Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Libertarian Living in a Grayscale World

The foundation of libertarian philosophy is the non-aggression principle – do not initiate aggression.  Like most such sentiments, easy to explain in theory, at times difficult to define in practice.

Eric Peters recently wrote a column on this subject, posted here at LRC.  His focus was on the bright line of working for the government or not – his view is that under no circumstance should a libertarian take a government paycheck.  His views on this caused me to revisit this topic; I have held a certain view on this general topic (which I will come to shortly, and is different than that of Mr. Peters); my intent here is to explain my view while walking through the spectrum of possibilities and conflicts inherent in this subject of living in accordance with the NAP while swimming in the mud of a state-sanctioned coercive economy.

I will start with what I see as the most lenient alternative and move to the most stringent and pure.  It seems to me that only one possibility is completely consistent with the NAP; all of the other possibilities are merely shades of gray – with none able to claim libertarian purity, and therefore none able to stand on any rock more firm than personal preference and comfort.

I don’t claim that my list is exhaustive – I can imagine shades in between each line I have identified, and there may be even more lenient possibilities than my most lenient view.  In any case, let’s begin with what seems to me to be the most lenient interpretation available within a libertarian view in this non-libertarian world:

One can work for the government, but only in jobs that would exist in a free market and do not otherwise violate the NAP.

I believe this is the line viewed as acceptable by Rothbard and Block (I might be wrong here, I am drawing on memory for this).  The idea is that if one wants to be a university professor or a librarian (as two of many such professions that would likely exist in a free-market world), and these professions are primarily available only in government (or government supported) institutions, an individual should not be denied from achieving his calling merely because the government has monopolized (or for all practical purposes, reasonably monopolized) the profession.

As a condition, the profession – other than being funded directly via funds forcibly collected from taxpayers – cannot violate the non-aggression principle.  For example, just about any job involved in the military would be excluded – given that the US military is almost exclusively used in an offensive and not a defensive manner.

One also cannot lobby for additional funds from the state within this view – in other words, one cannot advocate for the increasing of the looting.

Finally, this view would also apply to private sector jobs that were nothing more than extensions of the government sector.  For example, an employee of a defense contractor – receiving its income from the state for a purpose that inherently violates the non-aggression principle – cannot be viewed any differently than a government employee working in this sector.

This is where I have generally landed on this subject (with an additional qualifier or two, addressed below).

One can never work for the government, but I want my retirement benefits.

Another step on this road regards the view of receiving government “benefits” such as social security or Medicare.  The feeling by some is that they have paid into these programs their entire life, and therefore they are only getting their money back.

The problem is, they are not getting their money back.  The money taken from them in the first place was spent the moment the government received it.  The money that they will receive in the future will only come to them by being taken from new victims.

If one claims to be against taking a government job of any kind, one must also be against receiving a direct government benefit such as the two highlighted in this example.  The source of the funds is the same – taken from current taxpayers, or borrowed and therefore to be repaid by future taxpayers.

Some suggest that it is acceptable to receive these funds because it accelerates the exhaustion of the state.  I have never felt comfortable with this position, as it could be said of many state-related activities.

Of course, for most recipients of social security and Medicare, the payment of taxes continues throughout the time they are also receiving these funds from the government.  Is a netting effect acceptable?  If one pays $10,000 in taxes (of all forms – income, sales, gasoline, etc.) in the same year he receives $9,000 of benefits, is he clean from the perspective of NAP?

It seems to me, yes.

One cannot take a government check of any type, but it is OK to drive on the roads.

The idea here is that while receiving direct benefits (a government job or a social security check) is wrong, taking advantage of indirect benefits is acceptable – or at least it is acceptable if the use of such indirect benefits cannot be avoided.

But what does this mean – if it cannot be avoided?  It seems to me that the answer to this question is inherently subjective.  I don’t have to drive on roads; I don’t have to call the police to resolve the theft of my property; I don’t have to call the fire department if the fire in my neighbor’s property becomes a threat to my home; I don’t have to use legal tender – I can avoid all benefits of the division-of-labor economy.

Where does one draw this line?  On what consistently applicable philosophical and moral basis?

As this is unanswerable (to me), this leads me to the only pure position:

One must not utilize any government-enabled or provided resources of any kind.

This seems to me the only pure position in this spectrum.  Needless to say, the burden of purity will lead to a very difficult life – if not, in fact, death.  One can structure a life without government roads and government currency (to name two of the more necessary features of modern life).  A completely self-sustaining farm life is possible – our ancestors lived like this for the majority of recorded history.

Unfortunately, even this hermit must pay property taxes in today’s world – directly if he holds title to the land, and indirectly if he rents from the title-holder.  Even in the pure form, one cannot avoid supporting the state….

However, if one is not willing to live like the pure hermit, it seems to me all that we are left with is shades of gray.  When I read someone presenting a position other than this purist position, I struggle with how they conclude to draw the line only here (wherever their “here” is).  I have not yet read a convincing argument to this end.

Every position other than the libertarian hermit is a compromise – “only this much compromise, but no further.”  Says who?  I cannot identify a consistent philosophical and ethical reason to draw a line anywhere else between my most lenient view and this purest view. 

I guess I am looking at my most lenient view as holding some ethical consistency – this is likely why I am comfortable with this position…for now.  I may be wrong on this, but so far this is how I see it.

I am open to other views on this – but so far in all my reading and considering of this issue, I land as described here.


  1. Socialists seem to have no problem working in the private sector. If I recall correctly there was a WSJ reporter who spend a lifetime trying to undermine capitalism while working for the Journal. With that said, the libertarians I know seem to have a much higher sense of morality than socialists and would not engage in espionage. I have a brother that teaches quantum mechanics at the University level (public). He's a libertarian who I would put in your most lenient definition. I myself would tend toward this position. The larger and more intrusive the govt becomes the more difficult it is to work at all without some connection. I'm sure there are libertarians in Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, etc. What choice do they have? Very interesting to consider though and thanks for the great article. Oh, BTW, I'm involved in real estate which is one of the most distorted sectors in the country. Often wonder what a free market in real estate looks like!!

    1. To your point, it seems to me libertarians generally at least struggle with issues of remaining consistent to an ethical philosophy far more than many non-libertarians do.

      Perhaps this explains the passion of some of our internal squabbles, which likely seem silly to those who do not have a worldview very heavily grounded in non-aggression.

    2. "Internal squabbles" is putting it lightly. I've seen leading, high-profile libertarians of differing levels of rigidity ripping each other for no other reason but that "mine is more pure than yours".

      Maybe we can recognize that libertarianism is more a journey than a destination?

  2. Nicely constructed BM. Working for the Census bureau eventually led to libertarianism for me. I quit working there before they wanted me to, despite not having any other prospects, and despite the pay being far more than the difficulty of the job warranted. This one area where I am nothing like a purist. I do not get money directly from government but benefiting from it does not bother me. I have paid far more in taxes than I will ever receive in "benefits". I agree with The Daily Bell line of reasoning completely in this way; anything that brings down the system sooner, will lessen the severity of the consequent economic depression, and, perhaps, lead to relative freedom sooner. So, taking money from the government, could be thought of as good. Any one working for government who is trying to lessen its impact, by making it less coercive, is fine by me. taxes

    1. There are some issues of disagreement within the libertarian community that seem black and white to me - abortion (initiation of aggression, violation of contract) and FRB as fraud (not) are two such issues that to me are not gray.

      This issue of where to draw the line in terms of supposedly benefiting from some or another government service is, for me, not black and white - at least not so far in my current level of libertarian-thought development.

      All I can say for now: it seems to be an area within which a libertarian might have an honest internal struggle while finding a way to carve out a life in this non-libertarian world.

  3. The Third Rail of Libertarianism August 8th, 2012 Submitted by Wendy McElroy teases out many of these issues. If I remember it is significantly different to Walter Block's position. This would seem to be a good way to contrast the position of "is it proper to take a tax funded job?"

    I was posting on Mises and replying with a second reply to your point on and I clicked your avatar and came here and saw your latest post.


    1. From McElroy's comments: "I use roads and I lick postage stamps whenever no private alternative exists....There is not a difference of degree between those who use roads to pick up food at the grocery store and those who compete for state paid salaries; there is a difference of kind."

      These statements from McElroy well depict my struggle on this subject…not to say I am finally settled – but as an explanation of why I am not.

      “…whenever no private alternative exists…” Private alternatives ALWAYS exist – including the alternative to abstain. For postage stamps – I can choose to send every piece of mail by FedEx or UPS. It will be expensive but I could do it. As for using “roads to pick up food at the grocery store”: grow your own.

      If an action is morally wrong, it doesn’t become right only because the cost of abstaining is high – even tremendously high.

      “…there is a difference of kind.” I don’t know – it may be a difference of kind in McElroy’s mind, but on what morally applicable basis? She does not explain this “difference of kind” in the article – at least not that I can see.

  4. Your right,I think that he was trying to show how benefit corrupted all of us are? Thats why the bible said that we would all belong to the great and abominable church of the devil?