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The Road From Serfdom

We hold these truths to be self-evident
, that all men are created equal
, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights
, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
That to secure these rights
, governments are instituted among men
, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends
, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it
, and to institute new government
, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form
, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
The Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia, 1776


Are these words of the Declaration of Independence still true? Do the just powers of government come from the consent of the governed, and, if so, how? Do we still have the human right to alter or abolish government, to institute new government? I believe the answer to all these questions is “yes”, an emphatic “yes”. I am equally certain that the governments we now live under exist with or without our consent, and that we are not as free as we like to think we are.

what a serf is, and why we are all serfs

Not very long ago I came to the uncomfortable conclusion, after a great deal of reflection on these matters, that I am a serf. When I moved to Cherry Hill [New Jersey] a few years ago, I was expected  to pay taxes to the township, the public school system, and the fire district. I wasn’t invited to, or asked to. As a resident of the township, I was expected to, no questions asked, or else (and the consequences of the “or else” were clearly not pleasant). In return, I was provided services of various types from the town and the fire district, and I got to pay for the education of other people’s children. Some of these services I was happy to pay for, others I would gladly do without. But, because of where I lived, I had to pay for all of them with my taxes, because someone somewhere said so.

I also got to vote for members of the town council, and to vote on tax increases for the schools and fire district. Not once did anyone I voted for make it to town council. Not once did the vote for school budgets go the way I desired. But, because we live there, we must work to pay the property taxes, some of the highest in the country. This is modern serfdom.

I am speaking to you today as one serf to another.

We are all serfs because we are forced to pay taxes to the government because of where we live. A serf is a kind of slave. Serfdom, as with every form of slavery, is an affront to human dignity; it cannot be allowed to stand.

We cannot fix a problem until we face the problem in all its painful reality. We need to understand that we are not free as long as we are compelled to pay taxes for things we neither need nor desire. Thomas Jefferson said, “To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical”. We are serfs. We need to admit it to ourselves. Only then can we find a way to end serfdom.


why political action never yields the desired results

So, how do we end serfdom? Is there a political way to stop being a serf? Will voting for the right people help? The short answer is “no”.

Politics is all about making friends for yourself with other people’s money. Politicians do this in a number of ways. One way is to please a lobbyist representing some important business, either directly by sending business their way, or by creating regulations that will benefit the business by hampering competition, which can be done either by making smaller competitors comply with costly regulations (ones the already large business can better afford due to economies of scale), or by discouraging any new competitors by creating obstacles to startup too great for them to hurdle. If you have believed the lie that big business is against regulation, understand  that they welcome the right regulation, if it hampers their competition and allows them to create and sell a defective product with impunity. Just think of health insurance, one of the most highly regulated industries, with some of the most flawed products. Do you think they want to open the market up to competition by complete deregulation?

A second way politicians make friends with other people’s money is to create new programs which benefit some important voting bloc. Regulation bureaucracies and new programs both increase the cost and size of governments, to the detriment of the taxpayers. When a politician must spend most of his time raising money for his next campaign, and making certain that his base of voters remains with him, the temptation to spend more and more money provided by the taxpayers (both present and, increasingly, future taxpayers in the form of debt) becomes an insurmountable obstacle to any inclination the politician may have to keep government small. He is far more likely to do what all his predecessors did before him: when things get tough, kick the can to the next generation, and hope you are out of office when things become completely unsustainable.

The very nature of politics leads to ever-expanding government, both in the level of oversight of more and more of our activities by government bureaucrats, and higher and higher taxes to pay for all the oversight and the program giveaways. Trying to bring taxes down by electing different people is a formula for ultimate frustration. As Einstein said, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. We cannot make any real progress in society merely by making the pendulum swing back and forth.


the best form of government works by cooperation, not coercion

We have, to a very great extent, come to believe the lie that we need government to force us to be better people. Without government, so the lie goes, people would not do what is right by their neighbors. So we allow a subset of humanity, politicians, to behave in ways that other ordinary people could not act. We allow them, for example, to take part of our hard-earned money, calling it taxes instead of theft. We make taxpaying a virtue, saying that, when everyone pays his “fair” share, the whole community benefits. We look down on those who grumble about paying their taxes as scofflaws and scoundrels who are without a spirit of solidarity with their fellow citizens and taxpayers.

The truth is that we are better than that. We do not need to be forced to be better people. On the contrary, the use of force in this way turns virtue on its head, and kills both generosity and creativity. Far better than the outright coercion that is the hallmark of government-as-we-know-it, persuasion and, yes, perhaps a little shame, would produce better social results in the long term. If we truly want to move society beyond serfdom, we need to be more tolerant of differences, more respectful of people, more ready to raise rather than lower our expectations, and encourage true generosity and creativity.

We need to understand the human person as it really is, and not as we would wish it to be. We have to understand that when people are forced to do the right thing, they naturally push back, both directly (by aggression against society) and indirectly (by disengagement from society). It is not hard to recognize both of these responses to coercion in society today.

So if we cannot build a healthy society by force, can we really build it by cooperation? If we can create a society where force is limited to restraining those who use force against the persons and property of others, and for the enforcement of contracts, we can use our creativity and the natural inclination to social engagement to build a government based on cooperation rather than coercion.


we will create a new form of government made of two distinct but complementary components

To build a government based on cooperation rather than coercion, we need to split it into two components, one territorial, the other non-territorial. This form of government I call Government By Contract, GBC for short. I will explain shortly where the “contract” comes in. Suffice it to say at the moment that the idea of “contract” coincides with the need for the “consent” of the governed mentioned as the source of just powers in the Declaration of Independence.

The territorial component can be based partly on the departments of government as they currently exist, whose purpose is to supply the people with various useful services.

The second component is non-territorial, and consists of ideologically-cohesive associations of citizens, similar to political parties, but different in their form and purpose. Since the form of government I am recommending here is based to a large extent on one of the oldest continuous governments in the world, the Swiss Confederation, founded in 1291, I have adopted the name of the subsidiary units of the Swiss government, cantons, as the name for the non-territorial units of Government By Contract. Just as the federal government called the United States of America is comprised of 50 states, the government of Switzerland, called the Swiss Confederation, is comprised of 26 territories called cantons. Although I am borrowing the word canton, cantons in a Government By Contract are non-territorial. Just as with political parties, membership in a GBC canton is voluntary and mutual, which is to say that membership depends both on the desire of the individual household that seeks membership, as well as the willingness of the canton to accept the membership. The agreement of membership is a contract between the member and the canton. This is the contract referred to in the phrase Government By Contract.

How does a GBC canton differ from a political party? They both are non-territorial (that is, they don’t claim to represent everyone in the territory). They are both ideologically-based member organizations. The greatest difference lies in their purpose. The purpose of political parties is to get politicians of a certain stripe elected to office. The purpose of a canton is to provide a way for a group of like-minded people, those who share a particular ideology, to express that ideology within a particular territory, providing services of various types to their members both independently of other organizations, but perhaps more importantly, in cooperation with other cantons. It does this primarily by working with other cantons at the same territorial level (national, state, county, municipal) to secure control of the taxes of its members from the relevant agency (the IRS, for example, at the national level in the US).

When cantons of different ideologies agree that together they can pay for certain government services that are consistent with their ideologies, they cooperate in the financing of government departments that they feel can best provide those services. To put it another way, where cantons are in agreement, they cooperate, and when they disagree, they do things on their own. In either case, the members of the cantons pay for only those services that are consistent with their values, and not for services that are contrary to those values.

Such an arrangement opens up a universe of possibilities for cooperation, innovation, creativity, respect for others, and true generosity.


this new form of government can end serfdom

Such an arrangement means the end of serfdom for its participants. This is so because, when each canton determines what government services its members will pay their own money for, the taxes are no longer imposed by the government but are payments for services rendered, as agreed to by the cantons and its members.


it can end politics

By the same means, Government By Contract ends politics and the need for general elections. When you make a purchase of any kind of product or service, do you really care who runs the company that provides it? All you care about is the quality of the goods or services provided, their cost, and how well you were treated. If a canton finds that the government department it is helping to fund does not provide their service in a way that is valuable to its members, it will either seek to bring about changes to that department, or it will find another way to have the required service provided. In the same way, if a household finds that its canton is not performing according to its expectations, it will either find another canton, or seek to make changes within the canton. Unlike the current form of government, your recourse is not limited to infrequent elections, angry letters, or, more often than not, resignation in disgust. In Government By Contract, you “vote” (as it were) with your taxes. And, as we all know, nothing talks like money.


it can end corruption

There are other advantages of Government By Contract. Corruption is endemic to government-as-we-know-it, because it is based on force. As Einstein said, “force always attracts men of low morality”, the horrible truth of which he experienced. By changing government from an organization run on coercion rather than cooperation, many of the opportunities for the use of force are eliminated, and the tendency of government to attract men of low morality is diminished.


it can end the culture wars

Then there is the matter of those issues that fall under the category of culture war issues. I would contend that culture war issues are largely about money, such as in the expression, “I don’t want my tax dollars to be spent for [fill in the blank].” The quote by Jefferson comes into play here as well, “To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical”. But when each person belongs to a canton that pays only for government services with which he has no moral qualms, then the issues remain in the realm of morality and outside of politics, in the realm of persuasion and tolerance and not in coercion. Here again we need to create a society where force is limited to restraining those who use force against the persons and property of others. Beyond this is serfdom, where one group imposes its morality on others, a situation that creates endless and unresolveable conflict.


it can improve education

Running schools on the basis of a territorial monopoly has proven to be a cause for concern. With the tail of ever-more-powerful unions wagging more and more government dogs, we have seen increased spending on education with no noticeable return on investment. Instead we have bad teachers driving out good, more and more being spent on administration, less on maintenance and actual classroom education, and parents who are increasingly alienated from the education of their children.

How, then, will grade school education be provided in a Government By Contract? It is most likely that each GBC canton (I am talking now of a canton for a municipality) will want to have control of the education of its children, rather than having a single school system determined solely on the basis of territory. With parents paying schools directly for their children’s education, and professional educators running each school, education will flourish, and the value of the school will be determined by those paying for the service. In the current situation of a territorial monopoly of education, parents who now send their children to private schools and must also pay into the public education system, have, of necessity, found ways to deliver quality education at lower cost. This model has shown, for example, that a much smaller administration footprint can still deliver a very good education.


it can actually lower taxes

Most people think some part of their taxes goes toward useful things, and they are generally willing to continue to pay for those services. But most people also strongly suspect, and rightly so, that a certain portion of their taxes are wasted, spent on programs that they neither need nor desire.

The difficulty of getting control over taxes has been largely due to the winner-take-all process by which government-as-we-know-it works. Part of the problem, as we have already seen, is the political dimension, by which the politicians, in their need to maintain a grateful electorate, and even more grateful special interests, in order to secure their re-election, find it hard to resist the creation of more programs and bureaucracies to further their own causes.

When Government By Contract erases the political aspect from government, it also provides the incentive and means to create government departments that provide just the services that people are willing to pay for, and at the price they are willing to pay. When a canton decides to finance a service that it considers necessary, it engages, along with other like-minded cantons, in a negotiation with the government department, to provide the service at an acceptable cost. The cantons may come to the conclusion that the current government department is not able to deliver the needed service in a way that meets their needs, and may seek out other ways to provide the service. In any case, the members of each canton pay for the services they consider necessary, not the ones that others consider necessary. And the canton must either find a way to provide that service at a reasonable cost, or suffer the consequences of a very unhappy membership, even to the point where the canton finds itself no longer viable. Such pressures, completely opposite those found in the current forms of government, can finally produce a system of government where taxes can be reduced. This is called “right-sizing” government.


it can encourage people to be cooperative, generous, compassionate, strong

A society based on coercion engenders negative responses from normal people. They tend to respond with either aggression or disengagement. No normal person likes to be pushed around by another. No normal person likes to have what is theirs taken from them. No normal person believes it makes sense to force other people to do the right thing, so long as they are not directly and maliciously harming another. Yet government-as-we-know-it demonstrates all these negative attributes. It takes your money by force, calling it taxes, and claims to know better than you how to spend it. It assumes the right to make a determination about what you should or should not do almost without limit. It claims that it is doing everything for your own good. It takes the position in your life of father protector, conscience, and disciplinarian. In so doing, it lessens your opportunities to act creatively in society, to solve problems (unless you manage to get yourself elected to office). It stymies responsibility, creativity, generosity, passion, and solidarity, by taking all these things to itself, leaving you with just two tasks: pay and obey.

In short, it turns adults into children, dependent for all things that matter on the government. It turns people into serfs.

By replacing coercion with cooperation, Government By Contract frees the serfs, and lets all people finally grow up. It does this by placing again on the shoulders of all adults the ability to be responsible, creative, generous, passionate, and loyal. By becoming a member of a canton, you make choices for yourself and your family about what is and is not important to you. You determine what is right and what is wrong, according to your own conscience, and act accordingly. You put your money where your mouth is. Being free, you can give generously from the heart to help those whose needs you see, no longer feeling the need to respond with aggression or apathy. You realize that being responsible for yourself is both terrifying and extremely satisfying. You realize that society does not have to be like a mule train, but can be more like a barn-raising.


you can help begin the process of creating this new form of government

To bring about the end of serfdom, we need to start creating cantons in every place, at every level of government. As soon as enough people are ready to throw off the constraints of serfdom in favor of Government By Contract, real freedom will be achieved. You have nothing to lose but your shackles.

I have a goal: to make our time the last in history where people know what it means to live as a serf.

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