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Why Foreign Politicians Hate Your Freedom

Mises Daily: Friday, June 13, 2014 by

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Although a majority of Colorado voters successfully forced the state government to legalize the possession and sale of cannabis in 2012, this popular initiative did not of course bind the governments of surrounding states to a similar degree of tolerance.

Instead, surrounding states have been more than happy to have law enforcement officials target travelers from Colorado who pass through these states. Colorado motorists report that in Kansas, for example, they are pulled over on made-up charges and detained until they agree to searches of their vehicles.

In Nebraska, the story is said to be very much the same with reports of searches, extended questioning, detainment, and general harassment of Colorado drivers.

Nebraska government officials have voiced their displeasure with Colorado voters, and have claimed that Colorado taxpayers should pay Nebraska’s state and local governments for the cost of enforcing Nebraska’s anti-cannabis laws. Cheyenne County sheriff John Jenson stated: “They passed a law and didn't give a second thought to how it would impact surrounding states.”

It is, of course, not the job of voters in one state to pass laws that please the governments of neighboring states, but as with all governments, the Nebraska government opposes moves toward greater freedom, no matter how small, not only in their own jurisdiction but in all others as well. The presence of a more-free jurisdiction on the borders of a less-free one can often lead to out-migration and local demands for similar freedoms in the home territory.

Even politicians in non-contiguous states find such developments threatening as made clear by Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey when he railed against cannabis legalization in Colorado and Washington. According to CNN, Christie “frequently warns that expanded laws could lead to a ‘slippery slope’ of legalized marijuana, like recently passed laws on recreational use in Colorado and Washington State.”

The Cannabis case is just one example of politicians fearing the “slippery slope” on which people might get a taste of (slightly) less intrusive government and decide they like it.

When it comes to disparities in freedom between states, few cases illustrate this better than the case of slavery. Naturally, slave states that bordered free states viewed these long-unfortified borders as major threats to the status quo. The slave drivers in turn put their faith in big, centralized government (i.e., the fugitive slave laws) to address the problem and prevent the movement of slaves to free territories.

Even with the fugitive slave laws in place advocates of slavery were strenuously opposed to the addition of free states on their borders. When the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 declared that the residents of Kansas should decide if the state would enter the Union as a free state or a slave state, partisans of both sides flew into action, beginning a guerilla war against slave-holding settlers and free soil settlers, depending on one’s disposition. The stakes were seen to be very high in what became known as “Bleeding Kansas,” as explained by historian Richard White:

Southerners, who regarded Kansas as naturally destined for slavery because of its proximity to the slave state of Missouri, were outraged by Northern efforts to control the territory. A free Kansas on the border of Missouri would, they argued, be too great a temptation for slaves to escape.[1]

Thus, the “slippery slope” of free soil settlement had to be stopped.

What’s true in intra-state disputes within the United States is also true at the international level.

In 2006, when some Mexican politicians suggested a small-scale legalization of some drugs, the mayor of San Diego regarded the suggestion as akin to an act of war: “‘I view this as a hostile action by a longtime ally of the U.S.,’ Sanders said at a City Hall news conference.”

The issue goes well beyond drugs, as well. Whether it’s American efforts to end banking secrecy in Switzerland or Canadian attempts to quash smuggling out of the tiny French territory of St. Pierre and Miquelon, states will go to great lengths to prevent the use of foreign jurisdictions as “safe havens” for what has been deemed illegal activity.

As organizations that claim a monopoly on the means of coercion, states seek to extend and enhance that monopoly whenever possible. True and total monopoly can only be achieved when the state’s jurisdiction includes the entire planet and every human person. The existence of a competing state where policies, laws, and customs may be different could provide an outlet for activities and freedoms that states find undesirable. The next best thing is to work with other states to ensure that variations between states are not so significant or easily accessible as to encourage emigration, brain drain, or a flow of capital to the more-free jurisdiction. Some places, like Switzerland or the American state of Nevada, have historically made concerted efforts to capitalize on differences with surrounding jurisdictions, but even when such differences endure, the less-free state can often count on immigration controls in the more-free jurisdiction to partially solve the problem of emigration.

Just as a single, global monopolistic government would be greatly inimical to the freedoms of its subjects, a large number of small countries would likely be greatly beneficial. As Ralph Raico has noted, an important factor in the development of Europe as a place of relatively-free economies was the large amount of decentralization and the diminutive size of many political jurisdictions:

Although geographical factors played a role, the key to western development is to be found in the fact that, while Europe constituted a single civilization — Latin Christendom — it was at the same time radically decentralized. In contrast to other cultures — especially China, India, and the Islamic world — Europe comprised a system of divided and, hence, competing powers and jurisdictions.

In a region of such widespread political decentralization, and in a time of extremely ineffective or nonexistent immigration controls, merchants, skilled laborers, and others not tied to a specific piece of land could often avoid taxation, regulation, and the rampant mercantilism of some regimes by relocating to areas that were more open to free enterprise. Princes who raised taxes too much or violated the rights of skilled workers and capitalists too enthusiastically, were likely to witness an exodus of their most profitable subjects.

The antidote to this, from the state’s perspective, is to extend the state’s monopoly on power over a larger and larger territory, either by conquest and annexation, as in the case of the United States, or by joining into alliances with neighboring countries as in the case of the European Union. Both provide for a means of destroying localized efforts by small populations to curtail or abolish state powers.

An exceptionally free country in the midst of less-free ones could benefit greatly by attracting talent, capital, and many types of wealth. Certainly, we see this occasionally happen as in the case of Singapore. But when the advantages of following this model appear to be so clear, why does it happen so seldom? The truth is that surrounding states are all too willing to sanction and retaliate against states that are “too free,” thus imposing many costs on the more-free state.

Were it free to do so under US law, the State of Nebraska would surely be happy to impose sanctions against Colorado for its non-conformity. Nebraska may yet get what it wants if it finds a way to do so through the federal courts. When it comes to government agents, the urge to rule does not stop at the border.

Image source: iStockphoto.

Notes

[1] White, Richard. It’s Your Misfortune and None of my Own: A New History of the American West. University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. p. 161.