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Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’

Freedom is peace

December 26, 2013 Leave a comment

There is a widespread belief that security and freedom are incompatible. We have been told, especially since 9/11 and not just in the US, that the needs of security, meaning keeping us safe from non-state actors who want to do us harm, who are apparently everywhere, outweigh the luxuries of freedom. But security versus freedom is a false dichotomy. The truth is, the extent to which we are free is the extent to which we are at peace.

Some extremes on the opposite end of the spectrum of freedom are prison, slavery, and a surveillance or informant state that does not tolerate dissent or differences. There is neither peace nor freedom in these situations, as anyone is subject to mistreatment at the hands of his or her masters at any time. The claim that “if you are doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide” is wrong because people who have power do not always need what you would consider a good reason to use it. Ask people living in jail for selling drugs, or a slave. They are routinely subjected to whatever form of abuse because their bodies are constantly at someone else’s mercy.

A short way from the extreme opposite of freedom is a situation such as a city locked down after a panic. The presence of vehicles of war on the streets of Boston or Cairo following terrorist attacks is not a situation of security. In the case of Boston, ordinary people had guns thrust in their faces and their homes entered, which presumably inspired them with terror as intense as the bombing that just taken place. It is unlikely Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would have killed people if they had been allowed out of their homes, especially since if he had the people could have dealt with him themselves. In Egypt following the deposing of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi, peaceful protesters were killed and arrested and a curfew was imposed. Police of every level of the security apparatus, including those in plainclothes and the spy agency, remain all over the city. We are all subject to arrest (or extortion) for looking suspicious or saying the wrong things. The threat of violence looms always just over our heads. And it is not clear how such state reaction prevented further terrorism.

Getting people to expect such state action and believe in it as a necessary way to restore security and freedom are part of the building blocks of the police state. We usually do not know about how power is wielded every day because of compliant media; alternatively, when we find out about what the powerful are up to, we are told why their actions were necessary and right, proportional and in self defense. When we accept this state of affairs it can happen more often.

There is a middle ground (though not at times of crisis) in which police can provide the people with general protection and not turn despotic. However, state security of any kind is necessarily unaccountable to the people and can be used by those with power for social control. Getting a group we do not belong to to protect us does not necessarily lead to protection from that group. We do not necessarily have this choice, because rule is imposed on us without our consent.

That is one danger in the idea of private-security firms. Private security is more likely to be accountable to us than the state is, because if they do not report us they will not get paid. Nonetheless, we must consider the fact that my employing a private-security firm does nothing to guarantee the security of the people around me. And yet, my security depends on those around me. Errico Malatesta put it thus.

Solidarity, that is, harmony of interests and sentiments, the sharing of each in the good of all, and of all in the good of each, is the state in which alone man can be true to his own nature, and attain to the highest development and happiness. It is the aim towards which human development tends. It is the one great principle, capable of reconciling all present antagonisms in society, otherwise irreconcilable. It causes the liberty of each to find not its limits, but its complement, the necessary condition of its continual existence–in the liberty of all.

He proceeds to quote Mikhail Bakunin.

No man can recognize his own human worth, nor in consequence realize his full development, if he does not recognize the worth of his fellow men, and in co-operation with them, realize his own development through them. No man can emancipate himself, unless at the same time he emancipates those around him. My freedom is the freedom of all; for I am not really free–free not only in thought, but in deed–if my freedom and my right do not find their confirmation and sanction in the liberty and right of all men my equals.

Peace is not the absence of war but the presence of the conditions under which we can realise our potential. If we seek peace, we need security not just for ourselves but for others. This belief may be demonstrated when a desperate or mentally ill man robs and attacks someone. We did nothing to help this person and we are all vulnerable as a result. It is even easier to see in an age when people who feel their lives and cultures are threatened can go around the world to plan and execute a terrorist attack on the heart of the entity they believe is threatening them.

Security for all means peace. Freedom for all means peace. They are not opposites. They are, in the end, the same.

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How to topple a government

October 24, 2013 2 comments
This is what defiance looks like

This is what defiance looks like

In only 18 days in early 2011, Egyptians succeeded in a major step toward revolution. (They unfortunately did not take the opportunities thus presented them but that simply makes their example more educational.) In only four days, from January 25 to 28, the people rose up in the millions, defeated the security forces in the streets and destroyed the legitimacy of the regime. You want to know how to defeat your oppressors? You want to learn from the Egyptians? Perhaps Etienne de la Boetie could explain both the causes and the effects of the uprising.

All this havoc, this misfortune, this ruin, descends upon you not from alien foes, but from the one enemy whom you yourselves render as powerful as he is, for whom you go bravely to war, for whose greatness you do not refuse to offer your own bodies unto death. He who thus domineers over you has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body, no more than is possessed by the least man among the infinite numbers dwelling in your cities; he has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you? How would he dare assail you if he had no cooperation from you?

…From all these indignities, such as the very beasts of the field would not endure, you can deliver yourselves if you try, not by taking action, but merely by willing to be free. Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.

That is what Egyptians did. They had to fight the police, but the state is necessarily a minority; as such, when enough people join in, even just through providing onions and vinegar to survive the tear gas, the state loses. The people denied the state its authority for FOUR DAYS and only four days, and it evaporated. All we need is enough people who decide to disobey.

Egypt’s economy is collapsing. Don’t blame yourself.

February 6, 2013 Leave a comment

Egypt’s planning minister, Ashraf El Arabi, said this week Egypt only had enough foreign exchange reserves for another three months. Given how dependent Egypt is on imports, that means the economy will collapse soon if drastic changes are not made.

I hope Egyptians understand when the economy collapses whose fault it is. It’s not Egypt’s fault. It’s not your fault. It’s the state’s fault. It takes your money and spends it without asking. It borrows money and forces you to pay for it. You are the economy. When you pay for the state’s actions, which you do every day, it’s the economy that suffers.

The economy as a whole would not be on the point of collapse if not for all these ridiculous economic policies. Gas would cost more but there would not be shortages, except for individuals who could not afford it. Business would be free to operate and create wealth for everyone. And you would not have to worry if the central bank has enough money to cover what you want to buy. But that is not the way the “national economy” works. When the state screws up, the people suffer.

In this way, we can see the state is, among other things, a vehicle for eliminating responsibility from the powerful and passing costs on to the weak. They will never tell you that, of course. Look at how former finance minister Hazem El Beblawi put it. “[T]he real problem is that Egypt lacks the domestic resources that would allow the government to deal with anticipated shortfalls.” Egypt does not lack domestic resources. It is being strangled by economic policies. Why would we want the government to deal with “shortfalls”? When an individual makes a mistake, he or she pays the price. If the government takes control over something and it goes wrong, the entire country suffers.

But that is the system we live under. The state confiscates and destroys wealth, and you pay.

Egypt economy suffer collapse dieThe only hope for the economy is to secure more loans and raise taxes, which will simply suck more money out of the pockets of the people. But ideally, the economy will die and be replaced by freedom.  Let black markets and mutual aid reign. Secede from this system like the people in Mahalla El Kobra. End your dependency on the state and stop paying for the elites’ crisis.

Egypt’s elections and the end of Tahrir

May 24, 2012 Leave a comment

There is a lesson behind this picture. It is a disappointing tale but it must be told. This picture is from Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square in Cairo. The Egyptians who took down the Mubarak regime should be proud of themselves. Yes, they scored a victory for freedom. Yes, they did so by uniting. And most importantly, they showed the world that through uniting to face common problems, we can do anything.

However, the Egyptian Revolution took an unhappy turn. Since Mubarak resigned, what has happened? Hundreds have been killed and far more beaten, shot at and arrested for nothing. Who killed and attacked the people? Who did it before the Revolution? It is not the military. The military is one part of the state. Telling the military to move aside means asking a different set of rulers, still with different priorities from yours, to govern you. It is not one part of the state that represses. It is the state as a whole.

The state is not a humanitarian organisation. It is not a way for people to work together to get things done. And it does not represent the people. It is an institution that forces everyone to comply with the mandates of a few very powerful people who have their own interests at heart. If something needs to be done, why would you want these people to do it for you?

The state comprises far more people than a few elected “representatives”. It means the military, the heads of which will remain influential, rich and unaccountable, powerful businesspeople, police, bureaucrats and everyone who is connected to those in power. Those who have the power to initiate force, to use violence on others, will use it to protect their interests against those who want their freedom. That is true everywhere. Most Egyptians know the state has amassed power and wealth over the past 30 years but seem to think they have tamed it. But you cannot tame the state. You can only injure it temporarily.

Today is election day in Egypt. The electoral contest has divided Egyptians in every way that electoral politics always divides people: by opinion. People are attacked by others who insist that their party and their candidate is the right one to impose his will on 80m people. The greatest tragedy is that Egyptians have been so deeply indoctrinated by thousands of years of despotic rule that they believe the incoming president needs to be “a strong man”: a man who will force everyone to do everything he says. His subjects will have to hope he wants and knows how to get the best for everyone else. Well, it is possible. But it has not happened very often.

Egyptians threaten to protest again—a “second revolution”—if things do not go as they believe it should. But they are fooling themselves. The past 8 months or more have already shown that Egyptians, like everyone else, will be divided by those in power. Those who voted for whoever becomes president will stand by him, and will tell everyone else why they were right. It is simple psychology: if I voted for him, he must be good. I suggest Egyptians put aside their unhealthy craving for big government and consider life without it.

As I said elsewhere, freedom for Egyptians is still possible. Everything the government does you can do yourselves. It means taking responsibility for your community and working together, rather than hoping the state will come along to fix your problems. Here is one idea. Instead of relying on police for security, why not organise neighrbourhood groups that agree to protect each other? If you live in a reasonably wealthy community, you can pay people. When you pay people and can stop paying them if you want, you become their customers, and they do what you want or they lose your money. The government is not like that, because you have to pay. The police are not accountable to you but to their bosses, the politicians. If you do not have the money to pay for people to protect you, you probably need protection from the police more than any other groups. All that is required is some agreement, organisation and cooperation. Together you can solve your own problems in ways that the state will never do for you. That is what free people do.

I know you and your peers can think of other ideas. Remember the Revolution. Unite in the face of repression.

My message to the Egyptian people

October 6, 2011 2 comments

Having lived in Cairo for the past six months, I can honestly say I have come to love it. I love the hundreds of people I know here, and have enjoyed the company of the thousands of wonderful Egyptians I have talked with. I came in April, in the wake of the violence that killed over 800 people, in the hopes that the message of freedom espoused by the protesters that brought down Mubarak would continue, and the people would reap the benefits of having liberated themselves. Unfortunately, the message has grown cold, and Egyptians are still slaves.

The protest movement has lost its unity. When people are unified by a few narrow ideals and goals, they can accomplish amazing things. Unfortunately, they often have the wrong ideas. Revolutions do not always have worthwhile outcomes. They often mean the transfer of power from one group of uncaring elites to another. The French, Cuban and Iranian revolutions, for instance, were popular revolutions for freedom against corrupt dictatorships, but a small group of cunning ideologues surfed the wave of discontent and positioned themselves as the alternative. Being little more than “not the last guy”, they were cheered into power. The people ended up living under regimes that were different but not significant improvements. The reason was, the people themselves had the wrong ideas.

The Egyptian Revolution (if that word is in fact appropriate) is different from the French, Cuban and Iranian revolutions, notwithstanding the possible election of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in the coming elections. In Egypt, the head of the regime was removed but it grew a new head immediately as the military took over. The military stood neutral during the three weeks of violence in January and February; a smart strategic move, as it turned out, because it was able to side with whichever group won the battle. One message of the time was “the people and the army are one hand”. That slogan has become a sad joke, as witnessed by the thousands of military trials for peaceful protesters and the lack of any progress on the revolution’s demands. People are still being locked up for nothing, churches are still being burned with impunity, and the hopes I heard in the voices of those I met when I had just arrived have largely faded. The countless demonstrations against the transitional military government have been in vain. Egypt is still a police state.

In the past twenty years, democracy has become the ideal that all nations are supposed to desire and gravitate toward. The main reason they have done so is that the US has consistently spread its message, and as the winner of the Cold War and the uncontested superpower, was free to do so all around the world for the past two decades. But democracy was supposed to be about advancing freedom, which is why the two words are often spoken in the same breath. It has not advanced freedom. It has brought a veneer of legitimacy to the same rule by elites under whose rule most of the world’s people are still subject. Freedom only comes to those who demand it and take it and defend it. Those who do not appreciate or defend their freedom lose it, slowly but surely. Take the modern United States, a country which many Egyptians seem to hold as ideal. Since the American Revolution, Americans have become complacent, too fat and happy to care what their government does. As a result, government power runs unchecked and the people are no longer free. Hundreds of thousands of people live in prison, many for nothing more than smoking something the state has deemed illegal because it threatens the profits of big corporations. Americans go to jail and get beaten every day for protesting, filming policemen beating people, or feeding the homeless. Is this freedom? No, but it is democracy.

The elites will try to divide you. They will try to divide you by religion, class and political views, and then tell you you need a strong government to protect you from foreign devils. But your fight should not be among yourselves, or with foreigners. The only group with the power and motive to take away your freedom is the state. Do not fall for the lies. Do not succumb to the simplistic divisions they will try to impose on you. Educating yourselves is a vaccine against hatred. Action is antithetical to tyranny.

But freedom is still possible. There are ways to attain it for everyone, but they are not easy, and they take time. Voting will not bring it about, as a vote in an election means supporting a system based on violence. Why give your consent to be ruled by people who only want to take your money and your freedom, people who see you as producers for their own benefit, people who will not care about you, however much support you give them? You do not need rulers. Everything the government does, you can find solutions for yourselves. Work together to solve your own problems. Defy the state and its violence. Expose the bankruptcy of the state’s claims to protect and represent you, like you did in January. Educate yourselves on the philosophy of liberty and the practice of civil disobedience. And most importantly, continue to spread and live the message of freedom.

Egyptians, if you want to be free, take down the whole government, not just its head. Otherwise, in a generation’s time there will be a second metro station called Al Shohadaa (martyrs), and it will be named after your children.

Police

June 30, 2011 7 comments

When discussing things with an anarchist, statists tend to ask questions like, “how would the roads get built? How would the trash get picked up? And what about the police?” These are entirely legitimate questions, as long as they are questions and not closed-minded arguments in themselves. However, one mistake they tend to make is that one anarchist has or should have all the answers. One person could not have the answers to all of the questions about how to organise a free society. The people would find and decide on those answers together; and they would not find the perfect, final solution to their problems, as no one ever has, but would solve them as necessary. But because anarchists understand better the doctrines of freedom, they need to present their ideas. One of the most difficult things for statists to imagine is a world without centralised law enforcement. As such, when they ask “how could there be no police?” they usually have not even considered there could be an alternative.

Michael Ignatieff, whom I admired before he went into politics, once said that anarchy could never work, because when the police went on strike in Montreal, there were riots in the streets, people were breaking into stores and stealing things, and it was chaos. I’m not surprised. By monopolising the ability to defend the people, the police were holding everyone for ransom, and no one was prepared to defend themselves. However, most anarchists do not suggest that the police suddenly leave the streets. Any sudden and complete removal of a coercive authority is bound to lead to a power vacuum that people will fill with violence. That does not mean that there is no alternative to police. It just means we need a little more time and a little more imagination. The police are the next group on the chopping block.

In the US, police powers keep growing as the constitution deteriorates. (1) The militarisation of police makes them more dangerous. (2) Police abuses occur every day on the pages of responsible newspapers. Sometimes they are related to the War on Drugs, as police batter down doors, smash in heads and gun down people they suspect of selling the wrong things. You cannot film or hand out things the police do not want you to anymore. (3)

A journalist was arrested recently for filming a public meeting of the DC Taxicab Commission. (4)

In fact, in the UK you cannot take photos of the police at all anymore, even though they can film anything they want. (5)

You cannot protest things they do not want you to protest (6) or dance where they do not want you to dance (7).

If you are really unlucky, you can be arrested for sitting.

Children’s lemonade stands are getting shut down like windows (that require five armoured men to close).

Police arrested two people for using a raft in a flooded street. They were not charged. (Some might say arrest for nothing is kidnapping.)

Sometimes cops taser people, some of whom are minors who end up in the hospital. In many cases, tasers have been used against people in handcuffs, children, the elderly or the mentally ill. 334 US citizens died between 2001 and August 2008 from police tasers, which are supposed to be non lethal.

Former marine Jose Guerena was shot by police 23 times for nothing; 13 year old Jimmy Cannon was shot 8 times. (8)

Sometimes violent acts against innocent civilians are carried out by police with histories of violence, and other police defend them, and they go back on the beat. (9)

The list continues. (10) These are merely well-publicised, recent examples. Police brutality in minority communities has been a fact of life for decades. These are not isolated incidents. They are the result of giving someone authority and weapons. But then, the police are just following orders and keeping us safe.

Your cameras are illegal, but theirs are everywhere. The U.K. has more surveillance cameras per citizen than anywhere else in the world. One estimate puts the number of video cameras watching every move their citizens make at 4.8m: 1 for every 13 people, with people being filmed some 300 times a day. And the police themselves admit that, for this enormous expense, only 3% of crimes are solved using CCTV, and one crime is solved per 1000 cameras. (11) FBI surveillance teams regularly employ warrantless GPS tracking to monitor the movements of peaceful activists – even if they are not suspected of ever committing a crime. (12) The Obama administration is fighting in court to keep this practice legal. (13) U.K. authorities are now admitting that every phone call, text message, email and website visit made by private citizens will be stored for one year and will be available for monitoring by government agencies. The plan will cost £12b. (14) They can watch you everywhere, just in case you are doing something they want to arrest you for. But they are not legally permitted to take away your camera. Good thing, too, as they are getting away with more and more brutality as they get more powerful. (15) It may seem like I am being selective if I say police in democracies can arrest you for anything when I might not be taking a fair sample of democracies. They may be less corrupt and violent outside these places.  But unless their power is strictly restrained somehow, it can be abused. Anywhere people ask their governments for a “law and order” society, they should be careful what they wish for.

The problem with all this surveillance, from the wiretapping to the eye scanning to the GPS trackers on cars, is that it presumes guilt. As such, it lends itself to abuse as innocent people are inevitably targets of arrest or violence. We see innocent people go to jail or get killed for a police mistake. Is our legal system not built on the premise that we are presumed innocent? Is it not better that one innocent man goes free than 10 guilty men are sentenced? Perhaps no longer. I am not a student of comparative democracy but I would not be surprised if there are legal systems that are both strong and fair. I believe, nonetheless, that any government is capable of covert surveillance of its people.

Incidentally, contrary to their slogan, the police do not actually have to protect you. Their job is to uphold the law, which is whatever lawmakers want. But courts have ruled consistently that they do not have to protect you—even to enforce restraining orders. 5% of 911 calls bring police fast enough to arrest the perpetrator. To those who say citizens’ arming themselves would lead to chaos do not seem to understand that an unarmed populace is a sty full of pigs awaiting slaughter. If anyone should be armed, it is normal people who might have to defend themselves one day.

Why is it that we have these people who don a uniform and are suddenly allowed to mete out violence when no one else is? Were they chosen for their superior morals? Their fairness in applying the law? While obviously not all police are bullies, the people most likely to enter the police force are those who feel the urge to bully others. People who want power and authority without having to earn it through respectability, who are violent and controlling and do not want to go to jail, have found their calling. Police should consider their consciences when applying the law. If laws are unfair, if they put peaceful people in jail, there is no reason to enforce them. But doing so will not change the actions of most police, because not all police have consciences.

Do we really need police? Some statists seem to think that, without government we would all be killing each other. Well, would you kill others? No, because you and almost everyone else has natural and cultural influences that militate against it. Therefore, it is only a few bad apples. The same could be said of police who transgress their legal limits. However, again, those with a penchant for violence and power are more likely to join the police force; and when people are handed uniforms, guns, sticks and the authority of law, the potential for the abuse of power is far greater. It is illogical to say that the reason we do not have violence in a given neighbourhood is because of the existence of the police.

In  my neighbourhood in post-revolution Cairo, there are no police anywhere to be found. There is not much crime—nothing visible, anyway. And why would there be? People who live here and do not plan to move have a stake in the stability of the community, and most are not willing to sacrifice it for the small personal gains of property theft or uncontrolled street fighting. No one misses the police that much; and they do not talk much about democracy. Instead, the word they use for what they won and want to keep is “hurriya”: freedom. (It happened at Occupy Boston, too.)

In the lower-class neighbourhoods particularly, the police were brutal thugs, and when they said walk, you walked. During the Egyptian revolution, the police left all the neighbourhoods, creating a vacuum that the people needed to fill as government-sponsored thugs hit the streets and tried to terrorise the people into begging the police to come back. The government thought that the people would be so desperate to avoid the violence of men without uniforms they would ask the people in uniforms back. Instead, the people took care of their own homes and defended themselves. It was not wonderful, of course, because they could not leave and go to work. When I suggest doing away with the police altogether and use the revolution as evidence that we will not go around killing each other if it happens, the people in Cairo are skeptical. No one wants to spend all their time defending their homes. But if freedom from police becomes the norm, the people will find another path to security.

Since violence is a constant of human history and part of human nature, everyone should learn to defend themselves. Individual men should be able to defend themselves against other men. Women could be the victims of rape. Communities come under siege by gangs. Territories get invaded by aspiring emperors. And if the 20th century is any guide for the future, we can expect the state in many places to turn on its citizens. I wonder if there would have been much of a Holocaust if the Jews and Gypsies of Eastern Europe had been allowed to arm themselves. You might say that not everyone wants to defend him or herself, but they might have no choice. Outsourcing self-defense to the police would only be the ideal if the police could be trusted. But very few people with power can be trusted, because power is an intoxicant.

Whenever a riot breaks out, statists call the rioters anarchists. That is wrong. Anarchists are people who believe the initiation of force is immoral. These people are better described as thugs. But they also consider it a prime example of why we need police. I am still not convinced. The police cannot simply stop rioting, and they obviously do not deter it all the time. They also cannot protect literally everyone, because there are not enough of them. The reason there are so many victims in a riot is that people have come to rely on the government for protection, and if the police do not show up, they have nothing with which to protect themselves. (I should mention that a recent riot in Vancouver was roundly condemned and followed by a major public shaming of the culprits who were photographed. Shame is a powerful emotion and a powerful weapon that does not require police.) People need to learn to defend themselves and their property collectively. How could that be done?

Are there no alternatives to police and prisons provided by government? Free-market security would probably be cheaper and more loyal to you than the police. What about security systems and all the other technologies that exist for security? What about security guards? What about guns? If every house had a gun, or just that every house could have a gun, thieves would be more reluctant to break in. Or the police could be privatised. The incentives would be based on helping the employers, ie. the community who hired them, rather than the state, ie. the powerful that are far removed from society. They could still get disability payments. Risks would be priced into the costs of hiring them, like they are in every other private sector job. San Francisco has had a private police force for a long time, paid for by private clients. Or, the police could be security agents designated by the community itself to help people when needed. There is no doubt they would be compensated if wounded or their families compensated if they were killed; after all, that is what happens everywhere in the world.

For their needs, the poor often do not have access to police (except where they know police as oppressors and not protectors), so they benefit most from private security. They could also organise mutual protection, perhaps through neighbourhood watch programmes, as poor people live around other poor people with the same problems. The current model has almost everyone paying taxes and the benefits of police being unevenly distributed (much like infrastructure). If everyone had that money back, they would be able to pay for what security they needed. A security market would almost certainly emerge with differentiated pricing to provide for both the rich and the poor, as it has with all the other essentials, from food to clothing to transportation.

To those who say these ideas are unrealistic, I would remind them that they are already happening, to some extent. To those who say they are the same as having police, they do not realise the fact that a firm you pay in a free market is likely to adhere very carefully to what you want from it, or else it will lose your business; whereas the police are very hard to hold to account. No less, firms’ competing in a free market will almost definitely be more efficient and thus cheaper than the police, and one would be able to choose which services one wanted.

We have plenty of security providers at the moment. They provide security guards, cameras, alarms and so on, and as private companies that will do anything to keep your business, we can usually count on them. What if a thief manages to break through anyway? Perhaps the contract we signed with our security company says they should pursue the thief and get our stuff back, or we don’t pay them. Though government police are not legally bound to protect us, contracts could ensure that our service providers do.

Clearly, there are preferable alternatives to police and prisons provided by government. What about security systems and all the other technologies that exist for security? What about security guards? What about guns? If every house had a gun, or just that every house could have a gun, thieves would be more reluctant to break in. Or the police could be privatised. The incentives would be based on helping the employers, ie. the community who hired them, rather than the state, ie. the powerful that are far removed from society. They could still get disability payments. Risks would be priced into the costs of hiring them, like they are in every other private sector job. Or, the police could be security agents designated by the community itself to help people when needed. There is no doubt they would be compensated if wounded or their families compensated if they were killed; after all, that is what happens everywhere in the world.

Even better in my opinion, neighbourhoods could band together to protect themselves from thieves and thugs. In fact, that is exactly what happened in Cairo during the revolution, when there were no police. Being forced to take care of themselves, the locals banded together, and in some areas of the city fostered a sense of community as had never existed before. As Munir Fasheh describes in his TED Talk, instead of being citizens, “citizens with a defined national number, protected by a national government, connected to a national bank that steals from the people of the communities”, we should behave as communities, with our loyalty not to an anonymous state and government but to the people we know we can depend on. (16) That way, we will be safe from the thugs who operate outside the law and those who operate within it as well.

(1) http://www.cracked.com/article_18620_6-completely-legal-ways-cops-can-screw-you.html; http://reason.com/blog/2011/05/18/no-right-to-resist-rogue-cops; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pO75JjAUyeo

(2) http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0611/56419.html

(3) http://reason.com/archives/2010/12/07/the-war-on-cameras; http://reason.com/blog/2011/05/26/reasontv-the-governments-war

(4) http://reason.com/blog/2011/06/23/reason-on-tv-epstein-judge-nap

(5) http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/feb/16/protest-police-liberty-central

(6) http://www.truthdig.com/avbooth/item/hope_is_action_hedges_ellsberg_arrested_at_white_house_protest_20101217/

(7) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jUU3yCy3uI

(8) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4N7e2FohN4A

(9) http://www.copblock.org/4308/cop-who-paralyzed-man-for-life-continues-to-be-violent/

(10) http://lewrockwell.com/gregory/gregory213.html

(11) http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/crime-courts/privacy-fears-over-the-device-that-can-eavesdrop-on-crimes-1.1036149

(12) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130833487

(13) http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/03/02/ap/politics/main20038514.shtml

(14) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/3140207/Government-spies-could-scan-every-call-text-and-email.html

(15) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zihNLwQDM_E

(16) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0MVsJhTdSQ

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.