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.
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.
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.
“Anarchism is stateless socialism.” – Mikhail Bakunin
Naturalist and anarchist Pyotr (Peter) Kropotkin wrote Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution (available here) in 1902 in response to claims that natural selection and “survival of the fittest” meant the struggle of all against all. The historians, he explained, taught us of wars, cruelty and oppression, and the state, glad to find an excuse, explained to us that those things would be the norm if not for an intervening authority. (Hobbes’ “state of nature” being an unfortunately-well-known example of why we think this way.)
His book describes a different point of view: mutual aid among humans and other animals. It shows not only how they take care of each other, but the evolution of the morality of mutual aid. The “Law of Nature”/“kill or be killed” doctrine is simplistic and only covers a part of the existence of animals in the wild or humans in society. Members of a wide variety of species engage in mutual aid, not only within the species but sometimes across them, as we learn when we see birds cleaning the teeth of crocodiles.
Though competition among people can help economies grow, far more important is taking care of one another. We help out our family members, our friends and even strangers who can do nothing for us. As I explain elsewhere, we possess love, kindness, empathy, sympathy, caring, and a sense of fairness. For various reasons, we may not cooperate regularly with those in our community. But we could.
Mutual aid, examples of which are detailed below, has existed in human society for as long as we have been humans. Mutual aid promotes community and independence, which is why the state, along with slave owners and bosses, frequently attempts to shut it down. They have put a state bureaucracy in place of people helping each other, imposed taxes so that people needed to find sources of income, and declared a variety of practices illegal. But in the space where mutual aid has been allowed, it has flourished.
Why mutual aid? Why not charity?
In spite of the huge sums taken from them by the state, people still give to charity. They realise the state is not helping the causes they believe in and know they can help by picking up the slack. Why? “Presumably for a combination of reasons, including, in no particular order, compassion, social norms, the desire for good reputations, the desire to avoid bad reputations, and the desire to avoid social disorder.” (“Government is no friend of the poor“) Mutual aid, like charity, avoids the high administrative costs and, of course, the political intentions of government-run antipoverty programmes.
There is nothing virtuous about being forced to pay for other people. But charity is generosity, right? Charity is not necessarily bad, but it can have the effect of entrenching poverty like government welfare programmes, rather than leading the way out of it. It can grant the givers a sense of benevolent superiority. It can disempower the receivers, making them feel like they have nothing to contribute. Giving food and clothes can also destroy local economies, as free foreign goods crowd out local goods. People come to depend on someone else’s help. Mutual aid, on the other hand, implies that people in the network will help each other whenever and however possible.
Mutual aid is not likely to be illegal, in contrast to agorism. It means putting aside the competition and force that are inherent in the statist model (whether capitalist or socialist) and cooperating to help one another. It means sharing, and cooperating to make sure what one gives is used as one wants. While our nature pushes for reciprocity, we do not necessarily expect an equal return. It might run along the Marxist principle of “from each according to his ability to each according to his need”. (Of course, people may decide to kick free riders out of the network.)
For those who do not trust or believe in the welfare state, mutual aid can create a social safety net. It can prevent the poor, disabled or elderly from falling into poverty. You can be sure your money is going toward community projects or helping those in need, rather than hoping the government or a potentially-corrupt non-profit is spending it the way you would like.
What can you and the people around you do to help each other?
–The book Mutual Aid and Union Renewal argues that unions could reverse their decline if they engaged in mutual aid. If unions do not appear to benefit their members, or simply do not encourage their involvement, loyalty will remain low. But a union could act as an extended family. Some union members have set up member assistance programmes, helping each other with alcoholism and substance abuse, for example.
–The cooperative is an autonomous association of people who voluntarily work together or jointly own something, like a housing project or business. They are usually run democratically (without the state) by their members. They foster community through cooperation. Ideally, they would break off from and become independent of the state, and thus provide examples of secession.
–A worker or producer cooperative is one owned by the people who own and operate a business. (This arrangement is sometimes called “market socialism”.) Shared ownership diversifies, rather than concentrates, wealth. Not all worker cooperatives are exclusive owners of businesses, as some outside shareholders may be involved. Such cooperatives employ over 100m people and could be the wave of the future for business. After all, Ocean Spray, Sunkist and the Associated Press are all cooperative businesses.
–Agricultural cooperatives enable farmers to pool their resources for mutual benefit. They may be more able to afford capital equipment for more efficient farming in this way. In the days of continual raids on small farms and heavy subsidies of big farms, the benefits of farmers’ working together outweigh the costs, both to themselves and consumers. A kibbutz is an agricultural cooperative, as is India’s Amul, which sells dairy products, and Malaysia’s FELDA, which sells palm oil.
–A consumers’ cooperative is a business owned and run by its customers. The two largest supermarket chains in Switzerland are co-ops. Canada’s Mountain Equipment Co-op is one example, as is the UK’s Co-operative Group.
–Finally, social cooperatives, of which there are over 7000 in Italy, provide social services such as child care, elderly and disabled care, help with addiction, education and employment counseling.
–There are other community-strengthening ideas that fall short of cooperatives. You could start a neighbourhood watch, where members of the community take turns guarding each other’s property. Neighbourhood watch is widespread in North America. When the police are absent, their job is merely to punish crime. A neighbourhood watch can prevent it by having people present at all times. Moreover, in the countless parts of the world where the police are not accountable to those they police and are seen as thugs, a well-established neighbourhood watch could make the police redundant. This practice is easier today than ever, since we can communicate with each other at great distances, calling our neighbours to warn them without knocking on their doors.
—Neighbourhood associations and homeowners associations of various kinds are protecting local environments, enforcing safety and other rules, organising social activities, building recreational facilities and fixing roads.
–One person following this blog’s Facebook page told me of a teacher who started a parents’ group that collects canned food, clothing, books, small items such as toothbrushes. Parents donate time, labour or rides to one another. In this way, the group promotes agorism and community.
–Poor communities have even more to gain. Many rural Africans work each other’s fields, and the owner of a given field might provide food and drinks. They help one another build houses. They pool their money for life insurance, or household items. (See more here.)
–People who complain about high costs of buying from the insurance oligopoly may want to pool their money with others. Members of the network may choose criteria by which some pay more and others pay less. Smokers might pay more in a health insurance society and pyromaniacs will probably not be allowed in a fire insurance society. And no one will be forced to subsidise others’ risky habits.
–Likewise with the banks. Need a loan? How about a credit union? There are thousands of credit unions in North America with millions of members. A credit union is an example of a consumers’ cooperative.
–Sick of inflation? Don’t like making money? Ever tried a local exchange trading system (LETS)? LETS is a non-profit enterprise that records transactions for people’s exchanging of goods and services. A member may earn credit for fixing someone’s car, and spend it later when he needs a babysitter or a dentist. The credit does not need to be in the national currency, which is how it avoids inflation and the necessity of making money. Credit can be given for a given job by whatever criteria the people decide.
–Mutual aid could mean investment. Communities or other networks can put their money into local ventures with people they know and trust, gaining a tangible stake in the business and avoiding the rigged markets for securities.
–Support groups have sprung up for just about every shared personal problem. People who have the same illness take strength from and learn to cope thanks to their groups; immigrants set up hometown societies or landsmanshaftn.
–Occupy Wall Street coordinated mutual aid for the those who participated in the May 1 protest. People supplied food, medical and legal support, skill sharing and workshops, and hosted a Really, Really Free Market (mentioned in my last post) where people could bring clothes, books, toys, tools and whatever other things people who wanted to participate in a gift economy could bring. They set up a free university, as well.
–Rachel Leone, writing on mutual aid at Occupy, says,
You might not know it, but mutual aid is already part of your everyday life. Family members — both chosen and biological — take care of each other when one is sick, watch each other’s children and pets, and help with household projects. Friends share food and favorite books. Couch-surfers allow strangers to stay on their couches when they travel and then go off to adventure themselves, knowing that they will have a place to rest and a new friend at their next destination. Hitchhiking gets people to from state to state in exchange for stories and songs. Neighbors share recipes and tools. And let’s not forget that good consensual sex can be a form of mutual aid, too!
All these things are already happening. Mutual aid has never been easier. Mutual aid societies have gone international. They use online platforms like www.chipin.com. If more people choose not to depend on the state, the idea will spread.
Many people are predicting the collapse of the state, or of parts of it, such as unsustainable health care systems. Mutual aid may become necessary. The sooner we get started, the freer and more secure we can be.
“The ultimate authority must always rest with the individual’s own reason and critical analysis.” – The Dalai Lama
Until we achieve freedom, we need to lay the groundwork. The state is best done away with by making it irrelevant. The groundwork is in the work we do, the planning and organising to separate from the state entirely, but it is also inside our minds.To become free, we must free ourselves. My term for those for whom only oneself can decide what is right is sovereign individuals.
To a sovereign individual, the supreme authority is the self. Only the individual can decide what is right for him or herself. Of course, he or she takes others into account. When driving, one takes care not to run into other cars. A sovereign individual lives the non-aggression principle because he or she believes in the silver rule: not doing to others what he or she would not want done to him or herself.
The sovereign individual believes in self ownership, meaning that the individual owns his or her actions and their consequences. A man owns the fruit of his labour and no one has the authority to dictate what any proportion of it can be used for. He enters into whatever voluntary associations and voluntary exchanges he likes, but would only be forced into them when he has no choice.
Sovereign individuals might also let others take responsibility for their own lives. Freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. Helping each other is great, but when we try to force virtue, which might just be our opinions of what is right and wrong, others lose the chance to experience the freedom to figure those things out, and take no responsibility for the consequences.
Think about what we do with children: Not letting them play with knives and firecrackers, helmets for virtually every activity where they might get hurt, lying to them about the dangers of cigarettes and other drugs, hauling them to jail for starting food fights, or whatever universal rules for creating the ideal humans parents in a particular culture believe they have discovered. All these things are producing irresponsible and spoiled people who are easier to scare into giving up their freedom. We could just let them decide what they want to do on their own, giving them the freedom to get hurt and the responsibility to learn from it.
Most people think they know what is right for others, which I believe is why they participate in politics and want governments to control people. But do we know what is right? Do you like it when others tell you what to do, or argue with you about the right way to do it? If people want to work it out themselves, let them. Changing people is hopeless and unnecessary. People are affected more by others’ examples than by their words. If people decide that they want to be unplugged, take them with you. If not, leave them in the matrix where life is more comfortable.
Voting and other participation in politics is a way of trying to control others by force. Sovereign individuals avoid it. They also do not like taxing people because taxes are taken without asking and spent on repressing people. It may be possible to avoid paying taxes by various means: buying directly from manufacturers such as farmers, working under the table, and so on. It is easier when done with like-minded people, as they can use alternative currencies that are not subject to central bank manipulation, buy and sell from each other without government interference into markets or move toward a gift economy (all of which will be outlined in a future post). Suffice to say, supporting local businesses and farmers and boycotting businesses that receive favours from the government are worthwhile principles to live by.
Many people who consider themselves sovereign individuals are engaging in mutual aid and counter-economics. It can be hard to come by reliable reports because what they do is often illegal, and naturally they wish to remain under the radar.
But be careful about avoiding taxes, and about defending yourself against state aggression. IRS special agents are armed. They have been told that sovereign individuals are terrorists. And if you are known to owe back taxes, you cannot leave the US legally. Careful about living “off the grid”, too. People attempting to live outside the state’s reach are finding it impossible. An estimated 1% of Americans are attempting to escape the long arm of the state but are getting raided by thuggish police. Read some examples here. Peaceful people who want to be free are getting shut down by a state that looks to squeeze every drop of tax milk it can from the cattle it rules.
But it may still be worth doing. You may prefer to find somewhere with less zealous police and a government less focused on destroying individual freedom than the US. There is plenty of world out there where we can be free. A pirate’s life for me.
(For more on how to be an individual, read about my friend Dave.)
How does one define morality? Do we all have different morals? Is there universally-preferable behaviour, or is all moralising just opinion? These are difficult questions, and will likely be debated for centuries to come. Philosophies of liberty are based on the idea that freedom of the individual and his or her property are universal. The prevailing idea among anarchists is the non-aggression principle, or NAP.
According to the non-aggression principle, all aggression, or initiation of force, is illegitimate. It prohibits the threat or actual use of violence or force against people who have not initiated force against others, and are unwilling to be forced. It is encapsulated in the golden rule, do to others as you would have them do to you.
The NAP is a simple, universalist standard of morality. Not everyone adheres to or even agrees with it, but it is the moral basis for a stateless society. It is a law based not on the calculations of a politician but on the ideals of peace and self defense, property, justice, freedom and responsibility.
The NAP grants property rights. By property, I mean the money one has been given through legitimate (voluntary, peaceful, as opposed to forced) means, the property he has acquired by spending that money, and the products of his own labour. One’s body is also one’s own property, which means he decides what gets done to his body. If he wants to get a tattoo, he should be free to do so. If he wants to smoke marijuana, or even crack-cocaine, again, he should be free to do so. If he harms other people because he is intoxicated, the crime is not the taking of intoxicants but the initiation of violence against others.
According to the NAP, forcing someone, even one’s sister, to wear a headscarf is immoral. Forcing her to take it off is as well. Forcing someone to eat or drink something is immoral, because it is a violation of one’s ownership of one’s own body; forcing them not to take drugs likewise violates the principle.
Products of one’s own labour are one’s property. Things acquired illegitimately are not. By way of example, imagine Tom walks into the wilderness, builds his own home and starts a farm. He has transformed the land into something useful and valuable. He deserves it; it now belongs to him. Then, imagine Derek comes along and seizes an acre of his land. What claim does Derek have to that land? Tom, in fact, has the right to defend his property, as he does himself.
Derek claims that property is theft, because Tom is forcing Derek off his land. However, the land would have been useless without the labour Tom put in. Labouring in a factory brings money that can be used to buy food. Labouring on a farm brings the food. Derek is trying to force Tom to give up property previously unowned and useless to anyone, which Tom transformed into something useful. He is trying to steal that something. Tom is merely protecting the fruits of his labour.
If theft is defined as taking another’s property without that person’s consent, and one’s property includes anything one has earned (including money) or made useful through one’s own labour, Derek is stealing from Tom. Tom, on the other hand, has not stolen from anyone, because no one had any legitimate claim over the land before he came along.
Likewise, if Tom is willing to sell Matt his land and Matt is willing to pay his asking price with money he attained through voluntary transactions, Tom’s property can become Matt’s. Tom’s labour created the property and Matt’s labour brought the money to buy it legitimately. Thus, property is not theft.
If there is a child playing on the train tracks and a train is coming, is it wrong to save the child? Of course not. Non-aggression is about consent. If the child would, at some time in his or her life, thank you for initiating force, it is not immoral to have helped him. If his parents thank you, it is not immoral. (Of course, this brings up questions of whether a child is property, in what respects and until what age; it also brings up the question of the morality of preventing suicide. These are details this blog does not go into.)
It is not immoral to govern a population that gladly and willingly consents to being governed. If people want to live under the gun, they should be allowed to. However, what if even one person is both peaceful and unwilling? What if he is unwilling to give his property to support a system he disagrees with? What if one person wants to opt out of a system under which he does not want to live? Is it right to disregard this person? Is it right to let the collective decide for the individual against his will? Not if the non-aggression principle holds.
An individual, or any other minority, is equally deserving of universal rules of morality. Morality must be universal, because all humans are equally deserving of the basic rights to live according to what they see as right, provided they do not harm others. In fact, morality can scarcely be said to be moral if it applies double standards, affording some people certain rights over others. If a system privileges the majority, giving them rights to deprive the minority of its life, freedom or anything it acquired through voluntary means, it is immoral. As Gandhi (himself an anarchist) once said, “In matters of conscience, the law of the majority has no place.”
The myth of the social contract
For the past three hundred years, man has heard the suggestions of a wide variety of philosophers. One influential idea was that of the social contract. The social contract states that the people in a given territory submit to the will of the state; and in return, the state provides protection to the people.
But what is a contract? A contract is an agreement consciously and willingly entered into by two or more parties. No one signed a contract agreeing to submit to the laws passed by politicians. It is irrelevant whether the politicians were elected or not, or by how many votes. Democracy or dictatorship, if an individual is not willing to submit to this so-called contract, there is nothing moral about forcing him into it.
The book No Treason: the Constitution of No Authority by Lysander Spooner (available in full here) spells out with expert logic the irrelevance of the social contract as a contract. “The Constitution [of the United States] has no inherent obligation or authority” he begins. And he is right. After all, I have never even been asked if I would like to follow any law, nor have I ever seen this contract apparently signed on my behalf. For this contract to be moral according to the NAP, every single citizen of every country would have to consent to living under the country’s legal system. It is null for everyone who does not sign it.
And yet, because a small group of men wrote a document over 200 years ago, 300m people are subject to the violence of every single law passed by a small clique of decision makers. The notion of the social contract suits the state, because there is no chance to opt out of and end the contract. But it does not suit the dissenting individual or persecuted minority. And it is clearly not a contract.
Taxation is the initiation of force. If any person being taxed is unwilling to pay taxes or is unwilling to pay as much as he or she is paying, taxes are force. Thus, the manner in whichever a government acquires its funding is force. (See my post on taxation for a fuller discussion.)
To say that everyone should be forced to pay taxes, or else they should not be allowed to use the services government provides, has things backwards. The people who initiate force are the ones committing the immoral act. Thus, the onus is on those forcing others, and those supporting the forcing of others, to explain to the people why they should be willing to be forced.
Likewise, it does not follow that someone who does not like the system should just move. The analogy of paying rent does not follow, because neither the government nor the population own the country and the citizens are not tenants. If a man built or bought his house, he has already paid and has no further rent to pay. Telling someone he should move if he does not like it is akin to saying he should be charged rent at a house he already owns.
Some anarchists consider voting the initiation of force. If I vote, I attempt to force my preferred electoral candidate, along with his or her policies, on the population at large. People who follow the NAP would not want to force policies on any peaceful person. (Find more on this subject here.)
Anarchism means no rulers, no overarching force that can legitimately initiate force against entire populations. It means that people are free to engage in any actions that do not initiate force against others. Anarchists thus oppose any person or organisation that attempts to impose its will on others by force, be they a controlling husband, a gang or a government.
Self defense is legitimate. A world where at least one percent of humans are psychopaths requires vigilance to defend one’s life, liberty and property against those who would attack, steal and kill. It is also right to defend other innocent people against the same forms of aggression, provided they have not given and would not give their consent to the aggressors.
Naturally, there are difficult questions, to be answered case by case, as to when violence is aggressive and when it is defensive. The history of Israel is a tale of tens of thousands of deaths at the hands of people who thought they were only defending innocents. Is it right to steal from a thief? Is it right to kill a murderer? Revenge is understandable, and even rational (to prevent further attacks), though as a moral question, again, it depends. (I write more on the subject of Israel and the policy of revenge here.)
It has been said that libertarianism (within which anarchists can count themselves) is the radical notion that other people are not your property. What is meant by that? It means that no one can decide what is right for a peaceful person of sound mind except the individual him or herself. Not violating the life, liberty and property of innocents is a moral duty. Obedience to laws and orders is not.
The rule of law is, do whatever the political class tells you to do or risk violence. The rule of freedom is, initiating violence against unwilling and peaceful people is immoral. Some communities, such as Grafton, Keene and Yubia, are built around strict adherence to the NAP. As an anarchist, I believe society should put non-aggression at the centre of its philosophy.
Among fears of a stateless society is concern for the environment. If we get rid of government, what will happen to the environment? We need to be sure we are not fooling ourselves into thinking government is doing something positive about it at the moment. What is happening to it now, under the auspices of democratic governments, that protects the environment? Why would a change necessarily be worse?
This post looks at the government’s role in harming the environment. Then, it provides solutions to environmental problems in the absence of government, touching on resources, pollution, endangered animals and land. It concludes with an opinion (of someone much more exxperienced that me) on so-called green jobs and environmentalist entrepreneurship. It goes through each briefly because it is partly a summary of information on subjects that is available elsewhere.
Sure, a government could fix the environment. Enough force could “solve” almost any problem (except the initiation of force, which is the biggest problem). Throwing anyone who drives a car, burns coal or eats beef in jail would clean up our air pretty quickly, notwithstanding any hamburger terrorist movements that might arise. But is a society that trusts all its freedom to an omnipotent clique one worth inhabiting? At the moment, we live somewhere in between the totalitarian state and the free society, and the results are not good for the environment.
Do I blame the government for the poor state of the environment? Is the government the cause of all problems everywhere? Of course not. But it does not help much. Let us be specific.
We cannot farm hemp. A crop with all kinds of benefits, that farmers could be farming, we cannot farm. More plants means cleaner air. But because it can, the government does not allow us to grow natural fibers. In fact, the police and associated paramilitary (like the DEA) burn hemp and marijuana crops they find. They also poison coca plants and poppies in South America and Afghanistan. People still do drugs, of course, so the government is not protecting our health in that way. It is merely adding to the toxins in the air.
The US government contributes to pollution by subsidising coal. Coal! How dirty can you get? And why coal? Because of the coal lobby. As usual, a lobby and a government go hand in hand to take your money and use it to make the world worse off.
Then there are the effects of war. In 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered the US federal government to clean up 17 weapons plants that were leaking radioactive and toxic chemicals—an estimated $100b—and nothing happened. No bureaucrat got fired, no government department was disbanded, and nothing got cleaned up. Depleted uranium leads to birth defects and cancers and has been fired all over Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan. The destruction of ecosystems, War on Drugs defoliation schemes, the effects of nuclear weapons testing, the increased cancer rates–all are products of an institution that wages a never-ending war on non-existent enemies and cannot be trusted to care for something as important as the planet.
It is important to remain skeptical that the government (aside, perhaps, from the toothless EPA) ever actually tries to protect nature. Thomas Sowell, in his book The Housing Boom and Bust, details how land use restrictions, often a bone thrown to environmental groups (even though more than 90% of the land in the US is not developed), did little more than inflate the housing bubble of the past decade. Other policies appear, on the surface, to protect the environment, but in fact have left it wide open to abuse. Aside from direct results of government malfeasance, indirect results need to be taken into account when considering whether to retain or reject government.
The main reason we have polluted air and water is what is called the tragedy of the commons. When something is commonly owned (in other words, unowned), no one has enough incentive to preserve it. If I do not use it for my own benefit, someone else will, so I might as well extract what benefits I can as fast as I can. But since everyone thinks that way, everyone might do so and might exhaust the resource. At the moment, much of the environment is the commons. Governments have done nothing to stop climate change and the pollution of the oceans, and little to prevent air pollution without businesses having voluntarily adopted measures. Likewise, no one owns most wild animals, and as a result, people can hunt them (with no regard to endangered animal laws) wherever they want for little cost. A government that does not allow private ownership of the air, water and fauna has allowed those things to remain common. So what is the anarcho-capitalist solution? Privatise them.
Economist Walter Block has done significant work on the privatisation of the commons. Privatisation has traditionally meant selling partial or whole stakes in government-run enterprises on the stock market. It has never meant a reduction of the government’s power over a section of society, but simply a transfer of the wealth generated by formerly state assets. I do not advocate this kind of rearrangement of power under the guise of freeing the market. Rather, this post is about why a stateless society could protect the environment far better than the government.
The private sector (not only business but free people) thinks more long term than politicians. A politician’s incentive is to survive until the next election. Voters cannot force otherwise. Most businesses try to survive to bring in revenue indefinitely. And it is well documented that businesses that think long term benefit their shareholders long term; and businesses that focus only on the short term crash and burn. Of course, they might get bailed out by the government; I guess that is the corruption democrats always work in vain to eliminate. Let us look at the economics of privately-run resources.
Wheat exists because there is demand for it. The government does not need to supply wheat or ensure a certain quantity of bread is being made. If we all decided to stop eating wheat, we would stop growing it and it would disappear. The same is true for fish, trees and whatever else. (See more here.) Maybe we should start eating tigers. (More on endangered animals later.)
A rise in prices means that more exploration will take place, and supply might even go up. That is what has been happening since the 1968 book “The Population Bomb” and the 1972 book “Limits to Growth”. Another possibility, some might say inevitability, is that alternatives to expensive materials will be found, hence the current push for research into alternatives to oil. And the research does not need to be subisidised because the potential for profit is huge. Just imagine if you discovered or produced a viable substitute for oil or copper or iron. You would get investors lining up around the block and become a millionaire. So what does the state need to protect?
An owner of a copper mine needs to balance expectations of future prices with concerns about current ones. If he completely strips an area of copper, the supply will be higher in the present, which implies lower prices, and he will have nothing for the future, when prices might be higher. Likewise, the owner of an acre of forest who wants to profit from that forest might strip it bare for now but will probably only cut down some of the trees, then reseed, to ensure the land’s viability as a source of revenue for the future. That is long-term thinking, and that is leadership. Leadership that only thinks four or fewer years in advance is not leadership.
In fact, when it protects resources against “greedy capitalist exploitation”, government does not actually destroy the market for those resources; it does one of two things. If there are already producers of a resource, prices go up and their profits go up. Then, they become an interest group with a stake in the status quo. If no one is producing the resource, but there is still demand for, government protection still drives the price up and drives the production underground. Hence the lucrative trade in endangered animals, for instance. Governments have done nothing to protect the elephant. How could they? Could they get police to follow elephants around the bush all the time to make sure no one hunts them? Some have called for worldwide bans on ivory. But a worldwide ban on drugs has not done much to the drug trade—quite the contrary. Drugs and ivory are still both big business. A government solution is not a solution. It’s just violence.
Am I saying we should not protect endangered animals? Not at all. Let’s protect them through private ownership. NGOs, communities or even individuals could own and protect land. Of course, we could force everyone to pay for it through government action; though sometimes even then governments sell off land to businesses. If you really want to protect it, buy it. It’s yours. You can preserve it however you like. Banning the elephant trade depleted their numbers; privatising the elephant helped them flourish. The main reason we are running out of things that people want, like seals, is that their hunting takes place in the commons. Everyone can do it (well, they need a license, but that doesn’t have to stop anyone), and so overhunting is likely. But if people own the land or sea where the hunting is taking place, they will breed the animals more conservatively, for the long term, because they can make money off it.
Let us make barnyards out of oceans. Farms protect animals—when was the last time anyone said we had to save endangered cows? So let us own sections of ocean and the whales within them. It is possible that the new owner would kill all the whales in his part of the ocean and sell them, but there is nothing to stop anyone doing that right now. Well, except Greenpeace. Let Greenpeace buy up the ocean too. Because of the different incentives at play, it is illogical to think that private owners would not protect the environment and the government would. Take these things out of the commons, let someone own them and they might flourish like the elephant.
Is privatising the environment purely theoretical? A publicly-traded company named Earth Sanctuaries, Ltd. saved several species from extinction and brought many back to their pre-colonial levels by owning about 90,000 hectares of land in Australia. Unfortunately, this company went bankrupt. Nonetheless, it did its job while it existed. Like other failed ventures, it provides a model for what not to do. One failure does not mean it could never work: it means another try might get it right. (Find more examples of free-market conservationism here.) Same goes for such practices as fish farming. Privatising oyster beds has brought oysters back from the brink of extinction. Fish farming is a potential solution to both the extinction of fish stocks and the satisfaction of our cravings for fish. Some fish farming is unsustainable, but again, if we keep trying, we can get it right. We’re a smart bunch that way.
Privatisation of land and waste disposal would likely reflect the true costs of dumping garbage. Let’s say you want to dump your plastic bags somewhere. If they are very bad for the soil, the people on whose land you dump them will expect you to pay a proportionally high price for dumping them, because that land would not be useful for a long time to come. The waste disposal companies would pass those costs onto the people who use and buy plastic bags, who would thus consume fewer in favour of less environmentally-damaging alternatives such as paper. (Walter Block on the subject here.) Another free-market solution to an environmental problem.
Air pollution is the kind of challenging question that some economists love to search for solutions to. Milton Friedman finds that there are usually free-market solutions that do not require government intervention, and pollution is one. Murray Rothbard provides an elaborate theory on the subject, based on private law. Stefan Molyneux has some practical ideas; and if you do not like them, as he says, “no problem – in the free market, there are as many solutions as there are interested parties!”
Oil spills often upset indigenous people because oil companies do not care about those people. The oil companies move in, protected by the government, and anything they leave, they do not bother to clean up. Property rights—nothing more than people protecting the land they live on—would enable the people of those areas to decide if they want the companies to enter or not, and hold them to account for everything they do. They would have contracts, regulated by dispute-resolution organisations. And the people would no longer be called terrorists for wanting to protect their holy land.
One way to deal with such corporations is the boycott. More and more corporations, either in reaction to consumer pressure or proactively, are pursuing green strategies. And before you say “that’s just greenwashing”, bear in mind that if you can recognise a company that is harming the environment, you can recognise when its actions are only superficial. Companies know you know, and that’s why so many are going beyond the superficial to real attempts to make their businesses sustainable. (Learn more here.) Unfortunately, consumer boycotts work far less well on corporations that produce for the government, because the chance of their being punished by their customers is almost zero.
The entrepreneurs who developed most of the “green technologies” we have today were not funded or directed by governments. Julian Morris gives the examples of the transistor, which enabled the mass production of high-tech electronics; the integrated circuit, which enabled mass production of personal computers, and the automation of all kinds of things; the fiber optic cable, which revolutionised high speed telecommunications and enabled the internet. “Why do I give these three examples?” he asks. “These are green technologies. They weren’t developed as green technologies, though. And this is important. No government official started a programme in the 1920s saying, ‘We’ve gotta develop some green technologies, let’s invest in green jobs. I’m going to invest in the transistor, the integrated circuit and low-loss fiber optic cable.’ This is not how innovation takes place.”
Innovation relies on local, independent knowledge, specific understanding of the gizmo. The innovators did not know when they started what problem they would end up solving. Through innovations, products have become more efficient, which might mean smaller, using fewer resources to make and dispose of; consuming less energy for greater output; or simply costing less, which aids wealth creation. Morris also points out that cars are lighter, cheaper, safer and pollute less than they did 20 years ago; pop cans have much less than half the metal they had in the 1970s thanks to aiming to reduce costs and raise profits. And when you raise profits, you raise productivity, making innovation possible, growing the economy and reducing poverty. When the economy grows, we have more wealth to spend to reduce environmental damage further. Some venture capitalists and angel investors are always on the prowl for new green technologies, and if you can show you can make them money, you can get funding.
The state’s record of environmental stewardship is not encouraging. The free market, on the other hand, the truly fair and accountable system, has potential for sustainability that the world under centralised authority does not.
“What about the roads??” they ask desperately. Statists seem to think that, because the government has always built the roads, at least most of the time in recent memory, that only the government could ever build roads. I find the assumption behind this question quite ironic. The roads are a striking example of a utility that should logically be privatised. What roads should the government pay to build and maintain? The roads to a residential neighbourhood? Why should people from the entire city or country pay for these roads? Let the residents pay. How about the road to an office, shopping district or mall? Let the business owners pay, perhaps through a local business association. Getting the government to do it means forcing everyone to subsidise the businesses who benefit.
So the problem is unresolvable? Think about it. How could we get roads built without the state? I bet you can come up with some ideas. There are all kinds of ways to make roads profitable, from electronic or cash tolls, GPS charges, roads maintained by the businesses they lead to, communal organisations that own the roads, and so on. “And if none of those work?” asks Stefan Molyneux. “Why, then personal flying machines will hit the market!”
Besides, it is already happening. Private contractors who build roads do so far more efficiently than governments (believe it or not). A private road in Paris saves commuters time and the company that built it clears the road quickly when there is an obstruction. A company added two lanes to a highway in California, making them toll roads, thus giving people the option to go faster for a fee. Companies have implemented electronic tolls, obviating the slow and inefficient toll booth. But surely, citizens could never be expected to just build and maintain their own roads, could they? Oh wait, that’s already happening too.
Economist Walter Block has written extensively on the privatisation of roads. To those who believe a competitive road system makes no sense, think again. There is nothing about roads that requires a monopoly. After all, the first roads in the US were private; and no, the government did not take them over because the public demanded it or they knew they could do so more efficiently. In fact, like many libertarians, Block has some very good ideas for how to make competition in formerly public services work. Governments rarely innovate, except in methods of killing. But private-sector solutions, such as airbags and snow chains, have saved lives. If there were competition among roads, people would be able to choose which one they drove on. They might have the choice to drive on the road with the heater underneath it to melt the ice, making it safer; the highway with the rubber dividers that are safer in a crash; and the routes with the lower death rate. We do not know what great life-saving innovations could come from people with an incentive to think of them. Release something into the private sphere and see what happens.
Is the logic of privatising all roads and highways becoming clearer? Zachary Slayback has more to say.
Privatization would ensure that the project would be finished in a timely manner, would remove the moral hazard of building a possibly unnecessary highway with public funds, and would not force every individual to fund the project, whether they wish to use it or not….
Should a company decide that any highway is a viable venture for their ownership and stockholders, then it would be on that company to build a product that consumers would wish to use. If several companies wished to build a highway, then whichever company offered the best product (i.e., the best-maintained, cheapest, fastest highway) would be chosen by consumers to deliver that product via the price system.…
In a free-market system, the signals sent via the price mechanism allow the market to adjust to any changes much more quickly and efficiently than the current centrally planned model under which we operate.
Knowledge is not something that can be aggregated and centrally planned by a Department of Transportation. Knowledge is something that must be acquired in small bits throughout the market. Risks must be taken to acquire knowledge; and no one man, nor any group of men for that matter, can possess the knowledge necessary to perfectly plan any specific endeavor.
So why leave this, what Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist and Nobel laureate, called the ‘knowledge problem’, to a group of individuals who are insulated from the signs and information of price signals? Major investments — especially those that require a large amount of information to properly operate, such as highways — should be left to the system that best responds to market signals and the price mechanism: the free market.
Moreover, there is a major moral issue at play when building any public-works project, but especially highways: Who pays for the highway and with what money? Under the current system, public-works projects are paid for by ‘the public.’ But what gives central planners the moral authority to determine that all taxpayers in a given population should be forced to pay for the planners’ project?…
[O]ne thing is for sure: the free market would not force consumers who do not wish to use the product to pay for it.
Roads could be owned by the people who live or work around them. Perhaps electronic tolls (which already exist) could charge people on roads one-tenth of a penny to pass by each person’s house or business (Walter Block’s idea again) without slowing them down. Highways can be profitable for their owners through tolls, billboards and other things clever businesspeople can think of that I have not. Free market highways would reflect the true costs of building them. Their being built by government tends to result in millions of dollars in waste. Roads could be owned by one man who charges you for driving on them, and you could build your own roads or go round if you did not want to pay. People always find alternatives when there is an incentive to do so. It is fatuous to say it is wrong that we should have to pay for roads when we already do through taxation. And it is unfair to argue that it could not work just because you have not thought of an alternative.
Why do we believe that, if there must be a monopoly (and that is probably never the case), it must be a government monopoly? Do we not know better than to trust the government with anything as important as a monopoly? Milton Friedman called a situation which seems like it needs to be a monopoly, such as of plumbing or power lines, a technical monopoly. There are three ways to deal with a monopoly: private monopoly, government monopoly and government regulation. Friedman argued that, in a world of rapid technological change, a private monopoly was preferable. If government has a monopoly, there is no chance for competition and its benefits (lower prices, greater efficiency, wealth creation, innovation). If one business has a monopoly, there may be some way around it, and another firm might be able to find a solution. Contrary to popular myth, free markets abhor monopolies.
But what if someone built a road around your property and said you could not get out unless you paid him a million dollars? Well, my initial impulse might be to shoot him, but there is almost always a peaceful, preventive solution. Perhaps when buying the house, along with fire insurance, one could also purchase access insurance, to insure against such possibilities. Or perhaps one would buy the stretch of road outside one’s own house. One would probably let other people in the neighbourhood through free of charge, in the name of maintaining friendly relations; otherwise, their property values would drop and the shaming and ostracism that could result would be devastating. The sovereign community will need no government roads when it saves money with better ones.
“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.