Anarchy: The Civil Discussion, Part 1


It’s really nice to be able to discuss disagreements about political philosophy without being called a liar, lunatic, thief or worse. Longtime BSJ reader Matt Crandall gave me the opportunity to do just that with his post The Anarchist Strawman: We Need Government at his new blog sent-rif -ick-al-fors.

Crandall took a polite, collegial stance and discussed the ideas I raised. Thanks, Matt!

“Humans have an even longer history of violence than do governments”…Sean then makes quite a leap in saying that it’s government that can take the credit for this, and I find that claim to be a bit spurious.  I find it curious that with all of the possible places to attribute this credit, Sean lays it right at the feet of governments throughout history.

Since there are many causal factors in the reduction of violence, I agree it would be a mistake to only credit government. You are correct that education, science, and rising living standards should all get some credit. But I would counter that it’s impossible to divorce these factors from government, which has been pivotal in advancing universal public education, at least in the developed world. It has also invested heavily in basic science research. Applied science has also gotten a big boost from military spending and technological arms races, however you may feel about them. Ideological competition between nation-states has spurred development nearly as much as warfare, as launching communication satellites not only proved technical prowess, but also that a state could just as easily build a nuclear-armed ballistic missile. Finally, putting a man on the moon was so expensive and daunting that it was only done by one nation and–after the initial landings–never repeated. Since the Apollo program was at least 50% political theater, it’s a virtual certainty it never would have happened in the absence of opposing governments.

And we haven’t even discussed the role of the United Nations or its predecessor The League of Nations. Arguably, these two bodies and the ideals behind them provided humanity’s first real alternative to warfare. Seems like the UN doesn’t do a whole lot, right? Imagine a world without a permanent place for nations to talk to each other, or Africa (for example) without peacekeeping troops. However flawed it may be, imagine no UN Human Rights Council. Imagine no International Court of Justice. These are inter-governmental organizations, and as such rely on sovereign governments to operate. As these and many other IGOs came into existence since World War I, violence has dramatically waned. Isn’t that a little too much for coincidence?

It was government that kept some of the greatest scientific discoveries, as well as literary and artistic achievements repressed (and yes, I’m including the Catholic Church as a government here, and I think it’s fair to say that they are a government, not just a religious organization) throughout history.  Just to name a few: the concept of the Earth being round, and not flat; the idea that Earth is not the center of the Galaxy; the art and sculpture of some of the master artists of the last thousand years; medical advances such as stem cell research; the list truly does go on and on.

This is a terribly flawed argument. Separation of church and state required centuries of conflict in Europe. England finally created its own church to avoid the long reach of the Vatican. Then the Anglicans in turn persecuted the Puritans. Removing this potential pitfall of government was considered such an important step that the founders of the US put it in the Constitution. So if you say the Catholic Church was a government, then you have redefined the word as it exists in modern usage, and ignored all of that history. I would certainly agree that we have no need for any kind of theocratic government. In that sense I, too, am an anarchist, as was Thomas Jefferson and every one of his compatriots.

“Humans universally manipulate for power and profit” This is perhaps one of the most classic strawmen against anarchistic philosophy of all time: humanity, as a rule, are motivated by power and profit and therefore need strong leadership (aka the State) to keep them in check.  One of the most fundamental problems with this argument is that governments are made up of humans.

Actually, John Adams articulated that governments are made up of laws, not men. I understand that humans made the laws. But with the framework properly constituted, men and women are bound to follow them. This can operate on a personal as well as political level. For example, If I wanted to prevent myself from taking a particular action with an object, (say, a controlled substance), I could obtain a box, put the substance in the box, lock it and throw the key down a storm drain. This is the function of a Constitution. We have the liberty to vote on changing our laws, but we cannot vote to take away the Bill of Rights even if the majority desired it. In a sense, the addictive controlled-substance of the past was tyranny. With the Constitution, we have locked the tyranny box and thrown away the key.

That doesn’t mean it’s perfect. But it does mean it’s possible. What has happened since 1787 is that powerful interests in American society have evolved ways of thwarting some of the intent of the Constitution. Business has become bigger than ever, and begun to shape the electoral process. Taking advantage of voters’ emotions and heuristics has allowed interest groups to practically purchase elections, and control the political conversation. It is time to re-evaluate and strengthen the Constitution. We need to modernize the two-century-old document with stronger guarantees for minority rights, limits on corporate lobbying and political advertising, prevention of environmental externalities, and bans on deficit spending.

Our laws are our only defense against our worst tendencies.

“It is not possible to "opt out" of society” This is something I’ve described to people as the "false parasite" theory…There are two major problems with this assumption: 1)  If I’m born into a society that restricts my movement in and out of that society, that educates me (forcibly) in that societies educational institutions and prevailing doctrine, that really gives me no choice but to be a part of it (in other words, to live off of it to some degree), it’s then really fallacious to argue that I don’t have the moral right to opt-out of it.

You do have the theoretical moral right to opt out. So long as you don’t use any government services. Now remember if you opt out, that really means “opt out.” You don’t get to go to any public hospital, and police will not help you if you are being attacked. And of course, your kids could not go to public school. You could not use national parks, playgrounds, roads, or other public facilities.

Even if you “opted out” of all of that, you are still being protected from criminals (prison system) and external threats (military) by virtue of living in the society. So you would still have some moral obligation.

If you really wanted to fully “opt out,” you could leave and go to a different country, or make a life for yourself on the high seas.

Think of someone who grew up living in a compound of a religious cult — they fed, watered, educated and raised you from infancy to adulthood — you’ve lived and benefited from their largesse — do you then lose the moral right to cry foul?  Do you lose the moral right to think for yourself, and reject them?

No. I had the right to leave, and I did. At the moment I was no longer benefitting from those services, my moral obligation ended.

…there is no reciprocity between myself and the individuals that make up the government.  If truly someone claims they have the right to arbitrarily decide I ‘owe’ a certain amount for living in a society, what gives me any less of a forcible moral claim?

Because we are a nation of laws, not men. The laws say that we vote in a government to make those policies. We are limited in our ability to change the laws, since it is a republic, not direct democracy. According to my “revised” constitution, deficit spending would be illegal, tying people’s use of services to their willingness to pay taxes. I think under those circumstances, you’d see a lot more user fees, and people would be far less willing to enact high general tax levies. Right now, Americans live a charmed life and get the best of both worlds: deficit spending–service delivery and low taxes.

“Without regulation, humans exploit and destroy common resources.” …what makes the government any better of steward of this property then a private owner?  Because don’t mistake: there is no difference between the government setting aside a piece of land, or a private owner doing so — just because the government has set aside a tract of land as a ‘national park’ doesn’t mean that if there were sufficient reason, they wouldn’t plunder it as readily as people accuse private land owners.

Agreed. The Constitution needs to be revised to reflect environmental concerns, and recognize the value of commonly-owned natural resources (instead of giving them away to corporations who turn around and sell them back to the public). When the document was written, the whole of the country wasn’t even explored let alone settled. The idea of humans consuming all the resources or destroying the enviroment would have been unimaginable in 1787. Policy is the only defense against such environmental plunder.

If humanity at a biological level can evolve beyond where we were thousand and millions of years ago, can not society as well?  Sean is a huge proponent of folks like Ray Kurzweil, who propose that humanity will continue to evolve through technological means, well beyond what might have been the limits of our natural biological evolution.  So I’d ask, why can’t some of the same technological means make a voluntary society a possibility?

I think it’s possible. I think we’d first have to move beyond scarcity. But even then, there would have to be some controls. There would have to be punishment for cheaters and slackers. Someone would have to enforce the rules. In the Singularity, laws might be replaced by protocols that would simply disallow certain functions or behaviors. But like the hackers of today, tomorrow’s criminals would still seek to game the system. It’s evolution as you said. Point, counterpoint, and it never stops.

Comments (3 comments)

Matt Crandall / August 20th, 2009, 6:35 am / #1

Sean —

Thanks for the response, I look forward to responding in kind! I just bought a house and am moving this weekend, so it may be a week or so before I respond, but I definitely will be.

Much appreciated


Moridin / August 26th, 2009, 3:40 pm / #2

"Now remember if you opt out, that really means “opt out.” You don’t get to go to any public hospital, and police will not help you if you are being attacked. And of course, your kids could not go to public school. You could not use national parks, playgrounds, roads, or other public facilities. Even if you “opted out” of all of that, you are still being protected from criminals (prison system) and external threats (military) by virtue of living in the society. So you would still have some moral obligation."

All of those services can be provided by the free market, without the initiation of the use of force or theft, so that argument is clearly invalid.

The point is that if you support the State, you do not just get these good services, but you are also forced to support with money policies such as wars that you do not approve with. Do you support the war in Iraq? If not, why are you paying the government money that goes to funding that war? It isn't because you want public services, because there are free market alternatives to that. It seems that we have exposed the lethal self-contradiction in your political worldview. Why support with money those policies that you reject?

Market anarchy is not against the idea of society, but against the idea of a central coercive monopoly to "solve" social problems, because 1) there are free market solutions and 2) statist solutions are neither rational or moral.

"If you really wanted to fully “opt out,” you could leave and go to a different country, or make a life for yourself on the high seas."

This is clearly an invalid argument. If I go up and down my neighborhood using violence and the threat of violence, demanding that you pay me 30% of your income so that I can spend that money on useful public goods as well as my Mafia activities, is it reasonable for me to claim that "if you don't like it, leave"? Of course not. I have every right to stay in my house and not have my property taken by the initiation of force.

The bottom line here is that you position support the State using the initiation of violence against innocent people in order to fund immoral political policies. Why? Remember that you cannot appeal to services that the free market can provide just as easily and without the initiation of the use of force.

Roy Madron / September 25th, 2009, 7:07 am / #3

May I recommend Josiah Ober's excellent critique of our non-democracies "Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens" .
By 'Democracy' he means the original Athenian model – which was a brilliantly designed complex adaptive system
that had few but ANNUAL elections, and rotated policy-making and agenda-setting responsibilities among ordinary
His main thesis is this:

"Democracies, ancient and modern, have the
potential to do well because rational cooperation
and social flourishing emerge when each of enjoys
an enhanced opportunity to fulfill our human potential.
That potential prominently includes an ability to
innovate and to learn. In a truly democratic
community, among other things we would learn
is that when each shares knowledge with others,
our individual prospects expand as our society changes for the better."

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