In the Freelance Nuclear Age, Government Is a Liability

Large-scale terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons have exposed the sham of government protection. The government of the United States, the world’s only superpower, stood by helpless as North Korea’s dictator thumbed his nose and detonated a nuclear explosive. Iran proceeds with its nuclear development, undeterred by U.S. condemnation. Other governments are pursuing similar objectives.

Not much can be done. The sanctions approved against North Korea by the U.N. Security Council are virtually futile because cooperation won’t be unanimous and black markets enable rulers to get what they need. War would kill hundreds of thousands of people without a guarantee that the nuclear facilities would be destroyed. Nuclear deterrence is immoral because it requires threatening the lives of innocents.

So what have trillions of dollars in “defense” spending bought the American people? Not much more than a false sense of security, which is worse than no sense of security at all.

Conservatives and even many libertarians argue that these dangerous times demonstrate more than ever the need for strong central government, especially a presidency unburdened in foreign policy by meddlesome courts and Congress. But in fact the opposite is the case. Government can’t protect us. It is inept. It is corrupt. And what’s more, its agenda ranks the safety of the American people far down the list of priorities. If safety were a priority, the U.S. government would not have spent the last several decades meddling in other people’s conflicts and acquiring assorted enemies, some of whom are willing to kill American civilians on American soil to get even with “their” government’s often brutal intervention.

These are indeed dangerous times. But if the state can’t protect us, what are we to do?

It’s time to think about getting rid of the state. It is an albatross sucking up our wealth like a vacuum cleaner while leaving us vulnerable to those who wish to harm us. Ending the U.S. policy of foreign intervention would go a long way toward reducing the threat. But it might not reduce it all the way. Years of U.S. coercive interference in the affairs of other people have left many grudges that may not disappear with a change in policy.

So what should take the place of the state’s bogus protection? Private entrepreneurship.

Now more than ever we need creative solutions in the provision of real defense. Any state has a monopoly on the defense of “its” territory and people; that’s one of its defining characteristics. But that means this vital function is left to a bureaucracy, with all the inefficiency, incompetence, and self-serving corruption it entails. The root of the problem with bureaucracy is taxation: governments coerce money from people under penalty of imprisonment. But no organization that gets its revenue through coercion, rather than persuasion, needs to really satisfy its captive benefactors, who can’t take their business elsewhere. It certainly won’t be innovative. Innovation is the result of competition in the quest for profits. But competition requires liberty on both the supply and demand side. In other words, entrepreneurs and consumers must be free to offer, buy, and reject goods and services.

As F. A. Hayek pointed out, the truly free market–that is, the competitive entrepreneurial system absent of government privilege–is a discovery procedure. Profit-seeking entrepreneurs–which ones we can’t know in advance–can be counted on to discover solutions to problems that no coercive bureaucracy would ever come up with. It’s about time this awesome creative force was applied to defense, especially against nuclear weapons. No one can say what that defense would look like if free entrepreneurship were unleashed. And we won’t know until that time. That’s the point.

An objection to the depoliticization of defense is that the free market will be plagued by the free-rider problem. Since people will believe they will benefit from defense services even if they don’t pay for them, no one will want to pay. But this misses two points: entrepreneurs can and do overcome free-rider problems (think of broadcast radio and television), and a representative political system is itself plagued by its own free-rider problems. (Why should anyone exert effort to achieve “good” laws if he will benefit from other people’s efforts?)

Except for government’s coercive monopoly, there is no reason that entrepreneurship couldn’t provide defense against a nuclear threat. If there’s a way to protect ourselves from rogues with nukes, the free market will find it.

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