"The Ones Who Want To Win Will Always Defeat The Ones Who Want To Be Left Alone" - and why this statement is wrong.
Suppose you’ve been on the niche libertarian corners of the internet filled with esoteric weirdos. In that case, the chances you have heard the phrase “The ones who want to win will always defeat the ones who want to be left alone“ bandied about as a critique against libertarians in the past year is probably higher as of late. The “Post-Libertarians”, “Praxians” or “Neo-Reactionaries” (whatever they’re calling themselves these days, they can’t even keep it straight) are the guilty offenders in this case for using this phrase to attempt to show why libertarians must acquire and use (state) power to achieve our ends. An unwillingness to do so surrenders that power to the people who have the means to destroy our hopes for liberty, or so they say.
To understand why this is wrong, we must start at the absolute basics of Austrian economics: Humans act in a world of scarce and rivalrous resources while their desires remain unbounded. Due to this friction, humans must use the scarce means and resources of this world to allocate them to produce their desired ends at the expense of other less valuable desired ends. Any subjective resistance or impediment to acquiring the end, or the means to the end, is what we call a “cost”. Because we cannot instantaneously attain all of our desired ends, trade-offs must occur. If one subjectively determines the cost to be too great in bringing about X end, then no progress will be made toward X by the subject. Keep this in mind because it will be important coming up.
“The ones who want to win will always defeat the ones who want to be left alone“
Three immediate problems come to mind regarding the statement in question:
1. It is not at all apparent that wanting to be left alone excludes you from taking action to “win”. In the same way, someone proposing that “I shouldn’t be murdered” does not in any way necessitate that people are powerless to stop murderers.
Objection: The main point of the critique is to point out the Achilles Heel that libertarians oppose aggression, but are powerless in stopping the aggression because they refuse to take state power and do what is necessary in order to create the society they want.
Response: Under the libertarian definition of “state” the state is not a tool; power is a tool and it can be used for good or for evil, but the state is a group of people, enveloped in a monopolistic institution that orients itself toward aggressive means as an intrinsic trait. If you stripped away the aggression present in the state, it would become indistinguishable from a firm on the market. This is essential to understand in critiquing libertarianism, as the people who don’t understand this tend to confuse the state for a tool that libertarians could use but just choose not to for reasons of cowardice, laziness, or mental masturbation.
2. “Power” I believe to be value-neutral in itself, though this does depend on the definitions people hold in specific contexts. The ability to sway hearts and minds is a type of social power. The ability to detach yourself from the system to not be reliant on a power that is not your own is itself a type of power. The capacity to undermine the legitimacy of the state’s authority through unashamed disregard of its norms is a type of social power, etc, (you get the point.)
It’s extremely reductionist to assert that state power is the only way to actually achieve change, especially when culture, to at least some extent, precedes policy. In the event that I could be critiqued as straw-manning my opposition, let me clarify: If they do not mean state power when they describe “power”, then they are simply incorrect, as libertarianism is not opposed to other neutral or positive forms of power as I described above.
3. Last and probably most important is the fact that we have modern-day and historical evidence of people thwarting state power even when they did not directly attack the state or assume state power.
The state is not exempt from economic laws. If some course of action is too costly, we can expect less of it, even from the state. Let’s take a flagship example: Piracy!
Piracy is still to this day illegal by the letter of the law, and nevertheless, it is rampant. The internet grants the ability to copy and share copyrighted media at the press of a button, meaning the barrier to entry for piracy is practically non-existent. Even though this is very illegal, and pirate sites do get taken down, it is ultimately a futile attempt as new ones always spring up from the ashes to the point where the state allocates very few resources to even tackle the problem as compared to other state crimes which are more easily enforceable. The cost of enforcing a total crackdown on piracy is simply too high for the short-term benefit the state would gain.
There are no widespread movements to legalize piracy, so the primary cause of this phenomenon cannot be people taking control of the state to implement pro-piracy policies. It’s simply a mixture of technology creating an ease of use for the user and economic realities changing due to that ease of use.
The people who pirate content have essentially won, not formally, but in effect. They won by merely going about their business while being left alone. The state conceded ground when it could have fought harder, but economic and technological realities made this a losing battle.
This is not unique to just Piracy, as I’m sure some might scoff that my example is merely an edge case, but this is also true of 3D-printed firearms. Now you might say that the state will crack down harder on 3D-printed guns as that is more of a threat to them than Piracy, and I am inclined to agree, but again, economic realities will restrict them.
The utility of a gun extends beyond its active use, it also acts as a deterrent, as an increase in cost to those who would dare do violence against the gun owner. The more guns in civilian hands the more potential cost for the state ever implementing gun control policies effectively. This increase in cost from the state’s perspective means they are likely to allocate resources elsewhere in order to make more efficient use of their time and energy.
This is also true of sound money in the form of Bitcoin, but I’m sure you get the point by now. These are all instances of chipping away at the state through economics and winning, all while never engaging the state on its own terms in its political system.
Objection: The state has no money of its own, it does not care if it spends its resources inefficiently as any waste will be covered by the taxpayers in the form of taxes.
Response: It is absolutely true that the state is careless with its resources because it suffers little to no actual harm for mismanaging its resources the way a private actor would incur. Despite this, the state’s resources are not infinite. Resources being funneled into enforcing a ban on piracy is not going to bring about lasting results, and attempting to do so would leave other areas underenforced by the state’s standards, so just like all of us, the state must engage in trade-offs and suffer opportunity costs due to economic realities.
Not to mention that money is not the only factor, police officers are not inexhaustible, and we have various examples of the police no longer enforcing certain laws due to the cost it would take to enforce them.
People like to point to state policy changes as the “victory” moment, the moment when the state lost a particular battle, but this is only partially true. A policy reversal generally only ever happens once the economic and cultural landscape has shifted to the point where the state lacks the material and social capital to continue enforcing the policy. Take Marijuana consumption and sodomy laws for example. When these acts were demonized, the state had much more reason to use its resources to police these acts, as they stood to gain increasing legitimacy in the eyes of the populace (their true profit motive). Once more people began engaging in civil disobedience in regard to these laws, they soon became too costly to enforce at the levels they were before, even more so when the populace looks at the marijuana smoker as just another person who has never harmed anyone in their activity, or someone who has a gay family member who deserves just as much base dignity as any other person.
The state making a policy change is merely an act of concession. The state admitting defeat is fantastic, but it should not be taken as The victory, “The Victory” is better described as a series of victories that happened prior to the policy change on a continuum.
It is the people who just want to be left alone, with the implementation of certain technologies, and civil disobedience, that push the zeitgeist into a place where the policy change becomes feasible and likely in the first place.
To put the emphasis on the policy change implemented by the people in power is akin to a person pretending to push an already-moving boulder downhill and then taking credit for it.
In closing, there is one more objection I’d like to handle:
Objection: ”This is silly and you’re overthinking things, we just mean that you have to act in some type of way, or else you will be run over by the state’s policies eventually”
Response: In that case, I generally agree, but if that is all that is meant by the statement, then it should not be used as a critique against libertarianism as a philosophy, or even libertarians in general, as there are many libertarians who are proactive, and libertarianism does not forbid such action. With the use of the internet, this is the best time in modern history to be a libertarian. We have countless tools available to us to combat the state, even if that technology is only used to try and change hearts and minds, which while slow in terms of social progress, should be appreciated by people who claim to espouse the virtues of low-time preference.
Although, something tells me that my hope for consistency will be misplaced.
Note: I’m still working on a much larger substack article, that I’m still (re)writing, and I felt bad about not producing more content for you guys so I decided to write some shorter pieces for you in the interim before publishing my larger article. I still have a few shorter articles coming your way. I apologize for not writing more, I just became very burnt out in writing long-form recently, but I’m back into it. Hope you enjoyed reading it, Thank you.
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This is a very long winded way of arguing with the boxcar door.
A response to: ‘ Objection: ”This is silly and you’re overthinking things, we just mean that you have to act in some type of way, or else you will be run over by the state’s policies eventually”
Response: In that case, I generally agree, but if that is all that is meant by the statement, then it should not be used as a critique against libertarianism as a philosophy, or even libertarians in general, as there are many libertarians who are proactive, and libertarianism does not forbid such action. ‘
What a weird way of saying “I realize what you’re telling me is reality is true, but I choose to live by theory as some sort of theology.”