Crossing the Rubicon: Why it’s so hard to be a Libertarian

From LP News | Vol. 50, Issue 3 | Quarter 3, 2020

By John Mills • Washington

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson penned these famous and radical words: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

King George III, and indeed his entire court, lawyers all over the United Kingdom, and most people around the world must have read that with puzzled bemusement. Consent of the governed? Absurd. For nearly all of recorded history, there was no “consent of the governed.” The King was appointed by God to rule over and direct his subjects who were generally acknowledged as too stupid to actually order their own lives appropriately. So, the King, along with the Clergy, directed people by force, thus demanding behavior essential to promoting peace, harmony and productive activity, all so essential to civil society. People’s obedience was commanded, or heads literally rolled. Government had zero to do with consent of the governed.

Government by consent of the governed was not an idea generally accepted or followed anywhere in the world until it was sprung on an unsuspecting populace by people like Tom Jefferson.

Now, 200 years after Jefferson penned his famous words, given its wide embrace around the world, democracy seems not only an ordinary idea, but an obviously superior theory of political organization. Only “backward” countries like, say, Saudi Arabia or North Korea have top-down, authoritarian governments which are unrelated at all to consent of the governed. Two hundred years of politics has created a paradigm shift in thinking. Jefferson’s “consent of the governed,” viewed at the time as absurd and heretical, now seems an obviously superior way to order society.

In 1848 a group of kooks and political crazies convened at Seneca Falls, New York, to promote the bizarre idea that women should be allowed to vote. Although experimented with in a few states, the ideas generally was viewed, of course, as a complete absurdity when announced. Fringe political activists like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other women’s rights pioneers — the suffragists — circulated petitions and lobbied Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to enfranchise women. No doubt, regular law-abiding people looked on at this heresy with the kind of puzzled bemusement which King George III himself would have assigned to the absurd notion that just government existed by consent of the governed.

Seventy years after the crazies convened at Seneca Falls, and countless hours of discussions across the dinner tables of America, and at cocktail parties across the nation, arguments for why women should be allowed to vote had changed people minds. And, thus the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified.

Today, the notion that women should be disenfranchised seems queer. And so, a whole new political paradigm is spreading around the world. Women voting is still viewed as ridiculous in places like the Vatican. Saudi Arabia and some other authoritarian countries have recently removed legal restrictions on women voting, but there remain enormous political and social pressures preventing free voting by women because so many people in these places just can’t embrace even the idea of women voting. Political paradigm shifts occur at a glacial pace.

There are many examples of such political paradigm shifts that occur when enough people’s thinking on political policy changes. The 18th Amendment, repealed by the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution, codified two important paradigm shifts in political thinking across America respecting consumption of alcoholic beverages. Today, more than eighty years after the repeal of prohibition, the idea of the government’s banning alcohol possession and consumption seems a totally discredited concept, but clearly, there was a time when most thoughtful people found that idea to be well-reasoned and obviously a very good idea — enough to amend our Constitution at least for a while.

In February of 1942, the U.S. started rounding up and incarcerating 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom lived on the Pacific coast. Today, that’s unthinkable for most Americans — so unthinkable that it’s hard to even fathom why it was embraced as an essential safety measure by vast swaths of America. And, yet, at the time, the policy was widely accepted by Americans who thought it an important safety measure.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” About that time, the War on Drugs was launched to rid America of that problem. I opposed that idea rather vehemently in discussions with family and friends at cocktail parties, asserting that it was a bad idea and would lead inexorably to misery and counterproductive behaviors. I argued that the War on Drugs should be immediately ended. And, those of us promoting and end to the drug war were met by the kind of puzzled bemusement that no doubt mirrored the way people first treated the women’s suffrage nuts, and the way King George and his fellow courtesans responded to the idea of government by “consent of the governed.” That is to say, opposition to the Drug War was viewed as evidence of, if not full mental derangement, at least gross ignorance and stupidity.

Yet, today, in Washington State, people can walk into a store and easily buy edible marijuana products and also buy “bud” off the shelf. Society hasn’t crumbled. What’s happened is a political paradigm shift in the thinking of most Americans on the subject of dope. It’s no longer proof of idiocy to discuss simply legalizing all drug possession and use. Instead of puzzled bemusement, the exact same drug policy conversations dismissed decades ago as “nutty” are now seen as politically enlightened by many, and at least worthy of serious discussion by most all Americans. Things have changed, but its taken almost 50 years, and still wide swaths of America embrace the Drug War with zeal because, again, these paradigm shifts take a long, long time — what’s heresy one day is often adopted as normal, obvious and correct much later.

Being libertarian is hard because it requires a radical paradigm shift in one’s thinking about society and the state. Even discussing the vision means mostly being dismissed as nutty or deranged in much the same way advocates of consent of the governed were dismissed or the way advocates of women’s suffrage were dismissed, opponents of the drug war were dismissed or those opposed to rounding up Japanese-Americans were dismissed as idiotic and unworthy of serious discussion.

When the state goes into the community and forcibly collects up tax money, it’s involuntarily taking the property of peaceful people. That is, in fact, simply theft. We all know this intellectually but like the internment of Japanese-Americans, prohibition, the war on drugs, excluding women from voting, slavery and all manner of errors — all wrongs committed by government — taxation occurs today with the widespread consent of Americans. In fact, even asserting publicly the idea that we should abandon taxation as a method for funding government most always generates the kind of puzzled bemusement that no doubt King George III felt on reading Tom Jefferson’s assertion that government derives its just authority from consent of the governed. It generates the same incredulity faced by people who asserted, at the time it was happening, that it was wrong to intern Japanese-Americans, wrong to preclude women from voting and wrong to outlaw possession of alcohol or pot. The idea that we should end the practice of taxation is not debated and rejected, it’s rather dismissed out-of-hand as silly, impossible, or unworkable. And, after all, no society anywhere exists, or ever existed, without taxation. It’s impossible. It’s absurd.

We all know that taxation is theft and it’s wrong. However, most everyone knows that there’s a real role for government in society – even libertarians. And therein lies a conundrum: How to fund an important and necessary institution without breaching the central tenant of libertarian philosophy — the nonaggression principle, which prohibits theft? Is it possible or realistic to even have a libertarian government?

Many Americans accept uncritically the entire notion of taxation because, as outlined above, they can’t really fathom a community without taxation. Such a society has never existed anywhere. But, mostly, the practice of taxation is accepted because the government provides so many important services — things that most people find too important to let disappear. How would interstate highways be built without taxes? How would fire and emergency services be provided? How can we even have a police force without taxation? Without taxes, wouldn’t many of the poor starve? How can we be sure that won’t be the result?

Libertarians are often asked those questions. And, imaginative libertarians have all manner of answers for how these important activities would be funded in the absence of taxation. But, the truth of is this: Although there are ways to fund everything without taxation, no one knows exactly how these activities would be funded absent taxation. Much more importantly, no one knows if these important activities would be funded without taxation.

To be libertarian and to fully embrace the philosophy, one must allow a paradigm shift in thinking to take place. What’s needed is the ability to accept the idea that it’s OK if money is spent on things other than what’s now deemed “essential services.” If, in fact, people chose to rely on insurance and abandon fire departments, that’s OK. Weird to be sure. Unlikely to happen in reality, but OK. Nothing is so important we need to steal money from our neighbors to fund. Libertarians know that even if they largely agree that some things are really, really important and even if there’s no certainty about how these really, really important things would be funded absent the tax-and-spend model.

Libertarians understand that most of what most people do is a voluntary transaction. I invite you to dinner, you bring the wine. I give you $6 million, you research cancer cures. You pay me $5,000, I paint your house. It’s how most of us live our lives most or all of the time. It’s all a negotiated deal — a trade. It’s voluntary exchange and its all voluntary interaction with others.

However, when someone goes around hitting others or stealing things, we stop negotiating about that behavior, and instead, people rise up, grab the offender, and toss him into the pit. This is not a negotiated outcome, it’s an exercise of pure power. In uncivilized society, that’s called a “lynch mob.” In civilized society, the power of the lynch mob is organized and institutionalized and called “government.” To minimize errors, the rules by which a person can be seized and thrown into the pit are figured out in advance and the process by which power is exercised is prescribed in advance. This minimizes the erroneous deployment of the power of the lynch mob.

Libertarians understand this and embrace the idea of a state designed to carry out the essential and important job of defending citizens from those who go around hitting others or stealing things.

Libertarians quibble about what exactly is hitting others or stealing things and so embracing the core philosophy doesn’t end discussion about what it means. Is abortion murder or is a fertilized egg simply not a human life? When does life end, and is it hitting others to engage in assisted suicide? Is discrimination against a lesbian couple in business a form of bulling or hitting others that properly should be prevented by state action? Is the copying and resale of a musical MP3 or a movie on DVD theft? These are all complicated and difficult questions and libertarians discuss such things in an effort to reach understanding, but libertarians don’t argue about the idea that it’s appropriate for the state to defend its citizens from violence or theft.

Libertarian political philosophy is often characterized as a philosophy of “smaller government.” However the shear size of government, it’s expense, and its intrusiveness are not things about which the philosophy of the liberty movement really says anything of importance. Even the most radical of libertarians doesn’t believe that people should be allowed to go around hitting others or stealing their things with impunity. Libertarians aren’t anarchists, and even the most radical of libertarians envisions a government assigned the job of addressing thieves, cut-throats, rapists and con-men. Given that, whether the government is large or small depends on how much thievery, assault, murder and the like exists. If a lot of that existed, then libertarians would expect a large government designed to address that expansive problem — if the problem were small, then only small government would be needed. Whatever the absolute size of government, libertarians think it should exist, implying it must be funded.

Some Libertarians have recently started circulating the logo “Taxation is Theft!” After nearly 50 years of more modest characterizations of the Libertarian Party’s political philosophy, I’ve come to understand that, irrespective of the political effectiveness of the phrase, it’s perhaps the most concise statement of the philosophy of libertarianism.

Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon River with his army was an event in January 49 B.C. that precipitated the Roman Civil War and ultimately led to Caesar becoming dictator. It led to the rise of the imperial era of Rome and changed the world. Today, the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” is a metaphor that means to pass a point of no return — a point at which the world changes fundamentally.

If libertarians can persuade the world that taxation is theft — no small or simple task — we will have finally crossed the Rubicon and the libertarian future will arrive if not fast and furiously, inevitably. We will have destroyed the underpinnings of what we know now as the modern state.


John Mills, a lawyer from Tacoma, Wash., is a 40-year libertarian activist, former chair of LPWA and a previous candidate for multiple state and federal offices.

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