Friday, November 4, 2011

The Martial Arts: A Free Market At Work

Many libertarians are quick to point out- and rightfully so- that the market for goods and services in the United States is hardly free: Businesses are regulated, success is taxed, and failure is sometimes subsidized.

However, there is one often-overlooked example of a genuinely free market in the United States: Martial arts instruction.

Neither the federal government nor any state in this country licenses martial arts instructors (New Jersey tried, and failed, to institute licensing about 15 years ago). Safety equipment mandates and safe practice standards are non-existant. Martial artists are not required to carry any kind of insurance (indeed, for a period of time while I trained in martial arts, I didn't even have health insurance).

Most states have no regulations for martial arts competitions (with the exception of New York, which has banned mixed martial arts competitions). No mandated safety practices, no gambling restrictions, nothing of the sort.

Martial artists are not required to "register themselves as deadly weapons" (contrary to stories you may have heard). A few states regulate a few martial arts weapons (such as New York's ban on "chuka sticks" and throwing stars), but martial arts weapons are largely unregulated nationwide. And not a single state has created a special class of crime or a sentence enhancement for the commission of assaults by "extra-deadly" martial artists.

Quality standards for martial arts programs, to ensure uniformity and thoroughness of training, don't exist.

The result of this lack of government intrusion? Martial arts programs are safe. In fact, martial arts competitions (even "gruesome" mixed martial arts matches) have been proven to be substantially safer than common boxing matches (which are often heavily regulated).

There is no social problem with people carrying martial arts weapons and committing crimes with them, or "rogue" martial artists assaulting people at will. In fact, I would wager that martial artists, as a group, are among the most law-abiding people in this country.

The prospective student has a variety of choices in martial arts programs- combat-oriented; wellness-oriented; geared for children, families, or senior citizens; sport-based; some programs offer "pure" training handed down over the course of centuries, while others pride themselves on being "modern", and offer a blend of different martial disciplines.

We have martial arts associations, membership in which is voluntary. These associations host tournaments, promulgate training, promotional, and safety standards, standards of conduct for students and instructors, and on rare occasions, discipline or expel members for misconduct. Some organizations offer marketing assistance for schools and various types of private liability and injury insurance.

Are there some downsides to this free market? Of course. There are some fraudulent martial arts instructors, who lie about their credentials. Some schools are, frankly, crap. There are a few genuinely unsafe schools. How does one distinguish these from legitimate, high-quality schools and instructors? Trial and error.

One peculiarity of the martial arts as a market in the United States: While libertarian thinkers will often cite the "profit motive" as sufficient regulation of a marketplace, one will often find that the word "profit" is a dirty word in the martial arts. Though it's true that some instructors make their living by operating martial arts schools (and a few become relatively wealthy, and I don't begrudge them their monetary success), the best instructors are usually those who make no profit from the operation of their schools- the ones who do it "for love, not money". In this sense, the martial arts are somewhat similar to organized religions.

Now compare the situation in Japan: Martial arts instructors are regulated, so it's difficult to make a business of teaching; cultural preservation laws have relegated most "koryu", or classical schools, to obscurity; "quality" standards have yielded little choice in martial arts training, beyond generic judo and kendo (which are state-sanctioned and subsidized); and "safety" standards have dulled down the efficiency of martial arts for combat preparation.

It's no surprise that old Japanese masters sought to bring the martial arts to the United States after World War II; those wise men saw what was coming- "safety", "cultural preservation", etc.- and saw the need to teach in relative freedom.

We martial artists regulate ourselves, take our own risks, succeed or fail on our own merits, and we do it without government. And that's just how we like it.

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