Did Charles Murray Write the Wrong Book?

Charles Murray, a man I admire immensely, has a new book entitled By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission.  Before you’re two sentences in, there’s the pithy reflection that “we are at the end of the American project as the founders intended it” and that it’s time for a “new incarnation.”

And so I rubbed my hands together in anticipation and settled down at the dining room table in order to have a great read.

But Mr. Murray should have stopped there, because in the two hundred sixty-six pages that follow, he advocates precious little in the way of reincarnation.

Half the book concerns itself with frightening or frightening off bureaucrats with legal defense funds, while in the rest, or most of the rest, of this new work, he advocates civil disobedience of a certain safe type.  Targeted.  Exempting, for example, the government efforts to “protect” the environment while we treat government as an insurable hazard, and struggle to restore the concept of “no harm, no foul” in case law.

But by then it’s impossible to stifle the yawns.

Indeed, this nibbling at the edges of oppressive government is not what founders or re-founders do, because a lumpen-government is organic; it evolves defense mechanisms.  Launch a years-, maybe decades-long effort to emasculate the bureaucracy with legal defense funds, and long before you get there, if you ever get there, and regardless of any question of constitutionality, they’ve got their blocking legislation in place, their minions digging through your files, their printing presses printing oceans of money in order to buy people off.

Targeted civil disobedience is also a joke.  Talk about an uncertain trumpet!  In fact, I don’t know if civil disobedience, targeted or not, ever prevailed over any really determined government anywhere.  In India, as in the rest of their empire, the British were surrendering long before Gandhi was a world cult figure.  In the case of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, the government was on its side.

So what does work?

Personally, I have a lot of faith in an ancient, uniquely American program yet being practiced: running away and joining the Indians.  That is, abandoning the farthest line of civilized townships and government and crossing the mountain divide in order to hook up with the freest people ever put on God’s green earth.  Hunt buffalo with the Sioux, fall in love with a shy winter princess among the Cree, learn war with the Comanche, loyalty from the Oneida.

Or in today’s world, follow your taste for adventure by starting a bank in Brooklyn.

Let me introduce you to a banker named Yi-Pang.  He rented a big house of mine in order to give the monoglot Chinese workers in one of his businesses he owns a long weekend in the country air.  Both of us had to wait for a delivery and so spent an hour chatting.  He had been a banker in the Chinese community for a long time.  He accepts deposits, offers a wire service, mortgages, start-up loans for new businesses, traveler’s checks, and a host of other financial products, including various forms of insurance.  He seemed to be doing quite well.

The subject of changes in federal banking regulations was in the news, and I asked him how they would affect him.

“I don’t know.”  He shook his head, puzzled.  “Because in thirty years in businesses in Brooklyn, I never once had any dealings with the government in Washington or Albany.”

Now let me introduce you to Karl Lundberg.  A cash cattle raiser.  In New York State, there is plenty of abandoned pasture, so what Karl does is approach owners; offer to fence, say, ten acres; put a few beef cows on it; and pay rent with beef.  He has any number of these parcels scattered around the countryside and spends his days haying, moving cattle around in a trailer, maybe carting them to the vet, and eventually sends them one at a time to cattle auctions, where, if the transaction is less than ten thousand dollars, IRS rules say it doesn’t have to be reported.

It’s 1994, and Mario Cuomo is our governor.  I’m watching over at my neighbor’s while Karl and one of his sons slams the gate on his trailer closed on a big cow.  He laughs out loud.  “Now try and tax that, Mario.”

Then there’s Ed Epstein, a man whom one of my sons introduced me to.  He runs a software firm in lower Manhattan.  And while he told me exactly what his business does, I didn’t understand a word.  But I got the fact that it’s very profitable, especially since he’s figured out how to escape paying more than half over to the government in federal, state, and New York City income taxes.  He accomplished this by having a cousin incorporate a business in (I believe) Costa Rica and then having that entity charge him hefty fees for consulting and software development.

“But you can’t bring that money back!  If it hits your checking account in the U.S., you’ll wind up in jail!” I told him.

He shrugged.  “I have a vacation home down there and a MasterCard from a Latvian bank that works right next door at the 14th Street Starbucks.  And I’m using a chunk of that money to pay for a private boarding school for my daughter in England.  She’ll probably go to college there because British private schools happily cash Latvian or Costa Rican checks, and every airline does, too.  And if she really wants to go to school here, I can always drive my income down to zero on paper and qualify for U.S. government financial aid.  Ha, ha, ha.”

Final example – the most popular bar and restaurant in my town doesn’t take checks or credit and debit cards.  Instead, there’s an ATM in the lobby.

All of these people are free to make their own deals and pursue their own dreams.  Or at least a lot freer than you and I, and while the publicized (publicized by the government) estimate of the underground economy is a trillion dollars a year, it may be many times that.  I’m a nobody when it comes to economic analysis, but when I add things up, it looks like four trillion.  An amount equal to the entire economy of Japan!

The IRS used to tell us, and I guess still does, that the U.S. taxation system relies on voluntary compliance.  Well, guess what: fewer and fewer people are complying.  In the examples above, the software engineer alone has any smoke coming out of his chimney that the sheriff can spot.  The rest of them are on the other side of the mountains – completely out of sight.  The effort involved in tracking them down and proving anything about any significant number of them is beyond the resources of any government.

And so the question we should explore, and I wish Mr. Murray would write a book about, is what happens when there are more Indians than settlers.