Column by Michael Kleen.
Exclusive to STR
The problem of being both opposed to the modern state and being forced to live within the context of it is a vexing one, and one that has plagued libertarians, anarchists, and other like-minded individuals for quite some time. As previously mentioned in “A Pragmatic Approach to Anti-Statism ,” there are two possible responses to this problem—one based on ideology and one based on pragmatism. Both are troubling in certain ways, although the ideological response leaves the individual with fewer options. While there are two possible responses to this problem, however, there is, in fact, no solution to this problem while the state remains in existence. Previous attempts to solve this problem have fallen short because they failed to fully recognize this reality, but it is a reality that, in itself, can become one of our most effective arguments against the modern state.
In his 1987 article “Libertarians in a State-Run World ,” Murray Rothbard asked the question, “How can we act, and act morally, in a State-controlled and dominated world?” In answering this question, Rothbard emphasized the need to avoid two “traps”: ultrapurist sectarianism and sellout opportunism. In the former, a libertarian would go to extremes to avoid anything state-related, including walking on public sidewalks. In the latter, a libertarian could absurdly work as a concentration camp guard while still claiming to be a “libertarian” in principle. Rothbard’s answer to his question was that it is acceptable for libertarians to live within the state as long as they do not add to the state or participate in state activities that are explicitly immoral and criminal.
However, this is a little like saying that you oppose open heart surgery, but will get open heart surgery anyway because, hey, at least you’re not the surgeon.
In defending this position, Rothbard pointed out, “If one’s vocation is university teaching, it is almost impossible to find a university that is not owned, economically if not legally, by the government . . . . In such a situation, it is foolish and sectarian to condemn teachers for being located in a government university.” It may be foolish and sectarian to condemn them, but that does not make their presence at those institutions any less problematic. Personally, I have benefitted from state-run schools for most of my life. Most of my university education was paid for by Federally subsidized student loans, yet I am adamantly opposed to state-funded and state-controlled education. Does that make me a hypocrite? You bet it does.
In his effort to morally absolve libertarians of leeching off a system they did not create and which they have virtually no control over, Rothbard missed a more important point: The answer to his question of how we can act morally in a State-controlled and dominated world is, actually, “We can’t.” By diffusing accountability among everyone living within the state, the state makes everyone both a victim of and an involuntary partner in its crimes. For instance, if you believe taxation is theft, the state makes you an accessory to theft every time you go to the store because tax dollars are used to subsidize the products you buy. You are an accessory to theft whenever you use a public road in order to drive to that store. In order to pay for those public goods, you are charged a sales tax, your employer deducts tax from your income, and in April, you are given a choice between filing your income tax forms and going to prison . Most people choose not to risk going to prison, thus they become a victim as well as the perpetrator.
“There is nothing wrong, and everything rational, then, about accepting the matrix in one’s daily life,” Rothbard concluded. “What’s wrong is working to aggravate, to add to, the statist matrix.” What he should have said is that “accepting the matrix in one’s daily life” is a necessary evil; one that allows us to work and agitate as best we can in behalf of liberty without wandering into his twin traps of “ultrapurist sectarianism” or “sellout opportunism.” The fact that the state makes hypocrites of us all in the process should disgust any advocate of liberty.
Like the argument that slavery morally debased everyone who came into contact with it in the antebellum South, the demoralizing tendency of the modern state is an argument that should be added to our arsenal. The fact that, even while trying to mind your own business, the state forces (through taxation or denying private employment opportunities) your complicity in its actions, should effectively demonstrate its totalitarian tendency. With all due respect to Mr. Rothbard, it is impossible to live within the matrix of the state and not add to that matrix. That is what makes the modern state so particularly insidious.