Libertarian History/Philosophy

The Market for Liberty Reviewed


Because most readers of REASON are familiar with laissez-faire economic theory and the ethical arguments on behalf of the voluntary association, my review of The Market for Liberty by Morris and Linda Tannehill will be somewhat limited. The book is unique only in one respect. It advocates the abolishment of government and the handling of what has been thought by others, including Ayn Rand, to be the function of government, namely the protection of rights (military, police, courts), through the mechanism of the market place. For this reason I will focus my review on the central elements of this book, on its chapters "Man and Society" and "Government—An Unnecessary Evil".

In general there is little that is original in this work, even though some of the points are well made. For one, the work effectively shows why violent revolution is both immoral and useless towards achieving a fully free society. But many points which have been made by the several well known libertarian thinkers (Rothbard, von Mises, Rogge, Read, Rand, et al.) are merely asserted instead of proven or even argued for. Thus the discussion of "human nature" fails to be convincing to anyone who might have different ideas about the matter—and is useless to those who already agree.

Sometimes the work is irritatingly superficial. For example, no recognition of some of history's major philosophers and philosophies is given, even though the ideas presented are clearly part of a Western philosophical tradition. Frequently the reader is implicitly put down for not being already in agreement with the authors, as, for instance, where the reader is offered a definition of a term without any attempt to state and argue for a theory of definitions in terms of which such a definition could be seen to held up. (More on this later.)

For someone who is a high school student or in general has no educational background whatsoever, The Market for Liberty can serve the valuable purpose of presenting him with ideas which are not widely discussed and known today. But the work will not suffice to show anything conclusive in view of its failure to observe even the most elementary rules of scholarship. For example, when opposing views are discussed, no mention is made of whose views it is that are being talked about; nor is there a presentation of quotations of the central arguments of the opposing thesis. The reader is constantly left with the impression that the views being rejected are given short shrift, if not intentionally, then by default. How could a complex theory of government, based on a total philosophical system, like that of Miss Rand, be presented second hand, without even mentioning the name of the person whose view it is?

Unfortunately there is very little that one can hope for by pointing this out to the authors, who are well known among libertarians. The utter presumption of necessary infallibility exudes throughout the work. Had the authors argued for all of their points in detail, such arrogant self-assuredness would be perfectly justified (and a healthy sign of their own psychological state). Under the circumstances it can only be understood as a mask behind which incompleteness, thoroughlessness, and other deficiencies are hidden.

"Man and Society"

On page 6 we read: "Most self-styled planners and builders of societies haven't even considered that man might have a specific nature." No one is mentioned, even in a footnote, so that we could get some idea whom the authors have in mind. Plato? Aristotle? Augustine? Aquinas? Spinoza? Descartes? Hobbes? Locke? Hegel? Marx? Spencer? von Mises? Rand? Surely none of these, inasmuch as all of them thought that man does have a specific nature, though they differed markedly over what it is. Perhaps the authors had in mind Hume who indeed rejected the possibility of formulating a definition of man—though this did not bother him and he went right ahead and based a complete moral system on his implicit conception of human nature.

Later we read that "This lack of realization that man has a specific nature which requires that he function in a specific way…" without finding any attempt to make clear how this "requiring" obtains. Surely human natures unlike people, do not go about requiring things of anyone.' Perhaps an understanding of human nature would lead us to be able to base on it a view of how human beings ought to act, to justify a moral code. No requiring is needed—or if there is, we ought to be told what is meant by this unusual sense of the term.

While earlier we were told that man has a specific nature, later we are told that "Since Darwin, scientific research has been steadily uncovering evidences of evolution which show the development of the nature of the human animal." So, apparently, this specific human nature underwent development (and may, so far as we know, still be undergoing the same). This, one would think, warrants at least a clarification.

Still on page 6, the authors footnote a sentence with the works of Robert Ardrey and Desmond Morris without any indication of the relevance of these works to what they are trying to tell the reader. To my knowledge both these authors hold to a theory which proposes that man is instinctually tied to territorial habits, that there is a "territorial imperative" within his biological system which pushes him, as it were, toward property. The Tannehills never attempt to square this with their belief in man's nature as a free agent, a self-causing entity.

The authors' discussion of the Objectivist theory of free will and its implications for morality is adequate, though one might have welcomed some elaboration instead of the simple (and at times slightly distorted) regurgitation which is in fact offered to the reader. For example, on page 7, we are told that "If (man) is to have a full and happy life, he needs a blueprint to show him what is pro-life and what is anti-life and to guide his choices and actions. Such a blueprint is a code of morality—a chosen guide to action. If a man wants his morality to further his life instead of crippling it, he must choose a morality which is in harmony with his evolved nature as a sensing, thinking being." (My emphasis.) What is not made clear is whether morality (being moral) consists of following a blueprint or of discovering how to live, blueprint or no blueprint. Two things should be noted in this connection, both of special value to students of Objectivism. Being moral is choosing to be rational, to be aware in the specifically human way. If this leads to the discovery of blueprints, fine and dandy—that is what is moral; but if it does not lead to any blueprint we are still not condemned to immorality. If, as the authors tell us, man has an evolving nature (a la Darwin), or one that can be in evolution still, then there is no guarantee that a given blueprint will suit all men for all times. In other words, what is in a person's "self-interest" as a human being may change from one century to another in various ways. What is always imperative, of course, is that man be aware of reality and himself in his mode of awareness which, to the best of our knowledge, is rational thought, conceptual awareness.

The authors also fail to distinguish between "a code of morality", "his morality," and "a morality". Are there several moralities to choose from? What would that involve? If being moral consists of being humanly aware, rational, how could I, as a moral person (who is indeed rational) choose a morality as opposed to another morality? This all needs to be explained. Without a detailed discussion the authors might have as well directed the reader to Ayn Rand's The Objectivist Ethics and leave the matter at that.

On page 8, "choosing to think" is said to be "man's most powerful tool and greatest virtue…"Here I want merely to point out that a choice is not a tool—though it may put into operation man's most powerful tool, namely his reasoning faculty. (Of course, the choice is man's virtue, it is what makes him good or bad or a mixture.)

The authors discuss sacrifice on page 9 and do a fine job of it. Yet here again a little carelessness slips into their discussion, resulting in the statement that "…man, by his nature, must choose to think and produce in order to live, and the better he thinks, the better he will live." First, "by his nature" is quite vague! Then, it is not "the better he thinks" but the more rational he is, which means the more fully aware he is. (Admittedly, this is a rather technical distinction which might not be possible to make without extensive study of Objectivism.)

On page 11 the authors put forth their claims about the alienability of human rights. We read "The beachcomber, by his initiation of force against and to the detriment of another man, has alienated himself from the right to that part of his life which is required to pay his debts. Rights are not inalienable, but only the possessor of a right can alienate himself from that right—no one else can take a man's rights from him."

This view is confused. In addition it contradicts what the authors say earlier on the same page: "A right is a moral prohibition; it doesn't specify anything with regard to what actions the possessor of the right may take (so long as his actions are non-coercive)…" But if a right is just a moral prohibition which "morally prohibits others from forcibly interfering with any of (one's) non-coercive actions" then one does not get alienated from his rights when others demand and extract payment for debts. Since a right is a moral prohibition against interference with non-coercive action, interference with coercive action (and what results from it, unjust possessions—a mere instance of coercive action) cannot constitute an act involving the alienation of a right. And since the person who engages in coercive actions, say theft, is now in possession of something that is not his, he cannot become alienated from that—it was never his in the first place. The authors tell us that "Each person has a right to his own life, which means that each person is a self-owner (assuming that his behavior has been and is non-coercive)." Again, if true, this would indicate that a real honest to goodness right cannot be alienated. Even the guy who is sent to jail for life is there as a result of his humanity, because he is by right in jail, not because he has alienated himself from his rights (see "Persons and Punishment" by Herbert Morris, The Monist '68). Had the criminal alienated himself from his rights, he would not be treated as a criminal, that is, as a human being who has done a moral wrong, a violation of another's rights; he would be treated as a non-human. Inasmuch as human rights are based on the fact of someone's being a human being, only the loss of this status (one's humanity) could succeed in alienating one from his rights. Certainly one would not hold that the violation of another's rights renders one non-human.

Already in this chapter there are a lot of references to the unproven (as yet) thesis that government is necessarily evil. Still, the discussion of the relationship between the practical and the moral is quite good. One would still have liked to know what distinguishes the morally and practically good. If nothing why have two separate concepts? But this might require far greater detail than the authors planned on in connection with that issue and, of course, no work can take on every topic which relates to its central purpose.

"Government—An Unnecessary Evil"

Now we come to the Tannehills' raison d'etre, their attempt to prove that good government is impossible, that government is necessarily evil, that the concept of "government" is invalid, and that any definition of government is self-contradictory.

First, the authors assert that: "Government is a coercive monopoly which has assumed power over and certain responsibilities for every human being within the geographical area which it claims as its own." It is not clear whether this is a definition or just an instantiation of a government.

The reader is now given an explication of what a "coercive monopoly" is, namely "an institution maintained by the threat and/or use of physical force—the initiation of force—to prohibit competitors from entering its field of endeavor." Now to prohibit competitors from entering a field of endeavor can involve many different kinds of things. Inasmuch as the nature of the "field of endeavor" is unspecified, we cannot tell what prohibitions are justified and what are not. For example, if I enter into a contract with someone which commits both of us to certain actions to be performed vis-a-vis one another and does this by exclusion of the cooperation and interference of parties other than those who were specified in the contract, then I and my contractual party have prohibited competitors from entering our field of endeavor as specified by the contract.

So, in point of fact, the authors have not defined the concept "coercive monopoly" very well, since a monopoly such as the one discussed above could be one which does not involve coercion at all, it merely prohibits competitors from entering its field of endeavor—say that none but the parties can decide what the money from their activities in the market may be used for. Thieves, murderers, and criminals in general are prohibited from entering certain fields of endeavor with other people. They cannot even claim to be competitors in those fields since what they would be doing would involve coercion, the forcible entry into a contractual relationship. The Tannehills' definition of "coercive monopoly" suffers from total obscurity. But inasmuch as they have built into their definition of government the concept "coercive monopoly", and insofar as they talk of "prohibiting competitors" from doing apparently ordinary, non-coercive things, they have managed to offer a definition which will repulse every self-respecting libertarian into shying from the concept "government". This, to think of it, is just what the authors wanted. In other words, they have offered a "wish" for a "definition", namely their wish that the concept of "government" be self-contradictory.

It is, of course, not easy to criticize the authors' view of government without offering an alternative view. Yet from the above it should be clear that their claim that government is inherently evil (etc.) could only be supported by the technique of offering a definition of "government" which, when elaborated upon by the authors, would turn out to become self-contradictory not by virtue of internal contradiction, but by virtue of the fact that their definition of one of the conceptual components of the concept of "government", namely "coercive monopoly", turns out to be confused.

Actually, a coercive monopoly exists when other than those using coercive force are prevented from entering into a field of endeavor. If I enter a baker's field of endeavor by trying to win over his customers, that must not be prevented, for prevention (a "prohibition" enforced) would violate my rights. Another baker's prohibition against me in such an attempt might be irrational (and his enforcing that prohibition a violation of my rights). (Prohibitions are, after all, nothing more than prohibitions. Nothing is a coercive monopoly merely by issuing prohibitions saying, "I will prohibit you to compete against me." If one is stupid and accepts this order, the other has done nothing in the way of violating rights.)

The question is, must a government be a coercive monopoly? The Tannehills simply don't offer support in behalf of their affirmative answer. But they try, of course.

Here is their attempt: "Government is, and of necessity must be, a coercive monopoly, for in order to exist it must deprive entrepreneurs of the right to go into business in competition with it, and it must compel all its citizens to deal with it exclusively in areas it has pre-empted." Now this is very tricky. Notice that the support or proof of the assertion that "government is, and of necessity must be, a coercive monopoly" comes before the word "for" in the above statement. Thus we are told that "in order to exist (government) must deprive entrepreneurs of the right to go into business in competition with it…(etc.)." But this is just a restatement of the initial claim—which ought to be proven, not reiterated, by the last remark. To "deprive (someone) of the right to go into business…"is just what coercion is. The question is precisely whether governments must necessarily do it. No questions, governments have done this and do it in great abundance. But this only proves that there are governments which are coercive, not that governments are necessarily coercive. (If I pointed to many chairs and said of them that all of them are poorly built chairs, I have not yet shown that all chairs must necessarily be poorly built. And no one would deny that it is more difficult to attain moral perfection in society, by having a good government, than to attain the production of good chairs.) By now the general epistemological inadequacy of the Tannehill book is clear. A rational epistemology distinguishes between the actual and possible applications of a concept. One can have a valid and morally viable definition of some kind of human endeavor, e.g., government, without the opportunity to employ that concept which is thus defined always in connection with an instance which satisfies the requirement of consistency with the definition in toto. (In another context, one of the authors, Morris Tannehill, has said that Ayn Rand's definition of government is a case of trying to make reality out of a wish. Since there were no governments which satisfied Rand's definition with full consistency, the concept of "government" is supposed to be invalid. Of course this is not so.)

To move on, we must see if it is true that "(government) must deprive entrepreneurs of the right to go into business in competition with it, and it must compel all its citizens to deal with it exclusively in the areas it has pre-empted." First, it must be noted that there is little discussion in the present chapter about what it would mean for someone to go into competition with a government. (In another context I have encountered the idea, put forth by a critic of Miss Rand's theory of government, that the comments Miss Rand made with reference to "competing governments" actually serve as a devastating critique of the concept of "government" itself. Personally I disagree with Miss Rand's comments on the grounds that there is nothing immoral about a certain kind of competition between governments, a kind for which there have always been imperfect examples. England and the U.S. and other governments are already in competition for our "citizenship", i.e., our subscription or patronage.) Clearly, however, governments can compete with each other—but the precise nature of that competition would depend on what precisely a government is. When we admit that two surgeons can compete with each other we do not, thereby, endorse the action of a surgeon who interrupts his colleague's work and proceeds to perform surgery on his colleague's patients. Somewhat analogous to that would be the action of a second government or any person who interrupts this particular relationship between a citizenry (subscribers) of a given government and begins to perform the functions, nominally in behalf of this citizenry, which the original government was contracted to perform.

If we understand now the statement of the authors to mean the above by their idea of "depriving entrepreneurs of the right to go into business in competition with" a given government, then the argument in behalf of the contention that governments are coercive monopolies fails once again. For clearly such deprivation does not really constitute a violation of anyone's rights. The intruder must be prevented from violating the voluntarily entered into contract of the citizenry and those who are chosen to perform the functions of a government. (Needless to say, a properly functioning government must be limited by contract not only to the functions which are consistent with human rights but to the carrying out of its functions in accordance with human rights. Which is simply the extension of the notion that though self-defense is moral, self-defending itself must be conducted in accordance with morality.)

The authors of The Market for Liberty also add that "(government) must compel all its citizens to deal with it exclusively in the areas it has preempted." In addition to being vague, this begs a serious question. Surely one party to a contract is entitled to prevent the other party from violating that contract (again, in accord with objective moral laws). If the surgeon's patient has contracted for the surgery and then arbitrarily, that is, outside of the provisions of the contract, jumps up and has another surgeon do the surgery, this would be a violation of the first surgeon's rights. Compelling such action as is contracted for is why contracts are written: to protect from arbitrary changes of behavior. Furthermore, to say that "(government) has pre-empted" the areas wherein it operates is to beg the question whether it is necessarily the case that governments function by pre-emption. This again is something the authors should have proved but clearly fail to.

Thus far we have reached the second page of the discussion of government and have already discovered drastic difficulties in the authors' argument (if one can call it an argument at all). Of course, the Tannehills are dead right about democracy and no libertarian could find fault with what they say about the myth of the morality of democratic governments. But about this matter they are surely unoriginal. Were they attempting to make a case against democracy, they would, of course, require a great deal more discussion, just to make their point conclusive.

On page 35 we are told that "The very word 'government' means some men governing—ruling over—others." To this a footnote is attached which tells us "The concept of 'a government of laws, not of men' is just as mystical and meaningless as democracy. Laws must be written and enforced by men. Therefore, a 'government of laws' is a government of men." A lot can be said about all this, also. First of all, the reader is offered a definition of government at the outset of the chapter and yet now he is given "the meaning" of the word "government". Nowhere is he told what the relationship between the definition and the meaning is or if these are supposed to be distinct or not. And once again a question is being begged: surely what is precisely to be established by argument is what the meaning of the word "government" is. To just tell us is, of course, no argument. Then to proceed to call the concept of "a government of laws, not of men" as "mystical and meaningless as democracy" is to make two mistakes at once. The concept "democracy" is not meaningless; it refers to a type of social arrangement which is morally repugnant—but nonetheless can exist. And the concept in question is once again the one whose validity the authors are supposedly attempting to discredit: namely that it could be the case to have a "government of laws, not of men."

This latter concept means, of course, that a morally appropriate social arrangement must have a government which functions by providing the governing laws of moral human inter-relationships. Of course laws can govern: the law of gravity governs the motions of the planets, etc., etc. However men have free will, so the laws which are proper to their social existence do not govern them automatically; they must choose to adhere to them. Only when they violate these laws and abridge human rights do those who have contracted to administer the laws come into the picture.

At the bottom of page 35 the authors say, "Those who maintain that government is an institution which holds monopoly on the use of retaliatory force (in a given geographical area) carefully omit to mention what kind of monopoly such an institution would be, and for obvious reasons." Now what must first be said about this is that the Tannehills carefully omit to mention who maintains this, and for obvious reasons. Superficially this can be taken to be Ayn Rand's view of government. Rand does refer to "monopoly" and "geographical areas", but here the similarity ends. Instead of quoting Miss Rand, which would have been the moral thing to do, the authors simply evade her precise wording entirely.

First, Miss Rand most emphatically does say "what kind of monopoly such an institution would be": a legal monopoly. It may be that Miss Rand's qualification is not totally enlightening—but then Miss Rand never claimed to be a philosopher of law; she has often made clear that she was dealing with essentials in her article "The Nature of Government". Then it must also be noted that if anything, the adjective "legal" should indicate that the monopoly Miss Rand had in mind was not a coercive monopoly, at least not by her intention and meaning. (Which is to say that someone could not prove what that really amounts to is indeed a coercive monopoly—the Tannehills have not done this, of course, anywhere.)

In point of fact there is some sense in calling the government defined by Miss Rand a "legal" monopoly, if one realizes that any contract is a legal monopoly, or could, at least, be understood as such. (Since I am not an expert on legal terminology, I cannot myself discuss in detail the implications of Miss Rand's characterization of the kind of monopoly a free society's government would have to be.)

One should know, of course, something about Miss Rand's definition of government if one wishes to attack it. In The Virtue of Selfishness (page 109) she says: "A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control—i.e., under objectively defined laws." Remembering that Miss Rand has quite explicitly stated that "government holds a monopoly on the legal use of physical force", and that as such it is indeed a very special kind of monopoly, one established by the "consent of the governed" through the voluntary means of a contract (or constitution—which need not mean "the Constitution of the United States"; that would be showing oneself to be quite concrete bound), the above definition in no way generates a contradiction. This is why the authors had to omit mention of it in their discussion. Since in Miss Rand's article "The Nature of Government" this is the only italicized statement of what a government is, I believe I am justified in claiming that this is Miss Rand's major improvement on the definition of the concept "government"; exclusive jurisdiction (legal monopoly) enforcement and/or authorization thereof and subjecting all this to objective law are for Objectivism the essential features of government. If only all governments which existed in fact were to function consistent with this, governments would be consistent with morality, with human rights. (The Tannehills conveniently ignore this portion of Rand's definition and in another publication one of them says of it that it is a "wish"; this claim reveals the author's total ignorance of Objectivist epistemology, in terms of which, of course, Miss Rand develops her theories, including that of government.)

There are only a few more points I would like to make about this book (specifically about the chapter under discussion). On the bottom of page 37, in a footnote, the authors remark, about an illustration, that "We do not, of course, concede such a possibility. We use this argument only for the purpose of illustration." How can an impossible illustration work? What is it an illustration of? An impossibility? How is that possible? Admittedly, of course, this is not essential to the authors' points; however, it does afford an insight into their epistemological awareness.

On page 38 (top) the authors list the various kinds of strife which are usually created by governments as they meddle with people's lives. By this they want to illustrate that government can only keep peaceful people in opposition to each other. But they forget to say that the people whom governments ought to keep apart from each other, namely the criminals apart from those who don't violate rights, should indeed be kept apart, at least in terms of the moral point of view the authors take.

Later, on the same page, we are once again told that "every government must initiate force because every government is a coercive monopoly" which is like telling us that "all circles are round because all of them encircle an area with a line at equal distance from its center on all sides." What kind of statement is this? Why say "because" here at all?

At the bottom of page 38 we are given additional reasons for viewing governments as bad, namely their "defects" which stem from their not being "part of the free market". That is like saying that just because a person is an amateur karate expert, he "cannot be just and reality-oriented". And, of course, just because a government engages in different kind of competition from a baker, it does not follow that none of the principles of the free market pertain to it. Surely a government which exists through the consent of the governed can be administered by different people, in accordance with certain procedures of changing the administrations, procedures which need not be arbitrary but quite in accord with the terms of the contracts in force. (Haven't the authors heard of clauses in contracts which provide for the methods by which the contract may be terminated? And, of course, if those administering a given government were to refuse to leave office, it would be just as if one's legal representative refused to resign after being fired.) Which is to say, the theory of the free society is not a utopian theory and that if the cultural climate becomes morally inferior, social arrangements can dissolve into an unhealthy state of affairs. There is, no doubt, a utopian tendency to anarchy, a failure to understand the implications of free will for social circumstances. But the issue here is rather complex, involving all the discussion about "protective agencies" and "arbitration agencies" in connection with anarchy or anarcho-capitalism. I do not, of course, want to deny the usefulness of those notions and the institutions to which they refer within the context of a free society in which human interrelationships are governed by objective laws, i.e., in which criminality is defined at least in terms of essentials and in which criminals are not tolerated except under special circumstances, always in line with the concept of "justice" which arises out of a valid theory of law, based on human rights.)

I want now merely to conclude by noting that the notion that government is necessarily evil is analogous to the notion that human beings are necessarily evil. Inasmuch as government is the institution which defines the moral use of physical force, it derives its nature from the fact that man has a right to use physical force under certain circumstances and that he has the right to make arrangements with others for the most efficient and moral use of such force. If his arrangement for the use of such force with other men cannot be but necessarily evil, that must itself derive from the fact that his own use of physical force must necessarily be evil, under all circumstances, even when attacked. Thus the logical underpinnings of a society without government is total pacifism, the view Robert LeFevre advocates.

The Tannehills are not pacifists and reject pacifism quite explicitly. And the bulk of their book is an attempt to show that organized self-defense can obtain without the institution of government. I believe, of course, that what they are talking about in those sections is precisely what a so called "limited governmentalist" might be talking about were he to describe the operations of a government of a free society, with, of course, serious exceptions.

It is for this reason that the Tannehills' book might be of use to libertarians, in order to get some valuable ideas about the character of legal arrangements in a free society, arrangements, however, which would only be possible within the context of a government by the consent of the governed.

The main purpose of the book, however, the demonstration of the necessarily evil nature of government, has not been accomplished. For this reason the work is not valuable.