Illustration by Matthew Drake
This article is adapted from a presentation given at FEE and SFL seminars. Co-authored with James Walpole for The Freeman.
We all want to live free, but we have a problem: governments don’t always want us to.
From seemingly mundane rules (like banning raw milk sales) to the truly horrific (like taking your house from you or throwing you in jail), the state is probably going to mess with you at some point in your life. It will throw taxes and fees and fines and rules at you and erect roadblocks and regulations inhibiting your progress — especially if you’re trying to do something new and innovative.
What can you do?
You do have options. Grave as the stakes may sometimes be, you must first accept this outlook: it’s all a game. If you treat it that way, you’re more likely to find a way forward rather than simply cowering in fear or trembling with anger.
Here, then, are four options when you’re faced with the game of government interference.
1. Play the Game
This is the strategy you’re probably most familiar with. It’s what we’re all encouraged to do. Whether through voting, lobbying, or holding office, you can try to take on the state while playing by its rules. You can try to change it from the inside. This is a strategy we cannot recommend.
In business, this strategy leads to the phenomenon economists call “regulatory capture.” Many companies become involved in lobbying and political action to prevent hostile regulations. It’s understandable. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on campaign donations and dinners trying to sway politicians and regulators to delay a vote, join coalitions, or carve out exceptions.
It’s a tough, slow process, one that involves endless compromise of principle and decency, and the few who succeed end up with political power and the ability to gain more. They end up using that power not just to expand their own freedom but to crush the freedom of competitors.
But any changes you make will be temporary. Laws passed in one decade are easily repealed in the next, especially if they limit state power. The bigger loss is a personal one. If you play the game long enough, the game ends up playing you. You become a part of the power structure you were trying to fight.
2. Defy the Game
When the state crushes your dreams, you can fight back. History is full of people who stopped taking oppression for granted and started resisting. Look at the civil rights movement in the United States, the Hungarian revolt against Communist rule, or even Uber’s commercial rebellion.
Today, the ridesharing company is operating illegally in dozens of cities, and it’s already paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines for its drivers who are caught violating local laws. The company is growing fast enough to absorb the damage, and while governments don’t like Uber, customers love it. In Uber-hostile cities like New York, riders are standing up for their favorite way to get around. The “rebellion” has been a huge success.
But rebellion plays out in more desperate ways in the rest of the political world. For people and companies without the money and reputation of Uber, successfully defying the game is hard. While you can get tremendous satisfaction from sticking it to the man, you might end up in jail. You might be killed. In other words, playing this way means you might run into the real power of the state in its rawest form.
3. Change the Game
Changing the game is about recognizing the incentive structures and putting external pressure on the government to bend. Often, all you need to do to win is to hold the state to its own rules.
But it’s not as easy as it sounds, and the people who try to change the game in this way have to be heroic, if not martyrs. They’re taking the longest route. Game-changers lower the cost of information to the public while raising the cost for government to break its own rules or be thuggish. This group includes lawyers, journalists, public intellectuals, and everyday citizens.
Look at the case of occupational licensing. Municipal and state governments throughout the United States require entrepreneurs to give up money and time to comply with regulations. Many would-be entrepreneurs are stopped dead in their tracks by competition-killing regulations.
Before the Institute for Justice (IJ) challenged the regulation, eyebrow threaders in Texas were required to train for 750 hours before they could set up shop. Before another IJ case in 2011, Texas required bakers wanting to sell cookies to the public to rent commercial kitchen space and obtain food-handling permits.
Changing the game isn’t limited to the courtroom. Governments will break their own rules if they can get away with it. Both IJ cases included concerted efforts to raise public awareness about the unfair consequences of the regulations while simultaneously challenging them in court. These efforts raised the stakes for any judge who wanted to rule for the status quo. It also resulted in politicians jockeying to change the law before the court case was even settled so that they could take credit and benefit from the positive PR. Think about the state lawmakers who jumped at the chance to restrict eminent domain after theKelo outrage.
This is one of the biggest pros of changing the game: if you’re successful, you’ve kept your own integrity, and you’ve helped to protect others from the dream crushers in government.
The problem is that you may not win. You can spend years of your life fighting the battle to change the game and lose — plenty of people have, from the Dred Scott case to the Kelo decision. Even if you do win, the victory is too often short-lived: as soon as public awareness and scrutiny abate, courts will “reinterpret” hard-fought constitutional changes put in place to restrict government.
4. Ignore the Game
Entrepreneurs in the last decade have made international-trade and immigration restrictions less and less important. Today, anyone can telecommute to work in the United States from a call center in India, an Internet cafe in Bangladesh, or a personal laptop in Mexico. These innovations allow labor to move freely, and the inventors never needed to lobby politicians.
You can quit, exit, and opt out of the games government uses to stop you. You can move. You can pull your kids out of school. You can alter your business plan. You can quietly sidestep the obstacles placed before you.
There are major benefits to ignoring the game. For one thing, you don’t have to think about politics. Psychologists and philosophers have long told us to not worry about things not under our control. By ignoring the game, you can be politically ignorant and much happier. You don’t have to fight court battles or Internet comment threads. You can focus on creating, not protesting.
Ignoring the game isn’t always as satisfying as defying it, but ignoring the game offers an immediate sense of personal freedom. It allows you to create a freer life for yourself while providing an example that others can learn from. Over time, if enough people ignore the game, it begins to wane in importance and power.
How Will You Respond?
If your goal is to live free, first understand the game and know the rules. The way you respond to the game is then up to you. The strategy you choose will have more influence over your quality of life than any near-term victory or defeat will.
You may respond to the government in many different ways throughout your life, but if you treat it like a game, it will be less likely to ruin you.