It’s hard to know whether a word can ever
be rehabilitated – or whether the attempt should even be made.
Words are weapons, and can be used like any
tools, for good or ill. We are all aware of the clichéd uses of such terms as
“terrorists” versus “freedom fighters” etc. An atheist can be called an
“unbeliever”; a theist can be called “superstitious.” A man of conviction can
be called an “extremist”; a man of moderation “cowardly.” A free spirit can be
called a libertine or a hedonist; a cautious introvert can be labeled a stodgy
Words are also weapons of judgment – primarily
moral judgment. We can say that a man can be “freed” of sin if he accepts Jesus;
we can also say that he can be “freed” of irrationality if he does not. A
patriot will say that a soldier “serves” his country; others may take him to
task for his blind obedience. Acts considered “murderous” in peacetime are
hailed as “noble” in war, and so on.
Some words can never be rehabilitated – and
neither should they be. Nazi, evil, incest, abuse, rape, murder – these are all
words which describe the blackest impulses of the human soul, and can never be
turned to a good end. Edmund may say in King Lear, “Evil, be thou my good!” but
we know that he is not speaking paradoxically; he is merely saying “that which
others call evil – my self-interest – is good for me.”
The word “anarchy” may be almost beyond
redemption – any attempt to find goodness in it could well be utterly futile –
or worse; the philosophical equivalent of the clichéd scene in hospital dramas
where the surgeon blindly refuses to give up on a clearly dead patient.
Perhaps I’m engaged in just such a fool’s
quest in this little book. Perhaps the word “anarchy” has been so abused
throughout its long history, so thrown into the pit of incontestable human iniquity
that it can never be untangled from the evils that supposedly surround it.
What images spring to mind when you hear
the word “anarchy”? Surely it evokes mad riots of violence and lawlessness – a
post-apocalyptic Darwinian free-for-all where the strong and evil dominate the
meek and reasonable. Or perhaps you view it as a mad political agenda, a thin
ideological cover for murderous desires and cravings for assassinations, where
wild-eyed, mustachioed men with thick hair and thicker accents roll cartoon
bombs under the ornate carriages of slowly-waving monarchs. Or perhaps you view
“anarchy” as more of a philosophical specter; the haunted and angry mutterings
of over-caffeinated and seemingly-eternal grad students; a nihilistic surrender
to all that is seductive and evil in human nature, a hurling off the cliff of
self-restraint, and a savage plunge into the mad magic of the moment, without
rules, without plans, without a future…
If your teenage son were to come home to
you one sunny afternoon and tell you that he had become an anarchist, you would
likely feel a strong urge to check his bag for black hair dye, fresh nose
rings, clumpy mascara and dirty needles. His announcement would very likely
cause a certain trapdoor to open under your heart, where you may fear that it
might fall forever. The heavy syllables of words like “intervention,” “medication,”
“boot camp,” and “intensive therapy” would probably accompany the thudding of
your quickened pulse.
All this may well be true, of course – I
may be thumping the chest of a broken patient long since destined for the
morgue, but certain… insights, you could say, or perhaps correlations, continue
to trouble me immensely, and I cannot shake the fear that it is not anarchy
that lies on the table, clinging to life – but rather, the truth.
I will take a paragraph or two to try and
communicate what troubles me so much about the possible injustice of throwing
the word “anarchy” into the pit of evil – if I have not convinced you by the
end of the next page that something very unjust may be afoot, then I will have
to continue my task of resurrection with others, because I do not for a moment
imagine that I would ever convince you to call something good that is in fact
And neither would I want to.
Now the actual meaning of the word
“anarchy” is (from the OED):
Absence of government; a state
of lawlessness due to the absence or inefficiency of the supreme power; political
A theoretical social state in
which there is no governing person or body of persons, but each individual has
(without implication of disorder).
Thus we can see that the word “anarchy”
represents two central meanings: an absence of both government and social
order, and an absence of government with no implication of social disorder.
What does that mean in practice?
Well, clearly there are two kinds of
leaders in this world – those who lead by incentive, and those who lead by
force. Those who lead by incentive will offer you a salary to come and work for
them; those who lead by force will throw you in jail if you do not pick up a
gun and fight for them.
Those who lead by incentive will try to get
you to voluntarily send your children to their schools by keeping their prices
reasonable, their classes stimulating, and demonstrating proven and objective
Those who lead by force will simply tell
you that if you do not pay the property taxes to fund their schools, you will
be thrown in jail.
Clearly, this is the difference between
voluntarism and violence.
The word “anarchy” does not mean “no
rules.” It does not mean “kill others for fun.” It does not mean “no organization.”
It simply means: “without a political leader.”
The difference, of course, between politics
and every other area of life is that in politics, if you do not obey the government,
you are thrown in jail. If you try to defend yourself against the people who
come to throw you in jail, they will shoot you.
So – what does the word “anarchy” really
It simply means a way of interacting with
others without threatening them with violence if they do not obey.
It simply means “without political violence.”
The difference between this word and words
like “murder” and “rape” is that we do not mix murder and rape with the exact
opposite actions in our life, and consider the results normal, moral and healthy.
We do not strangle a man in the morning, then help a woman across the street in
the afternoon, and call ourselves “good.”
The true evils that we all accept – rape,
assault, murder, theft – are never considered a core and necessary part of the
life of a good person. An accused murderer does not get to walk free by
pointing out that he spent all but five seconds of his life not killing someone.
With those acknowledged evils, one single
transgression changes the moral character of an entire life. You would never be
able to think of a friend who is convicted of rape in the same way again.
However – this is not the case with
“anarchy” – it does not fit into that
category of “evil” at all.
When we think of a society without
political violence – without governments – these specters of chaos and
brutality always arise for us, immediately and, it would seem, irrevocably.
However, it only takes a moment of thought
to realize that we live the vast majority
of our actual lives in complete and total anarchy – and call such anarchy
For instance, take dating, marriage and family.
In any reasonably free society, these activities
do not fall in the realm of political coercion. No government agency chooses
who you are to marry and have children with, and punishes you with jail for
disobeying their rulings. Voluntarism, incentive, mutual advantage – dare we
say “advertising”? – all run the free market of love, sex and marriage.
What about your career? Did a government
official call you up at the end of high school and inform you that you were to
become a doctor, a lawyer, a factory worker, a waiter, an actor, a programmer –
or a philosopher? Of course not. You were left free to choose the career that
best matched your interests, abilities and initiative.
What about your major financial decisions?
Each month, does a government agent come to your house and tell you exactly how
much you should save, how much you should spend, whether you can afford that
new couch or old painting? Did you have to apply to the government to buy a new
car, a new house, a plasma television or a toothbrush?
No, in all the areas mentioned above –
love, marriage, family, career, finances – we all make our major decisions in
the complete absence of direct political coercion.
Thus – if anarchy is such an all-consuming,
universal evil, why is it the default – and virtuous – freedom that we demand
in order to achieve just liberty in our daily lives?
If the government told you tomorrow that it
was going to choose for you where to live, how to earn your keep, and who to
marry – would you fall to your knees and thank the heavens that you have been
saved from such terrible anarchy –
the anarchy of making your own decisions
in the absence of direct political coercion?
Of course not – quite the opposite – you
would be horrified, and would oppose such an encroaching dictatorship with all
This is what I mean when I say that we
consider anarchy to be an irreducible evil – and also an irreducible good. It
is both feared and despised – and considered necessary and virtuous.
If you were told that tomorrow you would
wake up and there would be no government, you would doubtless fear the specter
If you were told tomorrow that you would
have to apply for a government permit to have children, you would doubtless
fear the specter of “dictatorship,” and long for the days of “anarchy,” when
you could decide such things without the intervention of political coercion.
Thus we can see that we human beings are
deeply, almost ferociously ambivalent about “anarchy.” We desperately desire it
in our personal lives, and just as desperately fear it politically.
Another way of putting this is that we love
the anarchy we live, and yet fear the anarchy we imagine.
One more point, and then you can decide
whether my patient is beyond hope or not.
It has been pointed out that a totalitarian
dictatorship is characterized by the almost complete absence of rules. When
Solzhenitsyn was arrested, he had no idea what he was really being charged with,
and when he was given his 10-year sentence, there was no court of appeal, or
any legal proceedings whatsoever. He had displeased someone in power, and so it
was off to the gulags with him!
When we examine countries where government
power is at its greatest, we see situations of extreme instability, and a
marked absence of objective rules or standards. The tinpot dictatorships of
third world countries are regions arbitrarily and violently ruled by gangs of
Closer to home, for most of us, is the
example of inner-city government-run schools, ringed by metal detectors, and
saturated with brutality, violence, sexual harassment, and bullying. The
surrounding neighborhoods are also under the tight control of the state, which
runs welfare programs, public housing, the roads, the police, the buses, the
hospitals, the sewers, the water, the electricity and just about everything
else in sight. These sorts of neighborhoods have moved beyond democratic
socialism, and actually lie closer to dictatorial communism.
Similarly, when we think of these inner
cities as a whole, we can also understand that the majority of the endemic
violence results from the drug trade, which directly resulted from government
bans on the manufacture and sale of certain kinds of drugs. Treating drug
addiction rather than arresting addicts would, it is estimated, reduce criminal
activity by up to 80%.
Here, again, where there is a concentration
of political power, we see violence, mayhem, shootings, stabbings, rapes and
all the attendant despair and nihilism – everything that “anarchism” is
endlessly accused of!
What about prisons, where political power
is surely at its greatest? Prisons seethe with rapes, murders, stabbings and
assaults – not to mention drug addiction. Sadistic guards beat on sadistic
prisoners, to the point where the only difference at times seems to be the costumes.
Here we have a “society” that seems like a parody of “anarchy” – a nihilistic
and ugly universe usually described by the word “anarchy” which actually
results from a maximization of political power, or the exact opposite of
Now, we certainly could argue that yes, it
may be true that an excess of
political power breeds anarchy – but that a deficiency
of political power breeds anarchy as well! Perhaps “order” is a sort of
Aristotelian mean, which lies somewhere between the chaos of a complete absence
of political coercion, and the chaos of an excess of political coercion.
However, we utterly reject that approach in
the other areas mentioned above – love, marriage, finances, career etc. We
understand that any intrusion of political
coercion into these realms would be a complete disaster for our freedoms. We do
not say, with regards to marriage, “Well, we wouldn’t want the government
choosing everyone’s spouse – but
neither do we want the government having no
involvement in choosing people spouses! The correct amount of government
coercion lies somewhere in the middle.”
No, we specifically and unequivocally
reject the intrusion of political coercion into such personal aspects of our
Thus once more we must at least recognize
the basic paradox that we desperately need and desire the reality of anarchy in our personal lives – and yet desperately hate
and fear the idea of anarchy in our
We love the anarchy we live. We fear the
anarchy we imagine – the anarchy we are taught
Until we can discuss the realities of our
ambivalence towards this kind of voluntarism, we shall remain fundamentally
stuck as a species – like any individual who wallpapers over his ambivalence,
we shall spend our lives in distracted and oscillating avoidance, to the
detriment of our own present, and our children’s future.
This is why I cannot just let this patient
die. I still feel a heartbeat – and a strong one too!
It is a truism – and I for one think a
valid one – that the simple mind sees everything in black or white. Wisdom, on
the other hand, involves being willing to suffer the doubts and complexities of
The dark-minded bigot says that all blacks
are perfidious; the light-minded bigot says that all blacks are victims. The
misogynist says that all women are corrupt; the feminist often says that all
women are saints.
Exploring the complexities and contradictions
of life with an open-minded fairness – neither with the imposition of premature
judgment, nor the withholding of judgment once the evidence is in – is the mark
of the scientist, the philosopher – of a rational mind.
The fundamentalists among us ascribe all mysteries
to the “will of God” – which answers nothing at all, since when examined, the
“will of God” turns out to be just another mystery; it is like saying that the
location of my lost keys is “the place where my keys are not lost” – it adds
nothing to the equation other than a teeth-gritting tautology. Mystery equals
mystery. Anyone with more than half a brain can do little more than roll his
The immaturity of jumping to premature and
useless conclusions is matched on the other hand only by the shallow and
frightened fogs of modern – or perhaps I should say post-modern – relativism, where no conclusions are ever valid, no
absolute statements are ever just – except that one of course – and everything
is exploration, typically blindfolded, and without a compass. There is no
destination, no guidepost, no sense of progress, no building to a greater goal
– it is the endless dissection of cultural cadavers without even a definition
of health or purpose, which thus comes perilously close to looking like
The simple truth is that some black men are
good, and some black men are bad, and most black men are a mixture, just as we
all are. Some women are treacherous; some women are saints. “Blackness” or
“gender” is an utterly useless metric when it comes to evaluating a person
morally; it is about as helpful as trying to use an iPod to determine which way
is north. The phrase “sexual penetration” does not tell us whether the act is
consensual or not – saying that sexual penetration is always evil is as useless
as saying that it is always good.
In the same way, some anarchism is good
(notably that which we treasure so much in our personal lives) and some
anarchism is bad (notably our fears of violent chaos, bomb-throwing and large
mustaches). As a word, however, “anarchism” does nothing to help us evaluate
these situations. Applying foolish black-and-white thinking to complex and
ambiguous situations is just another species of bigotry
Claiming that “anarchism” is both rank
political evil and the greatest
treasure in our personal lives is a contradiction well worth examining, if we
wish to gain some measure of mature wisdom about the essential questions of
truth, virtue and the moral challenges of social organization.
Our clichéd vision of the typical anarchist
tends to see him emerging shortly before World War I, which is very interesting
when you think about it. The stereotypical anarchist is portrayed as a feverish
failure, who uses his political ideology as a self-righteous cover for his lust
for violence. He claims he wishes to free the world from tyranny, when in fact
all he wants to do is to break bones and take lives.
We typically view this anarchist as a form
of terrorist, which is generally defined as someone committed to the use of
violence to achieve political ends, and place both in the same category as
those who attempt a military coup
against an existing government.
However, when you break it down logically,
it seems almost impossible to provide a definition of terrorism which does not
also include political leaders, or at least the political process itself.
The act of war is itself an attempt to
achieve political ends through the use of violence – the annexation of
property, the capturing of a new tax base, or the overthrow of a foreign government
– and it always requires a government that is willing and able to increase the
use of violence against its own citizens, through tax increases and/or the
military draft. Even defending a country against invasion inevitably requires
an escalation of the use of force against domestic citizens.
Thus how can we easily divide those outside
the political process who use violence to achieve their goals from those within the political process who use violence
to achieve their goals? It remains a daunting task, to say the least.
What is fascinating about the mythology of
the “evil anarchists” – and mythology it is – is that even if we accept the
stereotype, the disparity in body counts between the anarchists and their
enemies remains staggeringly misrepresented, to say the least.
Anarchists in the period before the First
World War killed perhaps a dozen or a score of people, almost all of them state
heads or their representatives.
On the other hand, state heads or their
representatives caused the deaths of over 10
million people through the First World War.
If we value human life – as any reasonable
and moral person must – then fearing anarchists rather than political leaders
is like fearing spontaneous combustion rather than heart disease. In the
category of “causing deaths,” a single government leader outranks all anarchists
tens of thousands of times.
Does this seem like a surprising
perspective to you? Ah, well that is what happens when you look at the facts of
the world rather than the stories of the victors.
Another example would be an objective examination
of murder and violence in 19th-century America. The typical story
about the “Wild West” is that it was a land populated by thieves, brigands and
murderers, where only the “thin blue line” of the lone local sheriffs stood
between the helpless townspeople and the endless predations of swarthy and unshaven
If we look at the simple facts, though, and
contrast the declining 19th century US murder rates with the 600,000 murders committed in the span of
a few years by the government-run Civil War, we can see that the sheriffs were
not particularly dedicated to protecting the helpless townspeople, but rather
delivering their money, their lives and their children to the state through the
brutal enforcement of taxation and military enslavement.
When we look at an institution such as slavery,
we can see that it survived, fundamentally, on two central pillars –
patronizing and fear-mongering mythologies, and the shifting of the costs of
enforcement to others.
What justifications were put forward, for instance,
for the enslavement of blacks? Well, the “white man’s burden,” or the need to
“Christianize” and civilize these savage heathens – this was the condescension – and also because if the
slaves were turned free, plantations would be burned to the ground,
pale-throated women would be savagely violated, and all the endless torments of
violence and destruction would be wreaked upon society – this was the
Slavery as an institution could not
conceivably survive economically if the slave owners had to pay for the actual
expense of slavery themselves. Shifting the costs of the capture, imprisonment
and return of slaves to the general taxpayer was the only way that slavery
could remain profitable. The use of the political coercion required to make
slavery profitable, of course, generates a great demand for mythological
“cover-ups,” or ideological distractions from the violence at the core of the
institution. Thus violence always requires intellectualization, which is why governments
always want to fund higher education and subsidize intellectuals. We shall get
to more of this later.
Even outside war, in the 20th
century alone, more than 270 million people were murdered by their governments.
Compared to the few dozen murders committed by anarchists, it is hard to see
how the fantasy of the “evil anarchist” could possibly be sustained when we
compare the tiny pile of anarchist bodies to the virtual Everest of the dead
heaped by governments in one century alone.
Surely if we are concerned about violence,
murder, theft and rape, we should focus on those who commit the most evils –
political leaders – rather than those who oppose them, even misguidedly. If we
accept that political leaders murder mankind by the hundreds of millions, then
we may even be tempted to have a shred of sympathy for these “evil anarchists,”
just as we would for a man who shoots down a rampaging mass murderer.
The truth of the matter is that, as I
stated above, it is clear that we have a love/hate relationship with anarchy.
We yearn for it, and we fear it, in almost equal measure.
We love personal anarchy, and fear
political anarchy. We desperately resist any encroachment or limitation upon
our personal anarchy – and fear, mock and attack any suggestion that political
anarchy could be of value.
But – how can it be possible that anarchy
is both the greatest good and the greatest evil simultaneously? Surely that
would make a mockery of reason, virtue and basic common sense.
Now we shall turn to a possible way of
unraveling this contradiction.
Truth is so often the first casualty of
self-interest. In the realm of advertising, we can see this very clearly – the
company that sells an anti-aging cream uses fear and insecurity to drive demand
for its product. “Your beauty is measured by the elasticity of your skin, not
the virtue of your soul,” they say, “and no one will find you attractive if you
do not look young!”
This is a rather shallow exploitation of
insecurity; clearly what is really
being sold is a definition of “beauty” that does not require the challenging
task of achieving and maintaining virtue. In the short run, it is far easier,
after all, to rub overpriced cream on your face than it is to start down the
path of genuine wisdom and integrity.
In this way, we can see that the
self-interest of the advertiser and the
consumer are both being served in the exchange, at the expense of the
truth. We all know that we shall become old and ugly – and also that this fate
need not rob us of love, but rather that we can receive and give more love in our dotage than we did in
our youth, if we live with virtue, compassion and generosity.
However, there is far less money to be made
in philosophy than there is in vanity – which is another way of saying that
people will pay good money to avoid the demands of virtue – and so the mutual
exploitation of shallow avoidance is a cornerstone of any modern economy.
In the same way, being told that “anarchism”
is just bad, bad, bad helps us avoid
the anxiety and ambivalence we in fact feel about that which we both fear and
love at the same time. Our educational and political leaders “sell” us relief
from ambivalence and uncomfortable exploration – inevitably, at the expense of
truth – and so far, we have been relatively eager consumers.
The CEOs of large companies receive
enormous salaries for their services. Let us imagine a scenario wherein a small
number of new companies grow despite having no senior managers – and appear to
be making above-average profits to boot!
In this scenario, when business leadership
is revealed as potentially counterproductive to profitability – or at least,
unrelated to profitability – it is easy to see that the self-interest of
business leaders is immediately and perhaps permanently threatened.
In addition, picture all the other groups
and people whose interests would be harmed in such a scenario. Business schools
would see their enrolment numbers drop precipitously; the lawyers, accountants
and decorators who served these business leaders would see the demand for their
services dropping; the private schools that catered to the families of the rich
would be hard hit, at least for a time. Elite magazines, business shows,
conventions, life coaches, haberdashers, tailors and all other sorts of other
people would feel the sting of the transition, to put it mildly.
We can easily imagine that the first few
companies to see increased profitability as a result of ditching their senior
managers would be roundly condemned and mocked by the entrenched managers in
similar companies. These companies would be accused of “cooking the books,” of
exploiting a mere statistical anomaly or fluke, of having secret managers, of
producing shoddy goods, of “stuffing the pipe” with premature sales, of
actually running at a loss, and so on.
Their imminent demise would be gleefully predicted
by most if not all self-interested onlookers. The CEOs of existing companies
would avoid doing business with them, and would doubtless combine a patronizing
“benevolence” (“Yes, you do see these
trends emerge once every few years – they bubble up, falter, and die out, and
investors end up poorer but wiser”) with fairly-open fear-mongering (“I’m not
sure that it is a good career move to work at these sort of companies; I would
consider it a rather black mark on the resume of any job-seeker…”) and so on.
Should these new companies continue to
grow, doubtless the existing business executives would get in touch with their
political friends, seeking for a political “solution” on behalf of the
“consumers” they wished to “protect.”
Entrenched groups will always move to protect
their own self-interest – this is not a bad thing, it is simply a fact of human
nature. It is thus important to understand that what is called unproductive,
negative, “extreme” or dangerous may indeed be so, but it is always worth
looking at the motives of those who invest the time and energy to create and
propagate such labels. Why are they so interested?
We can also find examples of this in the
phenomenon of the “Robber Barons” in late 19th century America. The
story goes that these amoral predatory monopolists were fleecing a helpless
public, and so had to be restrained through the force of government
If this story were really true, the first
thing that we would expect is a 1-2 punch of evidence showing how prices were
rising where these “monopolies” flourished – and also that it was these
helpless and enraged consumers who thumped the ears of their legislators and
demanded protection from the monopolists.
Of course, it would be purely absurd to imagine
that this was the case, and it turns out to be a complete falsehood.
If an unjust price increase of 10%-20% was
imposed upon ground beef, the net loss to the average consumer would be no more
than a few pennies a week. It is incomprehensible to imagine any consumer – or
group of consumers – combining their time and effort to pursue complex and
lengthy legislation for the sake of opposing a tiny price increase. The
cost/benefit ratio would be absurdly out of balance, since it would doubtless
cost most of these consumers far more in time and money to pursue such action
than they could conceivably save by reducing such an unjust price increase.
pursuing legal action against Exxon for higher gas prices?
Of course not.
Thus to find the real culprits, we must
first look at any group which can justify the pursuit of such complex and
uncertain legislation; the purchasing of legislators, the writing of articles
and other efforts spent to influence the media, the desperate pursuit of a
highly risky venture – who could possibly justify such a mad investment?
The answer is obvious, and contains all the
information we need to know to disprove the claims put forward.
The groups most harmed by these
supposed-monopolists were, of course, their direct competitors. Thus we would
expect that the primary – if not sole – sponsors of this legislation would not
be the outraged consumers, but rather the companies competing with these
Clearly, if these monopolists were unjustly
increasing prices, this would be an endless invitation for these competitors –
or even outside entrepreneurs – to undercut their prices.
Ah, but perhaps these Robber Barons were
achieving their monopolies through preferential political favors such as
forcibly keeping competitors from entering the market.
Well, we know for certain that this could
not be the case. If these Robber Barons actually did own the legislature, then
their competitors would be highly unlikely to take the step of attempting to
influence the legislature, because they would know it was a fight they could
not win. If these “monopolists” were gaining massive and unjust profits through
political favors, then their competitors who were shut out of such a lucrative
system would be completely unable to funnel as much money to the legislators.
Furthermore, those making the laws would be exposed to blackmail for past deals
if they “switched sides” so to speak.
Thus without examining a single historical
fact, we can very easily determine what actually happened, which was that:
- The monopolists were not actually raising prices, but were lowering them, which we know because their competitors did not take
the economic route of undercutting on price, but rather the political route of using the force of the state to cripple these “monopolists.”
- The monopolists were not gaining market share or unjust profits through political means, because the legislatures
were still available for sale.
- The consumers were entirely happy with the existing arrangement, which we know because the competitors had
nothing to offer that the consumers would prefer to the existing state of things.
This hypothesis is amply borne out by the
accurate historical evidence. Where these “Robber Barons” dominated the market,
the prices of the goods they produced went down, sometimes considerably – in
the case of using refrigerated railcars to store meat, a price drop of 30% was
achieved in the span of a few months.
Clearly, this did not harm the interests of
the consumer – but it did harm the self-interest of those attempting to compete
with these highly-efficient businesses. Sadly – though, with the temptation of
the government ever-present, inevitably it seems – these competitors preferred
to take the political route of attacking their successful rivals through the
power of the state rather than attempting to innovate themselves in turn and
compete more successfully in the free market.
What about the argument that the Robber Barons
used violence to create their monopolies, by threatening or killing competing
Well, even if we accept this argument as
true, it serves the anarchistic argument far more than the statist position.
If you hired a security guard who
continually fell asleep on the job, and permitted the facility he guarded to be
robbed over and over again, year after year, what would your reaction be? Would
you wake him up and promote him to the rank of global manager of a highly
complex security company? Would his rank incompetence at a simple task make him
your ideal candidate for an enormously complex job?
Of course not.
If a government is so amoral and incompetent
that it permits the murder of innocent citizens by the Robber Barons, then
clearly it cannot conceivably be competent and moral enough to protect citizens
from the complex economic predations of the same Robber Barons. A group that
cannot perform a simple function cannot conceivably perform a far more complex
Over a hundred years later, we can still
see how effective this propaganda really is. The specters of these “Robber
Barons” still inhabit the imaginary haunted houses of our history. The role of
government in controlling exploitive monopolies remains unquestioned – and how
many people know the basic facts of the situation, principally that it was not
the consumers who opposed these companies, but their competitors?
When we look at political “solutions” to
pressing “problems,” we see the same pattern over and over again.
Government-run education was not instituted because parents were dissatisfied
with private schools, or because children were not educated, or anything like
that – but rather because the teachers wanted the job security, and cultural
and religious busybodies wanted to get their hands on the tender minds of
children. The “New Deal” in the 1930s was not instituted because the free
market made people poor, but rather because government mismanagement of the
money supply destroyed almost a quarter of the wealth of the United States.
Time and time again, we see that it is not freedom that leads to political control
and an increase in state violence, but rather prior increases in political
control and state violence.
The government does not expand its control
because freedom does not work; freedom does not work because the government expands
Thus we can see that freedom – or
voluntarism, or anarchy – does not create problems that governments are
required to “solve.” Rather, propagandists lie about what the government is up
to (“protecting consumers” really means “using violence to protect the profits
of inefficient businesses”) and the resulting expansions of political coercion
and control breeds more problems, which are always ascribed to freedom.
Clearly, there exists an entire class of
people who gain immense profit, prestige and power from the existence of the
government. It is equally true that, as a collective, these people have
enormous control and influence over the minds of children, since it is that
same government that educates virtually every child for six or more hours a
day, five days a week, for almost a decade and a half of their formative years.
To analogize this situation, can we imagine
that we would be at all surprised that children who came out of 14 years of
religious indoctrination would in general believe in the existence and virtue
of God? Would we be at all surprised if the strong arguments for atheism were
left off a curriculum expressly
designed by the priests, who directly profit from the maintenance of religious
belief? In fact, we would fully expect such children to be actively trained in
the rejection of arguments for atheism – inoculated against it, so to speak, so
that they would react with scorn or hostility to such arguments.
We may as well hold our breath waiting for
the next commercial from General Motors talking about the shortcomings of their
own cars, and the virtues of their competitors’ vehicles. Or perhaps we should
wait for a full-color spread from McDonald’s depicting detailed pictures of
If so, we will wait in vain.
Similarly, when the government trains the
children, how do we expect the government to portray itself? Would we expect
government-paid teachers to talk openly about the root of state power, which is
the initiation of the use of force against legally-disarmed citizens? Would we
expect them to openly and honestly talk about the source of their income, which
is the property taxes that are forcibly extracted from their students’ parents?
Would we expect these same teachers to talk
about how government power grows through the endless pressure and greed of
special interest groups, who wish to offload the costs of the violent
enforcement of their greed on the taxpayers that they in fact prey upon?
Of course not.
This is not because these teachers are
evil, but rather because people respond to incentives. If the basic truths of
history, logic, ethics and reality are inconvenient to those in power – as they
inevitably are – those paid by those in power will almost never talk about
them. We would not expect a Stalinist-era teacher to speak of the glories of
capitalism; we would not expect an Antebellum teacher to teach the children of
slave-owners about the evils of slavery; we would not expect an instructor at
West Point to talk about the evils and corruption of the military-industrial
complex, any more than we would expect the Vatican to voluntarily initiate a discussion
of child abuse by Catholic priests.
We can view these basic facts without
bottomless rancor, but with a gentle, almost kindly sympathy towards the
inevitable trickle-down and corrupting effects of violent power.
It is no doubt a dizzying perspective to
begin to examine the dark, dank and foggy jungle of propaganda with the simple
light of truth, but that is what an anarchist is really all about.
An anarchist accepts the simple and basic
reality that every single human being fundamentally values free choice in his
or her own personal life.
An anarchist accepts the simple and basic reality
that he who pays the piper always calls the tune – and that arguments against
the virtue and efficacy of political power will never be disseminated in an
educational system paid for by political power.
An anarchist accepts the simple and basic reality
that human beings at best have an ambivalent relationship with voluntarism –
and that human beings habitually avoid the discomfort of ambivalence, and so
don’t want to talk about anarchism any more then they want to bring up their
doubts about religion during a Christian wedding ceremony.
The barriers to a reasonable understanding
of the anarchistic perspective are emotionally volatile, socially isolating and
almost endless. The reasonable anarchist accepts these basic facts – since
facts are what anarchy is all about – and if he is truly wise, falls at least a
little in love with the difficulties of his task.
We should love the difficulties we face,
because if it were easy to free the world, the fact that the world is so far
from being free would be completely incomprehensible…
Ask almost any professional economist what
the role of government is, and he will generally reply that it is to regulate
or solve the “problem of the commons,” and to make up for “market failures,” or
the provision of public goods such as roads and water delivery that the free
market cannot achieve on its own.
To anyone who works from historical evidence
and even a basic smattering of first principles, this answer is, to be frank,
The “problem of the commons” is the idea
that if farmers share common ground for grazing their sheep, that each farmer
has a personal incentive for overgrazing, which will harm everyone in general.
Thus the immediate self-interest of each individual leads to a collective
stripping of the land.
It only takes a moment’s thought to realize
that the government is the worst possible
solution for this problem – if indeed it is a problem.
The problem of the commons recognizes that
where collective ownership exists, individual exploitation will inevitably
result, since there is no incentive for the long-term maintenance of the
productivity of whatever is collectively owned. A farmer takes good care of his
own fields, because he wants to profit from their utilization in the future. In
fact, ownership tends to accrue to those individuals who can make the most
productive future use of an asset, since they are the ones able to bid the most
when it comes up for sale. If I can make $10,000 a year more out of a patch of
land than you can, then I will be willing to bid more for it, and thus will end
up owning it.
Thus where there is no stake in future profitability
– as in the case of publicly-owned resources – those resources inevitably tend
to be pillaged and destroyed.
This is the situation that highly
intelligent, well-educated people – with perfectly straight faces – say should
be solved through the creation of a government.
Why is this such a bizarre solution?
Well, a government – and particularly the
public treasury – is the ultimate
publicly-owned good. If publicly-owned goods are always pillaged and exploited, then how is the creation of the largest
and most violent publicly-owned good supposed to solve that problem? It’s like
saying that exposure to sunlight can be dangerous for a person’s health, and so
the solution to that problem is to throw people into the sun.
The fact that people can repeat these
absurdities with perfectly straight faces is testament to the power of
propaganda and self-interest.
In the same way, we are told that
free-market monopolies are dangerous and exploitive. Companies that wish to
voluntarily do business with us, and must appeal to our self-interest, to
mutual advantage, are considered grave threats to our personal freedoms.
And – the solution that is proposed by
almost everyone to the “problem” of voluntary economic interaction?
Well, since voluntary and peaceful “monopolies”
are so terribly evil, the solution that is always proposed is to create an involuntary, coercive, and violent monopoly in the form
of a government.
Thus voluntary and peaceful “monopolies”
are a great evil – but the involuntary and violent monopoly of the state is the
Can you see why I began this book talking
about our complicated and ambivalent relationship to voluntarism, or anarchy?
We see this same pattern repeating itself
in the realm of education. Whenever an anarchist talks about a stateless
society, he is inevitably informed that in a free society, poor children will
not get educated.
Where does this opinion come from? Does it
come from a steadfast dedication to reason and evidence, an adherence to
well-documented facts? Do those who hold this opinion have certain evidence
that, prior to public education, the children of the poor were not being educated? Do they genuinely
believe that the children of the poor are being well-educated now? Do they
seriously believe that anarchists do not care about the education of the poor?
Do they believe that they are the only people who care about the education of
Of course not. This is a mere knee-jerk
propagandistic reaction, like hearing a Soviet-era Red Guard boy mumbling about
the necessity of the workers controlling the means of production. It is not
based upon evidence, but upon prejudice.
If the “problem of the commons” and the
predations of monopolies are such dire threats, then surely institutionalizing
these problems and surrounding them with the endless violence of police,
military and prisons would be the exact opposite
of a rational solution!
Of course, the problem of the commons is
only a problem because the land is
collectively owned; move it to private ownership, and all is well. Thus the solution
to the problem of public ownership is clearly more private ownership, not more public
Ah, say the statists, but that is just a
metaphor – what about fish in the ocean, pollution in the rivers, roads in the
city and the defense of the realm?
Well the simple answer to that – from an
anarchist perspective at least – is that if people are not intelligent and
reasonable enough to negotiate solutions to these problems in a productive and
sustainable manner, then surely they are also not intelligent or reasonable
enough to vote for political leaders, or participate in any government whatsoever.
Of course, there are endless historical
examples of private roads and railways, private fisheries, social and economic
ostracism as an effective punishment for over-use or pollution of shared
resources – the endless inventiveness of our species should surely by now never
fail to amaze!
The statist looks at a problem and always
sees a gun as the only solution – the force of the state, the brutality of law,
violence and punishment. The anarchist – the endless entrepreneur of social
organization – always looks at a problem and sees an opportunity for peaceful,
innovative, charitable or profitable problem-solving.
The statist looks at a population and sees
an irrational and selfish horde that needs to be endlessly herded around at
gunpoint – and yet looks at those who run the government as selfless,
benevolent and saintly. Yet these same statists always look at this irrational
and dangerous population and say: “You must have the right to choose your
It is truly an unsustainable and irrational
set of positions.
An anarchist – like any good economist or
scientist – is more than happy to look at a problem and say, “I do not know the
solution” – and be perfectly happy not imposing a solution through force.
Darwin looked at the question, “Where did
life come from?” and only came up with his famous answer because he was willing
to admit that he did not know – but that existing religious “answers” were
invalid. Theologians, on the other hand, claim to “answer” the same question
with: “God made life,” which as mentioned above, on closer examination, always
turns out to be an exact synonym for: “I do not know.” To say, “God did it,” is
to say that some unknowable being performed some incomprehensible action in a
completely mysterious manner for some never-to-be-discovered end.
In other words: “I haven’t a clue.”
In the same way, when faced with challenges
of social organization such as collective self-defense, roads, pollution and so
on, the anarchist is perfectly content to say, “I do not know how this problem
will be solved.” As a corollary, however, the anarchist is also perfectly certain that the pseudo-answer of “the government will
do it” is a total non-answer – in fact, it is an anti-answer, in that it provides the illusion of an answer where
one does not in fact exist. To an anarchist, saying “the government will solve
the problem,” has as much credibility as telling a biologist – usually with
grating condescension – “God created life.” In both cases, the problem of
infinite regression is blindly ignored – if that which exists must have been
created by a God, the God which exists must have been created by another God,
and so on. In the same way, if human beings are in general too irrational and
selfish to work out the challenges of social organization in a productive and
positive manner, then they are far too irrational and selfish to be given the monopolistic
violence of state power, or vote for their leaders.
Asking an anarchist how every conceivable existing
public function could be re-created in a stateless society is directly
analogous to asking an economist what the economy will look like down to the
last detail 50 years from now. What will be invented? How will interplanetary
contracts be enforced? Exactly how will time travel affect the price of a
rental car? What megahertz will computers be running at? What will operating
systems be able to do? And so on and so on.
This is all a kind of elaborate game
designed to, fundamentally, stall and humiliate any economist who falls for it.
A certain amount of theorizing is always fun, of course, but the truth is not
determined by accurate long-term predictions of the unknowable. Asking Albert
Einstein in 1910 where the atomic bomb will be dropped in the future is not a
credible question – and the fact that he is unable to answer it in no way invalidates
the theory of relativity.
In the same way, we can imagine that
abolitionists would have been asked exactly how society would look 20 years
after the slaves were freed. How many of them would have jobs? What would the
average number of kids per family be? Who would be working the plantations?
Though these questions may sound absurd to
many people, when you propose even the vague possibility of a society without a
government, you are almost inevitably maneuvered into the position of fighting
a many-headed hydra of exactly such questions: “How will the roads be provided
in the absence of a government?” “How will the poor be educated?” “How will a
stateless society defend itself?” “How can people without a government deal
with violent criminals?”
In 25 years of talking about just these subjects,
I have almost never – even after credibly answering every question that comes
my way – had someone sit back, sigh and say, “Gee, I guess it really could work!”
No, inevitably, what happens is that they
come up with some situation that I cannot answer immediately, or in a way that
satisfies them, and then they sit back and say in triumph, “You see? Society
just cannot work without a
What is actually quite funny about this
situation is that by taking this approach, people think that they are opposing
the idea of anarchy, when in fact they are completely supporting it.
One simple and basic fact of life is that
no individual – or group of individuals – can ever be wise or knowledgeable
enough to run society.
Our core fantasy of “government” is that in
some remote and sunlit chamber, with lacquered mahogany tables, deep leather
chairs and sleepless men and women, there exists a group who are so wise, so benevolent,
so omniscient and so incorruptible that we should turn over to them the
education of our children, the preservation of our elderly, the salvation of
the poor, the provision of vital services, the healing of the sick, the defense
of the realm and of property, the administration of justice, the punishment of
criminals, and the regulation of virtually every aspect of a massive,
infinitely complex and ever-changing social and economic system. These living
man-gods have such perfect knowledge and perfect wisdom that we should hand
them weapons of mass destruction, and the endless power to tax, imprison and
print money – and nothing but good, plenty and virtue will result.
And then, of course, we say that the
huddled and bleating masses, who could never achieve such wisdom and virtue,
not even in their wildest dreams, should all get together and vote to surrender half their income,
their children, their elderly and the future itself to these man-gods.
Of course, we never do get to actually see and converse with these deities. When we do
actually listen to politicians, all
we hear are pious sentiments, endless evasions, pompous speeches and all of the
emotionally manipulative tricks of a bed-ridden and abusive parent.
Are these the demi-gods whose only mission
is the care, nurturing and education of our precious children’s minds?
Perhaps we can speak to the experts who
advise them, the men behind the throne, the shadowy puppet-masters of pure
wisdom and virtue? Can they come forward and reveal to us the magnificence of
their knowledge? Why no, these men and women also will not speak to us, or if
they do, they turn out to be even more disappointing than their political masters,
who at least can make stirring if empty phrases ring out across a crowded hall.
And so, if we like, we can wander these
halls of Justice, Truth and Virtue forever, opening doors and asking questions,
without ever once meeting this plenary council of moral superheroes. We can
shuffle in ever-growing disappointment through the messy offices of these mere
mortals, and recognize in them a dusty mirror of ourselves – no more, certainly,
and often far less.
Anarchy is the simple recognition that no
man, woman, or group thereof is ever wise enough to come up with the best
possible way to run other people’s lives. Just as no one else should be able to
enforce on you his choice of a marriage partner, or compel you to follow a
career of his choosing, no one else should be able to enforce his preferences
for social organization upon you.
Thus when the anarchist is expected to
answer every possible question regarding how society will be organized in the
absence of a government, any failure to perfectly answer even one of them completely validates the anarchist’s position.
If we recognize that no individual has the
capacity to run society (“dictatorship”), and we recognize that no group of
elites has the capacity to run society (“aristocracy”), we are then forced to
defend the moral and practical absurdity of “democracy.”
It may be considered a mad enough exercise
to attempt to rescue the word “anarchy” – however, to smear the word
“democracy” seems almost beyond folly. Fewer words have received more reverence
in the modern Western world. Democracy is in its essence the idea that we all
run society. We choose individuals to represent our wishes, and the majority
then gets to impose its wishes upon everyone else, subject ideally to the
limitations of certain basic inalienable rights.
The irrational aspect of this is very hard
to see, because of the endless amount of propaganda that supports democracy
(though only in democracies, which is telling), but it is impossible to ignore
once it becomes evident.
Democracy is based on the idea that the
majority possesses sufficient wisdom to both know how society should be run,
and to stay within the bounds of basic moral rules. The voters are considered
to be generally able to judge the economic, foreign policy, educational,
charitable, monetary, health care, military et
al policies proposed by politicians. These voters then wisely choose
between this buffet of various policy proposals, and the majority chooses
wisely enough that whatever is then enacted is in fact a wise policy – and
their chosen leader then actually enacts what he or she promised in advance,
and the leader’s buffet of proposals is entirely
wise, and no part of it requires moral compromise. Also, the majority is
virtuous enough to respect the rights of the minority, even though they
dominate them politically. Few of us would support the idea of a democracy
where the majority could vote to put the minority to death, say, or steal all
In addition, for even the idea of a democracy to work, the
minority must be considered wise and virtuous enough to accept the decisions of
In short, democracy is predicated on the
A. The majority of voters are wise
and virtuous enough to judge an incredibly wide variety of complex proposals by
B. The majority of voters are wise
and virtuous enough to refrain from the desire to impose their will arbitrarily
upon the minority,
but instead will respect certain universal moral ideals.
The minority of voters who are
overruled by the majority are wise and virtuous enough to accept being
and will patiently await the next election in order to try to have
their say once more, and will abide by the universal moral ideals of the society.
This, of course, is a complete
contradiction. If society is so stuffed to the gills with wise, brilliant,
virtuous and patient souls, who all respect universal moral ideals and are
willing to put aside their own particular preferences for the sake of the
common good, what on earth do we need a
Whenever this question is raised, the
shining image of the “noble citizenry” mysteriously vanishes, and all sorts of
specters are raised in their place. “Well, without a government, everyone would
be at each other’s throats, there would be no roads, the poor would be uneducated,
the old and sick would die in the streets etc. etc. etc.”
This is a blatant and massive
contradiction, and it is highly informative that it is nowhere part of anyone’s
discourse in the modern world.
Democracy is valid because just about everyone
is wise and moral, we are told. When we accept this, and question the need for
a government, the story suddenly reverses, and we are told that we need a
government because just about everyone is amoral and selfish.
Do you see how we have an ambivalent
relationship not just with anarchism, but with democracy itself?
In the same way, whenever an anarchist
talks about a stateless society, he is immediately expected to produce evidence
that every single poor person in the future will be well taken care of by
Again, this involves a rank contradiction,
which involves democracy.
The welfare state, old-age pensions, and
“free” education for the poor are all considered in a democracy to be valid
reflections of the virtuous will of the people – these government programs were
offered up by politicians, and voluntarily accepted by the majority who voted
for them, and also voluntarily accepted by the minority who have agreed to obey
the will of the majority!
In other words, the majority of society is
perfectly willing to give up an enormous chunk of its income in order to help
the sick, the old and the poor – and we know this because those programs were
voted for and created by democratic governments!
Ah, says the anarchist, then we already
know that the majority of people will be perfectly willing to help the sick,
the old and the poor in a stateless society – democracy provides empirical and
incontrovertible evidence of this simple fact!
Again, when this basic argument is put forward,
the myth of the noble citizenry evaporates once more!
“Oh no, without the government forcing
people to be charitable, no one would lift a finger to help the poor, people
are so selfish, they don’t care etc. etc. etc.”
This paradox cannot be unraveled this side
of insanity. If a democratic government must force a selfish and unwilling
populace to help the poor, then government programs do not reflect the will of
the people, and democracy is a lie, and we must get rid of it – or at least
stop pretending to vote.
If democracy is not a lie, then existing government programs accurately represent
the will of the majority, and thus the poor, the sick and the old will have
nothing to fear from a stateless society – and will, for many reasons, be far
better taken care of by private charity than government programs.
Now it is certainly easy to just shrug off
the contradictions above and it say that somewhere, somehow, there just must be a good answer to these
Although this can be a pleasant thing to do
in the short run, it is not something I have ever had much luck doing in the
long term. These contradictions come back and nag at me – and I am actually
very glad that they have done so, since I think that the progress of human
thought utterly depends upon us taking nothing
The first virtue is always honesty, and we
should be honest enough to admit when we do not have reasonable answers to
these reasonable objections. This does not mean that we must immediately come
up with new “answers,” but rather just sit with the questions for a while,
ponder them, look for weaknesses or contradictions in our objections – and only
when we are satisfied that the objections are valid should we begin looking for
rational and empirical answers to even some of the oldest and most
This process of ceasing to believe in
non-answers is fundamental to science, to philosophy – and is the first step
towards anarchism, or the acceptance that violence is never a valid solution to
One of the truly tragic misunderstandings
about anarchism is the degree to which anarchism is associated with violence.
Violence, as commonly defined, is the initiation
of the use of force. (The word “initiation” is required to differentiate the
category of self-defense.)
Since the word “ambivalent” seems to be the
theme for this book, it is important to understand that those who advocate or
support the existence of a government have themselves a highly ambivalent
relationship to violence.
To understand what I mean by this, it is
first essential to recognize that taxation – the foundation of any statist
system – falls entirely under the
category of “the initiation of the use of force.”
Governments claim the right to tax citizens
– which is, when you look at it empirically, one group of individuals claiming
the moral right to initiate the use of force against other individuals.
Now, you may believe for all the reasons in
the world that this is justified, moral, essential, practical and so on – but
all this really means is that you have an ambivalent relationship to the use of
force. On the one hand, you doubtless condemn as vile the initiation of the use
of force in terms of common theft, assault, murder, rape and so on.
Indeed, it is the addition of violence that
makes specific acts evil rather than neutral, or good. Sex plus violence equals
rape. Property transfer plus violence equals theft. Remove violence from
property transfer, and you have trade, or charity, or borrowing, or inheritance.
However, when it comes to the use of violence
to transfer property from “citizens” to “government,” these moral rules are not
just neutralized, but actively reversed.
We view it as a moral good to resist a
crime if possible – not an absolute necessity, but certainly a forgivable if
not laudable action. However, to resist the forcible extraction of your
property by the government is considered ignoble, and wrong.
Please note that I am not attempting to convince
you of the anarchist position in this (or any other) section of this book. I
consider it far too immense a task to change your mind about this in such a
short work – and besides, if you are troubled by logical contradictions, I
might rob you of the considerable intellectual thrill and excitement of
exploring these ideas for yourself.
Thus in a democracy, we have a highly
ambivalent relationship to violence itself. We both fear and hate violence when
it is enacted by private citizens in pursuit of personal – and generally
considered negative – goals. However, we praise violence when it is enacted by
public citizens in pursuit of collective – and generally considered positive –
For instance, if a poor man robs a richer
man at gunpoint, we may feel a certain sympathy for the desperation of the act,
but still we will pursue legal sanctions against the mugger. We recognize that
relative poverty is no excuse for robbery, both due to the intrinsic immorality
of theft, and also because if we allow the poor to rob the less poor, we generally
feel that social breakdown would be the inevitable result. The work ethic of
the poor would be diminished – as would that of the less poor, and society
would in general dissolve into warring factions, to the economic and social
detriment of all.
However, when we institutionalize this very
same principle in the form of the welfare state, it is considered to be a noble
and virtuous good to use force to take money from the more wealthy, and hand it
over to the less wealthy.
Again, this book is not designed to be any
sort of airtight argument against the welfare state – rather, it is designed to
highlight the enormous moral contradictions in – and our fundamental
ambivalence towards – the use of violence to achieve preferred ends.
I may have been doomed to this particular
perspective from a very early age. I grew up in England in the 1970s, when the
shadow cast by the Second World War still fell long across the mental
landscape. I read war comics, saw war movies, heard details of epic battles,
and sat silent during rather uncomfortable family gatherings where the British
on my father’s side attempted to make small talk with the Germans on my
I could not help but think, even when I was
six or seven years old, that should my paternal uncle leap across the table and
strangle my maternal uncle, this would be viewed as an immoral horror by
everyone involved, and he would doubtless go to jail, probably for the rest of
On the other hand, should they be placed in
costume, and arrayed across a battlefield according to the whims of other men
in costume, such a murder would be hailed as a noble sacrifice, and medals may
be passed out, and pensions provided, and tickertape parades possibly ensue.
Thus, even in those long-ago days of soft
white tablecloths and gently clinking cutlery, I mentally chewed on the problem
that murder equals evil, and also that murder equals good. Murder equals jail,
and murder equals medals.
When I was a little older, after “The Godfather”
came out, endless slews of gangster movies sprayed their red gore across the silver
screens. In these stories, certain tribal “virtues” such as loyalty, dedication
and obeying orders, were portrayed as relatively noble, even as these butchers
plied their bloody trade in slow motion, generally to the strains of classical
music, and came to grimly spattered ends on bare concrete.
This paradox, too, stayed with me:
“Murdering a man because another man orders you to – and pays you to – is a
vile and irredeemable evil.”
Then, of course, another war movie would
come out, with the exact opposite moral message: “Murdering a man because
another man orders you to – and pays you to – is a virtuous and courageous
I do remember bringing these contradictions
up from time to time with the adults around me, only to be met with
condescending irritation, often followed by a demand as to whether I would in
fact prefer to be speaking German at present.
As I got older, and learned a little more
about the world, these contradictions did not exactly resolve themselves, but
rather were added to incessantly. We fought the Second World War to oppose
National Socialism, I was told, as I munched on awful soy burgers, shivered in
the cold and was told I could not bathe because the nationalized state unions
were crippling the British economy.
I was told that I had to be terribly afraid
of the selfish impulses of my fellow citizens – and also that I had to respect
their wisdom when they chose a leader. I was told that the purpose of my
education was to allow me to think for myself, but when I made decisions that
those in authority disagreed with, I was scorned and humiliated, and my
reasoning was never examined.
I was told that I should not use violence
to solve my problems, but when I climbed a wall that apparently I was not
supposed to, I was taken to the Headmaster’s office, where he assaulted me with
I was told that the British people were the
wisest, most courageous and most virtuous group on the planet – and also that I
was not to disobey those in authority.
When I was taught mathematics and science,
I was punished for thinking irrationally – and then, when I asked sensible
questions about the existence of God, I was punished for attempting to think
I was mocked as cowardly whenever I succumbed
to peer pressure – and also mocked for my lack of interest in cheering our
local sports team.
When I proposed thoughts that those in
authority disagreed with, they demanded that I provide evidence; when I asked
that they provide evidence for their
beliefs, I was punished for insubordination.
This is nothing peculiar to me – all
children go through these sorts of mental meat grinders – but I could not help
but think, as I grew up, that what passed for “thinking” in society was more or
less an endless series of manipulations designed to serve those in power.
What troubled me most emotionally was not
the nonsense and contradictions that surrounded me, but rather the indisputable
fact that they seemed completely invisible to everyone. Well, that’s not quite
true. It is more accurate to say that these contradictions were visible exactly
to the degree that they were avoided. Everyone walked through a minefield,
claiming that it was not a minefield, but unerringly avoiding the mines
It became very clear to me quite quickly
that I lived in a kind of negative intellectual and moral universe. The ethical
questions most worth examining were those that were the most mocked, derided
and attacked. What was virtuous was so often what was considered the most vile
– and what was the most vile was often considered the most virtuous.
When I was 11, I went to the Ontario
Science Center, which had an interesting and challenging exhibit where you attempted
to trace the outline of a star by looking in a mirror. I have always remembered
this exhibit, and just now I realize why – because this was my direct experience
when attempting to map the ethics and virtues proclaimed by those around me –
particularly those in authority.
Nowhere were these contradictions more pronounced
than in the question of war.
It took me quite a long time to realize
this, because the spectacle, fire and blood of war is so distracting, but the
true violence of war does not occur on the battlefield, but in the homeland.
The carnage of conflict is only an effect of the core violence which
supports war, which is the military enslavement of domestic citizens through
the draft – and even more importantly, the direct theft of their money which
pays for the war.
Without the money to fund a war – and pay
the soldiers, whether they are drafted or not – war is impossible. The actual
violence of the battlefield is a mere effect
of the threatened violence at home. If citizens could not be forced to pay for
the war – either in the present in the form of taxes, or in the future through
deficit financing – then the carnage of the battlefield could never possibly
I have read many books and articles on the
root of war – whether it is nationalism, economic forces, faulty philosophical
premises, class conflict and so on – none of which addressed the central issue,
which is how war is paid for. This is like advancing merely psychological
explanations as to why people play the lottery, without ever once mentioning
their interest in the prize money. Why do people become doctors? Is it because
they have a psychological need to present themselves as godlike healers, or because
they are pleasing their mother and father, or because they are themselves
secretly wounded, or because they possess an altruistic desire to heal the
sick? These may be all interesting theories to pursue, but they are mere effects of the basic fact that doctors
are highly paid for what they do.
Certainly psychological or sociological theories
may explain why a particular person chooses to become a doctor rather than
pursue some other high-paying occupation – but surely we should at least start with the fact that if doctors were
not paid, almost no one would become
a doctor. For instance, if a magic pill were invented tomorrow that ensured
perfect health forever, there would be no more doctors – because no one would
pay for the unnecessary service. Thus the first cause of doctors is – payment.
In the same way, we can endlessly theorize
about the psychological, sociological or economic causes of war, but if we
never talk about the simple fact that the first cause of war is domestic theft
and military enslavement, then everything that follows remains mere abstract
and airless intellectual quibbling, more designed to hide the truth than reveal
We can only point guns at foreign enemies because
we first point guns at domestic citizens.
Without taxation, there can be no war.
Without governments, there can be no taxation.
Thus governments are the first cause of war.
The truth of the matter, I believe, is that
deep down we know that if we pull out this one single thread – that coercion
against citizens is the root of war – we know that many other threads will also
If we recognize the violence that is at the
root of war – domestic violence, not foreign violence – then we stare at the
core and ugly truth at the root of our society, and most of our collective
The core and ugly truth at the root of our
society is that we really, really like
using violence to get things done. In fact, it is more than a mere aesthetic or
personal preference – we define the use of violence as a moral necessity within our society.
How should we educate children? Why, we
must force their parents – and everyone else – to pay for their education at
How should we help the poor? Why, we must
force others in society to pay for their support at gunpoint!
How should we heal the sick? Why, we must
force everyone to pay for their medical care at gunpoint!
Now, it may be the case that we have
exhausted all other possibilities and ways of dealing with these complex and
challenging problems, and that we have been forced to fall back on coercion,
punishment and control as regretful necessities, and we are constantly looking
for ways to reduce the use of violence in our solutions for these problems.
However, that is not the case, either
empirically or rationally.
The education of poor children, the succor
of the impoverished and the healing of the sick all occurred through private
charities and voluntary associations long before statist agencies displaced
them. This is exactly what you would expect, given the general modern support
for these state programs, because everyone is so concerned with these genuinely
Where violence is considered to be a regrettable
but necessary solution to a problem, those in authority do not shy away from
talking openly about it. When I was a child in England in the 1970s, I was
repeatedly told with pride by my elders about their courageous use of violence
against the Axis powers in World War II. No one tried to give me the impression
that the Nazis were defeated by cunning negotiation and psychological tricks.
The endless slaughterhouses of both the First and Second World Wars were not
kept hidden from me, but rather the violence was praised as a regrettable but
American children are told about the
nuclear attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima – the slaughter and radiation
poisoning of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians is not kept a secret;
it is not bypassed, ignored or repressed in the telling of the tale.
Even when the war in question was itself
questionable, such as the war in Vietnam, no one shies away from the true
nature of the conflict, which was endless genocidal murder.
I do not for a moment believe that all of
these genocides and slaughters were morally justifiable – or even practically
required – but mine is certainly a minority opinion, and since the majority
believes that these murders were both morally justified and practically
required, they feel fully comfortable openly discussing the violence that they
However, this is not the case when we talk
about statist solutions to the problems of charity and ill health. You could
spend an entire academic career in these fields, and read endless books and
articles on the subject, and never once come across any reference to the fact
that these solutions are funded through violence. Just so you can understand
how strange this really is, imagine spending 40 years as a professional war
historian, and never once coming across the idea that war involves violence.
Would we not consider that a rather egregious evasion of a rather basic fact?
This is a rather volatile comparison I
know, but we saw the same phenomenon occurring in Soviet Russia. Almost no
reference was made to the gulags in official state literature, particularly
that literature intended to be consumed overseas. The tens of millions of
concentration camp inmates showed up nowhere in the general or academic
narrative of the Soviet Union – when the book “One Day in the Life of Ivan
Denisovich” finally appeared, even this relatively mild account of a day in the
life of a prison camp inmate was greeted with shock, derision, horror and rage
by those charged with defending that narrative.
It cannot really be the case that when
society is genuinely proud of something, the truth is kept mysteriously hidden
from view. Can we imagine fans of the New York Yankees actively working to repress
the fact that their team won the World Series? Can we imagine the Communist
leaders of China suppressing news that their athletes had won gold medals in
the Olympics? Can we imagine a police department feverishly working to censor
the facts about a large reduction in the crime rate?
Of course not. Where we are genuinely proud
of an achievement, we do not refrain from talking about its causes. An Olympic
athlete will speak with pride about the years of endless dawn training
sessions; a successful entrepreneur will not hide the decades of hard work it
took to succeed; a woman who has successfully struggled to lose weight is
unlikely to wear a fat suit when she goes to her high school reunion.
However, when a core reality conflicts with
a mythological narrative, academics, intellectuals and other cultural leaders
are well-compensated for their ability to completely ignore that core reality –
and usually savagely attack and mock anyone who brings it up.
One core reality that anarchists focus on –
which surely is at least worthy of discussion – is that governments claim to
serve and protect their citizens. When I was a child, and questioned the ethics
of World War II, I was asked if I would prefer to be speaking German. In other
words, the brave men and women of the Allied forces spent their lives and blood
defending me from foreign marauders who would have enslaved me. This approach
reinforces the basic story that the government was trying to protect its citizens.
In the same way, when I question the use of
violence in the supplying of education, people always tell me that in the
absence of that violence – even if they admit to its existence – the poor would
remain uneducated. This approach reinforces the basic story that the purpose of
state violence in this realm is to educate the children.
You can see the same pattern just about
everywhere else. When I talk about the violence of the war on drugs, I am told
that without such a war, society would degenerate into nihilistic addiction and
violence – thus the purpose of the war on drugs is to keep people off drugs,
and their neighbours safe from violence. When I talk about the base and
coercive predation of Social Security, I am told that without it, the old would
starve in the streets – thus reinforcing the narrative that the purpose of
Social Security is to provide an income for the old, without which they would
When we examine the narrative that the
state exists to protect its citizens, we can clearly see that if we unearth the
basic reality of the violence of taxation, a malevolent contradiction emerges.
It is very hard for me to tell you that I
am only interested in protecting you, if I attack you first. If I roll up to
you in a black van, jam a hood over your head, throw you in the back of my van,
tie you up and toss you in my basement, would you reasonably accept as my
explanation for this savagery that I only wished to keep you from harm?
Surely you would reply that if I was really
interested in keeping you from harm, why on earth would I kidnap you and lock
you up in a little room? Surely, if I initiate the use of force against you, it
is somewhat irrational (to say the least) for me to tell you that I am only acting
to protect you from the use of force.
This is a central reason why the aggression
that governments initiate against their own citizens in order to extract the
cash and cannon fodder for war is never talked about. It is hard to sustain the
thesis that governments exist to protect their citizens if the first threat to
citizens is always their own government.
If I have to rob you in order to pay for
“protecting” your property from theft, at the very least I have created an
insurmountable logical contradiction, if not a highly ambivalent moral
In general, where coercion is a regrettable
but necessary means of achieving a moral good, that coercion is not hidden from
general view. In police dramas, the violence of the cops is not hidden. In war
movies, shells, bullets and limbs fly across the screen with wanton abandon.
However, the coercion at the root of war
and state social programs remains forever unspoken, unacknowledged, repressed,
hidden from view; it is mad, shameful and imprudent to speak of it.
A hunter who proudly displays a dead deer
on the hood of his car, and puts the antlers up in his basement, and barbecues
the venison for his friends, can be considered somewhat proud – or at least not
ashamed – of his hobby.
A hunter who uses a silencer, shoots a deer
in the middle of the night, and carefully buries the body, leaving no trace,
cannot be considered at all proud – and is in fact utterly ashamed – of his
Thus, when an anarchist looks at society,
he sees a desperate shame regarding the use of violence to achieve social ends
such as the military, health care, and education. Any anarchist who has even a
passing interest in psychology – and I certainly put myself in this category –
understands that this kind of unspoken shame is utterly toxic, both to an
individual and to a society.
Thus it inevitably falls to anarchists to
perform the unpleasant task of digging up the “body in the backyard,” or
pointing out the widespread, prevalent and ever-increasing use of violence to
achieve moral goals within society. “Is this right?” asks the anarchist – fully
aware of the hostile and resentful glances he receives from those around him.
“How can violence be both the greatest evil and the greatest good?” “If the violence
that we use to achieve our supposedly moral ends is in fact justified and good,
why is it that we are so ashamed to speak of it?”
To be an anarchist, to say the very least,
requires a strong hide when it comes to social hostility and disapproval.
When people have genuinely exhausted all
other possibilities, they tend not to be ashamed of their eventual solution.
Even if we take the surface narrative of the Second World War at face value,
the victors were able to express just pride because the narrative included the
significant caveat that there was no other possible response to the aggression
of the German, Italian and Japanese fascists.
Parents tend to be pretty open about
hitting their children if they genuinely believe that no rational or moral
alternatives exist to the use of violence. If hitting a child is the only way
to teach her to be a good, productive and rational adult, then not hitting her is obviously a form of
lax parenting, if not outright abuse. Hitting your daughter thus becomes a form
of moral responsibility, and thus a positive good, much like yanking her back
from running into traffic and ensuring that she eats her vegetables.
Such a parent, of course, reacts with
outrage and indignation if you suggest to him that there are more productive
alternatives to violence when it comes to raising children – for the obvious reason
that if those alternatives exist, his violence turns from a positive good to a
This is the situation that an anarchist
faces when he talks about nonviolent alternatives to existing coercive “solutions.”
If there is a nonviolent way to help the poor, heal the sick, educate the children,
protect property, build roads, defend a geographical area, mediate disputes,
punish criminals and so on – then the state turns from a regretfully necessary
institution to an outright criminal monopoly.
This is a rather large and jagged pill for
people to swallow, for any number of psychological, personal, professional and
Another paradox that anarchy brings into
uncomfortable view is the contradiction between coercion and morality.
We all in general recognize and accept the
principle that where there is no choice, there can be no morality. If a man is
told to commit some evil while he has a gun pressed to his head, we would have
a hard time categorizing him as evil – particularly compared to the man who is
pressing the gun to his head.
If we accept the Aristotelian view that the
purpose of life is happiness, and we accept the Socratic view that virtue
brings happiness, then when we deny choice to people, we deny them the capacity
for virtue, and thus for happiness.
There is great pleasure in helping others –
I would certainly argue that it is one of the greatest pleasures, outside of
love itself, which encompasses it. Helping others, though, is a highly complex
business, which requires detailed personal attention, rigorous standards, a
combination of encouragement, sternness, enthusiasm, sympathy and discipline –
to name just a few!
Using coercion to drive charity is like
using kidnapping to create love. Not only does the use of coercion through
state programs deny choice to those wishing to help the poor – and thus the joy
of achievement, and the motivation of happiness – but it corrupts and destroys
the complex interchange required to elevate a human soul from its meager
surroundings and its own low expectations.
If we believe that violence is a valid way
to achieve moral ends – of helping the poor for instance – then there are two
other approaches which would be far more logically consistent than the forced
theft and transfer of taxation.
If violence is the only valid way to create
economic “equality,” then surely it would make far more sense to simply allow
those below a certain level of income to steal the difference from others. If
we understand that state welfare agencies skim an enormous amount of money off
the top – they represent a truly savage expense – then we can easily eliminate
this overhead, and have a far more rational system besides, simply by eliminating
the middleman and allowing the poor to steal from the middle and upper classes.
If the prospect of this solution fills you
with horror, that is important to understand. If you feel that this proposal
would degenerate into armed gangs of the poor rampaging through wealthier
neighborhoods, then you are really saying that the poor are poor because they
lack restraint and judgment, and will pillage others and undermine the economic
success and general security of society in order to satisfy their own immediate
appetites, without thought for the future.
If this is the case – if the poor really
are such a shortsighted and savage band – then it is clear that they do not
have the judgment and self-control to vote in democratic elections – which are
essentially about the forcible transfer of income. If the poor only care about
satisfying their immediate appetites, without a care for the long term, then
they should not be at all involved in the coercive redistribution of wealth in
society as a whole.
Ah, but what if taking the right to vote
away from the poor fills you with outrage? Very well, then we can assume that
the poor are rational, and able and willing to defer gratification. If a man is
wise enough to vote on the use of force, then he is certainly wise enough to
use that force himself.
Indeed, the barriers to using force personally are far higher than voting
for the use of force in a democratic system. If you have to pick up a gun and
go and collect your just property from richer people, that is quite a high “barrier
to entry.” If, on the other hand, you simply have to scribble on the ballot
once every few years, and then sit back and wait for your check to arrive,
surely that will drive the escalation of violence in society far more rapidly.
If you still feel that this solution would
be disastrous, because the poor would act with bad judgment, then you face a
related issue, which is the quality of the education that the poor have
If the poor lack wisdom, knowledge and good
judgment, but they have been educated by the government for almost 15 years straight,
then surely if we believe that the poor can be educated, we must then blame the
government for failing to educate them. Since the poor cannot afford private
schools, they must surrender their children to government schools, which have a
complete and coercive monopoly over their education.
Now, either the poor have the capacity for
wisdom and efficacy, or they do not. If the poor do have the capacity for wisdom, then the government is fully
culpable for failing to cultivate it through education. If the poor do not have
the capacity for wisdom, then the government is fully culpable for wasting
massive resources in a futile attempt to educate them – and also, they cannot
justly be allowed to vote.
Again, although I know that this must be
uncomfortable or annoying to read through, I am willing myself to refrain from
providing the clear and moral anarchistic solutions to these seemingly
intractable problems. There is no point trying to give society a pill if society
does not even think that it is sick. If your appendix is inflamed, and I offer
to remove it for you, you will doubtless cry out your gratitude – if I run up
to you on the street, however, and offer to remove an appendage that you
believe to be both necessary and healthy, you would be highly inclined to
charge me with assault.
Given that anarchism represents a near complete
break with political society – although, as described above, a highly moral and
rational expansion of personal society – it remains in no way attractive if
nothing is seen to be particularly wrong with political society.
Churchill once famously remarked: “Democracy
is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have
been tried from time to time.” Anarchists believe this to be true, but would
add that no form of government is better than no government at all!
This is not to say that democracy is not a
better form of government than tyranny. It certainly is – my problem is that we
have in the West achieved democracy over the past few hundred years, and now
seem to be eternally content to rest on our laurels, so to speak.
I spent almost 15 years as a software
entrepreneur, which may have colored my perspective on this issue to some
degree. The software field reinvents itself almost from the ground up every year
or two, it seems, which demands a constant commitment to dynamism, continual
learning, and the abandonment of prior conceptions. The swift currents of
perpetual change quickly sweep the inert away.
Thus I fully appreciate the significant
step forward represented by democracy – but the mere fact that a thing is
“better” in no way indicates that it is “best.”
When medieval surgeons realized that a patient
had a better chance of surviving gangrene if they hacked off a limb, this could
surely be called a better solution – but it could scarcely be called the best possible solution. Recognizing that
prevention is always better than a cure does not mean that all cures are
I have no doubt whatsoever that the first
caveman to figure out how to start a fire shared his knowledge with his tribe,
and they all sat in a cave, with their feet pointed towards the flickering
flames, warm in the midst of a winter chill for the first time, and grunted at
each other: “Well, it can’t possibly
get any better than this!”
No doubt when, a thousand years later,
someone figured out that it was easier to capture and domesticate a cow rather
than to continually hunt game, everyone sat back in front of their fire, their
bellies full of milk, and grunted at each other: “Well, it can’t possibly get any better than this!”
These things are genuine improvements, to
be sure, and we should not ever fail to appreciate the progress that we make –
but neither should we automatically and endlessly assume that every step
forward is the final and most perfect step, and that nothing can ever
conceivably be improved in the future.
Democracy is considered to be superior to tyranny
– and rightly so I believe – because to some degree it imitates the feedback
mechanisms of the free market. Politicians, it is said, must provide goods and
services to citizens, who provide feedback through voting.
It would seem to be logical to continue to
extend that which makes democracy work further and further. If I find that, as
a doctor, I infect fewer of my patients when I wash one little finger, then
surely it would make sense to start washing other parts of my hand as well.
Really, this is what my approach to
anarchism is fundamentally about. If voluntarism and feedback – a
quasi-“market” – is what makes democracy superior, then surely we should work
as hard as possible to extend voluntarism and feedback – particularly since we
have the example of real markets, which work spectacularly well.
There is a great fear among people – or a
great desire, to be more accurate – with regards to abandoning this system,
when the perception exists that it can be reformed instead.
Democracy is messy, it is said –
politicians pander to special interests, court voters with “free” goodies,
manipulate the currency to avoid directly increasing taxes, create endless and
intractable problems in the realms of education, welfare, incarceration and so
on – but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater! If you have good
ideas for improving the system, you should get involved, not sit back in your
armchair and criticize everything in sight! One of the rare privileges of a
living in a democracy is that anyone can get involved in the political process,
from running for a local school board to prime minister or president of the
entire country! Letter-writing campaigns, grassroots activism, blogs,
associations, clubs – you name it, there are countless ways to get involved in
the political process.
Given the degree of feedback available to
the average citizen of a democracy, it makes little sense to agitate for
changing the system as a whole. Since the system is so flexible and responsive,
it is impossible to imagine that it can be replaced with any system that is
more flexible – thus the practical ideal for anyone interested in social change
is to bring his ideas to the “marketplace” of democracy, see who he can get on
board, and implement his vision within the system – peacefully, politically, democratically.
This is a truly wonderful fairy tale, which
has only the slight disadvantage of having nothing to do with democracy
When we think of a truly free market –
otherwise known as the “free market” – we understand that we do not have to
work for years and years, and give up thousands of hours and tens or hundreds
of thousands of dollars, to satisfy our wishes. If I want to shop for vegetarian
food, say, I do not have to spend years lobbying the local supermarket, or
joining some sort of somewhat ineffective advisory Board, and pounding lawn
signs, and writing letters, and cajoling everyone in the neighborhood – all I
have to do is go and buy some vegetarian food, locally or over the Internet if
If I want to date a particular woman, I do
not have to lobby everyone in a 10 block radius, get them to sign a petition,
make stirring speeches about my worthiness as a boyfriend, devote years of my
life attempting to get collective approval for asking her out. All I have to do
is walk up to her, ask her out and see if she says “yes.”
If I want to be a doctor, I do not have to
spend years lobbying every doctor in the country to get a majority approval for
my application. Neither do I have to pursue this process when I want to move,
drive a car, buy a book, plan for my retirement, change countries, learn a
language, buy a computer, choose to have a child, go on a diet, start an
exercise program, go into therapy, give to a charity and so on.
Thus it is clear that individuals are “allowed”
to make major and essential life decisions without consulting the majority. The
vast majority of our lives is explicitly anti-democratic, insofar as we
vehemently reserve the right to make our own decisions – and our own mistakes –
without subjecting them to the scrutiny and authority of others. Why is it that
we are “allowed” to choose who to marry, whether to have children, and how to
raise them – but we are violently not
allowed to openly choose where they go to school? Why is every decision that
leads up to the decision of how to educate a child is completely free,
personal, and anti-democratic – but the moment that the child needs an
education, a completely opposite
methodology is enforced upon the family? Why is the free anarchy of personal
decisions – in direct opposition to coercive authority – such a moral
imperative for every decision which leads up
to the need for a child’s education – but then, free anarchic choice becomes
the greatest imaginable evil, and coercive authority must be substituted in its
There is a particularly cynical side of me
– which is not to say that the cynicism is necessarily misplaced – which would
argue that the reason that there is no direct interference in having children
is because that way people will have more kids, which the state needs to grow
into taxpayers, in the same way that a dairy farmer needs his cows to breed.
Those who profit from political power always need new taxpayers, but they
certainly do not want independently critical and rational taxpayers, since that
is fundamentally the opposite of being a taxpayer. Thus they do not interfere
with having children, only with the education of children – just as a goose
farmer will not interfere with egg laying, but will certainly clip the wings of
any geese he wishes to keep alive and profit from.
At this point, you may be thinking that
there are good reasons why political coercion is substituted for personal
anarchy in particular situations. Perhaps there is some rule of thumb or
principle which separates the two which, if it can be discovered, will lay this
If I break up with a girlfriend, for
instance, I do not owe her anything legally. If I marry her, however, I do.
When I take a new job, I may be subject to a probationary period of a few
months, when I can be fired – or quit – with impunity. We can think of many examples
of such situations – the major difference, however, is that these are all
voluntary and contractual situations.
The justification for a government –
particularly a democratic government – is really founded upon the idea of a
“social contract.” Because we happen to be born in a particular geographical
location, we “owe” the government our allegiance, time, energy and money for
the rest of our lives, or as long as we stay. This “contract” is open to
renegotiation, insofar as we can decide to alter the government by getting involved
in the political process – or, we can leave the country, just as we can leave a
marriage or place of employment. This argument – which goes back to Socrates –
is based upon an implied contract that remains in force as long as we ourselves
remain within the geographical area ruled over by the government.
However, this idea of the “social contract”
fails such an elemental test that it is only testament to the power of
propaganda that it has lasted as a credible narrative for over 2,000 years.
Children cannot enter into contracts – and
adults cannot have contracts imposed upon them against their will. Thus being
born in a particular location does not create any contract, since it takes a
lunatic or a Catholic to believe that obligations accrue to a newborn squalling
Thus children cannot be subjected to – or
be responsible for – any form of implicit social contract.
Adults, on the other hand, must be able to
choose which contracts they enter into – if they cannot, there is no
differentiation between imposing a contract on a child, and imposing a contract
on an adult. I cannot say that implicit contracts are invalid for children, but
then they magically become automatically valid when the child turns 18, and bind
the adult thereby.
It is important also to remember that there
is fundamentally no such thing as “the state.” When you write a check to pay
your taxes, it is made out to an abstract quasi-corporate entity, but it is
cashed and spent by real life human beings. Thus the reality of the social
contract is that it “rotates” between and among newly elected political
leaders, as well as permanent civil servants, appointed judges, and the odd
consultant or two. This coalescing kaleidoscope of people who cash your check
and spend your money is really who you have your social contract with. (This
can occur in the free market as well, of course – when you take out a loan to
buy a house, your contract is with the bank, not your loan officer, and does
not follow him when he changes jobs.)
However, to say that the same man can be
bound by a unilaterally-imposed contract represented by an ever-shifting
coalition of individuals, in a system that was set up hundreds of years before
he was born, without his prior choice – since he did not choose where he was
born – or explicit current approval, is a perfectly ludicrous statement.
We can generally accept as unjust any
standard of justice that would disqualify itself. When we are shopping, we
would scarcely call it a “sale” if prices had been jacked up 30%. We would not
clip a “coupon” that added a dollar to the price of whatever we were buying –
in fact, we would not call this a coupon at all!
If we examine the concept of the “social contract,”
which is claimed as a core justification for the existence of a government, it
is more than reasonable to ask whether the social contract would justly enforce
the social contract itself! In other words, if the government is morally
justified because of the ethical validity of an implicit and unilaterally
imposed contract, will the government defend implicit and unilaterally imposed
contracts? If I start up a car dealership and automatically “sell” a car to
everyone in a 10 block radius, and then send them a bill for the car they have
“bought” – and send them the car as well, and bind their children for eternity
in such a deal as well – would the government enforce such a “contract”?
I think that we all know the answer to that
If I attempted to bring a social contract
to an agency that claims as its justification the existence and validity of the
exact same social contract, it would laugh in my face and call me insane.
Are you beginning to get a clear idea of
the kind of moral and logical contradictions that a statist system is based
Many times throughout human history,
certain societies have come to the valid conclusion that an institution can no
longer be reformed, but must instead be abolished. The most notable example is
slavery, but we can think of others as well, such as the unity of church and
state, oligarchical aristocracy, military dictatorships, human or animal sacrifices
to the gods, rape as a valid spoil of war, torture, pedophilia, wife abuse and
so on. This does not mean of course that all of these practices and institutions
have faded from the world, but it does mean that in many civilized societies,
the essential debate is over, and was not settled with the idea of “reforming”
institutions such as slavery. The origin of the phrase “rule of thumb” came
from an attempt to reform the beating of wives, and restrict it to beating your
wife with a stick no wider than your thumb. This practice was not reformed, but
However well-intentioned these reforms may
have been, we can at best only call them ethical in terms of halting steps
towards the final goal, which is the elimination of the concept of wife beating
as a moral norm at all. In the same way, some reformers attempted to get slave
owners to beat their slaves less, or at least less severely, but with the
hindsight of history and our further moral development, we can see that slavery
was not fundamentally an institution that could ever be reformed, but rather
had to be utterly abolished. We can find encouragement in such “reforms” only
to the degree that they reduced suffering in the present, while hopefully spurring
on the goal of abolishing slavery.
Any moralist who said that getting rid of
slavery would be a criminal and moral disaster of the first order, but instead
encouraged slaves to attempt to work within the system, or counseled slave
owners to voluntarily take on the goal of treating their slaves with less
brutality, could scarcely be called a moralist, at least by modern standards.
Instead, we would term such a “reformer” as a very handy apologist for the
existing brutality of the system. By pretending that the evils inherent in
slavery could be mitigated or eliminated through voluntary internal reform,
these “moralists” actually slowed or stalled the progress towards abolition in
many areas. By holding out the false hope that an evil institution could be
turned to goodness, these sophists blunted the power of the argument from
morality, which is that slavery is an inherent evil, and thus cannot be
The finger-wagging admonition, “Rape more
gently,” is oxymoronic. Rape is the opposite of gentle, the opposite of moral.
This is how many anarchists view the proposition
that the existing system of political violence should be reformed somehow from
within, rather than fundamentally opposed on moral terms, as an absolute evil,
based on coercion and brutality, particularly towards children – with the
inevitable consequence that its only salvation can come from being utterly abolished.
Along with the anarchistic moral arguments
against the use of force to solve problems come many well-developed economic
arguments against the long-term stability of any democratic political system.
To take just one example, let’s look at the
problem of unequal incentives.
In the United States, thousands of sugar
producers receive massive state subsidies and coercive protection from foreign
competitors – benefits which have been in place, for the most part, since the close
of the war of 1812. Although $1.2 billion was spent in 2005 subsidizing sugar
production, the majority of the money goes to a few dozen growers.
These sugar subsidies cost the US economy
billions of dollars annually, while netting major sugar producers millions of
dollars a year each. The average American consumer would have to fight for
years, spend untold hours and dollars attempting to overturn the subsidies in
Congress – to save, what? A few dollars a year apiece? None but a lunatic would
On the other hand, of course, these sugar
growers will spend whatever time and money it takes to preserve their massive
influx of cash. It is not that hard to figure out who will present stronger
“incentives” – to say the least – to Congress. It is not that hard to figure
out just who will donate as much as humanly possible to a Congressman’s run. It
is embarrassingly easy to figure out who will keep calling the congressman at 2
a.m. with dire threats should he dare to question the value of the subsidies,
and promises of money if he refrains.
Politicians, like so many of us, take the rational
path of least resistance. A congressman will receive no thanks for killing
these subsidies and returning a few unproven and ignored dollars to his average
constituent’s pocket – such a “benefit” would scarcely even be noticed. However,
the sugar growers would raise bloody hell to the very skies, as would all their
employees, their hangers on, the professionals they employ, and anyone else who
benefits from the concentration of illicit wealth that they enjoy.
Furthermore, should the subsidies be somehow
cut, and the price of a candy bar dropped a nickel, all that would happen is
that some other politician would
impose a tax of, say, about a nickel on candy bars – to save the children’s teeth, of course – thus generating more
cash for him to hand out and utterly
nullifying any benefit to the consumer. Would any rational politician pursue a
policy that would enrage his supporters, strengthen his enemies and win no new
Thus it is clear to see that while no
incentive exists to do the right thing, every conceivable incentive exists to
do the wrong thing. In the case of sugar subsidies, the “sting” to the consumer
is only a few dollars a year – multiply this, however, thousands and thousands
of times over, for each special interest group, and we can see how the taxpayer
will inevitably die a death not by beheading, but rather by the tiny bites of
10,000 mosquitoes, each feeding its young by feasting on a droplet of his
No democratic government has ever survived
without taking a monopoly control over the currency. The reason for this is
simple – politicians need to buy votes, but that illusion is hard to sustain if
those you give money to have to pay that money back within a few years in the
form of higher taxes. Taxpayers would get wise to this sort of game very
quickly, and so politicians need to find other ways to fog and befuddle
taxpayers. Deficit financing is one way – give money to people in the present,
then stick the bill to their children at some undefined point in the future,
when you’re no longer around – perfect!
Another great way of pretending to give
people money is to inflate their currency by printing more money. This way, you
can give a man a hundred dollars today, and just reduce the purchasing power of
his dollar by 5% next year by printing more. Not one person in a thousand will
have any idea what’s really going on, and besides, you always have the business
community to blame for “gouging” the consumer.
Another “solution” is to promise public-sector
unions large increases in salary, which only really take effect toward the end
of your office, so that the next administration gets stuck with the real bill.
Also, you can sign perpetual contracts giving them plenty of medical and
retirement benefits, the majority of which will only kick in when they get
older, long after you are gone.
Alternatively, you can sell long-term bonds
that give you the cash right now, while sticking future taxpayers in 10, 20 or
30 years with the bill for repaying your principle, and accumulated interest.
One other option is to start licensing everything
in sight – building permits, hot dog stand permits, dog licenses and so on –
thus grabbing a lot of cash up front, and leaving your successors to deal with
the diminished tax base from lower economic activity in the future.
Or you can buy the votes of
apartment-dwellers with “rent control” – leaving the next few administrations
to deal with the inevitable resulting apartment shortage.
This list can go on and on – it is a list as
old as the Roman and Greek democracies – but the essential point is that
democracy is always and forever utterly unsustainable.
A basic fact of economics is that people
respond to incentives – the incentives in any statist society – democratic,
fascist, communist, socialist, you name it – are always so unbalanced as to
turn the public treasury into a kind of blood mad shark-driven feeding frenzy.
Well, say the defenders of democracy, but
the people can always choose to vote in other people who will fix the system!
One of the wonderful aspects of working
from first principles, and taking our evidence from the real world, is that we
don’t have to believe pious nonsense anymore. Except directly after significant
wars, when they need to re-grow their decimated tax bases, democratic governments
simply never ever get smaller.
The logic of this remains depressingly simple,
and just as depressingly inevitable.
A central question that any voter who
claims to wish to be informed must ask is: why
is this man’s name on the ballot?
The standard answer is that he has a vision
to fix the neighborhood, the city, or the country, and so he has nobly
dedicated his life to public service, and needs your vote so that he can begin
fixing the problem. He is a pragmatic idealist who knows that compromises must
be made, but who can still make tangible improvements in your life.
Of course, this is all pure nonsense, as we
can well see from the fact that things in a democracy always get worse, not
better. Standards of living decline, national debt explodes, household debt
increases, educational achivements plummet, poverty rates increase, incarceration
rates increase, unfunded liabilities skyrocket – and yet, election after
election, the sheep run to the polls and feverishly scribble their hopes on to
the ballots, certain that this time,
everything will turn around! (For those reading this in the future, we are
currently right in the middle of “Obama-mania.”)
The question remains – why is this man on the ballot?
We all know that it takes an enormous
amount of money and influence to run for any kind of substantial office. The
central question is, then: why do people
give money to a candidate?
I’m not talking about a national
presidential campaign, where obviously people give a lot of money to the
candidate in the hopes of giving him power to achieve some sort of shared goals
and so on.
No, I mean: where does the money to get started even come from?
Why would pharmaceutical companies,
aerospace companies, engineering companies, manufacturing companies, farmers,
and public-sector unions and so on give money and support to a candidate?
Clearly, these groups are not handing out
cash for purely idealistic reasons, since they are in the business of making
money, at least for their members. Thus they must be giving money to potential
candidates in return for political favors down the road – preferential treatment,
tax breaks, tariff restrictions on competitors, government contracts etc.
In other words, any candidate that you get to vote for must have already
been bought and paid for by others.
Does this sound like an odd and cynical
assertion? Perhaps – but it is very easy to figure out if a candidate has been
bought and paid for.
Candidates will always talk in stirring
tones about “sacrifice” and so on, but you surely must have noticed by now that
no candidate ever talks specifically
about the spending that he is going to cut. You never hear him say that he is
going to balance the budget by cutting the spending of X, Y or Z. Everything is
either couched in abstract terms, or specific promises to specific groups. (At
the moment, the current fetish – in leftist circles – is to pretend that 47
million Americans can get “free” healthcare if the government lowers the tax
breaks on a few billionaires.)
In other words, if you don’t see anyone
else’s head on the chopping block, that is because it is your head on the chopping block.
Of course, if the government really wanted to help the economy at the
expense of some very rich people, it would simply annul the national debt – in
effect, declare bankruptcy, and start all over again.
Why does it not do this? Why does it never
even approach this topic? We have
seen price controls on a variety of goods and services over the past few generations
– why not simply place a moratorium on paying interest on the national debt, at
least for the time being?
Well, the simple answer is that the
government simply cannot survive without a constant infusion of loans, largely
from foreign lenders.
This is a bit of a clue for you as to how
important your vote really is, and how concerned your leaders are about your
personal and particular issues – relative to, say, those of foreign lenders.
Ah, you might argue, but why would a pharmaceutical
company, say, give money to a potential candidate, since no deal can possibly
be put down in writing, and that potential candidate might well take the money,
and then just not take the calls from that pharmaceutical company when he or
she gets into power?
Well, this is a distinct possibility, of course,
but it has a relatively simple solution.
When a candidate is interested in taking a
run at any reasonably high office, he goes around to various places and asks
When you ask someone for a few thousand
dollars, naturally, his first question is going to be: “What are you going to
do for me in return?”
Early on in any particular political race,
there are quite a number of candidates. Anyone who wants to donate money to a
political candidate in the hopes of gaining political favors down the road is
only going to do so if he believes that the candidate will fulfill the unwritten
obligation – the “anti-social contract,” if you like.
In politics, as in business, credibility is
efficiency. Those who have built up reputations for keeping their promises end
up being able to do business on a handshake, which keeps their costs down
considerably. No new person entering a field will have the credibility or track
record to be able to achieve this enviable efficiency, and so will have to earn
it over the course of many years.
Thus we know for certain that when a
company gives money to a political candidate, in the expectation of return
favors in the future, that political candidate already has an excellent track
record of doing just that. This kind of information will have been passed
around certain communities – “Joe X is a man of his word!” – just as the
reliability of a drug dealer and the quality of his product is passed around in
certain other communities.
Thus we know that any candidate who
receives significant funding from special interest groups is a man who has
consistently proven his “integrity to corruptibility” in the past – for if he
has no track record, or an inconsistent track record, no one will give him
money to get started.
(Just as a side note, this is a very
interesting example of exactly why anarchism will work – we do not need the
state to enforce contracts, since the state itself
functions on implicit contracts that can never be legally enforced.)
In other words, whenever you see a name on
the ballot, you can be completely certain that that name represents a man who
has already been bought and paid for over the course of many years, and that
those who have paid for him do not have, let us say, your best interests at
But we can go one step further.
Since all the money that moves around in a
political system must come from somewhere – the millions of dollars that are
given to the sugar farmers must come from taxpayers – we can be sure that just
about every benefit that special interest groups seek to gain comes at your
expense. Pharmaceutical companies want an extension on their patents so they
can charge you more money. Domestic steel companies want to increase barriers
against imported steel so they can charge you more money. If a government union
wants additional benefits, that will cost you. If the police want to expand the
war on drugs, that will cost you security, safety and money.
Whoever strives to benefit from the public
purse has their hand groping towards your
Thus it is perfectly fair and reasonable to
remind you that every name that you see on the ballot is diametrically opposed
to your particular and personal interests, since they have been paid for by
people who want to rob you blind.
Another aspect of “democricide” is the
inevitable and constant escalation of public spending necessary to achieve or
maintain political power.
Let us take the example of a mayor running
for his second term. When he was running for his first term, sewage treatment
workers donated $20,000 to his campaign, and in return he granted them a 10%
raise. Now that he is running for his second term, and cannot give them another
10% raise, they have no reason to donate to his campaign. Thus he either has to
offer the sewage treatment workers some other benefit, or he has to create some
new program or benefit which he can dangle in front of some new group, in order
to secure their donations. This is why political candidates always announce new
spending when they throw their hats into the ring – the new spending is the
rather unsubtle promise of benefits which will be granted to those who donate
to his campaign. A new stadium, a new convention center, a new bridge, a new
arts program, new housing projects, highway expansions and so on – all of these
inevitably and permanently raise the “high water mark” of governmental
spending, and are an absolute requirement of running for office.
Now, our aforementioned sewage treatment
workers would of course prefer a permanent 10% raise rather than a one-time
cash bonus. Thus they will always try to negotiate a permanent contract rather
than continue to be at the mercy of the will and whim of their political
As this process continues, the proportion
of non-discretionary spending in any political budget grows and grows. This is
another reason why new spending initiatives must always be created in order to
secure new donations. Money cannot be shifted from one area to another, because
it has permanently been earmarked for a particular group in return for a one-time
political contribution in the past.
If the mayor who is running for his second
term decides to attempt to roll back the 10% raise, in order to free up money
which he can then offer to someone else in return for campaign contributions,
he would be committing political suicide. He would be breaking a freely-signed
contract, sticking it to the working man, and provoking a very smelly strike –
but for his own particular self-interest, the effects would be even worse.
Remember, people will donate to a political
campaign based on an implicit contract of future rewards from the public
treasury. If a candidate attempts to “roll back” benefits that he has
distributed previously in return for donations, not only will he incur the
wrath of the existing special-interest group, but he will be revealed as a man
who breaks his implicit and unenforceable “contracts.” Since this candidate can
no longer be relied upon to give public money back to those who donate to his
campaign, he will find that his campaign donations dry up almost immediately,
and his political career comes to an abrupt end.
Of course, ex-politicians are highly prized
as lobbyists as well, but if this mayor breaks faith with a donator, he will no
longer be valuable in that capacity
either, and will forego significant income in his post-political career.
Finally, any political candidate who has
channeled public money to past donators faces the problem of blackmail. If he
attempts to cross any of his prior supporters, mysterious leaks to the press
will start to emerge, talking about the sleazy backroom deals that got him in
power – thus also effectively ending his political career. All the other
candidates will piously deride his cynical corruption, while of course making
their own sleazy backroom deals in turn.
(It is highly instructive to note that two
well-known fictional portrayals of the political campaign process – “The West
Wing” and “The Wire” – repeatedly portray the candidate begging for money, but
never once show why he receives it –
the motives of his donors. The reason for this is simple: they wish to portray
an idealistic politician, and so they cannot possibly reveal the reasons why
people are giving him money. If the fictional story were to follow the inevitable
“laws” of democracy, the storyline would be abruptly truncated, or the lead
character would be revealed as far less sympathetic. The candidate would ask
for money, and then the potential donor would indicate the favor he wanted in
return. Then, the candidate would either refuse, thus ending his campaign for
lack of funds – or he would agree, thus ending any real sympathy we have for
him. This basic truth – like so many in a statist society – can never be discussed,
even on a show like “The Wire,” which has little problem revealing corruption
everywhere else. A policeman can be shown breaking a child’s fingers, but the
true nature of the political process must be forever hidden…)
Thus we can see that – at least at the
level of economics – democracy is a sort of slow-motion suicide, in which you
are told that it is the highest civic virtue to approve of those who want to
I do not want this book to become a
critique of democracy – but rather, as I have said before, my goal is simply to
help you to understand the myriad contradictions involved in any logical or
moral defense of a state-run society.
If you do not even know that society is
sick, you will never be interested in a cure.
In the interests of efficiency – both yours
and mine – I have decided to keep this book as short as possible. If I have not
shown you at least some the logical and moral problems with our existing way of
organizing society by now, I doubt that I shall ever be able to.
If we accept that perhaps some of the
criticisms of statism presented in this little book are at least potentially
somewhat valid, one essential question remains.
If you can easily understand the above
simple and effective criticisms – compared to, say, the mathematics behind the
theory of relativity – then the question must be asked:
“Why have you never heard of these criticisms?”
This question packs more of a punch than
you may realize.
If I put forward the charge that our
society is currently organized along the principles of violence, control and
brutal punishment, but you have never heard this argument before, despite the
eager talents of tens of thousands of well-paid intellectuals, professors, pundits,
journalists, writers and so on, then there must be some reason – or series of
reasons – why such a universal silence remains in place.
The standards of proof for startling new
theories must be raised exactly to the degree that those new theories are easy
to understand. New theories that are very hard to understand are easier to
accept as potentially true, simply because of their difficulty. New theories
that are very easy to understand, however, face a far higher hurdle, since they
must explain why they have not been understood, discussed or disseminated
In this final section, I will talk about
why I think anarchism is almost never openly discussed – and is in fact
constantly scorned, feared and derided – and I will present what I think is an
interesting paradox, which is that the
degree to which anarchism remains undiscussed is exactly the degree to which
anarchism will undoubtedly work.
Let’s have a look at academia, focusing on
the Arts, where anarchism could be a potential topic – areas such as Political
Science, Economics, History, Philosophy, Sociology etc.
It is true that a few intellectuals have
had successful careers while expressing sympathy for anarchism – on the left,
we have the example of Noam Chomsky; in the libertarian camp, we have the
example of Murray Rothbard. However, the vast majority of academics simply roll
their eyes if and when the subject of anarchism as a viable alternative to a
violence-based society ever arises.
To understand this, the first thing that we
need to recognize about academia is that, since it is highly subsidized by governments,
demand vastly outstrips supply. In other words, there are far more people who
want to become academics then there are jobs in academia.
Normally what would occur in this situation
– were academia actually part of the free market – is that wages and perks
would decline to the point where equilibrium would be reached.
At the moment, academics get several months
off during the summer, do not labor under oppressive course loads, are
virtually impossible to fire once they reach tenure, get to spend their days
reading, writing and discussing ideas (which many of us would consider a
hobby), travel with expenses paid to conferences, receive high levels of social
respect, get paid sabbatical leaves, a full array of highly lucrative benefits,
and can choose comfortable retirements or continued involvement in academia, as
they see fit – and often make salaries in the six figures to boot!
Given the number of non-monetary benefits
involved in being an academic, in a free market situation, wages would fall
precipitously, or job requirements would rise. However, since academics –
particularly in the US – basically work under the protection of a highly subsidized
union, this does not occur.
Since the job itself is so innately desired
by so many people, what results is a “sellers market,” in which dozens of
qualified candidates jostle for each individual job. Like Angelina Jolie in a
nightclub, those with the most to offer can be enormously picky.
Also, since academics cannot be fired, if a
department head hires an unpleasant, troublesome, difficult or just unnerving
person, he will have to live with that decision for the next 30-odd years. If
divorce became impossible, people would be much more careful about choosing
This is one simple and basic explanation
for the exaggerated politeness and conviviality in the world of academia.
People who are cantankerous, or who ask uncomfortable questions, or who reason
from first principles and thus eliminate endless debating, or whose positions
place into question the value and ethics of those around them, simply do not
In a free market situation, original and
challenging thinking would be of great interest to students, who would
doubtless pay a premium to be mentally stimulated in such a way. However, since
the majority of funding in academia comes from governments, students have
virtually no influence over the hiring of professors.
Let us imagine the progress of a wannabe
anarchist graduate student.
In his undergraduate classes, he will annoy
the professors and irritate his fellow students by asking uncomfortable
questions that they cannot answer. If he talks about the violence that is at
the root of state funding, he will also be open to the charge of rank hypocrisy
– which I can assure you will be lavishly supplied – since he is accepting
state money in the form of a subsidized university education.
His implicit criticism of his professors –
that they are funded and secured through violence – will be highly annoying to
them. Although this anarchist may grind his discontented way through an
undergraduate degree, he will find it very hard to get any kinds of letters of
reference from his professors to gain entrance into graduate school. If a
professor talks about the applicant’s anarchism in his letter of recommendation,
anyone evaluating such a letter will be utterly bewildered as to why such a
recommendation is being made – thus devaluing any such letters from said professor
in the future.
If the professor who recommends an anarchist
finds that his future recommendations fall on more skeptical eyes, then the
word will very quickly spread that taking this professor’s course, and getting
a letter of recommendation from him, is the kiss of death for any academic
Thus this professor will find enrollment in
his courses mysteriously declining, which will not be helpful to his career, to
say the least.
If the professor does not mention the grad
student applicant’s anarchism, his fate becomes even worse, since even more
time will be wasted interviewing an applicant that no one actually wants. Those
on the receiving end of such a letter of recommendation will find it impossible
to believe that the professor did not know that the student’s anarchism was a
factor, and so will view his letter as a bizarre form of passive aggression,
and will be that much less likely to
view any future recommendations even remotely positively.
Thus an academic who writes a letter of
recommendation for a student whose views will be disconcerting or discomfiting
to others is undermining his value to his future students for no clear benefit
whatsoever. We can safely assume that an academic who has reached the rank of
professor – even prior to tenure – is not a man blind to his own long-term
Even if this anarchist were to somehow get
through to a Masters program, the same problems would exist, although they
would be even worse than his undergraduate degree. Those who are in a Masters
program – particularly in the Arts – are mostly there with the specific goal of
securing a position in academia. In other words, they are not there for the
relentless pursuit of inviolate truth, but rather to ingratiate themselves with
their professors, do the kind of research that will get them noticed, and gain
the kind of approval from those above them that will give them a boost up the
next rung of the ladder.
Thus, when the anarchist begins talking
about his theories, he will face either passive or aggressive hostility from
those around him, who will view him as an irritating and counterproductive
time-waster. Whether or not his theories are true is actually beside the point
– the reality is that his theories actively interfere with the pursuit of
academic success, which is why people are in the classroom in the first place.
Also, since the anarchist claims the power
to see through the universal veneer of proclaimed self-interest to the core
motivations beneath – yet does not
see the core motivations of those around him in graduate school – he will also
be seen to be obstinately blind. “You should believe the truth,” he will say,
without seeing that these academic aspirants are not there for the truth, but
rather to get a job in academia. In other words, he is avoiding the truth as much as they are.
Furthermore, by continually reminding
people that the existing society in general – and academics in particular – is
funded through violence, the anarchist is actively offending and insulting
everyone around him. There are very few people who can absorb the moral charge
of blindness to evil and corruption and come back with open-mindedness and
If the anarchist is right, then the
professors are corrupt, and the academic aspirants should really abandon their
fields and go into the private sector, or become self-employed, or something
along those lines. However, these people have already invested years of their
lives and hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost income in pursuit of a
position in academia. They obviously do not want a position in the free market,
since they are in a graduate arts degree program – and should they leave that
program, a good portion of the entire value that they have accumulated will
We could examine this process for much
longer, but let us end with this point.
Let us imagine that a tenured academic
reads this book and agrees with at least the potential validity of some of the
arguments it contains. He does not have to really worry about getting fired, so
why would he not begin to raise these questions with his colleagues?
Well, because these views will discredit
him with his colleagues, display what they would consider “poor judgment,” (and
in some ways they would not be wrong!) and this would have a highly deleterious
effect on his ability to get published, speak at conferences, attract students,
and enjoy a convivial and collegial work environment with his peers.
He will thus harm his own pleasure, career
and interests, without changing anyone’s mind about anarchism – so why would he
pursue such a course?
When an environment is corrupt, rational
self-interest is automatically and irredeemably corrupted as well. We can see
this easily in the realm of politics, but it is harder to see in the realm of
Before I started this section, I said that
I would present an interesting paradox, which is that the degree to which anarchism remains undiscussed is exactly the degree
to which anarchism will undoubtedly work.
Anarchism is fundamentally predicated on
the basic reality that violence is not
required to organize society. Violence in the form of self-defense is
acceptable, of course, but the initiation
of the use of force is not only morally evil, but counterproductive from a
pragmatic standpoint as well.
Anarchism – at least as I approach it – is
not a form of relentless pacifism which rejects any coercive responses to violence.
My formulation of an anarchistic society is one which has perfectly powerful
and capable mechanisms for dealing with violent crime, in the absence of a
centralized group of criminals called the state. In fact, an anarchistic
society will undoubtedly deal with the problems of violent crime in a far more
proactive and beneficial manner than our existing systems, which in fact do far
more to provoke violence and criminality than they do to reduce or oppose it.
Anarchists recognize the power of implicit
and voluntary social contract, and the power of both positive incentives such
as pay and career success, as well as negative incentives such as social
disapproval, economic exclusion and outright ostracism.
Thus in a very interesting way, the more
that anarchism is excluded from the
social discourse, the greater belief anarchists can have in the practicality of
their own solutions.
In the realm of academia, obviously there
is no central coercive committee that will shoot or imprison anyone who brings
up anarchism in a positive light – there is no “state” in the realm of the
university, yet the “rules” are universally respected and enforced,
spontaneously, without planning, without coordination – and without violence!
This irony becomes even greater in the realm
of politics, where the implicit “contracts” of political backroom deals are
universally enforced through a process of positive selection for corruption, in
that those who do not “pay back” their contributors with public money are
automatically excluded from the system.
Thus both academia and the state itself
work on anarchistic principles, which is the spontaneous self-organization and
enforcement of unwritten rules without relying on violence.
A truly stateless society, where such rules
could be made explicit and openly contractual, would function even more effectively.
In other words, if anarchism were openly
talked about in state-funded academia, it would be very likely that anarchism
would never work in practice.
If the unenforceable corruption of democracy
did not “work” so well, that would be a significant blow against the practical
efficacy of anarchism.
Academics face an enormous challenge – particularly
in economics – which is the charge of rank hypocrisy.
Economists are nearly universal in their support
for free trade, yet of course most economists work in state-funded or
state-supported institutions such as universities, the World Bank, the IMF and
so on – and in academia in particular, take shelter behind enormously high
barriers to entry in the form of institutionalized protectionism, and shield
themselves from market forces through tenure.
Economists have a number of sophisticated
responses to the question why, if voluntarism and free markets are so good, do
they specifically exclude themselves
from the push and pull of the free market?
First of all, academics will argue, the
truth of a proposition is not determined by the integrity of the proposer (if
Hitler says that two plus two is four, we cannot reasonably oppose him by
saying that he is evil). Secondly, many academics will say that they have
merely inherited the system from
prior academics, and that they held these free-market views before they
achieved tenure. Thirdly, they can argue that they do face possible unemployment,
however unlikely, should their department close, and so on.
These are all very interesting arguments,
and are worthy of our attention I think, but are fundamentally irrelevant to
the question of academia.
It is a common defense of hypocritical intellectuals
to say that their arguments cannot be judged by their own contradictory behaviour,
but must be viewed on their own merits – but this argument does become rather tiresome after a while.
To see what I mean, let us imagine a man
named Bob who claims that his sole professional goal in life is motivating
others to lose weight by following his diet. He continually proclaims that it
is very important to be slim, and that only his
diet will make you slim – but strangely enough, Bob himself remains morbidly obese!
It is certainly true that we cannot
absolutely judge the efficacy and value of Bob’s diet solely by how much he
weighs – but we can empirically judge whether or not Bob believes in the efficacy and value of his own diet.
Life is short, and the more rapidly we can
make accurate decisions, the better off we are.
Imagine that, this afternoon, a disheveled
and smelly man stops you on the street and offers his services as a financial
advisor, but says that he cannot take your phone calls because after he
declared personal bankruptcy, he has been forced to live in his car. It is
certainly logically true that we cannot empirically use his situation to judge
the value of his financial advice – but we can know for sure the following: either he has followed his own financial
advice, which has clearly resulted in a disaster, or he has not, which means
that he does not believe that it is either valuable or true.
Thus, based on the principles of mere efficiency,
you would never hire such a vagrant
as your trusted financial adviser – partly also due to the basic fact that he
seems completely oblivious to the effect that his approach has on his
credibility. Does he not recognize how you will view him, based on his presentation?
If he does not realize how he appears to you, this also indicates his
near-complete disconnect from reality.
In the same way, if I show up for a job
interview wearing only a pair of underpants, two clothes-pins and a colander,
it is clearly true that my choice of dress cannot be objectively used to judge
the quality of my professional knowledge – but it certainly is the case that my
judgment as a whole can be somewhat
called into question, to say the least.
If you do not follow your own advice, I cannot ipso facto use that to judge your advice
as incorrect, but I certainly can
judge that you believe your advice to
be incorrect, and make a completely rational decision about its value thereby.
Academics claim that their teachings are designed
to have some effect in the outside world. No medical school teaches Klingon
anatomy, because such “knowledge” would have no effect in the world.
Economists teach ideas so that better
solutions can be implemented in the real world, which we know because they
constantly complain that governments ignore their economic advice. In other
words, they are frustrated because politicians constantly choose personal
career goals over objectively valuable actions and decisions.
If I am trying to sell a diet book, and I
am morbidly obese, obviously that totally undermines my credibility. What is
the best way, then, for me to increase my credibility? Is it for me to
endlessly complain that other people just don’t seem to believe in my diet?
Of course not.
The simple solution is for me to apply my efforts
to that which I actually have control over – my own eating – and stop nagging other people to do what I
obviously do not want to do.
This way, I can actually gain even more credibility than I would have had
if I had been naturally slim to begin with. Since most people who want to diet
are overweight, surely a man who loses a lot of weight – and keeps it off – by
following his own diet has even more
What does this translate to in the realm of
Well, almost all economists accept that
free trade is the best way to organize economic interactions – thus they have
the enormous collective advantage of already sharing common ideals, which is
scarcely the case with politicians and other groups that economists criticize
for failing to implement free trade.
If economists believe that free market voluntarism
is the best way to organize interactions – and clearly they have far more
control over their own profession
than they do over governments – then they should work as hard as they can to apply those principles to their own
profession. To lose their own
excess weight, so to speak, rather than endlessly nag other people to follow
the diet that they themselves reject.
Thus rather than lecture about the virtues
and values of a voluntary free-market – with the clear goal of changing the
behavior of others – economists should get together and change their own profession to reflect the values
that they expect others to follow.
This way, they can do all the research,
keep careful notes and publish papers describing the process of getting an
organization to reform itself according to the commonly-accepted values of its
members. The pitfalls and challenges of achieving such a noble end would be
well worth documenting, as a guide and help to others.
Furthermore, since economists all believe
that free trade improves quality and productivity, they could as a group
measure the quality and productivity of the economics profession before and
after the introduction of free trade and voluntarism. This would be an enormously
valuable body of research, and would empirically support the case for going
through the challenges of undoing protectionism within a profession.
Since academics very much want to have an
effect on the outside world, by far the best way of achieving that goal is to reform
their own profession to reflect the values that they already profess and hold
as a group. They can then bring their own experience – not to mention integrity
– to bear on the far greater challenges of helping governments and other organizations
It is quite fascinating that economists –
to my limited knowledge at least – have produced virtually endless studies on
the negative effects of protectionism in
every conceivable field except their
If economists do take on the challenge of reforming their own profession
according to their own commonly-held values, either such a revolution will
succeed, or it will not.
If the revolution succeeds, academics would
have the theoretical understanding, empirical evidence and professional credibility
to bring their case for free trade to others, with a far greater chance of
If the revolution does not succeed, then
clearly economists would have to give up the pretense that their arguments
could ever have any effect on the outside world, and could begin the process of
dismantling their own profession, since it would be revealed as little more
than a fraud – the “selling” of a diet that was impossible to follow.
If economists cannot achieve conformity to
their values within their own profession, where they share very similar
methodologies, have the same goals, and speak the same language, then clearly
asking other professions – with far greater obstacles – to reform themselves is
ridiculously hypocritical, and fundamentally false.
I am sure that economists have far too much
personal and professional integrity to take money for “snake oil” solutions
that can never be implemented.
Thus I eagerly look forward to these
economists taking their own advice, and reforming their own profession, where
they have real control, in order to
show other people that it can be done – and how it should be done – and to, as
a group, truly achieve the goals that they so nobly profess as their main motivation.
What do you think the odds of this
This is why you have never heard of anarchism.
Human beings are so constituted – and I in
no way think that this is a bad thing of course – to be exquisitely good at
negotiating cost/benefit scenarios. This ability is fundamental to all forms of
organic life, in that those who are unsuccessful at calculating these scenarios
are quickly weeded out of the gene pool – but human beings possess this ability
at a staggeringly brilliant conceptual level.
If you have gotten this far in this book, I
can tell at least a few things about you. Obviously, you are curious and
open-minded, and largely un-offended by original arguments, as long as they at
least strive for rationality. I strongly doubt that you are in academia – or if
you are, I fully expect lengthy, obtuse and condescending attacks on my
arguments to appear in my inbox, or on your blog, within a few hours.
Potential academics have in my experience
been irredeemably hostile to what I do because it puts them in an exquisitely
tortuous position (this is particularly the case with my book “Universally
Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics”).
Wannabe academics have to believe that they
are motivated by the pursuit of truth, not of tenure. Given that they have to
ingratiate themselves with their academic masters, they must also believe that
their professors are motivated by the pursuit of truth as well, not of power,
salary and tenure. We can honorably submit ourselves to a moral teacher; we
cannot honorably submit ourselves to an amoral teacher.
If academics is about the pursuit of truth,
then my particular contributions to the field should at least garner some
interest, if only because of the success I have had with laypeople. However, a
wannabe grad student will face extreme anxiety at even the thought of bringing some of my work to the attention of his
professors, because he knows what their reaction will be – scorn, dismissal,
cynical laughter or genial bewilderment – and also that by bringing my work to
his professors, he will be undermining the forward progress of his academic
Thus what I do is tortuous, particularly to
graduate students, because it reveals to them the basic reality of academia,
which is that it is not largely to do with the pursuit of truth, but rather is
about the currying of influence and favor, and the pursuit of career goals –
inevitably, at the expense of the truth itself.
When this is revealed, the long barren
stretch of half a decade or more required to pursue and achieve a Ph.D. becomes
a desert that truly feels too broad to cross. The anxiety and despair that my
work evokes creates fear and hostility – and it is far easier to take that out
on me then to question or criticize the academic system or the professors whose
approval these moral heroes depend upon.
Furthermore, questioning the moral roots of
the system they are embedded in will simply get them ejected from that system
(just as anarchistic theory would predict) and will in no way reform that
system, or change anyone’s mind within it, or improve the quality of teaching.
Thus those who remain will inevitably tell themselves the comforting lie that
the system is flawed, granted, but that leaving it would be to abandon one’s
post, so to speak, and so the practical and moral thing to do is to struggle
through, and improve the quality of teaching as best one can in the future.
Of course, this is all utterly impossible,
but it is a tantalizing mythology that does help the average grad student sleep
The reason that I’m talking about these
kinds of calculations is that we all face this choice in life when we are
presented with a startling and unforeseen argument that we cannot dismantle.
Our truly brilliant ability to process cost/benefit scenarios immediately kicks
out a series of syllogisms such as the following:
· Anarchist arguments are valid
· I will never have any influence
on the elimination of the state in my lifetime;
· I will alienate, frustrate and
bewilder those around me by bringing these arguments up;
· I will not have any influence
on the thinking of those around me;
· If people have to choose
between the truth that I bring and their own illusions, they will ditch both me
and the truth without as much as a backward glance.
· Thus I will have alienated
myself from those around me, for the sake of a goal I can never achieve.
These sorts of calculations flash rapidly
through our minds, resulting in an irritation towards the arguments that can
never be directly expressed, and fear of any further examination of the truth
of one’s social and professional relations.
Society is really an ecosystem of
agreed-upon premises or arguments, usually based on tradition. Those who accept
the “truth” of these arguments find their practical course through the existing
social infrastructure enormously eased; they do not ask people to really think, they do not discomfort others
with uncomfortable truths, and thus what passes for discourse in the world
resembles more two mirrors facing each other – a narrow infinity of empty reflection,
if you will pardon the metaphor.
When a new idea attempts to enter into the
intellectual bloodstream of society, so to speak, those who have placed their
bets on the continuance of the existing belief structure react as any
biological defense system would, with a combination of attack and isolation.
When you get an infection, your immune system
will first attempt to kill off the bacteria; if it is unable to do that, it
will attempt to isolate it, forming a hard shell or cyst around the infection.
In a similar way, when a new idea “infects”
the existing ecosystem of social thinking, intellectuals will first attempt to
ignore it, but then will attempt to “kill it off” using a wide variety of
emotionally manipulative tricks, such as scorn, eye-rolling, cynical laughter, aggression,
insults, condescension, ad hominem attacks
and so on.
If these aggressive tactics do not work for
some reason, then the fallback position is a rigid attempt to “isolate” those
who support the new paradigm.
These tactics are so staggeringly effective
that hundreds or thousands of years can pass between significant new
intellectual movements and achievements. The last great leaps forward in
Western thinking, it could be argued, occurred around the time of the Enlightenment,
several hundred years ago, when the new ideas of the free market, and the power
and validity of the scientific method emerged. (“Democracy” and the “separation
of church and state” were not new concepts, but were inherited from the
expanding interest in Roman jurisprudence that occurred after the 14th century
through the rise of cities, and the subsequent necessity for more comprehensive
and detailed civic laws.) Since then, there have been some dramatic increases
in personal liberties – notably, the non-enforcement of slavery and the
expansion of property rights for women, but in the 20th century, most of the
“new” developments in human thinking tended to be tribal throwbacks, irrational
in theory and evil in practice, such as fascism, communism, socialism, collectivism
and so on.
Society “survives” by accepting a fairly
rigid set of unquestionable axioms. If people start poking around at the root
of those axioms, they are first ignored, then attacked, then isolated.
Individuals have almost no ability to overturn these core axioms within their
own lifetimes – and thus it takes a somewhat “irrational” dedication to truth
and reason to take this course.
This is also something that I know about
Socrates described himself as a “gadfly”
that buzzed around annoying those in society through his persistent questioning
– but he himself was bothered by an internal “gadfly” which constantly nagged
at him with these same problems.
Given the extraordinarily high degree of discomfort
that is generated by questioning social axioms, I know for sure that you are
also possessed by one of these internal “Socratic daemons” which will not let
you rest in the face of irrationality, or remain content with pseudo-answers to
Now that I have opened up at least the possibility
of these answers up in your mind, I know that you will keep returning to them,
almost involuntarily, turning them over, looking for weaknesses – because of a
kind of obsession that you have, or a mania for consistency with reason and
There are very few of us who, in some sort
of Rawlsian scenario, would get on bended knee before birth and demand to be
granted this kind of obsessive compulsive dedication to philosophical truth.
Given the high degree of social inconvenience, the resulting anxiety, hostility
and isolation, and the near-certainty that we shall not live to see the truth
we know accepted at large, it would seem to be almost a form of masochism to
reopen arguments which everyone else accepts as both proven and moral. We might
as well be a police detective questioning a case with 200 eyewitnesses, a
confession, and a smoking gun. Just as this detective would be viewed as
annoying, irrational and strange…
Well, I’m sure that you get the picture, because
you live in this picture.
Thus in attempting to answer the question
as to why these ideas, though rational and relatively simple to understand,
remain unspoken and unexamined, we can see that any purely practical calculation of the costs and benefits of bringing these
issues up, either in academics, or in one’s own personal social circle, would
lead any reasonable person to avoid these thoughts for the same reason that we
would give a hissing cobra a wide berth.
Of course, the reason that society does
progress at all is because all thinking men and women pay at least a surface
lip-service to the principles of reason and evidence.
The corruption and falsification of social
discourse that inevitably results from state-funded intellectualism represents
an enormously powerful and seemingly-overwhelming “front” that can forever keep
a rational examination of core premises at bay.
Unfortunately for the academics – though fortunately
for us – the rise of the Internet has to at least some degree diminished the
threat of isolation, so that those of us dedicated to “truth at all costs” can
never be fully isolated from social interaction, even if we must be satisfied
with the arm’s-length intimacy of digital relationships.
Whereas in the past I would have had to
endure a crippling and futile isolation from those around me, which would have
very likely broken my spirit and my desire for “truth at all costs,” I can now
converse freely with like-minded people at any time, day or night.
The cost of “the truth at all costs” has
thus come down considerably, making it a far more attractive pursuit.
Without a doubt, there is no conceivable
way to make the case that you should examine or explore anarchy in order to
achieve anarchistic goals at a political level. That would be like asking
Francis Bacon, the founder of the modern scientific method, to pursue his ideas
in order to secure funding for a particle accelerator.
When I was younger, I studied acting and
playwriting for two years at the National Theater School in Montréal, Canada.
On our very first day, we eager thespians were told that if we could be happy
doing anything other than acting, we should do that other thing. Acting is such
an irrational career to pursue that no sane calculation of the costs and
benefits would ever lead anyone in that direction.
In the same way, if you can be happy and
content without examining the core assumptions held by those around you, I
would strongly suggest that you never bring the contents of this book up with
anyone, and look at what is written about here as a mere unorthodox intellectual
exercise, like examining the gameplay that might result from alternate chess
If it is the case, however, that you have a
passion for the truth – or, as it more often feels, that the truth has an
unwavering passion for you – then the
discontentedness and alienation that you have always felt can be profitably alleviated
through an exploration of philosophical truth.
Once we begin to cross-examine our own core
beliefs – the prejudices that we have inherited from history – we will
inevitably face the feigned indifference, open hostility and condescending
scorn from those around us, particularly those who claim to have an expertise
in the matters we explore.
This can all be painful and bewildering, it
is true – on the other hand, however, once we develop a truly deep and intimate
relationship with the truth – and thus, really, with our own selves – we will
find ourselves almost involuntarily looking back upon our own prior
relationships and truly seeing for the first time the shallowness and evasion
that characterized our interactions. We can never be closer to others than we
are to ourselves, and we can never be closer to ourselves than we are to the
truth – the truth leads us to personal authenticity; authenticity leads us to intimacy,
which is the greatest joy in human relations.
Thus while it is true that while many shallow
people will pass from our lives when we pursue the “truth at all costs,” it is
equally true that across the desert of isolation lies a small village – it is
not yet a city, nor even a town – full of honest and passionate souls, where
love and friendship can flower free of hypocrisy, selfishness and avoidance,
where curious and joyful self-expression flow easily, where the joy of honesty
and the fundamental relaxation of easy self-criticism unifies our happy tribe
in our pursuit and achievement of the truth.
The road to this village is dry, and long,
and stony, and hard.
I truly hope that you will join us.
I do thank you for taking the time to run through this
little book. I hope that I have stimulated some interest within you about the
thrill and value of exploring anarchy.
If you are interested in exploring these ideas further
– in particular some thoughts on how an anarchistic society could work – you
might enjoy some of the earlier Freedomain Radio podcasts, which are available
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