The Politics of Destruction

In his latest article, Robert Vroman has defended his original praise for the Jim Bell system, or “assassination politics” (AP). Briefly, the system works like this: People place encrypted “guesses” on the date of a certain person’s death. If and when the person dies, the accumulated funds for this person will be evenly divided among all those who correctly predicted the date beforehand, and will be disbursed to them in the form of untraceable digital cash. Because this decentralized mechanism cleverly allows millions of disgruntled citizens to funnel anonymous donations to the person who correctly “guesses” a politician’s date of death, Vroman and other anarchists have seized upon Bell’s idea as a practical way to destroy the State within our lifetimes.

In my last article, I argued that AP could not work as advertised. To the extent that its infrastructure were truly invulnerable to government counterattacks, then for that very reason would-be assassins could not verify that the AP bounties were in fact paid after a successful hit. Further, I argued that even if AP worked in the way Vroman believes, it would not eliminate government. The government would take appropriate countermeasures, and during the ensuing chaos would assume unprecedented powers. (If the 9/11 attacks scared the American people into accepting troops in airports, imagine the draconian measures they would clamor for after the assassination of, say, a dozen senators.) I concluded by pointing out that a free society requires not only the absence of government, but also the widespread respect for property rights. A libertarian society could not possibly develop in a world where anyone hated by the masses – not only politicians but also movie stars and CEOs – would be quickly eliminated.

I stand behind these objections, and will not add to them in this article. Instead I’ll focus on Vroman’s responses to these arguments, and point out the several places in which he contradicts himself.

* * *

Vroman first addresses Adam Young’s observations on the bad reputation anarchists have historically achieved through the use of terrorism:

With no anarchists predominantly involved in any of the core functions of AP, or visibly supporting it, I don’t see why Young thinks that the State will blame anarchists for the rise of AP. In fact, if my predictions are correct, the assassins will primarily be the existing criminal class. If the State picks any scapegoats, it will be black militancy, or drug users, or the militia movement, etc., i.e. the people who are actually attacking them. The government did not condemn anarchists for the WTC, they blamed Islamic fundamentalists. An-caps aren’t being rounded up in detention camps, Arabs are….Anarchists will have as much to do with AP as they did with the WTC. The people who are going to suffer the brunt of the State’s reaction are the actual instigators of violence, and if I read my audience correctly, that will not be any of you. Do you particularly care (aside from general aversion to Statist crusades) if the State launches a crusade against crack heads and professional killers?

I think this quotation beautifully illustrates Vroman’s gross misunderstanding of State power. First, note that Vroman thinks the people who will suffer from the federal government’s response to 9/11 are the “actual instigators of violence.” I don’t think the Afghan civilians killed by U.S. bombs instigated the WTC. I don’t the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were directly involved in the WTC. And I don’t think the American citizens, who have lost a great deal of their liberty since 9/11, were the actual instigators of violence.

Second, Vroman’s assertion that “we’re” not in danger, only those wacky Arabs, I frankly find shocking. I expect this sort of reassurance from National Review conservatives, not from someone who supposedly understands how the government has grown into its present size. In any event, once it is American citizens who start assassinating political leaders, you can bet that being white will not be enough to guarantee your freedom.

Finally, in response to Vroman’s rhetorical question, yes, I am totally opposed to a State crusade against crackheads. I thought all libertarians considered the Drug War to be one of the worst features of our society, but apparently it doesn’t bother Vroman.

Of course, this is being unfair to Vroman. He surely understands the harm that the Drug War has caused, not only to those jailed, but also to the truly innocent third parties, victimized by rampant gang warfare and eroded liberties. If the public will tolerate the excesses of drug prohibition in order to save potential addicts from themselves, imagine what the public will tolerate in order to save their beloved leaders from being murdered.

Before moving on, let me make one more comment concerning the Drug War: Does Vroman believe that in the interim period, after AP has been introduced but before we have reached anarchy, the government (in conjunction with conservative civilians) could fight drug dealers more effectively by using AP? In other words, could the drug trade be shut down with AP the way that the State apparatus could be? I imagine Vroman would say no, that there will always be people willing to deal drugs (and earn millions) despite the rising probability of death. I would agree with this, and would only add that a fortiori there will always be people willing to assume control of the State, no matter how hazardous such an occupation becomes.

Returning to Vroman: After conceding that things could get quite ugly after the introduction of AP, he goes on to say:

At some point things are going to get uncomfortable for non-statists whether it’s Ashcroft Inc.’s regular scheduled programming, or an AP frenzy whipped totalitarian drive. I plan to be an ex-pat at that time in either case. We can always come back in the aftermath, and start the equivalent of Awdal Road Companies in the former US of A.

At least he’s being honest. Vroman admits that the way his plan “works” is to destroy our current society, and hope to build something better in its ashes.

* * *

We now move on to the technical objections. Recall that I had pointed out that, if the government truly couldn’t figure out who was paid after a successful assassination, then those participating in the AP system couldn’t, either. In particular, would-be assassins wouldn’t be assured payment of the bounties posted online next to their target, and they wouldn’t be able to track down the anonymous administrators if they got cheated.

Vroman responds to this by citing the success of online gambling. After all, users of such services can’t be sure that the digital slot machines are “fair.” But this misses the point: I agree that those placing bets on AP won’t care who gets the money; so long as their target is taken out, these “customers” will be satisfied. The problem arises on the assassin’s end. Before someone throws away life as he knows it by taking out a major politician, he will want to be assured of payment. The fact that previous contracts, worth perhaps thousands of dollars, were paid in full is irrelevant. The real problem will be, will the administrators pay out a multimillion or multibillion dollar jackpot?

I think there is truly no way around this problem. Again, it’s not as if the would-be assassin can ask his buddies, “Hey, do you know anyone who killed a major political figure and didn’t get paid?” The whole point of AP is its anonymity. A cheated killer is certainly not going to complain about his treatment; he will be on a plane to South America, in preparation for spending the rest of his life in secrecy.

Considerations such as these led me to say that AP will at best take out mid-level bureaucrats, and not the true heads of State. To this Vroman replies:

[I]f that were true, is it really such a crucial flaw? If AP bettors come to realize that the tiptop of the pyramid can find impenetrable missile silos to hide in, then it’s no longer cost effective to chase them with ever higher donations….If the State is denuded of its agents and means of interaction, then it is just as harmless as if it had been chopped up directly.

Now here, Vroman has completely reversed himself. In his original article, he pooh-poohed the critics of AP who might be concerned about killing vast numbers of State underlings. Vroman assured us that it wouldn’t be profitable to kill such lowly peons, and argued that the beauty of AP (in contrast to conventional revolutionary warfare) is that it takes the battle straight to the rulers. As it turns out, apparently, Vroman is not so confident after all in this prediction; maybe it will take the murder of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of State personnel before the head honchos give up. But that’s okay, we can all move to another country and wait it out.

Vroman’s failure to seriously consider the State’s response to AP is evident when, after the above concession, he returns to his original vision of taking out the ringleaders. He claims that terrorist groups could mount a concerted attack to take out multiple targets, and receive billions in AP funds. But he has neglected the point I made in my original article, that in a possibly suicidal raid such as this, the State will surely know who is responsible for it; you can’t take out an underground government bunker without some of your people dying, or without someone tipping off government investigators after the fact. In that case, the U.S. would then track down and punish anyone even remotely related to the attackers. AP does not provide much incentive on the margin to this type of military attack.

* * *

We now move on to the objection that AP would “get out of hand.” That is, if AP overcame all of the difficulties raised above, and managed to make government unworkable, then what’s to prevent it from making private property similarly untenable? If AP allows disgruntled citizens to kill off enough politicians to eliminate the State, why wouldn’t AP allow disgruntled union workers or competitors kill off enough businessmen to eliminate the market economy? Vroman assures us that this won’t happen:

If the AP betting population suddenly gained an all-consuming desire to destroy capitalism, it would take a far greater monetary investment against businessmen than politicians, to reach that tipping point where targets are scared away from their positions.

Notice the rhetorical trick that Vroman has used, and how it contradicts his earlier arguments. Back when he explained that an-caps wouldn’t be blamed for AP, Vroman pointed out that AP bettors will eliminate the State not because they are anarchists, but because any given politician will have a large group of enemies. But when we turn to the private sphere, all of a sudden Vroman feels that it would take “an all-consuming desire to destroy capitalism” before the market could be seriously hampered.

Let me say that I do agree with Vroman; I don’t believe an AP system would spell the downfall of corporations, and Vroman’s observations on this are cogent. But by the same token, I am more confident that AP would not spell the downfall of government. It’s true, politicians will always have more enemies than private businessmen. But at the same time, political office offers far greater attractions and much greater security.

I next want to highlight Vroman’s response to the problem of petty murders made possible by AP. I explained in my last article that currently, murder contracts taken out on ordinary people are rare because the assassin and employer would need to know each other, and the police could lean on obvious suspects to give up the killer’s name. Since this isn’t true under AP, I see no reason that petty differences wouldn’t lead to executions. I also pointed out that Jim Bell’s response to the problem of extortion – that is, the problem of someone threatening a rich person with an AP contract unless he pays up – was silly.

In response, Vroman argued that the extortionist would have to communicate with his rich target, and that private detectives could thus discover his identity. I think this is yet another example of Vroman not taking his pet idea seriously enough. If encryption techniques allow an automated AP system to pay anonymous assassins without any chance of discovery, I don’t see how private detectives will be able to track down a suitably clever extortionist. (His threats could be made on the Internet, for example, and he could specify an account for payment in the same way that AP players would get paid.)

Regarding the problem of petty murders, Vroman argues that the small list of suspects could be scrutinized closely, to see whose financial records had a “hole” the same size as the AP bounty. I find this less than reassuring. Personally, I have no idea what the current going rate is for murders of ordinary Joes; but I’ve seen a few “realistic” movies and I don’t think it’s more than a few grand. In the world of AP, where the hitman could conceivably be from a different city and has never even met his employer or victim, the price of a hit would presumably be much lower. So the only way private detectives could find telltale holes in a suspect’s bank account is if AP turns out not to be very effective in facilitating hits. In other words, as in other contexts, Vroman thinks AP will be wonderful when it comes to killing bad guys, but impractical when it comes to killing people whom even he thinks deserve to live.

Before leaving this topic, let me highlight one of Vroman’s thoughts, just to underscore my main contention that a functioning AP system would render the libertarian society impossible. Regarding the husband who takes out an AP contract on his wife, rather than divorcing her and losing half his assets, Vroman says, “Even if [the husband] expertly hid all his transactions with encryption and such, the sheer lack of other suspects may lead an arbitration committee to demand the husband prove his innocence” (bold added). Some of you may have thought Vroman was delivering a free society, in which, among other things, people accused of murder enjoyed a presumption of innocence. Think again.

* * *

Vroman concludes his article by poking fun at my counterproposal of enlightening the masses. Regarding the downfall of the Soviet Empire – which didn’t require a single assassination – Vroman dismisses it as a fraud. It is not surprising that Vroman sees no difference between Stalin-era gulags and bread lines, versus mobbed-up politicians and inflation; after all, at times Vroman seems to fulfill the anarchist strawman by saying his preferred plan would reduce every country to “equivalents of Somalia.”

I still stand by my original claims. Since Vroman admits he has “neither the knowledge nor the will” to implement AP, I think the burden is on him to explain exactly how it would work, in a way that the government couldn’t crush. I certainly concede that encryption and digital cash payments will facilitate traditional assassinations, but agree with Adam Young that such a strategy would only turn the public against us and create sympathy for the State.

We can’t know for sure what would happen in a world of AP – since the technology for it is still science fiction – but I am inclined to think that government will persist, so long as the population clamors for it. And clamor the public surely will, in a world of rampant executions provided by the “free market.”

August 22, 2002

Bob Murphy is a graduate student in New York City. He is a columnist for LewRockwell.com and The Mises Institute, and has a personal website at bobmurphy.net. He is also Senior Editor for anti-state.com