The Market for Liberty - Ch. 16

The Force Which Shapes The World

Chapter 16 of The Market for Liberty
by Morris & Linda Tannehill (1970)

But a discussion of how government could be dismantled and how free men could then build a laissez-faire society out of the pieces still doesn’t answer the question, “How do we get there?” Politicians are politicians because they enjoy wielding power over others and being honored for their “high positions.” Power and plaudits are the politician’s life, and a true politician will fight to the death (your death) if he thinks it will help him hold on to them. Even the gray, faceless bureaucrats cling to their little bits of power with the desperate tenacity of a multitude of leaches, each squirming and fighting to hold and increase his area of domination. How can we successfully oppose this vast, cancerous power structure? Where can we find a force strong enough to attack, undermine, and finally destroy its power?


Some people, gazing up at the fearsome might of the American Leviathan, have decided that our only hope lies in an eventual armed revolution. So they work to recruit revolutionaries, provoke a spirit of aggressive hostility toward The Establishment and promote violent confrontations with government representatives and police. Most of these people are quite sincere in their desire to increase liberty by overthrowing a government which insists on taxing us, regulating us, and “taking care of us” until it smothers us. Many of them even realize that we can’t have real freedom so long as we have any government at all. But few, if any, of them have thought through the necessary implications of violent revolution.

Armed revolutions, whether they occur on a massive, organized scale or as disconnected, hit-and-run confrontations, are very destructive. Quite apart from the immorality of destroying the private property or life of an individual who has not aggressed against you, destruction is foolish and short-sighted. It often takes years to build what it may take only moments to destroy; and once destroyed, an object can never again be of benefit to anyone. Destruction reduces the total amount of goods available to everyone and, hence, reduces the welfare of every individual in the society (naturally, the poor feel this welfare reduction first and worst). The destroyed object can be rebuilt, but only at the cost of much time, money, and intellectual and physical effort. It usually will not be rebuilt at all until the destruction is over so that the builders feel it will be safe. Meanwhile, the economy (which means all the individuals who try to improve their lot by trading goods and services with others) is weakened. To weaken a healthy economy would be bad enough, but to bleed our economy - which is already tottering on the brink of collapse - is suicidal folly.

Not only is violent revolutionary action destructive, it actually strengthens the government by giving it a “common enemy” to unite the people against. Violence against the government by a minority always gives the politicians an excuse to increase repressive measures in the name of “protecting the people.” In fact, the general populace usually joins the politicians’ cry for “law and order.”

But far worse than this, revolution is a very questionable way to arrive at a society without rulers, since a successful revolution must have leaders. To be successful, revolutionary action must be coordinated. To be coordinated, it must have someone in charge. And, once the revolution has succeeded, the “Someone in Charge” (or one of his lieutenants, or even one of his enemies) takes over the new power structure so conveniently built up by the revolution. He may just want to “get things going right,” but he ends up being another ruler. Something like this happened to the American Revolution, and look at us today.

Even if a revolution could manage to avoid setting up a new ruler, the great mass of people themselves would probably call for one. Revolution causes confusion and chaos, and in times of distress and disorder the first thought of the majority of people is, “We must have a leader to get us out of these troubles!” When people cry frantically for a leader, they always get one; there’s no shortage of men with power-lust. Furthermore, the leader they get will be a dictator with power to “restore law and order” in accordance with the citizens’ demands. Unless people know what laissez-faire freedom is (and that’s the only kind of freedom there is), and unless they know that it is far preferable to a system of governmental slavery, the odds are that any violent revolution will only pave the way for a new Hitler. Then we will be far worse off than we are now, because we will be saddled with physical destruction and its resultant poverty, with economic collapse, and with a dictatorial state with popular support.

Knowing the dangers and drawbacks of violent revolution, a few advocates of laissez-faire have proposed that we get “our people” into government and dismantle it from the inside. The difficulty with this proposal is that only men of integrity, who have no desire to rule over others, could be trusted to dismantle government instead of joining the power elite once they got into official positions. But men of integrity could hardly be expected to make the sacrifice of wasting their lives in government jobs, surrounded by looters. And once again, if people didn’t understand the desirability of a laissez-faire society, dismantling the government might only confuse and alarm them into calling for new leadership.

It has also been suggested that the way to win out over government in the long run is to withdraw all sanction from it and refuse to have any dealings with it; to avoid voting, accepting government subsidies, or using government services. The problem here is that government can compel us to deal with it, either by force of law or by holding a monopoly on some vital service. You may refuse to vote, but try refusing to use the government roads and mail system, to pay taxes, or to be drafted! Withdrawing our sanction from the looters by refusing to deal with them would be a very effective tactic - if the looters would permit us to do so!


Despair has caused some to decide that the battle, at least in America, is already lost, and that our only hope of some freedom for our own lives lies in building a new society on some remote island or in retreating into a wilderness to escape “Big Brother.” Settling and industrializing a small island outside the tax-grip of any government (if such a place could be found) might be an interesting and even profitable venture, but it’s no way to defeat governments. As soon as the free island became an attractive enough prize, some government would gobble it up. Founding a free island is not a step toward victory - at best, it’s merely a postponement of defeat.

Similarly, a well-prepared wilderness retreat could be a life-saving shelter in case of a really severe socio-economic breakdown, but “opting out” is no way to defeat governments so we can have a free and secure world to live in. A retreat is just what its name implies - retreat, not victory. The advocates of revolution, of dismantling the government from within or refusing to deal with it, or of “opting out” have failed to realize that if one wants to change society, one must first find out what makes society the way it is. Society is nothing more than a group of individuals living in the same geographical area at the same time. The values and the actions of each of these individuals are determined by the ideas he holds - by what he believes is right or wrong, beneficial or harmful for himself and others. This means that the customs, institutions, and life-style of any society are determined by the ideas held by the majority of influential people in that society. Just as the form of a man’s life is the result of the ideas he holds, so the form of a society is the result of the ideas which prevail in that society.

Ideas, even seemingly insignificant ones, can have earth-shattering results when they are widely believed in a culture. For example, in the Middle Ages, a minor religious dogma held that cats were agents of the devil. Since religion was a very important factor in almost everyone’s life at that time, almost the whole society participated in the religious duty of killing cats. As the cat population dwindled, the rodent population increased rapidly. The rats carried the fleas which carried the germs which caused the Black Death. Between one-fourth and one-third of Europe’s people died and almost one-half of the people of England died within two years, all because of one stupid, bad idea (though a seemingly harmless one)!

Good ideas can be just as powerful as bad ones. The realization that diseases are caused by micro-organisms and not by demons, the will of God, or the bad night air, has saved more lives than the Black Death destroyed. This one good idea has improved the health and increased the life-span of every one of us. The partial realization that man has rights which no government is entitled to take away led to nearly two centuries of the greatest progress and happiness men had yet known. Mistaken ideas kept man cowering in superstitious fear of the gods - smeared stone altars with human blood - caused living children to be thrown into sacrificial fires. Correct ideas - the result of reason - have freed man to stand proud and erect - to understand nature instead of fearing it - to achieve a better life for his children instead of sacrificing them to the gods of his insane fears.

Ideas are the forces which shape our lives and our world! But because ideas are invisible, most people think of them as unimportant (if they think of them at all). You can see a city, but you can’t see the multitude of plans that had to be drawn for each building, each street, each park. Nor can you see the millions of ideas that made possible the electricity, the automobiles, the supermarkets, the lawnmowers, the playground equipment, etc., etc. It’s easy to observe a government (the bureaucrats won’t let you ignore it), but you can’t see the idea that makes it possible - the belief in millions of minds that it’s right for some men to govern, or coercively rule over, others.

Because the forms of men’s lives and of their societies depend on what they believe, ideas are the most powerful force in the world. If you want to get a man to change his life-style, you will have to get him to change his ideas about what sort of life-style is possible to and desirable for him. Similarly, if you want to change a society, you will have to get the majority of influential people to change their ideas about what their society can and should be.

In a cannibal society, the reason men eat human flesh is that it is considered proper, or perhaps even necessary, to use human beings for food. In order to get rid of the cannibalism, it is only necessary to change the prevailing idea that eating people is proper or necessary. In a governmental society, the reason some men rule over others is that the vast majority of opinion-molders in that society consider it proper or even necessary for men to be ruled by force. In order to get rid of government it is only necessary to change the prevailing idea that men must or should be kept in some degree of slavery by their rulers. In a society dominated by the idea that no man has a right to govern anyone else, government would be impossible - no would-be ruler could muster enough gunmen to inforce his will.

Not only can a society be changed by changing the ideas which prevail in it, this is the only way it can be changed (except by enslaving, impoverishing, or killing all the members of the society in order to forcibly prevent them from living in the way their ideas dictate). Government is only the concrete expression and result of the prevailing idea that it is right for men to be governed by force. At present, the American government has the sanction and support, or at least the apathetic acceptance, of the majority of its citizen-subjects. So long as the majority of men believe that government is right and/or necessary, they will have a government. If their government is destroyed before they understand the desirability and practicality of freedom, they will rush to set up a new one, because they believe they must be governed in order to have a civilized world. Until we change this idea, we can never have a free society.

Bringing about a laissez-faire society by changing the ideas which prevail in our culture may seem like a difficult, centuries-long task, but opinion-molding isn’t really that hard. In any society, only a very small minority - perhaps one or two per cent - do any original thinking. A somewhat larger percentage act as transmission belts, passing the thinkers’ ideas on to the rest of the population. The vast majority of the people simply absorb their ideas from the culture around them, accepting the word of authorities or the opinions of their social circle, with little question or thought. In order to change the ideas in a society, it is only necessary to change the ideas of the tiny minority of thinkers and then watch while they filter down through the commentators, writers, editors, teachers, and all the other “influential men,” to be echoed by everyone else. It is the thinkers who control a society’s future course - Presidents and other politicians are merely the actors who pass across the stage, mouthing the lines which they have absorbed.

Furthermore, it isn’t even necessary to change the opinions of the men who are our present thinkers. Today’s opinion molders are the remnants of a confused, exhausted, cynical past. Once, their ideas of a big, fatherly government watching over its citizens, regulating their economic affairs, protecting them from fear, want, hunger, pornography, liquor, and marijuana, and insuring their “general welfare” seemed new and promising. Now, however, the mess of poverty, slavery, and conflict resulting from their belief in forced welfare, forced socialism, and forced morality is beginning to become apparent to all. These thinkers of the past have not only failed to solve our problems, they’ve made them incalculably worse, and because the mess is beginning to stink so badly, their time is running out. They’ll have to make way for a new breed of thinkers - for the libertarians (mostly young people) who don’t have much influence yet but who will have in just a few years. Many of the thinkers of the future are already beginning to realize the meaning and necessity of freedom. When enough of them understand laissez-faire, the future is ours! The idea we have to spread is very easy to understand - it is simply that government is an unnecessary evil and that freedom is the best and most practical way of life.

Throughout history, most men have considered government to be a given fact of life - as unavoidable as devastating storms and fatal illnesses. Of the few who thought about it at all, most concluded that, while government might be evil, it was a necessary evil because the nature of man demanded that he be ruled - for his own good (!). And the majority of men went along with this in an unthinking way because having a leader seemed to eliminate the awful need of being responsible for their own lives and decisions in an uncertain world. So the fear of self-responsibility became a fear of freedom, and rulers encouraged this by vesting government with all the authority, legitimacy, pomp and tradition they could muster, while keeping the populace ignorant and superstitious. We can still see this fear of self-responsibility in the demands for laws to protect the people from gambling, drugs, prostitution, misleading packaging, “unfair competition,” guns, “sub-minimum” wages, monopolies, and countless other imaginary menaces.

But government means some men governing - ruling over - others by force, and this is what we must tell the people we want to convince. When some men rule over others, a condition of slavery exists, and slavery is wrong under any circumstances. To advocate limited government is to advocate limited slavery. To say that government is a necessary prerequisite for a civilized society is to say that slavery is necessary for a civilized society. To say that men cannot protect their freedom without a government is to say that men cannot protect their freedom without a system of slavery. Slavery is never either right or necessary - and neither is that form of slavery called government. We must tell people that government isn’t a necessary evil; it’s an unnecessary one.

We must also tell them that freedom, because it is the right way for men to live, is practical. A laissez-faire society would work, and work well. The social problems that perplex almost everyone are the result, not of too much freedom, but of government meddling in our lives with its compulsions, prohibitions, and ever-growing taxes. We must tell people that a laissez-faire society wouldn’t degenerate into chaos, that instead it would solve most of our problems. And we must be ready to show just how such a society would maintain itself and why it would solve the problems. There are an infinite number of ways to tell people about liberty - as many ways as there are individual ideas about how to do it. We can do everything from talking to friends to writing articles and giving speeches, to organizing huge street demonstrations against government injustices. Government has a great deal of power over us, but it doesn’t have any right to dictate our actions. This means that, so long as we are careful not to initiate force against the person or property of any innocent bystander, we may oppose government in any way which we consider practical and reasonably safe. If we were in Russia or China, our tactics would probably have to be quite different, but in America people are used to a large measure of freedom of speech, so such activities as the publication of this book are permitted and still safe.

Fighting government with ideas of freedom has an interesting built-in safety factor - most of our politicians and bureaucrats, like most other people, can’t see the importance of ideas. What counts with them is votes, tax money, and political deals. Such esoteric things as philosophical concepts about the nature of a free society will never become visible to them until the votes, the revenues, and the law enforcement begin to be effected; at which point it will be too late to stop the idea of freedom. If you throw a bomb, the police will come after you and the terrified public will cry for “law and order.” But if you disseminate a constructive idea, people who are receptive will catch it, understand it, and pass it on, while the power structure will blindly ignore it.

To understand the importance of spreading the idea of freedom, think of what would happen if a majority (or even a large minority) of the people in America came to believe that government was an unnecessary evil and that freedom was the best and most practical way of life. Already, even with the support of most people, government bureaus are beginning to creak and falter and break down under the weight of their own incompetence. The Post Office cries for help, the courts have such an incredible backlog that “the right to a speedy trial” is a mockery, jails are packed, roads are crowded, schools never have enough money, and inflation spirals. Government is inadequate to cope with the complexities of modern life, and it’s becoming apparent to all but the willfully blind. Along with this private businesses are beginning to grow in areas which were formerly the exclusive domain of government. The private mail delivery company, booming in spite of being forbidden to deliver first class mail, and private arbitration services and protection agencies are a hopeful beginning.

In a few years, government will be even more overburdened, confused, and more obviously inadequate. The progressive breakdown of many more “governmental functions” will be opening the way for daring entrepreneurs to gain a foothold and offer superior services to the public. What if, at the same time, millions of Americans lost all respect for government? What if they saw government for what it really is - an annoying and dangerous band of looters, power-mad bureaucrats, and publicity-hungry politicians? What if the government, which is supposedly founded on the consent of the governed, no longer had that consent. What if the governed by the millions refused to be guilty of consent any longer?


If millions of Americans no longer regarded government as necessary, they would revoke “the consent of the governed.” Then, with the strength of numbers, it would be quite feasible to refuse to deal with government and to openly disobey its stupid and unjust laws. What could the bureaucrats do if 50% of the population ignored all trade restrictions - including tariffs, price controls, minimum wage laws, sales taxes, and even oughtright prohibitions? What if they simply bought and sold whatever they pleased, from gold bullion to bricks, for whatever prices and under whatever conditions they wanted, regardless of political regulation? What would the Internal Revenue Service do if three million of their subjects simply didn’t bother to send in any income tax forms, and what if fifty thousand employers stopped bothering to deduct withholding taxes?[1] What could the army do with a million men who refused to be drafted? What could they do if most of the men in a regiment just quietly quit and went home, leaving their officers red-faced and screaming behind them?

Such mass scale, passive disobedience to unreasonable laws wouldn’t need to be organized if the majority of people saw government for what it is and believed in freedom. It would start secretly and quietly, with individuals doing things they felt they couldn’t be caught for. (In fact, it already has started.) But as disrespect for government increased, the practice of ignoring laws would become increasingly open and widespread. At last it would be a great, peaceful, de facto revolt, beyond any power to stop.

If faced with such a massive, peaceful revolt, the government would have only two choices - to retreat, or to try to impose a tighter police state. If the politicians decided on retreat, they would be forced to sit by and watch their powers crumble away, piece by piece, until their government collapsed from lack of money and support. If they tried to impose a police state, they would arouse not only the original revolters but most of the rest of the people as well to open rebellion. The bureaucrats would find it very hard to whip up any popular support against people who had done no damage to any innocent person but were obviously only living their own lives and minding their own business. At each new repressive measure, the looters would find their popular support ebbing away, their armies and police forces torn with dissent and bled by desertion, their jails too full to hold any more rebels.

In such a crisis, the politicians would almost certainly vacillate. They have enough trouble making up their minds in ordinary dilemmas. This policy of vacillation would shake the tottering government apart even more surely and quickly, leaving the stage open for freedom.

We can bring about a laissez-faire society, but only through the tremendous, invisible power of ideas. Ideas are the motive power of human progress, the force which shapes the world. Ideas are more powerful than armies, because it was ideas which caused the armies to be raised in the first place, and it is ideas which keep them fighting (if this weren’t true, political leaders wouldn’t have to bother with their tremendous propaganda machinery). When an idea gains popular support, all the guns in the world cannot kill it.

Throughout history, the vast majority of people have believed that government was a necessary part of human existence - and so there have always been governments. People have believed they had to have a government because their leaders said so, because they had always had one, and most of all because they found the world unexplainable and frightening and felt a need for someone to lead them. Mankind’s fear of freedom has always been a fear of selfreliance - of being thrown on his own to face a frightening world, with no one else to tell him what to do. But we are no longer terrified savages making offerings to a lightning god or cowering Medieval serfs hiding from ghosts and witches. We have learned that man can understand and control his environment and his own life, and we have no need of high priests or kings or presidents to tell us what to do. Government is now known for what it is. It belongs in the dark past with the rest of man’s superstitions. It’s time for men to grow up so that each individual man can walk forward into the sunlight of freedom - in full control of his own life!


1. ”In a recent conversation with an official at the Internal Revenue Service, I was amazed when he told me that, ‘if the taxpayers of this country ever discover that the Internal Revenue Service operates on 90% bluff, the entire system will collapse’.” This statement was made by U. S. Senator Henry Bellmon of Oklahoma, as quoted from the printed copy of hearings in the Senate Finance committee on October 2, 1969.


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