Joe the Outlaw

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This whole campaign has been dreadfully boring, with gaffe-avoidance techniques squelching all spontaneity, and it doesn’t help that the ideological parameters of the election have been so narrowly drawn as to make any thinking person want to shut up both the candidates and the media that cover them so lovingly.

Still, one interesting point has emerged: the archetype chosen to represent mainstream America turns out to be a thorough-going outlaw in the best sense of that term. In this, he is a symbol of the age. We can look forward to the creation and emergence of ever more people like this in the coming years, as the state tightens its grip over every aspect of American life. We will all soon be outlaws.

The whole Joe the Plumber saga began when Joe Wurzelbacher from Toledo, Ohio, confronted Barack Obama about the candidate’s tax plans. He wanted to know if Obama would raise his taxes. In particular, he was planning to buy a company with a revenue of $250,000 per year. “Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn’t it?”

Of course the Republicans seized on this and exploited it. McCain keeps bringing him up in speeches. Republicans like to talk about taxes. They always seem to corner the budget-balancing, wealth-distributing Democrats with this topic, even though it is largely a distraction in an age of fiat money when the government can print all the revenue it needs. Still, the GOP likes the symbolism, so Joe had his 15 minutes of fame as a hero of the Right.

But the New York Times did some digging and discovered — horror — that Joe is doing plumbing without a proper business license. How dare he call himself a plumber! A license is required by Toledo, not just one license for a partnership but for everyone who is called a plumber. Joe has not taken the training courses, is not a member of the union, and cannot legally call himself a plumber.

The press reports on this were explosive, with reporters speaking as if they had caught this guy red-handed and completely discredited him. But what about the complete absurdity of the idea that you have to have a license in order to have the right to fix someone else’s sink? This is Soviet like, but deeply entrenched in American professional life.

The idea of licensing is that it assures quality standards. But this is just a cover used by guilds since the Middle Ages. The real goal of licensing is to create a professional cartel. Fewer providers means higher wages for those with licenses. It is all about boosting income by restricting competition. This is of course a violation of human rights because it impinges on the fundamental freedom of association.

In a market setting, there are plenty of quality controls through professional organizations. Consumers are free to use them or not. Many private producers attempt to create cartels through this means, but it is rarely successful. There are always producers who break with the guild in order to charge lower prices for their services. This is why they often seek state regulations, such as the requirement that all plumbers have a license.

By the way, this is true of all professions, including lawyering and doctoring. There was a time when entry into these fields was governed by the free market, and the system worked fine (contrary to legend). But the big players in these industries sought and obtained state privileges to officially license service providers. It was an income-boosting tactic and it worked.

By practicing plumbing without a license, Joe is bucking the system in a truly heroic way. He shouldn’t be condemned for this. He should be celebrated as a freedom fighter. He has a lot more to complain about than just taxes. It is the state itself in all its incarnations that is his true enemy. He ought to be demanding answers from the politicians about their regulatory schemes to further restrict competition in a wide range of areas (banking for example!).

Most ridiculous is the idea that he shouldn’t be called a plumber because he doesn’t have a license. Here we see how licensing attacks even the use of our language. If he is doing plumbing, he is a plumber. Period.

And yet taxes are also close to Joe’s heart because it also turns out that he is delinquent on his property taxes, which are similarly too high and similarly unjust. The Ohio Department of Taxation placed a lien against him because $1,183 in personal property taxes had not been paid. In what sense can you say that you really own your home if the state can take it away if you don’t pay what the state says you ought to be paying? This is an attack on private property in the most fundamental sense.

So it turns out that we truly do have an American archetype in Joe Wurzelbacher. He is an outlaw in the same sense that our founders were outlaws. He lives outside the regulations of the state because these regulations attack his freedom and property. It was to end systems such as this that the American revolution came to be. And yet we find ourselves back in exactly the same system, and one incredibly worse in every way.

It is going to take something different from the election of the Republican to beat back the oppressions that vex his life. It is not complicated. It is a right belonging to all people that they can do what they want and keep what they own provided they do not impinge on anyone else’s right to do the same. The state is nothing but an organized attempt to deny this right. Joe has an enemy, but it goes way beyond Obama.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail] is founder and president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, editor of LewRockwell.com, and author of Speaking of Liberty.

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