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Competition

July 14, 2017 Leave a comment

This post is part 6 of my series on why I am no longer an anarcho-capitalist (ancap).

Ancaps will not let you define capitalism in any way but theirs. Instead of acknowledging the decades of debate surrounding the term and the history of actual capitalism, they will post a link to a dictionary, or quote their favourite economist, and ignore everything you say. As such, it can be difficult to have a conversation with them. You talk about what you dislike about capitalism and they interrupt with “that’s not capitalism”. They write articles talking up the good things that have happened under actually exisiting capitalism but distance themselves from the bad things, as if one could have existed without the other. They like to take all the supposedly good things from capitalism as evidence that it works, and call all the bad things it brings “socialism”. They attempt to have their cake and eat it too.

Not all problems stem from the state. Slavery could easily continue without a state. Slavery was not and is not a result of the state. Neither was the Irish Potato Famine, as landlords exported food they owned in a way that should be considered legitimate to propertarians. These are problems of capitalism that would be problems whether or not ancaps’ particular vision were realized. Another such problem is that of competition.

Not everything can be reduced to economics. You say we should stop competing with each other and share and ancaps will accuse you of wanting monopolies. But anarcho-communists do not want monopolies. They want gift economies. A gift economy is, essentially, where things are free. Yes, it is possible; indeed, unlike trade, gift economies have been the norm throughout human existence, just like anarchy, equality and mutual aid.

People who say capitalism is the most efficient economic system ever devised do not seem to understand how capitalism works. Capitalism is not decentralized. Whether statist or not, capitalism necessarily concentrates money and decision-making in the hands of a small group of people, essentially the owners of the means of production. Corporations spend money on taxes, managers, shareholders, lobbyists, security guards, lawyers, accountants, human resources, marketing and advertising, none of which would be necessary in a system where everything was free. And competition creates huge amounts of redundancy as firms spend huge amounts on R&D producing competing but similar products, instead of pooling resources and creating something good for everyone. Moreover, competition among firms leads to paying the lowest possible wages, often resulting in slavery or near-slavery as people in places like China, the Congo and US jails receive pitiful wages and horrible working conditions when an efficient system could produce the same goods without inflicting such pain on its producers.

Alfie Kohn’s book No Contest: The Case against Competition dismantles every claim about the beneficial effects of competition. This post barely scratches the surface of his work. I recommend reading it through for a fuller understanding. (A lecture on the subject can be found here.)

For one, competition is not efficient: it is exceedingly inefficient. You have any number of people working for any number of firms to produce the same products and innovations. You have firms such as pharmaceutical giants all competing for scientific research into the same things, then spending a huge part of their budgets on marketing, administration and other waste. (See here, for example.) Every dollar taken as profit, or spent on marketing, sales or advertising, is a dollar capitalism itself has taken from you. If you work in marketing, etc., you need to understand your jobs are completely unnecessary.

But it’s “natural”, right? All creatures compete, right? Yes and no. There is an enormous amount of mutual aid in nature, even across species but especially within them. Some species engage in somewhat violent competition for mates, though that competition is rarely fatal. Is competition inherent in evolutionary success? Only a simplistic understanding of evolution would imply such. Stephen Jay Gould points out

The equation of competition with success in natural selection is merely a cultural prejudice …. Success defined as leaving more offspring can … be attained by a large variety of strategies – including mutualism and symbiosis – that we could call cooperative. There is no a priori preference in the general statement of natural selection for either competitive or cooperative behavior. (In Kohn, 21)

Besides, modern humans are a bit different. We have created a civilization where competition is no longer necessary, because abundance has become the norm. We do not need to compete over, say, food, water and land, because there is enough for all of us, and we value sharing and cooperation. Whatever nature appears to dictate through the lens of our culture, the reality is there is nothing inevitable about competing.

So why encourage it? Kids don’t like it. Kohn says “I am aware of no studies that found a preference for competition over cooperation – providing the subjects had experienced the latter in some fashion.” (32) If given a choice, children would rather cooperate and eliminate the need to divide winners from losers. While a few kids may enjoy competing over cooperating, the vast majority appear not to. Competition as we know it is largely a learned phenomenon, continually reaffirmed in school rankings, games and sports. This focus on competition, especially on creating the myth that it is inevitable and beneficial, serves those in power, who want us to compete with each other to serve the rich, rather than work together to make serving the rich unnecessary.

Kohn also asked the question “Do we perform better when we are trying to beat others?” and found overwhelming evidence to suggest the answer is almost never. Competition tends to bring down performance, not enhance it. (47) Competition puts intense pressure on us, and not even pressure to succeed (which in itself is not necessarily good) but pressure to beat others. Trying to do something right and well is quite different from trying to beat others. (55) It might result in lies, tripping other people up, heartbreak, and so on, when in the absence of competition we need not stress but simply be as good as we choose to be.

Competition encourages win-lose thinking, as opposed to win-win thinking. (127) It poisons our relationships. (132) It discourages altruism and empathy while encouraging envy, mistrust and contempt. (140-1) And it is unnecessary.

The results of the many studies, which clear away the myths about competition’s inevitability and benefits, should mean radical changes to the way we do things, from the market economy to kids in school and at home, from examinations to debates, from meting out justice to having fun. Unfortunately, it is fundamental to capitalism, so those who identify with capitalism are likely to have a hard time unlearning competition.

Workers should not compete with each other, locally or across countries, but unite to unionize or take over their workplaces or start cooperatives or overthrow capitalism altogether and begin sharing the product of our labor.

Warlords

February 26, 2014 Leave a comment

“Anarchy is no guarantee that some people won’t kill, injure, kidnap, defraud or steal from others. Government is a guarantee that some will.” – Gustave de Molinari

The warning that, after the removal of government, gangs and warlords would take is not an argument for government; it is an argument against government. Government is not different from warlords. It is the result of the institutionalization of warlords as the formal rulers of a given territory. This argument might confuse some people, so allow me to explain.

Max Weber defined the state as that organisation with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given (national) territory. “Legitimate” here merely means legal, as actual legitimacy is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. That is why Albert Jay Nock countered Weber by saying the state “claims and exercises a monopoly of crime” over its territory. (Statism is the belief that this monopoly of crime is good or necessary.) David S. D’Amato explains its effect: “the state’s principal manner of acting is to make peaceful interactions crimes while protecting the institutional crime of ruling class elites.”

After all, what does the state do? It steals, but it calls its theft taxation. It kidnaps, but calls kidnapping arrest. It counterfeits, but refers to state counterfeiting as monetary policy. It commits murder on a wide scale, but prefers terms such as war and execution. The state claims to act to protect person and property, but paradoxically aggresses against person and property. It claims to protect freedom while taking it away. It claims to aid the less fortunate when in fact it benefits the powerful at the expense of everyone else. If I go to another country to kill people I do not know, I am a murderer. When the military does it, it is fighting terrorism and promoting democracy. This sleight of hand and clouding of truth is how the state manufactures legitimacy. From a historical perspective, the purpose of the state is and has always been the same. Franz Oppenheimer explains.

The State, completely in its genesis, essentially and almost completely during the first stages of its existence, is a social institution, forced by a victorious group of men on a defeated group, with the sole purpose of regulating the dominion of the victorious group over the vanquished, and securing itself against revolt from within and attacks from abroad. Teleologically, this dominion had no other purpose than the economic exploitation of the vanquished by the victors. No primitive state known to history originated in any other manner.

The warlords have already taken over. That is the problem.

two warlords

two warlords

At this point, those with some understanding of history point out such is the way of the world: states and empires constantly expand their power and attempt to conquer us all. But again, this claim is not an argument in favour of government. It is an admission that a monopoly on crime is wrong. Vocal opposition on moral grounds to states and empires can lead to resistance and revolution. If people understand why the state, the concentration of power and the monopoly on crime, are unnecessary and wrong, they can fight it. They can find ways to avoid paying taxes, avoid conscription and arrest, set up systems of mutual aid to become independent, and counteract the lies of the schools and the media.

Countries can still be invaded if the states do not comply with the empire of their time. A military is no guarantee of security. However, the difference between a state society and a free society is resistance is considered legitimate and necessary in the latter. Those who believe in freedom believe in the right to defend oneself against all oppressors by any means necessary without having to put on a uniform. Freedom must be defended by decentralised forces. People will need to fight the power or they will neither achieve nor maintain their freedom for long. But it is possible, and it is worth it.

Finally, we often run up against the claim that domination, hierarchy and elitism are part of our nature, which is why formalizing them is accepting the inevitable. It is unsurprising that we should hear this claim so often. Everyone in our society with a few years of schooling claims to understand human nature, and invokes it whenever defending the status quo. However, in my experience, most such claims reflect the thinking of the immediate world around the speaker. In other words, we believe what we have experienced reflects the whole range of human possibility. Looking more carefully through history, psychology and anthropology, however, we can find innumerable counter-examples. One need look no further than the history of the highland people of Southeast Asia (Zomia) for people who have consciously avoided domination and hierarchy for centuries. My question to those who cite human nature as an excuse for domination is, should we not be allowed to resist and defend ourselves? Should we give up and submit to those who desire power over us? Yes, we would need numbers. Yes, we would need time. But if you recognise that warlordism and violence are wrong, why would you not support us? We should unite to fight all forms of warlords and replace them with freedom.

Freedom to reach our potential

April 25, 2013 6 comments

The reason I advocate freedom, in whatever forms seem both ideal and possible, above just about everything else is because it is the single most important thing for realising humankind’s potential. In today’s world, freedom is ebbing away. States are getting bigger and bolder. Propaganda is getting more sophisticated. More people are coming to depend on the state for more privileges and services, and the state is coming to seem more necessary than ever. People are willing to give up their freedom instead of taking responsibility for the most important things in their lives: security, health, education and where a sizeable proportion of their income goes. The following outlines the benefits of freedom and the basis for my claim that freedom is how humankind can reach its potential.

What is our potential, anyway? Psychology, anthropology and history can provide us answers, as we can see what has been done and what can be done if people decide. As individuals and societies, we have the potential to be responsible for ourselves and those around us, to take care of each other. We can have egalitarian societies. We can have peaceful societies. We can reach untold heights of technological advancement and material progress. We can wipe out diseases. We can solve ancient mysteries. We can adapt when systems break down. We can be happy, healthy, wealthy, wise and at peace. This is our potential. But how do we get there? By concentrating power? Enacting laws and regulations? My answer is to build a free society.

freedom liberty anarchy

What advantages would a stateless, voluntary, anarchic society have in realising our potential?

Art. As many of the people reading this will be used to freedom of expression, they may not appreciate its value. Art is a way of exposing and mocking oppressors and violent people, of communicating things we all know are wrong on a deep level. In a free society, it would still have the power to expose wrongdoing and bring people together, while providing a necessary outlet for all forms of self expression. In addition, art is an expression of life and adds to our enjoyment of it.

Economy. Free and open economies, meaning ones with unhampered freedom to do the work you want, move where you want to do it and keep the full product of your labour means more prosperity more equally shared. I have gone into this elsewhere, so please follow these links. On why regulation is not protection but crony capitalism, see here. On what the free market really means, why it would reduce inequality and why it means a smoother business cycle, see here. Finally, two studies (Hamilton and Whalley 1984; Winters et al. 2003) find that fully liberalising labour markets, which means letting anyone move anywhere to work, could add forty trillion dollars to the global economy. Freedom of movement would also unleash the various benefits of diversity. Freedom facilitates exchange (whether of goods, services or labour) among those optimally positioned to make the most of it.

Health. At present, we are chained by laws that limit what we can put into our bodies, while subsidies and regulatory handouts to large agribusiness and chemical corporations (and whatever Monsanto is) distort the market for food, making processed and GMO foods competitive with fresh, local produce. State regulators often miss dangerous things, whether by negligence (since they pay no price for being wrong) or corruption (since many of the people who make dangerous things are put in charge of regulatory agencies, Monsanto again the clearest example). Regulation per se is not wrong, but it is better handled by the wisdom of the crowd. That is why we have so many websites (and before the internet, books and magazines) by and for consumers to make the best choices for their health. (Find more here.)

Education. For over a hundred years now, the state has controlled education nearly everywhere with public education whose curriculum only those in power can approve. The result is not the best education for everyone, as we were promised, but the indoctrination of every generation in the state’s values: obedience, nationalism, the glory of military service and how to get a job in the modern corporate economy. What could education be like? There are so many possibilities, only one of which involves spending most of one’s childhood at a desk in a classroom. Giving parents and children their freedom would mean far more experimentation in education.

Justice. Our system of positive law, with the state creating, interpreting and enforcing laws, as well as controlling the court system, is necessarily biased in favour of the state. Justice only comes through the state system if the result does not concern those who control the state. But a system of privately-produced, or polycentric, law could serve the average person far more effectively and efficiently.

Peace and security. With no criminalisation of victimless pursuits, there would be far fewer criminals and no violent black markets. With no taxation to force the costs of war onto the masses, a major incentive for war is gone. With no ability to wage widescale war, feuds may take place but none of the worst horrors we have seen can occur. With no indoctrination into nationalism, free people will likely unite to defend each other, given their shared interest in collective security, but will not be forced into supporting a cause they have the choice to opt out of. They will form organisations to keep the peace, anything from neighbourhood watches to militias, depending on what kind of threat they perceive; and dispute resolution will always be available because there will be no monopoly of it.

Happiness. Fewer people’s lives torn apart by the state, whether put in jail for a victimless crime or killed in a war, means more happiness. Inequalities, a source of stress, illness and violence, would be lower (non-existent in communes). The uncertainty of wild economic mood swings, the unemployment that is an inevitable part of a highly-regulated market, the continual threat of violence for something one did not even know was a crime—all would be gone. Not all sources of unhappiness would evaporate, of course; one should not expect miracles. But there is reason to believe we would be happier.

All these things are possible because free people can advance their lot through trial and error. You know so if you have lived in a society that is free in any given way. If the state pays little attention to science and technology, there has probably been enormous such progress in your lifetime. Humans are natural scientists. Progress is inevitable in any area they put their minds to—provided, of course, it is not blocked by the powerful.

How does freedom get us to where we could be?

Imagine the strictest totalitarian state, perhaps like the Soviet Union, or even along the lines of 1984. All the human potentials listed above are absent. Now, imagine if the unfettered freedom to move to new places was somehow introduced to society. Not only would people have the chance to better their material circumstances; they would have the chance to see how people in other places lived and worked. They would learn different ideas and beliefs. The same could be true if the people could consume whatever media or art they chose, or if the state played no role whatsoever in education or science. One person would realise he or she should be allowed to say and do what he wants, and most importantly to think differently, and would spread the word to others. If the idea of liberty caught on, it could bring the edifice of all forms of oppression crashing down. The idea of freedom liberates minds that are receptive to it.

chains freedom potential

Now, imagine a society six months after having eliminated all forms of oppression, including indentured servitude, feudalism, social hierarchy, debt and wage slavery, taxation, laws and central planning. If people made the conscious choice to end these things, their society would not collapse into chaos. The first six months would be a trial period for them, as they attempted various forms of ownership of production, mutual aid and reciprocal exchange. They would be taking uncertain steps, and some people would attempt to set up governments, gangs and other vehicles for concentrating power. The free people would need to act in concert to reverse such attempts.

How about after five years? After five years of maximising spontaneous order society would likely be bursting with energy. The people would have come to certain conclusions based on the past years of trial and error, and certain norms would predominate. A culture that valued freedom would put it into practice in all of its institutions. There could be voluntary institutions for everything that needs to be done collectively, such as infrastructure, education, health care and security. Some would be provided through mutual aid, while others would be available for purchase.

A currency would probably have been decided on, as free people usually come up with a currency through a process of elimination. That said, there might be competing currencies, even in the same place, which would protect against inflation because people can use the alternatives whenever one currency is debased. There would also probably be communities with various systems of moneyless exchange, such as a local exchange trading system, or LETS.

Communities would have various rule systems based on contracts. Many rules would be uniform across geographic spaces, as they are today. Norms spread but they usually do not spread everywhere except by force (think of the global spread of liberal democracy). Even five years into a revolution of spontaneous order, people would still be testing and developing their rule systems, and would be learning from best practices shared by other communities.

This society is possible. It requires not a leap in nature but merely a shift in mindset. People need to unite, organise to achieve their goals, and stay vigilant to protect their freedom and their security.

freedom emancipation

Spontaneous order as an alternative to imposed order

April 18, 2013 13 comments

I think tearing down the state would be one of the best things humanity could do for itself. I know most people disagree, but I wonder if that is partly because they don’t know much about spontaneous order.

One of the main reasons we still have the state is humans have a bias toward needing to feel in control. We believe not only that we can control our surroundings but that we should. Control means order, right? The more control we have–over the whole world, ideally–the safer we are. The theory of spontaneous order demonstrates the shortsightedness of this argument (as does the incredible damage the state has done to the world since its inception).

Spontaneous order is one of the most powerful forces in the universe, but most people do not know it by name. Spontaneous order, or self-organisation, has been used to explain the expansion of the universe and the movement of celestial objects, the evolution of life on earth, the formation of snowflakes and crystal structure, the activities of cells, ant colonies, beehives, flocks of birds, language, culture, markets and cities. It is the order, contrary to what we tend to expect, that arises when we stop trying to control things and let them be. A single ant could not direct an ant colony; a beehive is not run by a committee of bees. Likewise, central planning fails miserably while free people build wealth for themselves.

spontaneous order

When people are freed from whoever is constraining or oppressing them, the norm is not rioting and Hobbes’ war of all against all. It is people peacefully cooperating to do what they agree is important. Look at what happens during revolutions. Look at what happens during wars. When all law and order break down, to the extent they can, people often work together, because they need each other. Spontaneous order is the phenomenon that explains it. Never mind humans; when anything, particularly life on earth, is left alone by outside or artificial constraints, it tends to flourish.

As far as we know, the idea dates back to ancient China. Here is something Laozi said over 2000 years ago.

The more laws and restrictions there are,
The poorer people become.
The sharper men’s weapons,
The more trouble in the land.
The more ingenious and clever men are,
The more strange things happen.
The more rules and regulations,
The more thieves and robbers.

Therefore the sage says:
I take no action and people are reformed.
I enjoy peace and people become honest.
I do nothing and the people become rich.
I have no desires and people return to the good and simple life.

Statism is just one idea for organising society. The state is very good at fulfilling its purpose: concentrating power in the hands of a few people: once kings and courtiers but now politicians, top bureaucrats, heads of the security apparatus and corporate clients. But it is not good at leaving people alone to reach their potential.

spontaneous order hierarchy network

When we are free, economies thrive, because individuals are far more empowered and responsible. Science and technology speed ahead. The most free and open complex societies in history are the ones that made all the most important advances in knowledge and the arts—not China in its days of oppression but in its days of openness. Not in today’s Middle East with its corrupt dictatorships but in the Middle East that advanced mathematics, astronomy and medicine and saved all the books the Europeans had thrown out as blasphemous. Not that Europe; the Europe since the beginning of the Enlightenment. But not the Europe of today, either, with its seemingly endless regulations, bureaucracy and welfare state. Europe used to consist of many small states with little power to regulate their societies. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe puts it,

Contrary to orthodoxy, then, precisely the fact that Europe possessed a highly decentralized power structure composed of countless independent political units explains the origin of capitalism—the expansion of market participation and of economic growth—in the Western world. It is not by accident that capitalism first flourished under conditions of extreme political decentralization: in the northern Italian city states, in southern Germany, and in the secessionist Low Countries (Netherlands).

People all around the world have so much wealth in their communities that, if they could own and transform however they like, could lift them out of poverty. Instead, they either do not have freedom to own and defend their property so they cannot use it, or are told not to work for themselves but to come and pick up a cheque so they can remain part of the wider economy. Their potential is still there, though. The benefits of freeing people from artificial constraints demonstrate the amazing power of spontaneous order. It is something voluntaryists and other freedom-minded people should help others understand better in order to make their case.

Against human nature

October 5, 2012 2 comments

Anarchists are repeatedly informed that anarchy runs counter to human nature. I have already written about why it is in fact in line with our nature, why our nature would suggest not putting a monopoly of violence into the hands of the few and that anarchy has been the norm throughout human history. And my analysis does not hold a candle to John Hasnas’s The Obviousness of Anarchy.

One reason they say anarchy and nature are in conflict is the term “human nature” is thrown around so often. Millions of people now consider themselves experts in psychology, whether or not they know anything about life outside their village. This post addresses what statists seem to believe human nature approves, legitimises or renders “inevitable”.

Much of what statists claim to believe falls prey to the naturalistic fallacy. What if anthropological and psychological data find genocide, rape and slavery part of our nature? To engage in them is no less immoral. It is inevitable, they say, that the few will come to rule over the many. If you think rulers are good, feel free to live under them; but why would you want to impose them on others simply because you believe it is natural? If rulers are bad, surely you support the anarchist ideal of taking monopoly powers away from the people who want to rule over others; or at least of letting others live under arrangements without political hierarchy.

What is natural about nationalism? Humans did not evolve in nations of millions of people. Nationalism is an extension of a natural feeling of tribalism (or perhaps even racism–again, whether or not we are naturally racist does not make racism good). But an appeal to human nature surely implies our loyalty belongs with our family and community, not with millions of people we do not know and a system we have no influence over. Having leaders may be natural and good, at least for specific purposes; however, politicians are not leaders. And how having national representatives could be human nature eludes me.

Not only do we have nationalism, but we have borders. Humans are animals, and like all other animals, they will move north, south, east and west to find food, shelter and whatever else they are into. Mexicans’ wanting to cross the border into the US is as natural as a bear walking through the woods from Montana to Wyoming. And yet, we are told this system somehow accords with human nature. Perhaps it is the need for a territory, a home we can call our own, that leads us to believe in borders. However, letting people into a country in no way violates the sanctity of one’s home. Can one fairly claim an entire country as one’s exclusive property? If not, there is no moral argument for borders.

What is natural about widescale, industrial war? And if human nature can explain war, why do we not hear “peace is in our nature” more often? Which of those two options, peace or war, would you, a human, prefer?

What is natural about criminalising food and drugs, and adding fluoride to drinking water? What is natural about central banks, national economic planning and laws regulating every aspect of life? And if statists who appeal to human nature agree these things are folly, they may ponder why such terrible laws and policies are allowed to exist.

If their concern about anarchy versus human nature is the viability of ending the state, objectors might consider the case of slavery. The question was not, “is it viable?”, but “is it right?” Morality alone was a good enough reason to abolish it. The non-aggression principle holds in the case of the state just as in that of slavery. Not only does it accord with our nature; it is the right thing to do.

Nationalism

September 4, 2011 5 comments
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
(I have written extensively on the problems of nationalism elsewhere. See here for the logic for individualism.)

The root of opposition to immigration, along with the root of war and other statist evils, is nationalism. Nationalism is the irrational belief that one’s country is superior to all others. It places the nation above the individuals that make it up, meaning that if for any reason the nation is in trouble, the individual must lay everything on the line for it. And it must go.

I agree with Professor Stephen Walt that nationalism is the most powerful force in the world today.

“[M]odern states also have a powerful incentive to promote national unity — in other words, to foster nationalism — because having a loyal and united population that is willing to sacrifice (and in extreme cases, to fight and die) for the state increases its power and thus its ability to deal with external threats. In the competitive world of international politics, in short, nations have incentives to obtain their own state and states have incentives to foster a common national identity in their populations.”

And today’s strongest states, including the US and China, are ones where nationalism is mainstream and highly valued.

Do you feel pride in your country? Does your heart swell when you see a flag or hear a national anthem? I have trouble understanding why someone would feel anything. A country is not a person; it is just an idea. If you like the idea, live there. But why is it we feel deep affiliation with people from the same country rather than some other of the millions of characteristics that make us who we are? Why don’t we build the community of other people who like reggae? Why don’t we form armies to defend people of the same shoe size? Because we have chosen a different arbitrary distinction from others to kill for. To me, it’s all the same nonsense. And if your heart still thumps an extra beat because of a flag, well, as George Carlin said, symbols are for the symbol minded.

Reactions to the Olympics are a great example of why nationalism is ridiculous. Wow, my country won a gold medal. No. Someone from within the same line on a political map as you won a medal, through his or her own hard work. There may be nothing that is more obviously an individual effort than winning a gold medal at the Olympics (notwithstanding the coach, or the team, whoever is involved). The people from the same country have absolutely nothing to feel proud of. They didn’t do anything. Tribalists find validation in the actions of others from their chosen group, and weak people take credit for other people’s accomplishments. Besides, if I consider myself a citizen of the world (and by the way I do, it is not just something cool to say), shouldn’t I feel proud if ANYONE wins a medal? Whichever country wins the Olympics, it is my country!

We are too proud already. Pride in your own efforts leads to narcissism as much as collective pride leads to collective narcissism. But individual narcissism is not fueled by history text books that gloss over facts and make people believe fairy tales about how wonderful their country has always been. Like collectivism, individual narcissism can lead to war, but only when it comes from a psychopath in power and nationalists follow him blindly. I simply do not see anything to feel proud of aside from one’s own results. But maybe those results are only worth being proud of if they benefit others. So how about we consider everyone in the world when acting, rather than just our country?

Is it ever nationalism that motivates people to improve their community? I doubt it. Some nationalists have that sense of responsibility and some don’t. But if people are aware of the rest of the world, they are just as likely to go somewhere else to help people. Nationalism cannot be moral because it is exclusive, and morality depends on universal values. Obviously, there is nothing more moral about helping people in your own country than helping people elsewhere, since all people are of equal worth, equally deserving of the application of morality such as the non-aggression principle.

But to a nationalist, some people are simply superior. The people in our exclusive club are the best, and the people allied with our country are pretty good (though not to be trusted), and the people we are told are our enemies are evil. It is so easy to manipulate nationalists. Take Americans’ reactions to 9/11. It was immediately assumed that “our country is under attack”. Leaving aside the fact that there was only one attack and it ended, what connection did people in Maryland and Florida and Nebraska have with the people who were killed? None whatsoever. They might well have hated each other if they had known each other personally. And if they had died in car crashes, they would have been completely ignored. But instead, the people went into a frenzy of fear, anger and despair for people they never would have met. Likewise, what did American Muslims (and other minorities) have to do with 9/11? Still nothing. Yet the Center for American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., counted some 1,700 attacks on Muslims in the five months following September 11. Nationalism is used to spread hate, which is good for politicians but bad for minorities and taxpayers. Americans approved of the invasion of two countries that had nothing to do with the attack because they were told that the country and “national values” were at stake.

Those values are largely illusory, however, because they are things like freedom and justice, which people of all cultures want. And belief in the superiority, or just the distinctiveness, of our own tribe blinds us to the many, many things that make us all human and all equally deserving of compassion and respect and almost the same everywhere. And taking pride in an exclusive part of humanity ignores that fact.

The Adventures in Space programme and the Olympics are further products of nationalism. Hosting the Olympics is a big source of national pride, so some people are willing to put up with any number of billions of dollars (a number that is continually revised upward) taken to pay for it. Space travel used to be a source of pride, during the Cold War, when the Soviets launched a couple of rockets out of Earth’s atmosphere and the US spent tens of billions of dollars to feel good about itself again.

Nationalism is also about discriminating against minorities. Politicians benefit from providing the people with an enemy, because an enemy is a reason to give money and power to them. They will protect you from the Jews, Huguenots, Gypsies, or whatever group you have been told you hate recently. They might see others as “dangerous to our way of life”, competing for “national resources” or otherwise a threat to our precious possessions. To people who can be taught to hate others for what they are, power is a zero-sum game among ethnic groups. And all the civil wars we have seen have been caused by this kind of thinking, from Yugoslavia to Rwanda. Everyone different from us is a potential enemy.

As such, minorities, largely or entirely locked out of power, might take to terrorism to achieve freedom from an oppressive majority (separatism) but get tarred as evil terrorists who cannot be reasoned with. The truth is that they keep coming back because they have been denied their freedom. Nationalism requires the integrity of the nation state, which means that anyone wanting to separate must be eliminated. As a result, we get terrorism in Turkey, Sri Lanka, Israel and Spain, heavy repression in Tibet, a highly militarised standoff in the Taiwan Strait, and a strong state wherever terrorism can be used as an excuse to expand it. Nationalism on both sides created the separatist terrorists. As Ilya Somin notes, “playing with nationalism is like playing with fire. It’s not inevitable that you will get burned, but the risk is high…[and] a small nationalistic flame can often turn into a conflagration that burns down the whole neighborhood.”

Governments also like nationalism because they want to be able to sign a deal at the top and assume that it is legitimate for the entire group each party represents. Nationalists believe we need representatives because we are a coherent community. A “free trade agreement”, for example, will contain various handouts to the loudest of special interest groups and it will be imposed over an entire national economy because some people at the top claimed to speak in the name of everyone underneath them. Nationalists might accept the agreement because, though the agreement benefits some individuals at the expense of others, it is all for the elusive “greater good”.

At the extreme, when politicians and generals manufacture threats to the equally-elusive “national security”, nationalists buy in easily. They are thus more likely to sacrifice their money, freedom and lives for the nation. However, if the elites could not count on collectivist sheep, they would not have risked starting a fight in the first place. Journalists will often fall in line in times of “national crisis” (as if a real crisis could permeate or be confined to one country), as Dan Rather did after 9/11, equating “patriotism”, or unthinking loyalty to one’s country, with doing whatever the president told Americans to do. “I am willing to give the government, the president and the military the benefit of any doubt here in the beginning”, Rather said. In other words, he would give up the career of journalism, which means asking the tough questions and speaking truth to power, for that of cheerleading. Nationalism shuts up the minority that disagrees with the president’s war plans, calling them traitors and accusing them of siding with the enemy. Nationalism is thus a means for government control of the willing and coercion of the unwilling.

In the same vein, research finds that it only takes a few hours for us to be conditioned to fear and hate people only superficially different from ourselves. We do not need to know anything about someone else to discriminate against him or her; just being told he or she is different is enough. Being on a winning team (which to people who do not participate in teams or have achievements of their own could be a nation or race) is a source of self esteem, as is denigrating those on other teams. We can be given any number of reasons to believe we are better, and our criteria for what is good about a country tend to be entirely based on things we believe ours is best at. Freedom is the most important thing for a country; our country is the most free; therefore, our country is the best. This of course is uncritical ethnocentrism; and ignorant people fall into its warm embrace whenever the people on top need a favour.

One problem nationalism creates is that of borders—in effect, who owns what. Borders make sense when they are amicably agreed on by owners or negotiators appointed by owners. The borders of your property, for example, or unguarded borders in Europe that now demarcate cultural boundaries rather than the do-not-pass-or-we-shoot variety, actually delineate something. But when nationalism comes into play, and groups that, hundreds or thousands of years ago (before national boundaries were invented), used to control this territory, feel that it is theirs (and by extension, not yours), they are willing to kill each other to secure that border. These are our property and our people and our resources and our little lines drawn on the map.

But where is the logic of these boundaries? Even the idea that “we” used to control this or that territory, or have done for a long time, usually has no merit. Almost every (if not every) national boundary has been created by an empire. The empires of Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Russia, China, plus all the kingdoms that disappeared before the Treaty of Westphalia, all drew lines around their possessions. They needed to be clear what was whose. At the same time, these possessions contained people not native to the empire’s centre of power on them so they needed to keep them in line by inventing nationalities. Almost every (if not every) one of these borders did not reflect the cultural makeup of the people it enclosed: they were arbitrary. But when the empires left, instead of redrawing the borders, the elites decided they wanted to make everyone inside those borders think they were a cohesive group—a nation—because it would help them gain power. No government wants to relinquish control of part of its territory because it means less power; and less power is out of the question for anybody in it. So they invented myths about how everyone within the imperial borders has always been a nation, and since we are the political party who will help keep our nation together, support us. The story of post-colonial electoral politics in a nutshell.

Now, nationalism is an arbitrary expression of desire to kill and die for a space of land within whatever border the government claims to control, wherever the borders are, however many years ago they were set. Some form of tribalism is probably natural to humans, as we, like other primates, are territorial. First, however, we must not assume that something natural is something good. Second, man’s territoriality is an argument for individual property rights, not for nationalism. We all have something to defend against aggression, but to think we should defend an entire nation is to take the idea of property or tribe to ridiculous lengths. Your country is not your property. When I express this individualist point of view, collectivists ask me, “so what if one country was invading your country? Would you defend it with your life?” Quite simply, the answer is no. I would defend my friends and family to the death, and I would organise to ward off any attacks on other innocents as best I could. But my friends and family are all over the world. I have no deeper a connection to someone in “my” country that I do not know than I do to someone in Burkina Faso that I do not know.

Nationalism has always been dangerous, but now it is simply irrelevant. The only argument that is superficially plausible for the continuation of the nation state is the military and its defense of national security. It may have made sense when there were real threats to people from other nation states; hence the union of the Czech and Slovak people, or the Yugoslav republics, during the 20th century to protect against the predation of external empires. However, today’s national security threats are not from empires and foreign militaries (unless you are in the US or Israel’s crosshairs). Now, nearly all wars are intrastate, rather than interstate. The closest thing to national security threats from abroad are terrorists (whose threat is almost always a response to government-sanctioned military aggression), criminal organisations (which would barely exist if drugs, guns and prostitution were legal), and environmental disasters (rescue’s being entrusted to the same people whose main training is in weapons makes little sense; like the nature of the threat, rescue teams could be transnational). There are no national security threats because there is no national security. The nation itself is an illusion, and all countries are based on it. There is no longer any reason to have countries at all.

Though tribalism may be innate, in today’s world tribalist impulses are mitigated by the internationalisation of our society through our exposure to media, people and ideas from all around the world. Exclusive, outdated, national celebrations and traditions such as Independence Day are creations of the elites to sell loyalty to the state. The state and the nation are linked in the imagination, so when the state goes to war, it tells everyone that the nation is going to war. That is why we have the idea of “the national interest” and “national security”. Have you ever noticed that whatever the government wants happens to be in our national interest as well? Nationalism threatens to deny access to the rest of the world through narrow-minded protectionist policies that limit a country’s economic potential, and the creation of enemies that legitimises taking more money and more freedom from the people.

The idea of democracy promotion is related to nationalism, because it is based on a belief that our ideas are the best, because they are our ideas. Again, we are talking about ethnocentrism. Our culture is better and we want you to learn from us, then you will be better people. And as soon as a revolution breaks out somewhere they don’t know anything about, democrats say they are fighting for democracy. My guess is, they are fighting for freedom. Freedom to choose a few of the people who rule you is not real freedom. Real freedom means not being subject to rule by force by anyone. But our ethnocentrism blinds us, and leads us think they want a system just like ours. Maybe they want more freedom than we have. Maybe they only like the idea of democracy because they lack other ideas. After all, most people in the self-righteous rich democracies of the world tend to believe so fervently in the superiority of their system over all others that they have been forcing it down the throats of the rest of the world for decades. You should all be democracies like us, because we are America and so can you. If you want to help the people in a post-revolutionary state like Tunisia or Egypt, help them become self-sufficient, not as a nation but as individuals, communities, or whatever groups they want. Let them trade with whomever they want. Let them travel to any country they want. Help them build independent and voluntary businesses, charities and other institutions to deal with their problems. Teach entrepreneurship, medicine, and other things that healthy communities require. One thing they do not require is a new regime that does not know or care about them to tell them what to do. They can figure that out for themselves.

Why is it negative? Let us ask the hundreds of millions of people who were killed because someone loved his country. Nationalism is an arbitrary distinction created by elites to justify accumulating power, growing governments and starting wars, and if you do not know that, you do not understand nationalism. (Here is a primer.)

Nationalism is an outdated impulse based on our tribal instincts and has no place in modern society. It is another way elites divide us when we could move past such simplistic and dangerous divisions. Anarchy means no nations and no national rulers but cooperation with anyone who wishes to join us. It thus leads to understanding, respect and peace.

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.