Selling the Unknown

Scarmig's insightful article, 'The Hardest Sell' puts forth the compelling idea that a non-coercive society is not going to offer any more of the goodies than we presently have, but to frame these in an ethical context of non-coercion. He contends that selling the idea of a non-coercive society is less a matter of sweeping improvements in the quality of life, than in the rightness of the ideal of non-coercion. In regard to basic security issues, changing from coercive to private providers isn't a good selling point, he says, because, 'Removing coercion from the equation doesn't change the final result.'

His thesis is a moral one: 'One of the great cornerstones of liberty is that the ends do not justify the means. It may be easier to make a thousand dollars by sticking a gun in someone's face, but that doesn't make it right.'

I am appalled somewhat by his conclusion that this is all we have to sell.

I agree that the moral point is the strong and central argument for a non-coercive society. But I disagree that the consequences of this social premise would have little effect on the way we live. I don't mean the mechanics of how things are done, but the quality of our lives in consequence. Easier? No. Better? Perhaps. More vibrant? Definitely.

There is a cultural mindset that sees what we have now as valuable stuff--security, protection, transportation, communications, business operations, currency transactions, and most of it intermingled with various levels of technology. However, I postulate that in a non-coercive society, those values would change substantially over time. Such changes already occur in the space of a generation in consequence of new technologies, and a non-coercive society is a type of new technology that would impact our lives and our values in ways we can hardly imagine.

I think the point of Scarmig's thesis is that in the present time, with our current set of fairly static values (the status quo), things would stay very much the same, although many of the routes we take to achieve them would vary (requiring more responsibility and personal effort).

But a non-coercive society is, by definition, less static than an enforced one. There will remain market realities and social mores, both of which impinge upon our access to certain luxuries and behaviors. But the valuation of such luxuries and behaviors is likely to change, as well, as a kind of voluntary 'market' response.

Interestingly, I had come to a similar conclusion as Scarmig a while back, before reading his article. My own conclusion was based on a consideration of doing certain things in a conventional manner, and realizing that, in a non-coercive society, those pursuits would be no easier, and in many cases more difficult and convoluted. This was premised on a non-coercive society that had the same basic values as we have today. (And, therefore, that I was trying to achieve the same kinds of things that I now want to achieve . . . oddly, fairly conventional things.)

The mechanics of freedom would not make anything easier or more pleasant in the context of our present value system. But what is likely to change, most specifically, is our perception of those commonly held values and goals--the idea of conventionality itself.

To take a more mechanical example, in a non-coercive society is it quite likely that our fuel reserves would dry up without the coercive military cornering of far-flung resources. At first prices would skyrocket, making automobiles extraordinary luxuries. It is true that, in time, other fuels would probably come on the market . . . but not before we had been brought to a mobile standstill. Horses may then become popular again, for a time; bicycles also may become popular. These and other 'solutions' would be revived, for an interim period, followed by new engine designs and fuels that would take a few years to develop, market and make affordable to a broad number of people.

Roads, meanwhile, would have been privatized, but most of them would probably become unused and fall into disrepair. Yet, before the owners redevelop them, potential customers would also be pondering alternatives as shorter routes to accomplish the same goals. Perhaps a commuter train or monorail would make more sense in a given area than a freeway, moreover it would provide an immediate return, whereas a freeway would initially get little traffic (and require a high investment to rebuild). Perhaps air gliders or hydrofoils (floating on a cushion of air) would be viable in other areas, or some other antigravity air transportation. Or beaming people and goods from one place to another may make the other forms of transportation redundant, depending on the development of that technology.

The point is that, under a non-coercive society, there is no 'society' to direct the investment of energy into a particular technology, nor to prevent the introduction of new technology. There would not be dominant, standardized technology where, say, everyone drives cars, or everyone rides bicycles, or everyone takes the train. Not only would there be different companies competing for business, there would be different technologies, and none of these would be directed or enforced--or protected--'from above.'

New technologies and entrepreneurial schemes would have a hard-sell over the personally reliable methods of bicycles or horses. Moreover, nothing would be uniform over the population of a vast country. Certain solutions would predominate in given areas for different reasons. Flat areas without much wind may have lots of bicyclists and floatation gliders. Hilly, windy areas might show preference for train routes and horses. Motorcycles would probably precede a reintroduction of automobiles.

If you consider in just this one area--transportation--that the dominant car culture of the present is likely to become a thing of the past in a non-coercive society, you can see that other things would likely change as well. Certainly, in the movement of goods, private postal services would offer a great variety (at various prices and levels of reliability), and some companies may specialize in one type of delivery over another (as is already done with special courier companies).

In a non-coercive society, there would be no overall, standardized way of doing anything. It would be more complicated, overall. Things would not run 'like a well oiled machine' because human beings are not machines. With no imposition of force to 'keep people in line,' there would be less feeling of being cogs in a machine, and less sense of standardization. People would face more choices and have to make more decisions. You would not be able to sleep-walk through an automated world, but would have to keep on your toes. Moreover, you would need to be awake, aware and alive, rather than somnambulant, drugged and zombified. You would be able to rely less on convention, and would have to rely more on personal judgment.

The 'fruits' of the market that Scarmig refers to seem to have little relevance in a non-coercive society, because we would not be faced with the same kind of standardized system in any regard, not even in regard to the kinds, types and structures of businesses, nor the forms of exchange or the kinds of currency repositories (Would they still be banks? Yes, I think, some of them, anyway--but who knows what the rest might be called). Or dozens of other things that, on first blush, would not seem to make anything easier, simpler, or faster.

The main problem with this new fruit bowl is that virtually everything would be much, much more difficult compared to the ease of operating on auto-pilot in a coercively standardized environment. Not 'difficult' in the sense of hardship (well, I don't think), but in the sense of demanding of each person a higher level of personal responsibility and the use of mental processes that we seldom employ in a more static, standardized, automated, and coercive society.

We would be kept on our toes. We would more often have to stand on our own feet. We would more likely have to set our own pace. And in exchange for this imposition (by reality, not society or government) of self-regulated activity, we would probably not have anywhere near the same value system that is now considered 'conventional'; indeed, our values would more likely be personally chosen and uniquely eccentric.

The idea that 'standards would arise' in the marketplace refers to two different kinds of 'standards.' One is commonly-held, sensible ways of doing things that provide maximum return for minimum investment of energy, but which will still be non-static, as new routes are invented by individuals and freely communicated and employed. The other market standardization refers to fashions or popularity of various products, tools, methods and behavior. These will come and go, quite possibly seasonally (as they did 50 years ago, and still do in many Third World countries).

The thing is, nobody would be forced to 'get with a conventional program.' With private property and private towns or cities, the owners would tend to set standards for visitors or tenants, but these standards would vary from place to place. Abruptly so. Some would be run as 'well-oiled' little kingdoms, others would be free-for-alls, depending on the standards of the owners and, in the cases of businesses, of the customers (some customers might prefer eclectic, anything-goes environments, others may prefer well defined limits with no surprises).

The increase of robust well-being in consequence of increased self-responsibility, self-direction, and self-regulation is quite possibly an even harder selling point than the moral premise that coercion is wrong because the ends do not justify the means.

One of my personal themes in selling liberty is that it is very easy to 'take it' upon yourself, in a fairly direct manner, but re-assuming that personal responsibility is not particularly easy for most of us who are out-of-practice in exercising personal responsibility--and even less so for many who have gone through the government brainwashing centers and been actively discouraged from exercising personal responsibility from day one.

However, to contend, as Scarmig does, that very little will change in regard to the material benefits of liberty over the material benefits of statism, seems to miss the bigger picture. I suspect that a great deal would change--our values, our vitality and our ethics.

The other side of the equation that the ends do not justify the means, is that the means determine the ends. If you want good results, you start with a good premise. Scarmig contends that we already have good results, even starting from a bad premise. I disagree. I think our values are abominable, our material goals ludicrous, our vitality nearly extinguished, and our ethics in the toilet. And that's on a good day!

The point is, starting from the coercive premise, these are our present values. Means determine ends. If you want good results, you start with a good premise--a moral premise. I think, from our present situation, we can scarcely even imagine the results of starting from a good premise . . . how would we be able to do that? In the above transportation example, all I was able to postulate was that things would likely be much different. I could barely begin to imagine how or how much.

And that is the main problem with selling liberty. I think you could sell the results very easily if you knew what they would be. But liberty isn't a controlled outcome. You can't predict it from where we are presently sitting.

Saying that it would be 'a lot better' is not very convincing when people already have an easy life and see only greater difficulties in the transition (especially the difficulty of assuming personal responsibility). But 'a lot better' is truly the best that we are able to come up with, because liberty affords no standardized utopian visions. And selling the 'unknown' is truly the hardest sell of all.

I think that selling the moral point, which I regard as one of the strongest points of liberty, may be the easier route. I do agree with Scarmig that it's still not an easy sell in the present era. It's just easier than selling the unknown.

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Richard Rieben's picture
Columns on STR: 14

Richard Rieben was a world traveler, house remodeler, and sometime author and philosopher. The thesis of his manifesto, Reciprocia, is, briefly: “Sovereignty is the base; reciprocity defines how to make it work.” Aside from harping incessantly on the theme of liberty, he led a fairly normal life in middle America, where he scouted for silver-linings. His internet articles are featured at  He passed away sometime after 2005.