A Porcupine’s Worth Is His Price

Jun 09, 01 | 11:09 pm by John T. Kennedy

"The value or worth of a man is, as of all other things, his price.." - Hobbes

Government is a predator. Those who seek to secure their liberty face the problem of how to avoid being prey. Some look at the leviathan state and despair that they will never have sufficient force at their disposal to defeat such a predator. They need to learn from the porcupine.

The lesson the porcupine teaches is that you don’t have to be strong enough to defeat a predator to avoid being that predator’s lunch. It suffices to be an expensive meal.  Predators tend not to dine on porcupines because a serving of porcupine tends not to be worth the mouthful of quill that it costs.

In Price Theory David Friedman writes:

"… the essential objective in any conflict is neither to defeat your enemy nor to make it impossible for him to defeat you but merely to make it no longer in his interest to do whatever it is that you object to…

Why do nations seek overwhelmingly to resolve disputes peacefully rather than by force? Because war is usually more expensive than it is worth to the party that initiates it.  The reason that Communist China doesn’t take Taiwan by force is not that it cannot do so, but rather because China judges Taiwan will cost more than it is worth to take by force. Taiwan does not need to be anywhere near as powerful as the predator to survive, it just needs to be more expensive than it is worth to the predator.

Those who fought for American independence understood the lesson of the porcupine.  One of the most powerful symbols in the war for independence is seen in the Gadsden flag.

The message of the Gadsden flag is not that we can defeat all predators, but that we will cost them dearly. The colonists did not seek to be more powerful than the British, they sought simply to be too expensive for the British to rule.

Some advocates of anarcho-capitalism think that to achieve liberty from government we need to convince a majority or some critical number of people that anarcho-capitalist society will be better for them than governed society.

The porcupine teaches a different lesson - that men will be free from government whenever they become too expensive to govern.

This is the crucial insight which makes me optimistic about the chances for anarcho-capitalist society. I’m not optimistic about converting masses of people to accept anarcho-capitalism through any sort of rational evangelism. I’m not optimistic about persuading large numbers of people to be more moral or to use better judgment. But I am optimistic that in the long run people can be made too expensive to govern.

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