Thursday, October 25, 2007

Bloodsucking Parasites, Part II: Mechanics, the Military, and Big Pharma

My recent article about whether or not becoming a tax preparer is a contradiction to libertarian ethics has sparked a number of comments from other friends and acquaintances. Some saw my point, but still raised a few but-what-abouts. Some accused me of engaging in self-justification. Of course, these types will grab at anything in the search for apparent contradictions and hypocrisies…without ever noticing that they never hold the State to the same moral and ethical standard as they demand from a market-based, individualist creed. But I digress. Let me highlight a few of the ensuing conversations.

My point that the presence of the State, and its massively distortionary effect on the natural economy, often went ignored. As Murray Rothbard once pointed out, our world is essentially a State-created "matrix". Nothing short of living a hermitic, ascetic lifestyle completely cut off from all society can one cleanse themselves of interaction with the State. In fact, this is exactly what the State wants to affect. It is a parasite that seeks to interfere in all aspects of a person’s life, seeking control and power to manipulate otherwise free and independent people for its own purposes. If there was a way to have society that was free of State interference, the State would need to find a way to interject itself, lest it begin to lose its power base as people turn away from it.

So, virtually nothing we do cannot be traced back to the State and its vile influence in some way, so it’s patently ridiculous to ask for "purity" from any profession. For example, I asked my associate, if the tax preparer is viewed as a contradiction to libertarian ethics, would being a car mechanic be ok? My associate had a confused look on his face for a minute, until I explained the logic. The State holds a monopoly on roads and infrastructure, offering them "for free", which effectively creates a subsidy to car owners. As subsidies encourage the activity being subsidized, so the State is encouraging car ownership. Mechanics make their living off maintaining these cars, and more cars out on the roads, means more demand for car mechanics. The need for a car mechanic is traced back to the State actions. So even the mechanic cannot be said to be completely pure of the State’s economy.

Then the discussion turned to other kinds of employers. For example, defense contractors. Sure, it’s a private sector entity. So would that be an acceptable choice of career? In my view, it would not. One friend of mine, who for a time was employed by a defense contractor that manufactured flight simulators for the air force, indicated to me that she thought it would be an ok to work in this field, even if one is against war. After all, her argument went that national defense is a legitimate government activity, so anything that can be clearly identified as having only defensive applications or, as in the example of flight simulators, a completely neutral application, is likewise legitimate.

My counter to this was to inquire about the moral logic. First, the whole purpose of the military is to kill people. The military has no other purpose. When George W. Bush points his finger at someone and says, "kill that man", the military is the organization created to carry out that murderous intent. Of course, "defending liberty" is the moral argument used to gloss over and self-justify such evil, and for most people, it works like a charm. But we must recognize, first and foremost, that every person who works in the military is trained to do one thing: kill.

Secondly, the empirical fact of the matter is the U.S. government has almost never engaged in a war that was strictly defensive in nature, and this is infinitely true of the state of the matter today. America is no longer a federalist republic, but instead a vast, worldwide empire that reserves the right to use its might anywhere, anytime, for any reason. We bomb countries for the slightest of excuses. We embargo and starve people in countries that we do not like. We prop up repressive dictatorships because it suits the desires of politically connected interest groups. In short, there is nothing "defensive" about the use of our military might.

Third, even if we could find some aspect of the military that was only being used to defend American borders, I fail to see how shoring up the War Machine’s flanks can be justified. By making our defenses that much stronger, aren’t we then enabling the politicians to feel that much more secure in their position to wage more war and breed more conflict? As long as we are engaged in a program of empire building and the projection of offensive military might, then any contribution to that effort is enabling its promotion.

So, this same critic then questioned whether being a salesman for a pharmaceutical company would be acceptable. Ironically, while she had no qualms about taking a job in an industry whose sole purpose is death and destruction, it was just unthinkable to go work for a drug company. In her view, the drug companies profit from the sickness of others, raise drug prices to be unaffordable, and then let people who can’t pay, die. Well, I’m sure economically informed readers will immediately recognize the absurdity in that position.

First, to hold that position, a person must have to think that a drug company has incentive to see people die. I mean, just saying that out loud should be enough to demonstrate how absurd the assertion really is. Drug companies, like any other market-based entity, can only "get rich" by meeting the needs of its customers. This means that its incentives to achieve prosperity lie in making as many sales as it can, to as many people as it can. If there is a need, they have every incentive to produce the necessary drugs under the best, most affordable conditions possible, to satisfy that need.

But what about the high costs of healthcare, and astronomical drug prices, and so on and so forth? Well, as I mentioned above, we can trace that back to the State. Through the FDA, and other various federal bureaucracies, the drug industry has become, and continues to become, increasingly cartelized. By restricting the marketplace, restricting competition, and making it more difficult to innovate – in short, by hampering all the natural incentives that exist in a free market – the State is to blame. Mary Ruwart once wrote a short article discussing the impact of the 1962 Kefauver-Harris Amendments, and how they served to constrict the ability for needed, life-saving drugs to be offered to patients.

So, aren’t the drug companies victims here? Should we cry tears over how unjust Big Pharma is being treated at the hands of evil politicians? Of course not. A candid look at the history of business regulation shows that it is often big business itself that supports expanding the State apparatus. Why? A restriction of competition helps to protect profits, and guarantee the incomes of the elite. In fact, much of the recent push to ban smoking in public places has found the hand of the drug companies behind it all. These companies stand to make billions of dollars on the sale of "the patch" and other smoking-aids, as more people have to alter their method of nicotine intake.

(Now that I think about, maybe they ARE evil. Ha.)

In all seriousness, the bottom line here is that private firms that exist to harness resources to peacefully meet society’s needs in a voluntary manner are not evil, no matter what reservations one may have about how markets work, or what line of work the company may engage in. Chances are, if you don’t like the dynamics of what you see, you can probably trace that back to government interference in the marketplace. If one is pro-liberty and anti-State, it is a red herring to think that one can maneuver through life completely sanitized of State influence, and engaging critics who insist that such consistency of ethics is a requirement is a losing battle. The State is big and powerful and perpetuates itself through violence. Its sole purpose is to atomize people and demolish true society among free individuals, and it has largely been successful in that. We can be anti-State and recognize this fact, and even complain about it, without having to feel any remorse or contradiction in our views. We can point out that there is a difference in reacting to the violence, and engaging in its perpetuation. That, to me, is the dividing line from becoming an evil, blood-sucking parasite.

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