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The alternative to the state, part 3: mutual aid

July 24, 2012 12 comments

“Anarchism is stateless socialism.” – Mikhail Bakunin

Naturalist and anarchist Pyotr (Peter) Kropotkin wrote Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution (available here) in 1902 in response to claims that natural selection and “survival of the fittest” meant the struggle of all against all. The historians, he explained, taught us of wars, cruelty and oppression, and the state, glad to find an excuse, explained to us that those things would be the norm if not for an intervening authority. (Hobbes’ “state of nature” being an unfortunately-well-known example of why we think this way.)

His book describes a different point of view: mutual aid among humans and other animals. It shows not only how they take care of each other, but the evolution of the morality of mutual aid. The “Law of Nature”/“kill or be killed” doctrine is simplistic and only covers a part of the existence of animals in the wild or humans in society. Members of a wide variety of species engage in mutual aid, not only within the species but sometimes across them, as we learn when we see birds cleaning the teeth of crocodiles.

Though competition among people can help economies grow, far more important is taking care of one another. We help out our family members, our friends and even strangers who can do nothing for us. As I explain elsewhere, we possess love, kindness, empathy, sympathy, caring, and a sense of fairness. For various reasons, we may not cooperate regularly with those in our community. But we could.

Mutual aid, examples of which are detailed below, has existed in human society for as long as we have been humans. Mutual aid promotes community and independence, which is why the state, along with slave owners and bosses, frequently attempts to shut it down. They have put a state bureaucracy in place of people helping each other, imposed taxes so that people needed to find sources of income, and declared a variety of practices illegal. But in the space where mutual aid has been allowed, it has flourished.

Why mutual aid? Why not charity?

In spite of the huge sums taken from them by the state, people still give to charity. They realise the state is not helping the causes they believe in and know they can help by picking up the slack. Why? “Presumably for a combination of reasons, including, in no particular order, compassion, social norms, the desire for good reputations, the desire to avoid bad reputations, and the desire to avoid social disorder.” (“Government is no friend of the poor“) Mutual aid, like charity, avoids the high administrative costs and, of course, the political intentions of government-run antipoverty programmes.

There is nothing virtuous about being forced to pay for other people. But charity is generosity, right? Charity is not necessarily bad, but it can have the effect of entrenching poverty like government welfare programmes, rather than leading the way out of it. It can grant the givers a sense of benevolent superiority. It can disempower the receivers, making them feel like they have nothing to contribute. Giving food and clothes can also destroy local economies, as free foreign goods crowd out local goods. People come to depend on someone else’s help. Mutual aid, on the other hand, implies that people in the network will help each other whenever and however possible.

Mutual aid is not likely to be illegal, in contrast to agorism. It means putting aside the competition and force that are inherent in the statist model (whether capitalist or socialist) and cooperating to help one another. It means sharing, and cooperating to make sure what one gives is used as one wants. While our nature pushes for reciprocity, we do not necessarily expect an equal return. It might run along the Marxist principle of “from each according to his ability to each according to his need”. (Of course, people may decide to kick free riders out of the network.)

For those who do not trust or believe in the welfare state, mutual aid can create a social safety net. It can prevent the poor, disabled or elderly from falling into poverty. You can be sure your money is going toward community projects or helping those in need, rather than hoping the government or a potentially-corrupt non-profit is spending it the way you would like.

What can you and the people around you do to help each other?

–The book Mutual Aid and Union Renewal argues that unions could reverse their decline if they engaged in mutual aid. If unions do not appear to benefit their members, or simply do not encourage their involvement, loyalty will remain low. But a union could act as an extended family. Some union members have set up member assistance programmes, helping each other with alcoholism and substance abuse, for example.

–The cooperative is an autonomous association of people who voluntarily work together or jointly own something, like a housing project or business. They are usually run democratically (without the state) by their members. They foster community through cooperation. Ideally, they would break off from and become independent of the state, and thus provide examples of secession.

–A worker or producer cooperative is one owned by the people who own and operate a business. (This arrangement is sometimes called “market socialism”.) Shared ownership diversifies, rather than concentrates, wealth. Not all worker cooperatives are exclusive owners of businesses, as some outside shareholders may be involved. Such cooperatives employ over 100m people and could be the wave of the future for business. After all, Ocean Spray, Sunkist and the Associated Press are all cooperative businesses.

–Agricultural cooperatives enable farmers to pool their resources for mutual benefit. They may be more able to afford capital equipment for more efficient farming in this way. In the days of continual raids on small farms and heavy subsidies of big farms, the benefits of farmers’ working together outweigh the costs, both to themselves and consumers. A kibbutz is an agricultural cooperative, as is India’s Amul, which sells dairy products, and Malaysia’s FELDA, which sells palm oil.

–A consumers’ cooperative is a business owned and run by its customers. The two largest supermarket chains in Switzerland are co-ops. Canada’s Mountain Equipment Co-op is one example, as is the UK’s Co-operative Group.

–Finally, social cooperatives, of which there are over 7000 in Italy, provide social services such as child care, elderly and disabled care, help with addiction, education and employment counseling.

–There are other community-strengthening ideas that fall short of cooperatives. You could start a neighbourhood watch, where members of the community take turns guarding each other’s property. Neighbourhood watch is widespread in North America. When the police are absent, their job is merely to punish crime. A neighbourhood watch can prevent it by having people present at all times. Moreover, in the countless parts of the world where the police are not accountable to those they police and are seen as thugs, a well-established neighbourhood watch could make the police redundant. This practice is easier today than ever, since we can communicate with each other at great distances, calling our neighbours to warn them without knocking on their doors.

Neighbourhood associations and homeowners associations of various kinds are protecting local environments, enforcing safety and other rules, organising social activities, building recreational facilities and fixing roads.

–One person following this blog’s Facebook page told me of a teacher who started a parents’ group that collects canned food, clothing, books, small items such as toothbrushes. Parents donate time, labour or rides to one another. In this way, the group promotes agorism and community.

–Poor communities have even more to gain. Many rural Africans work each other’s fields, and the owner of a given field might provide food and drinks. They help one another build houses. They pool their money for life insurance, or household items. (See more here.)

–People who complain about high costs of buying from the insurance oligopoly may want to pool their money with others. Members of the network may choose criteria by which some pay more and others pay less. Smokers might pay more in a health insurance society and pyromaniacs will probably not be allowed in a fire insurance society. And no one will be forced to subsidise others’ risky habits.

–Likewise with the banks. Need a loan? How about a credit union? There are thousands of credit unions in North America with millions of members. A credit union is an example of a consumers’ cooperative.

–Sick of inflation? Don’t like making money? Ever tried a local exchange trading system (LETS)?  LETS is a non-profit enterprise that records transactions for people’s exchanging of goods and services. A member may earn credit for fixing someone’s car, and spend it later when he needs a babysitter or a dentist. The credit does not need to be in the national currency, which is how it avoids inflation and the necessity of making money. Credit can be given for a given job by whatever criteria the people decide.

–Mutual aid could mean investment. Communities or other networks can put their money into local ventures with people they know and trust, gaining a tangible stake in the business and avoiding the rigged markets for securities.

–Support groups have sprung up for just about every shared personal problem. People who have the same illness take strength from and learn to cope thanks to their groups; immigrants set up hometown societies or landsmanshaftn.

–Occupy Wall Street coordinated mutual aid for the those who participated in the May 1 protest. People supplied food, medical and legal support, skill sharing and workshops, and hosted a Really, Really Free Market (mentioned in my last post) where people could bring clothes, books, toys, tools and whatever other things people who wanted to participate in a gift economy could bring. They set up a free university, as well.

–Rachel Leone, writing on mutual aid at Occupy, says,

You might not know it, but mutual aid is already part of your everyday life. Family members — both chosen and biological — take care of each other when one is sick, watch each other’s children and pets, and help with household projects. Friends share food and favorite books. Couch-surfers allow strangers to stay on their couches when they travel and then go off to adventure themselves, knowing that they will have a place to rest and a new friend at their next destination. Hitchhiking gets people to from state to state in exchange for stories and songs. Neighbors share recipes and tools. And let’s not forget that good consensual sex can be a form of mutual aid, too!

All these things are already happening. Mutual aid has never been easier. Mutual aid societies have gone international. They use online platforms like www.chipin.com. If more people choose not to depend on the state, the idea will spread.

Many people are predicting the collapse of the state, or of parts of it, such as unsustainable health care systems. Mutual aid may become necessary. The sooner we get started, the freer and more secure we can be.

Don’t fear the free market, part 3: Rich and poor

August 13, 2011 17 comments

Redistribute wealth?

“What’s ‘just’ has been debated for centuries but let me offer you my definition of social justice: I keep what I earn and you keep what you earn. Do you disagree? Well then tell me how much of what I earn ‘belongs’ to you – and why?” – Walter Williams

My neighbour has far more money than I do. Should I be allowed to go over there with a gun and force him to pay me? No. When I do that, it is called robbery. But why is it okay for the government to do so? Is it no longer robbery? No, because calling it “law” makes it legitimate. Is it altruistic to force others to give someone else their money? Does anyone else deserve that money? Is taking it from people who earned it justified? Is that the only way to help the poor?

The problem with many statist arguments is that they confuse the ideals of government, which vary depending on the person, but which may well include a perfect redistribution of wealth and opportunities, with the reality, which is that government does not make us more free, more wealthy, more educated or more equal. Government is the institutionalisation of thuggery. The desire to redistribute wealth is an excellent example of this flawed thinking. We need to take more from the rich and give it to the poor. But such policies do not make things much better for the poor.

If a man acquired his wealth ethically, which means that he provided goods and services that people were willing to pay for, then any so-called transfer or redistribution of that wealth is theft. It punishes the people who contribute most to the general prosperity and provides a disincentive to do more. Because it makes it harder for those people to do what they do best, which is create jobs, wealth, products and services, the argument that redistribution of wealth adds to social welfare falls on its face. It is giving a man a fish. Letting the captains of industry strengthen the economy raises social welfare. If people want to raise their individual welfare, they can upgrade their education, learn new skills and start their own businesses, provide what people want and get paid for it, relying on themselves rather than on force.

But a redistribution of wealth is not really a redistribution anyway. Even if you believe it is good to use violence to take money from people who have made it legitimately, most of that money does not go to the poor. It goes into the enormous pool of the government revenues, which pay for the generous salaries and pensions of politicians and bureaucrats, subsidies to large farms and airlines, and making war on weaker countries. Does any of it go to the poor? Sure. But not much of it. And the poor are still poor, even after decades of welfare.

Besides, along with their providing jobs, goods and services, wealthy people give to charity. Facts about who gives and how much can be difficult to come by, as many donate anonymously. Nonetheless, we know Bill Gates, who brought the world Windows and innovated the hell out of computer software, has given some $28b to charity. Warren Buffett, who has financed many successful companies, has given about $40b. The Waltons, the Dells and the Rockefellers have all given in the hundreds of millions. And if you get rich, probably making others rich in the process, you can too.

The rich do not want to keep the poor poor. They have not for at least a hundred years, when industrialists like Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller began paying their employees more, in part so that they could buy from the corporations for which they worked. (Also because if they wanted the best workers, they needed to offer more. That is how the labour market works.) No one who is not simply cruel wants the poor to stay poor. The more buying power the people have, the better off the rich, as well as the poor, are.

Inequality of wealth is only a problem because of jealousy. It does indeed cause serious problems, such as, to an extent, the current riots in the UK. But taking from others is not the way to solve those problems. Government is not making the poor any richer. The poor are taxed, just like the rest of us; not necessarily through their income, but through taxes on food, housing, and cell phone plan activation fees to name a few. They are taxed by central bank policies that encourage inflation. Sometimes you need to save to buy assets. Inflation eats away at savings. People with weak skills are kept out of the labour market by minimum wages, which discourage hiring. They cannot start art stands at the side of the road without a permit and government stamps.

Instead of resenting the rich and using violence to take their property, we could either learn how to become rich ourselves, which would benefit everyone, or we could learn to move beyond our base emotion of envy and be content.

Protect us from the rich?

A lot of people believe that we need government to protect us from the rich and powerful. I think people who think that way do not understand the nature of government very well, and they have it backwards. The rich and powerful use government to become more rich and more powerful. Whatever party you vote for will be the powerful people of your country. They will have control of a big chunk of the money and the ability to make whatever laws they want. The rich will ally with them, they will take their share, as they always do, and the government will continue to protect them, as it always does; or else a new elite will emerge, as it did under communism. If you really believe that getting more people out to vote, or getting the right person in power is going to fundamentally change that, I think you are naïve. There is no reason to believe that the powerful become any less powerful for any meaningful length of time when there is a new government. And to think that the rich would be more powerful in an anarchic state I believe is wrong, because in fact they wouldn’t have any political power, and they wouldn’t have state protection. That means no more riot police protecting world government-G8-WTO-IMF-whatever-you-don’t-like meetings—there could be security guards, but the people at the meetings would have to pay for them out of their own pockets. In fact, no more of those billion-dollar photo ops at all. No government means no more lucrative insider no-bid government contracts. It means no subsidies for the well-connected, just the people deciding whom to give their money to. It means no government protection and bailouts for the corporations no one likes, only the whims of the market. It means no more police breaking into the wrong house and shooting the wrong man for suspecting him of selling drugs (the war on the poor). It means no more soldiers going to fight for private control of resources overseas (the war on Islam) and coming back in body bags, or coming back as nervous wrecks who do not get treatment. It means more money for the productive sector, which means more and better-paying jobs. And sure, it might mean the rich go to better schools and get better health care, but I think it is fair to say they already do now.

The rich would have the most to lose from an anarchic society, because they would no longer receive all the various handouts they get in the form of bailouts, subsidies, government contracts, and laws that create barriers to entry and monopolies. There would be no limited liability, so people would be accountable for what they do, rather than hiding behind a legal corporation. And though it’s a bit simplistic, it is basically true that managers of public corporations are legally bound to pursue profit. If there were no laws, that would not be necessary. If there is someone with power, which by definition is unaccountable, and he has the power to tax and pass laws, he will pass laws that favour rich people so that he can get some of that wealth for himself. The very existence of government is why the elites can concentrate both money and power in their hands and not have to listen to the voters on the bottom. If you are afraid of the rich, let us start cutting off by cutting off the money they make from taxpayers. How about eliminating bailouts and stimuluses that take trillions of dollars from the productive sector and hand it to any lobby group from failed banks to the wives of failed bankers?

The more wealth is concentrated in the hands of one person, the more others will attempt to rob that person. As such, he or she needs greater and greater security. At the moment, the rich outsource their security to the state, which means they get the taxpayers to pay for the defense of their property. (Find a more robust discussion of this topic here.) The police protect the rich and beat the poor, and yet everyone is paying for them.

Then there is this perpetual fear that anarchy would mean that the rich would have their own private militias to take from everyone else. Well, what do you think the government is? It is a tool of the elites to take from everyone else. But it is also a professional salesteam, selling the illusion that it works, or maybe that it can work, for the people, so that people keep showing up on election day, and the elites keep going to the bank. At least in a free market, rich people would need to pay for their own militias, instead of making you pay for them like now. But I do not know why they would want their own militias. Everyone can pay private security firms for protection, but obviously rich people would not need to use militias to steal from others if they already have money. Of course, voting for a party promising to redistribute wealth is similar to using a militia to steal from others. Left-wing government is a tool of the well-meaning but ignorant.

If you really resent the rich that much, don’t give them your business. It’s as simple as that. If Sam Walton is a bad person, don’t shop at Walmart. If Ray Kroc spends money to finance wars in South America, stop going to McDonald’s, and shame those who do.

Having no state, no concentrated political power, would mean a more egalitarian society, not less.

Save the poor?

“If there were no government, what would be done about poverty?” First, what is the government doing about poverty now? Governments have had anti-poverty policies for decades and poverty has not gone away. If anything, it has become entrenched. (Some data: most money going to welfare programs is wasted; most charitable giving is not.)

Second, welfare has existed before and beyond the welfare state. The welfare state as we know it emerged in the wake of World War Two. Governments wanted to maintain the massive spending they had begun, as reducing spending means reducing government power, and governments hate relinquishing an inch of territory they have grabbed. (A case in point: even after the wave of privatisation in the late 1990s, government spending continued to increase rather than decrease.)

Third, there are ways in which government can alleviate poverty, but simply channeling tax money to the poor is not one of them. Property rights and legal contracts help, though those things are part of the reciprocal nature of normal human trade and interaction, and a state that takes away your property through taxation and imprisonment is not a guarantor of it. (Does the state confiscate property and give it to the rich? Yes.) Businesses operating in a free market end poverty. Look at China, or any of the middle income Asian economies. Walmart alone has brought millions of people out of poverty. People complain about sweatshop labour, but how else do they think hundreds of millions of people could have sent their children to school? Conditions are terrible, but if they were better, they would be more expensive and the corporations would hire fewer workers, be less productive and have less profit to invest back into their operations.

Poverty is beaten with economic growth. That was true during Europe’s development, America’s development, the development of the Asian tigers, and it will hold anywhere. Economic growth means clean drinking water, better nutrition, reduced child mortality, more access to electricity (which replaces burning much dirtier coal, wood and dung), and the freedom to take care of yourself and do what you want with your life. But economic growth takes time. It is not something that the government can fix in a few months with stimulus packages, regulations, makework projects and redistribution of wealth. People need to be able to start their own businesses and operate them without knowing thousands of pages of regulations and tax codes. It takes many years of free enterprise for people to understand, adjust to and plan according to a set of rules, which cannot happen when the government keeps adding to and changing them.

Who are the poorest people in North America? Native North Americans. The indigenous people. Why is that? It is obviously not for lack of government assistance. In fact, it is because of government assistance, and other regulations (like Canada’s “Indian Act”), that they are poor. It is because handouts called “help” are not actually help. The US government spends an average of $7000 per native on healthcare, in contrast to $2000 for other Americans; and yet natives still do not get good healthcare. The problem is with the incentives. Natives who pull themselves up by their bootstraps do just as well as anyone else; those who remain under government stewardship are crippled by dependence. They do not own their resources, meaning they do not have property rights. As Hernando de Soto explains in The Mystery of Capital, property rights is a major factor in enabling people to increase their earning power, because if they own their land and house and other property, they can put it up as collateral for a loan, which means they have credit, which enables them to expand their farms or businesses and make more money off them. It is the same principle as that of microloans. Government bones do not help; property rights just might.

Poor people are simply better off where they have more economic freedom, not more government. In the US, poor people can start businesses (though they might be hampered by fees, forms and other red tape), they can use their property as collateral, they can provide goods and services on a relatively free market and end up surviving and sometimes prospering. We do not need laws for ownership. As Frederic Bastiat once said, “Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.” Government, like religion, expropriated the laws of human nature and added to them unnecessarily, and has come to make everyone believe those laws could not exist without it. Let the poor climb out of poverty and many of them will.

If the people think something is a good idea, it will get done. And if they are not willing to pay for it, how could it be all right (or democratic) to force them to? That one is lost on me. But let’s say for the sake of argument that it is okay to force people to pay for schools, hospitals, roads and the fire department. I can understand that, although I still think people would pay for those things themselves, and save money by purchasing from a competitive market rather than a sclerotic public sector. I really do not see why they would not. We help those in need because we are sympathetic, we take time and money to improve our neighbourhoods because everybody gains, especially people who are recognised as putting their time and effort into doing so.

Why do you think that every culture and every religion has some tradition and institution for dealing with poverty? It is because the desire to help others is universal. Try it out some time: if you feel bad, do not try to get more for yourself; do something for others. Give something of yours away. Spread love to other people. As you shed your selfishness, you will feel better. It is a universal truth of human nature.

Politics as religion

May 28, 2011 2 comments

What is government capable of? What does it do that is indispensable? What benefits does it bring? What difference does voting make? If you answered “nothing” or “none” to all of these questions, you might be cynical, but you might be right. To everyone else, you could be a political activist, or you could be a devout political escapist.

As government has grown over the centuries, it has taken control of more and more areas of human life. Everything that is not illegal is regulated and taxed. There is no free market, because there is no area of human life literally free of government intervention. As a result, citizens have come to believe that government can and should solve all of their problems. Climate change? Don’t ask people to change voluntarily: force them to. Crime? Don’t let people own guns; the government will prevent crime. Disease? People cannot prevent anything themselves, so the government must hand out the vaccines. Market crash? The government will bail us out. Natural disasters? Don’t worry: the government will be along soon.

Such thinking is similar to religious faith. Religious faith assumes that something for which there is no evidence exists. Belief that government protects your life, for example, is based on government claims that it does so. Your government protects you from foreign enemies with its military, right? But wars are nearly always initiated by political elites and lobby groups. If not for them, wars would be little more than feuds. Instead, government justifies taking your money and your freedom and provides you with glimpses of submarines and fighter jets in the name of keeping you safe from non-existent enemies.

The religious faith shines when people listen to their favourite politician. They list the issues they are concerned about and then explain how their messiah will come down and resolve them. They watch with rapt attention, they clap and they cry. They rationalise failures and blame everything on their guy’s opponents. Damn Party B! It’s all your fault! Party A would never do anything bad.

Government has not solved any of the problems it has not caused itself, and has perpetuated many more. Governments have no interest in solving problems, because if the agencies and departments and programs created to deal with them end, government control over that part of life ends. Spending would have to decrease as well, reducing the number of reasons governments have for high taxes. There is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program.

Like religion, politics is full of illusions that we swallow because we want to believe. Protection or safety are just the bones thrown by the political class. You pay our salaries, we will throw you the protection bone. Likewise, the middle and lower classes can have an education bone and we will take many times that amount to cover military adventures overseas. Have a health care bone (because only government could possibly provide health care) in return for paying farm lobbyists. Health care is not perfect: it might benefit from more money, so we could cancel farm subsidies and put that money into public health, but not enough people think it would be a good idea, so we do not. The government throws just enough bones that most people shut up and believe in democracy.

The same faulty logic goes into our belief in the ability of politicians or politics to save the economy. There is no doubt that an organisation with trillions of dollars at its disposal affects the incentives in society, but the great illusion is that the downtrodden believe politicians when they promise to get the economy back on track. However, no one, including politicians, can control markets without destroying them (eg. under communism). The evidence is all around. The government contributed to the subprime mortgage crisis by enacting legislation making it easier for Americans to buy homes they could not afford. When the economy went belly up, the brightest economic minds in the land did not save it. They only made the bankers richer.

Like religion, democrats are so keen on their ideology that they want to export and even impose it on others. As soon as there is a crisis in an authoritarian state, some democrats rush in and push for a new government. This place needs to become a democracy, so that we, the ones who possess the revealed truth, can remake this society in our own image. However, when a new government is encouraged, it is sometimes no better than the last. What is needed in these situations is a grassroots political culture of self-reliance, so that government is redundant. Afghanistan is an obvious case of people who reject central government, and do just fine without it, but are having to fight against its imposition on them. Do not expect the bloodshed there to end while democrats are promoting their inappropriate model of coercive, centralised institutions on Afghanis.

The culture war in the US is of particular interest. The so-called liberal, so-called conservative divide is over how to use government power to coerce people into morality. Conservatives believe that government cannot eliminate poverty, discrimination, guns, smoking and drinking. However, when it’s time to fight crime, abortion, drugs, foreign dictators, or anything else Christ would be against, we need more money and we can save the world. When the government fails to deliver, it is because not enough money was allocated for it, or because of too much liberal opposition. Liberals, on the other hand, think it is silly to try to eliminate crime, drugs and dictators with the government; but they are more than happy to use the government to fight poverty, discrimination, gun ownership, etc., etc.

So what is politics good for anymore? It provides money and power for politicians. It helps provide the public with the illusion that caring people are in control of its security. It holds back cultural evolution for a short while. If politicians tell you they are doing anything other than that, they are probably lying.

They are not even capable of agreeing on subjects all of the rest of us believe in. There is a wide consensus in our society that climate change is bad and should be avoided. Yet “leaders” who met in Copenhagen not long ago to fix the climate problem left empty handed. It is shameful, but not surprising. But at least they got a nice vacation out of it.

The great illusions of democracy are that democracy means freedom, elections mean progress, the right candidate will make the world better, governments have to and do take care of you, war is for humanitarian purposes and law protects people rather than the state.

In today’s world, we should look beyond traditional electoral politics as the key to solving problems and start looking at how we can organise ourselves and others to change the things we can. Many people, of course, already realise this, which is why there are so many NGOs. Here we have initiated people who did not wait patiently for politicians to get round to ending poverty.

At least as important, your dollar is your vote. Every dollar you spend goes to someone else. Is that person going to spend your money in a way you approve of? Could your money be better spent if given to someone else? These are the choices we make every day that affect others. If we buy jewelry, we might be perpetuating war in the Congo. If we give money to the food bank, we might be helping people get back on their feet.

I have some suggestions for those who follow politics with baited breath. First, stop voting. If you vote, you encourage the people who are taking away your freedom and giving you illusions in return. They will promise you the moon, take it away from you and then give you a small piece of it back. Meanwhile, your friends and acquaintances will try to convert you to their party, because the more people agree with you, the more right you can think you are. Do not fall for it. Shuffling any number of empty suits around the seats of power only matters if one of them is going to change the system fundamentally, and none of them ever will.

Second, stop reading or watching political news. Either it will get you angry, because your issues are not being addressed in the way you want, or you will receive the false hope that things are getting better; and when they do not, you will be all the more disappointed. Besides, since voting does not matter, the day to day catcalling and empty legislation of party politics is meaningless. If you do hear about a huge spending increase, a tax increase, a deficit increase or a ridiculous new law, think about how it will affect you personally, then laugh it off as typical.

Third, shed the beliefs that politicians–any politicians–are looking out for you. They are looking out for themselves. You are nothing more than tools to help them achieve their dreams of power. Inasmuch as you can, disengage from politics and refuse to support those who would exploit you. We should educate ourselves and each other on the most effective ways we can make a difference in the world around us with our money and our voices.

A guy named Stephen F. Roberts once said “We are all atheists. Some of us just believe in fewer gods than others. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” I dismiss the god of politics. Become a political atheist and free yourself of the illusions of politics.

We need to be forced: human nature and the Leviathan

May 14, 2011 12 comments

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.