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How to kill a million people

November 15, 2014 Leave a comment

Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. – Lord Acton

Power kills. Absolute power kills absolutely. – RJ Rummel

Do you want to know what a sociopath looks like? Think of George W. Bush. Think of all the people he knew were killed due to his policies. Do you think he cared? Did you see him joking about finding weapons of mass destruction in front of the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2004? Do you think he had pangs of guilt later that night? I don’t think so. Sociopaths are people with no conscience. Many of those who have lost their consciences kill them over time by committing, ordering, approving or otherwise knowingly facilitate murder.

bush rumsfeld cheney Obama_laughing

Psychopathy and sociopathy (in particular the so-called dark triad of narcissism, Machivellianism and sociopathy) broadly refer to the condition of having little or no conscience, no guilt, no feeling of responsibility, no ability to feel sympathy for others. Sociopaths lie, cheat, manipulate, intimidate, use violence for their own benefit and do not feel as though they have done something wrong. Some of them occupy positions of power in big business, politics, the bureaucracy and security agencies. Do you think that matters?

Are people born without consciences? Some might be, but environmental factors play a major role. Do you think we could reduce or eliminate some of the incentives to put aside one’s conscience? How might we do that?

Well, how did George take on the characteristics of a sociopath? Was he born that way? Possibly. Did his parents and his upbringing contribute? Probably somehow. But people in power usually kill their consciences over long periods. Few people are dropped into positions of considerable power. They climb to them over time. When Little George was still at university, he connected with other powerful people. He spent years in top positions in oil businesses. Did these roles teach him to control his conscience? When running for Governor of Texas he said he approved lowering the age of the death penalty to 14. If he was a full-blown sociopath by then (which he may have been), he could have signed the death warrants of a million 14-year-olds with no pangs of conscience. But even if he wasn’t yet, he had already begun to chip away at his conscience. He could simply tell himself killing teenagers was for the best for Texas, for “society” or for God and remain emotionally detached from any violence.

One reason soldiers commit suicide is because they can’t live with the guilt of killing people. George W. didn’t see a drop of anyone’s blood. He did the killing with strokes of the pen. His job was to shake hands and give speeches, not think. His PR people cultivated a highly likable image that made sense to enough voters. What are politicians but actors? He knew he would be rewarded for doing what other powerful people wanted him to do. If he ever felt ill at ease, he could always tell himself it’s all right, this is for the good either of others or of myself. But any excuse would do.

The more things they do they might otherwise have felt guilty about, the more cuts people make to their consciences. Soon, they simply don’t care about anyone but themselves. Now, consider how many millions of people around the world have power over us, from bureaucrats who can deny us permits and visas, to taxmen seizing what we worked for, to soldiers occupying our countries, to politicians who make it all official. This is the state, people. This is why your world has been so messed up for so long. They weren’t all born to be bad. This system sucked out their consciences like a leech. Its agents go through a process of learning to control any feelings of guilt by finding reasons to justify their decisions.

Actually, all of us justify hurtful actions sometimes. If we tell ourselves we did the right thing, we are more likely to do it again and with less guilt. But not all of us benefit from doing things that make us feel guilty or repressing that guilt. I can lie, but I might lose the trust of those I rely on. I might steal, but I might face all kinds of social penalties if I do, including jail. Having power means not needing to take responsibility. Indeed, unless there is a sufficiently large scandal and perhaps scapegoating (in a democracy) or rebellion, those in power are rewarded with more money and power. The most powerful in today’s world wield their power through the state.

The state is an instrument of concentrated force. The small minority who control the state can use it to build consensus for their plans or simply impose them without asking, but ultimately the choice is theirs. As long as the state and its precursors (pharaohs, kings, popes, and so on) have existed they have been a means of theft, whether by overt plunder, such as ransacking a town or enslaving people, defensive violence such as protecting large estates acquired by overt plunder, or covert plunder, such as taxation or economic policies. Working with the state, including trying to change it from within, inevitably means following the orders of those at the top of the pyramid to plunder the people.

Power feeds all the elements of the dark triad. The admiration and awe that come with power feed narcissism. As expert manipulators and ruthless competitors, Machiavellians benefit most from a competitive system. And sociopaths make decisions on impulse and take no responsibility for any harm they cause. The state’s monopoly on force shields all these people from consequences.

Any of us could walk the path to these disorders. We are not immune to knowingly hurting others for our own benefit, or in the name of some idea whose implications we do not understand but which we invoke to ourselves for the sake of assuaging our consciences. People have trouble resisting taking power over others when it is offered to them, or when they condition themselves to believe it is right. Concentrating and institutionalising power incentivises sociopathic behaviour. If we considered everyone equal and thus not deserving of power over others we could achieve a free society with far less violence and suffering.

Freedom is peace

December 26, 2013 Leave a comment

There is a widespread belief that security and freedom are incompatible. We have been told, especially since 9/11 and not just in the US, that the needs of security, meaning keeping us safe from non-state actors who want to do us harm, who are apparently everywhere, outweigh the luxuries of freedom. But security versus freedom is a false dichotomy. The truth is, the extent to which we are free is the extent to which we are at peace.

Some extremes on the opposite end of the spectrum of freedom are prison, slavery, and a surveillance or informant state that does not tolerate dissent or differences. There is neither peace nor freedom in these situations, as anyone is subject to mistreatment at the hands of his or her masters at any time. The claim that “if you are doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide” is wrong because people who have power do not always need what you would consider a good reason to use it. Ask people living in jail for selling drugs, or a slave. They are routinely subjected to whatever form of abuse because their bodies are constantly at someone else’s mercy.

A short way from the extreme opposite of freedom is a situation such as a city locked down after a panic. The presence of vehicles of war on the streets of Boston or Cairo following terrorist attacks is not a situation of security. In the case of Boston, ordinary people had guns thrust in their faces and their homes entered, which presumably inspired them with terror as intense as the bombing that just taken place. It is unlikely Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would have killed people if they had been allowed out of their homes, especially since if he had the people could have dealt with him themselves. In Egypt following the deposing of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi, peaceful protesters were killed and arrested and a curfew was imposed. Police of every level of the security apparatus, including those in plainclothes and the spy agency, remain all over the city. We are all subject to arrest (or extortion) for looking suspicious or saying the wrong things. The threat of violence looms always just over our heads. And it is not clear how such state reaction prevented further terrorism.

Getting people to expect such state action and believe in it as a necessary way to restore security and freedom are part of the building blocks of the police state. We usually do not know about how power is wielded every day because of compliant media; alternatively, when we find out about what the powerful are up to, we are told why their actions were necessary and right, proportional and in self defense. When we accept this state of affairs it can happen more often.

There is a middle ground (though not at times of crisis) in which police can provide the people with general protection and not turn despotic. However, state security of any kind is necessarily unaccountable to the people and can be used by those with power for social control. Getting a group we do not belong to to protect us does not necessarily lead to protection from that group. We do not necessarily have this choice, because rule is imposed on us without our consent.

That is one danger in the idea of private-security firms. Private security is more likely to be accountable to us than the state is, because if they do not report us they will not get paid. Nonetheless, we must consider the fact that my employing a private-security firm does nothing to guarantee the security of the people around me. And yet, my security depends on those around me. Errico Malatesta put it thus.

Solidarity, that is, harmony of interests and sentiments, the sharing of each in the good of all, and of all in the good of each, is the state in which alone man can be true to his own nature, and attain to the highest development and happiness. It is the aim towards which human development tends. It is the one great principle, capable of reconciling all present antagonisms in society, otherwise irreconcilable. It causes the liberty of each to find not its limits, but its complement, the necessary condition of its continual existence–in the liberty of all.

He proceeds to quote Mikhail Bakunin.

No man can recognize his own human worth, nor in consequence realize his full development, if he does not recognize the worth of his fellow men, and in co-operation with them, realize his own development through them. No man can emancipate himself, unless at the same time he emancipates those around him. My freedom is the freedom of all; for I am not really free–free not only in thought, but in deed–if my freedom and my right do not find their confirmation and sanction in the liberty and right of all men my equals.

Peace is not the absence of war but the presence of the conditions under which we can realise our potential. If we seek peace, we need security not just for ourselves but for others. This belief may be demonstrated when a desperate or mentally ill man robs and attacks someone. We did nothing to help this person and we are all vulnerable as a result. It is even easier to see in an age when people who feel their lives and cultures are threatened can go around the world to plan and execute a terrorist attack on the heart of the entity they believe is threatening them.

Security for all means peace. Freedom for all means peace. They are not opposites. They are, in the end, the same.

Regulation

March 18, 2013 5 comments

“Corporate capitalists don’t want free markets. They want dependable profits, and their surest route is to crush the competition by controlling the government.” – RFK, Jr.

It is often claimed in “progressive” and “liberal” circles that we need more regulation to curb the influence and power of big business. This belief is based largely on a misconception as to the origin, purpose and result of regulations.

During the period between the end of the American Civil War and roughly the 1890s, business in the US tried to cartelise but found it could not. In general, cartels can only control a market when force is introduced. During this period, every attempt to form a cartel and raise prices led to new competitors that realised they could undercut the cartels. In response, big business began lobbying the government to pass laws “in the public interest” (as all laws are claimed to be) that would enable them to keep competitors out. It worked. (Find a large amount of research on the subject here.)

Today, regulations and other laws protecting business include corporate personhood, accounting standards, safety standards, environmental standards and intellectual property. In addition, there are subsidies (“corporate welfare”), amounting to perhaps $98b a year, selective tax breaks and contracting. In each of these categories, government and industry have made a variety of laws enabling large firms to eliminate competition. As such, they are a kind of tax taken from consumers who would pay lower prices and entrepreneurs who would be able to make their livings doing what they want. The tax is given to business owners who would be forced to lower prices or improve services in a free market. The Small Business Administration in 2005 estimated the total cost of these regulations at $1.1 trillion.

free market government regulation

Accounting standards are widely considered necessary to prove a firm is not cooking the books. But in the absence of state regulation, concerned investors would find a way to insure against this possibility with audits. An example of the enormous and unnecessary complication of accounting standards is the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, passed in the wake of the Enron accounting scandal and failure. The Act made accounting more complicated. Implementing it costs a firm millions of dollars. Millions of dollars is pocket change for a big corporation, but prohibitively expensive for new and small businesses that could otherwise rival them. As a result, fewer businesses are created, and wealth and power are concentrated in the larger firms. We now have a complex tax code that could not be implemented by less than a team of accountants. The same is true of the legal code. The modern legal code was designed so that teams of high-priced lawyers can get away with murder and people without money see no justice.

Sarbanes-Oxley is, of course, but one law in a sea of other laws. Those who say the 2008 financial crash was caused by a lack of regulation may do well to realise there were thousands of lines of financial regulations already. They often cite the repeal of parts of the Glass-Steagal Act as the only incidence of deregulation they can think of, but this change did nothing to enable banks to make bad loans. A look at the facts indicates very clearly that regulation was the main cause of the bubble that caused the massive destruction of wealth for all but those whose ties to the state got them trillion-dollar bailouts.

Negative externalities, which seem to be the reason people beg the government to get involved in the market, are easily externalised in a statist society. The same big corporations pollute and break the law repeatedly. They are sued by the government, they pay the government, which means it gets another legal donation from an interest group, and then they are allowed to continue business as usual. The lawsuits are a bone thrown to voters and the corporations shake them off like lice. But they give the appearance that justice has been done. The corporations nonetheless retain all the benefits they get from the state in the form of legal personhood, subsidies, tax loopholes, intellectual property and regulatory barriers to competition. The state does not protect us against negative externalities.

Intellectual property enables firms to monopolise virtually anything they create. Consider the effects of IP laws in the pharmaceutical industry. Kevin Carson explains that drug patents are unnecessary to recoup expenses and develop the most effective drugs.

First of all, there has been a dramatic shift away from fundamentally new kinds of blockbuster drugs, because it’s much more cost-effective to put money into tweaking the formulas of drugs whose patents are about to expire just enough to qualify for repatenting them—so-called ‘me, too drugs.’ Second, a great deal of the basic research on which drug development is based is carried out at government expense in publicly-funded universities. Around half of the overall cost of drug R&D is taxpayer-funded. And in the United States, under the terms of legislation passed in the 1980s, the patents on drugs developed entirely at taxpayer expense are given away—free of charge—to the drug companies that produce and market them. Third, most of the actual R&D cost for developing drugs comes, not from testing the version of a drug actually marketed, but from securing patent lockdown on all the other major possible variants.

Generic drugs do not get developed, or get banned as soon as they are, because they are competition. The poor people who need them most do not get them. Intellectual property, Carson concludes, is murder.

corporatism regulation big business free market

We can divine the purpose of regulation from its results. We now have giant, multinational corporations straddling the Earth, with no government willing or able to oppose them, with the exception of a few populist, anti-imperialist holdouts. Large corporations’ alliance with the state has enabled the two to control natural resources and all manner of other markets. Consumers thus have fewer choices and higher prices than in a market freed from regulation. But freedom is always preferable to laws and regulations imposed by the state. Freedom allows economies and the arts to flourish. It means scientific advances and technological innovation. And it forces responsibility on those able to handle it while still allowing for us to help each other.

The solution to the control of markets by cartels is to free them. That would make customers the true regulators. If they decry a firm’s practices, they can stop buying from it and start buying from its competitor. If you abhor business, you are free to start and join one of the thousands of cooperatives in the world or simply produce and give to your neighbours. But demanding more regulation to prevent big-business malfeasance is akin to shooting oneself in the head to cure one’s headache.

Egypt’s economy is collapsing. Don’t blame yourself.

February 6, 2013 Leave a comment

Egypt’s planning minister, Ashraf El Arabi, said this week Egypt only had enough foreign exchange reserves for another three months. Given how dependent Egypt is on imports, that means the economy will collapse soon if drastic changes are not made.

I hope Egyptians understand when the economy collapses whose fault it is. It’s not Egypt’s fault. It’s not your fault. It’s the state’s fault. It takes your money and spends it without asking. It borrows money and forces you to pay for it. You are the economy. When you pay for the state’s actions, which you do every day, it’s the economy that suffers.

The economy as a whole would not be on the point of collapse if not for all these ridiculous economic policies. Gas would cost more but there would not be shortages, except for individuals who could not afford it. Business would be free to operate and create wealth for everyone. And you would not have to worry if the central bank has enough money to cover what you want to buy. But that is not the way the “national economy” works. When the state screws up, the people suffer.

In this way, we can see the state is, among other things, a vehicle for eliminating responsibility from the powerful and passing costs on to the weak. They will never tell you that, of course. Look at how former finance minister Hazem El Beblawi put it. “[T]he real problem is that Egypt lacks the domestic resources that would allow the government to deal with anticipated shortfalls.” Egypt does not lack domestic resources. It is being strangled by economic policies. Why would we want the government to deal with “shortfalls”? When an individual makes a mistake, he or she pays the price. If the government takes control over something and it goes wrong, the entire country suffers.

But that is the system we live under. The state confiscates and destroys wealth, and you pay.

Egypt economy suffer collapse dieThe only hope for the economy is to secure more loans and raise taxes, which will simply suck more money out of the pockets of the people. But ideally, the economy will die and be replaced by freedom.  Let black markets and mutual aid reign. Secede from this system like the people in Mahalla El Kobra. End your dependency on the state and stop paying for the elites’ crisis.

Are you a control freak or a pervert? The state is hiring!

December 7, 2012 Leave a comment

The state’s monopoly on crime over a given territory makes it necessary to eliminate its agents’ responsibility for their individual crimes. How often we have seen police take the stands to defend brutality and then get let off with a slap on the wrist. The state thus incentivises all manner of anti-social behaviour. Here are some examples.

Politicians’ main task is to steal one person’s money and give it to someone else. Sometimes they steal overtly, such as through taxation, and give it away just as overtly, as with bank bailouts. Sometimes the theft is far quieter or concealed as benevolence, as when they pass laws favourable to a few corporations that help them control markets by force, while telling everyone the laws are necessary measures in the fight against whatever the public is anxious about.

Politicians bill law legislation

Politicians want to garner votes for the next election, which is done by a) handing things out to interest groups and b) spending money to appear to get things done. A number of well-connected people can give them cushy jobs with huge salaries when they retire from serving the public (which goes for bureaucrats, too). Their job is, in fact, to represent those people, the elite, and make the public think they are serving everyone. They are chosen because they are so good at it.

The military engages in war, destroying homes, lives and ecosystems. No one holds the military accountable for its crimes, except occasionally when grunts are tried for crimes their superior officers encouraged, or the pressure of war made inevitable. In fact, not only is the military not made to pay for the damage it causes; people are led to believe it actually protects them from all the bloodthirsty foreigners who cannot wait to kill them. This lie makes the next war, or the perpetual struggle against evil, easier. (The state’s incentive to lie is so obvious I will not go into it here.)

Police investigation

Police have all kinds of distorted incentives. Their jobs consist in large measure of harassing, bullying, beating, kidnapping, spying and stealing. Many of them want to control people, which may be why they became police, or they may have acquired a thirst for it as they went about their duties. The War on Drugs has enabled them to break into people’s homes, steal money and drugs, and gun those people down. Even when the people had no drugs at all, the police do not get in trouble. Why not? Because the police did not find the police guilty.

The police in the US have begun to spy on people. The irrational fear of terrorism, encouraged by politicians, law enforcement and the media, all of which have something to gain, has legitimised spying on marginal groups. Muslims have been targeted in particular, as have activists. It is widely known (and statistically obvious) that police stop, frisk and frame racial minorities in huge numbers. Thus, the state legitimises racism—and gives it a gun.

TSA children terrorists

Lastly, TSA agents can do nearly whatever they want to your body. It is unsurprising to hear women say they feel disproportionately targeted by airport security, or to see children being felt up by people with badges. Laws that permit eliminating the rights of the many and the responsibility of the few has given perverts and pedophiles a great career path.

I am not accusing all TSA agents of being perverts, just like I am not accusing all police of racism. I am accusing the state of incentivising and legitimising these activities, and stealing from taxpayers to fund them. Find fuller explanations of the state’s crimes and how to end them in my book, available here.

The alternative to the state, part 4: polycentric law

July 31, 2012 10 comments

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

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.

Mutual Aid

July 24, 2012 15 comments

“Anarchism is stateless socialism.” – Mikhail Bakunin

Naturalist and anarchist Pyotr (Peter) Kropotkin wrote Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution (available here) in 1902 in response to claims that natural selection and “survival of the fittest” meant the struggle of all against all. The historians, he explained, taught us of wars, cruelty and oppression, and the state, glad to find an excuse, explained to us that those things would be the norm if not for an intervening authority. (Hobbes’ “state of nature” being an unfortunately-well-known example of why we think this way.)

His book describes a different point of view: mutual aid among humans and other animals. It shows not only how they take care of each other, but the evolution of the morality of mutual aid. The “Law of Nature”/“kill or be killed” doctrine is simplistic and only covers a part of the existence of animals in the wild or humans in society. Members of a wide variety of species engage in mutual aid, not only within the species but sometimes across them, as we learn when we see birds cleaning the teeth of crocodiles.

Though competition among people is supposed to help the economy grow (though it doesn’t), far more important is taking care of one another. We help out our family members, our friends and even strangers who can do nothing for us. As I explain elsewhere, we possess love, kindness, empathy, sympathy, caring, and a sense of fairness. For various reasons, we may not cooperate regularly with those in our community. But we could.

Mutual aid, examples of which are detailed below, has existed in human society for as long as we have been humans. Mutual aid promotes community and independence, which is why the state, bosses, slave owners and whatever other oppressors, usually attempt to shut it down. They have put bureaucracy in place of people helping each other, imposed taxes so that people needed to find sources of income, and declared a variety of practices illegal. But in the space where mutual aid has been allowed, it has flourished.

mutual aid mutualism

Excellent graphic from the Facebook page Mutualistball

Why mutual aid? Why not charity?

In spite of the huge sums taken from them by the state, people still give to charity. They realise the state is not helping the causes they believe in and know they can help by picking up the slack. Why? “Presumably for a combination of reasons, including, in no particular order, compassion, social norms, the desire for good reputations, the desire to avoid bad reputations, and the desire to avoid social disorder.” (“Government is no friend of the poor.“) Mutual aid, like charity, avoids the high administrative costs and, of course, the political intentions of government-run antipoverty programmes.

Charity is not necessarily bad, but it can have the effect of entrenching poverty like government welfare programmes, rather than leading the way out of it. It can grant the givers a sense of benevolent superiority. It can disempower the receivers, making them feel like they have nothing to contribute. Giving food and clothes can also destroy local economies, as free foreign goods crowd out local goods. People come to depend on someone else’s help. Mutual aid, on the other hand, implies that people in the network will help each other whenever and however possible.

Mutual aid is not likely to be illegal, in contrast to agorism. It means putting aside the competition and force that are inherent in the capitalist model and cooperating to help one another. It means sharing, and cooperating to make sure what one gives is used as one wants. While our nature pushes for reciprocity, we do not necessarily expect an equal return. It would probably run along the Marxist principle of “from each according to his ability to each according to his need”. (Of course, people may decide to kick free riders out of the network, though we should practice compassion and understanding before we practice exclusion.)

For those who do not trust a state whose budget for social programmes is always decreasing, mutual aid can create a social safety net. It can lift up those in poverty and prevent those living paycheque to paycheque or disabled or elderly from falling into poverty. You can be sure your money is going toward community projects or helping those in need, rather than hoping the government or a potentially corrupt non-profit is spending it the way you would like.

What can you and the people around you do to help each other?

–The book Mutual Aid and Union Renewal argues that unions could reverse their decline if they engaged in mutual aid. If unions do not appear to benefit their members, or simply do not encourage their involvement, loyalty will remain low. But a union could act as an extended family. Some union members have set up member assistance programmes, helping each other with alcoholism and substance abuse, for example.

–The cooperative is an autonomous association of people who voluntarily work together or jointly own something, like a housing project or business. They are usually run democratically (without the state) by their members. They foster community through cooperation. Ideally, they would break off from and become independent of the state, and thus provide examples of secession.

–A worker or producer cooperative is one owned by the people who own and operate a business. (This arrangement is sometimes called “market socialism”.) Shared ownership diversifies, rather than concentrates, wealth. Not all worker cooperatives are exclusive owners of businesses, as some outside shareholders may be involved. Such cooperatives employ over 100m people and could be the wave of the future for business. After all, Ocean Spray, Sunkist and the Associated Press are all cooperative businesses.

–Agricultural cooperatives enable farmers to pool their resources for mutual benefit. They may be more able to afford capital equipment for more efficient farming in this way. In the days of continual raids on small farms and heavy subsidies of big farms, the benefits of farmers’ working together outweigh the costs, both to themselves and consumers. A kibbutz is an agricultural cooperative, as is India’s Amul, which sells dairy products, and Malaysia’s FELDA, which sells palm oil.

–A consumers’ cooperative is a business owned and run by its customers. The two largest supermarket chains in Switzerland are co-ops. Canada’s Mountain Equipment Co-op is one example, as is the UK’s Co-operative Group.

–Finally, social cooperatives, of which there are over 7000 in Italy, provide social services such as child care, elderly and disabled care, help with addiction, education and employment counseling.

–There are other community-strengthening ideas that fall short of cooperatives. You could start a neighbourhood watch, where members of the community take turns guarding each other’s property. Neighbourhood watch is widespread in North America. When the police are absent, their job is merely to punish crime. A neighbourhood watch can prevent it by having people present at all times. Moreover, in the countless parts of the world where the police are not accountable to those they police and are seen as thugs, a well-established neighbourhood watch could make the police redundant. This practice is easier today than ever, since we can communicate with each other at great distances, calling our neighbours to warn them without knocking on their doors.

Neighbourhood associations and homeowners associations of various kinds are protecting local environments, enforcing safety and other rules, organising social activities, building recreational facilities and fixing roads.

–One person following this blog’s old FB page (which is now defunct) told me of a teacher who started a parents’ group that collects canned food, clothing, books, small items such as toothbrushes. Parents donate time, labour or rides to one another.

–Poor communities have even more to gain. Many rural Africans work each other’s fields, and the owner of a given field might provide food and drinks. They help one another build houses. They pool their money for life insurance, or household items. (See more here.)

–People who complain about high costs of buying from the insurance oligopoly may want to pool their money with others. Members of the network may choose criteria by which some pay more and others pay less. Smokers might pay more in a health insurance society and pyromaniacs will probably not be allowed in a fire insurance society. And no one will be forced to subsidise others’ risky habits.

–Likewise with the banks. Need a loan? How about a credit union? There are thousands of credit unions in North America with millions of members. A credit union is an example of a consumers’ cooperative.

–Sick of inflation? Don’t like making money? Ever tried a local exchange trading system (LETS)?  LETS is a non-profit enterprise that records transactions for people’s exchanging of goods and services. A member may earn credit for fixing someone’s car, and spend it later when he needs a babysitter or a dentist. The credit does not need to be in the national currency, which is how it avoids inflation and the necessity of making money. Credit can be given for a given job by whatever criteria the people decide.

–Mutual aid could mean investment. Communities or other networks can put their money into local ventures with people they know and trust, gaining a tangible stake in the business and avoiding the rigged markets for securities.

–Support groups have sprung up for just about every shared personal problem. People who have the same illness take strength from and learn to cope thanks to their groups; immigrants set up hometown societies or landsmanshaftn.

–Occupy Wall Street coordinated mutual aid for the those who participated in the May 1 protest. People supplied food, medical and legal support, skill sharing and workshops, and hosted a Really, Really Free Market (mentioned in my last post) where people could bring clothes, books, toys, tools and whatever other things people who wanted to participate in a gift economy could bring. They set up a free university, as well.

–Rachel Leone, writing on mutual aid at Occupy, says,

You might not know it, but mutual aid is already part of your everyday life. Family members — both chosen and biological — take care of each other when one is sick, watch each other’s children and pets, and help with household projects. Friends share food and favorite books. Couch-surfers allow strangers to stay on their couches when they travel and then go off to adventure themselves, knowing that they will have a place to rest and a new friend at their next destination. Hitchhiking gets people to from state to state in exchange for stories and songs. Neighbors share recipes and tools. And let’s not forget that good consensual sex can be a form of mutual aid, too!

All these things are already happening. Mutual aid has never been easier. Mutual aid societies have gone international. They use online platforms like www.chipin.com. If more people choose not to depend on the state, the idea will spread.

Many people are predicting the collapse of the state, or of parts of it, such as unsustainable health care systems. Mutual aid may become necessary. The sooner we get started, the freer and more secure we can be.

Egypt’s elections and the end of Tahrir

May 24, 2012 Leave a comment

There is a lesson behind this picture. It is a disappointing tale but it must be told. This picture is from Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square in Cairo. The Egyptians who took down the Mubarak regime should be proud of themselves. Yes, they scored a victory for freedom. Yes, they did so by uniting. And most importantly, they showed the world that through uniting to face common problems, we can do anything.

However, the Egyptian Revolution took an unhappy turn. Since Mubarak resigned, what has happened? Hundreds have been killed and far more beaten, shot at and arrested for nothing. Who killed and attacked the people? Who did it before the Revolution? It is not the military. The military is one part of the state. Telling the military to move aside means asking a different set of rulers, still with different priorities from yours, to govern you. It is not one part of the state that represses. It is the state as a whole.

The state is not a humanitarian organisation. It is not a way for people to work together to get things done. And it does not represent the people. It is an institution that forces everyone to comply with the mandates of a few very powerful people who have their own interests at heart. If something needs to be done, why would you want these people to do it for you?

The state comprises far more people than a few elected “representatives”. It means the military, the heads of which will remain influential, rich and unaccountable, powerful businesspeople, police, bureaucrats and everyone who is connected to those in power. Those who have the power to initiate force, to use violence on others, will use it to protect their interests against those who want their freedom. That is true everywhere. Most Egyptians know the state has amassed power and wealth over the past 30 years but seem to think they have tamed it. But you cannot tame the state. You can only injure it temporarily.

Today is election day in Egypt. The electoral contest has divided Egyptians in every way that electoral politics always divides people: by opinion. People are attacked by others who insist that their party and their candidate is the right one to impose his will on 80m people. The greatest tragedy is that Egyptians have been so deeply indoctrinated by thousands of years of despotic rule that they believe the incoming president needs to be “a strong man”: a man who will force everyone to do everything he says. His subjects will have to hope he wants and knows how to get the best for everyone else. Well, it is possible. But it has not happened very often.

Egyptians threaten to protest again—a “second revolution”—if things do not go as they believe it should. But they are fooling themselves. The past 8 months or more have already shown that Egyptians, like everyone else, will be divided by those in power. Those who voted for whoever becomes president will stand by him, and will tell everyone else why they were right. It is simple psychology: if I voted for him, he must be good. I suggest Egyptians put aside their unhealthy craving for big government and consider life without it.

As I said elsewhere, freedom for Egyptians is still possible. Everything the government does you can do yourselves. It means taking responsibility for your community and working together, rather than hoping the state will come along to fix your problems. Here is one idea. Instead of relying on police for security, why not organise neighrbourhood groups that agree to protect each other? If you live in a reasonably wealthy community, you can pay people. When you pay people and can stop paying them if you want, you become their customers, and they do what you want or they lose your money. The government is not like that, because you have to pay. The police are not accountable to you but to their bosses, the politicians. If you do not have the money to pay for people to protect you, you probably need protection from the police more than any other groups. All that is required is some agreement, organisation and cooperation. Together you can solve your own problems in ways that the state will never do for you. That is what free people do.

I know you and your peers can think of other ideas. Remember the Revolution. Unite in the face of repression.

The environment

January 20, 2012 6 comments

Among fears of a stateless society is concern for the environment. If we get rid of government, what will happen to the environment? We need to be sure we are not fooling ourselves into thinking government is doing something positive about it at the moment. What is happening to it now, under the auspices of democratic governments, that protects the environment? Why would a change necessarily be worse?

This post looks at the government’s role in harming the environment. Then, it provides solutions to environmental problems in the absence of government, touching on resources, pollution, endangered animals and land. It concludes with an opinion (of someone much more exxperienced that me) on so-called green jobs and environmentalist entrepreneurship. It goes through each briefly because it is partly a summary of information on subjects that is available elsewhere.

Sure, a government could fix the environment. Enough force could “solve” almost any problem (except the initiation of force, which is the biggest problem). Throwing anyone who drives a car, burns coal or eats beef in jail would clean up our air pretty quickly, notwithstanding any hamburger terrorist movements that might arise. But is a society that trusts all its freedom to an omnipotent clique one worth inhabiting? At the moment, we live somewhere in between the totalitarian state and the free society, and the results are not good for the environment.

Do I blame the government for the poor state of the environment? Is the government the cause of all problems everywhere? Of course not. But it does not help much. Let us be specific.

We cannot farm hemp. A crop with all kinds of benefits, that farmers could be farming, we cannot farm. More plants means cleaner air. But because it can, the government does not allow us to grow natural fibers. In fact, the police and associated paramilitary (like the DEA) burn hemp and marijuana crops they find. They also poison coca plants and poppies in South America and Afghanistan. People still do drugs, of course, so the government is not protecting our health in that way. It is merely adding to the toxins in the air.

The US government contributes to pollution by subsidising coal. Coal! How dirty can you get? And why coal? Because of the coal lobby. As usual, a lobby and a government go hand in hand to take your money and use it to make the world worse off.

Then there are the effects of war. In 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered the US federal government to clean up 17 weapons plants that were leaking radioactive and toxic chemicals—an estimated $100b—and nothing happened. No bureaucrat got fired, no government department was disbanded, and nothing got cleaned up. Depleted uranium leads to birth defects and cancers and has been fired all over Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan. The destruction of ecosystems, War on Drugs defoliation schemes, the effects of nuclear weapons testing, the increased cancer rates–all are products of an institution that wages a never-ending war on non-existent enemies and cannot be trusted to care for something as important as the planet.

It is important to remain skeptical that the government (aside, perhaps, from the toothless EPA) ever actually tries to protect nature. Thomas Sowell, in his book The Housing Boom and Bust, details how land use restrictions, often a bone thrown to environmental groups (even though more than 90% of the land in the US is not developed), did little more than inflate the housing bubble of the past decade. Other policies appear, on the surface, to protect the environment, but in fact have left it wide open to abuse. Aside from direct results of government malfeasance, indirect results need to be taken into account when considering whether to retain or reject government.

The main reason we have polluted air and water is what is called the tragedy of the commons. When something is commonly owned (in other words, unowned), no one has enough incentive to preserve it. If I do not use it for my own benefit, someone else will, so I might as well extract what benefits I can as fast as I can. But since everyone thinks that way, everyone might do so and might exhaust the resource. At the moment, much of the environment is the commons. Governments have done nothing to stop climate change and the pollution of the oceans, and little to prevent air pollution without businesses having voluntarily adopted measures. Likewise, no one owns most wild animals, and as a result, people can hunt them (with no regard to endangered animal laws) wherever they want for little cost. A government that does not allow private ownership of the air, water and fauna has allowed those things to remain common. So what is the anarcho-capitalist solution? Privatise them.

Economist Walter Block has done significant work on the privatisation of the commons. Privatisation has traditionally meant selling partial or whole stakes in government-run enterprises on the stock market. It has never meant a reduction of the government’s power over a section of society, but simply a transfer of the wealth generated by formerly state assets. I do not advocate this kind of rearrangement of power under the guise of freeing the market. Rather, this post is about why a stateless society could protect the environment far better than the government.

The private sector (not only business but free people) thinks more long term than politicians. A politician’s incentive is to survive until the next election. Voters cannot force otherwise. Most businesses try to survive to bring in revenue indefinitely. And it is well documented that businesses that think long term benefit their shareholders long term; and businesses that focus only on the short term crash and burn. Of course, they might get bailed out by the government; I guess that is the corruption democrats always work in vain to eliminate. Let us look at the economics of privately-run resources.

Wheat exists because there is demand for it. The government does not need to supply wheat or ensure a certain quantity of bread is being made. If we all decided to stop eating wheat, we would stop growing it and it would disappear. The same is true for fish, trees and whatever else. (See more here.) Maybe we should start eating tigers. (More on endangered animals later.)

A rise in prices means that more exploration will take place, and supply might even go up. That is what has been happening since the 1968 book “The Population Bomb” and the 1972 book “Limits to Growth”. Another possibility, some might say inevitability, is that alternatives to expensive materials will be found, hence the current push for research into alternatives to oil. And the research does not need to be subisidised because the potential for profit is huge. Just imagine if you discovered or produced a viable substitute for oil or copper or iron. You would get investors lining up around the block and become a millionaire. So what does the state need to protect?

An owner of a copper mine needs to balance expectations of future prices with concerns about current ones. If he completely strips an area of copper, the supply will be higher in the present, which implies lower prices, and he will have nothing for the future, when prices might be higher. Likewise, the owner of an acre of forest who wants to profit from that forest might strip it bare for now but will probably only cut down some of the trees, then reseed, to ensure the land’s viability as a source of revenue for the future. That is long-term thinking, and that is leadership. Leadership that only thinks four or fewer years in advance is not leadership.

In fact, when it protects resources against “greedy capitalist exploitation”, government does not actually destroy the market for those resources; it does one of two things. If there are already producers of a resource, prices go up and their profits go up. Then, they become an interest group with a stake in the status quo. If no one is producing the resource, but there is still demand for, government protection still drives the price up and drives the production underground. Hence the lucrative trade in endangered animals, for instance. Governments have done nothing to protect the elephant. How could they? Could they get police to follow elephants around the bush all the time to make sure no one hunts them? Some have called for worldwide bans on ivory. But a worldwide ban on drugs has not done much to the drug trade—quite the contrary. Drugs and ivory are still both big business. A government solution is not a solution. It’s just violence.

Am I saying we should not protect endangered animals? Not at all. Let’s protect them through private ownership. NGOs, communities or even individuals could own and protect land. Of course, we could force everyone to pay for it through government action; though sometimes even then governments sell off land to businesses. If you really want to protect it, buy it. It’s yours. You can preserve it however you like. Banning the elephant trade depleted their numbers; privatising the elephant helped them flourish. The main reason we are running out of things that people want, like seals, is that their hunting takes place in the commons. Everyone can do it (well, they need a license, but that doesn’t have to stop anyone), and so overhunting is likely. But if people own the land or sea where the hunting is taking place, they will breed the animals more conservatively, for the long term, because they can make money off it.

Let us make barnyards out of oceans. Farms protect animals—when was the last time anyone said we had to save endangered cows? So let us own sections of ocean and the whales within them. It is possible that the new owner would kill all the whales in his part of the ocean and sell them, but there is nothing to­­ stop anyone doing that right now. Well, except Greenpeace. Let Greenpeace buy up the ocean too. Because of the different incentives at play, it is illogical to think that private owners would not protect the environment and the government would. Take these things out of the commons, let someone own them and they might flourish like the elephant.

Is privatising the environment purely theoretical? A publicly-traded company named Earth Sanctuaries, Ltd. saved several species from extinction and brought many back to their pre-colonial levels by owning about 90,000 hectares of land in Australia. Unfortunately, this company went bankrupt. Nonetheless, it did its job while it existed. Like other failed ventures, it provides a model for what not to do. One failure does not mean it could never work: it means another try might get it right. (Find more examples of free-market conservationism here.) Same goes for such practices as fish farming. Privatising oyster beds has brought oysters back from the brink of extinction. Fish farming is a potential solution to both the extinction of fish stocks and the satisfaction of our cravings for fish. Some fish farming is unsustainable, but again, if we keep trying, we can get it right. We’re a smart bunch that way.

Privatisation of land and waste disposal would likely reflect the true costs of dumping garbage. Let’s say you want to dump your plastic bags somewhere. If they are very bad for the soil, the people on whose land you dump them will expect you to pay a proportionally high price for dumping them, because that land would not be useful for a long time to come. The waste disposal companies would pass those costs onto the people who use and buy plastic bags, who would thus consume fewer in favour of less environmentally-damaging alternatives such as paper. (Walter Block on the subject here.) Another free-market solution to an environmental problem.

Air pollution is the kind of challenging question that some economists love to search for solutions to. Milton Friedman finds that there are usually free-market solutions that do not require government intervention, and pollution is one. Murray Rothbard provides an elaborate theory on the subject, based on private law. Stefan Molyneux has some practical ideas; and if you do not like them, as he says, “no problem – in the free market, there are as many solutions as there are interested parties!”

Oil spills often upset indigenous people because oil companies do not care about those people. The oil companies move in, protected by the government, and anything they leave, they do not bother to clean up. Property rights—nothing more than people protecting the land they live on—would enable the people of those areas to decide if they want the companies to enter or not, and hold them to account for everything they do. They would have contracts, regulated by dispute-resolution organisations. And the people would no longer be called terrorists for wanting to protect their holy land.

One way to deal with such corporations is the boycott. More and more corporations, either in reaction to consumer pressure or proactively, are pursuing green strategies. And before you say “that’s just greenwashing”, bear in mind that if you can recognise a company that is harming the environment, you can recognise when its actions are only superficial. Companies know you know, and that’s why so many are going beyond the superficial to real attempts to make their businesses sustainable. (Learn more here.) Unfortunately, consumer boycotts work far less well on corporations that produce for the government, because the chance of their being punished by their customers is almost zero.

The entrepreneurs who developed most of the “green technologies” we have today were not funded or directed by governments. Julian Morris gives the examples of the transistor, which enabled the mass production of high-tech electronics; the integrated circuit, which enabled mass production of personal computers, and the automation of all kinds of things; the fiber optic cable, which revolutionised high speed telecommunications and enabled the internet. “Why do I give these three examples?” he asks. “These are green technologies. They weren’t developed as green technologies, though. And this is important. No government official started a programme in the 1920s saying, ‘We’ve gotta develop some green technologies, let’s invest in green jobs. I’m going to invest in the transistor, the integrated circuit and low-loss fiber optic cable.’ This is not how innovation takes place.”

Innovation relies on local, independent knowledge, specific understanding of the gizmo. The innovators did not know when they started what problem they would end up solving. Through innovations, products have become more efficient, which might mean smaller, using fewer resources to make and dispose of; consuming less energy for greater output; or simply costing less, which aids wealth creation. Morris also points out that cars are lighter, cheaper, safer and pollute less than they did 20 years ago; pop cans have much less than half the metal they had in the 1970s thanks to aiming to reduce costs and raise profits. And when you raise profits, you raise productivity, making innovation possible, growing the economy and reducing poverty. When the economy grows, we have more wealth to spend to reduce environmental damage further. Some venture capitalists  and angel investors are always on the prowl for new green technologies, and if you can show you can make them money, you can get funding.

The state’s record of environmental stewardship is not encouraging. The free market, on the other hand, the truly fair and accountable system, has potential for sustainability that the world under centralised authority does not.

Education

December 19, 2011 4 comments

“I’ve never let schooling interfere with my education.” – Mark Twain

“The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all. It is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardised citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.” – H. L. Mencken

“Education is a weapon, whose effect depends on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.” – Joseph Stalin

 One more: “We don’t need no education/we don’t need no thought control.” – Roger Waters

Well, we do need a lot of education, but we could do without the thought control. Instead, we are getting the latter while hoping for the former.

Public education systems everywhere in the world do a poor job of educating us. We are entering the 21st century, a time that proves to be full of unforseen risks, challenges and opportunities. We are getting schooled with a curriculum for the 20th century in a system created for the 19th century. A good education can bring out one’s true potential, but we are being held back by a lack of accountability to students and parents.

I was once asked, how would you organise education or health care without a government? I find it unfortunate that people think that I or a few people, whoever they are, are qualified to answer that question. A free market achieves the best outcomes precisely because there is not someone at the top organising and directing it, and everyone’s ideas can be put to the test. A free market for education would mean families and communities and schools working together to decide what is right for their children, learning from different schools and teachers what works and what does not, and letting education evolve with society. State education does not offer that freedom. Parents and teachers do not have those choices.

I also find it hard to understand why people believe others to be so disorganised or uncaring that they would not want to take a more active role in what government does. At the moment, they have no role. All they can do is vote for the politician who promises the kind of thing that they want. What if their politician does not win? What if he or she has some policies the person likes but some others that are bad? What if he or she does not implement any of the policies promised on the campaign trail? What if he or she tries to implement the policies but they get stymied by pressure groups or watered down by the bureaucracy? What is the voter’s recourse? And yet, we are talking about education, health care, security and where millions of dollars of a family’s money is going over the course of their lives. Do you really not think they want to be or should be involved?

The ironic tragedy of modern schooling is that the state does such a poor job of educating people that the people believe they need the state to educate them. And education is not getting any better. Accepting the New York Teacher of the Year Award in 1990, John Taylor Gatto said

The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators, but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions.

He might as well have been talking about 99% of schools around the world. Totalitarian regimes knew that education was the key to teaching obedience, nationalism and state ideology. Today’s democracies may not teach children to run a cultural revolution, but they are not helping the children become wise, critical-thinking masters of themselves. When governments get their hands on education policy, it becomes a tool for indoctrinating obedience. And even in sciences or physical education, government schools are failing your children. In fact, things were better off before them. Now that we have the wealth and knowledge of the 21st century (including advances in teaching methods), many, many schools can help students understand the world around them and learn the skills for navigating that world. So why do we not have them yet? Like all problems the state causes, the root is a moral one. The initiation of force is the reason Johnny can’t read.

Everything the state does is subject to politics—force, as opposed to markets. Harry Browne explains. “Whenever you turn over to the government a financial, social, medical, military, or commercial matter, it’s automatically transformed into a political issue  to be decided by those with the most political influence. And that will never be you or I. Politicians don’t weigh their votes on the basis of ideology or social good. They think in terms of political power.” (Politics in this sense has little to with elections. Election campaigns rarely hinge on issues related to education and the election goes to the one who best exploits the far more important issues of gay marriage, gays in the military and gay terrorism.) Education policy is subject to all the same lobbying as other policies. Public sector unions and business associations spend millions to induce policymakers to shape education policy the way they think it should be. These are the people who have convinced everyone that we always need more money for schools. Schools that spend more do not necessarily teach better and more important things. Schools that spend less sometimes do better by the students. And why not? Any economist or private-sector manager could tell you that competition among firms and employees generally increases everyone’s performance and improves efficiency. Why would the education sector be different? In fact, it is not. The lack of incentive in highly-regulated public and private schools to do better makes improvement almost impossible. Of course, we could ask parents and even students what they think is right, but they do not have a lobby.

Good teachers have nothing to fear from a free market in education services. They may well get paid better. It is the poor teachers, the ones paid more than they are worth, and who cannot get fired, who benefit from the status quo. At present, there is no correlation between teacher performance and teacher pay. That means the good teachers are being treated the same as the bad, there is little incentive to be a great teacher (beyond the spiritual rewards) and teachers’ unions have an incentive to fight against merit-based pay. There is no market mechanism to offer consumers (in this case, students and parents) the choice to find new and better suppliers.

Teachers’ lobbies are also vehemently opposed to closing schools. But businesses close when they do not serve their customers (or cannot afford to comply with the tens of thousands of pages of government regulations). Let schools close when they do not serve their students. Let the students go to other schools that are actually performing. Or let neighbourhoods and communities start their own learning centres and teach their own children what they think is right. Let them have full control over hiring and firing of teachers. Or do you think some bureaucrat knows and will do what is best for your children?

Then there is the university. One argument often made in favour of subsidising higher education is that education has positive knock-on effects. If you are better educated, you will contribute more to society. Well, maybe. Engineers usually contribute more to society, which is why I would consider giving money to scholarship funds for engineers. (That said, I would like to have a contract stipulating that I get that money back if they end up working for a weapons manufacturer.) But how does society benefit from having someone with tens of thousands of dollars of education in gender studies or acting class? What if I feel that a particular business programme merely reproduces the elite and does not benefit society? Shouldn’t I be allowed to withhold my funding of that programme? But if there is demand for it, the classes will exist.

What happens when we subsidise something? Consumption of it goes up. Subsidise corn, and we find high-fructose corn syrup in many of the foods we eat. It means more corn fed to animals, making animals cheaper, making meat cheaper, when we should be eating more vegetables (not just corn). Subsidise universities and guarantee student loans, and more people will attend university. But not everyone needs to go to university. The more people have a degree, the lower the value of a degree becomes. Just ask thousands of Occupiers if their degrees and average $25,250 of student loan debts have helped them find meaningful careers. The unemployment rate for college graduates is higher than it has been since 1992, when records date back to. The alternative is to return people the millions they have paid in taxes to subsidise education and let them decide what to do with it.

“How will we educate the poor?” Are we educating them so well now? Are schools in poor neighbourhoods just as good as schools in rich neighbourhoods? But even in poor places, for-profit schools have educated people. (See here and here for examples.) The same people who worry about the poor tend to think we cannot afford schools that are not run by government. But as I do not tire of pointing out, if governments did not take your money and give it to schools (and keep some for their retirement funds, and give some to their friends), we would have that much more to spend on education. There is nothing efficient about the tax-and-spend system under which we live, so any claim that government does efficiently what the private sector can do is nonsense.

It also brings up the question of why people are poor to begin with. Sticking people in bad schools and taxing them for it will not help. Poverty is not inevitable. If schools taught financial literacy, we would almost certainly have less poverty. At present the poor, who are taxed on income, consumption and savings, just like everyone else, are paying for everyone’s education (and roads). If they would prefer to become an apprentice or go to a private school; in other words, if they do not want a university education, well, they still have to pay for one. Should they not be allowed to keep their money if they do not want to get a degree? No, says the socialised-education statist, they should not. I would wager that all the money even poor people pay in income taxes, sales taxes and central bank-induced inflation would easily pay for an education for their children. And what do they think they should learn? Should they be charged to learn Latin, algebra and European history? What if they would rather learn metal shop and mechanics? They can make a better living that way than in a career as, well, whatever one does with Latin, algebra and European history.

The state’s takeover of education was, like all state ventures, clothed in language of the public good. State education would improve access and improve quality of education. It hasn’t. And yet, the unions say they need more money. What do schools need more public money for? Where would it go? Is all we need more computers in the classroom? Do teachers need more money? Why can we not let the market decide? Surely, if parents like their kids’ teachers enough to want to keep them, they will pay them well; if they think their kids are not learning, let the parents stop paying for them. Or do I not understand education?

Competition works in education, just like it works in every other market. This is not some libertarian hypothesis; it is well-documented fact. End the monopoly and give the consumers (the parents and students) the power, and quality of education rises.

What do parents think should be taught in schools? Wait, never mind: they are not consulted. It does not matter what parents think. Government mandarins will decide what should be taught. Shouldn’t we teach students their legal rights, how to manage their money, the scientific method, how to think critically, how to start a business, how to defend themselves and maybe even how to be happy? Teachers exist for all those subjects. But the political will does not. The initiation of force, with its pressure group-written laws, fails us all.