[Note from Nick: This article has also been published here]
The tenets of the Tao Te Ching express the first anarchist or at least proto-anarchist political philosophy, to my knowledge. The Taoist opposition to government springs from a radical non-interventionist philosophy on all three major branches of philosophy. While Taoism rejects the normative, they recognize a sort of logic about the state of the universe, and that forced intervention into affairs of people is bound to cause even worse chaos.
This doctrine is known as Wu-Wei, translated imprecisely as non-action. Putting it very roughly, you do not need to force your will onto the world around you in order for it to yield positive results. There is also a principle of least action involved that many things are better left untouched than touched and then possibly worsened. You cannot know all possible effects of your actions. This doctrine does not urge people to never better things around them, but that such action should come naturally to them, that they should not be compelled whether under force or various social pressures to complete an action that they might otherwise not do.
The common libertarian nowadays is of the same non-interventionist temperament as the Taoists. They endorse individual preference, spontaneity and self-interest. They loathe the State and central planners of all kinds. Most libertarians identify, also, as individualists – both methodologically and ethically. However, much of libertarian culture is hostile to the idea of the slacker, of the non-contributor, of the lazy. Libertarians have very much embraced the protestant work ethic, that work in and of itself is valuable. It’s good to work, it’s good to be disciplined and rigorous. While all libertarians, in line with the non-aggression principle, must support the right to be lazy, most libertarians have taken to looking down upon those who simply don’t do much with their lives.
I think the Taoists got it right, and that while all libertarians do not have to be Taoists (nor much of anything, in reality), I think there is a case that libertarians should support those marginalized as slackers. Take this to be in the spirit of Walter Block’s fabulous book In Defense of the Undefendable.
First, reasons to oppose slackers: Historian Thaddeuss Russell has written a lot in support of slackers and other derelicts of societal duty and in opposition to the work ethic. He shows with a good deal of historical evidence that the real movers and shakers of freedom were narrow-sighted, self-interested individuals who shirked their supposed duties. But one argument even he raises of why many people, including himself, might not want to universally endorse this behavior is because if everyone within society acted in such a manner, things would simply not get done. We owe economic stability to the people who show up to work every day. So the slacker enjoys the privileged status of sitting on his ass playing no part in the system that allows him to be lazy.
There is a long libertarian tradition beginning with the Austrians to recognize the disutility of labor. Labor is in essence what stands away from you and what you really value. Labor is what people subtract to the maximum to maximize their preference. Better to work 4 hours a day for $20 than 8 hours for $25, obviously. Let us say, then, that one only cares to work minimally, to show up late, to do what he pleases with his time. He values sloth and leisure more than a job. The Austrian must concede there is not much reason for this man to alter his course of action. In fact, this man is just demonstrating a preference all individuals have.
Secondly, there is much literature in the libertarian and anarchist canon emphasizing the foolish logic of simply chasing the best possible economic effect without regard to other concerns. Murray Rothbard didn’t think a problem arose simply because someone could show that a libertarian society might be less productive in areas like technology.
I also think it’s important to recognize that the typical work week is a rather recent phenomenon. There is not much reason to believe that work has to be structured in such a rigorous manner, that people should be tied down to careers, that work has to be so damn laborious. It’s no surprise that many take the path of least resistance when we are dealing with an economic system which is obsessed with one way of organizing labor.
Some may object and say that they enjoy the work they perform. I would say then that to the extent that labor is disutility is the extent to which they aren’t really working or laboring. And of course this just isn’t true for much of the work done within an economy. Most work ranges from a dull day at the office to depressing and exploitative. People are controlled at work like they are nowhere else in their lives. Most people that say they enjoy their job have a truly enjoyable job. But what most workers can expect is one that rewards them only with wages, instead of fulfillment of their true desires. The slacker seems to most people like he is cheating the system, but the reality is that they simply don’t care. They can go from job to unemployment to job to unemployment without much concern. In a truly freed market, slackers serve a purpose in regards to better working conditions and bargaining. There are few whose sloth goes to the point that they will never work, but they only work given certain conditions. So while most are happy to be employed at a lower pay, the slacker holds out. And in an economy where the employer is the seeker of the employee, unlike our current state-capitalist market, the employer is specifically targeting those who choose not to work. Refusal of work is a tactic that needs to be recognized more often by libertarians who are interested in labor struggle. The slacker is the truly consistent striker.
Surely much of the libertarian rage at slackers comes from the portrayal of welfare recipients within their communities. However, a brief look at the empirical evidence will show that most people on welfare are actually not the notorious welfare queens, you hear so much about on right-wing talk radio, but people who are truly down on their luck and out of a job. Also, as Kevin Carson pointed out recently at the Center For A Stateless Society, welfare accounts for very little of state plunder, and that those who are on it certainly deserve the money more than those who truly have rigged the economy in their favor – the upper class.
But what about the hard cases, those who really do take as much from the system as they can? To this I say there is sadly no such thing as a total non-contributor to the system, and that what the worst of those who spend much of their lives on unemployment and welfare have been robbed of and put more into the system than is calculable.
Finally, slackers are great agorists. While many libertarians talk a big game about the counter-economy, the slacker lives the true counter-economic life. He takes from the system not only in welfare, but also often taking work which is under the table and therefore untaxed and unregulated. Many slackers are also small-time drug dealers, another class of people libertarians can seem to have a hard time with despite advocating for the end of the drug war. The slacker spends as little as he can to get as much as he wants. Ought this not be the attitude of most market actors? Ought this not be the goal of the agorist?
Libertarians should take the side of the Taoist. There is power in non-action, in simply taking in and enjoying life as it comes to you. While we must not condemn the actions of those who truly do enjoy their work, who are fine with their 9-5 jobs, it is time to shed this phobia of the lazy. It’s human nature to minimize the amount of labor and effort one most put into projects which are not inherently valuable to him. It is time to truly embrace the logic of spontaneous orders and end the shaming of the slacker.