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Notes from the Swamp

Introduction to the new column.

by James Leroy Wilson
March 21, 2003

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Notes from the Swamp_James Leroy Wilson-Introduction to the new column. Well, I'm back to write a column - only this time, it has a name. So our magnificent editor/artist will only have to produce just one graphic to be repeated every week, instead of a new one every week. But what does "Notes from the Swamp" mean?

The "fever swamp" is where the extremists hang out, where I'm ideologically purer than thou. So extremists of all types can have one. If they have a political party, they grumble about its weaknesses and the "compromises" made by its candidates. They also debate with each other the fine points of their dogma, whereas it seems no one else would care.

I'm in one myself. I just found out about a week ago. As if being a libertarian wasn't already extreme enough, I was compelled by the force of logic to take the final step.

I have become an anarchist. Here's why.

Human action is about attaining a higher degree of satisfaction with one's life. Whenever a situation could be better, humans weigh costs and benefits, and then act. The circumstances in which action may take place can be in liberty or under coercion.

When in liberty, an individual seeks to build on his own level of satisfaction with his life. His actions may be foolish or erroneous, and he may wind up sadder than before. But he acts with the expectation of an increase in personal happiness, and often does.

When under coercion, the individual suffers a loss no matter what action he takes. He pays taxes or goes to jail. Submits to the rapist or is killed. The individual is gripped with an immediate fear, and his action is directed toward minimizing his losses as much as possible. People never "obey" the power that coerces them, only "comply." And if there are circumstances in which the risks of non-compliance are outweighed by the costs of compliance, people will try to get away with it. Christians above all should understand this. They obey God, and obey the government insofar as that government's precepts are also God's precepts. So even when they "obey" the government, they are still just complying with it and are really obeying God.

The institution of government exists to, essentially, hold a monopoly of coercive power. Or of "force." The justification is that, in order to stop actual violence from crime or foreign invasion, the government must have sufficient power to deter such things, and to effectively punish or resist these when they occur. If there's no security, society can't thrive and there wouldn't really be the opportunity to enjoy liberty at all. Fair enough.


One could also say that if there's no food, society can't thrive, etc. Or if there were no schools, or if there were no doctors or hospitals, or if domestic industry suffers from foreign competition, or if the fine arts weren't supported, or if the jobless and elderly weren't supported, or if there were no good roads, if everyone was gay, if everyone was a drug addict - the list could go on and on. Society needs lots of things is plagued by lots of evils. That does mean that government can supply those needs or eliminate those evils.

Security, in the end, is not a "tangible" good, something that can be seen and touched like a computer or a loaf of bread. It is a feeling that one wants to attain - an "intangible" good. We want to "feel" secure, whether or not the weapons and devices we purchase are actually effective (but that won't be found out unless someone puts them to the test). Like all other "intagible" goods, tangible goods are often required to attain the desired effect. A Bible is a tangible good - resources of human labor and of the earth were consumed to produce it. The benefits of reading it are intangible. The alarm system is tangible; the feeling of security is intangible.

No one can underestimate the necessity of the feeling of security of person and property, just as no one can underestimate financial security or the availability of food or health care. And it is difficult to say, on the one hand, that government should monopolize coercion for the sake of protection only, yet not also use it to address other, literally vital, human wants and needs.

The problem with that has been established by the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. The individual, acting in liberty, can weigh costs - prices - in their decision-making. The socialist bureaucrat can not, because there are no prices. There is no mechanism to judge either the cost of anything, or of the demands of the people. Prices provide data for producers and consumers in a free society. There is no data available in a socialist society to determine how much rice, beef, watches, or schools of dentistry to produce. And in order to guarantee sufficient production, the government would have to force many into jobs they do not want - force them to become slaves - all so that the government could guarantee everyone has enough food, health care, education etc. When people become slaves, they act under coercion and do the minimum necessary to comply. Inefficiency and corruption were inevitabilities under communist planners, and the inability to assess costs and demand has plagued every other nation to whatever degree they have adopted socialist or social-welfare program. Whatever it is the government pledges to guarantee, is the very thing there will be a shortage of, for the very reason that the government took it off the free market.

What has any of this to do with my becoming an anarchist? A lot. Just as prices in a free society determine the decisions of producers and consumers and therefore allocate resources as efficiently as possible for every other good, so it is also true that the rule must also apply to the good of security.

Some people are more afraid of burglary than others. Thus, alarms and guns may loom larger in their decision-making, as they assess the costs of such security devices against the risks of not having them. How many patrol cars do we really need if everyone was already armed and every home and business secured? At the same time, some may fear foreign invasion. But who would invade if, again, conquering meant house-to-house-fighting against well-armed individuals and militias? And why would "they" hate us, if we had no political involvement with "them," and the only thing we offered them were our goods for trade?

At the same time, not only does the government fall into the trap, in determining how much of the intangible good of security to provide for society as a whole, of not having the advantage of prices to determine the production and allocation of security resources, it goes one step further. It creates the logical negation of its very purpose of existence.

The "good" that government seeks to provide is security. How does it achieve its ends? Step one is to inflict insecurity - the monopoly of coercion - against the people. The bureaucrats in government say to the individual, "Pay what we say in taxes, and we will provide you with as much security not as you, but as we, see fit." The individual is faced with insecurity from the get-go. Either way, he loses: pay the tax, or go to prison. In order to achieve security, government threatens the opposite of security. Yet we are to assume that it is uniquely qualified to distribute - to ration - "security" to the people. We all assume it. We were raised to assume it. I assumed it, until about a week ago.

Yet many of us still live in fear of crime, but can't afford the means to defend ourselves because of the very taxes we pay to achieve security, or are prevented from doing so by anti-gun laws. And now we also fear terrorism and have become involved in yet another war on foreign soil. Government, in the form of the modern nation-state, does not provide security, and can not by the logic of its very existence. It can only guarantee the shortage of security. It can only guarantee insecurity.

The alternative, the more secure, stable, and therefore more prosperous alternative, is to revert to the idea of "government" back to the ownership of land, not to the control over people. For it is private-property holders who value security, stability, and prosperity most of all.

How will we get there from here? I don't know, except I'm confident that we will eventually because the laws of human action as I understand them, and, I believe, the teachings of my religious faith, both point in that direction. Obviously, I'm hoping that's sooner than later.

Until then, I will continue to support the Libertarian Party and libertarianism in general, as the most viable engine of getting there from here.

And I write this by way of introduction so the reader may understand that I am coming from the "fever swamp" of the anarcho-capitalist, paleo-libertarian right, and will comment on the issues of the time every Thursday not as a liberal Democrat or as a conservative Republican, but as my own man.

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