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False Burdens of Voluntaryism: The Utilitarian Presumption

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“The Self Owner” is an original column appearing every Wednesday at, by Spencer W. Morgan. Spencer is a husband and father, and has studied History and Philosophy at the University of Utah. Archived columns can be found here. OVP-only RSS feed available here.

Now that we’ve systematically come all the way from self-ownership, its underlying philosophy, and arrived at it’s inevitable conclusion in the non-legitimacy of the state, I’d like to address one of the more prevalent reactionary arguments lofted at the proponents of fully-applied non-aggression (anarchism).

This argument often takes the form of many different questions or assertions such as;

“How are people’s rights protected in a voluntaryist society?”


“This is just too utopian of an idea… people will never be perfect enough to live without some basic amount of government control on their actions!”

Whatever form of consequentialism in which it is packaged as a hypothetical, these arguments begin with a false premise surrounding the idea of “protection.” The unstated premises contained in both of these questions above are as follows:

  1. The “protection” being sought and referred to is, in fact, accomplished by the existence of the state, thus creating a void of a desirable result to be filled by some alternative in its absence.
  2. The determination of whether to accept a method of social organization based on something other than institutionalized aggression (a.k.a. the state) is to be made on which approach accomplishes such “protection” more effectively in a consequentialist analysis. In other words, there is a presumption of utilitarianism involved.

Proponents of voluntaryism or market anarchism (for purposes of this discussion I see these as synonymous) often proceed forward in discussions accepting these unchecked premises, and by so doing doom themselves to hours of frustrating discussion or paragraphs of Facebook posts. They find and relate the litany of historical manifestations in which such protections have (and thus can) be provided by means other than government. They do this, all the while having accepted the burden of demonstrating, based on future hypotheticals, the superiority of statelessness in a utilitarian analysis based on an unchecked and contradictory notion of “protection.”

I have partially addressed premise 1 in a prior column, which explained that if the very means of a group of people’s capability to protect you depends on an act that is by definition the opposite of your protection (theft, taxation and threats of aggression), then it is impossible to accurately characterize that ongoing condition as one of being “protected.” The other refutation in this presumption is to examine the literal reality of what the state is, and what it does, and ask whether the overall net “benefit” of order that is always assumed is a reality, or merely presumption filling a psychological need. A society-wide “placebo effect,” if you will (more on this in later columns).

Is the state really the particular variable in the equation which accomplishes the degree of protection from harm by others which we currently enjoy?

A careful analysis of the real reasons that cause the average person to refrain from a criminal act (and by “criminal” I mean harmful to legitimate rights, not simply illegal) is what is needed here. Ask yourself why you refrain from a criminal act? It doesn’t take much introspection or research into criminal psychology to reach the conclusion that on the whole, people don’t refrain from a harmful act to another because of their immediate awareness of the existence of a statute against it, or as a corollary, that they don’t commit it because they were unaware of a statute against it. The vast majority of us refrain because we have adopted a rule for interaction with others that would preclude such an act. The Greek term for foundational societal rules is “nomos.” It is a notion of law which transcends and is independent of legislative edicts, often even contradicting them. For a more systematic view of such a concept of “law,” I would refer the reader to Hayek’s writings on the subject. So yes, it may be correct to attribute pervasive societal co-existence to rules for behavior, but it is wrong to view these operative rules as synonymous with statutes and edicts.

The reason I focus here on the awareness of a statutory edict itself as determinative, is because this is the only aspect which government adds to the equation. Government is not unique in it’s capability to resist aggression with defensive force in any specific instance. Such could be accomplished by any individual or individuals equipped, motivated and disposed to assist another with protection. Many instances could be cited to show a lack of motivation on the part of government operatives, in fact. So it would be a fallacy to say that those sociopathic few of us who would only refrain from a crime for fear of protective reprisals, would be free to “run wild” in a condition of statelessness. Such reprisals would still be operative in the absence of the state… and possibly more operative given that there would not be an institutional monopoly claiming the sole prerogative of exercising such defensive or restitutionary force and thereby restraining the actions of victims themselves and their would-be assisters.

The question then becomes whether, despite all of the weight of habit and tradition behind an answer we are already presuming, do we ever really get out of anarchy? In answer to this, Alfred Cuzan wrote what was probably the single most influential essay in taking myself (and many others I’ve encountered) from a minarchist to a voluntaryist position.

In next week’s column I will address the criticism that anarchism implies or requires a utopian or overly optimistic view of man’s nature and tendencies.

Undermining the Perception that is the State

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“The Self Owner” is an original column appearing every Wednesday at, by Spencer W. Morgan. Spencer is a husband and father, and has studied History and Philosophy at the University of Utah. Archived columns can be found here. OVP-only RSS feed available here.

Last week I addressed the act of voting, and political participation in general, from the standpoint of the specific morality of the act. I concluded it to be fruitless (in all but rare convergences of circumstances) and ultimately antithetical to the larger goal of societal liberty, though not an act which contains a specific consent for aggression as many voluntaryists contend. I’ve also addressed in a prior column the question of whether a duty of activism itself is a correct burden or a necessary response to the principles of self-ownership and liberty, and concluded that it is not.

Despite my having concluded that such an obligation is not implicit, many still desire to take steps to hinder the state in more immediate scenarios as well as to apply long-term strategies toward its reduction and/or demise. This week I’d like to address some of these approaches

For overall strategic value, especially from a long-term perspective, tactics like non-compliance, expanding state-evading market transactions (see agorism) and obstructive actions in court hold much more potential in terms of reward/effort ratio. This is especially true when one understands that the result to be sought is not necessarily the immediate reduction of state interferences, but the undermining of the perception of legitimacy that the state enjoys. Along those lines, I favor Marc Stevens’ “double-bind” approach in courts or public questioning of agents of the state, and jury nullification efforts.

What About a “Liberty Candidate” Like Ron Paul?

Ron Paul has been, from an enactments point of view, a complete failure both during his career in Congress and in his presidential campaigns. His greatest value has been as an instrument for exposure to a larger philosophical tradition. He is often referred to as the “gateway drug” for liberty. This value must and should be accounted for, but all too often it is mixed with an internally praised and self-reinforcing form of activist self-delusion regarding the viability of achieving liberty through a political candidate.

Putting together mass movements every four years just to have a possibility at getting someone who won’t increase the tyranny, much less pull together the sweeping consensus required for congressional change to begin rolling it all back, is not going to be how a voluntary society or any prevailing condition of greater liberty is achieved.

What is the “Plan” for Accomplishing Liberty?

This question, posed often by those both sympathetic and hostile to full human liberty and it’s implications, is one that sadly reveals to a great degree the success of our societal collectivist conditioning. Even after the realization of the moral incumbency of free action by each individual, we still habitually think in terms of imposing such a condition through hierarchical edicts from the top down. Since liberty is, itself, the absence of any such coercive external imposition, this makes going about it tricky and counter-intuitive.

Undermining the Perception

It is important to understand that the operating capability of the state does not rest purely on implemented or threatened force. If it did, it would be very limited in the scope of it’s effective control and it would have to operate out of the public eye. The real “lynch-pin” for the state is that it rests on the widespread perception of its legitimacy, and the expectations of the people all around us in our churches, businesses, and families. They spring into its service as enforcers (knowingly or not) with social reprisals against anyone who questions not just a particular government action, but the validity of our being subject to it’s rule at all.

That’s why the path to complete liberty is to undermine this concept and perception. We can do so slowly until it becomes the same as a “flat earth” idea. Like the truth-based advances in human progress that preceded this one, it is a huge uphill battle against all of the weight of tradition and institutional inertia.

That understanding presents a much different long-term strategy. The point at which, in society, when the average person faces more social backlash from agreement with state aggression than they do for openly questioning it will be a major tipping point and one which we all have in our power to hasten in small ways.

To move the evolution of humanity forward toward liberty in a lasting way, we can all do a great deal without ever stepping in a voting booth or holding a campaign sign. People’s relationships with others are incredibly important to them. We can point out tactfully and calmly the reality of government force in a very personal way. We can explain to them that the schemes of state solutions with which they agree, are being imposed upon millions who do not… at the barrel of a gun. We can point out that among these millions is the person with whom they are speaking at that moment and profess to care for. Does this friend or family member really believe men with guns should be permitted to force you to fund their solution to a problem, or to put you in a cage if you refuse?

Historically it is usually external pressure and economic reality that collapse these huge parasitic empires, and that’s ultimately the opportunity I anticipate. When that window of opportunity comes, things will get very fluid. The less pervasive the perception of the state’s legitimacy (meaning government in general) is at that point in time, the better. For small examples of this, we can look at what is happening in Detroit right now. As local government and services shut their doors, will people turn to private, voluntary cooperative efforts or market solutions, or will they clamor for a larger more solvent governments to assume control? The reaction in that critical moment, played out across what may be dozens, hundreds or thousands of instances of government failures, will be the critical thing.

Convincing someone in an immediate conversation is rare and antithetical to human nature, so don’t measure your efforts by that goal. Exposure to voluntaryism, or the non-legitimacy of the state, is an effort in “shifting the window” of acceptable ideas. It will produce an emotional backlash 20 times for every one time that it produces a thoughtful acknowledgement or agreement. This is because of the way the person has been presented in their inner psychological dialogue with a contradiction of a deeply-held emotional investment. Take this as a sign that you have succeeded, because now that they are aware they will be constantly recognizing the manifestations of that contradiction and may later choose to begin reconciling them.

Should a Liberty Advocate Vote?

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“The Self Owner” is an original column appearing every Wednesday at, by Spencer W. Morgan. Spencer is a husband and father, and has studied History and Philosophy at the University of Utah. Archived columns can be found here. OVP-only RSS feed available here.

Now that we’ve examined the nature of the state (or government) in detail, and identified it as definitively aggressive and therefore definitively immoral, a number of questions come up. One of the more common within voluntaryist and libertarian circles, is the question of whether one should vote.

To answer this question, we first have to answer what is meant by “should.” The “should”could either refer to a moral determination or a strategic one. First, I will address first the moral consideration. Does voting constitute participation in, or consent for the aggression of the state? Should it always be avoided because it does?

I would contend that morally, there is neither an obligation to vote nor to refrain from voting. The logical basis for characterizing voting as an act of force, or consent to such, has no valid basis… just as the state itself has no valid basis for claiming consent of its governed via participation in a vote. Yes, the people who claim to be our rulers construe the act of voting as consent, but they’re wrong to do so. Voting can not be demonstrably tied to a valid instrument of consent or contract by any specific individual, a point Lysander Spooner made in No Treason. His reasoning, while it was specifically directed at the Constitution itself, holds true for voting in general as a supposed act of consent. He says:

It cannot be said that, by voting, a man pledges himself to support the Constitution, unless the act of voting be a perfectly voluntary one on his part. Yet the act of voting cannot properly be called a voluntary one on the part of any very large number of those who do vote. It is rather a measure of necessity imposed upon them by others, than one of their own choice. (No Treason, the Constitution of no Authority)

Spooner’s point here is essentially that emergency ethics are in play. Voting creates an inherent “lifeboat scenario” for us all, being constantly at peril of our lives, liberty and property from the ever-present threat of the state. Therefore voting can, at best, be presumed to be the act of an individual using one of an array of available options for self-defense. Furthermore, voting can not be construed as consent to the overall condition of subjection to the state because ballots do not contain a referendum on that situation. They merely represent a choice among various referenda and candidates regarding the implementation of that coercion.

The deeper problem for voluntaryists who take stand against voting on the “consent” grounds, is that it is wrong to impose an obligation to refrain that is based on a logically ill-conceived notion of consent to begin with. To do so is also, in the context of libertarianism and voluntaryism, deeply hypocritical. One cannot have it both ways. If voting is not “consent” when the state claims it as justification to impose their whim upon anyone who as ever voted (which would indeed be an absurdity) then it is also not “consent” when a person chooses to vote for strategic reasons, or reasons other than their intent to express such consent. Granted, there may be some who walk into voting booths willfully wishing that by very act to express their consent to their general subjection to the determinations of government, however I think it’s more reasonable to presume that for most (voluntaryist or not) the act is merely an effort to influence those determinations, expecting that they will be operative.

Voting as a Strategy for Liberty

Whatever moral considerations do come into play when deciding whether to vote, are the moral considerations surrounding the use of one’s time, and the moral obligation to avoid self-deception. I used to take a position that voting is a morally neutral act, however over time I’ve become more convinced of the importance of these decisions of time usage and being honest with oneself and they are very important. Self-deception is the underlying immoral act that acts as the foundation of all others.

Voting is a failed strategy for society-wide liberty, and will continue to be so. It is clearly not a means, along with all political processes, of accomplishing the ultimate goal of achieving a voluntary society. Aside from the empirical data which abounds for this, It’s absurd to think that one can gain control of a coercive mechanism such as the state, and use it to impose voluntaryism on society. It is an inherent contradiction, and strategically impossible. The best evidence for this (aside from the fact that tyranny has steadily grown despite the voting process being in place) is that voting is the process that the state itself permits us to use to influence its actions. If it was likely to inhibit them or reduce their power, the individuals labeled government wouldn’t allow it to continue!

This doesn’t mean that there is never anything that can be improved by voting and other forms of state-approved participation. Under the right alignment of circumstances a vote or other participatory effort may indeed lead to a reduction of the individual instances of force brought to bear by the state. Each act of aggression is a moral evil, and therefore each reduction of that force even by means of voting must be viewed as a positive. Therefore it’s unwise to completely rule out the use of voting and other participatory efforts.

Next week I will discuss some effective, non-voting forms of working toward societal liberty, in terms of both immediate damage control and the long-term goal of eliminating its perception of legitimacy.

Liberty and the Activist Mind: Implication or Contradiction?

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“The Self Owner” is an original weekly column appearing every Wednesday at, by Spencer W. Morgan. Spencer is a husband and father, and has studied History and Philosophy at the University of Utah. Archived columns can be found here. OVP-only RSS feed available here.

Now that we’ve systematically examined liberty from the ground up (meaning from its conceptual connection to reality) and examined its implications to several areas of human interaction, I’d like to circle back and address an entirely new question.

How does a proponent of liberty act? How does a person spend their time and effort if they value this principle or wish to advance it in society?

Here is where some really unfortunate societal conditioning usually kicks in. At the conscious level, we may have responded intellectually to the principle of liberty, however at the subconscious level many of us don’t immediately (or ever) shed the anti-liberty presumptions behind the way we work toward it. We immediately take steps to implement it as though it were just another political or managerial scheme to be imposed on society through collectivist rituals (politics) without fully realizing the way the very idea is antithetical to such means of social influence. I intend to address in detail the morality of political advocacy and voting more extensively later, but right now I want to focus on an even deeper question behind this.

In the libertarian community, and the circles of disaffected evangelical conservatives, with conspiracy theorists and the general contrarians that it tends to draw from, is a very passionate group. I’ve never found two self-confessed “libertarians” that agree completely, and the characterization that organizing this community is like “herding cats” could not be more fitting.

One thing that does seem to be generally accepted, however, is a presumption of the nobility of spending one’s life obsessed with building political movements, exposing conspirators against liberty and being, for lack of softer terminology, a humorless and judgmental verbal bully ready to unleash a tirade of historical facts and negative characterizations at the drop of a hat. Whether this approach is actually a positive influence on others is another question for another day. For the moment I just want to ask; “Is this really how someone who values liberty, or their self-determination, spends their time?”

I call this the “Steven Mallory syndrome”. Those who are familiar with Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead will remember this character; the embittered genius sculptor who befriends the protagonist Howard Roark. First, let me first give my standard Rand disclaimer. I realize she didn’t reach the conclusion of voluntaryism personally, and I recognize several flaws in some of the ways she applied her ethics (foreign policy) as well as some questionable personal behavior… so please don’t confuse me for a card-carrying “Randroid.”  Nevertheless, the novels she wrote brought me to voluntaryism and continue to provide valuable lessons, one of which I am about to explain.

Roark and Mallory have a series of dialogues in which the contrast in their characters is apparent and which to me illustrate the fundamental choice an individual has in their approach to personal liberty and the myriad of its violations we inevitably encounter.

Throughout the book, the protagonist Howard Roark cheerfully and even, as it would seem, naively dodges those who seek to thwart his liberty and his purposeful use thereof (his work) at every turn, without wasting mental energy dwelling on these machinations. By contrast, Mallory becomes bitter, negative and obsessed with his enemies’ efforts. For him it becomes a crippling fear and an excuse for abandoning his work (sculpting) despite his incredible genius and ability. In one passage he says, speaking to Roark:

“I know what I’m talking about–and you don’t. You can’t know. It’s because of that absolute health of yours. You’re so healthy that you can’t conceive of disease. You know of it. But you don’t really believe it. I do. I’m wiser than you are about some things, because I’m weaker. I understand–the other side. That’s what did it to me… what you saw yesterday.”

The “liberty movement” has an abundance of Mallorys. There are whole networks of activists ready to detail for you all the ways our liberties are curtailed and threatened and complain about them. Is this really the way a true advocate of liberty behaves? Is this the most consistent reaction with a true understanding of the value of liberty as an implication of self-determination?

The world is also full of people who live their daily lives, pursuing their personal goals. They regularly sidestep invasions by the state without so much as a second thought or occasional grumble at the inconvenience, moving on using the liberty they still have to implement their self-determined goals. Many in the liberty movement, who accept a presumption of some “duty to society” for such a person to stop and focus on curtailing these violations of liberty through awareness efforts and political campaigns, are very condemning of such people. Charges of “selfishness” and “greedy” or even “traitor” are not uncommon in such contexts, and those making them seem to not have even asked the question of whether the principles (collective altruistic duty, or statism) upon which they would depend for validity, are even themselves valid principles.

If liberty is a valid idea (and we have already examined why it is) then it is valid because individual priorities and goals are of value. I’d suggest that the best “liberty advocates” among us are not those who are the most obsessed with the violations of liberty, but those who are using what they have of it to its fullest.

The Contradiction of Protective Government

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“The Self Owner” is an original weekly column appearing every Wednesday at, by Spencer W. Morgan. Spencer is a husband and father, and has studied History and Philosophy at the University of Utah. Archived columns can be found here. OVP-only RSS feed available here.

Last week we branched out of our discussion on concepts, and began examining government (or the state) as a concept. We determined that its defining conceptual characteristic is the expectation and presumed legitimacy to undertake aggressive actions. “Aggressive” here would be a characterization that builds on the other systematic concept we have examined, which is “rights.” Rights are the line that defines an act as aggressive or non-aggressive, because they are a barrier that defines the limits and implications of an individual’s self-ownership.

This week I’d like to lay out the case for why government is deeply flawed at the conceptual level, and not just merely in current practice or historical implementations.

Throughout history, the ruling class has taken various structural forms and various justifications for their power. We don’t know for certain the circumstances of its first application as a concept, but we can see throughout history that its implementation has tended to precede is justifications. In other words, all of the sanction of deities and complex philosophical arguments have come as an afterthought. They were an exercise in justifying what already existed, usually in the face of advances in the rational approach to government that caused old justifications to lose credibility.

After the old justifications for rulers, like the “divine right of kings,” had faded out of popularity, European philosophers like Hobbes and Locke started filling that deficiency with my more sophisticated philosophical arguments. At the root of all of these was the idea that people either did, or hypothetically would, participate in a contract to empower a ruler or ruling class, in order to better protect their rights. The presumption is that a condition of an absence of a single ruling entity in a geographic area creates a condition within which the typical individual is less safe, and less able to defend himself.

Government as Protector

It’s hard to dispute that in many times and places in history, this would have been a correct assessment. An association with an aggressive gang, or that gang’s eventual takeover to the exclusion of others, can indeed result in a more favorable condition for individuals when contrasted with a situation of gang warfare. A lot of theorizing and analysis on this question has been done by some very talented minds about how and why, especially in a modern world, a society without a state could operate, and be better and safer than a ruled society. For more detail I would refer the reader to Jeffrey Tucker’s It’s a Jetsons World or the Tannehill’s The Market for Liberty. My intent here is merely to examine the concept of government and measure it by the great standard to which all of our concepts and assessments of reality must be held: non-contradiction.

Since the state must fund itself by extracting, at threat of aggression, a portion of earnings from its “citizens,” it operates by the very violation of what it supposedly exists to protect. Admittedly this is not integrally conceptual to the state. Some thinkers have postulated voluntarily-funded governments, however the viability of even those still depends on another form of aggression. The state is presumed to be the singular market provider of its services. Therefore it must maintain its position by excluding other providers of those same services (protection and adjudication of law). Were it not to do this, other “governments” or private associations offering those services would enter the market. Because the state is a conceptual monopoly in a given locale, it conceptually presupposes the use or threats of aggressive force to prevent competition. In this way at the very least, government must violate the barriers (rights) that its conceptual justifications require it to protect. Self-ownership implies both my right to organize and sell (voluntarily) protective services to customers, as well as my right (being that customer) to choose not only which provider from whom to buy, but whether to buy those services at all.

Therefore the very idea of rights as a concept, implicitly negates government in all practical applications and at the conceptual level. No matter how much we may be convinced that in the “net analysis” government improves a practical situation, the idea of protecting a person’s self-ownership by institutionalizing and legitimizing its violation, will always be a contradiction. This contradiction will only become more glaring as improvements in technology and cooperation take us further and further away from the brutal ages of history during which circumstances might have made it appealing.

The Concept of Government

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“The Self Owner” is an original weekly column appearing every Wednesday at, by Spencer W. Morgan. Spencer is a husband and father, and has studied History and Philosophy at the University of Utah. Archived columns can be found here. OVP-only RSS feed available here.

Last week we began examining the uniquely human capacity of forming concepts. We examined the proper role of the conceptual capacity as enabling man to deal more effectively with reality by forming abstractions and principles. We also discussed the dangers of the conceptual capacity when it becomes detached from reality.

One example of this is the concept we know as government, or the state. When we actually ask the question “what is government?” the typical answers refer entirely to the conceptual realm. In other words, there is no actual manifestation of government in reality (by “government” I mean the ruling entities of the world, not the larger notion of “governing” in general). It is merely an idea or an abstraction. Government is a conceptual label applied to the actions of certain individual humans. If I were to ask for evidence of the existence of government itself, not the individuals or buildings that we associate with that label, there is none.

Since government is merely a group of humans, what is it that our conceptual label holds about these particular human beings? What makes them special?

Here comes the tricky part. We have to separate the actual, definitive conceptual idea upon which almost all of society is operating when applying that label, from all of the jingoism, nationalistic rhetoric, mythology, etc.

There is a lot of variation in society about what the conceptual purpose, or proper role (if any) of government should be. One person might believe its purpose is to maintain equality, while another may see it as a protector of property. Others still, might see its primary purpose as a neutral arbiter to resolve disputes between individuals. The variations in purpose behind government are as numerous as the variations of things that it is involved in undertaking.

There is, however, a core notion at the heart of the idea of government upon which all who see that label as operative share. It is the unique capacity upon which all of those more detailed “purposes” for any given government depend. Government is a group of humans who enjoy an expectation and a unique privilege to commit aggression. For some the validity of that label is so strong, that they would actually refuse to accept the characterization of many acts by individuals labeled government as being aggression, even when the literal facts of a situation would indicate such. However, this is the defining expectation and presumption of privilege that is conveyed by the label, and the ever-looming threat that all compliance with government presupposes.

Admittedly, this characterization of any act as “aggression”depends on another concept which have addressed previously, rights. Before an act that overrides my use of my person or property with physical force, or threats thereof, can be seen as “aggressive,” I must hold the concept that I own, or are entitled to exclusive usership of them. Is government a good concept? Is it one that attempts to deny and subordinate reality or is it one that is in harmony with reality? I would argue for the former, for one key reason which I will discuss at length next week.

Concepts: A Double-Edged Sword

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“The Self Owner” is an original weekly column appearing every Wednesday at, by Spencer W. Morgan. Spencer is a husband and father, and has studied History and Philosophy at the University of Utah. Archived columns can be found here. OVP-only RSS feed available here.

Now that we’ve thoroughly examined man’s condition as a free, choosing agent and his moral entitlement to self-ownership, I’d like to start drawing connections between this principle and the world of group abstractions that surrounds us. We’ve already discussed at length the state and its parasitic nature, but this week I’d like to take a step back and address these collective group abstractions in general and how we should be reigning them in.

Our uniquely human conceptual and imaginative ability is wonderful. Children are born with this capacity, and one of my favorite things as a parent has been to watch it develop in my two daughters. Children tend to use their imagination harmlessly, while fully aware of its detachment from reality. I watched my daughter Marissa form her own unique concept as a small child, called a “bomp.” She started applying this concept to things she observed, and eventually I was able to learn from her applications that a “bomp” meant a rapidly moving object, living or otherwise, whose movement was exciting and unpredictable.

Concepts are a critical guide for interpreting and applying the signals we receive from our senses, and they allow us to prepare for situations in reality that we have not yet encountered. By forming a general mental concept about something (for example, a chair) we can have a larger, objective guide for how we approach our encounters with chairs. Without this capacity, we would see each instance of a chair we might encounter as an isolated object containing four legs, a flat surface, etc. From this example we can see how foundational the conceptual ability is to science, economic exchange, innovation, and more.

The Danger in Unrestrained Concepts

The most important thing to understand is that the “chair” part, or the part that is our larger concept, does not literally exist. What exists is the materials that make up the chair, in the shape we have come to associate conceptually as a chair. The concept itself, however, exists only as a mental formation we have made as rational beings to guide our interactions with reality. This may seem basic, but it is essential to understand and continue to apply when we start dealing with more complex concepts.

As we age, the lines separating our concepts from the literal reality they serve to help us navigate can become blurred. We, unfortunately, come to believe that our concepts exist in reality in many cases. One of the most revealing and persistently agitating things I’ve encountered in the last few years has been the typical reaction a person has when I say “the government does not exist.” Admittedly, I am doing this to get a reaction and their attention, and don’t immediately expect them to understand my meaning, which is that the state itself is merely a fictional concept applied to a group of human beings, certain buildings, etc., but which has no actual manifestation itself in reality. It is interesting to watch however, that even with careful explanation of those nuances, the resistance that many feel. There seems to be a deep need, for many people, to believe that the government does itself have an existence apart from the individual actors who act under that label.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the philosopher Plato made a very grave mistake from which western philosophy and religion have yet to recover. Plato viewed the conceptual as real, and even theorized that a perfect world of “forms”existed, of which our flawed, material world was a degraded subset. Since then, all of the Christian thinkers and writers of philosophy (and there have been many) who have adopted this premise have made the mistake of trying to subordinate reality to man’s imagination, instead of vice versa. This can be a harmless enough fantasy (or at least harmless to all but our selves) until we start adopting concepts as a society that become an accepted basis for aggression to others. Next week I will discuss how government is such concept.

Selling Free Markets as an Ethical Mandate

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“The Self Owner” is an original weekly column appearing every Wednesday at, by Spencer W. Morgan. Spencer is a husband and father, and has studied History and Philosophy at the University of Utah. Archived columns can be found here. OVP-only RSS feed available here.

I’m going to take a break this week from the systematic, philosophical discussion and turn to strategy. If you’ve been following this column, you’ve no doubt anticipated how the concepts of rights and trade have huge implications on the areas of government and economics. If individual natural rights is a valid idea, then the absence of intervention into people’s personal property and economic decisions is morally obligatory. When we apply that conclusion universally to the societal level, this brings us to that dreaded “c” word…

Let’s face it, free market capitalism has gotten a bad rep. Whether you blame left-wing rhetoric, or big-government partnerships in using the control of government undertaken in the name of “free enterprise,” the term has become essentially a dirty word to generations of Americans. Any mention of “capitalism” tends to conjure images of greedy men in top hats carrying dollar signs out to fleece the public. Many self-styled “libertarians” understandably, therefore, steer clear of the term or even redefine it to be synonymous with mercantilism or state/corporate partnership (fascism).

The first challenge in upholding a free-enterprise system, then, is the challenge of shedding the pervasive baggage which accompanies this word and the “hands-off”relationship between government and economics it originally conveyed.

Even for those informed and reasonable enough to reject such sensationalism, capitalism still tends to be evaluated under the implicit presumption that it’s just another “ism” plan of economics to be compared against schemes of greater economic control and, like any plan of managerial control, to then be imposed from the top-down in the pursuit of some nebulous societal end to which it is presumed to be the best means. This is due to the generations of academic specialization and separation that has removed the question of economics from the more foundational context of ethics and interpersonal morality at the individual level.

The Missing Moral Context

The most important way to reinvent free market capitalism going forward centers around the part of the debate that all of the foregoing drops… the moral and philosophical context at the core of the question.

What is economic exchange? Economic exchange is not, as most modern schools of economics tend to imply in their methods, just the cold materialistic operation of some natural phenomenon to be evaluated empirically and predicted only on the basis of calculations and statistical observations on a large scale. It is, in reality, the aggregation of millions of choices made by individuals for individual reasons.

Unhindered economic exchange therefore is not just the best and most dynamic way to accomplish the distribution of resources and services in any given locality, but more importantly, it is the inevitable moral mandate arising from natural rights, or the concept that the individual is rightfully free in the use of his person and property, and that this individual has value as an end in his or her self. To presume anything else economically, is to presume the propriety of brutality and acceptability of aggression at the individual level.

Unfortunately, the early lawmakers of the American republic did not fully apply this philosophy of natural rights that led to the greatest amount of economic freedom in history, and the footholds and holdovers from the mercantilism of Europe which they adopted have been fully exploited by the enemies of human freedom.

Thus our starting point, and best tactical priority, is to restore this moral and philosophical context as the foundation of economic science, and advocate a free economy as an ethically superior position.

The State: Human Parasite

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“The Self Owner” is an original weekly column appearing every Wednesday at, by Spencer W. Morgan. Spencer is a husband and father, and has studied History and Philosophy at the University of Utah. Archived columns can be found here. OVP-only RSS feed available here.

In previous columns, we discussed the way exchange depends on subjective determinations of value by each party, and how it requires each party to appeal to the rational assessment of the other party’s self-interest. We have discussed at length the philosophical premises of human rationality, self-ownership and their interpersonal ethical implications, which are rights and trade.

Voluntary trade has been a key element in the development of what anthropologists refer to as civilization, as distinguished from more primitive societal models. As humans moved away from hunter-gatherer societies, trade played a key role. The development of agriculture also prompted specialization in various crops. Trade is essentially a way of leveraging diversity on a societal scale. Its our diversity that allows exchange based on these divergent determinations of value.

Rather than independently growing or gathering everything for his own bare-subsistence existence, man was able to specialize and create great personal surplus of an individual staple and then trade his excess for the rest of his wants and needs. Specialization in a particular good or crop allowed humans to leverage the diversity of their abilities. Wealth, then, is either the increase in surplus resources or reductions of effort required to survive and is brought about by innovations in technology and the specialization enabled by trade.

The great surplus enabled by trade and specialization, as anthropologists tell us, was a necessary change for permanent cities; civilization to develop. It also permitted a phenomenon that could not exist prior to such surplus: the state. Among all of the competing theories about the process of early state formation, anthropologists generally agree that organized government as we know it was only possible after, and because of, this great surplus in wealth. This means (my own conclusion) that the state is essentially parasitic. Rather than being the cause of societal cooperation and its resulting prosperity, it is clear that the state could only have arisen after such advances in human development because of its need to feed on that resulting surplus. We can illustrate this by the use of an economist’s favorite tool: the desert island analogy.

Suppose thirteen people crash-landed on a desert island. After all of the drama, emotional recovery, and after that one poor sap gets predictably sucked to his bloody doom into the still-turning jet engine, they settle in for a few weeks of scraping out survival. After experiencing the daily grind of individually gathering their own food, they start to find that there are great variations in their individual abilities. They decide to cooperate and hold a meeting to determine each others’ specialized roles (no, I’m not advocating central planning of careers here; just go with me on the analogy). After the skilled carpenters, doctors, hunters and such are identified, two people remain. They propose to the group that they, out of a need for order and regulation, are going to fill the role of creating and enforcing rules for the rest of the group. They offer no specialized service or product for which the others might voluntarily trade, and yet they propose that their role of controlling the rest is necessary for stability. They therefore propose that their personal survival should be supported by the excess wealth of the others, and even (if daring enough) might propose that the others also fund the enforcement of their rules for control (legislation). Let’s say that they then also propose that in order to enforce their rules, they require everyone’s agreement that they, and only they, be permitted to use aggressive force.

The State is these two individuals now. Our two benevolent, would-be parasites would undoubtedly be seen with great suspicion. Anthropologists are divided on whether the first states actually arose from a voluntary agreement to such a condition or whether the claims of such consensus based on supposed necessity are a retroactive justification for control that was obtained via conquest. Without reaching a conclusion on that ultimate question, we can still see that the state currently operates only on a fiction of “consent” and without specific and express contractual empowerment from the individuals experiencing its rulership.

This example illustrates the basic and defining nature of the state. It also helps illustrate how the state needs a preexisting surplus resulting from organized cooperation, a phenomenon for which it frequently takes credit. The state represents a very sophisticated, historically enduring, but increasingly apparent fraud by which a few humans have managed to evade the ethical rules of rights and trade, while simultaneously feeding on their resulting productivity.

Trade as an Ethic for Social Cooperation

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“The Self Owner” is an original weekly column appearing every Wednesday at, by Spencer W. Morgan. Spencer is a husband and father, and has studied History and Philosophy at the University of Utah. Archived columns can be found here. OVP-only RSS feed available here.

Last week we explored the implications of man’s nature as a rational, and volitionally rational being. We’ve identified two major implications of this nature. The first of these is rights, which are the conceptual barriers to our self-owning actions and the negative obligation upon all others to honor such barriers. The second is trade. Trade is the process by which rational beings exchange or cooperate for mutual, but individually- and subjectively-calculated, benefit.

As the saying goes, “no man is an island.” This platitude is often lobbed at liberty advocates of all varieties, containing the unspoken assumptions that,

  1. coerced association is the only kind possible, and
  2. those who question its validity are advocating zero cooperation.

We can easily reject this classic argument just by examining these presumptions. The saying, however, is valid and illustrative of an undeniable truth about humanity. Humans have found interaction and interdependence to be both psychologically and economically advantageous to a degree that we can and should reject the idea of total isolation as an ideal. We need not reject this reality.

If we do accept that humans are better off connected socially, and cooperating, then the question is: on what basis should this cooperation be motivated? How do we obtain the cooperation from others we want or need, when each of these others is an individual self-owner who is entitled to her own determinations and free range of self-owning action? Trade is the answer to that question.

Trade is more than just a label for our economic activity. It is a concept that pervades all of our interaction with others. As an ethic for seeking and obtaining cooperation of other self-owners, trade requires that we honor their rationality and right of self-determination by finding a way to appeal to their desires as determined by themselves. This ethic can, and should, be applied to all of our social interactions.

  • In a situation where we might be inclined to compel our child’s cooperation by a threat of punishment, guilt, etc., we might instead honor the logical capacity that they do have at a very early age by spending the extra time and effort to help them realize the way they individually benefit from the desired action.
  • When we might expect assistance from a friend or family member in an endeavor to assist us out of obligation or as a response to a display of our need, we can instead find a way to appeal to their self-interest by offering an exchange, whether monetary or otherwise.
  • We can see our marriages, instead of as a formality that entitles us to the obligatory endurance of our partner, as an exchange that we are required to continue to make desirable to the other in order to appeal to their self-interest.

One inescapable presumption contained in every act of voluntary trade is the validity of the self-interest of each participant. By making a voluntary exchange, whether I am exchanging a physical good, money, or my time and effort, I am presuming the validity of my self-interest and the self-interest of the other party to the exchange. Many of the “duties” imposed by our culture, whether governmental, traditional, or religious, seem to stem from an effort to circumvent this trade ethic and thus deny the principle of individual self-determination and self-interest.

As we can see, the notion of trade rests upon some very essential philosophical presumptions, and has some very undeniable implications. In future columns we’ll examine these in detail. Next week we’ll look specifically at the way trade requires diversity, and how voluntary trade (unlike its parasitic, coercive counterfeits) has formed the foundation and engine of everything we now recognize as civilization.