Monday, July 05, 2004

Bullets and Ballots
by F.A. Harper, with a commentary by Ken Gregg

At the risk of an analogy that may be a bit startling, a comparison may be drawn between bullets and ballots. A bullet is fired at the enemy, presumably, in any war. A ballot, likewise, is really fired at a civil enemy even though it seems to be bestowed upon a friend; you may think that the process is one of voting for a friend, but its essential characteristic is that you are voting against an enemy.
Perhaps the clearest way to see this is to think of a vote on a specific act of governing. Let us say that there is only one “A-2” person, and the issue up for vote is the proposal to hang him. If the outcome of the vote is to involve any governing, it will be to hang him; if the vote is negative, it means no government for the point at issue. So the voting process, if it results in governing, means a vote against “A-2” by those empowered to decide. Or suppose the vote is to elect a man to some office, who will in turn decide whether or not to hang “A-2”; though you vote for one candidate, if any governing is to be the result, it is a vote against “A-2” by way of voting for your friend who is then to hang him. So we may conclude that no amount of indirection in voting and in electing persons to carry out the acts of government can change the fact that in voting one votes against some enemy. And in this sense, ballots are like bullets. To observe this is not to resolve the question of when and where to use either bullets or ballots.
The dream of every politician is to have unanimous support. But the fact of unanimity itself precludes anyone being governed. In the instance cited above, unanimity would necessitate “A-2” agreeing that he should be hanged, in which event he would hang himself and nobody would be governing anybody.
The dream of unanimity is shattered by the scope of the decrees that encompass government, and by the giving of equal votes to all—to the unconcerned and the uninformed as well as to the concerned and the informed. Where else in society do we follow with approval such a design in managing our concerns? Where else do we accept as a principle an equal power in the decision but unequal responsibility in its decisions? The one thing it precludes is any unanimity, as applies to the processes of the free market. Can you imagine, for instance, arriving at any one proper price for bread, with unanimity? Yet the free market arrives at unanimity as to the prices for bread, by giving free choice coupled with unequal power to vote corresponding to unequal concern and responsibility. (pp. 411-412, “On Generating Civil Strife” in The Writings of F.A. Harper, Vol. 2: Shorter Essays (Menlo Park: Institute for Humane Studies, reprinted from Il Politico (Milan: University of Pavia, 1962) in Italian), pp. 403-415)
One major way, therefore, to reduce strife and conflict in human society would be to return as much as possible of human activity to the unanimity techniques of the free market, instead of trying to carry out civil war decrees under guise of a unanimity that does not exist for the governmental means… (p. 414, op.cit.)
[A point of clarification: “A-2” is a person with at least one different characteristic from another (“A-1”)]

Social libertarianism, or free market anarchism, emphasizes both choice and responsibility in human action, as this classic essay from 1962 by the great pioneer and educator of the “total alternative,” F.A. “Baldy” Harper points out. One of the crucial distinctions between social libertarianism and other schools of thought has been an awareness of the power relationship between the governed and the members of the state, and this has been pointed out numerous times by a wide range of writers. Participating in activities such as voting is ineffective and wrong, both on practical and on philosophical standpoints, for a wide range of reasons.

There are many who fantasize that if they only get “their” person or “their” law in place, then manna will suddenly fall from heaven, clouds will part and God will then peer down and smile upon us all. And they try, and try, and try again, with one variation or another to engage in the political process to accomplish their goals. The result then becomes one of a hopeless life engaged in ultimately meaningless activity. Every penny, every minute of one’s time and dreams wasted this way, means less freedom, less happiness in the long run.

I have seen many libertarians who jump at the faintest whisper of a chance of a possibility at this foolish dream (one is tempted to say pastime, but it borders on addictive activity for many) or nightmare, depending upon which end of the gun (and all laws come down to the use of a gun or threat thereof) they are at. It is a game, no doubt, for many, libertarian and non-libertarian alike, who, at the end of the day, can thus proclaim their civic duty.

For social libertarians, at best, this is activity to be avoided, which wastes their time with no long-term benefit. If nothing came of it, nobody got elected, no laws passed, then at least it didn’t hurt anyone and they’ve just simply wasted their own time and money. It is like a sport engaged in, but only if it is unsuccessful and without any effect. It may still at this point be harmful, however, but only to oneself.

Any addictive activity may point to some personal problem, which requires a doctor’s assistance or that of a professional therapist. Why do you need to tell others what to do and how to live? Is there something wrong with you and you must bring others down to your own level? Do you feel there is something wrong with others and you just have to go around interfering with other lives? Whatever it is, first, take care of your own problems, then if you still find the urge to make others do whatever you need to have them do, go into religion, communications or public relations. I always thought that Reagan would have been much happier if he had stayed in acting or public speaking. And who knows, perhaps he would have made more money, too!

Yet the engagement in political activity may be taken in a stronger light as well. It may be more than simply unproductive or sinful (that is to say, immoral, but not harming anyone else than yourself). It may be harmful to others and hurtful to society as a whole.

Let’s look at the next stage. You get your law passed or your guy/gal gets elected. Manna falls, clouds part and you see God’s smile. Oh boy, you say! You’ve done what you wanted to do and then you can walk away, with a smile on your own face (for are you not God-like now?) and get back to the real world of earning some money, taking care of yourself and yours. You can now put away your toys and leave the playground of power.

But that’s not going to happen, is it? This is the real fantasy, isn’t it? You’ve had your taste of power and you want more. Let’s win one more for freedom. Let’s pass some more laws and get some more people elected! You begin to work the system to get your stuff done. You learn trade-offs and log rolling. You discover (like everyone else in politics), that you have to become part of the system to win in the system. After a while, you’ve forgotten why you got there in the first place and you remain to get that tax reduced or this regulation lowered. It may be one election, it may be several. Don’t worry, the next generation after you won’t remember either, and the word, libertarian, will than mean about the same as democrat or republican does.

A generation of pro-freedom advocates over a century ago sought to abolish tariffs. They get their voting block together and almost had the votes. All they had to do was implement a tiny income tax, which would barely affect one in a hundred people, along with abolishing tariffs and you got—Free Trade!! The choir sung hosannas and didn’t quite get all of the tariffs abolished, but really, really low, and, oh yeah, that tiny income tax. They dancee in the streets until World War I begun and, oops, gotta have those tariffs up, and more money to pay for all of that military equipment, so that income tax rises. And rises. High tariffs and ever rising income taxes

Instead of free trade liberals, you’re low trade liberals; instead of single taxers, you’re land values taxationists (so called because instead of only one tax, you support a bundle of taxes, but just for the local community—and maybe a few here and there for the feds--, but you must insist on that tax on land values).

Each law is an order for some agency to use force, to take up arms—a gun, jail, even a war, against some person or persons to do or not do what they tell the parties to do. And you can’t order people to be free. This is the trap of political advocacy. Your actions bring unintended consequences; participation in politics demonstrates legitimization of the state in everyone’s eyes. You have gone, hat in hand, upon bent knee, begging for favors from the state.

Visualize this scene. Here you are, upon the steps of the Crowned Princes, for everyone to see. What does that teach you? What does that show to non-libertarians? That your philosophy is nothing more than any other power-hungry, bribe-taking, interest-group making statist ideal. What is the lesson learned from this? That libertarians may talk about freedom, but they must bow to power just as any socialist must. This negates the fundamental principles of libertarianism about freedom. Instead of freedom and power contraposed, they are now held as integral to each other.

Social libertarianism places the emphasis upon civil society, or social freedom, in a consistent manner. The emphasis becomes a matter of education, not simply in taking a class or reading a book or pamphlet, but a matter of practical experience. Working within the marketplace, alternatives are demonstrated through buying, marketing and selling products and services, even “total alternatives.” Here is the distinction between political and social libertarianism, and why it matters so much.

Social libertarianism is consistent libertarianism--consistent in philosophy, consistent in practice. It may not always be pretty; it may not always be successful. And we may not get some of the particulars exactly right. What in the marketplace of ideas and products is perfect? But it is there for the opportunity.

Take care.


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