I wanted to draw attention to two essays that I think hint at important facets of the debate in libertarianism vs. statism. First, Robert Higgs, writing for The Independent Institute, discusses the problem of burden of proof and the massive status quo bias that crushes and discussion of libertarian politics.

Morally speaking, it would seem that those who opt in favor of coercive arrangements ought to bear the burden of proof. If the state is such a superior arrangement, by comparison with genuine, voluntary self-government, why must the state be propped up by all of its police and armed forces? Why must people be constantly threatened with imprisonment and death in order to bring forth the revenues that support the state’s activities? Walmart does not put a gun to my head to gain my patronage.

He also hits on one fact that I think is crucial to overcoming status quo bias, which is that our modern system of nation states is relatively new and, historically speaking, an aberration. I wished he’d given it more consideration, but he does point out that nation states in their modern form are only a few hundred years old.

My only strong point of contention with Higgs’ essay is that I think he oversteps his case when he lumps science in with politics in his discussion of burdens of proof. The burden of proof does and ought operate differently in the two fields.

Higgs’ essay reminded me of an excellent essay by E. W. Dykes called “Demunicipalize the Garbage Service“. It was originally published in the April, 1968 issue of The Freeman and it’s pretty well known in libertarian circles, but I think it’s worth a read for non-libertarians as well. An excerpt:

War — like many other of to­day’s problems — is the culmina­tion of the breaking of libertarian principles, not once, but thousands of times. We are challenged to jump in at this point and apply our principles to get out of the unholy mess resulting from years and years of errors on errors. The challenge might just as well have been put in terms like this: “You are a second lieutenant. Your platoon is surrounded. Your am­munition is gone. Two of your squad leaders are dead, the third severely wounded. Now, Mr. Lib­ertarian, let’s see you get out of this one with your little semi­nars.”

My answer: “Demunicipalize the garbage service.”

Dykes’ essay isn’t meant to imply the libertarians are inured to war, far from it. Just that asking for a libertarian answer to war on its own is a bit like asking a vegan chef how to avoid burning your steaks. If you really followed the vegan’s advice, the problem never would have come up in the first place.

To me, the modern equivalent of the War question for libertarians is welfare. A lot of people ask me what libertarian policies suggest to people currently dependent on government welfare. And when I admit that, for many of them, a move to a libertarian society would suck, it’s suddenly the libertarian society, not the dependent welfare statism that crowded out private charity and fostered a system of dependence, that is the culprit.

Want to know the libertarian answer to modern welfare? Demunicipalize the garbage service. Asking libertarians to solve problems that are, in part or in whole, the product of statist policies isn’t non-sensical, but it to cast unsatisfactory answers as failures of libertarianism rather than the statism that caused the problem in the first place, is a bit wrong-headed.

After all, in the 20th century, governments killed over 200 million people. Not just in wars, but also in industrialized slaughter. To put this in perspective, about 520,000 people were murdered by private citizens in 2000.

This means that, at year-2000 murder rates, it would take private citizens about 390 years to commit as much carnage as governments did in the hundred years from 1901 to 2000. Put more plainly, the best data available suggests that governments kill about four times as many people in the 20th century as did private violence.

So I guess murder is one area in which government is more efficient than the private sector. Credit where it’s due, I suppose.

I thank that to somehow cast as a libertarian failing our lack of answer to “the war question” misses the point that it’s the Statist system that is actually fighting the wars.

Similarly, the government “War on Poverty” is an abject failure. Poverty rates have been stagnant since its implementation, despite funding for it skyrocketing. The government isn’t solving the poverty problem.

And yet that the libertarians don’t have a ready answer for those already dependent on government handouts is somehow a problem for libertarians, not for the government responsible for the dysfunctional system in the first place.

At any rate, I think both essays are well worth your time, especially if you’re interested in libertarian thought, either pro or con.

And demunicipalize the garbage service.