Buying Genocide


“Socialists always run out of other people’s money. It’s quite characteristic of them.”       
—Baroness Thatcher

How are totalitarian regimes able to control the populace and gain its support for even the vilest programs?

In an earlier piece, I suggested that there are three basic methods employed by compliance agents — the people who try to get a targeted group to comply with their wishes — to get what they want. These I termed power, purchase, and persuasion.

The Tools of Compliance

By power I mean force, threat of force, or theft. Of course, the attempt at force may not succeed, if the agent has insufficient strength to overpower — or insufficient guile to successfully steal from — the target.

By purchase I mean trading something that the agent and the target both value — money, labor, physical objects. Again, the attempt may fail — the agent may not have enough of what the target values to pay the target’s price, or they may be unable to agree upon a price. By persuasion (or promotion), I mean offering reasons (other than threats of force or attempted bargaining) to the target. If Fred’s doctor urges Fred to stop smoking or face an increased chance of cancer, the doctor is not threatening Fred — after all, the doctor won’t inflict the cancer on Fred; the cigarettes will.[1] Nor is the doctor bargaining with Fred. He is “arguing from consequences”; that is, he is arguing that Fred’s behavior will objectively hurt Fred, so Fred ought to stop that behavior. Even if Fred’s doctor chose not to argue rationally but decided to manipulate Fred emotionally — say, by showing Fred pictures of his kids crying out “Daddy, please don’t die!” — the doctor is neither threatening nor bargaining.

For one thing, it exonerates the rest of the world for its complicity in the Holocaust, and allows us all to sigh in relief that “it could never happen here.”

An interesting point from cognitive psychology that I’ve heard Matt Ridley[2] make is that while nonhuman animals often use force and theft to get what they want from other animals, they don’t, strictly speaking, trade with others, in the sense of giving something they value to get something they value more. As Adam Smith put it, “Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.”[3] Applying the point about persuasion to animals: I have never seen a dog offer an argument to get another dog to do something — though a dog does seem to know how to appear or sound pitiable to its owners when it wants something.

Of course, power, purchase, and persuasion are not perfectly distinct categories, as I noted earlier. But they allow us to pursue an interesting discussion — one going back for seven decades in the search for explanations of Nazi totalitarianism. A critical review of this discussion, especially as it appears in a number of distinguished works of the 21st century, provides a framework in which key concepts and controversies can be seen.

The Goldhagen Dispute: Why Did Germans Support the Nazi regime?

Let’s start with an insightful paper by Alexander Groth, called “Demonizing the Germans.” In this paper, the estimable Professor Groth — himself a Holocaust survivor — takes up the issue of the culpability of the German public for the crimes of the Nazis. He reviews two books: Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) and Robert Gellately’s Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany (2001). Both these books, Groth says, put forward the view that Hitler’s policies during the 12 years of his regime were based on the “spontaneous preferences” of the German public, not the regime’s “coercion and manipulation.” the regime’s use of the power delivered by its police state and the persuasion delivered by its propaganda machine (118).

Groth concedes that the regime’s policies required the collusion and cooperation of millions of Germans. But he criticizes the authors for pushing their cases beyond logic and evidence. Indeed, Groth holds that Goldhagen’s view of Germans is “almost racist in its sweeping character” (119). He takes Goldhagen to mean that “the Germans let Hitler and his minions, soldiers, policemen, and bureaucrats, kill the Jews because they fundamentally agreed with Hitler that this was a good idea” (119).

While the average German said nothing about the Nazi destruction of the Jews, neither did FDR or Churchill, even though the latter were far freer to speak out.

Groth has many problems with this view. For one thing, it exonerates the rest of the world for its complicity in the Holocaust, and allows us all to sigh in relief that “it could never happen here.” And he points to a logical gap. Everyone, Goldhagen included, recognizes that the Germans involved in the execution of the Holocaust — the men involved in designing the scheme, arresting and transporting the victims, and running the death camps — could at most amount to 5% of the population of 80 million. The other Germans, while not active, did nothing to stop the killings, but passively accepted them. But Groth points out that while the rest of the Germans did not publicly mourn or protest the mass murder of the Jews, the most reasonable conclusion from that absence of protest would be that they just didn’t care, not that they supported it. I would sharpen the point by adding that while there were no massive protests against the Final Solution, there were no massive rallies in support of it either.

Here Groth rightly notes that Goldhagen fails to distinguish among the German non-genocidaires:

. . . those who could not care less; those who rejoiced in Hitler’s policies; those who were appalled by those policies but feared the risks of speaking out; those who had a variety of doubts and reservations about Hitler’s treatment of the Jews but who also were not willing to jeopardize their lives, their careers, and their families to voice them; and, finally, the many Germans confused and misled by Nazi propaganda and information controls. After all, the Nazis never admitted publicly that they were exterminating the Jews. They were just resettling them in the East. (120)

And Groth adds to this point the observation that while the average German said nothing about the Nazi destruction of the Jews, neither did FDR or Churchill, even though the latter were far freer to speak out, far more informed, and far more protected from reprisals. Were FDR and Churchill “eliminationist anti-Semites” as well?[4]

Groth also criticizes Goldhagen’s claim that the vitriolic German anti-Semitic literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries was unmatched in Europe or elsewhere. Groth observes that Goldhagen adduces no evidence for this claim, and mentions similar anti-Semitic literature in Poland and Rumania. (I will suggest later in this piece that Groth is overlooking something about German anti-Semitism that was unique.)

To Goldhagen’s point that whatever anti-Semitism existed elsewhere in Europe, it was only in Germany that an openly anti-Semitic party was elected to power, Groth replies by noting that in the three Reichstag elections prior to April 1933, the Nazis received only 37%, 33%, and 44% — that last vote coming with the full aid of SA thugs in the streets, intimidating voters. Furthermore, while Hitler’s anti-Semitism is blatant in Mein Kampf, how many voters had read the book? How many dismissed much of it as exaggerated? How many who shared the Nazi antipathy towards Jews favored not merely mass murder, but, say, encouraging Jews to convert to Christianity or emigrate? Remember: from 1933 until the outset of the war or later, the Nazis focused on pressuring Jews to leave. Groth rightly notes that there were no exit polls at the time, so we cannot say why those who voted Nazi did so. Moreover, Theodore Abel’s sociological study of essays by 600 Nazi Party members in the period shortly after Hitler achieved power, describing why they joined the party, showed that only about 36% stated anti-Semitic motives.

From 1871 (when Germany unified) to 1933, Jews were far better off in Germany than in Eastern Europe by any measure — and there were no pogroms in Germany.

Groth cites two scholars in support of his view. First he quotes Sarah Gordon[5] saying that even among Party members, there was considerable diversity of opinion on the “Jewish question,” and only a “small percentage” shared Hitler’s “paranoid” anti-Semitism. She claims that more Germans disapproved of Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies than supported them. And, she adds, Hitler’s central role in the Holocaust should never be underestimated. She further points out that Germans faced a (minimum) of two years in a concentration camp for aiding Jews or publicly supporting their cause — a fate much worse than regular jail.

Groth then quotes William Sheridan Allen,[6] who focused his research on the Nazi takeover of the town of Thalburg. Allen reported that most of the townspeople were relatively unsympathetic to the anti-Semitism of the Nazi ideology. Jews at all class levels were well integrated into the town’s society. Though there was “abstract” anti-Semitism — a general dislike of Jewishness that showed up in jokes or expressions of distaste, many people just ignored the anti-Semitic aspect of the Party when voting for it. Indeed, “Thalburgers were drawn to anti-Semitism because they were drawn to Nazism, not the other way around” (127).

And Groth quotes from Saul Friedlander[7] the idea that during the 1930s the German population didn’t demand anti-Jewish measures; in fact, those who supported eliminationist anti-Semitism were only a segment of the Party.

Groth next makes the point that if there were a native German eliminationist anti-Semitism, why didn’t it show up prior to 1933? Indeed, from 1871 (when Germany unified) to 1933, Jews were far better off in Germany than in Eastern Europe by any measure — access to education, participation in social and political institutions, or rate of intermarriage — and there were no pogroms in Germany as there were in Russia and Eastern Europe.

He also cites a survey of 500 German POWs done in 1944. Among men below 30, 33% said anti-Semitism was “helpful” to Germany, while 44% said it was “harmful.” Among men over 30, only 17% agreed it was “helpful” while 60% saw it as “harmful.” (Twenty-three percent of both groups did not reply to the question.) And he notes that when the violence started, be it Kristallnacht in 1938 or the killing camps and Einsatzgruppen later, it was the police, the SS, the SA, and (less often) the regular military who did the killing, not “frenzied, out-of-control German civilian mobs” (130).

Even if the primarily responsibility for the Holocaust lies with the leadership, the question of popular support still remains.

Groth adds that post-WWII, while Germany has seen some Skinhead and neo-Nazi groups, there has been no mass violence against the Jews, but only “scattered” attacks against synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, and individual Jews. And political parties espousing anti-Semitism have done poorly in German elections.

Here are some points to ponder.

Regarding the Abel analysis of 600 essays about why Party members joined the NSDAP: the fact that only 36% said they were anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that the rest weren’t. If you surveyed Republicans and asked why they are in the party, perhaps two-thirds would neglect to mention “lower taxes.” But if you explicitly asked whether they favored lower taxes, probably 98% would say yes. Similarly, if you asked Democrats why they support the party perhaps two-thirds would not mention increasing taxes on the rich. But if you asked whether they favored that policy, again, probably 98% would say they did.

Regarding Sarah Gordon, to the effect that few Germans were paranoid anti-Semites of “Hitler’s ilk”: Gordon seems as data-light as Goldhagen. What Groth might have looked at is data on attendance at the Nazi anti-Semitic movies. For example, Jud Süss (1940), which pushed the most extreme anti-Semitism, was the sixth most popular film made during the Third Reich. 20.3 million Germans paid for tickets, about 40% of the adults in greater Germany. Compare the big Spielberg hit, Saving Private Ryan (1998), which was seen by about 20% of American adults at the time, and you see how attractive the anti-Semitic film was.

Regarding Groth’s and Gordon’s point that Hitler played a “central role” in the Holocaust: just why did Hitler and his myrmidons favor extermination of the Jews (at seemingly great cost towards the end of the war)? Was it just, say, schizophrenic paranoia? Was Hitler ever diagnosed as a paranoid, or hospitalized for psychotic symptoms? Or was it a deep ideological conviction, and, if so, why? Even if the primarily responsibility for the Holocaust lies with the leadership, the question of popular support still remains.

Regarding Groth’s point — a completely obvious one — that prior to Hitler coming to power, Germany historically had higher levels of integration of Jews into society, and no pogroms: perhaps the German government (for various reasons) did not allow pogroms, whereas the Tsarist government allowed (and even facilitated) them. And Jews were as well integrated in most of the rest of Western Europe (especially England, which had elected a Jew as Prime Minister as early as 1868), and suffered no pogroms either — but only Germany ever freely elected (by a strong plurality) an openly and deeply anti-Semitic party.

The SS, SA and police were formed from civilian volunteers. And the populace often cooperated with the Gestapo and other police agencies, and did nothing to impede the mass atrocities.

Regarding Groth’s citation (following Gordon) of the survey of 500 German POWs in 1944: the sample size is small (the margin of error is 5%), and its randomness is questionable — maybe German soldiers with attitudes more sympathetic to the Allies surrendered to them more readily. Worse, there is an obvious problem with interviewer error. The Germans were exposing their feelings to — their captors, who the POWs knew were profoundly anti-Nazi. Did those POWs feel free to answer honestly? We need to remember the classic illustration cited by Darrel Huff.[8] During WWII, Gallup interviewed African Americans as to whether they thought they would be treated worse by society if the Japanese won the war, and found that nearly double the number answered in the negative when the interviewer was black compared to those asked by a white interviewer.

Regarding Groth’s point that the actual killers — the genocidaires — of Jews were not civilians, but members of the SS, SA, regular police, and elements of the regular military: the SS, SA and police were formed from civilian volunteers. (The SA and SS had their origins in the Freikorps, organized militias that fought revolutionaries in the German streets after WWI.) And again, the populace often cooperated with the Gestapo and other police agencies, and did nothing to impede the mass atrocities.

Finally, regarding Groth’s point that after the 1940s, while Germany has seen skinheads and neo-Nazis, and occasionally attacks on Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, and individuals, there have been no governmental attacks: this is a weak point indeed. By the end of WWII most of Germany had been devastated, with millions of its civilians killed; the world came to know the extent of the Holocaust and condemned Germany accordingly, and the county was dismembered and occupied for decades. Of course even the most devout anti-Semites would be deterred from repeating their crimes. Moreover, post-WWII Germany was virtually devoid of Jewish citizens — even now, at about 120,000, there would be few left for modern eliminationist anti-Semites to eliminate.

In sum, while Groth offers some good criticisms of Goldhagen, they are in my view hardly definitive.

I turn now to Groth’s views on Robert Gellately’s work. Groth accuses Gellately of a flawed analysis of the data and a “lack of familiarity with the literature of totalitarianism.” This seems harsh, especially considering that both Gellately’s books were published not though some obscure press, but through Oxford University Press. But let us consider the rival contentions.

The Gestapo’s power was based not so much on its numbers as on its power to disrupt citizens’ lives, its arbitrary operations, its lack of public accountability, its exemption from the rule of law, and its known tendency to torture and murder freely.

Gellately argued in an early book[9] that the Gestapo was in fact “a terribly undermanned institution, incapable of policing German society on its own,” so it relied heavily on informants (Groth 131).

To this, Groth makes some cogent replies. The first is more of a dig: if contemporary American students and faculty report feeling intimidated on college campuses by political correctness, it is strange to think that the Germans would not have feared the Gestapo. Moreover, the Gestapo’s power was based not so much on its numbers as on its power to disrupt citizens’ lives, its arbitrary operations, its lack of public accountability, its exemption from the rule of law, and its known tendency to torture and murder freely.

Moreover, the Gestapo was interconnected with the SS, a very large organization — Groth doesn’t mention it, but the SS at its peak numbered 850,000, which is roughly the number of all local police in the contemporary US, a nation about four times the population of Nazi Germany. And the Gestapo worked in secret. So even if it had relatively few agents, the public could have no clue about that, or about the number of Gestapo informants among the public.

Groth is correct about the power of the German police state, and that will be the focus of the third in this series of essays for this journal. But he is on shakier ground when he critiques Gellately’s more recent book, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany.[10] Gellately asks why the German people almost uniformly followed Hitler from 1933 to the bitter end in 1945. Groth notes that while Gellately acknowledges the role of the Nazi propaganda machine, its strict control of communication (read: its silencing of all opposition), and its institutions of coercion and terror, Gellately concludes that the Nazi regime rested mainly on consensus. And this Groth does not accept.

By the outbreak of the war, the Nazi form of anti-Semitism had taken hold.

Gellately argues that besides using coercion and propaganda, Hitler was much more interested in getting and keeping popular support. So, unlike his rival Stalin, Hitler did not target large parts of his country’s population, confining his police state apparatus to the regime’s enemies and its targeted minorities. The regime sought popular backing until the very end of its existence. And Gellately adds that “many Germans went along, not because they were mindless robots, but because they convinced themselves of Hitler’s advantages and the ‘positive’ side of the new dictatorship” (136).

Furthermore, as Gellately points out, certainly from 1933 to 1939, the regime could show apparent successes in reclaiming lost territory, dramatically lowering unemployment, making more consumer goods available, and building out infrastructure. Gellately points to the rise in Nazi Party membership from about 130,000 in 1930 to 850,000 in 1933, and the SA’s growth from 77,000 in 1931 to 3 million in 1934. In the 1932 and 1933 plebiscites, the Nazis won the plurality of the vote. Gellately further argues that by the outbreak of the war, the Nazi form of anti-Semitism had taken hold.

Gellately additionally notes that unlike most other totalitarian regimes, the Nazis openly discussed their coercive system — in particular, their concentration camp system. I would add that it is striking that while most Soviet camps were hidden away in Siberia or elsewhere in the hinterlands, the Nazis opened their first camps near big cities. Similarly, the Nazis were quite open about their anti-Jewish measures and legislation, discussing these laws and rulings in widely circulated papers. The Nuremberg Laws (passed in 1935) were well discussed and widely publicized — as they would have to be: the populace would have to know that having sexual relations with Jews was now forbidden.

Gellately observes that German propaganda was well-crafted and effective, rather than crude and obvious. Here I would note that Goebbels articulated what is now widely acknowledged by propaganda theorists: effective propaganda is often if not typically an exercise in “confirmation bias”: it works best if it takes preexisting attitudes and beliefs and amplifies them, reconstructs them, and uses them to support something. He adds that the regime received thousands of letters a day, which seems to show that the populace supported or at least felt comfortable with it.

Groth offers a welter of criticisms of Gellately’s claims. He starts by noting that Nazi electoral successes actually dropped from 37.3% to 33.1% in the 1932 elections. Yes, a later election, after Hitler was appointed chancellor, showed a plurality of 43.9%, but that (Groth avers) was likely because of the pressure the SA could bring on voters. And in later plebiscites (in late 1933 and 1934), all opposition had been outlawed. Moreover, Groth points out that Stalin routinely won elections with 99% of the vote.

While most Soviet camps were hidden away in Siberia or elsewhere in the hinterlands, the Nazis opened their first camps near big cities.

To the point about the Nazi Party’s membership increasing, Groth replies that the postwar Soviet-backed Polish communist party membership rose from 20,000 to 1 million. As to the Nazis wanting popular backing, Groth replies that Stalin’s regime did as well.

Regarding Gellately’s claim that Hitler didn’t confront large segments of the German population in the way Stalin did the Soviet population, Groth scathingly replies that Hitler abolished trade unions and outlawed strikes — wasn’t that confrontational? To Gellately’s point about the Nazi anti-Semitism having taken root among Germans, Groth cites the reports of two senior British and American diplomats in Germany at the time of Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938) to the effect that all the citizens they talked to disapproved of the event completely.

Discussing the Nazis’ willingness to disclose the nature of their concentration camps system, Groth rightly observes that this was far short of full disclosure. The camps were portrayed as benignly reeducating communists, socialists, and criminals, and (later) as relocating Jews to the East for their own protection. The public was never told of the torture, rape, and murder that took place in those camps. Groth makes the telling point that not once did Hitler or his Propaganda Ministry ever acknowledge that they were systematically killing the Jews and other targeted groups.

Groth goes on to criticize Gellately’s account of Nazi propaganda as being sophisticated (not crude brainwashing and manipulation) and appealing to preexisting German beliefs and desires. Groth replies that this is a truism: any propaganda appeals to what people believe and desire — certainly Soviet, British, and American propaganda did. In this Groth is touching upon the point made earlier, that propaganda is often an exercise in confirmation bias. But he adds to this point another that is interesting:

Here one needs to take note of the symbiotic relationship between “propaganda” and “terror” in order to appreciate why the balance of these factors would predispose a great many people in Germany to deny and repress knowledge of Nazi crimes. At the top of the political system, Hitler and Goebbels set the norms of what it was that made a “good Nazi” and a “good German.” These norms were constantly replayed by the mass of official media — everything from radio to wall posters. Certainly, an “uncompromising hostility” to the Jews was one of the most important norms; ultimately in Hitler’s view, they were Germany’s most implacable and dangerous enemy. Any conspicuous, publicly, or even privately manifested deviation from the norms could potentially bring significant punishment to those involved. (142)

So if Germans didn’t publically defend Jews, Groth suggests, it is because any who did faced brutal treatment. And — he further suggests — the best way for an ordinary (non-anti-Semitic) German to bow to the authority of the regime but still maintain a favorable self-image would be to deliberately not think about the fate of the Jews. Actually, Groth could have invoked cognitive dissonance theory: faced with his belief in tolerance and his awareness that in not helping Jews he is contributing to their destruction, the tolerant German might simply tune out any new, unpleasant information. (Confirmation bias again . . .)

Groth next criticizes Gellately’s inferring from the fact that the Nazi regime received thousands of letters daily the conclusion that the German public was involved and interested rather than passive or powerless, and that the regime could be manipulated from below. Groth replies that the letters could just be “requests for personal favors, petty complaints, protestations of loyalty, and denunciations of other people” (143). And he criticizes Gellately’s data about citizen voluntary reports to the regime. All Gellately can point to is 403 total reports over a 12-year period — which is statistically insignificant, considering the population of Germany.

Any propaganda appeals to what people believe and desire — certainly Soviet, British, and American propaganda did.

Further, Groth notes that when the Gestapo acted, it didn’t wait for letters and other tips. When the von Stauffenberg assassination attempt failed, the Gestapo rapidly arrested the participants and used unrestrained torture, reprisals on families, and so on to get the names of the conspirators and their supporters. One estimate is that the Gestapo rapidly killed 5,000 people, most by simple fiat (no trials), including whole families of the principals.

Finally, Groth wonders whether, even supposing that 60% of the Germans continued to support Hitler even after Stalingrad, coercion wasn’t needed to suppress dissent in the other 40%. He notes that while the Vietnam War still had majority popular support in 1967, the street protests and the support given Senator McCarthy were enough to convince President Johnson not to run for reelection.

Groth agrees with Sarah Gordon that the regime didn’t so much rely on German public opinion as neutralize it, with a propaganda campaign aided by a communication monopoly, and the dictatorial coercion of the police state. And as the conclusion of the war became obvious to the whole population, and the obliteration of German cities more extensive, that coercion became all-important.

Groth concludes with an attack against Goldhagen and Gellately, holding that their view

validates a Nazi or neo-Nazi interpretation of the Fuhrer. He was a great leader of the German people because he carried out, or at least attempted to carry out, the most sincere and universal wishes and aspirations of the whole German nation.

In remembrance of Oskar Schindler, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Monsignor Bernhard Lichtenberg, Claus von Stauffenberg, and Konrad Adenauer, Hitler is not entitled to this presumption. Some facts about German public opinion on the Third Reich may perhaps forever remain in dispute. But holding a pistol to the head of a captive has certain moral . . . consequences for the assailant which cannot be removed by the argument that the pistol was not very large, and that if the captive had only been a little braver and more enterprising, it could have been dislodged. (152–3)

While I deeply respect Groth’s fair-mindedness regarding the question of German anti-Semitism and complicity in Nazi crimes (especially considering his personal story), let me make a few rebuttals to Groth’s attacks on Gellately, before presenting a deeper critique.

Let’s start with Groth’s criticism of Gellately’s general claim that while the regime’s propaganda machine and its coercive institutions helped keep people in line, the Nazi regime rested mainly on consensus. This claim Groth dismisses as “flawed analysis,” but is it? Hitler’s regime, after achieving power, dramatically delivered on its promises. It lowered unemployment (which dropped from over 30% in 1933 to virtually nothing by 1939), in great measure from a massive buildup in military and in infrastructure spending. This is what Gellately meant when he suggested that the regime’s real and seeming successes from 1933 to 1939 built popular support.

Hitler, sitting in his jail cell after a failed, farcical putsch, realized that both the Communist Left and the Nazi Right were unable to overthrow the government by revolution.

Imagine you are a German worker inclined to internationalism, socialism, or communism, and are initially skeptical about National Socialism. But Hitler achieves power, and lo! He apparently fulfills his economic promises. You and your friends have work, bread, sausage! Again, suppose you are a German businessperson, very nationalistic, but skeptical of (in your view) a group of rowdies led by an ex-corporal who don’t seem to represent German Glory, and call openly for socialism. But they achieve power, and behold! They do rebuild the military in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, take back the Ruhr and annex the Sudetenland, and achieve union with Austria. In 1939, war does break out and you see the regime rapidly take half of Poland, and rapidly defeat France — erasing in your mind an historic grievance. You might well now support this regime you initially opposed.

Groth’s argument that Stalin was like Hitler in that Stalin, too, wanted popular support seems dismissive if not downright disingenuous. One obvious and huge difference between the two figures is that the Bolsheviks never once faced fair elections with real opponents. Lenin won a revolution, and Stalin climbed to the top of the resulting Byzantine power structure by adroitly killing off competitors. But Hitler, sitting in his jail cell after a failed, farcical putsch, realized that both the Communist Left and the Nazi Right were unable to overthrow the government by revolution — so he would have to appeal for votes. And Hitler and the Party hierarchy crafted an ideology accordingly — based on the identification of an International Jewish Order as the enemy, a stab-in-the-back Nazi Historical Narrative, protectionist economics, and socialist envy of the rich — together with a political platform built on ending unemployment and restoring the national military.

To Groth’s point that Stalin won 99% of the vote, whereas Hitler won only 44% in the last election with other parties allowed, and the 44% is suspect because of the activity of the SA: these points seem contradictory. The fact that the Nazis polled only 44% suggests that the election was fairly free after all. More generally, the elections make it clear that the Nazis were able to win the plurality of votes in free elections in margins between 33% and 40%. Groth needs to ask whether the Bolsheviks could have ever done that well at any point.

Any non-Jewish German couple being given an apartment previously owned by Jews would have to know or strongly suspect that the rightful owners would not be reclaiming their property.

Regarding Groth’s comments about those British and American diplomats in Germany at the time of Kristallnacht: again, we need to remember the problem of interviewer bias. Would the average German feel comfortable in expressing support for violent anti-Semitic demonstrations to foreign diplomats — especially from England and America, which according to Nazi ideology were bastions of International Jewish financial power? Indeed, did these diplomats talk to any German workers at all, and if so, how free would those workers have felt in answering the foreign diplomats?

To Groth’s point that the regime never admitted to its own people that it was killing the Jews, two replies are in order. First, any non-Jewish German couple being given furniture or (more obviously) an apartment previously owned by Jews would have to know or strongly suspect that the rightful owners would not be reclaiming their property, and would surely have known or suspected why. But if the people were so completely cowed by the regime’s police and convinced by propaganda, why wouldn’t it just tell the citizens the truth?

Moreover, I think Groth has the relationship between power (coercion) and propaganda somewhat muddled. The relation is symbiotic, but not as he describes it. The propaganda campaign helped solidify popular support for the regime, and make people compliant to its agenda. However, coercion doesn’t so make people want to watch propaganda — it removes the most effective weapon against propaganda: free speech. Specifically, absent the use of power (coercion, terror) to silence all countervailing views, the propaganda of any regime will not be effective long-term.

Critical voices can expose propaganda for what it is — sunlight disinfects — and this is why the coercive power of any authoritarian regime enables its propaganda to be effective. Imagine the damage the satirical power of a Saturday Night Live show could have inflicted on the Nazi Party and its ideology. Imagine if critics had been allowed to do their own documentary on Judaism and the Jews in reply to The Eternal Jew. Groth himself touches upon this when he says:

As long as the Nazis could maintain a communication monopoly supported by terror, the issue of their Jewish policy could be framed for public consumption in such euphemistic terms as “removal of Jews from Germany” and “resettlement of Jews in the East.” An opposition . . . would have framed the issue as mass murder and state-sponsored criminal mayhem. (150)

Finally, to Groth’s criticism that (Goldhagen’s and) Gellately’s view validates the Nazi idea of Hitler as hero, and that this betrays the memory of people who struggled against the regime, two replies. First, Groth cites six anti-regime fighters. But that was six out of 80 million people over a 12-year period — not much of a resistance. And the attempt on Hitler’s life involved military men who were worried about Hitler’s losing the war, not plagued by desperation to save the Jews. Second, maintaining that the very notion that Hitler delivered the goods to the average (non-Jewish) German validates the view of Hitler as a great leader is absurd. Yes, Hitler gave Germans the goods, but they were goods stolen from murdered people and colonized countries. That hardly “validates” Hitler.

Coercion doesn’t so make people want to watch propaganda — it removes the most effective weapon against propaganda: free speech.

In sum, I agree with Groth that the move to tar all or most Germans of the time with some special murderous kind of anti-Semitism is wrong. However, I don’t think he quite makes the case that there wasn’t anything unique about German anti-Semitic ideology. I will return to this point. But even more questionable is Groth’s feeling that Gellately was wrong to say the regime rested on consensus. To be fair to both Gellately and Groth, they were writing a few years before a more powerful explanation of the general support for the regime among the people: the regime purchased its support. Just how and how much the regime did this was not explained deeply until Götz Aly’s seminal research, to which I now turn.

[1] Doctors don’t typically bargain with patients in the sense of “If you quit smoking, I will lower my fees by 10%.” They may bargain about method of payment, and give discounts for fees paid by cash. But of course insurance companies routinely offer lower fees to patients who avoid risky behaviors.

[2] Listen to the Ridley interview here.

[3] The Wealth of Nations, book I, chapter 2.

[4] Groth doesn’t mention this, but in 1943 Polish underground hero Jan Karski told both leaders in person that the Jews were being exterminated.

[5] From her book: Hitler, Germans and the Jewish Question, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1984).

[6] From his book: The Experience of a Single German Town 1930–1935, New York: New Viewpoints (1965).

[7] From Friedlander’s book: Nazi Germany and the Jews, Vol. 1: The Years of Persecution, 1933–1939, New York: Harper Collins (1997).

[8] In his classic book, How to Lie with Statistics, New York: Norton (1954).

[9] The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing the Racial Policy 1933–1945, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1990).

[10] Oxford: Oxford University Press (2001).

Editor's Note: This review-essay is part 1 of a three-part series.

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Let’s Sing a Song About Three!


I haven’t seen Sesame Street for years. I don’t know if they still do those counting songs to teach kids about numbers. But as this year’s election draws to a close, something like that would sure be helpful.

How is it that so many voters can count no higher than two? It seems to this third-party supporter that they could use a tutorial from Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, or The Count. If I hear one more half-witted, addle-pated admonition that I must “vote for Trump so we won’t get Hillary” or “vote for Hillary so we won’t get Trump,” I swear I’m going to scream, “Three banana cream pies!” and plaster somebody smack in the face with them.

Of course I wouldn’t actually do that. I’m a libertarian. I don’t believe in violence against my fellow Americans. But boy, sometimes I’m tempted. This year, I’ve been tempted like never before.

If I hear one more half-witted, addle-pated admonition that I must “vote for Trump so we won’t get Hillary” or “vote for Hillary so we won’t get Trump,” I swear I’m going to scream.

Why is it so hard for people to wrap their minds around the concept that they have additional choices? To me, and to other reasonable people, the suggestion comes as a welcome relief. But legions of others react to it with hostility. They recoil as if from a barrage of banana cream pies. The thought seems to cause them physical pain, as if they were being prescribed a bad case of influenza.

I’ve heard “journalists” lament the cold-heartedness of libertarians who think that giving consumers actual options in a free market is somehow a ruthless philosophy that would doom orphans and widows to starve in the streets. We’re supposedly too idiotic to run our own lives, but veritable Solomons when it comes to running the lives of others. That would require making choices, too — but don’t tell our betters that. It would only give them a headache.

I intend to go on gleefully counting to three. I’d love to deliver my lesson through the cartoon lips of the lady who used to sing it on Sesame Street. But I’ll continue challenging my fellow Americans to count higher — and aim higher — in any way I can. I’ll also keep those pies ready, just in case.

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What’s So Selfish About Capitalism?


It is a mischaracterization of the free-market society that is as old as capitalism itself. One recent recycle comes from self-designated “libertarian socialist” and “anarchist” Noam Chomsky: “It’s just, I’m out for myself, nobody else — and that’s the way it ought to be” (Power Systems, p. 157).

Now it is absolutely true that laissez-faire capitalism allows someone to be “selfish” (in the most shallow sense), basically because such capitalism allows an individual to be any number of things. A man can spend every penny he has on trinkets (from which expanding circles of merchants and others will actually benefit), or he can donate all he owns to charity — or select among all the types of intermediate options. Freedom of property gives people these choices, in the same way as freedom of religion provides them with a smorgasbord of theisms, atheisms, and agnosticisms. The separation of state and religion doesn’t mean that everyone will embrace, say, Seventh-day Adventism, nor does it follow that the separation of state and economics means that everyone will embrace “selfishness” — or any one exclusive behavior.

The fear that freedom of charity — ending redistributive taxation, thereby completing the separation of state and charity — will mean not a diversification, but the utter death of charity, proceeds from the premise that the one thing everyone will do under capitalism is nothing — for or with anyone else. But this contention that individual liberty entails an abject disregard for others corresponds to no social reality. Does freedom of assembly mean that people will never assemble — in any way? Does freedom of trade mean that everybody will in fact stop trading? Does freedom of speech and of the press — an unregulated market in ideas — mean not that we will have a rich and engaging culture, but that nobody will exchange any ideas about anything?

Laissez-faire capitalism allows someone to be “selfish” because such capitalism allows an individual to be any number of things.

Consider freedom of sexuality. Now it is also absolutely true that capitalism allows someone to indulge in what was formerly euphemized as “self-abuse.” Does that mean that without government control of sex — without a nationalization of the means of reproduction — individuals will do nothing but lock themselves away in their rooms? That there will be no dating, no courting, no marriages? No births, no propagation of the species — is that how “rugged individualism” will “atomize” society? Will all of capitalism’s “sham-liberty” (Engels) degenerate us into an anti-civilization of hermits, morons, and masturbators? Is that the fate from which only coercion — by a hereditary monarch, a Putsch oligarchy, or the Election Day majority-plurality — can save us?

Forebodings of societal necrosis notwithstanding, there is no conflict between liberty and community — the former is each tree, the latter the forest. By allowing each adult to act on his own choices, liberty empowers consenting adults to interact in various ways within a multiplicity of modes: religious-philosophical, professional-economic, sexual-romantic, cultural-artistic, fraternal-humanitarian, and many more. Hence the profound error of thinking that capitalism — voluntarily funded government limited to the defense of person and property — has any one “way it ought to be” concerning socioeconomic matters (such as Chomsky’s “I’m out for myself, nobody else” burlesque). Its only commandment is political: the prohibition of the initiation of force or fraud — by either state or criminal agents. We may therefore confidently retire verso Engels’ and recto Thomas Carlyle’s “cash nexus” caricature of the open society. Whatever the skirmish, the conflict of freedom vs. control is that of diversity vs. conformity — the multifaceted, multihued consent nexus of capitalism vs. the flat, sanguineous coercion nexus of statisms left and right. When some lobbyist hands us the line “If government doesn’t do it, it doesn’t get done,” what he’s really telling us is: it doesn’t get done his way only.

Many of the giants of classical liberalism recognized the affinity of compulsion and conformity. Jefferson wondered: why subject opinion to coercion? His answer: “To produce uniformity.” And Ludwig von Mises, in a survey of paradoxical charges against the free market, observed: “The atheists make capitalism responsible for the survival of Christianity. But the papal encyclicals blame capitalism for the spread of irreligion. . . .” Irreligionists identify capitalism with religion because capitalism (unlike leftism) doesn’t suppress religion, while religionists identify capitalism with irreligion because capitalism (unlike rightism) doesn’t suppress that. Let us put aside the question of whether such behavior — the refusal to extend to others the protection of law that one demands for oneself — constitutes “selfishness” in the most destructive sense. What this example illustrates perfectly is the statist projection inherent in linking laissez faire, which neither suppresses nor subsidizes, to any homogenized culture. A “capitalist society” is no more synonymous with “selfish materialism” than with “selfless spirituality.” The only thing everyone in a libertarian political order does — with no one’s mind, body, and property but his own — is act, not for his exclusive “gratification” against any consideration for others, but on his own judgment protected against any violence from others.

With regard to the nature of civil liberties, the freedom to withhold one’s wealth from the state — apparently the gravamen of the charge of capitalist “selfishness” — is wholly like any other human right. The state has no more claim to the individual’s private property than to his private body or his private mind. (Indeed, what a person does with his own property or body is what he does with his own mind — all coercion is “thought control.”) If we do not grant government the ability to more wisely or morally use a citizen’s mind or body, we do not grant it the ability to more wisely or morally use his property. Yet that is exactly what the accusation of “selfishness” wants to guilt us into conceding: that the state (essentially a handful of guys with guns) will manage each and every person’s money “better” than these people (essentially the entirety of the population) will do themselves. Just who is manning this administration — mortals or gods?

Will all of capitalism’s “sham-liberty” degenerate us into an anti-civilization of hermits, morons, and masturbators?

The importance of private property to political dissent was memorably demonstrated by an unexpected but significant source. In response to President George W. Bush’s launching of the Iraq War, the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee issued a public statement entitled “An Appeal to Conscience: In Support of Those Refusing to Pay for War on Iraq,” which upheld a citizen’s right not to pay “all or a portion of one’s federal taxes as a form of conscientious objection.” Among the signatories were many who proudly wore the label “socialist,” including . . . Noam Chomsky. Now here were outright collectivists defending the right of every individual to keep his money from the taxmen, for no reason other than to reflect his private conscience — that is, his personal disagreement with government policy, even when the government was enthroned by the Election Day majority-plurality. (And certainly Bush 2000 won a much greater percentage of the popular vote than Chile’s Allende, whose “democratically elected” credential is repeated by the Left as calculatingly as Castro’s dictator status is not.) The “Appeal to Conscience” didn’t even contain a little pledge that each tax resister would spend his withheld wealth on good things (e.g., children’s charities) and not on bad ones (hookers and heroin).

Since war is a government undertaking, we must note the converse in America today: almost every government project is conceived as some kind of “war” — hence a War on Poverty and a War on Drugs no less than a War in Iraq and a War on Terror. If, as a matter of principle, a citizen may stop giving money to the state as a practical expression of his “conscientious objection” to any particular war — if he can in that manner legitimately protest national security and other policies — we thereby recognize that private property is essential to freedom of conscience. What then is left of any variant of wealth seizure? What are we left with but capitalism in its purest form?

Yet that is the very politics denounced by the Left, including even its antiwar tax resisters, as “selfishness.” One cannot help recalling the scene in A Man for All Seasons where Sir Thomas More, accused of high treason, explains that his believing a “loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his conscience than to any other thing” is a matter of necessity “for respect of my own soul.” Thomas Cromwell, the state’s advocate and More’s antipode in this “debate” — a rigged trial in which the defendant’s life is in peril — tries to undermine this statement of conviction in a common manner, sneering, “Your own self, you mean!” More doesn’t deny it: “Yes, a man’s soul is his self!”

Possibly the “egalitarian” supporters of the “Appeal to Conscience” believed that its broad principles should apply to only specific people — namely, themselves and those sufficiently parallel. That returns to the fore the refusal to extend to others the protection of law that one demands for oneself. Said refusal is a good working definition of what many actually champion as the corrective to capitalist “selfishness”: the social-democratic “welfare” state — the mixed economy:

To be capitalist or to be socialist?— that is the question. Precisely what is the mix of the mixed economy? When is it capitalist and when is it socialist? When does it protect property and when does it confiscate it? When does it leave people alone and when does it coerce them? When does it adhere to the ethics of individualism and when does it obey the code of collectivism? And just which is the metaphysical primary — the individual or the collective (e.g., the nation, the race, the class)? The fundamental truth about the mixed economy is that mixed practices imply mixed principles, which in turn imply mixed premises — i.e., an incoherent grasp of reality. With socialism, the chaos was economic; with “social democracy,” it’s epistemological. Ultimately, the latter can no more generate rational policies than the former could generate rational prices. The mixed economy doesn’t present us with a mosaic portrait of the just society, but with a jigsaw of pieces taken from different puzzles.

Unable to provide any philosophically consistent answers, the mixed economy demonstrates that the question of which rights will be protected degenerates into a struggle over whose rights will be protected. One example that virtually suggests itself: while a myriad of voices clamor for censorship, who ever says, “There have to be some limits on free speech, and we should start with mine”? Concerning “economic” issues, do we ever hear, “Y’know what? Give the competition the subsidies. Me, I’ll bear the rigors of the market”? As for intellectual and moral integrity: do we see the National Organization for Women (NOW) and fellow “progressives” bring to other issues the laissez faire they demand for the abortion industry — a heresy that elicited a charge of “possessive individualism” from Christopher Hitchens when in office as socialist inquisitor — except, that is, when these “progressives” demand tax dollars for abortions (and deny reproductive rights, the putative sine qua non for gender equality, to males)? Do we see the National Rifle Association (NRA) and fellow “conservatives” bring to other issues the laissez faire they demand for the gun culture — a deviation that roused Robert Bork, majoritarian mongoose to any perceived libertarian snake, to attack the NRA via a comparison with the ACLU — except, that is, when these “conservatives” demand that private property owners be prohibited by law from refusing entry to persons carrying firearms?

Whatever the skirmish, the conflict of freedom vs. control is that of diversity vs. conformity.

No matter what combination of contradictory positions any particular avatar of the mixed economy advocates on any given day, he is always a libertarian with his own liberty and a capitalist with his own capital, but an authoritarian with the freedoms of others and a socialist with their property. Such is the “idealism” that distinguishes modern liberalism and its special-interest lobbies from the “selfishness” of classical liberalism and its establishment of the same rights for oneself and one’s neighbors.

With social diversity now multiplying the types of special interests in many social democracies, the resulting political conflicts cannot be dismissed, let alone defused — least of all by the bromide that “we all accept that our tax dollars go to things we disapprove of.” No one in fact accepts that. Even though taxation exists to separate people from control of their money, selective tax protests span the spectrum of otherwise pro-taxation pressure groups. We’ve seen collectivists — reputed foes of all private property — endorse antiwar protesters who demand as a matter of individual conscience their right not to pay taxes. Years ago in The Nation, an ad told readers that “your tax dollars” funded what it alleged was Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians. Public school supporters, who never voice concern over how many “Americans really want to give tax dollars” to that monopoly, suddenly claimed great concern with what “Americans really want” at the prospect of those dollars going to “school vouchers.” And among traditionalists, tax protests involve everything from abortion to art (if it offends them) to foreign aid (for the countries they don’t like) to free condoms and free needles. Under a system that denigrates the concept of equal rights for all, everyone wants to be exempt from paying taxes for the things he disapproves of, but no one wants — any guesses why? — his neighbors to be exempt from paying taxes for the things they disapprove of.

There’s not a mote of doubt as to what — with the double standard as its only standard — exposes itself as the inherent politics of “selfishness”: the hypocrisy of social democracy. All the warring camps of social democrats brazenly acknowledge that hypocrisy — in the other camps. A snowy day stuck indoors will pass much more tolerably with a back-and-forth Googling of “liberal hypocrisy” and “conservative hypocrisy.” (Each camp also detects tyranny — “fascism” — in only the others; compare Jonah Goldberg vs. Naomi Wolf.)

And what of social democracy’s central claim to “social justice”: its redistribution of wealth from the “most greedy” (richest? most materialistic? least philanthropic?) to the “most needy”? Consider one form of redistribution that no North American or European “welfare” state allows — or ever would allow. Let us stipulate that I have no problems with (a) the government’s taking a portion of my money for the purpose of tempering my “greed,” (b) the idea of those tax dollars going to the “most needy,” and (c) the percentage the state takes. But there is one thing: I don’t consider the current recipients to be anywhere near the “most needy.” My definition does not include my fellow Americans, who even at their poorest are richer than most people on the planet. To get right to it: I believe that the “most needy” — the “least of these” — are undeniably the starving children of the Third World, and I insist that my tax dollars all be sent to them.

The mixed economy demonstrates that the question of which rights will be protected degenerates into a struggle over whose rights will be protected.

Now why is that a problem? I am not declaring a right to withhold my taxes from the government, with no assurance about what I will do with the money — unlike the antiwar leftists who signed the “Appeal to Conscience.” Nor am I trying to control what others’ taxes pay for. All I’m asking is that my money go to those who my independent judgment and individual conscience tell me are the “most needy.” Why should I pay for full medical coverage for all Americans, when the Third World children don’t have any food? Why should I pay for textbooks for American children, when the Third World children don’t have any food? So, why can’tmy tax dollars go to them? Because the Election Day majority-plurality decides that “charity begins at home” (i.e., nationalism trumps humanitarianism)? If the neediest-recipient principle justifies my money’s transfer to my fellow Americans, why doesn’t it justify the money’s transfer from these Americans to the starving Third World children? Isn’t the principle violated by the dictionary “selfishness” of voting other people’s money into one’s own coffer (“tax booty for me, tax burden for thee”)?

The redistribution of wealth in a “welfare” state is not directed by a neediest-recipient or any other principle. It is purely a matter of power. With its rejection of consistent property rights, social democracy forces all people to throw all money onto the table (which some resist more successfully than others) and then allows them to take what they can (with some better able to take than others). That’s right: The money goes from those who are politically unable to hold on to their wealth, to those who are politically capable of grabbing on to that wealth. The former are no more guaranteed to be the “most greedy” than the latter are to be the “most needy.” It would be criminal not to cite Lord Bauer’s denuding of foreign aid: the “transferring [of] money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.” And it would be downright felonious to omit business subsidies. Any redistribution of wealth operates in only one way: from each according to his ability to contract via civil society, to each according to his ability to coerce via the state — a feature applicable (by degree) to both socialist dictatorship and social democracy.

The confusion of limited government with “selfishness” is reflected in the socialistic thesis that such government comprises nothing but the “class self-interest” of the business (“capitalist”) class. This thesis implodes almost immediately when we begin to ask precisely what concrete policies manifest that specific “class self-interest.” If respect for everyone’s property rights actually favors “capitalists,” why do corporations seek subsidies and “eminent domain” confiscations? If unregulated commerce leads to monopolization by these “capitalists,” why do real-world businessmen look to state regulation to gift them with monopoly entitlements? And if free trade gives an advantage to this class, why do each country’s business — and union — leaders lobby for protectionism?

The classical liberals formulated their principles of private property, laissez faire, and free trade — rejected by “socialists of all parties” and big business alike — not against the yearning of the have-nots for a better life, but in opposition to policies that favored the few over the common good, that is, the routine of “merchants and industrialists . . . demanding and receiving special privileges for themselves” (in the words of Robert B. Downs). Free-market economics (The Wealth of Nations) and American nationhood both arose as part of the revolt against such mercantilism — corporatism, in today’s parlance. The American “welfare” state, in contrast, began as a neomercantilist reaction against that revolt. “The essential purpose and goal of any measure of importance in the Progressive Era was not merely endorsed by key representatives of businesses involved,” observed Gabriel Kolko; “rather such bills were first proposed by them.” Big business has never stopped being a major driver of big government. Would President Bush’s 2003 prescription drug bill (the “largest expansion of entitlements in nearly forty years,” according to Jonathan Chait) have gone anywhere without its hundreds of billions in industry subsidies? Would Obamacare even exist without the “advice” and approval of the health insurance cartel?

If respect for everyone’s property rights actually favors “capitalists,” why do corporations seek subsidies and “eminent domain” confiscations?

Corporate privilege is a raison d’être — not a corruption — of the “welfare” state (aka “corporate liberalism”). Charity is not the purpose of the “welfare” state, much less its innovation. Concern for “the poor and stranger” long preceded its birth and will long survive its death. Like family life or the division of labor, charity is (to quote Paine’s view of society vs. state) “part of that order which reigns among mankind [that] is not the effect of government. It had its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man.” What had its origin in government is the swarm of anticompetitive measures benefitting “connected” entities — the fixed economy of the mixed economy. Without tariffs, for instance, how many people would always prefer to buy domestic goods? And how many would ever write out checks to a multinational conglomerate for nothing in return? Those are the “market failures” that the opponents of a free market fear.

Any state initiation of force exists not for a noble end (which, as Jefferson said of truth, requires no such coercion), but for a sordid one. Regarding military conscription, Ayn Rand pointed out that a “free (or even semi-free) country has never lacked volunteers in the face of foreign aggression.” However: “Not many men would volunteer for such wars as Korea or Vietnam.” Likewise, people will allocate money for the education of their children, sound retirement funds, the less fortunate, and especially the services of a limited government. What they won’t do is give it to “teachers” who can’t teach, Ponzi schemes, Boeing, or Chrysler — or the Taliban, which just a few months before 9/11 received from Uncle Sam a total of $43 million for its “help” in the victory-elusive War on Drugs (a sum that too obviously pales next to the multiple billions handed over to Vice President Cheney’s compadres for the purpose of building infrastructure — in Iraq). Only pursuits of folly and injustice seek the means of force or fraud.

Portraying laissez-faire capitalism as the tailored benefactor of big business is transparently a projection on the part of the mixed economy’s corporate liberals. The consistent socialists, on the other hand, care no more whether commerce is privileged or left alone by government than whether religion is privileged or left alone by government. They want the abolition of commerce, of religion, of a free market in anything, of any independent institution of civil society: the replication of totalitarian theory and history.

Will only the unfettered state stop the virulence of “selfishness”? Ideally yes, asserted Plato, for whom the “highest form of the state” was one “in whichthe private and individual is altogether banished from life, and things which are by nature private, such as eyes and ears and hands, have become common, and in some way see and hear and act in common, and all men express praise and blame and feel joy and sorrow on the same occasions. . . .” Reductio ad fundamentum: There will be no more “selfishness” when there are no more selves.

Capitalism is being condemned for not assenting to the proposition that money grows on trees.

The unfettered market boasts no ability to effect a change in “human nature” — in social reality. There will always be situations in which people compete to get or to keep one position, one prize. But while the market can do nothing about this conflicting “selfishness” (and will do nothing about different parties’ demands for a guarantee of monopoly), it commands the common self-interest that people have in all competition being governed by an equitable rule: a ban on the use of force or fraud by any rival, the only possible such rule. The analogue of the market is not the jungle, but the stadium — more broadly, a network of stadiums and other venues.

Capitalism’s multiplicity of open competitions enables each individual to find the field where he can succeed. The free market’s profit-and-loss dynamic (to quote Adam Smith) “encourages every man to apply himself to [the] particular occupation” most sought after by others. These interactions synthesize the most prosperous social order as defined by the participants themselves — all of them, as opposed to any one party’s wish for the “way it ought to be.” It is an ideal that has been realized to the degree thata market mechanism has been implemented. In contrast, socialism’s “equality” has meant nothing but poverty for all. And in a jarring echo of the Great Depression, the mixed economy’s regulatory sector in recent years orchestrated a general downturn in the US (where the crisis was Orwellianly blamed on “deregulation”) and in Europe (the “PIIGS”). State intervention in production (i.e., one party’s wish for the “way it ought to be”), once heralded as the alternative to the market’s alleged class conflicts, evidently produces only the “common ruin of the contending classes” — to redirect a phrase from The Communist Manifesto. When the prescribed cure for “selfishness” actually afflicts the common good, we must reexamine the diagnosis of the condition.

Preponderant among the essential criticisms of limited government has been the charge that it fails to recognize as natural rights such things as food, clothing, and shelter, to say nothing of education (“from pre-K to Ph.D.”), advanced medicine, and whatever else might be tacked on. The sober reply: these items are not natural rights because they are not natural produce. It costs a man nothing not to coerce his fellow citizens, thereby respecting their rights to worship, speak, etc. But how can he provide everyone’s “right” to all those scarce materials and services? And why should he, when he himself is promised a “right” to those things whether he does any work or not? Realistically speaking, capitalism is being condemned for not assenting to the proposition that money grows on trees. And the condemners are quite serious in that belief: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Wealth simply exists, and only capitalist “selfishness” prevents its equal distribution to every soul on earth.

Ultimately, the free-market society is guilty only of affirming each individual’s right to control his own mind, body, and property, a conviction that calls for a single sentence: if that is “selfishness,” let us make the most of it.

Recommended Reading

  • Yaron Brook and Don Watkins, Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government, 2012.
  • Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America, 2012.
  • David Kelley, Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence, 2003.
  • Robert P. Murphy, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism, 2007.
  • Andrew P. Napolitano, It Is Dangerous to Be Right When the Government Is Wrong: The Case for Personal Freedom, 2011.
  • John Stossel, No, They Can’t: Why Government Fails — But Individuals Succeed, 2012.

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You Are Perfectly Free to Say Nice Things


Continuing in its fifth year, the Broadsides series published by Encounter Books consists of paperback pamphlets modeled on 18th-century political pamphlets such as The Federalist Papers and Thomas Paine's Common Sense. Short and accessible, polemical and jargon-free, speedily produced and mass-marketed, these pamphlets examine any number of policy issues from immigration and climate change to gun control and Obamacare.

Published this year, the 39th book in the series is Greg Lukianoff's Freedom From Speech, a vigorous and cogent refutation of the increasingly popular notion that people have a right not to be offended. Lukianoff is an attorney and the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving civil liberties in academia. His first book, Unlearning Liberty, earned high acclaim from pundits and reviewers with diverse political leanings.

Who gets to decide what is offensive and what isn't? How do we determine who is worthy of such power?

"It seems as if every day brings a new controversy regarding the purportedly offensive remarks of a celebrity, an official, or an ordinary citizen," Lukianoff observes, "followed by irate calls for the speaker to suffer some sort of retribution." He points to Donald Sterling, Phil Robertson, Paula Deen, Gary Oldman, Don Imus, Mel Gibson, Jerry Seinfeld, Isaiah Washington, and Alec Baldwin as examples of public figures whose insensitive statements provoked the ire of the commentariat and set into motion institutional disciplinary procedures that used humiliation as a form of rehabilitation. Having a mean thought and then expressing it, or failing to choose your words prudently, can result not just in your silencing, but in your punishment. And the parameters of approved opinion keep getting narrower. What Lukianoff calls "the thought pattern of the modern American censor" is reducible to this decree: "there must be zero tolerance for anything that anyone might consider offensive, regardless of the context."

This impossible standard raises countless questions. Who gets to decide what is offensive and what isn't? How do we determine who is worthy of such power? By what criteria should allegedly offensive statements be evaluated for acceptability? What's a manageable method for regulating speech if people of every background and belief are prone to offense at some phrase, characterization, or tone? One wonders where all this is heading when the CEO of a major corporation, Mozilla, is forced to resign after it’s revealed that he made (legally permissible) donations to a campaign supporting California's Proposition 8 (a proposition opposing gay marriage). Regardless of one's view of that issue, it shouldn't escape notice that no respectable figure was calling for the president to resign because of his own documented opposition to gay marriage while Proposition 8 was on the ballot in 2008. By what measure does Obama get a pass while Brendan Eich, the Mozilla CEO, gets the boot?

There are no reasonable answers to these questions, only more questions. Lukianoff acknowledges that "what happened to Eich was not an actual First Amendment violation" because Mozilla is a private company, not a government entity, "but that does not mean," Luikianoff avers, "it had nothing to do with free speech."On the contrary, "freedom of speech is a far broader idea that includes additional cultural values" that warrant debate and study, not silencing and condemnation. Only through the rigorous filtering mechanisms of longstanding deliberation and civil confrontation can good ideas be sorted from the bad. Only by maintaining disagreement at a rhetorical and discursive level can we facilitate tolerance and understanding and prevent the imposition of ideas by brute force.

Lukianoff's primary target is American higher education and such strange phenomena as the now-frequent "disinvitations" of speakers and the "trigger warnings" for course materials deemed upsetting. The problem is not limited to American colleges and universities — other countries and other entities have their own varieties of censorship — but the censorship culture tends to emanate from American institutions of higher education, where eager and impressionable students are easily conditioned to believe they are doing the right thing by removing from their purview ideas they don't like. The irony is that young people believe they're dissenting when they quash dissent, usually at the behest or encouragement of faculty and administrators who enjoy positions of authority.

Build thick skin; develop counter-discourse; sharpen your own mind and rhetoric. But don't put the institutional muzzle on free expression.

Students above all will benefit from Lukianoff's quick and informative read. They'll learn that intellectual comfort is dangerously close to unthinking laziness and that censorship is not a matter of "left" versus "right," "liberal" versus "conservative," or any other simplistic, polarizing signifiers that dumb down constructive debate or prevent it altogether.

Freedom of speech is not the same as freedom from speech. Rather than learning how to avoid offense at all costs, academics, professional victims, and those pretending to be academics and victims ought to learn how not to take offense, how to handle offense in healthy and productive ways, or how to intelligently, rationally, creatively and convincingly rebut arguments and positions with which they disagree. Build thick skin; develop counter-discourse; sharpen your own mind and rhetoric. But don't put the institutional muzzle on free expression.

We all on some level wish to live out our days serenely and swimmingly, away from opposition and complacently content with our limited experience and cherished presuppositions. It's work, after all, to defend our convictions and justify the actions that our beliefs inspire us to take. The fact of the matter, however, is that we cannot progress without overcoming challenges. If universities are places that cultivate critical thinking, as they claim to be, they must welcome a range of values and opinions. Freedom of speech cannot mean freedom to suppress the speech of others. A freedom that is divisible or available to a preselected few is no freedom at all. Lukianoff realizes this. His organization combats censorship in its many manifestations on a daily basis.

As battles over university censorship continue, keep your eye on Lukianoff. He’ll be on the front lines. “The fight for freedom of speech has never been easy,” he says, adding that “it will be a hard battle indeed.” More than a few readers of this book will be ready to enlist. Mr. Lukianoff, reinforcements are on their way.

Editor's Note: Review of "Freedom From Speech," by Greg Lukianoff. Encounter No. 39, Broadsides. Encounter Books, 2014, 61 pp.

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Prostitution and Coercion


I was recently thinking about why prostitution is illegal. As a libertarian I think that it should be legal, as an extension of people’s absolute right to own their own bodies. But many Americans disagree. If there is a rational, persuasive argument against the legalization of prostitutes (or “sex workers,” as they should be called) it is that a need for money would coerce poor women into becoming sex workers and selling their bodies. Poor women who need money to buy food and pay bills would feel economic pressure to become sex workers, this argument goes, so we need to protect them from coercion by denying them the opportunity to sell their bodies.

Some version of the coercion argument underscores a great deal of anti-libertarian sentiment: poor people will be coerced into selling their organs and body parts, which justifies denying them the right to do so. Poor people are coerced into accepting dangerous, low-paying jobs such as coal mining, or are coerced into working long hours for wages that are lower than what they want. They are coerced into buying cheap high-fat fast food, or are coerced into buying cheap meat, packed at rat-infested plants, and so on. The coercion argument is a thorn in the side of laissez-faire politics, because socialists argue that poor people aren’t really free in a capitalist system where they face economic coercion.

An example of the grave seriousness of the coercion myth is legal scholar Robert Lee Hale’s famous law review article “Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State” (1923). Hale brainwashed generations of law students with his argument that capitalist employers exert coercion upon workers, and socialism would not produce more coercion or less freedom than capitalism. The coercion argument goes far beyond the issue of prostitution; it is crucial for the integrity of libertarian theory that we have a definitive refutation to offer the public. This essay presents two strategies for refuting the coercion argument. I will focus on sex work to develop my ideas, but my arguments extend by analogy to every application of the coercion myth.

Assume that there is a poor woman (or man) who cannot pay utility bills and grocery bills and healthcare bills, and does not want to sell her body, but if she becomes a sex worker will earn enough money to pay the bills. Is this coercion? There are two approaches to arguing that it is not. The first approach is to argue, as a matter of deductive logic, that economic pressure can never amount to coercion, and therefore this scenario does not satisfy the definition of “coercion.” The second approach is to argue that economic pressure can be coercion but that capitalism is better than socialism at preventing the situation in which a poor woman has to do work she hates in order to have enough money. This involves showing why libertarian economic policy will create an abundance of economic opportunity for American working-class women.

In the remainder of this essay I will offer my thoughts on how to use each approach, focusing on the analytical approach first and the empirical approach second. I will argue that economic pressure is not and can never be coercion, because economic pressure does not fit the definition of “coercion.”

What is coercion? My 1998 Oxford Dictionary of Current English identifies it as the noun form of the verb “coerce,” which it defines as “persuade or restrain by force.” defines “coercion” as “the act of coercing; use of force or intimidation to obtain compliance.” A serious question is whether coercion requires, by definition, physical force or the threat of it. I don’t feel it’s necessary to answer that question. I think a good common-sense definition of coercion is “threats of physical force or psychological intimidation that pressure someone into doing something he doesn’t want to do.”

The coercion argument is a thorn in the side of laissez-faire politics, because socialists argue that poor people aren’t really free in a capitalist system where they face economic coercion.

To make my point, permit me to present what academic philosophers call a “thought experiment.” Imagine an English sailor in the late 1700s who is marooned on a desert island after his ship was blasted apart by cannon fire from a pirate attack. This person washes ashore, explores the island, and finds that he is the only human there. There are some animals and plants and trees, and some land that he thinks could be farmed. This sailor faces a choice. Either he hunts for animals or farms vegetables and perhaps gets enough food to support his life, or he starves and dies. He could choose to seek food, which would require doing a lot of sweaty labor, or he could choose to be lazy and sit around and wait and eventually die. Work or death is the choice that he faces.

Few people would say he was coerced into working the job of hunter or farmer. Why? Because the thing that forces him to work is the nature of reality and the circumstances of the desert island. Coercion is typically regarded as an action, as something that one person does to another person to force the latter to conform to the former’s wishes. Where there is only one person there can be no coercion. Reality can be such that you must do something or face an unpleasant punishment, such as hard work, but reality has no mind capable of intentions and therefore has no intent to pressure you to obey some sort of scheme or plan.

It seems counterintuitive to say that reality coerces you, or that the aspect of reality called a desert island coerced you. It is the nature of reality, of humanity in the state of nature, that you work or die. If the sailor resents being forced to work by the human need for food, in a situation where it is obviously reality itself that poses this requirement, then he is rebelling against reality and the nature of human life. The demands of reality are not coercion; they are merely human existence.

This sheds light on the phenomenon that I call “worker’s rage,” a rage that most people feel sometimes and some people feel most of the time — a fear-fueled hatred of the fact that material success requires hard work and entails the risk of failure. I think that many socialists are motivated at a deep psychological level by the feeling that a strong socialist government could somehow create a magical utopia where there is no risk of failure or any need to do work in order to enjoy material comforts. Money and capitalism have come to symbolize the need to do work in order to survive. But as the desert island thought experiment suggests, the “work or die” condition of human existence is the result of humanity in the state of nature. It cannot be the result of capitalism if it exists someplace where there is no economic system. Thus “work or die” is perfectly natural; it is the condition of humans in the state of nature. The actual cause of worker’s rage is reality and not capitalism.

But now let us change the scenario slightly. Suppose that two sailors are shipwrecked on an otherwise desert island. One sailor, let’s call him John, finds a plot of land and sows some fast-growing fruit seeds and produces an orchard (or, for simplicity's sake, let's say a crop) of edible fruit. This sailor also builds a fence around his land, topped with sharp spikes. This fence cannot be scaled without serious risk of death. The second sailor, James, just sits on the beach, doing nothing but watching the waves.

Now James faces the same situation that the sailor in the first thought experiment faced: either he works or he dies of starvation. The new wrinkle is that if John were to give some of his fruit to James, then James would have a third option, to eat John’s fruit, not work, and not starve to death. Let us assume that James asks John to give him some fruit, and John says “no” and refuses to open the gate to his fence to let James in. Has John coerced James?

Here, for reasons similar to those of the first hypothetical, it's difficult to say that John has done anything to James that constitutes “coercion.” In the first place, there isn’t anything that John wants James to do. Therefore there is no intent or plan of John for James to conform to. We can hardly say that John coerced James into doing something when there is nothing that John wanted James to do.

The demands of reality are not coercion; they are merely human existence.

In the second place, if James dies from starvation, it will not have been John who killed him. Everything bad that could happen to James (such as starvation), will have been caused by the island, by the circumstances of not having an abundance of free food waiting to be taken, and by James’ own decision not to work. There is no threat from John directed at James, and any harm that befalls James will not have been caused by John. James’ death by starvation will have been caused by his own decision, combined with the nature of reality and of human beings, and the laws of physics and biology. Of course, John can prevent James’ death by giving him free fruit, but if he doesn't, he has still not taken any direct action toward him, so it can’t truly be said that John caused anything that happened to James.

“Ah, but John built that fence, and in so doing he murdered James!” the hardened socialist will say. If you don’t believe that anyone would seriously claim that the protection of private property constitutes coercion against the poor, let me inform you that the Robert Hale essay used precisely that argument.

My reply is that, in the first place, coercion requires the use of force or threats, at the very least to reduce freedom of choice. James’ freedom of choice has not been reduced. He is free to hunt, farm, sit on the beach, or do anything else he wants to do. John has done nothing to interfere with James’ freedom. Coercion is what would happen if John aimed a gun at James’ head and said, “Sing and dance or I will shoot you in the head.” That is what the government does when it gives orders to be enforced by the police and the army. John's staying behind his fence, farming and minding his own business, while James does whatever he wants on the other side of the fence looks nothing like coercion. John is not doing anything at all to James, and therefore is not “coercing” him.

The only thing that John prevents James from doing is invading his land and stealing his fruit — actions that are not properly within James’ scope of freedom. It strains credulity to think that protecting property that you have the right to own is coercion against people who try to steal it from you. If James were to steal John’s fruit, then James would be feeding off John as a parasite, and John would become James’ slave. James would be using force to steal from John. John’s attempt to prevent him from doing so, by building a fence, is not the aggressive initiation of force; it is merely self-defense. Self-defense protects the defender’s own freedom of action; it in no way pressures or controls the attacker. As can be seen from this example, James’ freedom of action and his ability to survive are in no way impeded. The only thing the fence does is prevent James from stealing from John. Even if John had fruit to spare, which he could give to James without missing it, the fact remains that John has done nothing to control or pressure James. If James cuts a hole in the fence and steals fruit from John, then one might say that James used violent force to coerce John into growing fruit for James to eat, and that James is trying to force John to stand between James and reality so that James can escape from the fact of having to work or starve. But it is reality and the desert island that punish James for his lazy choices.

John faced a risky situation. If he had chosen to reap his crop too late in the summer, a tropical storm might have wiped it out and condemned him to death. James wants to avoid the risks of having to make such choices. He wants to steal the bounty of John’s good choices, acting on the ground that John does not need all the fruit, but he himself does. This is robbery. For John to build a wall to prevent James from robbing him does not force James to make any of the choices available to him. The fence merely prevents James from exploiting John’s choices. Thus, John’s fence cannot reasonably be interpreted as a form of coercion.

Coercion is what would happen if John aimed a gun at James’ head and said, “Sing and dance or I will shoot you in the head.”

Now consider a third thought experiment. Assume that John and James are both stranded on the island, and that John has grown crops and built a fence, while James lies on the beach and enjoys the cool breeze in his hair. James asks John to give him some fruit, and John says "no." But now, with this third and final fact pattern, let us assume that John tells James that he would be willing to give him some of his fruit if in exchange for it James would be willing to do something for him. Here at last we have some elements that suggest the possibility of coercion: John has some purpose or intent that he wants James to fulfill, and James can avoid death by starvation, at least for a few days, if John gives him that fruit. The socialist would say that John has the power to coerce James with the threat of not giving him the fruit, and therefore John can pressure James into doing what James does not want to do. This is the heart of the coercion argument.

But let us look more closely. John does not want James to obey him blindly. John is proposing a trade whereby James does something for John (some sort of sex work, let us assume), and in exchange John gives something of value to James. This would be a free trade of value for value. John does not really want James to “obey.” He wants James to make a rational economic decision in which he gives John something of value to John, in exchange for something of value to James. When a baker gives twenty pizzas to a mechanic and receives a bicycle repair in return, both sides receive something that they wanted or needed more than the things that they traded away, so both sides end up happy. In a free trade both sides are always better off, at least in the sense that they always get what they want or what they choose, because if you don’t think you will be better off from making a trade you simply walk away from it.

But the socialist says that James cannot simply walk away. He says that James has no other choice than to make this deal, because John is the only farmer on the island and so owns all the fruit, and James might die if he refused John’s terms. But if we look at the scenario carefully, we see that nothing has fundamentally changed from the first and second scenarios. What will kill James is the desert island and starvation, not John; there is no aggressive physical force used by John against James. James is free to go off to another part of the island and build his own farm, and John is not restricting any of James’ abilities, with the single exception of his ability to steal. John owes nothing of his fruit to James. He would therefore be fully justified in not giving any of it to him.

Having established that James has no right to John’s fruit, we can see that it is good for James that John offers to trade some fruit in exchange for some work. Unless John chooses to give some of his fruit to James, there is no reason why James should be entitled to any of John’s fruit, so it is perfectly right and ethical for James to have to come up with some value he can give to John in order to make John freely and voluntarily give some of his fruit to James. It simply isn’t true that John is threatening James or trying to intimidate James, because James’ danger of starvation is caused by the island and not by John, and John is not doing anything to prevent James from going off and doing anything he wants, including starting his own farm.

Capitalist freedom is the only kind that lets you make your own decisions rather than having someone else run your life.

Whether or not there is “unequal bargaining power,” as socialist lawyers like to say, is irrelevant. The fact remains that John has every right to make a proposal that James is free to accept or reject. John is free to accept or reject James’ request, and James is free to accept John’s offer or reject it and face the consequences of the dangers of life on planet Earth.

James’ freedom to choose is real and substantial. The socialists say in a capitalist system a poor person’s freedom illusory. Actually, however, capitalist freedom is the only kind that lets you make your own decisions rather than having someone else run your life. This freedom benefits everyone, rich and poor alike. When the socialists say that James’ alternative to accepting John’s offer is death, what they mean is that they don’t want James to have to do the work and take the risk of starting his own farm. They want to use their guns to tear down John’s fence and let James steal from John so that James won’t have to face risk and make choices, as is proper for a human being trying to cope with the harsh problems of life on earth.

My inquiry thus far has been about whether John is coercing James, not whether John should give James charity voluntarily and out of compassion. Obviously he should; in most cases it is a sin to let other people die, especially if you can help them without putting yourself in danger and they have not committed any morally repugnant crimes. And in a real market economy there is always competition, so no businessman can ever have the kind of monopoly on trade that John does. But I stand by the arguments presented above, which show that John’s offer of money for sex is not coercion. Leftists equate the mugger’s “your money or your life” with the employer’s “work for me on my terms or I won’t pay you, in which case you might starve.” The difference is that the former is a threat of murder, whereas the latter is merely the expression of “work or die,” a reiteration of the natural condition of human life. To say that in practical terms the cases are identical is to ignore every word I wrote in this essay. And where there is no threat there can be no “coercion.”

I will now shift gears and present the second approach to refuting the coercion myth, which is the empirical factual approach. This approach allows that economic pressure might be coercion, but libertarianism would actually produce less economic pressure than statism and would therefore be preferable.

The first step is to frame the question properly, in this way: assuming that economic pressure is coercion, which is the economic system that produces the least economic coercion and the most economic freedom? Is it the capitalist libertarian system, which would legalize prostitution, or is it the socialist, protectionist, statist system, which criminalizes prostitution and uses either central planning or a welfare state? Also, assuming that neither capitalism nor socialism has the ability to erase all poverty (poverty being, after all, a relative term), the question is not which system will eliminate coercion; the question is which system will minimize coercion, because that is the achievable goal.

The logic of this argument must begin with a key observation. Even if prostitution is illegal, poverty will still put pressure on poor women to become sex workers. Criminalization makes prostitution more dangerous and therefore a less attractive choice, but it does not completely prevent poverty from coercing women into becoming sex workers. The widespread existence of sex workers in America proves just how ineffective the ban is. Therefore, whether or not prostitution is illegal doesn’t factor heavily into this analysis; the crucially important question is whether capitalism or socialism is more efficient at creating jobs for poor women.

So long as poverty exists and sex work is a way to make money, there will be economic pressure for women to become sex workers, so one might think that legalization of prostitution would necessarily increase coercion. But libertarianism is not the reason why sex work is repulsive to some women — or why it frequently pays well. That has its roots in human nature and the nature of sexuality. Assuming that the availability of other jobs is the best way to decrease economic pressure, it is perfectly reasonable to examine libertarianism and statism to try to determine which one would be better at providing more choices for women. We can say that a system in which most poor women are not forced to become sex workers is one that is not generally coercive.

The question is not whether it is capitalism or socialism which will eliminate coercion; the question is which system will minimize coercion, because that is the achievable goal.

The explanation for why, under laissez-faire capitalism, there will be more opportunities for the poor than under socialism is that in a capitalist system the entrepreneurs and business owners depend on the skill, talent, intelligence, and hard work of their employees in order to compete. The manager can’t do everything, so if the employees do a bad job, the business fails. Thus, management must always be searching for people who will do a good job, and seeking them wherever they may be found. An employee who is smart and works very hard is valuable. Employers will hunt for and abundantly reward productive employees. If a poor woman chooses to work hard and be a good employee, under capitalism she is likely to find a non-sex-work employer who will hire her. The public education system traps the poor in poverty by giving bad educations to children who can’t afford private schools; but privatization of education, using a voucher system, can solve this problem, and we can assume this as a feature of the libertarian system we are considering. We can also assume that wealthy people would support banks willing to give student loans to well-qualified poor people in order to develop the workforce necessary to compete with rivals.

More wealth in an economy and a higher average standard of living create more opportunities and career choices for everyone, including poor women. Capitalism is simply more efficient at producing wealth than statism, because it is better at providing the incentives that motivate people to be productive. Because free-market capitalism will create more career choices for poor women than statism, they will actually feel less economic pressure in a libertarian society than they would under socialism. Banning prostitution, on the other hand, simply eliminates a way to make money. A ban does nothing to solve the problem of poverty or to reduce the pressure to take unpleasant jobs.

One variation of the coercion argument is that a woman might choose to become a sex worker, but she would not want to if she had a choice (or, to be more precise, if she had money), and therefore the government should make her choice for her. This argument claims that protectionism actually increases freedom by giving people the situations that they would have chosen if they had been free to choose. But no one's choices can be predicted; the human mind is too complex for that. The only way to know what choice someone would make is to give her the freedom to choose, then see what choice she ends up making.

Outlawing prostitution does not magically solve the problem of poverty or help poor women pay their bills.

If a woman (or, again, a man) is horrified by the idea of becoming a sex worker, in a libertarian society she would be free to seek another job and persuade some employer that she would be a good worker and should be hired. F.A. Hayek's famous argument in The Road To Serfdom is that when people face a difficult choice (such as whether to become a sex worker or else have money trouble), they often want the state to eliminate this choice; but if the state destroys their freedom to choose, it has not eliminated the problem of a difficult choice. It has merely made that choice for the people instead of letting each person choose for herself. The poor woman who does not want to become a sex worker but who faces money problems must sometimes make a difficult choice, but outlawing prostitution does not magically solve the problem of poverty or help poor women pay their bills. It merely deprives women of the possibility of becoming sex workers if they wish.

There would probably be a sharp increase in sex work if prostitution were legalized. But there is no reason to assume that such an increase would be caused by coercion, not by the freedom accorded to women who would view sex work as comparatively easy money. There are some human beings who view sex as a physical act devoid of emotional or spiritual significance and who would view sex work and washing dishes as comparable. The idea that no woman could possibly want to become a sex worker is rooted in a very conservative, old-fashioned religious ideology. The state has no right to take the religious views of some people and force them upon others, particularly in light of the First Amendment's separation of church and state.

Looking beyond prostitution to broader issues of coercion, it is also worth remembering Hayek’s classic argument that when government makes people’s choices for them, there is but one authority that everyone must depend on, whereas in free-market competition there are hundreds of thousands of employers and millions of sales and deals happening constantly. The government has the power to coerce you by using its guns to force you to obey, but no capitalist can own every business or control every job. A worker under capitalism always has options and choices. If a woman faces poverty and hates the prospect of becoming a sex worker she is free to seek another job, and if one employer refuses to hire her then she can apply for positions with fifty others. The number of employers it is feasible for any one person to seek employment from, and the costs and sacrifices that any person must make in order to find a job, are real factors, real, empirical questions that vary for each individual. Some people may need to move to find a job, or to make other adjustments in their lives, just as they often do when seeking a spouse, getting an education, and so forth. Generally, however, in competitive capitalism there will be many more choices than in a socialist system.

To conclude: economic pressure is not coercion, but even if it were, libertarianism would produce less coercion than statism. Opposing arguments are common in American culture, especially among leftist or Marxist intellectuals and people influenced by them. The coercion argument is the foundation of many socialist illusions. It is the justification for laws that attempt to protect people from the tough choices that they would feel pressured to make in a free market. The truth is, however, that when the government tries to protect us by eliminating our freedom, that action is coercion. Libertarian capitalism, in which people can make whatever choice they want, is freedom, and freedom is a good thing. I hope that this essay’s framework — a double-barreled shotgun approach to refuting the coercion myth, with one barrel comprised of analytical deduction and another barrel coming from empirical fact — is a step in the right direction on the path toward replacing the state’s coercion with the people’s freedom.

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“What’s in Your Wallet?!”


We like to laugh at those Capital One commercials. The Vikings are always doing funny, dear things like impersonating Elvis in Las Vegas or taking their pet goat to Disney World. Of course, Madison Avenue has better sense than to portray them realistically. The behavior of real Vikings wasn’t so dear.

A thousand years before the age of Victorian gentility, my Norse ancestors prowled the European coastline in dragon-headed ships. Those fanged and snarling mastheads crept out of the mist like something from a nightmare, and the nightmare was all too real. No one’s property was safe, not even that of the Church, which the pagan marauders hated with a special passion, viewing gospel gentleness with the disdain they reserved for the weak. They plundered sanctuaries, raped nuns, slaughtered priests, and took orphaned children as slaves.

Fast forward through the age of gentility, and we reach our present day. Our sophisticated and enlightened government, brimming with postmodern compassion, never fails to ask us the same question we hear from those Sea World-visiting Vikings: “What’s in your wallet?!”

The government knows exactly what’s in our wallets, of course, because it has ways of watching us that the barbarian hordes never dreamed of. They don’t need Thor, Odin, or even the Christian God. They’ve got computer technology powerful enough to track our bank balance down to the cent. And they think every cent is theirs for the taking.

This is different, they assure us. They act in the name of the people, from whom they claim to derive their consent. And most of us believe this. After all, we’re a “democracy,” are we not?

That is exactly what frightens me. What has the allure of our neighbor’s loot done to We the People? If the cause can be made to sound high-minded enough, our latter-day Erik the Reds can get us to cheer their every raid. Big government has made barbarians of us all.

How is it they get to decide who keeps their money and who doesn’t? What is it, besides the swords in their belts and the monster faces on their long ships, that gives them such authority? The Norse people of old, mostly peaceable farmers in their own lands, sent forth the marauders with their blessing. They didn’t have a democracy, but they knew all that plundered gold and silver, all those cattle and slaves, would be split with them. When the stamp of the government — even the approval of the gods — is given them, there is no end to what people will cheer for.

We must reduce our argument for property rights to the basics. Those who wantonly take whatever they want from others are barbarians. This is as true when they’re wearing Brooks Brothers suits as it was when they wore iron mail and wolf masks. It has become open season on the money and property of those who cannot gather hordes large enough to defend it. In our disregard for the very concept of private property, we are sliding back toward the Dark Ages.

No cause, however noble, can trump an individual’s right to keep the fruit of his or her own toil. To allow this to happen is to endorse slavery. If we fall prey to arguments to the contrary, we have surrendered civilized society to marauders. After that, we have nothing to look forward to except being carried off in chains.

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