On the rare occasions when governments consider curbing their expenditure on some service — or, more likely, consider curbing the rate of increase in spending — they are invariably called upon to undertake discussions with relevant "stakeholders" and members of the community. This process is ostensibly undertaken to determine the views of those who are to be affected by the proposed decision, to gauge the mood of the electorate our political masters are sworn to serve.

Of course, if one were to undertake a proper scientific study into the attitudes of the community to some such proposal, one would solicit the views of a random sample of community members. The use of random sampling ensures that there is no inherent bias in the sampling method — although bias can still result from non-response. This means that the responses of the sampled participants can be used as an estimate for the larger community, with statistical techniques used to determine how closely the former can be expected to reflect the latter. Indeed, this is a standard scientific technique for inferring the views of a large population, without the necessity for a complete census.

Suffice to say, this is not how the government proceeds. Instead, the government solicits the views of the relevant "stakeholders," identified by the bureaucracy. Who are these stakeholders? Why, they are the people and groups that have a stake in the decision of course. And when we say "a stake," we must be a little selective. After all, government spending is paid for, at least in part, by the myriad of taxes that are stolen from virtually every person in the population. And since we do not wish to take a complete census of the population, we must therefore limit ourselves to only some stakeholders, or more precisely, to those stakeholders who have the biggest stake in the decision.

For more major decisions, in addition to contacting the large stakeholders, the government may also feel obliged to hold a more general community consultation. Again, the government does not appeal to the scientific methodology of random sampling in selecting those community members who are to participate in this process. For this method would mean that members of the community would be excluded from participation by the roll of the dice; a most undemocratic result. Instead, the government simply invites the public at large to make submissions or attend some form of community forum. This process is self-selective: the respondents are those who themselves choose to take the time to write a submission, attend a forum, or otherwise make their views heard.

The result of this sampling mechanism is that both the stakeholders who are contacted by the government and the members of the public who self-selectively take the time to participate in the process are those who have a large stake in the proposed decision. And since the costs of any particular government service are spread diffusely through the population, whereas the benefits are concentrated among a much smaller group of rent seekers, it is precisely these rent seekers who will be the participants in the government's consultation process.

This result is nothing more than a manifestation of rational ignorance and rational non-participation by those with a small stake in the decision. To these people, the value to be gained from potentially influencing the government is outweighed by the time, effort, and potential stress involved, plus the opportunity loss from forgoing other activities (such as leisure time or paid work).

For the elderly retiree who relies on the public bus service to go to the doctor's office or to maintain his social life, the implications of a cut to this service may be severe. But for the ordinary taxpayer who does not use this service, the net financial benefit of a cut to the service is minimal, and thus, the net benefit of attending community consultation forums to speak in favor of this cut — even if successful — may be outweighed by the effort and stress involved.

But even aside from the question of participation, we must also ask who is to have more impact in this process. The elderly retiree, who is virtually in tears over the implications to his lifestyle? Or the taxpayer, who calculates that the cut to the bus service will save him $27 a year on his tax bill?1

The outcome of this consultation is not in doubt. The consultation process itself will be weighted towards the interest of the rent seekers, both in numbers, and in the magnitude of their claims. Indeed, it would be a brave taxpayer who dared incur the wrath of "the community" by staking his meager financial claim against the high stakes rent seeking of others at such a forum.

This is true for each and every service of government that involves the diffuse spreading of costs among taxpayers. In each case "the community" that is consulted is composed of the rent seekers who benefit from this service at taxpayer expense. And so, in all such cases, those in the government who are desirous of greater statism — and they are many — have themselves a neat little set of loaded dice. For they may argue that they have "the community" on their side; that "the community" has spoken; that all those "with an interest in the decision" have been consulted. They may argue that democracy demands that the government abide by the views of this community and that it would be an affront to the democratic process to ignore these views.

Indeed, if the government proceeds to cut spending despite this consultation process, it is vulnerable to the accusation that the process was mere window dressing, and that the spending cut was a fait accompli. This may indeed be correct, given that there is unlikely to be anything emerging from the consultation process that supports such a course of action. However, this is only half the picture. For the truth is that it is often the outcome of the consultation process itself that is the fait accompli, skewed by its very nature towards the interests of rent seekers, who have a higher stake in the specific service under consideration than the taxpayers who are robbed to pay the bills.


[1] This is in fact a realistic figure for such an example. Taking my own home town of Canberra (Australia) as an example, the total expenditure on the public bus service in 2006–07 was AU$88.433 million, which amounts to an average of AU$273 per person (although the cost is not levied equally). Thus, a ten percent cut in expenditure on this service — which would involve a sizeable cut to the service — would amount to a saving of approximately AU$27.30 per person.

University campuses receive a great deal of attention due to the political and cultural indoctrination and activism that some academics try to pass off as education.[1] However, government education bureaucrats are eager to ensure that their prescribed views are etched on the slate of the human mind at a much earlier age. For this reason, the most shameless political and cultural activism is often directed, under the guise of environmental and social education, at young children attending government primary schools.


In Australia, governments have adopted environmental education programs that teach children that human intrusion into nature is to be condemned and that man's life must be subordinated to the preservation of nature, by government force if necessary. Under this view, nature is not to be preserved for the benefit of man, but rather, it is to be preserved for its own sake against the encroachments of man. This is the philosophy of environmentalism, and the standard viewpoint of environmentalists, according to philosopher Michael Berliner:
Nature, they insist, has "intrinsic value," to be revered for its own sake, irrespective of any benefit to man. As a consequence, man is to be prohibited from using nature for his own ends. Since nature supposedly has value and goodness in itself, any human action which changes the environment is necessarily branded as immoral. Environmentalists invoke this argument from intrinsic value not against lions that eat gazelles or beavers that fell trees; they invoke it only against man, only when man wants something. The environmentalists' concept of intrinsic value is nothing but the desire to destroy human values.[2]


Since explicit philosophical argument about the alleged intrinsic value of nature and the subordination of human values is too complicated for young children — and since explicit argument would demonstrate the environmentalist paradigm to be irrational — education bureaucrats instead adopt these principles implicitly as the normative basis for their environmental curriculum. This curriculum is not designed simply to teach facts about the environment — it is designed to alter behavior in ways that are acceptable to environmentalists and government bureaucrats. For example, according to a newsletter from the Cessnock City Council's Sustainability Programs Officer,
Changing any behaviour is difficult, which is why we try to instil the proper behaviours in our children from the very beginning. When it comes to the environment, knowledge on its own can be very disempowering. There has been lots of recent research on how to address the issue of "ecophobia" and in the school environmental education area you can't go past the work of David Sobel and B.B. Jensen… Sobel's work focuses on engaging the heart — learning to love the environment first then to protect it.[3]


Thus, rather than engaging the intellect of children to teach them basic facts about nature, education bureaucrats instead seek to "engage their hearts" — a process which is entirely antithetic to genuine education.
Planet Slayer — Government Funded and Approved
To get a taste of the approved "environmental education" activities of government bureaucrats, we can do little better than looking at a games website called "Planet Slayer," recommended for children under the Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative adopted by various Australian governments.[4]This games website, hosted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and created with the assistance of Film Victoria (both government bodies), introduces itself as follows:
Get the dirt on greenhouse without the guilt trips. No lectures. No multinational-bashing (well, maybe a little … ). Just fun and games and the answers to all your enviro-dilemas [sic].[5]


To assist in their "fun and games" and answer all their alleged enviro-dilemmas, children are guided by the protagonist cartoon character, "Greena, the Worrier Princess." Greena is of course the archetypal image of bohemian environmentalist virtue — a spunky green-eyed red head with funky glasses and a nose ring, a khaki T-Shirt with a peace sign, green pants with eclectic colored patches, and sandals.

Greena invites children to use the website's Greenhouse Calculator[6] to "find out what age you should die at so you don't use more than your fair share of Earth's resources." This calculator helps children to determine how much of a "greenhouse pig" a person is by answering questions about how much the person spends and consumes. On the basis of these answers the calculator determines the person's CO2 consumption, which is depicted by making the cartoon "greenhouse pig" look bigger, fatter, dirtier and angrier. When the child has answered the questions they are instructed to click on a skull and cross-bones symbol to find out when the person should die, depicted by having the pig explode in a bloody cartoon mess leaving only a pool of blood and a curly tail. For example, according to the calculator, the consumption of an "average Aussie pig" is 24.6 tonnes of CO2 per year. At this level, the calculator states:
Based on the emissions from your greenhouse usage, you used up your share of the planet by the time you were 9.3 years old! … You should die at age 9.3.


Some trial-and-error calculations quickly show that most of the questions affect the outcome very little. However, the most significant factor affecting the calculation is the amount of money spent in the past year, with people who spend large amounts of money being condemned to an early death. Thankfully there is salvation for these high spenders, since the calculator allows a longer life to those who invest in "businesses or organisations that make environmentally responsible products."[7]
Aside from learning when they should die, children can also share in Greena's adventures as she battles against all sorts of politically incorrect villains. In Episode 10, which bears the subtitle "Meat Is Murder … But Who Is that Dodgy-Looking Sheep?" Greena sees a dim-witted skinhead eating lamb and drinking beer in a restaurant.[8] She consults her "Activist Tactical Field Guide," which tells her:
REMEMBER: Most meat eaters are total hypocrites. Try confronting them with a live version of their favourite meat.


Lumberjacks and skinhead meat eaters aside, Greena's real arch nemesis and the central villain of the website is a young woman called X-on (presumably a play on Exxon).[9] This insidious character is of course the exemplar of the materialistic bourgeoisie — a blue-eyed blonde in a pink shirt, short pink skirt, pink sunglasses and high heels, with a French poodle and a pink handbag.
In the "This is your Lifestyle" section children answer questions on what items they would choose to buy or consume. When asked whether they would buy their drinks in a plastic bottle, a glass bottle or an aluminum can, our hero Greena shouts "Forget the packaging, it's all cultural imperialism!" Forget the packaging? This statement is particularly revealing, since it demonstrates that the lesson that the website is designed to impart is not primarily environmental, but political.
In the "Planet Slayer" game, children can choose to help Greena save the planet by opposing logging, nuclear waste, war, consumerism, and other evils, and supporting such good things as composting, clean transport, solar power, and protesting. Whereas Greena is again depicted as the virtuous savior of the planet, her nemesis, the bourgeoisie X-on, tries to destroy the planet by supporting the various bad things mentioned in the website — she not only supports consumerism, as is obvious from her clothing and accessories, but apparently also supports nuclear waste and war! Of course, since war is not primarily an environmental issue, this is presumably included to show that hippy types like our protagonist Greena desire peace, whereas materialistic bourgeoisie types like X-on apparently enjoy war.
For those who suspect me of exaggeration in these explanations, I welcome them to have a look for themselves. You really can't make this stuff up (well, not unless you're being funded by the Australian government anyway).
What this tells us about government education bureaucrats
While the "Planet Slayer" website is a particularly galling piece of environmentalist propaganda, the dry rot of government education for young children goes far deeper than a single website. Rather, "Planet Slayer" is reflective of the standards and inclinations of the education bureaucrats who design educational policies and curricula for children.
Far more unsettling than the actual contents of the website is the fact that, in order to appear as a recommended website for children in multiple government documents for various government schools across Australia, several education bureaucrats must have seen the website and approved of it. The fact that the above examples registered no sufficient reason to withhold recommendation of the website for young children is indicative of the goals of government educators. Moreover, since this particular website is both funded and hosted by government agencies, some other bureaucrats must have been intimately involved in its initial creation.
The environmental educational programs of government primary schools reflect the incentives of government bureaucrats and the philosophy of environmentalism, which supports wide government powers. It is a philosophy that advocates the sacrifice of man to nature, with the government taking ever more power over human lifestyle choices and industry, allegedly in order to protect the environment. The logical conclusion of this philosophy is spelled out by environmentalist philosopher Paul Taylor:
Given the total, absolute, and final disappearance of Homo Sapiens, not only would the Earth's community of life continue to exist, but in all probability, its well-being would be enhanced. Our presence, in short, is not needed. And if we were to take the standpoint of that Life Community and give voice to its true interests, the ending of the human epoch on Earth would most likely be greeted with a hearty "Good riddance!"[10]


 For some adults, a greenhouse calculator which tells you when you "should" die may be a useful tool for making lifestyle decisions. For others, watching a "greenhouse pig" explode may just be a harmless bit of fun. For radical environmentalists it is a device echoing their desire to end the scourge of mankind. And for environmental education bureaucrats whose jobs rest on the philosophy of environmentalism, it is a means to "engage the hearts" of young children and inculcate them with the "proper" behaviors — namely, those which support wide government powers and the philosophy on which they rest.
Fortunately, there is hope. Vigilance from parents may be sufficient to ensure that young children are not propagandized during school hours. But this requires attention and diligence and, above all, asking children what they learned in school today.


[1] For a litany of examples see the archives of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
[2] Berliner, M.S. Against Environmentalism (Ayn Rand Institute, 2007).
[3] See the Schools Environment Newsletter: Educating for Pro-environment Behaviour.Download PDF Emphasis added.
[4] The "Planet Slayer" games website is recommended in many government documents including:





[6] See Figure 1 in the Appendix.
[7] For discussion, see Bolt, A. "Calculating ABC spin."
[8] See Figure 2 in the Appendix.
[9] See Figure 3 in Appendix.

There was a time when the advocates of socialism argued that it would lead man to material abundance, whereas free-market capitalism would lead only to increasing misery and would ultimately collapse under its own internal stresses. You don't hear that too much these days, and for good reason. A century of empirical evidence has shown the contrary — that the free market leads to increasing wealth and material freedom, while socialism leads us only to poverty, state supremacy, and ultimately, mass murder.


These days the attack has shifted. Capitalism does not lead us to poverty; it leads us to too much wealth. This makes us "greedy" and "materialistic." It leads us to excessive "consumerism."

Indeed, there has been a recent resurgence of academic critiques and self-help literature lamenting excessive "materialism" and "consumerism," much of which lays the blame squarely at the feet of free-market capitalism and its lifeblood, money. But does having more money really lead us to a narrow concern with material possessions? Does it lead us to an excessive desire for material wealth? Does it lead us to these things at the cost of spiritual impoverishment and the sacrifice of other concerns?

Alienable and inalienable goods

There are a great many nonmaterial goods that are of value to people, and for good reason. We value such things as dancing, singing, learning to play the piano, or watching a beautiful sunset. We value time to relax, a friendship, a romance, or any other positive personal relationship. We value our knowledge, our health, our physique, and many other personal characteristics. These all have the potential to have a valuable effect on our life. All are "goods" in the economic sense, and all may be rationally pursued to satisfy our desires and live a good, full life.
Some things of value are alienable goods: they can be transferred to others. So, for example, we can give a gold watch or a pair of shoes to another person. We can teach a person to play the piano or supply them with a cruise on a ship. But some things are inalienable goods: they cannot be transferred to others. We cannot transfer our time, our knowledge, our health, or our physique to another person. They must acquire these things on their own, by their own effort. And of course, some goods exist only as the inalienable possessions of others. Our friendships exist in the thoughts and experiences of our friends and ourselves. Our romances exist in the desires and life experience of our mate and in our own desires and experiences.
Although inalienable goods cannot be transferred to others, this does not mean that they are innate. Some inalienable goods require effort and time to acquire, as with knowledge, education, and other personal achievements. These goods must be weighed off against other goods that require time and effort to acquire, including many alienable goods. Thus, although we cannot acquire inalienable goods by trading away alienable goods in the market, we nonetheless make choices between these goods in the time and effort we allocate to their acquisition.
For this reason, the analysis of inalienable nonmaterial goods is well within the province of economics and does not present any particular problem for economic analysis. For, as Rothbard observes,
Economics … is not a science that deals particularly with "material goods" or "material welfare." It deals in general with the action of men to satisfy their desires, and, specifically, with the process of exchange of goods as a means for each individual to "produce" satisfactions for his desires.[1]


In fact, as we have seen, economics deals also with the process of "exchange" within ourselves, through the allocation of time and effort to competing desires.

Money and alienable goods

Alienable goods, by definition, can be transferred to others, and can therefore be exchanged with others for some other alienable good. In particular, alienable goods can, in principle, be exchanged for money — that is, they can be bought and sold. Of course, this presumes a willing buyer and seller, and in many cases these will be absent. But notwithstanding this fact, it is generally the case that, absent legal restriction or widespread social repugnance, any alienable good may be bought or sold, if the price is right.
Thus, when one acquires money, one is essentially acquiring the ability to acquire alienable goods. Money is a surrogate for alienable goods. Presuming that the money in question is sufficiently sound to be of value to others,[2] one can acquire money, safe in the knowledge that this can be exchanged for whatever alienable goods are desired.
By contrast, inalienable goods cannot be sold, since, by their nature, they cannot be transferred from the seller to the buyer. Hence, one cannot buy good health from another person, though one can buy fresh fruit, vitamins, an exercise bike, or a session in the gymnasium with a personal trainer.
If all goods were alienable, such that all could be bought or sold, then we could rationally be concerned solely with the acquisition of money as a surrogate for the acquisition of these goods. Thus, if a person were entirely uninterested in any inalienable goods of any kind, then he would indeed be the most extreme caricature of the "vulgar materialist." He would work almost to the point of exhaustion, desiring his health and energy only to the extent that they would allow him to continue his work and to consume the goods that his money buys. He would give charity only if he could somehow gain a collateral advantage to get more money. He would desire friendships and other personal relationships only to the extent that they could make him more money.

Preferences between alienable and inalienable goods

Of course, there are none who desire only alienable goods and hence none who act in this absurd manner. Rather, we rationally weigh alienable and inalienable goods against one another, according to our particular preferences and with a view to achieving the greatest possible happiness over the course of our lives. As Rothbard observes,
no one denies that there are nonmarketable, nonexchangeable goods (such as friendship, love, and religion) and that many men value these goods very highly. They must constantly choose how to allocate their resources between exchangeable and nonexchangeable goods.[3]


So how do we allocate our resources between alienable material goods and inalienable nonmaterial goods? And does the acquisition of money doom us to a life of barren materialism? Does our wealthy shopping-center society lead us to greater and greater material consumption and less and less inner fulfillment?

Why materialism diminishes as we gain more wealth

If we suppose that both alienable and inalienable goods are subject to diminishing marginal returns, it follows that, ceteris paribus, an increase in one kind of good will lead us to shift effort and time to the acquisition of the other kinds of goods. Thus, if we have more money, so that we can acquire additional alienable goods, then we will derive less marginal satisfaction from further additional alienable goods than we otherwise would. In this case, we will shift some of our effort and time away from acquiring alienable goods and towards acquiring inalienable goods.
This is indeed what happens in a free-market economy when people rationally pursue their desires. Rothbard observes that
It is nonsense to place the blame on "money" for the tendencies of some people to value exchangeable [alienable] goods highly as compared to some nonexchangeable [inalienable] goods. There is no force in the existence of the money economy that compels men to make such choices; money simply enables men to expand enormously their acquisition of exchangeable goods. …
As a matter of fact, the existence of the money economy has the reverse effect. … The very fact that exchangeable consumers' goods are more abundant enables each individual to enjoy more of the nonexchangeable ones.[4]


He further observes that
an advancing market economy satisfies more and more of people's desires for exchangeable goods. As a result, the marginal utility of exchangeable goods tends to decline over time, while the marginal utility of nonexchangeable goods increases. In short, the greater satisfaction of "exchangeable" values confers a much greater marginal significance on the "nonexchangeable" values. Rather than foster "material" values, then, advancing capitalism does just the opposite.[5]


From this analysis, we see that the increase in wealth that obtains in the free market leads to a greater diversion of effort to nonmaterial concerns. Thus we see that capitalism, and the gain of material goods it engenders, leads to less "materialism" and "consumerism" — in terms of effort and time — rather than more.

An objection — that money is desired for status as well as for consumption

Some critics may object to this analysis, pointing to the fact that money and material wealth are acquired for reasons of social status as well as for consumption. In this observation they are undoubtedly correct, though this does not change our economic analysis one iota. For the level of social status derived from wealth and the satisfaction derived from this social status are themselves subject to diminishing marginal returns.
A man who owns a Ferrari may indeed be motivated, inter alia, by a desire to show off his material success. He may indeed derive satisfaction from his view that this car shows that he has "made it." In comparison to the person with no car at all, we may indeed suspect him of greater success — in finding a good career, fulfilling his desires, or whatever. But consider the additional status derived from buying a second Ferrari. Surely, this is of less marginal relevance than the first. After all, it is already clear that this guy is rich. A second Ferrari shows us that, yeah, he is definitely rich.
Indeed, the diminishing marginal perception of status with wealth is evident in the fact that most people regard billionaires as having essentially the same social status, regardless of how many billions these people have. Bill Gates is rich. Rupert Murdock is also rich. One more so than the other, but hey, they are both very rich. Both have the "social status" that one gets when one is rich and there is very little marginal difference between the two.
In fact it does not matter why we gain satisfaction from material goods. It does not matter whether this is from to actual consumption, social status, or any other reason. All that matters is that our satisfaction is subject to diminishing marginal returns.

Another objection — that money is addictive

Another possible objection is the allegation that, although money is indeed subject to diminishing marginal returns — or even diminishing absolute returns — people will nonetheless become addicted to wealth and will therefore pursue it to their detriment.
Critics of the alleged excesses of capitalism and the acquisition of money observe the fact that wealthy people have an appetite for more wealth and more goods, despite their large existing wealth. They observe the fact that many wealthy people spend vast amounts on ostentatious and unnecessary goods that do little to satisfy their desires. Whereas a poor worker will save his earnings for several years to purchase some modest but crucial accommodation, a very wealthy person might spend the same amount of money — or even more — on a piece of jewelry or redecorating the bedroom.
From this observation some have incorrectly concluded that wealth is addictive — that it begets only greater desire rather than greater satisfaction, leading to a hollow existence of "materialism" and "consumerism," devoid of psychic fulfillment. This is an ancient observation. It is expressed in the second part of the dictum of Socrates that "contentment is natural wealth; luxury, artificial poverty,"[6] and more recently by the anticapitalist social critic John Ruskin, that "every increased possession loads us with a new weariness."
But in truth, this behavior is nothing more than a manifestation of diminishing marginal returns. The highly wealthy person desires these more opulent goods only because his desire for basic accommodation and other more fundamental goods is already satisfied.
While the acquisition of additional money and additional material goods is made at the expense of effort and time that could be directed to other nonmaterial pursuits, this does not imply that the wealthier man is any less fulfilled than the poorer man. For the very fact that greater wealth is available with less effort means that more effort can be directed towards nonmaterial inalienable goods.
This is not to deny that some people act irrationally, pursuing material goods that do not make them happy. Some may indeed be imbued with an irrational desire for material goods, which leads them to disappointment rather than satisfaction, though this is not inherent in the free market. But the mere fact that decreasing marginal satisfaction is derived from further acquisitions of wealth is no evidence of the "addictive" properties of material goods. It is evidence only of a logical preference ranking of material goods, with the most important goods being purchased first, and less important goods being forgone unless and until additional wealth is acquired.

Why sensitivity to materialism exists mainly among the wealthy

What is more important than comparing expenditure habits between the wealthy and the poor is looking at the amount of time and effort that is expended on the acquisition of alienable material goods and of inalienable nonmaterial goods. For if our marginal-utility analysis is correct, it predicts that, as wealth increases, this will cause time and effort to be redirected away from the acquisition of alienable goods and towards the acquisition of inalienable goods. And in fact, this is exactly what occurs.
Observe that it is the impoverished people of backward economies who devote more of their time and effort to the acquisition of material goods than the wealthy inhabitants of advanced economies. It is not the poor who so fervently profess their desire for greater "spiritual fulfillment" and decry the evils of "materialism" and "consumerism." They do not pursue nonmaterial goods with the same fervor. They do not take classes in French poetry just for fun — even if this is within their means. They do not read New Age literature or practice yoga.
Sensitivity to "consumerism" is an affectation that is largely present in wealthy western countries. This is partly because there is more material wealth and consumption in these countries. But even within western countries, apprehension about "materialism" and "consumerism" is more prevalent among the relatively affluent intelligentsia than among the poor or the middle class.
Moreover, this same phenomenon can be seen on a larger scale historically, with the rise of antimaterialism accompanying the age of classical liberalism. Mises has observed the fallacy of criticisms of "materialism" that arose during this period:
It is a purposeful distortion of facts to blame the age of [classical] liberalism for an alleged materialism. The nineteenth century was not only a century of unprecedented improvement in technical methods of production and in the material well-being of the masses. It did much more than extend the average length of human life. Its scientific and artistic accomplishments are imperishable. It was an age of immortal musicians, writers, poets, painters, and sculptors; it revolutionized philosophy, economics, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology. And, for the first time in history, it made the great works and the great thought accessible to the common man.[7]


Indeed, the 19th century was an age of musicians, writers, poets, painters, and sculptors precisely because it was an age of large advances in freedom and wealth. Poets and painters who chose to exercise their creative drive — even where their talents would not lead them to fortune — did so because it made them happier than if they had not. And it made them happier, precisely because the alternative — of effort and time employed for greater material wealth — was of less importance than it would have been under the poor conditions that existed centuries earlier.
This sensitivity to "materialism" and "consumerism" among the wealthy intelligentsia is not surprising. For as we have shown, it is perfectly rational for wealthier people to devote more of their time and effort to nonmaterial concerns.[8] This is because, given their existing wealth, the material concerns still available to them are of diminished importance compared to the material concerns of the poor.
Indeed, the wealthy elite who wax lyrical about their disdain for "materialism" and "consumerism" are perfectly genuine. In the context of their own situation, they do indeed prefer to focus their effort on the attainment of nonmaterial, inalienable goods. But of course, their preference, usually in the context of relatively large amounts of existing wealth, should hardly be imposed on others, many of whom are in a far different situation.

Capitalism and money do not lead to materialism or consumerism

There is no force operating in the free market that requires the intense pursuit of material possessions, unlessthis is our preference. As usual, critics of free-market capitalism who fear that it will lead to "materialism" and "consumerism" underestimate the ability of individuals to rationally make decisions for their own happiness.
Many rational individuals have followed the dictum of the great English dramatist Christopher Marlow, who wrote, "Money can't buy love, but it improves your bargaining position."
Indeed, this is true in a stronger sense than he intended. For if we rationally pursue our happiness, and if we respect our desire for both material and nonmaterial goods and our preferences between them, then having an abundance of money and other material goods will give us greater freedom and greater inclination to pursue nonmaterial goods.
Thus, as we satisfy our desires for material comforts we naturally put greater effort towards the pursuit of other goals, be they knowledge, family, friendships, or love. Free-market capitalism and the abundance of wealth that it produces therefore lead us to both material abundance and nonmaterial satisfaction.



[1] See Rothbard, M. (2004) Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market: Scholar's Edition. Ludwig von Mises Institute: Alabama, p. 162.
[2] …which may not be the case if the currency is sufficiently debased…
[3] Ibid, p. 1350.
[4] Ibid, p. 214. Emphasis in original.
[5] Ibid, p. 1324.
[6] The first part of which, I agree with.
[7] Mises, L. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, 1st ed. (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, [1949] 1999, p. 155.
[8] The concentration of antimaterialist sentiment among the intelligentsia is also due to the fact that the fundamental characteristics of the intelligentsia — knowledge, formal education, literary prowess, etc. — are themselves nonmaterial goods, ensuring that this group is naturally inclined towards the acquisition of nonmaterial goods.

Recently, a friend of mine complained about a spate of burglaries that had occurred near her newly bought home. A house down the street from hers had been burgled in the weeks before, and her next-door neighbor had been burgled not long afterward. In the latter case, the thieves had made off with a large-screen plasma television set and a laptop computer, apparently having walked out of the house with them in broad daylight.

My friend was evidently disgusted by this thievery — as well she should be — and seemed to have difficulty comprehending how the people responsible could bring themselves to break into a home and take what did not belong to them. "How dare they!" she said. "What makes them think they have the right to do this?"

That is a fair question. What does make them think they have a right to do this? Well, perhaps they know they have no right to do this, but they do it anyway because their desire for the unearned has more weight to them than their respect for the property rights of others. Perhaps they rationalized their crime on the basis of some purported need, brought about — no doubt — by having been "marginalized" by society.

On the attitude of these particular thieves we can only speculate. But more generally, we may ask, why is it that a criminal feels comfortable taking property that he has not earned?

After hearing my friend's story, I reassured her that the burglars who had plundered her neighbors (there had to have been more than one of them to carry the large TV set) had no right to take this property that did not belong to them, and that she was right to be angry. However, being always on the lookout to spread libertarian good cheer, I also made it a point to inform her that the burglars' conduct was not fundamentally any different from the conduct of most people in our society, who routinely advocate or acquiesce to the taking of property that is not theirs.

But surely not! Surely only a scoundrel of the lowest order could believe that they are entitled to steal the property of others! No "law-abiding" member of the public would accept such a thing! Would they?

Well, let's see: Suppose a person makes the judicious insight that some people don't have as much money as other people, and it would be nice if they had more money than they do. To remedy this problem they propose that a group of kind-hearted benefactors create an agency whose job is to forcibly take other people's money without their permission (i.e., steal it), and give some of it to those they deem to be "in need." The group would use the rest of the funds to stir up the recipients' sense of entitlement to this stolen money, fund propaganda that tells the world what a great job their agency is doing, and gradually build a nice, profitable little business empire for the staff in charge, who make out like bandits — earning far beyond what they could in other jobs, all the while being lauded for their "public service."

Are people outraged? Do they call the police to report this criminal racket? Do they flood the offices of their elected representatives with calls and letters, demanding that this abominable agency be shut down? No, they don't. In fact, quite the opposite occurs: people fall over one another to voice their support for this system, being careful to drown any critiques of its excesses in reassurances that they really do "care" for "the poor" and that they are not "free-market extremists."

The litany of examples of widespread criminality and the widespread support for — or at least acquiescence to — its programs is far too long to do justice to it here. But in this environment, it is hardly surprising that burglars feel few qualms about taking property that does not belong to them. The reason for their sentiment is probably very similar to the reason that the vast majority of people in our society feel entitled to the property of others: we live in a society of criminals.

But how could this be right? Don't most people comply with the law? Don't they fill in their tax returns and their driver's license applications like good little "law-abiding" citizens? Don't they comply with labor regulations, environmental regulations, tax rules, and all the other things that their elected representatives tell them to do?

Well, yes — to the extent that it is possible to comply with this enormous and often vague or contradictory litany of rules, most people generally do. But this is not compliance with law; it is compliance with legislation. It is merely compliance with the edicts of the powers that be.

In fact, the only rules of conduct that can properly be called "laws" are the rules of natural law— those objective rules of conduct that are necessitated as morally proper by the nature of man.1 These rules consist essentially of the nonaggression principle and the rules of homesteading and trade of property that underlie the libertarian theory of justice. In his discussion of natural law, the great legal theorist Lysander Spooner set out the conditions of this law:

These conditions are simply these: viz., first, that each man shall do, towards every other, all that justice requires him to do; as, for example, that he shall pay his debts, that he shall return borrowed or stolen property to its owner, and that he shall make reparation for any injury he may have done to the person or property of another. The second condition is, that each man shall abstain from doing to another, anything which justice forbids him to do; as, for example, that he shall abstain from committing theft, robbery, arson, murder, or any other crime against the person or property of another.2


How then, do people fare when assessed in their conduct against this law — against the law? They do not do well. In fact, when assessed in this manner, the vast majority of people are supportive of criminal acts.

People are often surprised by the mentality of "common criminals" (i.e., criminals of the recognized-as-criminals variety) because they think that these criminals' sense of entitlement for the unearned and disregard for the rights of others is a relatively scarce defect. But it is not. In fact, the vast majority of members of the public feel perfectly entitled to the property of others. They demand that the property of others be taken away through the tax system and other "public policies," or forcibly interfered with through "regulation" as a matter of routine.

Even if they are not net beneficiaries in this system, even if they fork out much more in taxes than they ever get back from the racket, they are nonetheless likely to support many "public policies" that amount, in practice, to burglary or to other trespasses against person and property.

And how do they see those people who disagree with this entitlement mentality, who disagree with this lust for coercion and this mass criminality? Well those people are just downright uncharitable! They have no social conscience! They are dangerous ideologues and impractical extremists!

Heaven forbid that they should ever exert more than a marginal influence on "public policy." Sure, such extremists may have a point here or there about certain excesses of the welfare state. They might get us to reign in some of the problems when the politicians and bureaucrats get really out of hand, but most of the time they just go too far! No taxes? No regulations? Inviolable property rights? Why, that is madness!

But in fact, it is not madness at all. For the only difference between the recognized-as-a-criminal burglar and the not-recognized-as-a-criminal member of the public is that the burglar does his own dirty work. He does not obtain his television sets, stereos and jewelry through that form of theft called "public policy." Instead of recruiting his local politicians and bureaucrats to steal your property for his own use, he saves them the trouble and goes and gets it himself.

In doing so, he is not able to fall back on rationalizations for his crimes on the grounds of democratic process, political mandates, and other statist notions. He may of course have his own rationalizations, but they are far more half-hearted than the zealous lust for the unearned that is exhibited in the political realm by lobbyists, politicians, and statist media commentators. In any case, it is hardly surprising that he feels entitled to take property that does not belong to him. This is the least of his differences with ordinary, "law-abiding" members of society.

The most common rationalization for those crimes committed under "public policies" is the notion that these policies are the "will of the people" expressed through their elected representatives. But even if some aggregated expression of will could indeed be established by this process — and this is extremely dubious — there can be no such thing as the capacity of a group of people to change the content of law or vote away the rights of people. Here we can again turn to Spooner, who notes that

if justice be a natural principle, then it is necessarily an immutable one; and can no more be changed — by any power inferior to that which established it — than can the law of gravitation, the laws of light, the principles of mathematics, or any other natural law or principle whatever; and all attempts or assumptions, on the part of any man or body of men — whether calling themselves governments, or by any other name — to set up their own commands, wills, pleasure, or discretion, in the place of justice, as a rule of conduct for any human being, are as much an absurdity, an usurpation, and a tyranny, as would be their attempts to set up their own commands, wills, pleasure, or discretion, in the place of any and all the physical, mental, and moral laws of the universe.3


What then do I mean when I say that we live in a society of criminals? I mean simply that the vast majority of people in our society are supportive of criminal acts committed against others. These so-called law-abiding citizens support robbery, assault, trespass, and sometimes even murder when these crimes are disguised in the respectable cloak of "public policy." The scorn with which they view common criminals is truly laughable when one examines the mass criminality that they do support.

Of course, this is not to say that all members of the public are the moral equivalents of burglars and other criminals. Their moral culpability may be diminished to some degree because they are bamboozled by statist propaganda, which encourages them to see themselves as entitled to "a say" in how others use their property.

There may indeed be some members of the public who have not realized the connection between coercion and "public policy" and who are completely unaware that there are any parallels between these policies and the actions of "common criminals." If this is an honest error, then it is an error of knowledge, not morality. However, it can scarcely be said that this error of knowledge is widespread — in most cases, members of the public are well aware of the coercive nature of the policies they support. Moreover, it is no caveat to their wrongdoing that they did not go out and take the loot themselves as would a common criminal — that it was merely "given" to them by their benevolent political masters. For it is this very bulk of members of the public who support the "redistribution" that is occurring.4

The attitude of the public toward the "common criminal" begs an obvious question. What possible reason do you have to complain of the actions of these criminals when you support or even advocate criminal actions on so much larger a scale?

There is a lesson in all of this for libertarians. If we are to successfully present our views to a large audience, we must learn from the fact that ordinary people routinely support robbery and other crimes committed by the state, but stand aghast when they observe the same crimes being committed by "common criminals" (who are actually the more uncommon kind). Advocates for a society of law must endeavor to draw attention to the contradiction inherent in this attitude.

We must draw attention to the parallels between the "public policies" of the state and the acts of "common criminals." We must learn to present statist policies to the public for what they are — criminality writ large. And we must learn to convince people that their support for these policies is support for crime.

In doing this, it is not enough to talk about free-market this and deregulation that. To do so is to fight the battle on the statists' turf, by presenting the issue as a clash of competing "public policies." But the actual battle, the real issue at the root of the political debates, is not about choosing between this policy or that — it is about choosing between committing crimes and not committing crimes.

In fact, what is called "the free market" is just the absence of socially sanctioned theft, assault, robbery, etc., in the context of the relevant market. What is called "deregulation" is actually just the removal of policies allowing socially sanctioned trespasses against person and property. What is called "decentralization of power" is actually just the breaking down of one big criminal agency into lots of smaller competing criminal agencies, with the goal of ultimately making them small enough and competitive enough (with each other) for us to escape from their clutches altogether.

At root, the libertarian position is very simple and must be communicated in this way. It holds that people should not be allowed to commit crimes against one another. All of the talk about free markets versus market intervention, capitalism versus socialism, regulation versus deregulation, and so on, is just a disguised way of presenting the basic dichotomy between a society of criminals and a society of law. This is the essence of the battle.

A battle between the free market and its antipodes, when presented in the garb of political philosophy, is an esoteric battle. It is a battle that can be perverted and misrepresented. A straightforward battle between criminality and law is easier to understand and far more powerful. Libertarians should not shy away from presenting "policy issues" in terms of their actual meaning — in terms of criminality versus law.

Many have been cowed into avoiding this approach by the idea that this "strong language" will put people off, or make libertarians seem unreasonable. But it is precisely this confrontation with the basic fact — that libertarianism supports a society of law — that is the most powerful weapon for its advocates. There is nothing wrong with telling people that taxation is robbery, that regulation is trespass, that drug laws are assault and robbery, that politicians are criminals, and that the state is a monstrous criminal agency.


[1] A good definition of natural law is put forward by Edwin Patterson, who defines it as

Principles of human conduct that are discoverable by "reason" from the basic inclinations of human nature, and that are absolute, immutable and of universal validity for all times and places. This is the basic conception of scholastic natural law … and most natural law philosophers. (Patterson, E.W. (1953) Jurisprudence: Men and Ideas of the Law. Foundation Press: Brooklyn, p. 333.)


The present author does not see the need to put quotation marks around the word "reason" in this definition, but nevertheless, if reason is itself understood as an objective concept then this definition captures the essence of natural law. The idea of natural law is opposed to the doctrine of legal positivism. The latter doctrine holds that laws are made by human beings and that the validity of laws has no necessary connection to ethics. Interested readers can find extensive discussion of natural law and the deontological basis for libertarian theory in Rothbard, M.N. (1998) The Ethics of Liberty. New York University Press: New York.

[2] Spooner, L. (1992) The Lysander Spooner Reader. Fox and Wilkes: San Franc isco, p. 11.

[3] Ibid., Spooner (1992) p. 16.

[4] In case there is any hint of a suggestion to the contrary, it is worth pointing out that choosing to take money and other property from the government, through whatever criminal redistribution schemes it offers, is not morally wrong, so long as one opposes the coercion that is occurring (and which would occur even if someone else was the beneficiary). Indeed, it is positively beneficial to take all the money that one can from the government, since this is the very criminal agency whose power one should be attempting to diminish.

Non-interventionism, sometimes called neutrality or “isolationism” (more often by its detractors), refers, unsurprisingly, to a government’s deliberate policy of abstaining from interfering in the affairs of other countries. It was the foreign policy of such early American statesmen as George Washington (as seen in his Farewell Address), Thomas Jefferson (as seen in his First Inaugural Address), and John Quincy Adams (as seen in his July 4, 1821, address as Secretary of State) and of later political leaders such as Senators Robert LaFollette and Robert Taft.

Traditional American non-interventionism was combined with advocacy of free international trade and the free movement of people, which is why the term “isolationism” was inappropriate. These policies are consistent because they avoid intervention in the affairs of foreign nations and in the private transactions of international finance and commerce. Today many left and right opponents of abstaining from military intervention nevertheless want the government to limit private global commercial relations. In fact, both proponents of military interventionism and opponents of free global trade and capital flows are the true “isolationists.

Classical liberals also oppose neo-mercantilist policies--that is governmental subsidization of industry through subsidies of the use of armed force to open or guarantee foreign markets. But the classical-liberal descendants of America’s founding generation (libertarians) consistently uphold non-intervention and private global free-market activity. They oppose both economic nationalism and the sort of globalism that entails trade managed by governments or their international organizations, realizing that both approaches require government control over private resources and individual liberty.

Non-interventionism averts the perilous dynamic of its opposite policy, in which government meddling creates crises that in turn rationalize more power and further meddling. For this reason, it has also been called the foreign policy of peace.



Further Reading

Ron Paul, A Foreign Policy of Freedom: "Peace, Commerce and Honest Friendship", Lake Jackson, Foundation for Rational Economics and Education, 2007.

The law of unintended consequences, so widely appreciated in economics, applies no less to a government’s conduct of foreign policy. The law grows out of the fact that highly complex situations cannot be fully grasped by one person or group, especially when human action is involved. Too many unpredictable elements stand ready to upset the expectations of would-be social engineers, the “men of system,” who rarely learn that lesson.

Adam Smith captured this well in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

“The man of system . . . is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. . . . He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon the chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own . . . .”


In foreign affairs, one manifestation of the law of unintended consequences is known as “blowback.” In his book by that title, Chalmers Johnson wrote, “The term ‘blowback,’ which officials of the Central Intelligent Agency first invented for their own internal use, . . . refers to the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people. What the daily press reports as the malign act of ‘terrorists’ or ‘drug lords’ or ‘rogue states’ or ‘illegal arms merchants’ often turn out to be blowback from earlier American operations.”

Blowback occurs when a foreign recipient of U.S. government largess and prestige acts against his former patron’s wishes or directly attacks American interests. Today the headlines are dominated by two such people: Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Osama bin Laden. Hussein was a friendly beneficiary of American assistance in the 1980s, when he was at war with Iran. Bin Laden had the same status when he was helping the Afghans repel the Soviet invaders during the same decade. It is no coincidence that, according to the U.S. government, these are now America’s most fearsome enemies. Blowback can also result from foreign hatred of the United States generated by its numerous interventions into the affairs of other nations. One manifestation of such hatred is terrorist attacks on U.S. targets.

Blowback, while often bringing horrible consequences—witness 9/11—also has its useful side for policymakers. The resulting crises furnish excellent justifications for the government’s acquisition of new powers over its citizens. Consult any newspaper for details.



Anarcho-capitalism is an individualist anarchist political philosophy that advocates the elimination of the state and the elevation of the sovereign individual in a free market. In an anarcho-capitalist society, law enforcement, courts, and all other security services would be provided by voluntarily-funded competitors such as private defense agencies rather than through taxation, and money would be privately and competitively provided in an open market. According to anarcho-capitalists, personal and economic activities would be regulated by the natural laws of the market and through private law rather than through politics. Furthermore, victimless crimes and crimes against the state would not exist.

Anarcho-capitalists argue for a society based on the voluntary trade of private property and services (including money, consumer goods, land, and capital goods) in order to maximize individual liberty and prosperity. However, they also recognize charity and communal arrangements as part of the same voluntary ethic. Though anarcho-capitalists are known for asserting a right to private (individualized or joint non-public) property, some propose that non-state public/community property can also exist in an anarcho-capitalist society. For them, what is important is that it is acquired and transferred without help or hindrance from the compulsory state. Anarcho-capitalist libertarians believe that the only just, and/or most economically-beneficial, way to acquire property is through voluntary trade, gift, or labor-based original appropriation, rather than through aggression or fraud.

Anarcho-capitalists see free-market capitalism as the basis for a free and prosperous society. Murray Rothbard said that the difference between free-market capitalism and "state capitalism" is the difference between "peaceful, voluntary exchange" and a collusive partnership between business and government that uses coercion to subvert the free market.

"Capitalism," as anarcho-capitalists employ the term, is not to be confused with state monopoly capitalism, crony capitalism, corporatism, or contemporary mixed economies, wherein natural market incentives and disincentives are skewed by state intervention. So they reject the state, based on the belief that states are aggressive entities which steal property (through taxation and expropriation), initiate aggression, are a compulsory monopoly on the use of force, use their coercive powers to benefit some businesses and individuals at the expense of others, create monopolies, restrict trade, and restrict personal freedoms via drug laws, compulsory education, conscription, laws on food and morality, and the like. The embrace of unfettered capitalism leads to considerable tension between anarcho-capitalists and many social anarchists that view capitalism and its market as just another authority. Anti-capitalist anarchists generally consider anarcho-capitalism a contradictio in terminis.



In this anti-fascist film produced by US Military in the wake of WWII, the producers deconstructs the politically motivated social engineering of Germany by the Nazi regime. Its argument is just as timely and relevant today.