We need to be forced: human nature and the Leviathan
One of the most influential philosophers of the Anglo-Saxon world was Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes argued from his perspective of human nature that without an all-powerful force, which he called the Leviathan, to rule over us, we would live in a state of nature, which he viewed as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Hobbes provided a pretty frightening view of human nature, but unfortunately for him it has been largely disproven by science in the past few generations. Unfortunately for us, the legacy of the Leviathan is with us to this day.
Here are some facts on which scholars of human nature are pretty sure. First, we are endowed with a sense of reciprocity. In other words, if you do something for me, I feel indebted to you and will do something for you. That is why we have been trading for so many years. Pre-state traders never needed governments to secure contracts because they understood the principle of reciprocity, the fact that everyone would look down on you if you broke a deal, and that you could make lots of money if you kept your word. As Richard Dawkins puts it in Nice Guys Finish First,
Of course there is a great deal of cooperation in human society. A city…could never have been built or maintained without huge amounts of cooperation between its inhabitants over centuries. And we do it naturally, of our free will, without having to be forced into it. But is our cooperation to do with our ability to think deeply, rationally and philosophically, or have our brains evolved as advanced social organs, designed to police tit for tat reciprocity, to calculate past favours, balance debts; an organ of social calculation designed to make us feel angry when we feel we’ve been cheated and guilty when we know we are the cheat?
Cooperation beats cheating over time. In fact, eBay is modern proof of this fact: if you keep your word, your reputation is secured; if you cheat someone, don’t expect to make any more deals. We have evolved to trade with each other, and trade is all about sharing benefits. And since most people do keep their word, eBay works out pretty well.
Second, to address another major argument of statists, it is believed that without force, many of the great things we have would never get done. For instance, taking care of people in the hospital. If people were not forced to pay for each other, they would be dying. I do not really understand where these arguments come from. People donate to charities all the time. No taxation would mean we would have that much more to donate.
You see, another feature of our nature is sympathy. Sympathy is natural, not only in humans but in most mammals and birds, in fact. It stems from the parental instinct to take care of people who are weaker and needier. And the further our awareness of others extends, from our children to our family to our community to our nation and, for more and more people nowadays, to all humans, the more strongly we believe we should give. That is why every society and religion considers helping and sacrificing for others a virtue. It is why you give up your seat to old, crippled or pregnant people on the bus. Taking care of others is known to lead to happiness, calmness and in some cases even the alleviation of physical pain. Right now, governments are organised along national lines, which means the people we are forced to pay for are part of our exclusive national group. But charitable giving, the virtuous side of income redistribution, crosses borders, to anyone we feel is deserving. Why? Because of our ability to sympathise. (By the way, foreign aid is nothing like international charitable giving, and is usually far more detrimental than helpful.)
What if I don’t want to pay for the War on Drugs, the War on Cancer, the War on Afghanistan or any of the other big government policies that are working out so well? Well, I could petition the government, I could protest, I could ask really nicely, I could go into politics. All those things are true. But they take a lot of time, and it’s a big fight against insider special interests. And what if there is more than one program or law I don’t like? You eliminate one after a huge national campaign, and then you need to run another to eliminate the next one. Besides, what often happens is that even if a government caves and repeals a law you spend a million dollars and a million days trying to have repealed, they can still introduce some other bill that, on the surface is different but whose substance is the same. And that happens a lot more than I would like to think. Isn’t there a simpler way?
How about I just pay for the things I want to pay for? I’ll give to sick people, at least, to sick people who can’t afford insurance. I’ll give to children who need to educated, at least, to those who can’t afford it. And I bet you will too. Giving feels good. That’s universal. It’s virtuous. Being forced does not make you virtuous, and neither does voting for someone who will force others.
Government cannot force virtue. But even if it could, then surely all the good things would have been done already. Surely poverty would have been eliminated, cancer would have been cured and everyone would be happy. But that’s not the case. Government has not done any of those things. So not only are we being forced to take care of the poor, the poor aren’t even being taken care of! That is the illusion of government.
But there are some jerks out there, right? So if everyone pays “their fair share”, whatever the government decides that is, no one can cheat, right? No one would just get a free ride on roads someone else paid for. In fact, we have people like that already. Anyone who doesn’t pay much tax (including, say, government employees who pay less in taxes than they make in taxpayer dollars) is a free rider that way.
Second, again, you cannot force virtue. Giving to charity makes you virtuous, and when you do that, not only do you feel good but you look better in the eyes of others. Saving the life of a child playing by the railroad tracks doesn’t benefit you personally but doing so would earn you the respect and admiration of your community. So you have an interest in doing it. Selfish people who would let that child die would be shunned by their community as heartless or cruel. Those people lose out big time in life.
Third, back to the free riders, we don’t need everyone to give to cancer research to eliminate cancer. Only enough people who really believe in it need to give. Everyone else can contribute to their causes, and we can solve society’s problems without force.
Because it is assumed that “we are all selfish”, it is inferred that we will all free ride, and nothing would ever get done. Not only do I not know why you would think we simply cannot organise ourselves long enough to agree to build a road, I would like to give an example of when that I think point has been disproven.
I live in Egypt, a country that has just gone through a revolution. During the revolution, the police were off the streets and the government sent thugs around to terrorise the people into accepting the government back into their lives. However, the people organised and defended their neighbourhoods, museums and other buildings, and each other in the face of government coercion. Not only did they defend themselves well, they provided each other with food and water, gaining a feeling of community and comradeship in the process, and as my friend told me, the streets had never been cleaner. Hundreds of local committees sprang up in the wake of the violence, making it obvious that even after decades of repression, the people can put together a civil society in a matter of weeks.
Families of over 70 people who died in the revolution from the Cairo neighbourhood of al-Zawya al-Hamra have said they do not want the police back on their streets. They have had enough of systematic human rights abuses by the organisation that, more than any other, is supposed to be governed by the rule of law. As I walk around post-revolutionary Egypt today, I wonder what the government would be useful for. Entire neighbourhoods are bereft of police (whose roles have been reduced to that of traffic cops) and yet crime is minimal. I wonder why others would want to deny people their freedom and force them to pay for state boondoggles, like the third subway line that has been under construction for the past generation. I think it is wrong of people to try to push their ideology on people who so obviously do not need it.
The example of Egypt should not be surprising, however, to anyone who took part in the abortive uprisings against communism in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and during the Cuban Revolution. While historians busy themselves with the proclamations and deliberations of the politicians, they do not see the people in the streets taking care of each other. Workers in Prague worked for free, and food was distributed. The people in Hungary were without coercive authority for weeks, and no one stole or got drunk. The only violence was against the hated security police. Otherwise, the state was nowhere to be found.
Now consider your community. Consider the hospitals. Imagine all public funding for and government control over hospitals ended. Would the hospitals close immediately? If the patients or the patients’ relatives could not pay for all the services they need, would no one else? Would no one volunteer? Compassionate people—most people—already believe those people should have some care, however they believe is the best way to provide it. They would contribute something.
Self-organisation, or spontaneous order, is a fact of nature, and not just human nature. It characterises everything from the development of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth to language, the internet, the market economy and the Egyptian revolution. Social order will happen with or without a government, as it always has. People make and accept new rules all the time. For instance, children in schools for the deaf who do not yet know sign language create their own in staggeringly short spaces of time. Most people who say we need a political or social hierarchy do not understand this aspect of life. And spontaneous order allocates resources far more efficiently than any kind of hierarchy, planning and centralised national leadership could. Some democrats seem to believe that a few smart, disinterested people should guide the economy and guide our choices. But no one possesses the vast amount of knowledge required to do so. Even the manufacture of a pencil has no one mastermind at the top directing every move. The only way to have freedom and benefit from it is to stop trying to control everything and let things happen naturally.
Rules already exist in every society, regardless of the presence of a government to enforce them its own way, and new rules would arise in the absence of government coercion. That is the way we are. People who disagree tend to think that the end of the leviathan would mean everyone would start killing each other. But why would we break from the rules we have already agreed upon? Would you? Do you know anyone you think would? So who would? With a few exceptions, the same people who are doing it now. And they can kill people because police do not prevent crime but punish it. The threat of punishment is a deterrent, of course, but we have crime nonetheless. The roots of crime are complex, but the reason most of us do not commit violent crimes probably has much to do with rules. The argument sometimes then goes back to the opportunist psychopath who will build a militia to take power…and the anarchist wonders what the difference between that and a government is. At least if the people had their freedom, they could and would defend it.
Not only do we follow rules when others are around, most of us have internalised most rules of our culture to the extent that we follow them when no one is looking, and feel guilty when we transgress them. Many of us are opposed to lying (or at least avoid weaving a web of deception), we risk gossip and shaming, and even fear an omnipresent celestial ruler who doles out punishment for crimes no matter how many humans know about them. Reputation is very important to most humans, because the worse our reputation, the more trouble we have getting what we want in business and other relationships. Trying to fake generosity, sincerity and rule-obedience is problematic, because people notice inconsistencies and facial giveaways.
We are also able to take responsibility for ourselves. Anarchy means both liberty and responsibility. “With power comes responsibility” is paradoxical: power necessarily takes away responsibility. Statists who say they believe in liberty with responsibility seem to believe the government is our collective conscience. Only individuals have consciences. Denying them their liberty, in any form, means denying them the opportunity to take responsibility, and asking someone else (someone who will use violence) to be responsible for us. Give them the right to act on their consciences and they will, in general, act responsibly.
Unfortunately, our conscience is in combat with our sense of obedience to authority. Stanley Milgram demonstrated that about 6 out of 10 people (in his experiment, at least) will follow, to the bitter end, the commands of an authority figure. They might torture and kill, but if they can devolve responsibility to a higher authority and claim to have been obeying orders, people are capable of anything. That is why anarchists want to smash coercive hierarchies, eliminate institutionalised violence where any psychopath can get his or her hands on it and have everyone question authority.
The propensity to establish and obey authority must be resisted. It is not necessary to dominate others. The drive to dominate is partly a result of fear. As the actor playing Thabo Mbeki in Endgame puts it, “We know that you Afrikaners have paid in blood for your country, as we have. We know, too, that it was from your suffering that the system of apartheid was incubated. The need to dominate is often a consequence of survival.” Later, in private, an Afrikaner professor says that the fear was that white people would be punished for all the injustice they had created. Dominance is part of our nature as well. Creating institutions of peacekeeping is still important.
It is worth considering one of the main reasons Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined gives for the thesis of his book is the Leviathan. Violence has declined, he says, because of the existence of a state with a legal monopoly on violence that has disarmed or perhaps just pacified its citizens. I do not disagree with his assessment. It is impossible to say, of course, what the world would have been like if 100 or 200 or 1000 or 5000 years ago people had decided to abolish states, kingdoms and empires. I still think people would have organised to protect themselves and do everything else they wanted. Nonetheless, if we are dealing with the world as it is, there is still no reason to believe we need government for the future. Things are different now.
Some small-scale tribes engage in warfare on far deadlier scales than the industrialised world experiences. As Dr Pinker’s book propounds, we have become more “civilised”. We have complex and diverse societies with rules and leaders and individuals who want to do things for themselves and others and not hurt people. We cooperate with people we do not meet and make friends with people from countries we have never heard of. Trade and cultural exchange have made us far less warlike. Peace, freedom, justice and equality have become selfless aspirations for the whole world. As such, I wonder if Dr Pinker misdiagnoses the problem, believing it is lack of central authority keeping everyone at bay, rather than lack of exposure to complex societies. If the power of the state went away over time, taking its wars, its police states, its expensive health care and poor education systems with it, we would still engage in commerce, give to the needy and organise. In fact, we would do so more than today, as most trade and movement are only hindered by the state.
Here is one more fact about human nature. Humans have an unconscious bias in favour of decisions they have already made, because we believe we are right and we want to be certain of it. As a result, when we vote, we are far more likely to believe we voted for the right person than not, even in the face of evidence that the guy is a crook. It is much easier to continue to believe something than to change one’s mind. That applies to democracy as an idea. Anyone who has learned and discussed with people why democracy is best, anyone who has participated in democracy, will have a hard time accepting a new idea. Just the idea of no longer being forced will take time to understand. But it is worth understanding.