Opting Out of the State

Another election is behind us, and some people are still basking in the glow of democracy. You know those people — Chris Matthews of MSNBC comes to mind — who think there is nothing better in life than being able to vote for who will run the government. (Sometimes they say “run the country!”)

“Consider yourself blessed,” they say. “In other parts of the world, people can’t do what you have the right to do.” This implies that the most important thing those other people lack is the right to traipse to the polls and cast their one vote each, thus having a “say” in who will “lead” them. I’d say they’re lacking more important things; after all, one vote rarely makes a difference.

Look in the mirror. If that person stayed home election day, Barack Obama would still have been reelected. It doesn’t matter that if several million Obama voters stayed home, Mitt Romney would have won. No one person controls several million votes. Each individual decides for himself or herself whether to go to the polls, and no one decides for someone else. Hence your vote doesn’t count.

So this difference between societies that get to vote for their “leaders” and those that don’t isn’t as great as it may seem. Is there some other difference that may be more significant?

Here’s a possibility: Freedom of speech, or the right to speak out. For many civil libertarians this right is what distinguishes a free country from an unfree one. By golly, every person has a right express his or her opinion. As long as that’s true, we are free people. Or so we’re told.

It is true that we Americans can express our opinions generally without fearing government reprisal — and that’s good. This isn’t true in North Korea or Cuba or Saudi Arabia, or even in some places that count as democratic. But is this really what makes a country free?

I’m not persuaded. Sure, it’s nice to speak out against a government policy. But does it do any good? I hate that the U.S. government has troops all around the world. I hate that the military occupies Afghanistan and meddles in civil wars. I hate that the president has a kill list from which he picks human targets and then dispatches remote-controlled drones to murder them with Hellfire missiles, often killing people other than the intended victims. I speak out and write about this all the time. What good has it done? Both presidential candidates supported these policies, which would have continued no matter who had won.

The freedom to speak out, then, is not quite what it’s cracked up to be. Maybe the people of North Korea, Cuban, Saudi Arabia, and those other countries wouldn’t be gaining quite as much as we like to think if that freedom were respected.

Actually there’s a more important freedom that they lack — one that we Americans lack too: the freedom to opt out. If you think the freedom to speak out is important, you should give some thought to the freedom to opt out. Now there is a freedom!

The freedom to opt out means that no one can force you to participate in any government activity that you object to. If you wanted to look after your own retirement pension, you could opt out of Social Security. If you wanted to arrange for your own medical care, you could opt out of Obamacare and Medicare. If you didn’t want to help agribusiness or Wall Street, you could opt out of subsidy and bailout programs. And so on.

Think about it: If you were repulsed by drone warfare against the children of Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, you could refuse to pay for it. If you retched at the thought of monstrous-looking U.S. troops breaking down doors in nighttime raids in Afghanistan, you could withdraw your financial support. If you thought the war on certain drug makers, vendors, and consumers was immoral, you could just say no to those who perpetrate it.

This would not get rid of the government immediately, as we market anarchists would like. But it would sure beat the hell out of what we have now.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory