Column by Jim Davies.
Exclusive to STR
Many reading this already understand the Self-ownership Axiom; that we each own our own lives by right, and hence that all government is an unnatural and ruinous appendage. Among those who do, though, surprisingly there is disagreement over what to do about it.
Some hold that resistance by such voluntaryists in the present government-saturated environment must never be more than nonviolent non-cooperation, practicing our principle of non-agression while giving the State no assistance than can be avoided--but otherwise taking no particular action to end its malignant existence. Even among the ”comments” beneath articles, it's not unusual to see posts like ”I have no responsibility to reform society.” And the fact is, those commenters are not incorrect; we don't. Each has only the responsibility to maximize the happiness of his own life--and that responsibility is only to oneself, not to anybody else.
So that hands-off view stems not so much from a perception that that task is not possible – whether expressed in terms of persuading other people against their will, or in those of taking political power from people who have no wish to let it go – but from the view that in any case it ought not to be attempted, for the true voluntaryist is responsible for nobody's conduct except his or her own. There's a confused supposition that pro-active intervention would be inconsistent with the Non-agression Principle even if it could work.
When they read such views even on this website, I reckon statists rub their hands in glee, pop the champagne in celebration, and raise a solemn toast to ”suckers.” They reasonably conclude that they have the ongoing sanction of their victims, even anarchist ones.
The other view, which I hold, is that on the contrary, if government is an obscene, inhuman and ruinous appendage to society, it needs to be ended, and only anarchists are likely to do that, so it's up to us to get to work. I note the name of this website is ”Strike The Root” and suppose that since the root of evil is government, striking it does not mean sitting still and waiting for its agents to strike me. At the very least, if someone chooses not to try, he has no business complaining about what the State may do, to him or anyone else.
So is there a way to reconcile these apparent opposites? How in particular can I justify ”getting to work” as if there were some altruistic ”duty” to the rest of mankind?
Yes there is a way--yet no, there's no such altruistic duty.
A rational system of ethics demands that each person does whatever will best enhance and preserve his own life, for that is his only possession. By the Self-ownership Axiom, he has both the right and (because nobody else has any duty to help him) the obligation to defend himself – though the obligation is to himself alone. There is no valid external authority to decree what is right and wrong. Good is what enhances one's wellbeing (in the long term, obviously) and bad is what damages it. We make choices according to what we judge will make us most happy for the longest time.
That pursuit of happiness runs up against the apparatus of government. You and I gain self-respect and pleasure from making our own choices; government's only function is to prevent us making our own choices, instead to make them for us. Individual sovereignty is incompatible with government and the primary purpose of anyone's life is repeatedly and violently frustrated and denied by government, on a daily basis.
Therefore, in order to fulfill one's rational, self-interested duty to oneself, self-owners must remove those restrictions, and hence do whatever is feasible to abolish the State. That is how the two opposite views above are reconciled. It's a matter of self-defense.
This is, or should be, rather obvious. Someone puts you in shackles, you're not free. Remedy: get the shackles removed. Someone steals half the money you earn, you're not free but 50% enslaved. Remedy: recover the theft, end the slavery. Someone prevents you traveling without interference, you're not free. Remedy: remove his preventive power.
Obvious though it is to me, some appear to have badly misunderstood Harry Browne's excellent book How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World to mean that he believed an “unfree world” is a permanent fixture, and that libertarians need not, cannot and should not do anything about it. On the contrary, it's about just what its title says: living as free as possible for as long as the world remains governed. His views about changing that (to free up the world) can be read in his later book, Why Government Doesn't Work – and deduced from his eight-year double run for US President, for which that book was the platform declaration. I now think he was mistaken to try to free America using politics, but he gave the attempt his utmost effort, and had he succeeded, this question would now be moot. The notion that changing society should not even be attempted is both ludicrous and (because it fails to try to maximize our own happiness) ethically wrong.
That conclusion is underscored by John Pugsley's famous (1995?) open letter to Browne that begged him not to run. It's a passionate reminder that political action is counterproductive and immoral. It contains, however, not a syllable to discourage other actions designed to bring down government, and lists 15 possible ones having that express purpose, though not, as it happens, one like the TOLFA team prepared a decade later. Further, in my opinion, the 15 fell far short of what was needed, as I hope to show in a future STRticle--but to misinterpret his letter to mean that government should just be suffered indefinitely is to dishonor Mr. Pugsley's memory. It's a brilliant polemic not against trying to abolish the state, but just against politics as an alleged way of doing it.
It's also underscored by the example of slavery. Imagine you're a slave, but have figured out that by right, you own yourself – you've understood the Self-ownership Axiom. This realization on its own will bring a large degree of happiness, for instead of supposing yourself permanently downtrodden as some inferior class of human, you'll know that the bad situation you're in is not your natural state. You'll feel better, and hold your head high. You'll have “found freedom in a (very) unfree world.” But the next thing you'll do is to look for a way to escape slavery, to make the self-ownership real.
That was very far from easy, as we know, and the Southern slaves were unable to free themselves. I can see a way in which they might have done, but in the event Lincoln succeeded in (to use Hummel's words) “emancipating slaves, enslaving free men.” We, in our different kind of slavery, must do the job unaided. The process is under way, and the duty – to ourselves alone, to maximize our enjoyment of life--is being fulfilled. Any here who are failing in that duty to themselves are invited to participate and correct the error.