The New Abolitionists

by Gene Callahan

There are many people who do value liberty but find the idea of a world without the state impractical. They might even think anarchism would work, but that we have no hope of getting there: "It’s not on the menu." The state pervades modern life and statist attitudes are rampant among the public. The "man-in-the-street" is so far from holding anarchist views that the only viable approach is to try and roll back the state a bit at a time. There is no way, these folks will tell us, to reach a minimal state or a stateless society for many generations.

Many of these people are sincerely attempting to do the best that they think can be done in the fight for liberty. However, they are mistaken.

Fortunately for us, there were brave pioneers who gave us an example of how to eliminate a pervasive but unjust institution, in only a few generations. They were the abolitionists, and the institution was slavery.

As Stephen Carson recently said in a brilliant piece:

Several hundred years ago, the notion that the slave trade could be ended and then chattel slavery itself abolished certainly seemed utopian. But British evangelical Christians began to make the moral case against it and within a century or two slavery was abolished throughout the wider European world.

These evangelicals were faced with a choice. They could try to convince the majority of people of the correctness of their theological doctrine, part of which was that slavery is wrong. But to make the whole world Methodist or Baptist might take thousands of years. In the meantime, if they cooperated with others who shared their opinion of slavery, they could achieve a great good in the near future: the end of human slavery.

Achieving their "short-term" goal did not involve compromising their long-term objective. One could still argue that Methodism was the true path, while cooperating with a Quaker to abolish slavery.

This is how we usually behave in our day-to-day lives. For example, I consider Bob Murphy a good friend. (I must warn you, however, that when I recently mentioned in public that we were good friends, Bob wrote asking, "Since when?") Nevertheless, we sometimes have fierce disputes over theoretical issues. Well, so what? We are still friends, and we are still able to collaborate in areas where we agree.

If we were basketball players, I would say that while we may at times have different philosophies of how to play basketball, we are still on the same team. The philosophical differences should not distract us from trying to beat the other fellows.

This embrace of diverse metaphysical bases for anarchism might lead some people to accuse me of relativism. The suggestion is slanderous. I don’t for a minute contend that all metaphysics are created equal, or that there is no best worldview. There certainly is a best worldview: mine.

But I do realize that not all of you agree with me on everything, at least not at present. (Many of you will come to see the light. I’m certain of it.) When I go to my butcher to get a roast, I don’t worry about whether he holds the same view I do of metaphysical dualism. Similarly, when I look for allies in the fight against the state, their opinion on the doctrine of transubstantiation is of minor importance to me. (This is not to belittle the importance of such topics. They are just not important to the task at hand, be it buying beef or eliminating the state.)

I am more interested in ethical behavior than in ethical systems. To my way of thinking the system supports, not determines, the behavior. I applaud any ethical system that leads its followers away from violence as a means of getting one’s way. For instance, I’m quite in favor of rationalist, objectively correct ethical systems, particularly since there are so many from which to choose.

But while a dispute over the relative value of these various systems is worthwhile, that is not how we will reach our goal. To rid ourselves of the state, we must convince "the Average Joe." I’ve met him, and believe me, he has little interest in the issue of whether there is a synthetic a priori.

What will reach the average person are straightforward examples of concrete behavior that illuminate the real nature of state action. We are not trying to convince him to overthrow his whole worldview and adopt ours. We are alerting him to the fact that he already has the knowledge, within his existing worldview, that this sort of thing is wrong.

Jrg Guido Hlsmann has done us a great service by pointing out the state-generated fog swirling through our language. Theft is called "asset forfeiture," murder is called "law enforcement," budget increases are called "cuts in spending." The mists are necessary to prevent everyone – including those creating the mists! – from seeing what is really occurring. Our job is to burn off the fog.

I was talking the other day with a friend, who is something along the lines of a CATO-type libertarian. He is intensely interested in politics, but less so in political theory. He asked me about anarchism. I told him the following tale:

Imagine that you, Dick, Mark, and I go camping. Along the trail, you, Dick, and I decide to build a lean-to, so that we have a sheltered spot to rest in on the way down.

"Come help us, Mark," we shout to him.

"No thanks, I’ll go on ahead and set up the camp site."

"No you won’t, Mark."

"What do you mean, no I won’t?"

"What we mean is, you have to help us. We’re the majority. And, you see, we’re prepared to kill you if you don’t."

"Kill me?"

"Not that we want to. At first, we’ll just beat you up a bit. But if you continue to resist, eventually we’ll kill you.

"Now," I asked my friend, "how is this essentially different than the Democratic State, supposedly the epitome of just and fair governance?"

He looked thoughtful and said, "Yeah, it really isn’t, is it?"

You see, most people already know that the action of the campers is wrong. (And we’ll never convince the few who don’t with any system.) We don’t have to change their whole worldview. We just have to alert them to the fog that has kept them from seeing that the state is unjust judged from within their current ethical system.

Hlsmann shows that it is this fog that keeps the state’s legitimacy generally unquestioned. It creates the illusion that the state stands apart from ordinary human values and judgments. The state somehow represents the mystical "will of the people," or our "voluntary, collective choices." In a recent piece Murphy says:

In the same way, the American people literally do not see that taxes are theft, that public schooling is imprisonment, that surgical military strikes are murder. We must explain to them that they are falling for a massive illusion being perpetrated on a gigantic scale. 

Stephen Carson’s article points the way to success. Each of us, within the tradition we find ourselves, should bring into relief those elements in that tradition indicating that the state is unjust. While we dispute metaphysics, we have the chance to eliminate a great evil from the world. Let’s not blow it.

Gene Callahan has just finished a book, Economics for Real People, to be published this year by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

2001, Gene Callahan

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives