May a Libertarian Take Money From the Government?

May a Libertarian Take Money From the Government?

by Walter Block

Recently by Walter Block: The Battle of Wisconsin

Prof. Block,

First of all, I want to say what a huge fan and follower of your work I am. Of all the contributors to LRC and the LVM Institute I look forward to your articles the most and Defending the Undefendable is a truly entertaining and insightful work.

I have a question that I hope you might find the time to answer. Next fall, I will be starting an Assistant Professor appointment at the University of A in the Department of B. I understand that while possibly less-than-ideal, the anarcho-libertarian academic can justify employment at a State university because academia is a profession that has been monopolized by the state and therefore we make do given our circumstances, much like when we use government roads. As Murray Rothbard said, it’s not necessary for us to become martyrs. My question, as a young faculty member on a tenure track at a research university, what is the anarcho-libertarian position on state research grants? Obviously, we cannot lobby the state to increase funding for these, but since they exist anyway, may we pursue them and still remain consistent libertarians? (I am assuming that any technology developed would not be directly used to perpetrate aggression, but for basic science and technologies that could lead to higher production, safety, better standards of living for all.) My plan is to pursue every opportunity possible to work with private industry, and ideally not take a penny from the State, but this may not be a successful strategy.

I would very much like to hear your opinion on this issue and I thank you in advance for any time you may give to respond.

Regards, Professor C

Dear Professor C:

Thanks for allowing me to address you (anonymously, for obvious reasons) in this public setting. I wanted to do so, instead of replying to you alone, since I get many, many letters from people on this very question, or closely related issues. And, for every letter of this sort I get, there are probably dozens of others who either do not take jobs they would relish, or do so, and feel guilty about this since they think they are violating libertarian principles. This letter, then, although addressed to you, applies to all these others as well. Hopefully, at least some of them will find solace from what I am about to say.

1. It is only a libertarian, and a thoughtful one at that, such as you are, who would ever think to ask a question like this. This issue would never in a million years arise on the left, or even the right. They both believe in statism. In contrast, we libertarians support the non-aggression principle (NAP) and thus are quite properly leery of having anything to do with the government (the prime violator of the NAP), and, certainly, to take money from the state is to be involved with it. So, this question in and of itself is a great credit to you.

2. This question most often is articulated by academics such as you. They, we, are brighter than many, and, as libertarians we do not want to contradict our principles. (In contrast, the leftie egalitarians are happy hypocrites; they preach equality, and yet run around with two eyes, when they could have donated one of them to a blind person; and so are the chicken-hawk generals on the right, who would like the U.S. to invade every country on the planet, and, maybe, some on Mars, too, and yet do not volunteer for the military.) In a sense libertarianism is simple: just keep your mitts to yourself, don't steal, rape, murder, etc. But, being true to the NAP is difficult when the state has its tentacles in virtually every aspect of life. The state violates rights with a vengeance, and it is difficult to lead a normal life without being ensnared in its web.

3. My take on this is that it is a positive virtue to relieve the government of its ill-gotten gains. Suppose Z steals an apple from Y and then X comes along and takes this fruit away from Z. Did X do anything wrong? Did he act incompatibly with the NAP? Is X no longer a libertarian? Of course not. Very much to the contrary, X did something entirely compatible with our philosophy. Certainly, all libertarian theories of private property rights, of punishment, would agree that of all people in the world, Z is the absolutely least deserving of this foodstuff. Now, it might be nice, it might be virtuous, for X to return the apple to Y. Indeed, this was precisely the relationship between Ragnar Danneskjold (X) and Hank Reardon (Y) in Ayn Rand's magnificent and monumental novel, Atlas Shrugged. The government (Z) stole from Reardon (and of course others) and Ragnar was just returning these stolen goods to Hank, the victim. But, Ragnar's behavior constituted a double or two-stage act. First, he grabbed gold from the government; then, and only then, did he return it to Hank. But, if a double act is to be licit, then each and every part of it must be, too. Two wrongs cannot make a right, and neither can one right and one wrong. So, I deduce, it was entirely proper for Danneskjold to relieve the evil government depicted in Atlas of its stolen property, even if he did not give a penny of it to Reardon. Taking money from a thief is an unadulterated good deed. Returning it to victims is virtuous, too, but it is supererogatory: it is not needed to convert the first part of this double-stage act into righteousness; the first part is good in and of itself!

4. If you take statist money, and I, personally, have, more on this see below, suppose someone else asks you for it, on the ground that the government stole his money, and you should return to him what you took from them. Well, first off, you wouldn't owe him all of it; you could keep a sizeable portion of it as a salvage payment (the private law of the sea judges in medieval times commonly awarded the rescuer of a boat at sea one third of the value of the vessel). As for the rest of it, the person requesting money from you must come with clean hands himself. He cannot be anything but a libertarian; if he is not, he is a supporter of this theft in the first place. He is thus in cahoots with this criminal gang. And, if he is a libertarian, he will fully realize that you are the first homesteader of this wealth, and thus its proper owner. If he wants some, too, as is his right, he should go to the same place as you did, and seize it from the same bad guys.

5. I have in my time been "guilty" of accepting subsidies from the state. I shop for food in supermarkets, and eat even more of it in restaurants. I therefore indirectly avail myself of agricultural subsidies (I full well realize that farm goods would be cheaper in the fully free society, but, still, given our lack of economic freedom, there may well be a subsidy in it for me from dining.) I have U.S. fiat fractional reserve bank currency in my wallet and use it too, even though as a libertarian I favor free market (e.g., gold or silver) money. I use streets, sidewalks, roads and highways, brought to me courtesy of our least favorite institution. I went to public schools as a student, and taught at a few of them as a faculty member. I had a New York State Regents' Scholarship, and I'm not giving back a penny of it to the government. I use public libraries, art galleries and museums, shamelessly. I avail myself of the services of statist parks: Central Park in New York City, Stanley Park in Vancouver, Canada, and Audubon Park when in New Orleans, and others besides. And when I do so, I give off with a little smirk of satisfaction for a job well done. I have written about these transgressions of mine and other aspects of this challenge here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. Please, as the Jewish Mother of the libertarian movement, I absolve all you kinder regarding the guilt you may have accepting these and other such subsidies. Go out there, and proudly get everything you can from the government. Hold your head high; you are doing a mitzvah!

6. Which organizations may properly accept government subsidies? May the typical private university do so? My answer is no: while there may be a few free enterprise professors on staff, typically in the economics department, virtually all of the rest are hand in glove with the state, supporting its depredations. For example, it is very rare indeed that there will be even one freedom oriented professor in American higher education in departments such as sociology, anthropology, philosophy, law, political science, history, religion, literature, to say nothing of multicultural departments as feminist, black and queer studies. In my experience, the majority of the faculty even at business colleges are critics of the free enterprise system, not supporters.

7. Now, at long last, let me reply to the specific points you make. I don't think that the "anarcho-libertarian academic can justify employment at a State university because academia is a profession that has been monopolized by the state." First of all, the government has not fully monopolized education. There are, after all, numerous fully private institutions of learning. Even on the college level, there is Grove City College and Hillsdale. There are many, many ostensibly private universities that are only partially subsidized by government. The government, moreover, has not fully monopolized information flows: there are many alternatives to its Post Office. Yet, it is entirely justified for libertarians to avail themselves of snail mail. You are quite right: Murray Rothbard truly said that it’s not necessary for us to become martyrs. Libertarianism does not at all require any such thing.

I have no objection, at all, to your plan of pursuing "every opportunity possible to work with private industry." But, realize that if you do, you will not be awarded any libertarian brownie points at all for helping to relieve the government of its plunder. Please understand me: I certainly don't oppose private industry (under present institutional arrangements, there's very little of that out there, except for a few mom and pop operations). It should not at all be an "ideal … not take a penny from the State," at least not for the libertarian. No, no, no, a thousand times no, it is a virtue to take money away from this illicit organization, and way more than a penny too.

8. But wait! If you cooperate with the government in this manner, can you not be properly accused of “aiding and abetting” an evil institution? Well, yes, sort of. If you take money from the state, you are indeed giving it your imprimatur, or “sanction” as the Randians would say. And, indeed, you are helping the government in the ex ante sense, in that both parties always and ever, and necessarily so, benefit from any voluntary exchange, and, here, you are both agreeing: you to accept the funds, they to give them to you.

However, you are not promoting statism any more by taking their money than by carrying around their cash, patronizing their libraries or streets, etc. And, too, while you are of course benefitting them in the ex ante sense, you are certainly not doing so in the ex post sense. That is, they are giving you the money in the hope that by doing so, they can better promote statism than by the use of it in any other way. But you, by your actual actions, will not be doing any such thing. Now, I am not at all knowledgeable about your own specialty, B. So, I cannot say how this will play out in your field. So, let me talk about my own. I have previously taught economics at several public colleges and universities. What the powers that be would have liked me to teach was moderate neoclassicism; the doctrine of market failure, according to which while free enterprise does indeed function well under the conditions of perfect competition, in the real world these conditions are often not met, and thus there is an important role for the government to engage in anti-trust, welfare policies, to enact pro-union legislation, tariff barriers, etc. As you can imagine, while I did indeed acquaint my students with these claims (not to have done so would have left them helpless, and would have been to cheat them), I have also pointed out serious, nay, fatal, flaws in this analytic framework. So, when the libertarian Nuremberg trials begin for me, and I shall indeed be in the dock for consorting with the enemy in this manner, I fully expect that I will be exonerated, and fully so. But what about the Marxist, socialist, mixed economy or interventionist professor? Will he also be found innocent by the libertarian jury? Not at all. In contrast to me, he really did "aid and abet" the evil state, by promoting its doctrines, inculcating them among the youth.

What of your field, B? Let us posit that it is impossible for you to promote liberty in it. If you do your job (if not, you'll quickly be fired so your question is all but moot) you cannot promote liberty, since your calling is too orthogonal to freedom for that purpose. Here's a suggestion for you. If you still feel guilty about becoming enmeshed in statist finance (which feelings I strongly urge you to squelch), and have no way to promote liberty (as I do in economics), then how about the following. Take a hefty part of your salary (net not gross), say 5% or even 10%, and donate it to an organization that promotes freedom in a spectacular manner. Hint, hint: I can think of no better group than the Mises Institute, and/or, at least in the short term, a contribution to Ron Paul.

9. To conclude. Enough of pure theory. Let us now get down to practical reality. It is entirely legal under the present laws of the land for you to apply for, and receive, wealth from the government of the sort you describe, so all of this talk of "theft" is beside the point from the pragmatic perspective. I urge you to apply for all of the grants you possibly can. Murray Rothbard said that a man's contribution to society is proportional to the profits he earns. I say in similar vein, other things equal, the more money you take from the coffers of the state the better libertarian you are.