Belmont Club

The road to serfdom

Manumission: Pronunciation: ˌman-yə-ˈmi-shən –Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin manumission-, manumissio, from manumittere: the act or process of manumitting; especially : formal emancipation from slavery.

Can anything stop the Blob?A paper in an Australian policy journal has proposed letting citizens choose their degree of relationship to the State in proportion to the degree to which they intend to be dependent on its assistance or guidance. Recalling Ronald Reagan’s famus dictum that ‘The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” ’ the authors propose that people be free to choose either to declare their dependence on the state — in which case they may be told what to do — or opt to be relatively independent so that in most cases, the government would simply get out of their lives. The need is urgent, beause if something isn’t done, an increasingly intrusive government will simply consume all available free energy.

Every day that the federal parliament sits in Canberra, another hundred pages of new laws get added to the statute book. … if regulations keep growing at this rate, it will take a thousand removal trucks to house all our laws by the end of the twenty-first century.

The sheer inexorable growth of the welfare state means that unless some means is found to stop its progression, it will, like the Blob, inevitably devour everything. “One hundred years ago, it took just over three weeks for Australians to produce all the wealth needed to pay for all the state and federal government services for a whole year. Today, this takes almost four months.” What needs to happen before it takes taxpayers 12 months out of the year to pay for government, the authors argue, is to allow people who are willing to bear the risk to opt out of the nanny state.

The present slim volume … explores the idea that we might ‘turn off’ the government when there is nothing useful for it to do. I hasten to add that I do not mean we should turn it off completely. There is plainly a need for government to organize foreign affairs, chase criminals, enforce contracts, and provide indivisible ‘public goods’ that the rest of us need but would not organize for ourselves if we were left to our own devices. …

Some people really do need the government to provide them with an income, give them housing, medicate them when they fall ill, educate their children, and save money for them for when they grow old. … It is also true that some people need to be told what to do. Some people really do need the government to tell them—in minute detail—how to live their lives.

But the core premise of the essays that follow is that most people do not need all this support and guidance. Indeed, for the majority of Australians, the government now represents more of a hindrance than a help, and more of an irritant than a facilitator.

Most controversially the paper argues that those who voluntarily choose dependency should not have a full role in selecting the nation’s government. “People who freely admit they cannot be trusted to run their own lives should presumably not be trusted to run other people’s either. Dependent children have a right to be looked after, but they cannot claim the full range of freedoms that adults expect. Likewise, those who declare themselves incompetent to organise their own lives should not expect to exercise all the rights that autonomous and responsible citizens take for granted.”

In their essay, Dubossarsky and Samild suggest the main advantage of withdrawing the vote from people who declare themselves dependent will be to strengthen democracy by weakening the politicians’ ability to buy votes.

Disenfranchisement will not apply, of course, to those who are involuntarily dependent through accident or illness. Nevertheless the scheme will recall various historical multi-tier schemes of citizenship, such as the Roman, or the property qualifications for sufferage in the early American colonies. But before the Dubossarsky and Samild proposals are dismissed as retrograde, running contrary to the trend of universal sufferage, it’s fair to observe that today’s burgeoning welfare state is radically different from the minimalist governments of colonial America and may require a different political development. In a welfare state scenario the conflict of interest inherent in voters being able to elect those who would sign their welfare checks must be handled in some way.

The question is how. The other half of the argument is that “those who can” should be allowed to declare independence from government. And so, the argument goes, people who can paddle their own canoe should be able to opt for lower taxes in exchange for a smaller claim to government services. But there are two problems with this proposal: arithmetic and politics. How is welfare — which are transfer payments to those who have declared their dependence — going to be funded if independents are allowed to leave the system? Dependency only works if someone else is footing the bill. Voluntary dependents could conceivably simply hand over their entire paycheck to the state and live in a kind of communist enclave within an otherwise market economy, but it is doubtful that their economy would ever be self-supporting. Moreover, allowing independents to opt out implies that those who make more will pay less in taxes. At the extreme a billionaire might choose to pay the lowest tax of all, because he would be unlikely to need any government assistance except the indivisible public goods.

Is there any future for the “independents”, those who wish to trade off a smaller claim on government benefits for less state interference? Given the arithmetic of welfare and politics what might actually happen is something less logically valid but more politically acceptable: independents may simply pay government more taxes in order to get off their back. In other words, they’ll bribe the dependents to leave them alone. Here’s the paper’s vision of personal freedom.

Self-declared independent people would also still be subject to the laws of the land—but only those laws that stop them from harming others, and stop others from harming them. These are the laws that must bind everyone if we are to live in a civilised and peaceable society. As independent adults, however, Humphreys proposes that those who declare independence should no longer be subject to the paternalistic laws that politicians put in place to stop us harming ourselves. Declaring independence means you no longer want or need the government to pass laws to protect you from yourself. It means you are happy to take the risks and bear the consequences of your own, freely chosen actions.

In order to retrieve these freedoms, high income or risk taking individuals might simply pay to get their freedom back. In order to relieve government of liability and provide legal and political cover for their actions they may execute quit claims supported by private insurance. In either case, the concept is similar: here’s some money, now leave me alone. While its’s not clear the policy paper provides any definite answers, it certainly throws up interesting ideas about how a citizen might buy his freedom back from our new masters, the politically correct welfare state.

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