The White House
Dear President Obama,
I note with interest your comment with regard to libertarianism, on Friday March 10 in Austin, TX at the SxSW.
I can find the fiercest libertarian in the room, you know, who despises every level of government, thinks it’s all-corrupting. But they’re checking the weather on their phone and lo and behold, there’s a government satellite that is facilitating that. And they’d be really irritated if they couldn’t figure out whether it’s going to be 70 and sunny or 60 and rainy tomorrow. But that’s not reported as government because we just take for granted that of course there are roads and of course we have a geosatellite system. And of course we have special forces who are making sure there aren’t folks who are blowing up our buildings. Part of our task is to tell a better story about what government does.I am not sure who was in the room at the conference when you said the above, but if you really meant to say that the fiercest of libertarians, even those outside the conference, ignore the necessity that the government must provide the services that you list, I must object. You would be factually wrong. It is quite the opposite. With cold hard logic, fierce libertarians reject that such services must be provided by the government and have done so for decades.
The leading libertarian Dr. Walter Block, for example, has written the very important book, The Privatization of Roads and Highways: Human and Economic Factors, which outlines exactly how a private road system could develop in the absence of government roads, and, indeed, he provides examples of private road systems that did develop in the past.
I also direct you to, the near 40-year old, October 1976 issue of Penthouse magazine (for an article). The issue contains an interview (now reprinted in the Rothbard Reader) with the great economist and libertarian Murray Rothbard.
Rothbard would surely reject the notion that special government forces are needed to protect us from having our buildings blown up. He said in the interview:
Rothbard: I think all these functions could be performed considerably better by voluntary means—financed by the consumers who actually use these services, not by taxpayers who are forced to pay for something they don’t personally receive. The income of the policemen, the firemen, and the civil servants should be equivalent to the efficiency of their service to the consumers, not based on political manipulation and coercive taxation....And you are way behind the curve when it comes to geosatellites and the idea that they must be provided by the government. The private sector is exactly the direction in which the geosatellite sector is moving. ClimateControl.org reports:
Penthouse: But how could the free market provide such services as the police?
There is no difference between saying that and saying, “How can the free market provide shoes?”...
Big government is no more beneficial in foreign policy than it is in domestic affairs. It is precisely because the world economy and the world society are interconnected and interdependent that individual governments mixing in the situation create conditions leading to war and conflict...
We’ve been going along with this idea of interventionist foreign policy since about the time of Woodrow Wilson’s administration. We began by going to war to make the world “safe for democracy,” as Wilson put it. After five or six decades of ubiquitous government intervention, we have a world that is much less free than ever before. Obviously, something must be wrong with this kind of policy.
The Vietnam War has shown that in the long run we cannot prevent the people of the world from controlling their own affairs, whether they’re doing so badly or not. Whether they have dictatorships or not is their own business. It’s not the business of the United States to deplete our treasures and sacrifice the lives of citizens in order to impose our solution on these countries...
Penthouse: If American statism were abolished, wouldn’t that action enable an enemy to move in and completely subjugate the American people?
Rothbard: I don’t think there’s any real threat of conquest. Conquest and wars evolve from reciprocal conflicts. In other words, one state threatens another state or moves in on another state, and the one reacts to the transgression. If you didn’t have a state apparatus in this country, it would remove that kind of provocation for attack. Second, if any country did attack us, it would find that a voluntary defense, a free-market defense, would be much more efficient than a state defense. When the state army is conquered, the conquering army can run the system through the defeated but still existent state apparatus. Britain ran India—despite the fact that the British population was much smaller than the Indian—by simply conquering the army of the Indian monarchs and then giving orders to the monarchy. If there’s no American state apparatus to give orders to, what’s the occupying force going to do? It would have to set up an entirely new state apparatus in the United States, which is almost impossible, considering the size of the country.
And third, private defense is much more efficient than government defense because the military is prone to making blunders. It is not subject to any kind of market test to efficiency.
The latest version of the "Space Race" lacks the Cold War-era drama of the last one, and does not even involve daring feats of manned spaceflight. No, this one is a race to launch a network of increasingly tiny Earth-observing satellites that will change how weather and climate information is gathered and disseminated.
And in this race, it is private industry, not the government, leading the charge. Instead of stirring presidential speeches, plans are being hatched in office parks around the country, by companies such as Skybox Imaging, PlanetIQ, and GeoOptics. They are vying to launch fleets of small, advanced, and low-cost satellites that represent a revolution akin to the one that turned computers from room-sized behemoths into things we hold in the palms of our hands.I am happy to see that libertarianism is becoming such a threat to the state that you feel it necessary to address the problem head on, and at such a high profile conference. But clearly your assessment of the threat is decades old. It is pre-Rothbard. The sectors that you list that you believe can only be provided by government, and that you claim have been ignored by libertarians, were actually addressed by Rothbard and others long ago and taken to a new level to the general public by the Rothbard book published in 1973 by Collier Macmillan, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto.
Your comments about the government being necessary for roads and national defense is really how many of us felt when we first learned about libertarianism, and it is where we put a limit to our view of how far liberty could go,
But as we continued to learn about libertarianism through hardcore libertarian writings, in particular, those of Rothbard, we changed our view on this. You appear to be on the same road, Mr. President, that many of us have traveled, thinking about the limits of liberty, I urge you to take the next step and read, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto and Rothbard Reader.
Editor & Publisher
San Francisco, CA