People who do not leave their hometowns or countries of origin, or who leave them only with closed minds, have trouble understanding what is wrong with their own culture, ideas and beliefs. The same can be said of people who choose an idea and do not question it. For about three years, I was committed to what its adherents call anarcho-capitalism, along with its close cousins, voluntaryism and agorism. If you have followed this blog, page and book, you will have heard my perspective mostly through the voluntaryist lens. But as I strayed into deeper waters, I began to see the flaws and limitations of my ideas. This post is part one of a summary of what I have learned since I finished my book.
Many people who think they are right simply refuse to listen. I have been one of these people many times in my life, certainly when I was part of the online anarcho-capitalist (ancap) community. I have never heard any anarchist say we need to create a state. Creating a state is antithetical to all variants of anarchism. Yet ancaps have insisted to me, repeatedly, without ever backing up their claims, that anarchists want to create a state. Indeed, I have explained anarchism and communism as decentralized, with no state and no need for a state, with no hint of wanting to centralize power, and ancaps have told me I want to create a state.
Presumably, this belief stems from their further claim that anarchists want to forcibly collectivise everyone and everything. Again, I have never heard anyone say that, but it has been repeated so many times among ancaps it has become an article of faith, a given, a fact that needs no facts to back it up. They want to kick you out of your homes, we are told, and collectivise everything you have, right down to your toothbrush (though that part might be a joke). Who says? Why would they? Because they do not believe in property? Different definitions of property are part of the root of this misunderstanding, though different attitudes toward it are as well. (I will discuss property vs possessions in a future post.)
Many of the same ancaps also refer to all anarchists who are not capitalists as “commies”, by which they seem to mean Stalinists. Anarchism is the opposite of Stalinism. Communism has more than one definition and many self-styled communists want to destroy the state and give, as the slogan goes, all power to the communes. The ones who want strong states, armies and gulags while calling themselves anti-imperialist are usually referred to as tankies and have virtually nothing in common with anarchists. Yet, so many ancaps lump tankies and ancoms in together and call them all “leftists” and assume “leftists” all want to recreate the state and force you to live a certain way. Not all communists are tankies and, by the way, not all anarchists are either capitalists or communists, and if you do not know that, you have only a limited understanding of anarchism and communism.
Neither have I ever heard anarchists say they want to stop free and peaceful trading of goods or labor by force, yet I have been told that is exactly what anarcho-communists (and presumably anarcho-syndicalists, but to most ancaps, again, any anarchists that does not identify as a capitalist must be a commie) want. What they want, in fact, is to make trading unnecessary by sharing everything. There is a world of difference between trying to make something that is imperfect unnecessary and using force to ban it. I seriously doubt anyone, ancom or otherwise, has any desire to intervene in some trade you are making with your neighbor. These strawman arguments serve no purpose other than to dismiss other anarchists without having to listen to them.
In fact, some ancaps believe their own tales to such an extent they say “capitalists are the real anarchists”. To be true, this statement requires extremely narrow and uncommon definitions of both capitalism and anarchism. People who laugh at the supposed contradiction of “libertarian socialism” do not get that “libertarian” meaning anarchist, favoring freedom and equality in opposition to capitalism, predates the more American definition of favoring free markets.
On a related note, “socialism” does not mean “anything the state ever does”. No definition of socialism means that except the ancap definition. Anarchism is stateless socialism. To most anarchists, socialism means decentralized or common ownership of the means of production. Likewise, there are not many people other than ancaps who think “capitalism” means completely free trade. So why do ancaps feel the need to interrupt every conversation about capitalism as it is by saying “that’s not capitalism”?
But if “we have never had capitalism before” because it is a perfect free-trade society, why do so many ancaps resort to telling socialists they would never have all the good things they have without capitalism? Whatever “capitalism” means, that argument begs the question. There are not only two possible economic systems, capitalism and Stalinism. Anarchy would mean a major unleashing of economic potential and people would choose various forms of organization and production. But why would you favor business when mutual aid has been the norm throughout human history? How will poor, sick and disabled people get by without mutual aid? And why trust charity, a top-down approach, over treating people as equals?
The next post will be about the danger of tolerating hierarchy in social institutions.
My fellow anarchists, please stop this yellow-red, ancap-ancom, East-West-rap feud nonsense. You have nothing to lose but your chains.
Many anarcho-capitalists (and voluntaryists) and anarcho-communists (and mutualists) claim to be the only true anarchists. This claim is unhelpful, divisive and unfair. They claim the ideas of the other side would lead to a mere rearranging of capitalist property relations or rehashing old, failed communist policy. These claims are unlikely to be true, as, whether you can admit it or not, all anarchist theories are revolutionary. If you do not see that, it is unlikely you have spent much time trying to understand them.
This feuding is, in fact, typical of people who do not expect to succeed in their missions. The main political parties in any country work together, at least on some issues; the weakest are constantly bickering among themselves. It is possible governments place agents provocateurs among anarchists and other minorities to keep them divided. I do not know how to tell such a person online. Suffice to say, it is easy to make a guy feel he is right and you (and your whole team) are wrong: just dismiss his argument without appearing to consider it. We can resist these divide-and-conquer tactics by committing to unity of principle and purpose while encouraging diversity of opinion. But it tends not to work that way in practice.
Stupid anarcho-communists still don’t understand that we have to have property rights to have a free society. Damn anarcho-capitalists want to maintain hierarchies and classes by allowing property and bosses. They are not even anarchists! Anarchists are what I say they are. Well, are you against rulers? Then you are all anarchists. The debate rages, while the stateless society is still a glint in the revolutionary’s eye. Is there nothing more laudable on which we could be spending our time? Many anarchists spend hours a day arguing over the minutiae of what a stateless society should look like. They get angry and fall into disunity over questions that do not matter at present. The common goal is the removal of the state. The target is clear. It does not matter how many feathers are on our arrows. Work together. It is not as hard as you are making it.
I have a problem with anarcho-capitalists who claim a kind of absolute right to property. What if some people do not have anywhere to stay and want to squat on land you have claimed? What if they want to drink from a river or a part of a river you call your own? Anarcho-communists would say that is aggression. They also point out there is possession, distinct from property, which means you can hold on to something. But simply because you had more money or got there first is not a good reason that you have permanent and complete power over it.
Green anarchists would also point out though homesteading may not mean stealing from another human, it may destroy the environment and steal from other living things. Build homes, but do not shoot anyone who steps on your lawn. Build farms and factories, but not so big they flatten the landscape. At an extreme, property is illegitimate to someone who believes aggression is immoral.
My problem with anarcho-communists is the likelihood that a society without any ownership at all leads inevitably to the tragedy of the commons. Not all property is legitimate, nor does it need to be in the hands of individuals when it could be held by communities; but it seems necessary to me that someone consider it their property in order to take care of it. Property is useful because in a world of scarcity and anonymity, all resources are contestable and many of them will be contested. We can assign property to the person and people with the best link to the resource, thus making conflicts far easier to resolve. See chapter 3 of my book for further discussion of property in a stateless society.
So I disagree with you but I disagree with everyone on something. That does not mean I am not the right kind of anarchist and should be insulted and cast aside. It means I have something different to contribute.
Until you convince another few million people, your ideal society will be little more than a dream. You might need to work with others–especially those whose ideals are actually pretty similar to yours–to achieve it.
Many statists are afraid of ideas like anarchism because they are afraid of extremes. Extremes are always wrong, they say in unison, which is why we reject your idea. Such people do not realise that the extreme is the new normal.
Look at the economic world. We have regulations that support or outright create oligopolies or monopolies in every industry. We have policies that encourage financial institutions to take trillion-dollar bets that end up crashing the economy. We print trillions of dollars more to save them from bankruptcy. Taxpayers are on the hook for all these trillions and more, and will be paying for money borrowed today for generations. As a result of this endless, self-interested intervention, the global economy is frighteningly turbulent and may be on the brink of collapse. And yet, US presidential candidates do not disagree with these extremes. The election will not have anything to do with them. The staggeringly extreme will continue to remain the norm.
Look at the surveillance state. The authorities are reading the emails and text messages of people they do not suspect of any crime. They track cellphones, track your online activity, seize websites and servers. They tap phones. There are now drones in the air above the skies of the US, with thousands more to come, spying on US citizens just in case there is something the security apparatus wants to arrest them for. And drones are coming to many more parts of the world. Apparently, they are popular with the powerful.
Look at the wars and the weapons. There are an estimated 23,000 nuclear warheads in the world–fewer than in the 1980s; far more than enough to wipe out human life on Earth. Torture was once condemned (and still is ius cogens–absolutely illegal); now, it is taken for granted. The US starts wars on the other side of the world with entire nations that cost trillions of dollars while most Americans are at the mall and barely know what is happening outside their town. People controlling drones dressed in camouflage fatigues and sitting at a desk with a joystick kill people on the other side of the world and then eat a sandwich. These are not extremes? And yet, the system statists believe in so blindly is what enables all of it. The self-styled moderates are letting it all happen.
The status quo always changes. After a generation, what was a new and extreme policy becomes the norm. It is perceived as indispensable, even where there had been no initial demand for state involvement. Eliminating the state from one part of society would upset special interests and the bureaucracy, which is why they work so hard to tell us we need it. It is so in every area of life into which the state has poked its nose. Moderates will say reform is the answer, when reform serves the people doing the reforming–still the decision makers in government.
Here is an extreme position on drugs. Do not decriminalise them. Eliminate all laws and regulations and taxes on them. Regulations encourage concentration, rather than letting everyone grow cannabis like they would a tomato. Taxes go toward bank bailouts, war and the police state. Why would we want to pay more? A consistent moderate, if there is such a thing, would presumably be against such an otherwise sensible proposal.
The problem with the claim to oppose extremism is there is no moral philosophy behind it. Moderation for the sake of moderation makes little sense. What is the moderate stand on rape? Is it “Too much rape would be bad; but surely we don’t want to eliminate rape”? The question is, is it ever moral to rape someone? According to the non-aggression principle (see how simple it is?), no. Sometimes the extreme is the moral.
And yet, questioning all these things makes us extremists. If we are so moderate we refuse to question the enormity of the system we are forced to live under, we are cowards, afraid to take a stand for what is right. Perhaps in a world of extremes demanding peace, freedom and justice is an act of moderation. But status-quo discourse disguises it as radical.
Find more on all these subjects in my book, available soon.
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.
Voluntaryism is based on the non-aggression principle. The non-aggression principle states that self-defense is fine, but you should never aggress, never commit any act of violence, including threats and destruction or theft of property, to someone who has not done the same. All initiation of force is illegitimate. In our last post, we saw how the science of human nature refutes the argument that we need to be forced. Governments initiate the use of force in two ways. One is through taxation, which we will cover in more detail in a later post. The other is through law. Law is a directive you must follow or you are fined or sent to jail. If you resist the fine, you go to jail. If you resist jail, you are attacked. They can be as severe as the government’s arbitrary decisions make them. Laws are what give the government is veneer of legitimacy. If something is legal, it must be moral, right?
Why must things be done by force? That is the question every statist must answer for every issue they think only government can handle. Why does it have to be done by force? Why can people not be allowed to think about it and decide for themselves? Why is government morality superior to that of the individual? I just don’t understand why freedom is less important than the basic result of law, conformity. And yet, many democrats think their system is best precisely because it affords the most freedom. Wanting to pass restrictive laws and then claiming to love freedom is hypocrisy. It seems to be the natural impulse of most people living under a government to avocate passing a law to solve any problem that arises. We will address a few of the countless reasons why laws do not solve problems in later posts. For now, we should bear in mind that laws are not the same as morality. For instance, do you think the reason we are not killing each other is because it is illegal? Well, would you kill anyone? Do you know anyone who would?
Law creates a kind of double standard. The powerful do what they want and the powerless do what they are told. In the words of Stefan Molyneux,
I can’t go next door and threaten my neighbour with force in order to get him to pay for my child’s education, but the government can through property rights and the educational system. I can’t find some guy in my neighbourhood who’s smoking some herb that I find objectionable, lock him up in some basement and then call myself an armed warrior for justice through the War on Drugs. I can’t print money based on nothing and use it as legitimate currency; the government can. And I can’t create debt that other people have to pay without any choice in the matter. That’s called fraud. But for the government it’s called deficit financing and it goes to future generations. So government, by definition, is that social entity which legalises whatever is criminal for everyone else in the population…. Law is an opinion with a gun.
(Stefan forgot to mention that invasion and occupation are called democracy promotion and nation building, but he was in an interview, so we can forgive him!)
Law is thus separate from culture. If something is truly culture or religion, there is no reason to legislate it. Legislation would only entrench a custom or practice that lawmakers or interested parties deem desirable rather than letting it evolve, as cultures and religions do.
Do you believe that the purpose of law is to defend people against the arbitrary exercise of state power? Because that is demonstrably false. Who is it that makes these laws? Self-interested politicians. They hardly ever do anything to curb their own power, although sometimes they use the law to curb the power of future governments; for example, Israeli settlement policy has made it harder (some say impossible) for future Israeli governments to withdraw from the West Bank.
The rule of law is held us as the standard all nations should aspire to. But we have natural laws that govern us, without the need for force. Why is a government considered ideal? Why do we need to be ruled by others at all? How about the rule of freedom? When Winston Churchill heard about the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 and the equally bloody crackdown in Iraq in 1920, he was appalled by what he saw as abuses. And yet, because he was an ethnocentrist like most people, he continued to believe in the superiority of British civilisation because it was characterised by the rule of law. The rule of law didn’t do the Indians and the Iraqis much good, did it?
And why would it? Law has nothing to do with morality. That is why I have no problem with people on juries who vote to acquit people of crimes they do not believe should be crimes, like drug possession or beating up Donald Rumsfeld, even in the face of overwhelming evidence they are “guilty”. (More on this subject here.) If there is no crime, there is no guilt.
Neither is law an agreement of all the people. When friends tell me that the reason we have certain laws and social programs is that we as a society have agreed on them, I have trouble believing their naivety. Laws are created by parliamentarians, whom, if you are in the majority, you did not vote for. They are part of a small clique that decides what is right for people they believe cannot decide those things for themselves. As such, they cannot claim to represent you and the diverse district or country you live in. And you can try to change the law, if you really want. But I do not know how you expect to win. Two reasons more people do not work harder to repeal all the ridiculous laws out there are the enormous time and effort it would take, and the low odds of success. Neither does it help that governments often enact a new law down the road, which while different in appearance, their spirit mimics that of the law that was abrogated. If lobbyists truly want something, it would take an enormous tide of popular opposition to prevent its becoming law.
Law is not good for society. Milton Friedman once said,
calling on the government to solve problems strains that social fabric of agreement on basic values that is necessary to maintain a stable society. In order to have any kind of a stable society, you have to have people agree with one another. You have to have a certain minimum common set of values and beliefs. And you want to avoid straining that set of beliefs. Now, the great virtue of the market is that people who hate one another in other respects can cooperate with each other on the market without any difficulty…. Political mechanisms have the opposite arrangement. You have to enforce conformity on people.
The court system is part of the enforcement mechanism. You have to be pretty patient and rich to take your grievances to court. But private mediators exist who will spare you the hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of “justice” you will find in the dispute-resolution mechanism of the state. Private mediators solve union grievances and divorce proceedings very well, without having to beg a judge for a decision. It is also not necessary to take most debt claims to court. If people or businesses do not pay off their debts, they get bad credit ratings from private companies, and cannot take out loans. (The government has a habit of ignoring credit ratings and encouraging lending to bad credit risks because it is politically popular to do so, but it is not conducive to much lasting good, just subprime mortgage crises.) People sign countless contracts in their daily lives and stick to them: mortgages, loans, car rental agreements, apartments, and so on. If there were some kind of dispute resolution organisation with a database (which could operate for a profit), anyone wanting to enter into an agreement with you would check it. If people violate their contracts, they go into the database as welchers, and if they do what they promise, they get positive ratings. That is what eBay and Amazon do already, and they have shown it works. If they did not fulfill the terms of their contracts, they would have no chance of flourishing in the free market, because no one would do business with them anymore. Insurance companies will want to know both how credit-worthy a person is, how risky the people he or she associates with are, and charge them accordingly for insurance. (If you still have objections, find a more complete discussion here) So do we really need courts for interpersonal dispute resolution? Ah, but perhaps dispute resolution is not justice. Perhaps justice is revenge. I like to think we can find a more peaceful solution.
The only real laws we need are the natural laws of property, which includes our bodies, that which we create, and that which we acquire in voluntary, reciprocal transactions. The sanctity of property is embodied in the non-aggression principle: no initiating violence, no stealing, no threats. (See further discussion here.) The law, the gun that forces us to comply with everything the elites want, runs contrary to the non-aggression principle, and is therefore immoral.
One of the most influential philosophers of the Anglo-Saxon world was Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes argued from his perspective of human nature that without an all-powerful force, which he called the Leviathan, to rule over us, we would live in a state of nature, which he viewed as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Hobbes provided a pretty frightening view of human nature, but unfortunately for him it has been largely disproven by science in the past few generations. Unfortunately for us, the legacy of the Leviathan is with us to this day.
Here are some facts on which scholars of human nature are pretty sure. First, we are endowed with a sense of reciprocity. In other words, if you do something for me, I feel indebted to you and will do something for you. That is why we have been trading for so many years. Pre-state traders never needed governments to secure contracts because they understood the principle of reciprocity, the fact that everyone would look down on you if you broke a deal, and that you could make lots of money if you kept your word. As Richard Dawkins puts it in Nice Guys Finish First,
Of course there is a great deal of cooperation in human society. A city…could never have been built or maintained without huge amounts of cooperation between its inhabitants over centuries. And we do it naturally, of our free will, without having to be forced into it. But is our cooperation to do with our ability to think deeply, rationally and philosophically, or have our brains evolved as advanced social organs, designed to police tit for tat reciprocity, to calculate past favours, balance debts; an organ of social calculation designed to make us feel angry when we feel we’ve been cheated and guilty when we know we are the cheat?
Cooperation beats cheating over time. In fact, eBay is modern proof of this fact: if you keep your word, your reputation is secured; if you cheat someone, don’t expect to make any more deals. We have evolved to trade with each other, and trade is all about sharing benefits. And since most people do keep their word, eBay works out pretty well.
Second, to address another major argument of statists, it is believed that without force, many of the great things we have would never get done. For instance, taking care of people in the hospital. If people were not forced to pay for each other, they would be dying. I do not really understand where these arguments come from. People donate to charities all the time. No taxation would mean we would have that much more to donate.
You see, another feature of our nature is sympathy. Sympathy is natural, not only in humans but in most mammals and birds, in fact. It stems from the parental instinct to take care of people who are weaker and needier. And the further our awareness of others extends, from our children to our family to our community to our nation and, for more and more people nowadays, to all humans, the more strongly we believe we should give. That is why every society and religion considers helping and sacrificing for others a virtue. It is why you give up your seat to old, crippled or pregnant people on the bus. Taking care of others is known to lead to happiness, calmness and in some cases even the alleviation of physical pain. Right now, governments are organised along national lines, which means the people we are forced to pay for are part of our exclusive national group. But charitable giving, the virtuous side of income redistribution, crosses borders, to anyone we feel is deserving. Why? Because of our ability to sympathise. (By the way, foreign aid is nothing like international charitable giving, and is usually far more detrimental than helpful.)
What if I don’t want to pay for the War on Drugs, the War on Cancer, the War on Afghanistan or any of the other big government policies that are working out so well? Well, I could petition the government, I could protest, I could ask really nicely, I could go into politics. All those things are true. But they take a lot of time, and it’s a big fight against insider special interests. And what if there is more than one program or law I don’t like? You eliminate one after a huge national campaign, and then you need to run another to eliminate the next one. Besides, what often happens is that even if a government caves and repeals a law you spend a million dollars and a million days trying to have repealed, they can still introduce some other bill that, on the surface is different but whose substance is the same. And that happens a lot more than I would like to think. Isn’t there a simpler way?
How about I just pay for the things I want to pay for? I’ll give to sick people, at least, to sick people who can’t afford insurance. I’ll give to children who need to educated, at least, to those who can’t afford it. And I bet you will too. Giving feels good. That’s universal. It’s virtuous. Being forced does not make you virtuous, and neither does voting for someone who will force others.
Government cannot force virtue. But even if it could, then surely all the good things would have been done already. Surely poverty would have been eliminated, cancer would have been cured and everyone would be happy. But that’s not the case. Government has not done any of those things. So not only are we being forced to take care of the poor, the poor aren’t even being taken care of! That is the illusion of government.
But there are some jerks out there, right? So if everyone pays “their fair share”, whatever the government decides that is, no one can cheat, right? No one would just get a free ride on roads someone else paid for. In fact, we have people like that already. Anyone who doesn’t pay much tax (including, say, government employees who pay less in taxes than they make in taxpayer dollars) is a free rider that way.
Second, again, you cannot force virtue. Giving to charity makes you virtuous, and when you do that, not only do you feel good but you look better in the eyes of others. Saving the life of a child playing by the railroad tracks doesn’t benefit you personally but doing so would earn you the respect and admiration of your community. So you have an interest in doing it. Selfish people who would let that child die would be shunned by their community as heartless or cruel. Those people lose out big time in life.
Third, back to the free riders, we don’t need everyone to give to cancer research to eliminate cancer. Only enough people who really believe in it need to give. Everyone else can contribute to their causes, and we can solve society’s problems without force.
Because it is assumed that “we are all selfish”, it is inferred that we will all free ride, and nothing would ever get done. Not only do I not know why you would think we simply cannot organise ourselves long enough to agree to build a road, I would like to give an example of when that I think point has been disproven.
I live in Egypt, a country that has just gone through a revolution. During the revolution, the police were off the streets and the government sent thugs around to terrorise the people into accepting the government back into their lives. However, the people organised and defended their neighbourhoods, museums and other buildings, and each other in the face of government coercion. Not only did they defend themselves well, they provided each other with food and water, gaining a feeling of community and comradeship in the process, and as my friend told me, the streets had never been cleaner. Hundreds of local committees sprang up in the wake of the violence, making it obvious that even after decades of repression, the people can put together a civil society in a matter of weeks.
Families of over 70 people who died in the revolution from the Cairo neighbourhood of al-Zawya al-Hamra have said they do not want the police back on their streets. They have had enough of systematic human rights abuses by the organisation that, more than any other, is supposed to be governed by the rule of law. As I walk around post-revolutionary Egypt today, I wonder what the government would be useful for. Entire neighbourhoods are bereft of police (whose roles have been reduced to that of traffic cops) and yet crime is minimal. I wonder why others would want to deny people their freedom and force them to pay for state boondoggles, like the third subway line that has been under construction for the past generation. I think it is wrong of people to try to push their ideology on people who so obviously do not need it.
The example of Egypt should not be surprising, however, to anyone who took part in the abortive uprisings against communism in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and during the Cuban Revolution. While historians busy themselves with the proclamations and deliberations of the politicians, they do not see the people in the streets taking care of each other. Workers in Prague worked for free, and food was distributed. The people in Hungary were without coercive authority for weeks, and no one stole or got drunk. The only violence was against the hated security police. Otherwise, the state was nowhere to be found.
Now consider your community. Consider the hospitals. Imagine all public funding for and government control over hospitals ended. Would the hospitals close immediately? If the patients or the patients’ relatives could not pay for all the services they need, would no one else? Would no one volunteer? Compassionate people—most people—already believe those people should have some care, however they believe is the best way to provide it. They would contribute something.
Self-organisation, or spontaneous order, is a fact of nature, and not just human nature. It characterises everything from the development of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth to language, the internet, the market economy and the Egyptian revolution. Social order will happen with or without a government, as it always has. People make and accept new rules all the time. For instance, children in schools for the deaf who do not yet know sign language create their own in staggeringly short spaces of time. Most people who say we need a political or social hierarchy do not understand this aspect of life. And spontaneous order allocates resources far more efficiently than any kind of hierarchy, planning and centralised national leadership could. Some democrats seem to believe that a few smart, disinterested people should guide the economy and guide our choices. But no one possesses the vast amount of knowledge required to do so. Even the manufacture of a pencil has no one mastermind at the top directing every move. The only way to have freedom and benefit from it is to stop trying to control everything and let things happen naturally.
Rules already exist in every society, regardless of the presence of a government to enforce them its own way, and new rules would arise in the absence of government coercion. That is the way we are. People who disagree tend to think that the end of the leviathan would mean everyone would start killing each other. But why would we break from the rules we have already agreed upon? Would you? Do you know anyone you think would? So who would? With a few exceptions, the same people who are doing it now. And they can kill people because police do not prevent crime but punish it. The threat of punishment is a deterrent, of course, but we have crime nonetheless. The roots of crime are complex, but the reason most of us do not commit violent crimes probably has much to do with rules. The argument sometimes then goes back to the opportunist psychopath who will build a militia to take power…and the anarchist wonders what the difference between that and a government is. At least if the people had their freedom, they could and would defend it.
Not only do we follow rules when others are around, most of us have internalised most rules of our culture to the extent that we follow them when no one is looking, and feel guilty when we transgress them. Many of us are opposed to lying (or at least avoid weaving a web of deception), we risk gossip and shaming, and even fear an omnipresent celestial ruler who doles out punishment for crimes no matter how many humans know about them. Reputation is very important to most humans, because the worse our reputation, the more trouble we have getting what we want in business and other relationships. Trying to fake generosity, sincerity and rule-obedience is problematic, because people notice inconsistencies and facial giveaways.
We are also able to take responsibility for ourselves. Anarchy means both liberty and responsibility. “With power comes responsibility” is paradoxical: power necessarily takes away responsibility. Statists who say they believe in liberty with responsibility seem to believe the government is our collective conscience. Only individuals have consciences. Denying them their liberty, in any form, means denying them the opportunity to take responsibility, and asking someone else (someone who will use violence) to be responsible for us. Give them the right to act on their consciences and they will, in general, act responsibly.
Unfortunately, our conscience is in combat with our sense of obedience to authority. Stanley Milgram demonstrated that about 6 out of 10 people (in his experiment, at least) will follow, to the bitter end, the commands of an authority figure. They might torture and kill, but if they can devolve responsibility to a higher authority and claim to have been obeying orders, people are capable of anything. That is why anarchists want to smash coercive hierarchies, eliminate institutionalised violence where any psychopath can get his or her hands on it and have everyone question authority.
The propensity to establish and obey authority must be resisted. It is not necessary to dominate others. The drive to dominate is partly a result of fear. As the actor playing Thabo Mbeki in Endgame puts it, “We know that you Afrikaners have paid in blood for your country, as we have. We know, too, that it was from your suffering that the system of apartheid was incubated. The need to dominate is often a consequence of survival.” Later, in private, an Afrikaner professor says that the fear was that white people would be punished for all the injustice they had created. Dominance is part of our nature as well. Creating institutions of peacekeeping is still important.
It is worth considering one of the main reasons Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined gives for the thesis of his book is the Leviathan. Violence has declined, he says, because of the existence of a state with a legal monopoly on violence that has disarmed or perhaps just pacified its citizens. I do not disagree with his assessment. It is impossible to say, of course, what the world would have been like if 100 or 200 or 1000 or 5000 years ago people had decided to abolish states, kingdoms and empires. I still think people would have organised to protect themselves and do everything else they wanted. Nonetheless, if we are dealing with the world as it is, there is still no reason to believe we need government for the future. Things are different now.
Some small-scale tribes engage in warfare on far deadlier scales than the industrialised world experiences. As Dr Pinker’s book propounds, we have become more “civilised”. We have complex and diverse societies with rules and leaders and individuals who want to do things for themselves and others and not hurt people. We cooperate with people we do not meet and make friends with people from countries we have never heard of. Trade and cultural exchange have made us far less warlike. Peace, freedom, justice and equality have become selfless aspirations for the whole world. As such, I wonder if Dr Pinker misdiagnoses the problem, believing it is lack of central authority keeping everyone at bay, rather than lack of exposure to complex societies. If the power of the state went away over time, taking its wars, its police states, its expensive health care and poor education systems with it, we would still engage in commerce, give to the needy and organise. In fact, we would do so more than today, as most trade and movement are only hindered by the state.
Here is one more fact about human nature. Humans have an unconscious bias in favour of decisions they have already made, because we believe we are right and we want to be certain of it. As a result, when we vote, we are far more likely to believe we voted for the right person than not, even in the face of evidence that the guy is a crook. It is much easier to continue to believe something than to change one’s mind. That applies to democracy as an idea. Anyone who has learned and discussed with people why democracy is best, anyone who has participated in democracy, will have a hard time accepting a new idea. Just the idea of no longer being forced will take time to understand. But it is worth understanding.