So one morning your daughter comes to you and says that she is engaged to Bobby, a boy she has been dating.
“That’s great,” you say, giving her a hug, “but you have to marry Dave instead.”
She wriggles out of your embrace. “Excuse me?”
“You can’t marry Bobby, pumpkin. You have to marry Dave.”
“I will marry who I want!” she says indignantly.
“Of course you will. You are free to marry whoever you choose!”
She blinks, bewildered. “Then I’m going to marry Bobby!”
You smile indulgently. “You don’t understand. You are free to marry any man you choose, but you are going to marry Dave.”
“You aren’t making any sense. I am not going to marry Dave!”
“Oh, but I’m afraid that you have to.”
“Oh really? And what happens if I don’t marry Dave?”
You sigh. “Well, I’ll have to lock you in your room and feed you bread and water for the rest of your life.”
“What? But you say I am free to choose my husband!”
“Of course you are! But you have to choose Dave!”
She bursts into tears. “Then how am I free, daddy?”
Does this conversation seem rather strange to you? Contradictory? Almost incomprehensible?
If so, then you have just experienced the essence of arguing with a statist.
Many libertarians feel that they have to convince people that the government is dangerous, or that the welfare state harms the poor, or that the war on drugs destroys civil liberties and so on – and that if other people can’t be convinced of the evils of government programs, libertarians will never be free of state control.
Nothing could be further from the truth! You don’t have to convince a single person about the evils of government in order to prove your right to live in a free society. Even if everyone else continues to live in the fantasy camp of government virtue, you can still be free.
But you have to establish one little thing first.
Let’s take the invasion of Iraq as a nice, non-controversial topic.
Some people think it’s great, some people think it’s tolerable, some ‘support-the-troops-but-not-the-war,’ and some hate the whole damn mess.
And we can all live together in relative harmony, as long as one condition is met.
People try to convince me that the Iraq invasion is just, wonderful, great, necessary, required for the defense of the realm and so on. I generally don’t let them get too far down this road, but rather interject the following:
“I understand your reasons for supporting the invasion – and you could be correct. You tell me that the invasion will protect my freedoms and keep me safe, but I disagree with that. I believe that my personal safety is not enhanced by my government lobbing bombs all over the Middle East, staffing hundreds of military bases worldwide, funding dictatorships, supporting coups and so on. But wouldn’t you say that the fact that we can disagree with each other – and with our government – is one of the freedoms that make this country great?”
Sure, the person responds.
“Now would we be living in a free country if every time I disagreed with you, or the government, I got thrown in jail?”
Of course not.
Then I tell the above story of the man and his daughter, and say:
“Do you see how this story applies to our situation? I disagree with the size and scope and use of our military, but I am forced to fund it anyway. Thus, like the girl who is ‘free’ to choose her husband, but must obey her father, I am ‘free’ to disagree with government programs, but I am forced to fund them anyway.
If it is dictatorial to throw people in jail for disagreeing with the government, then forcing people to pay taxes for programs they disagree with is also dictatorial, a violation of both the sovereignty of the individual conscience and freedom of association.
If the military supposedly exists to protect our freedoms, but we are forced to pay for it even if we believe our freedoms are threatened by its actions, then obviously our freedoms are not being defended, but rather violated.
Thus whenever a man tells you that he supports the invasion of Iraq, all you have to do is ask him one simple question:
Am I allowed to disagree with you?
If you are not allowed to disagree with him, then you are not free, so he cannot claim that your freedoms are being protected. In fact, there’s no point in debating with him at all.
If you are allowed to disagree with him about the invasion, then surely you have the right not to pay for it! If you are forced to pay for it regardless of your opinion, then you are not allowed to disagree in reality. Just like the hapless daughter in the above story, you must obey, or go to prison.
You can use the same argument about any government programs (or the government itself, as I prefer!). If someone tells you that the welfare state is helping the poor, you don’t have to convince him otherwise – all you have to do is ask him: am I free to disagree with you? If so, then you can obviously withhold your taxes and give them to charity instead, or start a company or buy goods to create jobs.
This approach is very liberating, because you don’t have to convert a single person into a libertarian or an anarchist in order to clinch the case for freedom. You and your friends can have utterly opposing views about the value of government programs – as long as your friends support your right to disagree with them not just in theory, but in practice.
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