Arnold Kling  

Paging Randle McMurphy

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My latest essay talks about the possibility of letting groups of people splinter off to form new states within the United States. It gets pretty weird.

Ken Kesey wrote a novel in which a ward of mental patients has their lives directed for them in petty, undignified ways by a nurse, who is reputedly a fictionalized version of Hillary Clinton. She won't even let them watch the World Series on TV.

In one memorable scene in the novel, Randle McMurphy, a rebellious inmate, discovers something about many of the other inmates. For all their complaining about the nurse's overbearing control, these inmates, unlike McMurphy, are legally free to walk out of the mental hospital at any time. Their revealed preference, so to speak, is to remain under the dominion of the overbearing nurse.

Somehow, I thought there was a connection between that scene and libertarians complaining about the decline of the U.S. Constitution while showing a revealed preference for living with the abuses of power that take place.

Or, you may decide that the only connection between the essay and Ken Kesey's novel is that I belong in a mental hospital.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

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The author at A Stitch in Haste in a related article titled Randle McMurphy v. Ennis Del Mar writes:
    "If you can't fix it, Jack, you gotta stand it."
    --Brokeback Mountain

    Arnold Kling wonders whether libertarians who "agree" to live in high-tax, hi... [Tracked on February 27, 2008 8:45 AM]
The author at A Stitch in Haste in a related article titled More on Libertarian Civil Disobedience writes:
    The EconLog post on why libertarians seem so willing to submit to government excesses and abuses, to which I [Tracked on February 28, 2008 8:45 PM]
COMMENTS (17 to date)
KipEsquire writes:
Somehow, I thought there was a connection between that scene and libertarians complaining about the decline of the U.S. Constitution while showing a revealed preference for living with the abuses of power that take place.
Huh? How is "libertarians don't riot in the streets" (or move to -- um, where?) a revealed preference to anything?

The correct analogy would be if Nurse Ratched showed up uninvited at a libertarian's home, ordered him to lose weight, throw out his porn, use compact fluorescent bulbs and pay for her mother's pension and eldercare, and then he said, "Eh, who cares?"

But of course that wouldn't happen. The libertarian would act -- because he could.

Compliance at the point of a gun is not "revealing a preference" for being robbed.

Randy writes:


Agreed. We put up with the facists for the same reason we put up with the weather and the price of gas - insufficient power to do anything about it. What we do is what we can do - refuse to participate - and point out the mistakes.

Eric Hanneken writes:
Huh? How is "libertarians don't riot in the streets" (or move to -- um, where?) a revealed preference to anything?

In the essay, Arnold says there is something we can do about government infringements: civil disobedience. Perhaps you don't think that will work (I have my doubts), but it's his answer to your question.

mgroves writes:

If we are talking about the US specifically, I think it's fair to say that there aren't many places that are better (from a libertarian's point of view), and those that are only marginally.

So I guess that goes back to the "lack of power" point Randy made.

Ted writes:

The claim is that "what libertarians can do" is civil disobedience, neglects the fact that libertarians already do that. Unfortunately, it is entirely ignored by the media. A presidential candidate a few years ago tried to enter the Presidential debates in Texas, where he was legally allowed, and was arrested for it. How many non-libertarians know that? The actions taken by libertarians (many of which I know are AVID voters, rather than the alternative that is claimed. By the way, if you think civil disobedience works like it used to, check through the prison system for those committing "tax fraud" and similar crimes under the IRS's jurisdiction.

David writes:

Arnold, I like the basic approach, but I think you're starting at the wrong point. Governments are too powerful these days, and they are way too focused on handling exactly the type of non-compliance that you are suggesting. Going in that direction just plays into their hands.

However, in so many areas, health care and education being the most obvious, the government approaches have so completely failed, that it is possible to pay all their taxes, ignore all their subsidies, and still provide a superior service at less cost. The result will simply be a bypass of the government services until they wither away from neglect and disuse. Sort of the free market version of Marx's withering of the State. But with the advantage of actual workability.

For example, in education, we aren't far from the point now where a kid could get a much better education on the internet and with math and reading learning computer programs than in the State sponsored schools. And at dramatically lower cost of both time and money. The only thing that hasn't been done yet is turning this into a viable business model. Develop that model, and you've effectively undercut the whole education establishment, unions and all.

In the political arena, then, the focus would be not on avoiding taxes or other non-complinace, but on eliminating the regulative barriers to innovation and change. Still a tough go, but not nearly so much so as your approach. And even with those barriers in place, this approach still works, just a little slower is all.

You never get anywhere by being a victim, by opting out, by fighting, or by being criminal. You only achieve worthwhile goals by out-creating your opponent, in this case the system, while playing by all the rules.

Buzzcut writes:

There are some choices that libertarians can make. They can move to places that are more libertarian. Move from New York to Wyoming, for example.

With the mass migration to the low tax Sunbelt, maybe libertarians are moving. The people that remain in the Northeast, and the few moving there, are certainly of a much more socialistic mindset.

Randy writes:

Okay, just read the essay (guess I should have read it before posting). Very good.

I think we need to start with the idea of rent collection. We can't run a government without rent collection, and unless we free ourselves from the rent collections of the current owners there's not much point to the exercise. There are a couple of back doors which could allow at least some of the rent collections currently going to the federal and state governments to be redirected to the cause. The backdoors are religion and education combined with the deduction for charitable contributions. This may sound strange, but we need to form a religious organization dedicated to education which can serve as a "charitable" conduit for the transfer of rents. We could then start running our own schools with the same money that was previously being spent on public schools. And this would also serve a very important secondary purpose of removing new generations from the indoctrination function of the existing regime. I'll stop now. A sticky note on the white board. So what else have we got?

8 writes:

The civil disobedience you're talking about is tax protesting. Tennessee voters engaged in a protest, with very mild violence, against a proposed income tax and the plan was defeated.

In Massachusetts, 45% of the voters voted to eliminate the income tax in 2002 (it's back on the ballot this year). I assume that nearly all of the 45% are working; even in one of the most liberal states in America, a majority of taxpaying voters want major tax reform.

You already have the numbers and the moral argument. You also have the ultimate power, since the entire system depends on your compliance. If you choose to protest and accept the personal costs, the government will have two choices: initiate violence or accede to your demands.

Troy Camplin writes:

Actually, this is what it shows about revealed preferences: 1) perhaps people realize that, all things considered, this country is still better than most of the rest when it comes to issues of freedom, including economic freedom, 2) people are loyal to their country, meaning things have to get pretty bad for people to actually leave, 3) who wants to leave friends and family? Again, things have to get pretty bad before people will leave.

FInally, isn't it actually a sign of patriotism that you want to make your country better than it is? A bad country is sort of like having a bad family -- you don't want a new family so much as you want your family to be better people.

TGGP writes:

Civil disobedience sounds like a dead-end. Gandhi didn't get rid of government, he just got the British to go home, which they were rather willing to do. There's no way it would have worked on the Germans of his time.

The real problem is that the right of secession and the independence of states from the central government was so smashed during the Civil War. Our own independence was an instance of secession but nobody thinks of it that way anymore.

An ex-pat writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

People do move to different states, but the difference between the 5% tax in Massachusetts and 0% in New Hampshire isn't that large. That tax is kept low because of people's ability to move.

It's the ~35% federal tax that is so onerous. But switching countries means giving up your family, friends, and culture, which is a tough price to pay.

The game changer would be if Mexico created a special economic zone in Baja California. The zone would have an extremely low tax rate - less than 10% combined federal, state and local. The property rights of the zone would be leased out to a publicly owned management company. This management company would create regulations and capital investments it saw fit in order to attract businesses and people, thus making their property more valuable.

I really think something like this could work extremely well. Talent and capital is mobile enough that a Silicon Valley could pop up overnight. A privately managed city would probably be far more efficient than a politically managed city.

This idea makes so much sense, I think there's a good chance that we will see it happen in the next few decades. If not Mexico, at least one central American country will be smart enough to try it. The only risk is of extreme pressure from the United States government on Mexico to end the experiment and bring taxes inline with the rest of the continent. This is what the EU has done in Europe to prevent this from happening.

Patri Friedman writes:

This bears some similarity to my dynamic geography idea. But I don't think your support network for civil disobedience idea really holds water as a way to get substantially more rights.

Take drugs as an example. Millions of people break drug laws every day. Many of them in front of other people, or even in large public settings like concerts. And yet, millions of people are in jail for drug crimes. There is widespread civil disobedience, and it has won some freedom (places like concerts and festivals are sort of TAZs), but at enormous and ongoing cost. The anti-WoD movement is organized, it has rich donors (Soros), but in the end, the other side has the assault rifles, and that seems to matter a lot more.

I feel like people like you, and like my dad (who wants ancap to happen by the government just withering away) are engaged in wishful thinking. You want there to be a peaceful, easy way to have freedom, so you imagine pleasant ways it could happen. But really, it's either going to take some kind of radical shift, or be impossible. There are a lot of people making a lot of money from the status quo. And they have guns. And nukes.

Floating cities, man. It's the best shot we have, until space becomes viable for habitation.

8 writes:

If not Mexico, at least one central American country will be smart enough to try it.


Bob Knaus writes:

@ Patrick Fitzsimmons:

Much of your idea has already been tried, in Freeport, Bahamas, a free trade zone and industrial/residential development. Under the Hawksbill Creek Treaty, no businesses there will pay taxes until at least 2054. Property owners are allowed to bring in materials for one residence duty-free, along with one vehicle -- a major concession given the 42% duty rate in The Bahamas.

Freeport was founded by Wallace Groves, a flamboyant Wall Street financier who served prison time for stock fraud and tax evasion.

Under the ownership of Groves and the subsequent founding holders, Freeport prospered and remained remarkably free of interference from the Bahamian government in Nassau, even after independence in 1973. As the original owners grew old they lost interest and/or sold their holdings. Today, it is a dreary company town, with many of the original industries closed down. Neither tourism nor ex-pat residences have lived up to their promise of making Freeport vibrant again.

So, a no-tax zone is not enough.

Terrence Watson writes:

Isn't the problem just that libertarians are generally too rational to employ civil disobedience?

It's like we're stuck in a collective action problem: we'd all prefer no or less government, but that requires coordinated activity. If I break the law and nobody else does, all that happens is I go to jail, and I'm even worse off, and the government stays the same.

One might argue that a few acts of civil disobedience could have an inspirational impact on others, but who really wants to be the one to go first, trusting others to follow one's example?

Lefties don't seem to mind going to jail that much, but perhaps they generally have less to lose I'm thinking of the black masked anarchist hippies who riot at WTO events) than your typical libertarian.

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