grarpamp at gmail.com
Thu Aug 5 02:49:16 PDT 2021
The Politics of Destruction
by Bob Murphy robert_p_murphy at yahoo.com
For some time now, I have been aware of a widespread fascination among
many libertarians with Jim Bell's "Assassination Politics" (AP). At my
request, Robert Vroman has defended the merits of AP. In this article,
I will argue that AP is just about the single worst idea that
libertarians could advocate. Despite my misgivings, I thank Vroman for
his article, so that AP sympathizers may be reassured that I am not
attacking a strawman.
Now, before I get going, let me offer a serious note: It's true, as
alluded to by Vroman's snide remark, that I have recently defended the
merits of (qualified) pacifism. I realize that many libertarians find
this stance hilarious and indicative of how much of a coward/wuss I
personally must be. For the purposes of this debate, let me be clear:
I am not at all relying on a pacifist philosophy, but merely the
values held dear to most libertarians. I believe that one of the chief
attractions of AP is that its proponents can sound like realpolitik
tough guys; indeed, I think many people want AP to be practical. But
such hopes must be put aside in a sober discussion over whether AP
will in fact give libertarians the society they desire.
THE JIM BELL SYSTEM
For those readers who have never heard of Jim Bell's proposal, and
because Vroman abstracted from details that Bell himself deemed
essential, let me summarize the original AP vision: (In the following
I draw on Parts 1 and 3 of the Bell article linked above, though I
have taken some liberties in the interest of clarity.)
There would be two groups of people, the predictors and the patrons.
The predictors would submit an untraceable (due to modern technology)
"guess" to the AP administrators. The guess would contain an encrypted
prediction of the exact date of the death of a certain individual.
(The contents of the prediction would be unreadable, not only by the
authorities but even by the AP administrators.) The patrons would send
(untraceable and anonymous) digital cash donations specifying only the
name of a certain individual.
The administrators would hold the donations and publicize the totals
accumulated next to each person's name. Then, after a person on the
list died, if anyone had sent in a correct prediction beforehand, he
could send in the key needed to decrypt his original guess. The
administrators would find that the key worked (i.e. the message would
be unscrambled), and they would at that time see that the predictor
had in fact correctly guessed the date of death of the deceased. The
successful predictor would also specify the public key to be used to
encrypt, as a digital cash payment, all of the accumulated donations
associated with the now-deceased person.
The appeal of AP is obvious: It would ostensibly allow people to pool
their money and finance assassinations of hated political figures. The
use of modern encryption techniques would make such financing
completely anonymous and risk-free. Because even the administrators
would never know the identity of the assassins, there would apparently
be no way for the government to crack down on the system.
* * *
Now, Vroman has defended AP on two major grounds: First, he claims
that it is inevitable; whether we like it or not, AP is coming.
Second, he claims that AP should be cheered by libertarians as the
source of their salvation.
I dispute both claims. Despite the arguments of Bell and Vroman, I
find the AP system completely impractical, and do not think anything
like it will ever operate. (This is not to deny that modern encryption
and e-currency trends will make traditional assassinations easier to
finance. But this will not lead to a mass market in hits placed by the
average consumer, which is the hallmark of AP.)
Moreover, I will argue that if AP could somehow be made to work, then
it would spell the downfall of modern civilization. The libertarian
dream of a free society, where people's property rights are respected,
would be impossible in a world with AP.
WHY AP WON'T WORK
Although the proponents of AP have done a good job defending it from
perhaps the most immediate objections, nonetheless I find the proposal
completely impractical. Now, I am no expert in the possibilities of
anonymous digital cash payments, so I will concede for the sake of
argument that this aspect of the system is as foolproof as Bell and
Vroman believe. Even so, I think there are tremendous flaws that would
prevent a workable AP system from arising.
My most fundamental practical objection is this: To the extent that AP
works as advertised, then no one could possibly use it. That is, if it
really were the case that the AP administrators could collect millions
of dollars in donations, and funnel them to completely anonymous
assassins, then what would prevent the administrators from simply
pocketing the money?
After outlining his system, Bell asserts (in Part 3) that, "Potential
future predictors are satisfied (in a mathematically provable fashion)
that all previous successful predictors were paid their full rewards,
in a manner that can't possibly be traced." But isn't this statement
Suppose someone sends in a prediction, and takes out the target on the
correct date. Then he sends in his claimant message (containing the
key to unlock his encrypted guess), which is simply ignored by the AP
administrators. Instead these unscrupulous organizers, who have
previously flooded their own system with every possible prediction
(and "paid themselves" the nominal fee for submitting each guess), act
in whatever way is necessary to convince the public that they have
paid off the assassin. In such a case, what is the cheated killer
going to go? Complain to the police?
(The reason drug dealers can carry on despite the lack of courts and
police is that purchasers can inspect the product they're buying. And
whatever mechanisms the AP proponent comes up with to solve this
problem – e.g. having a private, underground rating agency to which
assassins can complain – what would prevent governments or other
groups from registering phony complaints to discredit the system?)
It thus seems to me that the AP administrators themselves would need
to be publicly known. Unlike Vroman's idea of a completely automated
system, Bell recognizes this need. In an argument designed to prove
that "ethical" AP organizations (i.e. ones that only target
"deserving" people) would outcompete unethical ones, Bell says:
Since both organizations will accept donations for "deserving"
victims, while only [the unethical one] will accept them for "just
anybody," it is reasonable to conclude that [the latter's] rates…will
be higher for its donations....In addition, [the ethical organization]
will become larger, more credible, believable and trustworthy, and
more potential "guessers"…will "work" its system, and for lower
average potential payments. (Bell Part 6, bold added)
Now, to the extent that an AP system would require name-brand
recognition to attract widespread donations, I think it is clear that
governments could easily kill it in its infancy. It's possible that
smaller systems could continually spring up after each set of
administrators is tortured (much as the court rulings against Napster
won't prevent teenagers from swapping songs), but the ostensible
advantage of AP – the ability of hitmen to receive small contributions
from millions of consumers – will never be realized.
Incidentally, Bell himself admits that the realization of AP would
require martyrdom on the part of the initial administrators. I offer
the following as proof (and to show just how poorly Bell understands
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that EVERYONE would be
identified. The "donors" to the system would remain perfectly
anonymous, and the "guessers" would likewise be perfectly anonymous,
but the organization itself would be made up of real people, who have
published addresses, who have simply decided that they have had enough
of the current system and are going to participate in a PERFECTLY
LEGAL enterprise by the laws of the country, and just DARE the
government to try to stop them....Suddenly, all the politicians would
be put on the spot! Instead of being asked by the reporters for their
position on the economy, pollution, the budget deficit, or some other
thing, they'll ask, "Why should the public NOT want to see you dead?"
(Bell Part 10, CAPS original)
One of the most immediate responses of the government to the rise of
an AP system also proves that Vroman's idea of an automated
administration is unfeasible. Imagine a credible AP system emerges,
and the government can't stamp it out of existence. The first thing
that would happen is high-level officials would disappear from public
sight (perhaps implementing the "shadow government" plans originally
designed to counter nuclear or other attacks on Washington). After
they had done this, how would the public know when a particular
politician actually died? Even if the politicians inside underground
bunkers were still liable to hits from their colleagues, the
government would simply lie about the official time of death. So any
automated AP system would conclude that the "winning" prediction was
in fact a losing one, since the computer would have no way of knowing
the true date.
Simply put, I don't think Vroman or Bell realize just how nutty and
horrible the AP idea seems to the average American. Especially if the
government institutes a standing penalty of, say, a mandatory
twenty-five years for placing an AP donation, I don't think we will
have the millions of small donations that AP requires. The situation
would be a prisoner's dilemma: No individual donation of $10 or even
$100 is going to make the difference between a target being killed or
not, and so there would be no reason for the average person to use AP.
The fact that the donations could be made "safely" is not enough; the
government would surely institute eavesdropping measures and would
punish anyone who even visited AP sites.
As a final note on the impracticality of AP, let me ask, Why hasn't it
happened yet? Bell was discussing the "inevitability" of his system
back in 1996. The technology it requires is supposedly already here.
So why haven't the heads started rolling?
WHY AP, IF IT WORKED, WOULD BE HORRIBLE
So far I have expressed serious doubts about the practicality of the
AP system. But let's grant for the sake of argument that it could
function the way Bell and Vroman believe. I contend that such an
occurrence would be horrible from a libertarian perspective, and would
in fact spell the downfall of Western civilization.
Most obvious, there is nothing in the AP system to restrict its
targets to politicians or others "deserving" death. Think of the power
the AP option would grant to labor unions (or the NAACP for that
matter). Bell claims that his proposal "would make being an abusive
government employee an extremely risky proposition. Chances are good
that nobody above the level of county commissioner would even risk
staying in office" (Bell Part 2). And by the same token, a functioning
AP system would make being a cost-cutting corporate executive an
extremely risky proposition. Chances are good that nobody above the
level of personnel manager would even risk holding his job. At the
slightest inclination of a proposed layoff, the shareholders of the
company in question would be snuffed out. Business would come to a
standstill. To the extent that AP could make coercive government
prohibitively costly, so too would it render the system of private
property obsolete. (And again, whatever countermeasures the AP
advocate proposes to protect private officials, could be used tenfold
by government officials.)
Despite its claims, a functioning AP system wouldn't eliminate
government. There are very few people in the world with the skill to
execute, say, the Prime Minister of England. The "Mafiosos, Hell's
Angels, Islamo-fascists, McVeigh acolytes, etc., plus a virtually
bottomless supply of standard small time thugs and starving junkies,"
whom Vroman views as the vanguards of freedom, would be completely
unable to penetrate the enhanced security surrounding federal
officials in an AP-world, no matter how high the bounties. Rather than
delivering us the heads of the masterminds of the New World Order, AP
at best would pick off the mid-level bureaucrats.
(The proponent may point out the cliché that no one can stop an
assassin who is willing to die. That may be, but if the AP hitman is
killed, then the government will know who he is, and will have no
qualms in arresting his entire family and circle of friends. So we see
that a common claim for AP – that it will allow suicidal assassins to
execute contracts and specify beneficiaries to receive the millions in
bounties – is foolish.)
The response of Bell and Vroman to this objection (that AP won't be
limited to the "bad guys") is typical of the flippancy with which they
propose mass murder. Vroman says,
Fear not, because AP only recognizes the power of the dollar, and
unless someone, somewhere is willing to part with a small fortune in
order to doom the [relatively harmless] government peon, he is
probably just as safe as every other person listed in the phone book.
In the first place, this is little consolation for the "government
peon," since everyone in the phone book is only a point-and-click away
from having a bounty on his head. But more serious, Vroman has here
grossly misled the reader: The entire appeal of AP is that it doesn't
require a "small fortune" from anyone; rather, it requires small
donations from large numbers of disgruntled people. Presumably
hundreds of thousands of people would be willing to pay $10 to see,
say, Eminem or Barry Manilow removed from public service. If Vroman
denies the profitability of these assassinations (or of the rude clerk
at the local DMV), then he should stop claiming the profitability of
hits on government personnel, who will spend millions and even
billions of dollars to defend themselves.
(Keep in mind that the primary reasons a person can't currently take
out a contract on, say, his boss after being fired is that (a) he
wouldn't know where to go to hire a trustworthy hitman and (b) the
police would know who had a likely motive and would probably be able
to discover the identity of the assassin through interrogation. But if
AP worked as advertised, someone could place, say, a $5,000 bounty on
a regular Joe's head, and a completely unrelated assassin – who has
never even met the financier and is thus completely safe – could
fulfill the contract. In the world of AP, people would be dropping
In the same vein, Bell pooh-poohs the fear that his system could get
out of hand. In an apparent demonstration of his intellectual honesty,
Bell tells his reader of an initial worry that he later deemed
I thought, suppose a person used this system as part of a
sophisticated extortion scheme, in which he sends an anonymous message
to some rich character, saying something like "pay me a zillion
dollars anonymously, or I put out a digital contract on you." For a
while, this one had me stumped. Then, I realized that an essential
element in this whole play was missing: If this could be done ONCE, it
could be done a dozen times. And the victim of such an extortion
scheme has no assurance that it won't happen again, even if he pays
off, so ironically he has no motivation to pay off the extortion....If
making the payment can't guarantee to the target that the threat is
removed, he has no reason to make the payment. And if the target has
no reason to make the payment, the extortionist has no reason to make
the threat! (Bell Part 6)
The visionary Bell has apparently not realized that this same game
theoretic reasoning "proves" why rich people are invulnerable to
blackmail and kidnappers.
* * *
Ironically, the real reason AP should be anathema to libertarians is
that its creation would be the best thing to happen to the government.
Look at how much raw power the American people have granted the
federal government since the 9/11 attacks. What Vroman and Bell fail
to realize is that average people will not look kindly upon the
assassinations of the "leaders" for whom they voted in the previous
The alleged virtues of AP would allow the government to do whatever it
wanted. For example, Vroman believes the AP administrators would have
an easier time than drug dealers, since there is no physical evidence.
But by the very same token, it would be much easier to frame people on
false charges of AP activity. The government could lock up anyone at
all, and claim that it had "reliable" evidence of the suspect's
"electronic terrorism." Civil liberties groups would demand to know
what this evidence was, but the government would patiently explain
that to reveal such information would compromise its ability to fight
the clever AP computer whizzes. Anyone who thinks the public would
object is a fool.
(Of course, the government wouldn't even need to lock up political
enemies, and suffer the bother of criminal trials. It could simply
take out a contract within the AP system itself.)
On this point, Vroman says:
But then what if the State, facing imminent destruction, lashes out
blindly and tries to shut down the friggin internet? Or what if they
establish martial law in the scariest uber-polizei-stadt since Adolf
was dancing jigs? These and other Orwellian nightmares are
possibilities. However, one must consider that any path to anarchism
will eventually take us to a point to where the State is cornered and
crazed, and thus this is not the fault of AP.
This is simply not true. Even overlooking the breezy dismissal of
martial law, we see that Vroman completely misunderstands the role of
public opinion in curbing the power of the State. The reason we have
enhanced FBI powers this year, rather than last, is that the American
people had the crap scared out of them by the 9/11 hijackers. And if
AP ever started, the American public would be absolutely scared
shitless and would grant the federal government unprecedented powers.
On the other hand, if we adopt the commonplace and admittedly humdrum
tactic of persuasion, we can effect a bloodless revolution. The Soviet
Union fell without the horrors Vroman claims are inevitable. We can do
the same with the American federal government.
Libertarian anarchists must realize that the absence of a functioning
government is not a sufficient condition for a free society. As
critics are quick to point out, there are "lawless" areas in Colombia
and Somalia that have no effective government. And if we look at human
society before the rise of the State, we certainly do not see an exact
model for the world we desire.
The only way to achieve a truly free society is to convince the vast
majority that property rights must be respected with no exceptions.
That is, people must realize that theft is theft, even when 51%
endorse it. People must come to realize that murder is murder, even
when duly elected "representatives" order it – or when thousands of
people pay for it.
Any honest proponent must admit that even if AP works as advertised,
it will take many years to completely kill off the State. In the
meantime, we will have a generation who sees nothing unusual with
assassinations of famous people – not just politicians but movie
stars, businessmen, models, and anyone else envied or hated by the
masses. Such a society could not possibly believe in the sanctity of
property rights, or take seriously the non-aggression axiom.
I will close with an analysis of Vroman's response to this objection:
If society degenerates to the point that putting a $100 bet on someone
dying tomorrow results in a very real possibility that you will be
right, then this would imply that AP players are so widespread and
killing so unremarkable, that you might as well just whack the person
yourself and save the C-note. At this point AP will fall into disuse
for being an unnecessary middleman in the homicide business, except
for those rare hard to find targets, as was its original purpose.
Therefore, AP has a feedback loop that prevents it from being
practical as a means of facilitating petty murders.
And by the same token, if we were to achieve anarchy by using nuclear
devices to wipe out all the politicians (as well as millions of
innocent people and modern civilization), then the survivors would
find the further use of nuclear devices impractical.
July 11, 2002
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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
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