lives (see here). It has a monopoly on regulation, which largely protects big business at the expense of small, creating new monopolies. Finally, it decides everything that crosses its borders, from the amount of goods and the fees for them to the movement of people. This blog has outlined the problems with most of these monopolies already. The question at hand is, how do we challenge them?
In the New Libertarian Manifesto, Samuel Edward Konkin glances at how libertarians have tried to end the state, from violence to collaboration to spreading the word. He concludes from their overall failure that the answer is to stop feeding the state, and outlines his vision for an agorist society, and the counter-economic method of getting there. Counter-establishment economics, or counter-economics, is simply peaceful action that the state forbids. It exposes the unnecessary and damaging role of the state in the enforcement of its monopolies.
Agorism has much to do with self sufficiency, shaking off dependence on the state and doing things for oneself and one’s community. In addition, while it means avoiding taxes, it is at least as much about starving the state of funds. If a person, or much better, community, opposes the state, he or it can set up businesses or co-ops that are unlicensed, unregistered, unregulated and illegal. They can provide goods and services cheaply and without needing to feed the beast.
Agorism means that one by one, people will stop supporting the state and start supporting each other instead. Agorists will be at the forefront of the building of a new society, and they provide an example for those who are interested. (More on the logic of agorism here.)
To make clear, drug barons are not agorists (as they do not believe the state is immoral) or counter-economists (as they use violence). It is unfortunate that it is necessary to use violence in drug markets, but that is a natural consequence of the criminalisation of something so many people want. But not all black markets are violent.
As the Movement of the Libertarian Left shows, counter-economists come in all shapes and sizes. They could be
–Tax evaders (how-to);
–Smugglers (of humans looking for opportunities, drugs to people who need or want them, banned books, cigarettes subject to high taxes, and so on);
–Midwives whose positions have been eliminated by state health care systems;
–Doctors working without belonging to government-approved national medical associations;
–Gun owners who disobey firearm restrictions;
–Gamblers who gamble with friends instead of in registered casinos;
–Unregistered taxi drivers;
–Publishers and consumers of illicit art, literature and newspapers;
–Pirate radio operators (how-to);
–Farmers who grow and sell things the state prohibits, from hemp to raw milk;
–Cooks who make and sell food, perhaps to friends and neighbours, by mail order (like Stateless Sweets) or by the side of the road;
–Unlicensed contractors (how-to);
–Employers who pay under the table and employees who are paid under the table;
–People who pirate drugs or entertainment subject to intellectual property laws;
–People selling things at garage sales, roadside stands or on Craigslist;
–People who give sanctuary to others on the run, such as whistleblowers and runaway slaves;
–People feeding the homeless despite prohibitions on it;
–And anyone competing with a government monopoly, like Lysander Spooner did. Looking at all these illegal (but victimless) activities, are you a counter-economist?
In the twilight years of the Soviet Union, just about everyone was. The state had proven itself utterly incapable of providing more than the bare minimum of all manner of goods that were, in fact, available on the black market: food, repairs, electronics, exit papers and favours from the powerful.
Occupiers, you are counter-economists. Occupy movements were entirely voluntary, working on consensus, anticapitalism, mutual aid, equality and solving their own problems. They established clinics, schools, libraries, kitchens and security teams. They showed everyone that we can have a voluntary society, that we can build a new society, based on compassion and helping each other, out of the shell of the old. It is called prefigurative politics. These values also inform the philosophy of the sovereign community, meaning new communities outside the reach of the state. Voluntary institutions show not only the morality of non-aggression, but also that we can solve the world’s problems without force.
A common fear statists have of a free society is that a corporation, or some other large entity, would one day take up arms and attack and control people. In effect, this fear is the same as the fear of a government: that a small group will get together to take money and power away from a larger population. I agree that we must remain vigilant about such things, which is why free communities have many options for dealing with such a scenario.
As I explain in my post on human nature, humans have a sense of reciprocity: you help me and I will help you. The good guys, and good businesses that provide value to their customers, are the ones that succeed over time. That is why the image of the free market as the “law of the jungle” is erroneous. The law of the jungle is where the powerful come to dominate others, which is what a state enables. A free market means businesses would need to provide value, or they would not make money.
There are some psychopaths out there. We do not want to give psychopaths the means of violence, which is the main reason we should deny them access to the levers of the state. But they may also have access to large amounts of money through a corporation on the free market. They will lose from any customers who consider their actions illegitimate, but it is possible those customers will not know. That is why we have the media.
The huge variety of media in our society, from Democracy Now to Fox News to our friends and family, are one way to tackle organisations that act immorally, because consumers will withhold their dollars if they are deeply opposed to a business’s actions. Many consumers make choices based on their impressions of the companies they buy from. There have been a number of successful boycotts, which give more credence to the fact that businesses a) are beholden to the market and b) can be pressured by small numbers of ordinary people into changing for the better. Business groups such as the Better Business Bureau ensure that ethical businesses get certain benefits of belonging to clubs and the unethical ones get shunned.
All manner of organisation can use boycotts, along with public shaming of people involved, if their rules for ethical behaviour are broken. Shaming can actually be a powerful weapon, as we see when we see a man’s bad cheque on the side of a cash register. It can be used against those who violate the non-aggression principle, as has been suggested regarding police who use pepper spray on unarmed protesters. We need good reputations in life to be able to sign contracts, and we sign many of them in our lives. (Two people who have thought and spelled out the problem well are Stefan Molyneux on dispute resolution and David Friedman on private law.)
Since the people who own and run corporations would no longer have limited liability or other legal protections, the same rules apply to them as to corporations themselves, and anything I say about corporations must apply to the people who make them up. Through private law, people would be able to sue individuals working in the businesses who perform acts of aggression, rather than just suing the corporation. No corporate personhood, no bailouts and other transfers from taxpayers to corporate executives, no regulations preventing small businesses from entering the market: corporations would be far weaker without the state.
They would also have no legal mandate to make a profit, though it is more accurate to say that at the moment they must do what their shareholders want. As not all shareholders of all corporations are purely interested in making money, and others believe ethical behaviour is a way to make money, some of them have taken to shareholder activism, and have made positive changes in the corporations they own that way. Here we have yet another check on corporate power, and I see no reason to believe it would disappear without a government.
The idea that we should worry about private armies is misplaced. Whom does the national military serve? The elite control the state. The state and all its institutions serve the elite. A national military is the private army of the elite. It is paid for by the taxpayers, rather than the elite. In fact, the elite would probably not make money if they needed to pay for their wars themselves.
Some businesses benefit when a state goes to war, but not many. It is usually only the select businesses whose executives and shareholders belligerent governments are beholden to. But the question people who fear a corporation might go to war fail to ask is, who pays for modern war? Taxpayers gain nothing from war; they only lose. Businesses only profit when they get someone else (ie. taxpayers) to pay for it. If Halliburton had armed itself and gone into Iraq for oil, the costs would have far outweighed the benefits. It could have just traded with free people for it and saved millions on weapons. (See my take on the case of Iraq here.)
At the moment, some big corporations, usually oil companies, do attack people indirectly. They move into an area of people with no means to defend their land and the local government defends them against possible peasant unrest. It is possible to blame the corporations that bribe the state to use violence against these innocent people. However, if the state did not exist, the means of violence would not be paid for by the taxpayer. It would be paid for by customers, who would pay higher prices, and employees, whose wages would be lower. In effect, the tax would shift from individuals who do not benefit to those who do, and the prices might be exorbitant.
Moreover, bad PR costs a lot. People of conscience who find out that corporations are employing violence can boycott the corporations. All these things hurt sales. But we cannot force the people in the state who use violence to pay for it themselves, nor can we boycott the state. If a corporation stops caring about making money in the marketplace and only extracts it by force, it has become a state. Thus, the argument that if the state no longer existed, corporations would be just as able to commit violence does not follow. One way or another, anarchists oppose the initiation of force when done by anyone, be it a government, corporation, gang or otherwise.
But even with all this evidence corporations would not have unchecked and indominable power, it is still possible that corporations would commit overt violence, as if they were a government or a mafia, because they would probably still be disproportionately commanded by psychopaths, have lots of money and struggle for dominance. That is why the problem is not government per se, but the initiation of force. I do not care if it was a government or a corporation or just one person who killed 100 peaceful people; the problem is that they were killed. It could be hard to check corporations, like it is hard to check them and governments and other groups today. Not all information would reach everyone affected; not everyone would join in every boycott; not everyone would change due to public disgrace. So we need more ideas.
A stateless society would not be a completely peaceful utopia. How could it? When will we end aggressive behaviour? Few anarchists I know would even try. A lot of them believe that communities should separate from the state and become autonomous. Suffice to say, communities of free people would defend themselves against an aggressive corporation in the same way that they would defend themselves from any state or empire. That is something they have been doing for thousands of years. They or any anarchic society would need to have some kind of protection. That protection could come from the free market, as corporations competing for business would provide their customers with the protection they need. I understand the worry that those corporations could just turn on their customers and steal from them. However, businesses in a free market will provide enough customers with what they want that their owners will not want executives to start killing people. As Robert Murphy explains in detail, there is a market for security, and it could work very well against a corporation or any other organisation that wishes to harm people.
If a security company (or any other company that depends on repeat customers and good reputations, which is all successful ones not receiving state protection) kills or steals from or even enslaves a bunch of people, there are two problems. First, they will have less profit. I don’t think greed is necessarily bad: it depends how it is channeled. If you want to maximise profit, the rational solution might be to be a highly ethical corporation. In theory, and usually in practice, wherever free markets have existed (today’s markets are not very free), people are far wealthier, partly because they can pursue their self interest, partly because their motivation and creativity are higher, partly because they are forced to compete with others if they wish to remain profitable. If corporations want money, they are better off being good businesses and providing what the customers want, and if they do, the customers will come back.
Likewise, most corporations find that being good to their employees pays dividends in employee loyalty and motivation. If they start killing employees, or even just thwarting their attempts to unionise, employees must make a decision: stay here and risk getting bullied or murdered by this corporation, or quit and find another way to make a living. That is their decision. But as competition for workers grows, corporations need to provide better wages and working conditions. A major reason the vast majority of businesses do not regularly cheat customers and shoot employees is that it is not in the interest of their owners to do so.
Communities would still have rules, just like all societies have rules, and they could decide one of those rules would be no Walmart. That could mean no Walmart stores, no Walmart goods, and even no Walmart employees if they felt that strongly, would be allowed in the town. Every community that shunned Walmart in this fashion would mean that much less money, and thus power, for Walmart. Of course, we might not be able to get every community to push away our hypothetical violent or otherwise unethical corporation, but surely we should not force them to believe what we believe. If we are right, people might see it in time; and if they do not, they probably cannot be saved anyway.
The second solution to the problem of protection against a violent corporation is for people to defend themselves. Attempting violence against free people would probably lead to anyone sympathetic’s helping them out in the name of ending injustice, just as abolitionists used to attack slave owners in attempts to free slaves. People should really be able defend themselves anyway, at all times, whether there is a government or not, because violence can be committed whether there are 1000 police on the street or none. History shows that people band together in times of crisis, which include villages or cities allying to repel aggressors. And if they did so and had any chance of winning, where would this leave the business? It would need to reconsider any kind of violent campaign, and if a business is supposed to make money, waging its own war is clearly not the answer.
People could defend themselves, of course, but they could also have competing private defense agencies. If there is no central authority with a monopoly on the means of violence, a variety of organisations would have those means. They already exist to provide security guards, cameras, and so on. If one of them tried to attack people, the people could hire one or more of the many other organisations to defend themselves. If for some reason one turned belligerent, people could call another, or several others. And if worst came to worst, they could take up arms themselves.
In sum, it does not follow that corporations would make things much worse without a coercive state. Corporations would have far fewer unearned benefits without the state. Oversight is provided by journalists and consumers, and is spread by the innumerable media we have at our disposal and by word of mouth. There are already rules of ethics that would continue to govern the actions of consumers and executives, and when the people make rules for themselves and their communities, they can back them up by defending themselves from greedy outsiders with force if they need to.
One interesting feature of Canadian culture is its love-hate relationship with the US. Much of what Canadians do is a reaction to what they see in the US as distasteful. They prefer a foreign policy based on peace, for example. They stayed aloof from Operation Iraqi Freedom because like the rest of the world, Canadians knew it was bogus. They are still persuaded to go to war, but only if they can be persuaded the war is about helping people, such as in Afghanistan and Libya. But something is changing. Society is going one way and the state is going the other. The country in which I lived most of my life is following the US trend downward into dictatorship.
First, consider that Canada is experiencing its lowest crime rate since 1973. Crimes that are down include homicide, attempted murder, assault, break-ins, auto theft and drunk driving. Crimes whose numbers are up include drug and firearm offences, which in themselves are victimless. The ruling Conservative Party, which, because it has a majority government, can do anything it wants, has passed a tough-on-crime bill (Bill C-10) that mandates more jail time to potgrowers than to people who sexually assault children. In fact, it includes mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, meaning the judge is no longer a judge but merely a sentencer, and the courts are a waystation on the road to prison. It means more of the War on Drugs, with its concomitant rise in organised crime and violence. The “justice” system will uphold these laws, of course, because it is not about justice but the law. The bill to incarcerate harmless criminals will cost $19b.
The Canadian government is cracking down harder on internet freedom. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews warned Canadians to support a new law to enable the government to spy on its citizens online with the Bushesque “either stand with us or with the child pornographers.” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Terry Milewski explains, “his bill would, in fact, dramatically change the law to allow the government much, much more access to our online lives and identities.” All Canadians’ basic information can be handed over to the government if it so demands, without a warrant, and thus without suspicion. Bill C-30 allows government “inspectors” to look at any private information on the internet now. Why do they want this information? What are they going to do with it?
Third, in this time of financial belt tightening, the police are getting raises. They already make far more than the average Canadian, but then they are a section of the bureaucracy. But most Canadian bureaucrats are not getting raises. Why do the cops need more money? Is evicting protesters getting more perilous? But perhaps they need it. The inevitable rise in violent crime due to the increased suppression of the drug trade will indeed make their jobs harder. But is it all necessary? Is there nothing better we can spend that money on?
When I say “we”, of course, I only mean we would have decided on that money if it had not been stolen from us in the first place. We have no recourse, because when the government makes up its mind, we can do little. We could protest, but we would need hundreds of thousands of people at least in the streets to repeal any one of these laws; and in true government fashion, similar laws would be sneaked by us later anyway. Moreover, if we protested and the police hit back as hard as they did at the last G-8 summit in Toronto when some 1000 protesters were arrested for disagreeing with the elites, we would simply feed the prison system. The government could use it as evidence that we need more prisons and more repressive laws to make things safer.
Canada will not become safer, only more repressive. Most Canadians will not benefit from these laws. Canada’s government is dancing on the fine line between democracy and dictatorship, and like all those who desire power, it favours an expansion of the power of the state toward the latter. Canadians should not remain complacent.
How does one define morality? Do we all have different morals? Is there universally-preferable behaviour, or is all moralising just opinion? These are difficult questions, and will likely be debated for centuries to come. Philosophies of liberty are based on the idea that freedom of the individual and his or her property are universal. The prevailing idea among anarchists is the non-aggression principle, or NAP.
According to the non-aggression principle, all aggression, or initiation of force, is illegitimate. It prohibits the threat or actual use of violence or force against people who have not initiated force against others, and are unwilling to be forced. It is encapsulated in the golden rule, do to others as you would have them do to you.
The NAP is a simple, universalist standard of morality. Not everyone adheres to or even agrees with it, but it is the moral basis for a stateless society. It is a law based not on the calculations of a politician but on the ideals of peace and self defense, property, justice, freedom and responsibility.
The NAP grants property rights. By property, I mean the money one has been given through legitimate (voluntary, peaceful, as opposed to forced) means, the property he has acquired by spending that money, and the products of his own labour. One’s body is also one’s own property, which means he decides what gets done to his body. If he wants to get a tattoo, he should be free to do so. If he wants to smoke marijuana, or even crack-cocaine, again, he should be free to do so. If he harms other people because he is intoxicated, the crime is not the taking of intoxicants but the initiation of violence against others.
According to the NAP, forcing someone, even one’s sister, to wear a headscarf is immoral. Forcing her to take it off is as well. Forcing someone to eat or drink something is immoral, because it is a violation of one’s ownership of one’s own body; forcing them not to take drugs likewise violates the principle.
Products of one’s own labour are one’s property. Things acquired illegitimately are not. By way of example, imagine Tom walks into the wilderness, builds his own home and starts a farm. He has transformed the land into something useful and valuable. He deserves it; it now belongs to him. Then, imagine Derek comes along and seizes an acre of his land. What claim does Derek have to that land? Tom, in fact, has the right to defend his property, as he does himself.
Derek claims that property is theft, because Tom is forcing Derek off his land. However, the land would have been useless without the labour Tom put in. Labouring in a factory brings money that can be used to buy food. Labouring on a farm brings the food. Derek is trying to force Tom to give up property previously unowned and useless to anyone, which Tom transformed into something useful. He is trying to steal that something. Tom is merely protecting the fruits of his labour.
If theft is defined as taking another’s property without that person’s consent, and one’s property includes anything one has earned (including money) or made useful through one’s own labour, Derek is stealing from Tom. Tom, on the other hand, has not stolen from anyone, because no one had any legitimate claim over the land before he came along.
Likewise, if Tom is willing to sell Matt his land and Matt is willing to pay his asking price with money he attained through voluntary transactions, Tom’s property can become Matt’s. Tom’s labour created the property and Matt’s labour brought the money to buy it legitimately. Thus, property is not theft.
If there is a child playing on the train tracks and a train is coming, is it wrong to save the child? Of course not. Non-aggression is about consent. If the child would, at some time in his or her life, thank you for initiating force, it is not immoral to have helped him. If his parents thank you, it is not immoral. (Of course, this brings up questions of whether a child is property, in what respects and until what age; it also brings up the question of the morality of preventing suicide. These are details this blog does not go into.)
It is not immoral to govern a population that gladly and willingly consents to being governed. If people want to live under the gun, they should be allowed to. However, what if even one person is both peaceful and unwilling? What if he is unwilling to give his property to support a system he disagrees with? What if one person wants to opt out of a system under which he does not want to live? Is it right to disregard this person? Is it right to let the collective decide for the individual against his will? Not if the non-aggression principle holds.
An individual, or any other minority, is equally deserving of universal rules of morality. Morality must be universal, because all humans are equally deserving of the basic rights to live according to what they see as right, provided they do not harm others. In fact, morality can scarcely be said to be moral if it applies double standards, affording some people certain rights over others. If a system privileges the majority, giving them rights to deprive the minority of its life, freedom or anything it acquired through voluntary means, it is immoral. As Gandhi (himself an anarchist) once said, “In matters of conscience, the law of the majority has no place.”
The myth of the social contract
For the past three hundred years, man has heard the suggestions of a wide variety of philosophers. One influential idea was that of the social contract. The social contract states that the people in a given territory submit to the will of the state; and in return, the state provides protection to the people.
But what is a contract? A contract is an agreement consciously and willingly entered into by two or more parties. No one signed a contract agreeing to submit to the laws passed by politicians. It is irrelevant whether the politicians were elected or not, or by how many votes. Democracy or dictatorship, if an individual is not willing to submit to this so-called contract, there is nothing moral about forcing him into it.
The book No Treason: the Constitution of No Authority by Lysander Spooner (available in full here) spells out with expert logic the irrelevance of the social contract as a contract. “The Constitution [of the United States] has no inherent obligation or authority” he begins. And he is right. After all, I have never even been asked if I would like to follow any law, nor have I ever seen this contract apparently signed on my behalf. For this contract to be moral according to the NAP, every single citizen of every country would have to consent to living under the country’s legal system. It is null for everyone who does not sign it.
And yet, because a small group of men wrote a document over 200 years ago, 300m people are subject to the violence of every single law passed by a small clique of decision makers. The notion of the social contract suits the state, because there is no chance to opt out of and end the contract. But it does not suit the dissenting individual or persecuted minority. And it is clearly not a contract.
Taxation is the initiation of force. If any person being taxed is unwilling to pay taxes or is unwilling to pay as much as he or she is paying, taxes are force. Thus, the manner in whichever a government acquires its funding is force. (See my post on taxation for a fuller discussion.)
To say that everyone should be forced to pay taxes, or else they should not be allowed to use the services government provides, has things backwards. The people who initiate force are the ones committing the immoral act. Thus, the onus is on those forcing others, and those supporting the forcing of others, to explain to the people why they should be willing to be forced.
Likewise, it does not follow that someone who does not like the system should just move. The analogy of paying rent does not follow, because neither the government nor the population own the country and the citizens are not tenants. If a man built or bought his house, he has already paid and has no further rent to pay. Telling someone he should move if he does not like it is akin to saying he should be charged rent at a house he already owns.
Some anarchists consider voting the initiation of force. If I vote, I attempt to force my preferred electoral candidate, along with his or her policies, on the population at large. People who follow the NAP would not want to force policies on any peaceful person. (Find more on this subject here.)
Anarchism means no rulers, no overarching force that can legitimately initiate force against entire populations. It means that people are free to engage in any actions that do not initiate force against others. Anarchists thus oppose any person or organisation that attempts to impose its will on others by force, be they a controlling husband, a gang or a government.
Self defense is legitimate. A world where at least one percent of humans are psychopaths requires vigilance to defend one’s life, liberty and property against those who would attack, steal and kill. It is also right to defend other innocent people against the same forms of aggression, provided they have not given and would not give their consent to the aggressors.
Naturally, there are difficult questions, to be answered case by case, as to when violence is aggressive and when it is defensive. The history of Israel is a tale of tens of thousands of deaths at the hands of people who thought they were only defending innocents. Is it right to steal from a thief? Is it right to kill a murderer? Revenge is understandable, and even rational (to prevent further attacks), though as a moral question, again, it depends. (I write more on the subject of Israel and the policy of revenge here.)
It has been said that libertarianism (within which anarchists can count themselves) is the radical notion that other people are not your property. What is meant by that? It means that no one can decide what is right for a peaceful person of sound mind except the individual him or herself. Not violating the life, liberty and property of innocents is a moral duty. Obedience to laws and orders is not.
The rule of law is, do whatever the political class tells you to do or risk violence. The rule of freedom is, initiating violence against unwilling and peaceful people is immoral. Some communities, such as Grafton, Keene and Yubia, are built around strict adherence to the NAP. As an anarchist, I believe society should put non-aggression at the centre of its philosophy.
We have discussed free markets, but barely touched on the most regulated market of all: the labour market. And the biggest barrier to a free market for labour is the national border.
Which of the world’s borders are the most tightly controlled? Those of the rich world. Why would that be? It has something to do with the privileges afforded exclusively to citizens under the welfare state. Having lots of children means a welfare system is potentially sustainable, though it is largely unnecessary, as children will take care of their parents. Since welfare states were implemented, mostly in the wake of WW2, fertility rates have dropped. Overall fertility rates have historically fallen as prosperity has risen. However, this drop in fertility has made welfare states unsustainable. This problem is particularly acute when people live longer and technology improves: health care systems require more money to buy the equipment to keep more people alive longer. But since the austerity of the War, citizens of the rich world have acquired an entitlement mentality. Now that the austerity generation is nearly gone and the first welfare generation is retiring, the belief that we somehow deserve all the important things is entrenched. Entitlement is supposed to guarantee jobs, minimum wages (or for some “a fair wage”, which presumably means something higher than market wage), schools and universities, recreation centers , hospitals and clinics, medicine, retirement at 65 or younger and pensions. Given the enormous government spending required to maintain all these things, again, in their current forms these privileges are not sustainable. Without a rise in taxes to pay for it, which would mean less money for the productive sector and thus less wealth to go round, the welfare state cannot continue to dole out the same level of benefits it always has. There is, however, an alternative: immigrants.
Though it may seem unfair to ask the poor to pay for our luxuries, there might be billions of people around the world willing to do so. But the people of the rich world do not want immigrants; at least, not many. Immigrants burden our public services, take our jobs and worst of all, threaten “our way of life”. As a result, we tighten the borders. Tight or closed borders, like unions, reduce competition for jobs, raising wages and with thus the costs of doing business. Corporations ship jobs overseas where they can pay lower wages and avoid burdensome regulations (though due in part to that trend, other countries now offer other advantages as well). Workers get angry that they have lost their jobs, and instead of either considering that their lack of competitiveness, the welfare state or the closing of the border had anything to do with it, they advocate policies of violence (arrest and deportation) against the immigrants they think are the reason for all their troubles.
Many people are opposed to immigration, and are opposed to trade that affects their jobs, and are opposed to the offshoring of their jobs. They blame big business for offshoring, as big business is only in it for themselves. Well, labourers are only in it for themselves, too. In fact, so is everyone. That makes us all selfish and greedy, not just rich people. Calling corporate executives selfish is hypocritical, as workers who are protecting their jobs by not letting anyone else into the country could easily be described as selfish as well. When immigrants enter a country, many of them (depending who is allowed in) gravitate toward the lowest-paid jobs, because these jobs are jobs for which you do not need much English, a college education, local accreditation, and so on. If native-born people believe they should have those jobs rather than others who had the misfortune of being born elsewhere, let them work for them. If they cannot do the jobs at market wages, which is whatever the workers who are available and good enough to do the job will accept, then they could either upgrade their skills, look for another job, start their own businesses or figure something else out. Throughout history, when technology and immigration have destroyed jobs, the newly unemployed typically find new jobs. When jobs are destroyed, as thousands are every day, a roughly equal number (depending on conditions such as economic boom or bust) are usually created. There is nothing to fear from job destruction, or from people who will accept lower wages’ taking jobs, because there is no fixed number of jobs to go round. A related economic fallacy is the belief that war would be good for the economy. War employs many men, but the activities they perform are destructive, as opposed to productive. They are employed by the state, which sucks money and people from the productive sector of the economy. If they had been left in the private sector, it might have taken longer for them to find jobs or get their businesses off the ground, but they would have done so eventually, adding far more to the economy over time.
When working people start complaining that foreigners are snatching up their jobs, calling people illegal and demanding deportation and giant fences, corporations are forced to pay higher wages. There is less competition for the same job because the government is distorting the labour market and denying entrance to the country to people who have as much right to be there as anyone else. Who cares who was there first? There is no moral case for immigration laws. When corporations are thus hobbled, they want to reduce costs and thus seek out cheap labour in other parts of the world. If the workers had accepted less, they would not have done so. But people who believe that having the same job for 40 years is somehow a right get self righteous. Instead of improving themselves, they blame immigrants, corporations and the government. The entitlement mentality blinds us to our own faults, and to the irrationality and immorality of fortified national borders.
Borders make sense when they are amicably agreed on by owners. The borders of your property, for example, or unguarded borders in Europe that now demarcate cultural boundaries rather than the do-not-pass-or-we-shoot variety, make good neighbours. But when nationalism comes into play, and groups that, hundreds or thousands of years ago (before national boundaries were invented), used to control this territory, feel that it is theirs (and by extension, not yours), they are willing to kill each other to secure that border. This is our property and our people and our resources and our little lines drawn on the map.
But where is the logic of these boundaries? Even the idea that “we” used to control this or that territory, or have done for a long time, usually has no merit. Almost every (if not every) national boundary has been created by war and empire. The empires of Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Russia, China, plus all the empires that disappeared before the Treaty of Westphalia, all drew lines around their possessions. They needed to be clear what was whose. At the same time, these possessions contained people not native to the empire’s centre of power on them so they needed to keep them in line by inventing nationalities. Almost every (if not every) one of these borders did not reflect the cultural makeup of the people it enclosed; they were arbitrary. But when the empires left, instead of redrawing the borders, the elites decided they wanted to make everyone inside those borders think they were a cohesive group—a nation—because it would help them gain power. No government wants to relinquish control of part of its territory because it means less power; and less power is out of the question for anybody in it. So they invented myths about how everyone within the imperial borders has always been a nation, and since we are the political party who will help keep our nation together, support us. The story of post colonial electoral politics in a nutshell.
So why are there so many border disputes? Why not dissolve the borders and share these artificial creations called countries as equals? Because the empires and post-colonial elites have already made the people feel they are indivisible and proud nations that must retain territorial integrity at all costs. They do not want to share with outsiders. Children know how to share. If children were at the helm, they would share. But adults would rather send people to die before that happens. There is no sharing within our border.
And God forbid one might call those who would deny others access to a piece of land because they are from the wrong country racist. It certainly seems that way to me. Borders and anti-immigrant policies of any kind strike me as inherently racist. There is something superior about people from within our imaginary line, but those outside just do not deserve the same benefits. Of course, that is not how the argument is framed. Instead, it is considered unrealistic to think that a country like Canada, the US, Australia, etc. could ever absorb tens of millions more immigrants. But why not? There is obviously space for them. “Overpopulation” is not a problem anywhere people are free to move and create their own opportunities. The problem is lack of money to feed and house everyone. As we will see below, the claim that integrating newcomers will come at enormous expense or would cause food shortages is largely baseless, especially in a free society. But the racism is still there, under the surface, whether the non-racist people against immigration realise it or not.
Are you afraid your culture will change? It makes sense to think you culture is superior to that of others because it is what you are used to. It is the culture you understand best; every other culture is full of freaks. If we do not understand other people beyond the surface, and we do not try hard to understand, it is easy to see them as inferior. Ruben Navarrette believes that the arguments about border security, lower wages and overburdened schools are nonsense. No, he says, it is cultural change that makes us shiver, and any rhetoric disguising that fact should be exposed.
It conjures up the alarm bells that Benjamin Franklin set off about German immigrants in the late 18th century, who he insisted could never adopt the culture of the English, but would “swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours.” It popped up in the mid-19th century amid worries that Chinese immigrants were “inassimilable,” which led to Congress approving the explicitly-named Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. And it helped welcome the 20th century when Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge warned that immigrants (read: the Irish) were diluting “the quality of (U.S.) citizenship” and others complained that Italian immigrants were uneducated, low skilled, apt to send all their money to their home country and prone to criminal activity.
I think opposition to immigration stems from a combination of factors economic and cultural, but Mr Navarrette’s argument is worth considering.
It is not just the welfare system and jobs that attract the “invaders” (a term used, ironically, pejoratively by many people who supported interventions in Iraq or Afghanistan). It is also the avoidance of wars. The US government’s War on Drugs has killed some 35,000 Mexicans, not to mention Colombians, Guatemalans and other Latin Americans. Not only do they have a reason to leave where they are, an argument could be made that a certain government with a certain agenda owes them something. The war in Libya, along with the overfishing of the coasts of Somalia, have created refugees that have been rejected by the European countries that sponsored those efforts and let innocent people drown in the sea. One commentator describes letting refugees die in Fortress Europe’s moat a strategy for keeping them out. But at least they are not burdening our welfare system.
As with most laws, a few people making money off the status quo are a hindrance to their repeal. Your country as a whole does not benefit from restrictions to immigration, but some people do. Well-connected corporations make millions of taxpayers for locking up undocumented immigrants. The criminalisation of movement keeps prison operators happy. Like workers who fear newcomers, special interests will fight to the bone to influence legislators to retain their legal privileges. A few people win, but desperate people who risk their lives crossing an invisible and arbitrary line on a map for a better job lose. If we want to boost economies, reduce poverty and promote freedom, let us open all borders.
A further reason immigration is so restricted is that the anti-immigrant argument is partly a scapegoat contrived to divert attention to people who are different from the underlying causes of unemployment, violence and other things people blame on newcomers. A government that induces financial crisis and takes away money from people so they have less ability to defend themselves against them has a major interest in pointing fingers. Who better to blame than people who are visibly different, poor and cannot stand up for themselves? There is no longer any case against immigration. Should we do away with borders altogether? Well, have they brought us any benefits?
Are we freer than ever before? Until a hundred years ago, people who wanted to cross borders did not carry passports; they just went. Now, we need passports and visas, obtained following time-consuming and expensive (in fees and taxes) bureaucratic processes. And not everyone can get a visa. We can be denied access to the US-Canadian border for a record with a DUI, possession of a medical marijuana card, shoplifting or arrest for attending a peace rally. You do have legal recourse, which you can apply for after five years, but you need to send in court, police and FBI records, and a $200 fee. It’s a good thing about that fee, eh? Without that, how would the people who don’t let peaceful people cross borders make their livings? The persistence of borders seems to be little more than another bureaucratic rule designed to justify the existence of the bureaucracy.
The argument that national welfare systems would be overwhelmed first ignores the fact that immigrants contribute more to it than they take out, but more importantly underlines the flaws of the welfare state. Why would we get rid of immigrants at great expense in order to perpetuate this expensive and self-defeating system of welfare when we could welcome immigrants, who would contribute greatly to the economy? We would not have the exclusivity of borders and the violence of deportation on our consciences.
The myths are that immigrants steal jobs, commit more crime, go on welfare and contribute poverty. The reality is different. Most immigrants are young men, which one would think would mean more crime and incarceration. But in fact, the incarceration of natives in the US is five times higher than that of immigrants of every ethnic group, without exception. And why not? Immigrants go to work, not to commit crimes. Moreover, welfare case loads have fallen as illegal immigration has increased. Overall poverty have decreased too. It is not simply due to the high-skilled immigrants but the low-skilled ones as well.
A book by the Center for Global Development’s Lant Pritchett called Let Their People Come: Breaking the Gridlock on Global Labor Mobility cites two studies (Hamilton and Whalley 1984; Winters et al. 2003) that reach startling conclusions. Far from harming economies, the full liberalisation of labour markets could result in gains to global GDP at nearly forty trillion dollars. Actually, given what we know about how well free markets generate growth, and given the strict laws preventing a free market for labour, this figure may not be so surprising. Most of the benefits would accrue to the poor, but a rising tide of poor people would probably lift the boats of anyone working for any business they bought from. On a purely cost-benefit analysis, it makes sense to let all immigrants in. Economies would burst with growth, and though temporarily unemployment might increase, over time it would probably remain low. The short-term consideration of losing one’s job should be measured against the potentially enormous long-term benefits to nearly everyone.
Immigration reduces world poverty. Anyone who says they care for the poor and support barriers to immigration is either lying or does not understand poverty. When they support foreign aid to reduce poverty but not opening borders to reduce poverty, they would rather throw a bone to homeless man in order to ease their consciences than integrate him into their neighbourhood. And everyone who sees famines on television and throws up their hands in despair needs to consider that if starving people could emigrate, most of them would survive.
If crops fail in one place, it is likely they will flourish elsewhere, at least if people can move. In a free market, supply almost always rises to meet demand: existing producers produce more and new producers enter market that offer lucrative returns. Naturally, it is possible that climate change, in a much more advanced stage than it is today, would lead most crops to fail all over the world; though as we will see in my post on the environment, it is by no means impossible for a stateless society to have better means of protecting the environment than the status quo. Open borders might be a cure for famine.
But the real reason it is wrong to hold back immigration is that it is wrong to initiate force against peaceful people for any reason, and wrong to close off a country and call it yours. It’s not your country. It’s everyone’s world. Stop being so selfish. Either way, if you believe we should use coercion to keep others out of our country, you advocate violence and exclusivity and you do not believe we should help the poor.
Adam Kokesh, Adam vs the Man: What do you have to say to Law Enforcement Against Prohibition [LEAP] who would say that ending the War on Drugs would lower the rate of deaths of law enforcement officers unnecessarily in the line of duty?
Eric Holder, Attorney General of the United States: I don’t think that’s right.
The logic of the War on Drugs died at birth. Prohibition has never even begun to achieve its stated objectives. How could it? As the astute Pat Buchanan puts it, “There are two sure ways to end this war swiftly: Milton’s way and Mao’s way. Mao Zedong’s communists killed users and suppliers alike, as social parasites. Milton Friedman’s way is to decriminalize drugs and call off the war.” Governments around the world have tried a watered-down, somewhat less totalitarian version of Mao’s way, but they are not achieving his results. What results are they achieving instead?
(I have written extensively on the War on Drugs elsewhere. Find my historical analysis of it here.)
Does the criminalisation of drugs help drug users? Why not ask the millions who have been jailed, some for 20 years or more, whose families have been torn apart, because they disagreed with the government’s laws? Joanne Page of the Fortune Society says this is “not a war on drugs; it’s a war on poor people with drug involvement. And the casualties are terrible.”
$1t has been spent enforcing drug laws, with no resulting decrease in drug use. 40m people have been arrested on drug charges since Nixon declared war on drugs 40 years ago. And over 50% of people in overburdened jails in the US are there on drug charges. And yet, in the words of Neill Franklin, executive director of LEAP, “drugs today are more available, more potent and cheaper than ever.” In 2009, the US federal government spent over $2b housing drug-related prisoners. Every 19 seconds, someone in the US is arrested for a drug law violation, 82% of which are for possession. (One estimate asserts that 800,000 a year are arrested on marijuana-related charges alone!) In other words, you are paying so that the government can lock up people with things in their pocket that will never harm you or your children.
Despite the irriting 10th amendment, the US federal government does not recognise all laws passed by states. One type of them is their drug laws. Most states have either legalised medical marijuana or hemp or otherwise decriminalised sale of the plant. The Drug Enforcement Administration regularly raids medical marijuana dispensaries in states that have passed laws legalising them. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here…you know what? Just google it.) Along with the product, it takes the computers and collects the files of people who have bought pot there, apparently holding them so they know who needs to get nabbed next for something they are legally allowed to do. Is it any wonder more and more people are coming to see that the government does not have to care about us? That our safety is the last thing on their mind? That the rule of law lies in tatters? And that this is not what Jesus had in mind? We have a federal government interested in prolonging this devastating war on non violent (and some terminally-ill) people with a middle finger to the constitution. How can this take place in a free society?
Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that legalising all drugs would bring in some $40b in tax revenues at all levels if the drugs were taxed at rates similar to alcohol, and we would save another $40b in incarceration and court costs. But as he points out, this might not make much of a dent in the colossal US government budget deficits; and the real reason to legalise drugs is that “all the people who want to use drugs are being somewhere between mildly inconvenienced and grossly harmed by the policy of prohibition. We are not helping drug users in any way, shape or form.”*
Would drug use skyrocket if drugs were legal? Well, why don’t you do heroin? Because it is illegal? (For that matter, why don’t you kill and rape? Because they are illegal?) When the government tells you what you can and cannot put in your own body, it is claiming ownership over you. Protecting you from yourself is not only a misguided idea, because you know better than any government could about what is right for you, but it is demonstrably false. The government would need to destroy all guns, cigarettes, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, cars, Coca Cola and Big Macs if it wanted to keep you healthy. Maybe it should ban all those things. But in the words of Lev Timofeev, a former Soviet mathematician and analyst of the shadow economy,
Prohibiting a market does not mean destroying it. Prohibiting a market means placing a prohibited but dynamically developing market under the total control of criminal corporations. Moreover, prohibiting a market means enriching the criminal world with hundreds of billions of dollars by giving criminals a wide access to public goods which will be routed by addicts into the drug traders’ pockets. Prohibiting a market means giving the criminal corporations opportunities and resources for exerting a guiding and controlling influence over whole societies and nations. [Find more on the effects of prohibition here.]
Mexico is the newest of those nations. In his book the Lucifer Effect, psychologist Philip Zimbardo explains that our actions and our character depend to a great extent on our situation. If we are placed in a situation where we have power over others, we will probably use that power. Drug lords like Pablo Escobar were not necessarily bad people before they took to drugs. But they saw big opportunities to make big money because of the laws that existed. They needed to protect themselves against the long arm of the law, so they started their own militias, and criminalisation became a war. If there is no possibility to engage in commerce through voluntary transactions, but the demand still exists, the trade will continue but it will become dangerous. That is true of any criminal enterprise in the world. As a result, some 40,000 people have been killed in Mexico since 2006, not to mention Colombia, Peru and elsewhere in the past 40 years.
The US government has made things worse and killed its own agents. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) sold some 30,000 guns to Mexican drug lords that were used not only to kill innocent Mexican civilians, but eventually US government agents. (See a video that brings the war to your eyes here.) Thousands of Mexicans have protested the War on Drugs, which is fast becoming a civil war brought about by powerful governments that do not have to listen to their people.
Since the War on Drugs guarantees high prices for any illegal drug, it is no wonder poppy farming has become so common in Afghanistan. Supply is in the east but demand is in the west. When the west criminalises drugs, farmers in the east stand to profit. The Taliban now it encourages poppy farming as a way to make money to kill foreign soldiers. Corruption is rampant in Afghanistan. It is the most corrupt country in the world, in fact, according to Transparency International, which said the following: “In poll after poll, Afghans don’t rank the Taliban, terrorism or the economy as their highest worry. Corruption is their top concern and tackling it, their main need.” Not only does government enable high drug prices through prohibition, corruption would not exist without a government because no one would have the power to force people to pay bribes. Not only does the US military now target drug traffickers as part of this ill-conceived war, how is the ISAF supposed to win hearts and minds when its main partner sprays crops in Afghanistan and destroys farmers’ livelihoods? The criminalisation of drugs by the powers that are supposedly at war with the Taliban is shooting oneself in the head to cure one’s headache.
Back on the domestic front, the War on Drugs places huge burdens on the legal system. The backlog of drug cases that divert billions of dollars from the protection of property, the use of expensive courts and trial lawyers to prosecute people for selling a few dollars’ worth of cocaine, the loss of civil liberties, the corruption of law enforcement; these are corollaries of a legalistic approach to prohibiting drug use. Neill Franklin of LEAP explains that most police officers that prosecute the War on Drugs consider themselves soldiers, given orders, expected to uphold the law. But they do not usually spend the time to look at the facts of this pointless war, and as such do not question the criminalisation of drugs. More and more police officers are killed in the line of duty in the US, and you can guess what laws most of them are trying to uphold when they are killed. And yet, because of the law, because the politicians in the back pockets of the pressure groups are in charge, because we put them in charge and then turn our backs to them, the police are under pressure actually to put themselves in harm’s way. LEAP is made up of brave police officers who defy their political masters and stand up for what is right.
With all these obvious reasons to end the War on Drugs, why does it continue? Does the government care about your health? Is that the reason drugs are illegal? The reason the War on Drugs is so difficult to end is that the government is beholden to—even controlled by—special interest groups. Contrary to what some democrats seem to think, presidents and congresspeople do not wake up in the morning asking what they can do for their country or their constituents. They ask what they can do for their patrons, the lobbyists. Who do you think might benefit from the criminalisation of drugs? Certainly not those looking for treatment. Many laws give rise to new pressure groups. The drug laws have their own. Let’s meet some of them.
Illegal drugs are major competition for legal ones. Tobacco and alcohol companies have no interest in seeing any more drugs on the market. Perhaps that is why they were, for a while, the top funders of Partnership for a Drug Free America. (Now, big pharma contributes the most to Partnership.) Partnership tends not to mention that more than 400,000 people die every year in the US from smoking, 75,000 from alcohol and some 370,000 died from FDA-approved (thank God the government protects us from the market) pharmaceuticals in the past decade (or possibly even more), while the number who have died from marijuana is zero. The government is under pressure from the mighty tobacco and alcohol firms not to legalise their competitors, and has no qualms about killing to keep them happy. If you have ever wondered why lobbyists are so powerful, consider that 80% of those employed as lobbyists by the beer, wine and liquor industry, and 78% of tobacco lobbyists, are former government employees.
Pharmaceutical companies, too, have no interest in letting any other drugs than their own become mainstream. They already face considerable competition from alcohol and tobacco. Their drugs are so high priced (because they can be) that theft from pharmacies is skyrocketing. No less than the pharmaceutical firms, everyone from clothing manufacturers to paper companies would face steep competition from hemp if it entered the marketplace. But we must protect the public from the stalk of the cannabis plant.
Another reason drugs are still illegal, and one reason the War on Drugs is prosecuted so harshly, is that it pays for a politician to look tough on crime. Crime is only crime because lawmakers say it is, and as such, the more laws there are, the more chances politicians get to look like people who get results. It is the same reason money to protect against terrorism flows like water: the more of your money they spend, the more ability politicians have to appear to be doing something.
Other politicians preside over constituencies that benefit from the prison-industrial complex. With the steady expansion in the number of prisons came the increased number of correctional facility corporations and jobs that rely on them. The special interests driving the increased prison population are one reason why privatisation without a reduction in government power to reward the new industry might not be a good idea. Judge Jim Gray calls the prison guard union California’s strongest lobby group. It oversaw the building of 21 new prisons in the state and encouraged tough new laws (such as the 1994 “three strikes” law) that today have California’s prisons brimming over at almost twice capacity. No wonder they have an interest in full prisons: the average guard makes more than $70,000 a year.
Not all lobby groups are in the private sector. The drug war grants police and prosecutors bigger budgets, which gives them greater power vis-à-vis the public whose money they are spending. The DEA and the ATF receive ever-bigger budgets as well, enabling them to buy cool new equipment to help them do a job they should not be doing in the first place. As their budgets increase, the profits to be made off drugs and the desperation of the groups selling them, the ones created by drug prohibition, increases proportionally, so more people will fight on either side, catching thousands of innocents in the crossfire.
The police have the incentive to steal. In 1970, Congress enacted the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, also known as the Forfeiture Act. It was expanded in 1978, and then again in 1984. According to Jarrett B. Wollstein, “[c]ivil asset forfeiture is based upon the medieval doctrine that when property is involved in a crime, the property becomes ‘guilty’, and can be “arrested” and forfeited, regardless of the guilt or innocence of the property’s owners.” You do not need to be tried or convicted. Thousands of people other than the police have made money informing on their neighbours, even when their neighbours have been found innocent. And anything is fair game. Even the car you drove to try to buy drugs can be seized when you get arrested for it. The court makes money off the fine you have to pay; the police keep the car. Not surprisingly, “the level of seizure activity has exploded since 1984,” says Prof. Bruce Benson of Florida State University. Police can seize cars, jewelry and all the money they can find (even if they only say they suspect it is connected to drugs). Many local police drug units are partially or wholly funded by the assets they seize. And since it is easier to catch the little fish than the big fish, the petty criminals, like buyers and sellers, are the ones who lose most.
The military, too, long involved in South America, has its hand out, too. The long-running turmoil in Colombia has given the US military a pretext to plant military bases there. Protecting its citizens is a great excuse for a government to go to war. The empire thanks you for your understanding.
Finally, just like in so many government-connected corporate scandals, the banks are here too. Money laundering is big business, and banks all over the world have cashed in. (See here, here and here.) Governments could regulate the business, but why would they harass their close friends? All of these groups would lose if drugs were legalised, or if the drug war were won.
Make no mistake: the War on Drugs is not simply a failed policy: it is an understandable, even predictable, result of statism. It started in 1970 when a politician (Richard Nixon) wanted to squash his peaceful enemies (hippies) and distract from his foreign policy agenda (the bombing of Laos and Cambodia), and has accelerated thanks to every other politician who has stood to gain from it. In the end, the War on Drugs is a symptom of big government. Big government is the reason your tax dollars are going toward killing and jailing people for victimless crimes, creating and funding drug cartels, and bringing violence to the streets of your hometown. Big government requires a steady flow of votes and campaign contributions in return for rewarding special interest groups with tax dollars. As such, it will not reverse until enough people threaten to withhold their votes for the party that does not end the drug war. However, the reality of the criminalisation of drugs has not hit most people, and will not unless they understand it.
No more excuses
Not only us crazy anarchists understand the logic against prohibition. The Global Commission on Drug Policy reported that “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world…billions of dollars are wasted on ineffective programs,…millions of citizens are sent to prison unnecessarily,… [and] hundreds of thousands of people die from preventable overdoses and diseases.” The report was endorsed by Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico—and 16 other notable names, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana, Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. Some of these thinkers have said they are not strictly in favour of the outright legalisation of drugs. Fine. Adopt half measures and you will get half results. Alternatively, we could commit to the full legalisation of drugs and stop having to worry about all this nonsense.
I heard someone say that legalising drugs would not make a difference to the gangs because then they would engage in different activities to survive. But that ignores the fact that the economic incentive of gang membership is the very lucrative drug trade itself. If gangs switched to, say, stealing cars, they would be running far greater risks than running drugs for less money, and their membership would shrivel. Until that happens, expect many more dead everywhere. The most dangerous, most addictive drug is not crack or heroin but laws that create black markets and reward special interests.
It is also said that only the less harmful drugs, like marijuana, should be legal, because legalisation amounts to sanction. But that argument misses the point. All drugs should be legal for two reasons. First, on a purely cost-benefit analysis, there is every reason to believe that legalisation would save money and lives, including through overdose. It would drastically reduce the influence of criminal organisations around the world, reduce the corruption of law enforcement and politicians, reduce harm done by unregulated black market substitutes for drugs whose harm has much to do with their illicit nature, stop tearing families and lives apart, and reduce the incidence of police destruction of property through break ins.
But an even better reason is that no one has the right to tell you what you can and cannot put in your body when the consumption of that substance does not affect anyone else. Our bodies are our property, and no one can take away a free man’s property. Unless we are irresponsible children with no judgment, all drugs should be legal.
*Moreover, as economist Walter Block points out (and I second), giving more money to the government would not be a good thing. “It is sometimes argued that one of the benefits of legalising addictive drugs is that they could be taxed, and the government revenues enhanced,” he says. “From this perspective, this would be the only valid case against legalisation.” How about we legalise drugs and do not tax them?