The Next Logical Step for Libertarians

By John "Birdman" Bryant


The way we customarily look at the organization of society is defective: We think of it as government plus 'the people' which it 'controls'. The reality, however, is that there are many sources of power, the formal government being just one. For example, in our society big business is a major influence, as are the rich, the CFR, the powers that be in the Democrat and Republican parties, and various organized power blocks, such as labor unions, oldsters (AARP) and Organized Jewry. Needless to say, this is not taught in Civics classes, because it might confuse our children's little minds with facts.

Lord Acton is well-known for his remark that "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Perhaps a better way to render the statement is to say, "The more power, the more corruption", or, more clearly, "The greater the concentration of power, the greater the corruption." But whatever way you say it, the truth of Lord Acton's remark abides in the fact that, the less power that others have over you, the more you tend to do whatever you want, which is generally for yourself alone and without consideration for the wishes of others.

In former times I called myself a libertarian in recognition of the fact that the most destructive power in society is Big Ugly Government (BUG), and that most present-day social problems could be easily solved by 'de- BUGging' society, ie, by following the libertarian principle that, when it comes to government, 'small is beautiful'. The ugliness of BUG, of course, stems from the fact that it represents a large concentration of power -- a fact which not only means that this power will likely be abused, but that it will grow more and more abusive because its size permits it to overwhelm almost any competing power.

In the present day, however, I no longer consider myself a libertarian, because libertarians evince no recognition of the fact that (to use the terminology of early physics) nature abhors a vacuum, and particularly a POWER vacuum, so that if government were cut back, other powers would grow up to replace it which might well be more sinister, and in any event would not even pretend to be under the control of the democratic process. But it is not just that libertarians cannot become 'free' -- as they so naively believe -- by getting rid of BUG; it is rather that the problem confronting them is to maximize freedom in spite of The Powers That Be, or more precisely, in spite of The Powers That Fill The Power Vacuum After BUG Is Dead. And, given that power is ugly and dangerous according to the degree that it is concentrated, then the 'problem of freedom', as we may term it, is to create a system which makes this power as diffuse as possible, while at the same time leaving it strong enuf to defend itself.

For some time I have called myself an Actonite, in recognition of the fact that the most critical difference in types of government or society is how the power is distributed, and in particular whether it is concentrated into few hands, or distributed among many. Thus in a monarchy, a dictatorship or communist government, power is concentrated into a very small number of hands; while in a representative government -- a democracy or republic, as they are usually known -- the power is -- in theory, at any rate -- held by an electorate which vests its representatives with this power.

The philosophy of Actonism, then, as a general rule, is to oppose concentration of power, and to seek a structure of government and society that will keep a concentration of power from infecting the system and corrupting it. But avoiding concentration of power is only half the problem; for there are times when a society is required to concentrate its power in order to preserve itself and act effectively against its enemies; and thus it becomes a problem for the Actonite to determine how power may be concentrated in time of need, but diffused when the threat to society is over. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that, as Benjamin Franklin, HL Mencken and many others have observed, one of the games politicians play -- and indeed have played from time immemorial -- is to present their constituents with a constant succession of bugbears with the view of getting people to trade liberty for security. Thus the Actonite must not only determine how to distinguish a false crisis from a real one, but he must also find a way to scale back power that has been granted for a crisis when the crisis is over. This latter is a particularly sticky problem; for those who have acquired power often use that power to keep from having to give it up.

But the real difficulty for the Actonite above all others is what I call the Golden Rule problem, ie, the problem that "He who has the gold makes the rules." This, it may be noted, is a problem for any political system; for when key people are bought off, this can turn the system on its head. It is less of a problem in an Actonite system, however; for in having the power dispersed -- where 'power' obviously includes money -- then it is more difficult for one individual or group to assemble the kind of money that will subvert the system.

So how, then, to solve the problems which Actonism presents us with? These include the following:

* Avoiding a concentration of power in normal times
* Summoning a concentration of power in a crisis
* Re-diffusing power after a crisis
* The Golden Rule problem

The solution to these problems, in a general way, is to make people, or at least small communities, as independent as possible, so that no central power can control them. In a sense this may seem to go against the great secret of industrial productivity that arrived with the Industrial Revolution, namely, specialization, aka 'division of labor': When men specialize, their production far outstrips men who are forced to be jacks of all trades. But there are some intervening factors now: First, the advancements of technology; and second, the need for redundancy. These are explained below:

* Technology -- or more generally, human knowledge -- has now made it possible for only a few men to accomplish what a large number of men were once required for. I speak not merely of computer technology, but of the knowledge of health, farming, transportation, and indeed just about every technology or branch of knowledge which exists. Technology, then, enables small groups of men to be independent of a central authority without suffering the inefficiency of the jack-of-all-trades situation. Thus it seems that the real battle for freedom is a race between the technology of freedom and the technology of totalitarianism -- will the elite succeed in using the mass media, mind control, spycraft, nonlethal weaponry, and similar technologies to turn us into slaves and robots before we can develop the technology to not only become independent, but to defend ourselves from the incursion of the totalitarian technology? On this question, the answer is still very much open.

* In the current world of specialization, an important danger is that the experts who keep the technology operating will somehow get wiped out; and because of our dependence on technology, this will throw mankind back into a primitive pretechnological state. This could happen if Luddites bombed Silicon Valley and a few other techno-critical places. But if technology is spread around in different populations and communities, as it would be in an Actonite system, this then provides a kind of redundancy or 'backup system' which makes technology far more stable than what specialization would otherwise subject us to.

The above factors, however, are insufficient in avoiding the dangers of government which Actonism shows us to be critical. In particular, it is essential that accumulation of wealth by individuals or organizations beyond some liberal maximum is needed to solve the Golden Rule problem -- or if not to solve it, then at least to mitigate it. Analogously, the taxing power of the government must be strictly limited, so that it does not grow into a BUG. A third consideration is media control: Because control of the media offers such a powerful way to shape the views of the populace, there must be significant ways of opening up the media to alternative voices. In particular, there is need of a feedback channel to keep the mechanism of government stable -- like an overheating steam engine, there must be ways not only for the people to blow off steam so the system will not blow up, but also there must be a way of letting the rulers know where they are going wrong so that errors which are causing the people to get steamed can be corrected.

The insights of Actonism will probably take years to sink into the public consciousness, and even longer for them to make a difference in the political systems of the world. But if men are slow learners, we can always hope that a new generation will grow up that will not be beholden to the prejudices of the old, and will recognize that the Actonite principle is a major key to the development of both a just and an efficient society.


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