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Principle versus expediency: how to save the world

Billions of poor people. Wars without end. Torture, disease, genocide, starving children. There are some major problems in the world. The question is, how do we do something about them? We have options. Some people say we need to take control of governments and force the changes rapidly. After all, people are dying now. This post will argue against hasty action.

We have become accustomed in the modern world to doing things fast. We want things now. This trend is reflected as much in activism as with everything else. How will we change everything? Revolution! Slow down. What kind of revolution? A revolution is a major event involving many people. It is impossible to predict the outcome of a revolution, and it is rarely (perhaps never) as the original revolutionaries envisaged. And the kind of revolution that takes place in the street inevitably means violence. Is an uprising, violent or non-violent, the best way to change the world? Let us continue with our options before deciding.

Another effect of wanting immediate results is a focus on elections. We need to field new candidates, ones that will do the right thing. Are there people like that? Look at the hopes of the Tea Party. After the Tea Party got some of its members elected on a small-government ticket, the newly elected voted for all the same big-government legislation as the other Congresspeople, and have even ended up with all the same campaign contributors. It turns out that a few new people could not make radical changes. One does not simply walk into Mordor.

How about putting pressure on existing politicians? That can work. As little hope as I see in the political process, enough letters or enough protesters can force the hands of the elected. But what is the political solution? Remember, government is based on force. Every law passed is an order. If one does not follow the law, one risks arrest and all the violence that it results in. What we want to force on others may not be the best thing for them.

When we consider working through the system of force, we want to use the existing tools to do so. The state system has two basic tools at its disposal: taxation, which could be used to redistribute wealth, and law, which could be used to force people to act right. I am opposed to the idea of using the state on moral grounds. And as I will demonstrate, morality is not only an end; it is a means.

As I write in greater detail elsewhere, a simple but powerful moral rule is the non-aggression principle (NAP). The NAP states that the initiation of force or violence, including the credible threat of violence, against unwilling adults who have not initiated force themselves is immoral. Laws force entire populations. If we could opt out of laws, we would be free, but we cannot. Laws based on the NAP are moral but laws regarding what we wear, eat, drink and smoke, for example, are not, because those things do not harm others. There should be no law regarding victimless pursuits. Taxation means forcing populations to pay for whatever the government decides on. But not everyone in the population has aggressed against another, or is being taxed commensurately to his or her aggression.

Many anarchists believe in the NAP on philosophical grounds. They argue that, whatever is done with the money raised by taxation, whatever someone’s idea of virtue that informs the wording of a law, it is wrong to force peaceful people. More importantly, however, force is a terrible tool for solving problems, and tends to cause far greater ones.

Do taxation and regulation lead to a redistribution of wealth? Yes: from the lower classes to the rich. The basic reason for that is that the lower classes, including the middle classes, have no power over the state. The state has power over them; and in every society, it becomes a vehicle for transferring wealth from the people who are outside it to the powerful people who control it. We have had social welfare policies for decades and poverty still exists. But why are they still poor? Welfare policies actually entrench poverty by making people dependent on the state.

The best cure for poverty is, in fact, a free market. The free market just means free people trading with each other out of mutual benefit, without force. Tearing down the endless regulations and taxes that are designed to benefit the wealthy would give opportunities to everyone else to work as they like. How we could do that by using the state I do not know, because, again, laws benefit the powerful and the powerful control the state. It is impractical to use the state to solve society’s problems.

Could we use laws to force virtue? It depends what is virtuous. I agree with Penn Jillette on this one.

It’s amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral, self-righteous, bullying laziness.

People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered, and if we’re compassionate we’ll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint.

The other question is, can the state actually be reconfigured to work for the greater good? Can it be sustainable if done by force and not spread throughout the population as common values? I am inclined to say no. If people can be led to believe in taking care of each other and taking care of the poor, they will do so voluntarily, as of course many do already. If they cannot, forcing them to do so could lead to a backlash. Look, for example, at the plight of some of the people in the democratic world who are most vulnerable: immigrants. Immigrants are people like everyone else, so surely they should all be permitted the same rights and freedoms. Letting immigrants into the US, Europe and the rest of the rich world meant giving them a chance to help themselves and their sending countries. But anti-immigrant forces first controlled the discourse and then the relevant areas of the state, and 400,000 people were deported from the US in 2011 alone. People escaping horrible conditions in Africa are left to drown in the Mediterranean. I take the sum of these and similar actions and indifference toward them to mean the people are not ready to be forced to take care of everyone else.

The state may be a lost cause, but we are not out of options yet. The problem is that the more viable solutions are long term. They require patience, not quick fixes. I think there are two basic things we could do. The first is to educate people—particularly ourselves—on the issues and how to solve them. We can keep the real issues foremost in the minds of people, so that we are the media and the teachers. That doesn’t just mean Facebook, of course. It could mean street protest and symbolic action to raise awareness. This process is neverending, so it is incumbent on concerned people to educate to the extent that others become the media and the teachers as well. The main downside to this option is that not everyone will be interested. But that just means they have better things to do, and I do not blame them for that.

But not everyone has to join us. The second thing is to organise with like-minded people. That means being leaders, working together, helping each other and doing things ourselves. The revolution does not have to be violent. Look at what Occupy did. They were entirely voluntary, working on consensus, anticapitalism, mutual aid, equality and solving their own problems. They showed everyone that we can have a voluntary society, that we can build a new society, based on compassion and helping each other, out of the shell of the old. It is called prefigurative politics. These values also inform the philosophy of the sovereign community, meaning new communities outside the reach of the state. Voluntary institutions show not only the morality of the NAP, but also that we can solve the world’s problems without force.

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