Against Libertarian Martyrdom

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Libertarians oppose aggression. They correctly believe that property rights cannot be coherently argued against and that violations of those rights are criminal acts. Theft and murder are widely recognized as crimes in a civilized society — everyone knows that theft and murder are wrong and that thieves and murderers are criminal. Where everyone else and the libertarian part ways is that we libertarians apply principles consistently. If a human being owns his own body and his legitimately obtained property through homesteading (i.e., original acquisition from a state of nature) or voluntary exchange, then trespassing or threatening to trespass against one’s body or property is, and ought to be considered, a crime regardless of who carries out that aggression. It does not matter whether that person is a next door neighbor, a hired sniper, a jealous ex-wife, a police officer, a tax collector, a president, mayor, council member, magistrate, prosecutor, executioner, or anyone with a funny hat claiming to have unconsented-to authority over you and your property.

Libertarians Are Victims

What is the relationship of the libertarian vis-à-vis the state? Because the libertarian rejects most state activities (minarchy) or all state activities (anarchy), the relationship is one of victimization. If taxation is theft then the state is violating the taxpayer’s rights — this is a crime. The same applies to every state department and program for they must engage in property rights violations to exist: taxation, legislation, confiscation, regulation, nationalization, conscription, etc. Thus, we libertarians are victims of state action.

Governments have monopolies or near monopolies in many industries, or at least require licensing and quite often arcane requirements for ordinary people to participate in these industries. For example, here in the United States the Federal Government has monopolized first-class delivery of mail. Does this mean one should avoid using the post office? And what about roads? Is it unlibertarian to drive to Maryland to visit your mother? The TSA controls airports, clearly a non-market entity — should one not travel by air? Alcoholic beverages are taxed. There goes the party! Because cell phones and communications are taxed and regulated, must we immediately cancel our contracts? Income is taxed as well — do we quit our jobs? Virtually every educational institution (even private) is controlled by governments at various levels; if we’re against such things, will we have to avoid education? Home schooling is controlled, too.

We can keep asking questions like those all day long yet if pushed hard enough, we’ll reach the inevitable reductio ad absurdum: the libertarian must cease to exist to fully avoid being a victim! Indeed, even if we were to stay home and live off charity, property taxes exist and the house is not "fully free" or 100% "legitimate." Further, even without property taxes, there might have been building permits. Look hard enough and you can find interventions everywhere. Also, what about the land? Maybe it was taken by eminent domain. Maybe it was taken from American Indians generations ago. Even standing on public property and begging for money poses problems because public property was financed through taxation and thus is not a "libertarian" place to be. And finally, because almost everyone in the world is socialist to some degree (they support state action of some sort) and therefore are not libertarian, then it seems that libertarians could only talk to other libertarians or forever live isolated from society! If this is the case, then libertarians should not exist and the world can continue being anti-freedom forever. I totally disagree with this view.

Libertarians Should Not Be Victims Again

When libertarian friends of mine told me that they have existential issues because they are planning on taking a job in an industry that is heavily subsidized, or when I hear that a particular friend of theirs is too statist to hang around with, I decided I needed to address this issue.

My answer is simple. The problems that libertarians face — some trivial and others quite serious — are moral hazards created by the existence of the state. Given that we do not legitimize state action we are not culpable of the aggression that it causes. State aggression does for sure limit the number and kind of options that in a free society would be available to us. Just because the state exists does not mean that you should alter your entire existence because of it. Doing this would imply that you not just acquiesce in the victory of the state over your freedom but that — and here’s the clincher — you must again reduce your choices from an already reduced set of options that the state has allowed you to keep (and would otherwise be limited only by voluntary exchange in the absence of the state).

But my argument against libertarian martyrdom is not quite finished yet. Someone can claim that because the state murders people while enforcing drug laws, that it is therefore fine to support the war on drugs and become a DEA enforcer. This critique would be correct. What is missing, then, is the realization that as libertarians we have moral scruples and can distinguish between right and wrong. Faced with a very wide continuum of possible actions, as libertarians there are some that we simply should not be engaging it. What constitutes a libertarian action is debatable and can vary from person to person. For example, becoming a government school teacher might give you the chance to show children the values of freedom that they would not receive from other teachers. Yes, this means that your salary would be totally paid for by taxes but then again, while state education should be eliminated, I would personally like to see more libertarians in public schools. After all, if the job is going to be filled no matter what, then better to have a libertarian than an ordinary socialist. There are other professions, however, that to me seem mostly incompatible with freedom, such as becoming a tax collector. But even here there is some wiggle room. If my tax records are to be audited, let me have a libertarian tax bureaucrat!

Opposition And Consent

We oppose the state and are already victims. As I have tried to show, libertarianism does not require us to become hermits so that we can be as pure as possible. Nor does it require us to drastically reduce our already limited lives. Sure, we are not free. But liberty and the ideals of freedom, peace and voluntary exchange are just that — ideals. They are meant to guide our actions towards whatever ends we might chose in life. They are not necessarily ends themselves. Do not martyr yourself. Stay away from the libertarian sacrificial altar.

Manuel Lora [send him mail] works at Cornell University as a TV and multimedia producer. Visit his blog.

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