A common fear statists have of a free society is that a corporation, or some other large entity, would one day take up arms and attack and control people. In effect, this fear is the same as the fear of a government: that a small group will get together to take money and power away from a larger population. I agree that we must remain vigilant about such things, which is why free communities have many options for dealing with such a scenario.
As I explain in my post on human nature, humans have a sense of reciprocity: you help me and I will help you. The good guys, and good businesses that provide value to their customers, are the ones that succeed over time. That is why the image of the free market as the “law of the jungle” is erroneous. The law of the jungle is where the powerful come to dominate others, which is what a state enables. A free market means businesses would need to provide value, or they would not make money.
There are some psychopaths out there. We do not want to give psychopaths the means of violence, which is the main reason we should deny them access to the levers of the state. But they may also have access to large amounts of money through a corporation on the free market. They will lose from any customers who consider their actions illegitimate, but it is possible those customers will not know. That is why we have the media.
The huge variety of media in our society, from Democracy Now to Fox News to our friends and family, are one way to tackle organisations that act immorally, because consumers will withhold their dollars if they are deeply opposed to a business’s actions. Many consumers make choices based on their impressions of the companies they buy from. There have been a number of successful boycotts, which give more credence to the fact that businesses a) are beholden to the market and b) can be pressured by small numbers of ordinary people into changing for the better. Business groups such as the Better Business Bureau ensure that ethical businesses get certain benefits of belonging to clubs and the unethical ones get shunned.
All manner of organisation can use boycotts, along with public shaming of people involved, if their rules for ethical behaviour are broken. Shaming can actually be a powerful weapon, as we see when we see a man’s bad cheque on the side of a cash register. It can be used against those who violate the non-aggression principle, as has been suggested regarding police who use pepper spray on unarmed protesters. We need good reputations in life to be able to sign contracts, and we sign many of them in our lives. (Two people who have thought and spelled out the problem well are Stefan Molyneux on dispute resolution and David Friedman on private law.)
Since the people who own and run corporations would no longer have limited liability or other legal protections, the same rules apply to them as to corporations themselves, and anything I say about corporations must apply to the people who make them up. Through private law, people would be able to sue individuals working in the businesses who perform acts of aggression, rather than just suing the corporation. No corporate personhood, no bailouts and other transfers from taxpayers to corporate executives, no regulations preventing small businesses from entering the market: corporations would be far weaker without the state.
They would also have no legal mandate to make a profit, though it is more accurate to say that at the moment they must do what their shareholders want. As not all shareholders of all corporations are purely interested in making money, and others believe ethical behaviour is a way to make money, some of them have taken to shareholder activism, and have made positive changes in the corporations they own that way. Here we have yet another check on corporate power, and I see no reason to believe it would disappear without a government.
The idea that we should worry about private armies is misplaced. Whom does the national military serve? The elite control the state. The state and all its institutions serve the elite. A national military is the private army of the elite. It is paid for by the taxpayers, rather than the elite. In fact, the elite would probably not make money if they needed to pay for their wars themselves.
Some businesses benefit when a state goes to war, but not many. It is usually only the select businesses whose executives and shareholders belligerent governments are beholden to. But the question people who fear a corporation might go to war fail to ask is, who pays for modern war? Taxpayers gain nothing from war; they only lose. Businesses only profit when they get someone else (ie. taxpayers) to pay for it. If Halliburton had armed itself and gone into Iraq for oil, the costs would have far outweighed the benefits. It could have just traded with free people for it and saved millions on weapons. (See my take on the case of Iraq here.)
At the moment, some big corporations, usually oil companies, do attack people indirectly. They move into an area of people with no means to defend their land and the local government defends them against possible peasant unrest. It is possible to blame the corporations that bribe the state to use violence against these innocent people. However, if the state did not exist, the means of violence would not be paid for by the taxpayer. It would be paid for by customers, who would pay higher prices, and employees, whose wages would be lower. In effect, the tax would shift from individuals who do not benefit to those who do, and the prices might be exorbitant.
Moreover, bad PR costs a lot. People of conscience who find out that corporations are employing violence can boycott the corporations. All these things hurt sales. But we cannot force the people in the state who use violence to pay for it themselves, nor can we boycott the state. If a corporation stops caring about making money in the marketplace and only extracts it by force, it has become a state. Thus, the argument that if the state no longer existed, corporations would be just as able to commit violence does not follow. One way or another, anarchists oppose the initiation of force when done by anyone, be it a government, corporation, gang or otherwise.
But even with all this evidence corporations would not have unchecked and indominable power, it is still possible that corporations would commit overt violence, as if they were a government or a mafia, because they would probably still be disproportionately commanded by psychopaths, have lots of money and struggle for dominance. That is why the problem is not government per se, but the initiation of force. I do not care if it was a government or a corporation or just one person who killed 100 peaceful people; the problem is that they were killed. It could be hard to check corporations, like it is hard to check them and governments and other groups today. Not all information would reach everyone affected; not everyone would join in every boycott; not everyone would change due to public disgrace. So we need more ideas.
A stateless society would not be a completely peaceful utopia. How could it? When will we end aggressive behaviour? Few anarchists I know would even try. A lot of them believe that communities should separate from the state and become autonomous. Suffice to say, communities of free people would defend themselves against an aggressive corporation in the same way that they would defend themselves from any state or empire. That is something they have been doing for thousands of years. They or any anarchic society would need to have some kind of protection. That protection could come from the free market, as corporations competing for business would provide their customers with the protection they need. I understand the worry that those corporations could just turn on their customers and steal from them. However, businesses in a free market will provide enough customers with what they want that their owners will not want executives to start killing people. As Robert Murphy explains in detail, there is a market for security, and it could work very well against a corporation or any other organisation that wishes to harm people.
If a security company (or any other company that depends on repeat customers and good reputations, which is all successful ones not receiving state protection) kills or steals from or even enslaves a bunch of people, there are two problems. First, they will have less profit. I don’t think greed is necessarily bad: it depends how it is channeled. If you want to maximise profit, the rational solution might be to be a highly ethical corporation. In theory, and usually in practice, wherever free markets have existed (today’s markets are not very free), people are far wealthier, partly because they can pursue their self interest, partly because their motivation and creativity are higher, partly because they are forced to compete with others if they wish to remain profitable. If corporations want money, they are better off being good businesses and providing what the customers want, and if they do, the customers will come back.
Likewise, most corporations find that being good to their employees pays dividends in employee loyalty and motivation. If they start killing employees, or even just thwarting their attempts to unionise, employees must make a decision: stay here and risk getting bullied or murdered by this corporation, or quit and find another way to make a living. That is their decision. But as competition for workers grows, corporations need to provide better wages and working conditions. A major reason the vast majority of businesses do not regularly cheat customers and shoot employees is that it is not in the interest of their owners to do so.
Communities would still have rules, just like all societies have rules, and they could decide one of those rules would be no Walmart. That could mean no Walmart stores, no Walmart goods, and even no Walmart employees if they felt that strongly, would be allowed in the town. Every community that shunned Walmart in this fashion would mean that much less money, and thus power, for Walmart. Of course, we might not be able to get every community to push away our hypothetical violent or otherwise unethical corporation, but surely we should not force them to believe what we believe. If we are right, people might see it in time; and if they do not, they probably cannot be saved anyway.
The second solution to the problem of protection against a violent corporation is for people to defend themselves. Attempting violence against free people would probably lead to anyone sympathetic’s helping them out in the name of ending injustice, just as abolitionists used to attack slave owners in attempts to free slaves. People should really be able defend themselves anyway, at all times, whether there is a government or not, because violence can be committed whether there are 1000 police on the street or none. History shows that people band together in times of crisis, which include villages or cities allying to repel aggressors. And if they did so and had any chance of winning, where would this leave the business? It would need to reconsider any kind of violent campaign, and if a business is supposed to make money, waging its own war is clearly not the answer.
People could defend themselves, of course, but they could also have competing private defense agencies. If there is no central authority with a monopoly on the means of violence, a variety of organisations would have those means. They already exist to provide security guards, cameras, and so on. If one of them tried to attack people, the people could hire one or more of the many other organisations to defend themselves. If for some reason one turned belligerent, people could call another, or several others. And if worst came to worst, they could take up arms themselves.
In sum, it does not follow that corporations would make things much worse without a coercive state. Corporations would have far fewer unearned benefits without the state. Oversight is provided by journalists and consumers, and is spread by the innumerable media we have at our disposal and by word of mouth. There are already rules of ethics that would continue to govern the actions of consumers and executives, and when the people make rules for themselves and their communities, they can back them up by defending themselves from greedy outsiders with force if they need to.
“War does not determine who is right, only who is left.” — Bertrand Russell
In Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, socialism was creeping into public life. Social democrats were gaining followers and attempting to forge international links with other left-wing groups. They wanted what is today known as social justice. The elites, the great union of political and economic power, felt threatened. We can’t let these people take power, they thought. Trouble brewed and in 1914, World War One began. World War One turned out to be not only the most costly and deadly war in human history but entirely pointless. But one effect it did have was to turn the internationalist socialists into nationalists; to abandon their hopes of improving their country, and to go to war for it. The elites stumbled into, and to an extent concocted, a war, and the people who had nothing to gain took the bait. They died in the millions as a result.
Distracting the people from problems on the home front is just one of many reasons those with militaries at their disposal choose to use them. Most wars start because of disputes between elites, or to maintain the privileged position of empires, states and corporations. Why should the rest of us get caught up in their personal squabbles? Let them have fistfights or duels and stop killing millions of innocent people and spending trillions of our dollars to secure their wealth. This series delves into the reasons we go to war, and the reasons we are fools to do so.
Part 1: Democratic Wars
Though wars may be started by self-interested, psychopathic elites who feel no compunction about killing millions of people, they are held in place by well-meaning but ignorant people who believe that military power is a reasonable way to deal with the world’s problems. (And if you are a libertarian who supports war, I urge you to read this.) There is a dictator somewhere in the world? Let us, the good guys, go take him out. It’s not invasion—it’s liberation. It’s not occupation—it’s nation building. It’s not installing a friendly dictator—it’s democracy promotion. Most of those same people believe that the Allies—again, the good guys—entered the world wars to stop an evil, save the world and secure our freedoms. It is incredible to me how many people in democracies believe that the reason we should vote is because people died in the World Wars to defend our freedom. These people need a history book.
What makes us the good guys, anyway? Ethnocentrism. Our ideas are so good we would be wrong not to impose them on others. Sure, thousands or millions of people might die, but in the long run, they will have democracy, and they will be just as great as us. At the beginning of NATO’s intervention in Libya, Stephen Walt wrote
Of course, like his predecessors, Obama justifies his resort to force by invoking America’s special place in the world. In the usual rhetoric of “American exceptionalism,” he couched it in terms of U.S. values, its commitment to freedom, etc. But the truly exceptional thing about America today is not our values (and certainly not our dazzling infrastructure, high educational standards, rising middle-class prosperity, etc.); it is the concentration of military power in the hands of the president and the eroding political constraints on its employment.
Now, “America finds itself lurching from conflict to conflict often with little idea of how they will end, other than the hope that the forces of righteousness will prevail,” in the name of humanitarian intervention.
The manichean good guy-bad guy distinction is a great way to rally ignorant people around a war in a place they cannot find on a map. We know nothing about them except that they hate freedom. We like to think that we are the good guys, and our government, who we believe is an extension of our collective will, is the strong arm of our superiority. I am not a moral relativist, but to believe that the US Department of Defense, the Department of State, the CIA and so on are good guys by any measure is a joke. While the good-guy justification might be enough to keep the soldiers showing up and the public overlooking the enormous costs of war in blood and treasure, it is not why elites pick these fights.
My explanation that World War One was initiated to distract the people from socialism is of course incomplete. Different decisions were taken for different reasons by the closed circles of elites in each country that participated in the war. Britain’s, for instance, went to war largely to cripple its rival Germany. The alliance of Russia and France, and later Britain, all boxed Germany in geographically, and being a latecomer to the imperial game, Germany’s expansion would need to be mainly local, rather than overseas. It attacked its neighbours. Certainly, German decision makers (Kaiser Wilhelm not least among them) share the blame for the start of the war; all the powers do. Then came the Treaty of Versailles, which was obviously victor’s justice and not true justice. No one benefited from this war, least of all the lower classes; and everyone paid the price again one generation later.
The incalculable chaos—the post WW1 wars across Europe and the Middle East—caused by three men at Versailles who thought they could reorder the world should not be ignored when considering causes of today’s problems. The point is not that they or their countries were less moral, or that a Hitler or Stalin victory over Europe would have been better for anyone. Rather, the problem is that they were given so much power.
Hitler came to power on the back of the humiliating Treaty of Versailles and its devastating effects: hyperinflation in 1923 and deflation in 1929. (Not all historians will agree that Versailles led to those effects as much as the mismanagement of German governments of the time, but it was certainly an easy scapegoat. What the people can be led to believe always matters.) The closing of borders to trade after the start of the Great Depression also did nothing to help Germany, and in fact showed the Germans that, not only were they crippled by the punishments inflicted by foreign powers, but they were being left in the lurch when trade might have saved their economy. 6m Germans were unemployed when Hitler took office. He found a smooth road to fascism.
People condemn Germany’s bombing of Britain, but what did the British expect? Hitler never wanted to fight Britain, but Britain attacked Germany first. Then they show their ignorance by not knowing or their double standards by not caring about the firebombing of German cities, which in cases such as Dresden were solely punitive and had no strategic value. No one entered the war or bombed anything to end the Holocaust, either. If they had, the British would have allowed more Jewish refugees to enter Palestine, and neither Canada nor the US would have turned away the almost 1000 refugees aboard the MS St. Louis. Moreover, Hannah Arendt and other historians believed the Holocaust was an extension of the carelessness with which colonial bureaucrats signed orders for administrative slaughter of native peoples and the disdain they felt for them.
People say it was moral to defend Poland. But Poland’s government, just like Germany’s, was a racist dictatorship. (France was full of racism too; but I guess being a democracy it was more moral and thus the people deserved more help.) Then people say we should have attacked Germany in 1938 or before. But the only time Nazi Germany had invaded a country before the invasion of Poland was an intervention into Spain to take sides in the Spanish Civil War, and I think it is fair to say that anyone who approves of the NATO operation in Libya can understand that. When this kind of foreign military intervention results in suicide bombings, the whole religion of Islam is blamed and all Muslims look like terrorists, when the real culprit is staring us in the face. But attacking Germany was just and righteous, because they were different from us.
The US did not have to enter the war. Japan did not bomb Pearl Harbour so it could begin a takeover of the continental US. It did so to change the equation, to do something about the sanctions on Japan that were making it impossible for Japan to continue to subjugate China. FDR baited Hitler into declaring war on the US, as Hitler did not want war with the US either. A major overreaction ensued in the US, and FDR had his mandate for war.
Britain was not particularly moral and freedom-loving. It controlled the world’s largest empire and held down indigenous people by force. The scorched earth campaign in South Africa (where the concentration camp was invented), the Amritsar Massacre (not the only massacre in British India, just the most recent) and the killing of thousands of Iraqis in 1920 (in which everyone’s hero Winston Churchill played a major role) were not only immoral; they provided an example the new imperialists could profitably emulate. Territorial expansion and empire were rational. With policies that contributed the Great Depression, the great powers closed their borders to foreign goods; and as Frederic Bastiat once said, “if goods don’t cross borders, armies will.” In the absence of free trade, empires like Britain’s and Russia’s afforded enormous benefits. Countries like Japan that had did not have enough natural resources for industrialisation, and Germany, hobbled by the 1919 borders, saw empires as a great way to get what they needed to grow. Hitler mentioned natural resources that Germany did not have in his writing as chancellor.
(That said, a look at the pre- and post-imperial world gives us no reason to believe that uninterrupted rule by indigenous elites would have been any better than by empires. The liberation of most of the world from the colonial yoke was heralded as a new era of freedom, but in most cases results were very disappointing. Government by locals and foreigners alike leaves the governed wide open to abuse.)
The supposed paragons of democracy (the US, Britain, Canada, etc.) had given women the vote barely 20 years earlier (around the same time as Germany). The US was certainly no beacon of morality by WW2. As Albert Jay Nock wrote in 1939,
in order to keep down the great American sin of self-righteousness, every public presentation ought to draw the deadly parallel with the record of the American State. The German State is persecuting a minority, just as the American State did after 1776; the Italian State breaks into Ethiopia, just as the American State broke into Mexico; the Japanese State kills off the Manchurian tribes in wholesale lots, just as the American State did the Indian tribes; the British State practices large-scale carpetbaggery, like the American State after 1864; the imperialist French State massacres native civilians on their own soil, as the American State did in pursuit of its imperialistic policies in the Pacific, and so on.
And morality was obviously not a major consideration, or the moralisers (the British and US empires) would never have allied with Stalin. Unlike Hitler, Stalin had indeed killed many people—some 20m—and enslaved millions more in the gulags. It is no wonder many indigenous forces in Eastern Europe fought with the invading Germans against the Soviets, the side that had proven its barbarity against them. If the allies had become more moral after the war, they would have insisted on freedom for all people, instead of first attempting to occupy Iran, then escalating the war in Indochina against indigenous freedom fighters, followed by everything else that happened when the imperialists were allowed to go back to the work they preferred. Anyone who studies US foreign policy knows that during the Cold War, the US was responsible for coups, dictatorships, mass killings, wars, and various other crimes that suggest the allies’ winning of the war was not unequivocally good. World War Two had nothing to do with liberating anyone, and everything to do with eliminating a rival empire. The troops did not die to make us free; they died for nothing.
More importantly, the idea of taking out Hitler or the Nazi regime and imperial Japan worked all right in the medium term (notwithstanding the enormous costs in lives and wealth, the Cold War and the Soviet takeover of half of Europe), but simply tackling dictators and then replacing them does not strike the root of the problem. It is the same style of misguided policy that believes in combatting terrorism rather than ending the aggression and occupations that cause it.
The two real problems are, first, the existence of the means to build up a military in the first place, through government power to tax, conscript (or just pay security forces better than everyone else), disseminate propaganda, silence dissenters, and so on; and second, the unquestioning following of authority. If Hitler, Stalin, Mao et al. had not had access to the levers of the state, or if more people had defied them, they would just have been scheming loudmouths at town hall meetings. If we were to eliminate some dictatorship, if it were somehow an easy task, I would suggest building things up from the bottom, perhaps training them in basic security while letting the people figure out their own solutions, instead of imposing a new government on them. I do not believe it would be necessary to do many things on a national level when they could be done locally or regionally, across borders. You do not need the government to build highways or railroads, for example, when there are corporations all around the world that could compete for it.
Either way, World War Two has become a kind of fetish in anglophone culture. Men love to watch the heroic allies duke it out with the evil Nazis and Japanese. We are so proud of ourselves that we say things like “you would all be dead now if not for our boys”, which is, to say the least, a counterfactual that defies credulity. (There is no doubt that many amateur history buffs will be able to pick meat off the bones of my arguments on the causes of the World Wars, which evinces my point.) Hitler has become almost a cartoonish image of evil. Because of our uncomfortable relationship with fact, it is easy to manipulate the masses into believing that the next Hitler is right around the corner. Saddam Hussein, for instance, was compared to Hitler before both the 1991 and 2003 wars against him. We HAVE to eliminate him: he is Hitler!
The myths surrounding previous wars contribute to the next war. The goodness of the Good Gulf War (1991), for example, has been crushed under the evidence. I remember as a kid watching American tv during that time, listening to everyone shout about how bad Saddam was and how we needed to invade Iraq. It made sense to me and my simple mind. What did they say? One thing they said was that Saddam’s troops were ready to invade Saudi Arabia, our good friend, then entered Kuwait and threw babies out of incubators. That turned out to be a lie. No one realised until it was too late, and the public had already given the politicians the go-ahead to invade. And it was just one of the pieces in the propaganda puzzle; and we do not need every piece in place to approve of the war. But even though some of the lies had been exposed, all the public could remember on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom from a decade earlier was that Saddam was the bad guy.
The stated rationale for intervening in Iraq both times was that Saddam was evil. But when we declare war on anyone in a country, we are declaring war on that country. Individual countries are neither moral nor immoral. They contain mostly innocent people. When we declare war on a country, we are mostly declaring war on innocent people.
Do we go to war for freedom? Whose freedom, exactly? Certainly not the freedom of those in the country starting the war. Wars tend to produce “emergency” laws that jail people for dissent, muzzle the media, censor unfavourable stories and demonise anyone voicing an opposing opinion. Taxes usually go up (except in the case of Iraqi Freedom, when they went down, creating an enormous hole in the budget that has only deepened). When the war is over, the newly-enlarged and emboldened government, with its taste for higher tax rates and greater control of its people, is less accountable than ever. Is that what we should “thank a vet” for?
We do not fight for others’ freedom, either. Iraq is not, contrary to what you might believe, a “free” country. Predictably, the new regime has become more repressive, authoritarian and corrupt. Those who believe that, whether or not the war was justified, at least Iraqis have democracy, are not only misguided with regard to the value of democracy but to what is happening on the ground in Iraq. (See here, here and here.) Furthermore, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of people who have died and the millions who have been displaced in Iraq since the invasion of 2003, cancer rates and birth defects are exploding. (The Vietnamese might have been able to predict this turn of events.) War has long-term environmental effects that are themselves another reason why only the ignorant would declare war on a country in order to save it. (Find more on the causes of war in part 4 of this series.)
Contrary to common perception, democracy does not make war less likely or less dangerous. Operation Iraqi Freedom was a democratic decision, approved of by a majority of Americans. It was enabled by government fearmongering propaganda, falsified and politicised intelligence and media outlets that did not research government lies. And if you believe we just need to reform government so that it stops lying, you do not understand government very well. (I will continue to use the term Operation Iraqi Freedom to refer to this war. The term is such a distortion of the intended and eventual effects of the war that it reveals the moral bankruptcy of those who made the war happen.) Operation Cast Lead, the 22-day bloodbath in Gaza of 2008-9, was a democratic decision, with over 90% of Jewish Israelis approving. Democracy does not lead to peace; in fact, as Jack Levy (1988) has argued, democracies will often adopt a crusading spirit, attempting to rid the world of evils like terrorism and dictatorship. Democratic governments sometimes come under pressure from their people to start or continue a war in order to stay in power. Governments repeatedly lie and cheat their citizens into supporting wars that do not benefit anyone but a few elites, and have done so for thousands of years.
Whether intended or not, a major outcome of war is the expansion of government power. The American Civil War introduced the draft, which is akin to slavery, censorship, the suspension of habeas corpus and thus perhaps the first major violation of the Bill of Rights (but not the last) and the placing of state power in the hands of the federal government. World War One brought back the draft, more censorship—criticise the war and you are in trouble—deportations and spying. World War Two conscripted people by the millions, introduced food rationing, placed citizens under surveillance and interned over 100,000 Japanese Americans. The War on Drugs has chipped away at the fourth and fifth amendments (which is why it is so convenient for the government to call it a war). The War on Terror introduced the Department of Homeland Security, enhanced pat-downs at the airport, the Patriot Act and Guantanmo Bay Prison. Eric Foner, professor at Columbia University and president of the American Historical Association, mocks the idea that somehow freedom loses a war. “It is hard to see how at any point in American history, whether it’s the Civil War, World War One, the Cold War or the War on Terror, it’s hard to see how these infringements on the right to dissent, infringements on basic civil liberties actually have any military value whatsoever. Does anybody think that Germany would have won World War One if Eugene Debs had been allowed to speak in the United States? Or is it really the case that we can’t allow people basic civil liberties, the right to a trial, the right to see the evidence against them, because otherwise Osama bin Laden is going to take over the world?” But a lie repeated often enough acquires the veneer of truth. In August 2011, 40% of Americans polled believed it was necessary to give up civil liberties in order to curb terrorism. War takes away everyone’s freedom, money and lives, and only a few benefit.
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.
A politician divides mankind into two classes: tools and enemies. – Friedrich Nietzsche
The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves. – William Hazlitt
Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. – Mao Zedong
Do you want power? Do you want to control other people? What if you had the opportunity to force people to do what you wanted? Would you take it? Do you think you know better than others about how to spend their money? If so, what if you could take other people’s money? What would you do with it? Would you risk becoming corrupted by it? If you think these things are wrong, why are they right when governments do them? This is the problem of power.
Power and freedom are two sides of the same coin. Power is the extent to which one can control others. Freedom is the extent to which one is able to resist control by someone else. What are the effects of the concentration of power? Not only does power corrupt, as Lord Acton put it. R.J. Rummel, in his book on democide, goes further.
Power kills; absolute power kills absolutely…. The more power a government has, the more it can act arbitrarily according to the whims and desires of the elite, and the more it will make war on others and murder its foreign and domestic subjects. The more constrained the power of governments, the more power is diffused, checked, and balanced, the less it will aggress on others and commit democide.
Mass murder, such as war and genocide, are made possible when power is concentrated. After roughly sketching the atrocities committed by states or state-like actors of the 19th century and earlier, Rummel goes into detail about the incredible slaughters of the 20th. Some things seem different at the beginning of the 21st century. We may have a more compassionate and less violent world, as many suggest. What has not changed, however, is that states have retained the power to kill people en masse. Neither has the average person’s attitude toward the inevitability of the state and war.
Rummel’s conclusions are that democracy is ideal because of the checks on government power it instates. The less power is concentrated, the better, which is why I believe the decentralisation of power, right to the individual level, is in fact the ideal. Whichever of us is right, as governments grow in budget and scope, we should not sit idly by.
What happens to us when we have power?
Through war and genocide, governments killed hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century. Why? Because they stood in the way of the accumulation of power. They may have been urban workers or uppity peasants. They may have been nothing more than scapegoats.
Mainstream political science does not consider much libertarian thought, and rarely considers the abolition of the state. Many political scientists depend on the state for funding, and have no taste for serious criticism of it. Political science also rarely takes what is believed or known about the psychology of power in account.
Who wants power most? Psychologists estimate roughly 1% of the human population is psychopathic. (Others say it is as high as 4%.) In other words, for every hundred people you know, one of them has no conscience, no empathy, no concern for other people, no sense of guilt, no compunction about lying, will use others to gain money and power and will use violence against enemies. And they do not take responsibility for the endless trouble they cause.
Psychopaths could be the people who continually lash out, like serial killers. These people are sometimes easy to identify and should be locked up or killed. But psychopaths might also be very smart, crafty people who do not commit violence themselves. A reasonable fear related to anarchy is, in a free society, these people will form violent or at least smooth-talking groups that attempt to impose their will on others. However, if the people believe no one should impose their will on others, they will unify to resist and perhaps lock up or kill these psychopaths. Statist societies have far more to fear.
At present, there are legal ways to gain power, which means any of these smart psychopaths who want power can attain it, and the people have to do whatever they want. It might seem unlikely that could happen in our society—after all, we live in a democracy, where elections are supposed to weed out the people who are not fit to lead. But elections do not do that. They reward charismatic people, people who look good on television, people who flatter their subjects, people who make all the right promises, and people who know how to use others to get what they want. I often wonder if more people would be anarchists or voluntaryists if they realised how many psychopaths there are, and how much power they have access to.
What professions do you think psychopaths, people who want power over others, are likely to go into? We might hypothesise they would be disproportionately represented in politics, big corporations, the military and the police. Indeed, there is some evidence that is the case. If these institutions had some kind of psycho-detectors, they might be more trustworthy. They do not. Psychopaths rise to the top of powerful organisations, where their influence far outstrips their numbers, and the dangers of their recklessness multiplies. As Jim Kouri, vice president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, explains, the characteristics of psychopaths, again, charm, lying, no empathy or guilt and so on, are shared by politicians.
[T]hese same traits exist in men and women who are drawn to high-profile and powerful positions in society including political officeholders…. Some of the character traits exhibited by serial killers or criminals may be observed in many within the political arena. While not exhibiting physical violence, many political leaders display varying degrees of anger, feigned outrage and other behaviors. They also lack what most consider a ‘shame’ mechanism. Quite simply, most serial killers and many professional politicians must mimic what they believe are appropriate responses to situations they face such as sadness, empathy, sympathy, and other human responses to outside stimuli.
Psychopaths adopt the attitude that the rules do not apply to them. However, they are likely to set up all manner of very strict rules for everyone else, in order to control others. They may not even set up rules but simply punish people they do not like or anyone as an example to others. They want to set up a climate of dread, the pervasive feeling that we are not safe from them wherever we are.
Often when people say “human nature being what it is” they mean “psychopathy being what it is”. People who say they have a grim view of human nature might ask themselves why they trust a small group to monopolise the means of violence. We might benefit from a system that deals vigilantly with psychopaths; at present we have one that rewards them, handing them the power of the law and paying them handsomely for it. If you are still not convinced the inner circle of the powerful is made up of psychopaths, bear in mind these are the people who sign or initiate orders to imprison, torture and rain fire on any number of innocent people and then sleep soundly in their beds at night—happy, even, that they gain so much from it.
Thus, when we talk about politicians and other powermongers, we are not talking about normal people. They are not like us. Most people in the world care about family and friends, love and happiness. They spend their time working for their families, going out with friends or pursuing harmless interests. But a few very smart people with psychopathic tendencies spend all their time thinking about how to maintain and increase their power. That is why they can so successfully divide and manipulate people.
Why would we be so willing to give them this power? Plato’s aphorism, widely accepted among the politically active, that the price of apathy toward politics is to be ruled by evil men, misses the point. The price of government is to be ruled by evil men.
The desire for power is closely related to the urge to survive. Power is, at least to he or she who wields it, partly or entirely about protecting from the many dangers of the world. The more limited is one’s power, the less protection one has. And when one believes one’s power is not absolute, one is still at risk of losing it. Thus, accumulating power nearly always leads to an attempt to gain more. Many of us already know these things if we realise bullies are, deep down, cowards.
The grip of the situation
Psychopathy is partly genetic but also comes from upbringing. But the right situation can bring out the heart of darkness. There are varying degrees of psychopathy; and of course not everyone who wants power is a psychopath. He might just be some well-meaning person who does not realise the initiation of force is an immoral and counterproductive way to make the world a better place. But power tends to corrupt, as not only Lord Acton’s maxim but research indicates. To be successful politicians, people need to adopt the smooth talk, the lying, the denial of responsibility, the control of their consciences necessary for success in politics. And these things get worse the longer they remain in politics and defend their actions. People in power become more impulsive, more convinced of their greatness and less sympathetic. They also lose certain inhibitions. Power leads to overconfidence. It leads to more risk taking. When an individual without political clout takes risks and fails, they affect him and his family. When a corporate executive takes risks and fails, wealth and jobs are destroyed. When the politically powerful take risks and fail, we get war and economic crisis. They take the biggest risks, cause the biggest avoidable catastrophes and still deny responsibility, pass the blame and avoid punishment. Anarchists and voluntaryists believe we should not enable and reward psychopaths.
People may have the best of intentions when they make the choice to go into politics or big business. The ideal among statists is to use the state to benefit everyone. But how can anyone use the state for good when it is designed and presided over by psychopaths, when one must mix with and act like such people to rise in influence and when one takes on the traits of psychopaths when one spends enough time at the top? As Philip Zimbardo demonstrates in The Lucifer Effect, it is not necessarily about the people and how evil they may or may not be. It is about the situation in which they find themselves. The reason politicians lie and break the law, police use unnecessary violence, and militaries go to war in the absence of a credible threat is they can. They are given enormous amounts of power to do so, along with the incentives that enable them to benefit from lying or using violence, and the state relieves them of responsibility. In modern states, where the amount of power one can acquire is larger than ever, the chance it will turn people bad is great. To say “I am not like that” ignores the fact that, in the right circumstances, I might be.
Saint Bonaventura, a 13th century theologian, once said “the higher a monkey climbs, the more you see of its behind.” In other words, the more power a man amasses, the further he is from social constraints. People want power because it creates, or seems to create, freedom of action, and control of others. But if often brings vanity, worry about how long power will be enjoyed, fantasy about how benign its holder is, and the desire to use that power to gain more. (These are all traits psychopaths possess in abundance.) As Frans de Waal says, “Few people have the discipline to handle this drug.” And winning an election or otherwise forming the government is how to get high.
A natural human weakness and symptom of the abuse of power is obedience. Like with gaining power, obedience has much to do with situational factors. Stanley Milgram’s experiments in obedience found a majority of subjects, men and women, were willing to torture strangers—sometimes to death—if they were given the OK by an official-looking man. His experiments were with US citizens, though they were inspired by the fact that something similar had happened on a nationwide scale in Nazi Germany, Japanese-controlled Asia and Maoist China. Some of the best-intentioned people can be easily manipulated—I’m pretty sure I would be a pawn to a government official. If I joined the bureaucracy, or started working for a politician, or enlisted in the army, or worked in any rigid hierarchy it is hard to disobey, I would likely become an accomplice in acts I disagreed with. I would only want to work somewhere I could follow my conscience all the time.
In order to keep people obeying, authority figures might offer an ideology, such as national security or liberating others. They might tell people they agreed to it, and thus cannot back out. They might allow them some verbal dissent, but tell them to continue following orders. They start the people on a small step that becomes a slippery slope. Psychologists have shown one way to lead people to blind obedience is to show their peers following blindly. Conversely, if we want them to disobey, we show them examples of others disobeying authority.
Accounting for the effects of power
I find it ironic that all democrats I have ever met complain about their governments sometimes or all the time but most believe we just need to reform it. We just need new elections. We just need more people voting, or taking an interest in politics. We need more accountability and the right people in power. They have dreams of incorruptible supermen doing exactly what the people want. Sorry friends: that system and those people do not exist. Almost everyone who gains power could be corrupted by it. And whatever your fantasy of strong, accountable government is, the term is an oxymoron. The stronger government gets, the less accountable it is.
As such, it is also ironic the same people accuse voluntaryists of having a rosy, unrealistic estimation of human nature. After all, they believe, how would we deal with evil men without a central authority? Anarchists and voluntaryists look at the damage done by the state and realise the concentration of power has terrible consequences. They have workable solutions to the problem of violence and ask “why not?” Big government killed and enslaved hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century alone.
If anyone has an unrealistically favourable view of human nature, it is someone who proposes giving people power and thinks elections and the press will force them to do whatever the people want. The argument that a government is just made up of people in the society, and is no better or worse than the people in that society, does not follow. Because power corrupts, people who acquire and need to hold on to and want to expand their power over others can be dangerous, however they may have acted otherwise. More accurately, a government is no worse, and probably not much better, than the restrictions to its power.
Politicians spend virtually all their time trying to accumulate power. In the you-scratch-my-back-I’llscratch-yours world of politics, when powerful groups a politician can reward by doling out public money to or protecting with laws come along with their hands out, they usually get what they want. You, by the way, as a voter, a taxpayer and a civilian, are not powerful. If you are not a member of a well-connected pressure group, you have no voice. In the words of Gordon Gekko, “if you’re not inside, you’re outside.” Insiders have hold of the reins of state, which means they can force you to follow their directives, dictated by their whims, and outsiders have to beg to have them changed.
Power should be widely and evenly distributed, so that no one can force his or her will on others and be
corrupted by the ability to do so. No one should be given power over others—not me, not you and especially not someone who wants it.