MADISON, Wis., November 16, 2013 — Wendy McElroy constantly challenges established ideas, including her own. An anarchist feminist, she harbors a visceral distaste for the state, a view she made clear in an earlier interview. Now she offers some trenchant advice for anyone who cares about freedom.
Joseph Diedrich: What do you think is the greatest hindrance to the libertarian cause? The obvious answer is the state, but do you agree?
Wendy McElroy: Actually, I don’t agree. An anarchist friend of mine, Ken Gregg, once observed that if the state disappeared today, it would be reconstructed tomorrow because there is a market demand for authority. The greatest hindrance to liberty is the belief entrenched within people that government is necessary. Even those who believe government is evil consider it to be a necessary evil or the lesser of two evils, the greater one being anarchy by which they mean chaos.
This may well be a chicken-and-egg problem. It is difficult to judge whether people believe in the need for a state because an existing one has brainwashed them into longing for authority or whether a state only exists because people have a natural longing for authority. I suspect the former is true but it would require the abolition of the public school system, from kindergarten to graduate studies, in order to get a real sense of how a generation without exposure to constant propaganda would respond. Of course, abolishing all public education is a noble goal in its own right.
But, dealing with the situation as it exists today, the greatest obstacle is the willingness or eagerness of people to grant legitimacy and utility to government. You see it in crowds that rise to their feet to pledge allegiance or sing the national anthem. These are the same people who will bludgeon those who remain seated. You hear it from voters who believe, “we, the people, are the government.”
These people will treat non-voters with contempt because participating in the electoral process is a “privilege” and a “duty.” You watch it play out in parades of war veterans who are deemed heroes for going into foreign lands to kill strangers who have done them no personal harm and all because politicians command it. Try being the person who cries out to the passing uniforms, “You were cannon fodder, you were lied to, you committed murder, you are a disgrace.”
Despite the above sentiments, I am a populist and I don’t share a common attitude expressed by many libertarian intellectuals; namely, the average person is a sheep to whom you speak in monosyllables. I come from a lower working class family and I think truck drivers have a better grasp of economic reality than most university economists. But what’s true is true. And people do manifest a market demand for the product that is government.
JD: Given that, what can the average person do in their everyday normal life in order to further the cause of liberty?
WM: Whenever it is possible without incurring great inconvenience, the average person should avoid using government “services” and prefer private ones. I do not advocate eschewing the use of services such as public roads because there is no realistic alternative and people need to buy groceries, go to work, and the host of other travel that daily life, a rich life, requires. But if you can use email or a private delivery company, then do not use the U.S. postal system.
Consider sending your children to a private school or homeschooling rather than to public school. Not everyone will be able to do so but everyone is able to consider those options. At every turn, people should ask themselves, “Is there a private alternative to government for whatever task or good I’m seeking?”
And, yes, one of the government services you should eschew is the police. The alternative there? Be prepared to defend yourself.
Do not volunteer information to the state. Never fill in a form without asking why the information is required and never give out more than is absolutely necessary. This is true of forms distributed by private businesses as well because the barrier between the public and private spheres is breaking down in terms of data sharing. Become a privacy zealot.
Refuse to vote in electoral campaigns. A political office is a position of unjust authority, of unjust power over others. You have a right to transfer your own life and well-being into the hands of a politician but there is no comparable right to transfer the person of an unconsenting third party. Do not participate in placing a politician, a thug, into power over innocent human beings. Do not vote to place anyone in office.
Voting in referendums is a different animal. I recommend against it because any voting whatsoever legitimizes the process through participation. If you feel the need to vote on a referendum, however, cast a ballot only to repeal a law or to eviscerate it. Do not contribute to placing yet another law on the books. Better yet, spend the time you’d use up in voting by playing with your children or reading a good book.
JD: How do you respond to someone who challenges your stance on voting by appealing to a “lesser evil” argument?
WM: Voting in an electoral process — not on referendums — is not a strategic issue for me. An elected office is a position of unjust power over other people. I have the right to facilitate a politician into a position of power over me in much the same way I can sign over legal rights to an attorney. But I have no similar right to facilitate putting a politician in control of other people. The argument of opting for a “lesser evil” is not valid. It is similar to my claiming I should help a third-party break your finger because someone else will break your leg if I don’t. The real issue is that no one — not me, not a politician — has any business initiating force against you.
Even if I did accept electoral voting as a strategy, however, I would argue against it as unwise. There are so many reasons but a key one is the legitimacy that voting lends to the political process itself. That’s why politicians are desperate to have people vote in the first place. It cloaks the organization of force that is the state in the appearance of being voluntary, of functioning with people’s consent and blessing. The state does not have my consent and never will.
JD: Is there an issue libertarians have tended to ignore or not care about as much as they should?
Children’s rights. I think they have been ignored because it is a gray area with which it is difficult to grapple. I have difficulty. Children — especially infants — need constant and positive care to survive. You can forge the libertarian position that it is a violation of rights to do them harm, but what about neglecting them? Do parents have any legally enforceable duties to sustain the life of a child they brought into being?
I have evolved ideas on the subject but there are next to no forums in which to discuss them because children’s rights have fallen off the political radar of libertarianism. Strange, because in the ‘80s, it was a hot topic. But it included the sexual rights of children and that may well be why the issue was dropped like toxic waste. It is a shame because children are human beings, too, and they deserve human rights.
JD: What has been a source of cognitive dissonance or inner struggle in your intellectual life?
There are so many sources or points of cognitive dissonance that it is difficult to choose one. But here goes. My husband once asked me a question that has haunted me and changed my approach to libertarianism. He said, “What if we’re wrong? What if we create a society that is entirely voluntary and we find it so offensive that we don’t want to live in it?” After all, there are many, many activities that disgust me even though they are not a violation of rights. The torture of animals for pleasure comes to mind. I find it difficult to imagine that a libertarian society would not be as close to ideal as life gets, but there are no guarantees.
The question has changed my approach to libertarianism in a very specific manner. I used to argue issues only from the direction of natural rights; that is, I would say anything that is peaceful. I still do and I stand by protecting any and all peaceful behavior. But I also insert my ethical views and qualms because I’d like to convince people toward what I consider to be proper behavior.
An example is drug use. I advocate immediate decriminalization of all drugs and drug use but I advise people against the use of specific drugs that I’ve seen destroy lives. Years ago, I would have never inserted my ethical objections to peaceful activities but today I argue not just for personal freedom but for the establishment of a civil society.
JD: If you could change only one thing about yourself, what would it be?
WM: I would not worry so much about what might happen in the future. Most of my brooding is about things I cannot change or even influence, so what’s the point? The worrying only impoverishes the rich experiences that are right before me, waiting for me to be in a better mood. Once I have made all the preparations and precautions I can, I should let go of whatever may be looming on the horizon and get on with what Henry David Thoreau called “the business of living.”
JD: Finally, if you were writing your epitaph, what would it say?
“I was born, I lived by my values, I died … now mind your own business.”
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