As a thought-experiment, I've been trying to imagine how different US history would have been if, at certain alternative times in the past, government had altogether disappeared--if ours had become a truly free society. So let's see how it might have worked out, moving back in time in discrete steps.
In each example below, all government in America is assumed to have just evaporated at the alternative times chosen, because (as I showed here recently in The Fix) nobody would work for it any longer, everyone having been re-educated to understand the nature of government and of freedom. Those factors are always prerequisite; there is no other way to get the job done. They have never been easier to implement than today, thanks to the rapid, inexpensive communications we enjoy, though the task itself in earlier years would have been simpler because less pro-government prejudice had been absorbed by the population than now prevails.
First, 1975. Assume that the last government employee anywhere walked off the job in disgust, when the Vietnam War ended. What next?
Along with government, its whole military machine would have also dissolved, leaving its former personnel free to engage in productive, peaceful work, so the first consequence would have been that those foreign states sheltering under the US umbrella would have been left to stand on their own feet. Prominent would have been Israel. That State would for the first time have been obliged to deal with its neighbors as equals. In order to survive, its government would therefore have quickly salved the running sore of the Palestine problem, and the result of that would have been to defuse the festering anger of Muslims everywhere, and so take away the mainspring of the PLO and all anti-American terrorist groups a-forming. Al Q'eda would never have existed.
But wait, a critic may respond: Al Q'eda began in Afghanistan, after the Soviets invaded in 1979. True enough; but if the US government had ceased to exist after 1975, would the Soviet one have been in a fit state to invade anywhere? I don't think so. US subsidies were quietly passed to Moscow during the whole of the communist era, in one of the darkest aspects of the "Cold War." Evidently, the Feds were simultaneously keeping that alleged enemy from collapsing, while pretending to circumscribe and prepare to fight it. Had such aid not been passed, the Bolsheviks would probably not have outlasted 1921, for communism prohibits free-market pricing, and such pricing is prerequisite for a functioning economy, exactly as von Mises pointed out in 1922. So if the aid plug had been pulled in 1975, residents of the Soviet Empire would have enjoyed the fruits of its dissolution 15 years earlier than they actually did.
So, any Islamicists seeking political power in their own countries would, since 1975, have had to choose some target other than America, on which to demonstrate their prowess. There would have been no attacks on the World Trade Center (in 1993 or 2001) and none on US embassies in Africa (nor any embassies to attack, for that matter) and none on the USS Cole. Consequently, there would have been no Iraq or Afghan wars, no Patriot Act (nor Congress to enact it) nor any of the dramatic, associated loss of freedom we have seen in the present century so far. Fiat money having been replaced by the genuine article, there could have been no housing bubble or the resulting Great Recession. Instead, a free America would for a third of a century have gotten busy building prosperity, and would by now in that respect be towering above all other countries combined.
Then 1935. Assume instead of the above that all US governments had evaporated, by the same method, in the middle of the Great Depression.
After the creative destruction inevitable after the credit expansion of the 1920s, by around 1937 the American economy would have been thriving, the Depression well and truly over a full decade before it actually ended; and that would have helped the rest of the world recover too, by means of greatly increased international trade. Would that have taken away some of the appeal of the European fascist movements? Possibly, but I doubt it. That appeal, at that time, was largely the prospect of territorial gain and restored national pride. However, there would have been a critical effect on Britain; that government would have had to work out its policy towards Germany without assuming that, should war result, America would again come to its rescue.
Therefore, it's my firm opinion that in 1939 Chamberlain would not have been so colossally foolish in March as to lay down his tripwire by underwriting Poland, nor would he have declared war in September when the Germans called what Hitler thought was his bluff. For that matter, the Poles would not have been so stubborn in August as to ignore all appeals to negotiate (they thought Hitler would not dare to trip that wire) but would have made some accommodation regarding Danzig. Thus, while the German government may well have later expanded Eastwards and in particular conquered the Soviet Union (unsupported as above, after 1935, by any American aid) there would have been no World War II as the history books record it; no participation by the UK or France, and none by the US.
Nor, of course, would there have been any Pearl Harbor nor President to finagle it, nor any Pacific War. FDR would just have nursed his disability in Hot Springs and Hyde Park. With a German Empire reaching from the Rhine to Vladivostok, there would have been no communist "dominoes" poised to fall after internal squabbles in Korea or Vietnam, and hence no American involvement there. What, though, of the Jews? My perception is that in this scenario, there would have been no Holocaust. They were shockingly persecuted of course under Nazism, but until 1942 were allowed to emigrate; the "final solution" went into effect only after America entered the war and so they lost their value as a bargaining chip. So I think they would just have been expelled from the Reich, to find a home in Poland (assuming it stayed unmolested), France, Britain or Palestine (by individual migration, notice, not by the creation of a State of Israel) or of course in a free America. The whole source of mid-East conflict would never have arisen, so none of its consequences would have followed.
And once again, American prosperity would have grown so fast, in the 1940s and ever since, as to take us by now to standards of life that I'm unable to imagine.
Now, 1912. Suppose instead of the above that all US governments had imploded just one century ago.
Immediate happy result: no Federal Reserve, and no income tax, both of which arrived in 1913. So money would have remained as gold and silver, with anomalies in the relative market values of those metals being resolved by the market itself, not by government; for there would have been none. Since there would have been no fiat-money expansion in the 1920s, there could have been no Great Depression in the 1930s. And money earned would have been money retained, with no confiscation by governments at any level. The degree of charitable donations ever since would therefore have been much higher, and so the less fortunate in society would have been cared for properly by people who cared, instead of by bureaucrats operating under the fiction of "entitlement."
Next happy result: no money could have been "created" to finance US entry into World War I, even if there had been a government to wangle that entry over the protests of public opinion; and of course there would not have been. So 120,000 American doughboys would have lived a full and peaceful life instead of ending them in France, and WWI would have ended a year or so earlier, all combatants being exhausted and seeing no prospect of a US intervention.
That earlier termination would have brought immense benefit to Europe, for it would have been a real negotiated peace instead of the diktat of Versailles. The Germans, probably, would have done quite well from its terms, for in 1917 the Russians gave up. All German forces could be focused in the West. France and Britain would have seen that victory was impossible, and therefore settled. They could not have imposed "reparations" and German national pride would have been enhanced some, instead of being seriously damaged. Therefore there would have been no soil in which the weeds of Nazism could take root. Therefore there would have been no WWII at all, not even the kind of Eastward expansion in search of lebensraum that was suggested above.
All the benefits noted above would also have followed, and as for American prosperity, complete freedom of enterprise would, as above but for a longer period, have caused it to grow beyond imagination. Consider just a 5% annual growth rate of the economy, in real terms, sustained for 100 years. The result would have made us all 132 times better off.
How about 1850? This mid-19th Century date is critical for America, because two very ugly trends were gathering momentum: governments were scrambling to thrust monopolized, tax-funded schooling down voters' throats, and economic tensions between North and South were becoming acute. So, assume as above that all governments here vanished in that year. What would have followed?
With no government at any level to steal money, Horace Mann's efforts to corral kiddies into Statist indoctrination camps would have come to an abrupt end, with the happy result that the subsequent seven generations of Americans would have been educated as their parents wished, instead of as the government wished. The benefits of that are beyond my ability to calculate. Certainly, American society would have continued to value freedom above all, and to excel in invention and discovery and exploration and trade.
Since there would have been no Northern States to try to forbid Southern ones from seceding, and no Southern ones to secede, nor any operative Constitution to argue about either way, it is not possible that the War to Prevent Secession could have taken place. Accordingly, half a million dead Americans would instead have lived full lives, and the searing hatred between the races would not have been prolonged. Slavery would have vanished with government, for the re-education prerequisite for government to evaporate would have been squarely founded on the axiom of self-ownership, with which the ownership of one person by another cannot be reconciled. In any case, slavery could be sustained only by the force of government (in returning escaped slaves to their "owners") and there would have been no government to exercise that force.
All the benefits listed above would have been ours too, of course; if prosperity had grown at the same, modest rate of 5% a year we would now, after 151 years, be 1,583 times better off. One realistic measure of the appalling cost of government.
Why Not 1775? But for a single word in Thomas Paine's Common Sense ("necessary"), there might have been a freedom revolution in America as early as the end of the colonial era. He had accurately concluded that "even in its best state, government is... evil" and sold half a million copies to a population only six times greater. Clearly, Americans understood and accepted that. Assuming they had also accepted that nothing "evil" can also truly be "necessary" (and so that all the residue of Paine's book was superfluous), what would then have transpired?
I don't think any kind of "revolutionary war" would have taken place. It was defensive, and so morally quite justified, but it succeeded only because it took the form of organized armies and was supplemented by a government army supplied by the King of France. Had Americans simply refused to work for the occupying British, the latter would simply have left. There is no point in having a colony unless it yields revenue, and if His Britannic Majesty had had to send extra "swarms of officers" to administer this one, their cost would have exceeded any possible revenues. All Americans had to do was to quit their government jobs, and that's the assumption being made in the whole of this article. Yes, they'd have returned fire when fired upon, as at Concord and Lexington, but that kind of engagement is not the same as a pitched battle. The British left their other colonies (e.g., India) later on without fighting a war, and for just that reason; the American ones could have set the trend.
In that case, there'd have been no war in 1776, no government extra power grab in 1789, no Alien and Sedition (or any other) Acts, no government intervention on merchant shippers' behalf in 1812 and so no war in that year either, no First or Second Banks of the United States, and of course all the benefits names in the foregoing as well. The free society would instead have prospered and grown in peace, setting an example for the world that would really have justified a Statue of Liberty. And I cannot imagine that at some time in the subsequent 236 years, most of the rest of the world would not have followed that example, to the incalculable benefit of all mankind.
How About Now? It's late in the day; several of the world's governments are now so lethal that they might exterminate the human race (and others) before they can be peacefully abolished. We have, therefore, a race against time. The means exist; it remains only to participate.