Liberty Commentary

The Third Rail of Libertarianism

by Wendy McElroy, DailyAnarchist

It is not abortion, intellectual property, nor the debatable morality of voting. The third rail of libertarianism is whether it is proper to receive stolen money in exchange for your labor. Otherwise stated, is it proper to take a tax funded job?

The answer may seem obvious. If you agree taxation is theft, then it is never correct to seek out and accept stolen money. This statement is not a purist position offered by a utopian idealist. I am all too painfully aware that the course of life puts everyone in contact with government on many levels. I use roads and I lick postage stamps whenever no private  alternative exists, but people who apply for government jobs do so in the presence of many private alternatives, which they dismiss.  Indeed, many libertarians who consume tax salaries compete vigorously for the privilege of doing so. If you believe an occupation involves the financial rape of innocent people, then, as a libertarian, you cannot in good conscience pursue that job. There is not a difference of degree between those who use roads to pick up food at the grocery store and those who compete for state paid salaries; there is a difference of kind.

Again, to many I will seem to be stating the obvious. Let me rephrase. Libertarians should not be professors at state funded universities. Ah! For many, the principle of eschewing tax money suddenly no longer applies. Suddenly I am being rude rather than obvious, I am being ridiculous rather than self-evident.

The benefit of having tax paid libertarian academics seems so palpable as to be unquestionable. I question it. I believe libertarianism took a very wrong strategic turn about four decades ago when I was in my intellectual childhood and, so, had far less perspective on the debate to which I was listening. That debate revolved around how societal change occurred.

One side advocated the “trickle down” theory, which argues that intellectual change comes from the top down. ‘Your’ side takes over key political, academic and institutional positions from which ‘your’ ideas are preached and practiced. Slowly the ideas trickle down from the highest level through society so that they eventually end up being expressed in cartoon strips. Thus, for many years, the primary focus of many large institutions within libertarianism has been the conversion of young university students, often the goal of placing them in academic positions. The vast majority of those positions were and are tax paid.

The other side of the debate argued a less elite and more populist approach in which social progress comes from changing the hearts and minds of average people. Not through having them absorb the message of elites but through education or direct participation in grassroots movements and causes that deeply impact their lives, such as homeschooling, the decriminalization of drugs, gun ownership rights… In this manner, change “trickles upward” as the elite are forced to respond to the irresistible force of mass protest and opinion.

There is no necessary contradiction between the two views of social change.  Moreover, progress is a dynamic process that can work through many approaches, all of which can reinforce each other. And I happily admit that many fine libertarian academics work at privately funded institutions. But the question remains: can libertarians take tax money and remain libertarians? Can the use of an irretrievably coercive means produce something other than a coercive end?

The “trickle down” theory won the years-ago debate. Both strategies continued, then and now, but, for decades, an incredible amount of funding and energy has been directed toward electing politicians and training academics who are destined to consume taxes. It has been directed toward creating elites. I believe that focus has seriously damaged the fundamental base of libertarianism’s support – the working person, the average man. I believe the man in the street is the future of freedom, not the one in an ivory tower…let alone one that is purchased with tax money.

Over the decades, I have heard every justification possible for accepting a state funded salary. Four of the most common ones are:

1) “Tax paid academia is not like working for the IRS because the activity of educating does not violate rights but, rather, provides a service that would exist on the free market.” Not true. Seeking and consuming stolen money does violate rights. Moreover, it is not clear that anything akin to the current university system in North America would exist on the free market. For one thing, there would not be a de facto government monopoly on higher education and licensing, which the current system constitutes. State universities are a bastardization of educational freedom, not an expression of it.
2) “The benefits rendered to freedom by tax funded academia are so essential that the means are justified.” Not true. I do not deny that brilliant essays and books have come from that corner but I do deny that tax money was or is necessary to produce them. I have more confidence in the free market than that. Besides which, nothing justifies the perpetuation of and profiting from a violent system such as compulsory taxation. Libertarianism does not state “do not initiate force…unless the cost-benefit analysis is favorable.” It says “do not initiate force.” The appeal to noble benefits only converts an act of theft into one of virtue.
3) “I have no alternative but to work within a university if I wish to use my degree in history, etc.” This is disingenuous. For one thing, there are private alternatives, albeit far fewer than those offered by government. For another thing, many libertarians trained for years with the knowledge that they would almost certainly apply for and accept a government job. They worked diligently to get into exactly the position of which they complain and, so, they have relinquished the right to say “I have no choice.”
4) “I am merely recouping taxes I have paid.” This argument is often used as a justification for accepting benefits such as Social Security. But academics who work for tax paid decades do not reclaim money they have paid into the system over a lifetime. Their lifetime is spent receiving tax money, presumably from youth to old age, from student loans to a university pension. The ‘recouping money’ argument simply does not apply. (Nor is it an argument I credit, by the way.)

Why does the tax funding issue matter? After all, accepting tax money is so common that it has lost much of its stigma. To rephrase the question…Why does it matter if someone who praises monogamy flaunts an affair? Or if a purported animal lover kicks every dog he sees? And an advocate of non-violence beats up his wife? There is the issue of personal ethics, of course, but I leave that to the people involved. I am concerned with the broader issue of movement leaders invalidating their words through their actions.

I call this the third rail of libertarianism because touching it can damage careers, break up friendships, and elicit vicious attacks. That’s one of the main reasons this issue is surrounded by silence. It seems like such an obvious and glaring contradiction, however, that perhaps I can survive the act of touching that rail at least once in my lifetime.