Thursday, February 17, 2005

Column on being involved with the state

On Involvements with the State

Tibor R. Machan

In an article published in The New York Times back in August, 2003, one
of the previous owners of the company for which I work as Advisor on
Libertarian Issues was reported to have complained that the company had
strayed from its ideals. That?s because it owns and operates TV stations
which are federally regulated.

The founder of the company, R. C. Hoiles, had once divested his firm of a
radio station on the grounds that it was under federal government
regulation. Indeed, both TV and radio signals travel on government
confiscated property, the electromagnetic spectrum. (The confiscation
happened in 1927, on the floor of the United States Senate.) Did he do so
because he had a distaste for owning a heavily regulated business or
because he thought such ownership would violate his principles?

I do not know. The question raises a point that?s worth making over and
over again: It does not violate libertarian principles to do business in a
regulated industry. Owning and operating a business that's government
regulated does not, in fact, amount to betrayal or straying from the
principles libertarianism.

Consider, first, that given how newspapers use public roads to deliver
their products, or the US mails for sending and receiving mail, or for
receiving special deals from the US Postal Service, and given that these
all involve the company in dealing with government regulation and
ownership, the claim that a newspaper company is straying from its
principles by owning and operating radio or TV stations is curious. Such
a company could not even exist in our sadly heavily regulated society if
this were the case. (Nor could libertarian scholars work at government
universities and free market think tanks be affiliated with them.)

The bottom line is that so long as one is engaged in a business or
any activity that would be perfectly legal in a free society but, sadly,
has been invaded by the state, one is not straying from libertarian
principles (although needing to work this way may amount to a very
discouraging and displeasing development for anyone). If, however, the
owners and managers of a company or other organization make every
reasonable effort to decouple the state from that business (for example,
editorializing repeatedly and insistently in support of such decoupling),
they aren?t consenting to any betrayal of straying from libertarian

These days nearly every profession?apart from journalism and the
ministry?is rather thoroughly invaded by the government in the US and most
other countries. So it is simply impossible to get away from the state
without discontinuing living in a modern country. For example, one is
forced to obtain business licenses to operate and one must comply with
innumerable HR regulations even in businesses and organizations that are
protected by the First Amendment. For media firms, for instance, one must
get permits of all kinds to keep in business. One must have building
permits to construct the offices where the company's work is done. This is
so even when churches are being built, despite the separation of church
and state!

So, should one be in business or work in any organization at all? Should
those committed to libertarianism leave the country? And exactly where
could they go so as to avoid this kind of ?straying from principles??

In the early 70s Robert LeFevre?who used to be the libertarian advisor at
the company for which I work in that capacity?and I had an instructive
correspondence on this very issue. I had been writing columns for the
flagship paper of the company as well as attending the graduate philosophy
program at UC Santa Barbara, a state owned and operated university. Mr.
LeFevre wrote to me at one point, saying I was violating libertarian
principles by attending UCSB. We exchanged several letters on this topic,
with me arguing that I was not betraying libertarianism and with him
claiming I was.

At one point we weren't getting anywhere any longer in our exchange and I
recall finally writing him to ask, somewhat in jest, why he is using the
US Postal Service to send me his letters?he could, after all, hire a
helicopter or use a private carrier. That, if I recall correctly, was the
end of the discussion, yet we remained friendly and he indeed continued to
publish my essays in Rampart Journal, which he edited, and my columns were
not removed from the paper?s Op Ed page.

It is complicated to live and work in a society that widely and
persistently violates the principles by which one ought to live, but so
long as one is living by and promoting these principles as much as that is
possible, one is not betraying them unless one takes advantage of and
supports the violation of those principles (e.g., advocates protectionism,
urges the Department of Justice to bring anti-trust action against one?s
competitors, or works for the IRS).

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