Friday, April 04, 2008

A discussion for another day

That is often how my forays into discussing state often end up with my friends in the Progressive blogsphere. If I inform then that libertarianism isn't what is preached by CATO or the AEI, they thank me but almost always tell em they will get around to discussing that more in-depth another day. Given the recent issues around free speech, human rights commission and the role of the state, I thought today was finally a good day.

"A government big enough to supply you with everything you need is a government big enough to take away everything that you have.... The course of history shows that as the government grows, liberty decreases." Thomas Jefferson


The "state" is a social institution, merely a relationship among people, laying down rules for human interaction. In that sense, the state is morally neutral; that is, it is a tool that is neither good nor evil in and of itself, but only in how it is used.

Sounds pretty tame, right?

That tool, unfortunately, is unique in human existence in that it is not voluntary and, to paraphrase Max Weber , it "claims to have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force" usually within a geographic area. That means it can do things 'legitimately' that if you did them, it would be a crime.

The state become "evil" when it is used by people to do "evil" things. The Holocaust, the Gulag, genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans are examples of evil people utilizing the state for evil purposes.

The state can also seemingly be used for "good" as well. When placed in the hand of "good" people it can by used to stop the atrocities above.

The entire struggle between ideologies, between "left" and "right" has been to wrest control of this Leviathan and to use its power - the power of the sole use of force and coercion - to do "good". That power can force people to do things against their will, can confiscate and redistribute property and wealth to solve inequities.

If only the right people can just control it....

But the right people can never just "control it". The state is not just about relationships, its about privilege. The state is an entity which not only claims the monopoly on the "legitimate" use of force, it bestows that power on those who have wrested control of it and those people use that power and privilege to their own advantage, even to the detriment of others. And the whole time, they say its for "the greater good". Witness the crimes of Robert Mugabe, crimes that would be impossible without the apparatus of the state to carry them out - central bank printing presses and armed police.

But even in our own country, the use of state power to enhance and bestow privilege is commonplace. Regardless of who is in power, the regulations serve to help one group over the others. Even regulations said to be for safety can and are used to raise the barrier to entry into a market and stifling competition (thus raising prices). Laws are put in place that often help certain corporations or groups. Anti-union legislation, called "Right to Work" has the effect of keeping wages low, while pro-Union legislation creates artificial scarcity and drives prices up. So called "free trade" agreements allow for the flow of capital (good for big multinational corporations) but not labour (bad for small business and wage labourers). The state in Canada used its power to try to wipe out Aboriginal culture and language, "for their own good."

Our state today is no different in hierarchy and privilege granting, than it was 500, 1000 or 5000 years ago, we have merely changed the name of the King or Emperor or Chieftain to President or Prime Minister. Warlords, Dukes, and Oligarchs are now CEOs and Corporate officers, gaining the same kind of benefit and privilege from "legislatures" as their predecessors did from alliances with Kings. We aren't serfs and peasants, but wage slaves an indebted servants nonetheless, always hoping the next vote will actually make it all stop.

Because we have not choice. We must obey or the state and those who run it can 'legitimately' kidnap and imprison you or steal your property or enslave you for war.

Statism and the state are then, about preserving the privilege of those elites that can gain control of it. Just as racism, sexism and homophobia are really about maintaining or regaining similar privileges by oppressing others. It is a blunt, violent dangerous instrument.

What if there were no state? What if people could freely choose whether to associate and organize themselves? What if it were recognized that except for self-defense, there is no "legitimate" use of force against others? What if people could choose between differing, competing entities for the "services" the state currently "offers"?

I view the state as a gun. A large gun that is very powerful and has unlimited bullets. And there is only one and every so often, we decide who gets to shoot the gun. No the gun could be used to prevent one group from harming another, but often at the expense of another. Or it could be used to harm those groups. The gun never runs out of bullets because, no matter who controls it, they stick the gun in our face and steal our money in order to buy the bullets.

Lefties, if such a gun existed, would you not be demanding gun control? Or abolition of the gun?

Righties, if such a gun existed, would you want it used against you, to take your property? Would you want it to be given to those you disagree with?

I would like to see a truly voluntary society, one where we negotiate with each other, associate with each other and trade with each other, freely, without forced privilege or coercion. That means not state and "government" is only that which people agree to at any given time.

It would be easy to implement - make taxes voluntary. Make them specific. If I want my tax money to go to the SWC, and Planned Parenthood clinics or non-profit public healthcare, it would. If I did not want it to fund wars or subsidize the most profitable industry in the world, it wouldn't. If I decided I could get better service elsewhere, from non-governmental agencies, I could get it. I would be in control. We would be in control.

Considering how historically the state has more often oppressed people than helped them, why would you want to give anyone that power.

I don't expect to "convert" anyone with this. I do hope that some people consider the what the state is more carefully and not assume having a state is the natural order of things. I hope people question the very existence and necessity of the state, rather than accept it "just because"...

So, the question is, why do we need an institution with the monopoly on legitimate violence? Why do we need a state?

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42 Comments:

At 3:24 PM, Anonymous Anshu said...

I think one significant difference between societal hierarchy today and 500, 1000 or 5000 years ago is the potential to change one's place in that hierarchy.

Birth does not entirely define your station in life, and today's serf can be tomorrow's CEO or corporate officer.

I understand the point you're trying to make, but I think glossing over this significant difference undermines your argument.

 
At 3:41 PM, Blogger Mike said...

Anshu,

True enough, but it remains that its still the same hierarchy and the state is used to enforce the privilege of those at the top. Sure there is more social mobility in North America and the west, but hardly world wide.

I still have not found a good answer as to why it is alright for "the state" to do things that would be crime for me to do - steal property or force people to do things against their will with the threat of, or actual violence.

Let me put it this way - on a desert island there are three people, living on different parts of the island. Each produces different things and through accident of location and of talent, some are better off than others. Is it moral or ethical for two of those people to vote to steal the property of the third? Even if it is to redistribute that wealth more evenly? Is it ok that they decide to enslave the third and live off his labour? Is it ok for them to decide to imprison him in a cave or kill him?

Of course not.

Now raise the number to 30 and ask if it is moral or ethical for 20 to decide that for 10. Now increase the number to 3000 or 3 million. At what point does doing these things stop being immoral? What is the magic number?

Because right now that best describes the institution we call the state. And whether you think you are doing it for the right reasons, using the state as the means to your ends usually means allowing one group of people to steal the property, labour and even the liberty of another group, for their own ends or the benefit of others.

As I stated in my earlier posting on Economics and Evolution, humans have evolved to cooperate most of the time and to have a innate sense of fairness. Why could we not decided to use voluntary association and free interaction and exchange to organize, rather than monopoly violence and coercion ?

 
At 12:07 AM, Anonymous DazzlinDino said...

Wow, I'm out of practice at this whole debate thing, but GREAT topic Mike.

One problem is society has created a dependency on the state. Just after the last election, when everyone was fighting over more government money for the homeless, a group of individuals built a building a Calgary to do just that, without government money.

Most are now programmed in such a manner that when something needs to be done, politics needs to be involved, vis-a-vis the state. Even the issues on the environment. Anyone left of center blames the Conservatives for the environment, anyone to the right, blames the Liberals, and yet no one ever bothers to actually DO anything about it. Let the state take care of it.

Essentially, the idea behind the state is sound, it's the practice that isn't.

Look at Marxism....FANTASTIC idea, but it would never work. Even Karl himself said it....

 
At 12:52 AM, Blogger Saskboy said...

Interesting analogy about the gun, and how each "wing" would want to deal with it. It does make a case for not having a gun in the first place. But if it didn't exist anymore, how would we stop those with guns elsewhere, or stop people from building one again here?

 
At 9:13 AM, Blogger stageleft said...

Mike: Our state today is no different in hierarchy and privilege granting, than it was 500, 1000 or 5000 years ago

A significant difference between government today and government of the past is the people's ability to replace it when, in the opinion of the people, it needed replacing.

We will never regain control until we are able to return to that, and it can only be accomplished if both the size and power of government is reduced to realistic levels.

Idle musing: I seriously doubt there has ever been a voluntary selfless society. Since the days when we lived in small tribal societies someone (with the appropriate skill or knowledge to solve a specific problem) has needed to step up to the plate and make decisions for the benefit society and/or lead it through a difficult time.

The difference between then and now, of course, is that the leader who emerged generally did not try and hold society ransom for the service they performed - and if they did, well, he or she was quickly replaced.

 
At 11:37 AM, Blogger Robert McClelland said...

It would be easy to implement - make taxes voluntary. Make them specific.

Snort. Good one. Most people can barely manage to run their household. Imagine if they were forced to plan every aspect of their lives. It would go something like this.

[Ring. Ring.] Hello. Fire Department.

Help. My house is on fire.

Okay Mr. Smith. Well I see that you opted out of paying for the fire department. Have a nice day.

D'oh!

 
At 4:00 PM, Blogger Mike said...

Dazz,

Good to hear from you buddy. yes I agree with your assessment. One thing I haven't touched on is the law of unintended consequences that happens when people with good intentions try using the wrong means (in this case blunt state coercion) to achieve their ends. Look at our welfare system - it often creates dependence on the whims of the state that extend the cycles of poverty, rather than destroy it. I also serves to divide society rather than encourage cooperative action.

Sask,

Well it is only an analogy and admittedly not a perfect one. If you are worried about other states invading and such, I wouldn't - the current existence of the state certainly hasn't deterred that kind of behoviour. And if people want to voluntarily create a state like entity that could deal with this, they would be free to do so, so long as others aren't coerced.

SL,

I agree and I think the general decentralization that would exist without a massive central state would be a step in that direction. We may not see a fully voluntary society, but it is something to strive for.

Robert,

Well, you have just presented the argument why there are certain things that people would not choose to go without in reality, so using them as a counter to a voluntary society is silly - they would be choices no one would make.

I would imagine that homeowner's insurance premiums would be very high for someone who hasn't paid for the fire department.

I further could imagine that the fire service would put the fire out and bill the person afterward. More like Mrs. Smith would get the bill afterward. It would be more than her tax bill for fire coverage, but less than the cost of a home.

So I would hardly think this is really a problem.

Sometimes being free means being free to make stupid, risky and the wrong decisions. Or allowing others to make choices that you would not make. But accepting the risk means accepting the responsibility and the consequences of those decisions.

Again, when people are free to make choices, they often make the right one. They will cooperate and assist more often than not, as my post on "Evolution and Economics" shows.

What if you live in an area with a crappy fire department now? One that never loses a basement? Why should you be forced to pay for that (or any other substandard service) instead of being able to choose your own?

 
At 6:19 PM, Anonymous finn said...

"I further could imagine that the fire service would put the fire out and bill the person afterward."

Now how would they do that, Mike, if taxes were voluntary? We wouldn't really have the system you describe if they could just bill you for something you didn't want and you would be...wait for it...forced to pay. That sure sounds like what we've already got. And if they couldn't force you to pay, they wouldn't bother showing up to provide the service, would they?

It appears that Bobby's comment was not all that silly.

 
At 7:25 PM, Blogger Mike said...

Well finn perhaps. Or perhaps their house would simply burn down.

Your scenario seems to be one where I refuse to pay in advance for a service, call and request a service, then refuse to pay once I have received the benefit of the service. That, I believe, is fraud. There is a world of difference between forcing people to pay for a service they never use against their will and a person refusing to pay for a service they have used.

There will still be courts and judgments. And if you refuse to pay, good luck doing business or getting credit. Who would trust someone who committed that kind of fraud?

So, yes, sorry, its still silly and unrealistic. Its cheaper and less risky to simply pay the monthly fee. it is less risky to simply pay for the service that you have used, although more expensive than choosing to utilize a service and then refuse to pay, becoming ostracized and shunned by the community, unable to work or do business.

Taxation for things you never agreed to pay for and do not use is not the same as refusing to pay for a service you have utilized. Libertarians still believe in contracts you know?

 
At 7:45 PM, Anonymous finn said...

Mike, it's not my scenario, it's Bobby's, and his point seems to be that people cannot be counted on to do the smart thing. By extension, that leads to underfunding of "essential" services because too many of "us" would find more attractive things to spend our money on; those who did choose to pay for fire service would pay more dearly to have the same level of service they have now because there would be a smaller pool of bill-payers to cover the costs. This is only one example of an "essential" service that I would consider a "common good" best provided by the "state"; courts, police, highways and armed forces are others.

 
At 8:45 PM, Blogger Ron said...

finn, with respect:

You wrote "people cannot be counted on to do the smart thing, and that's a most common core assumption/core theoretical principal for any State apparatus, regardless of method; it's common, for example, to democrats, communists and fascists...

That presents a problem:

If people are too stupid to be left to their own devices, it must also be true they are too stupid alone or collectively to elect a legitimate, proper government (by definition, that requires smart decisions). There is no possible multiplication of stupidity that, summed, decreases it; ergo, ten stupid people voting are not smarter than 1 stupid person voting.

In any case, I understand that you see fire service as a common good so important to you that you cannot countenance--and do not wish to allow--others to not take part in providing you the service.

But, do you not see the arrogance required to take that position? You are, in effect, saying that no matter how important another human being sees an alternate goal, you are willing to extract from them, by force, funds sufficient to provide the protection you desire but cannot arrange to provide voluntarily for yourself.

What if the guy you're taxing thinks he needs new brakes for his car more than fire service right now? He might actually be *correct*.

 
At 9:59 PM, Blogger Nastyboy said...

If there was no state, how would we know who to cheer for at international sporting events?

 
At 10:09 PM, Anonymous finn said...

Ron, you apparently are having a "hard-of-reading" day: I said "his point seems to be that people cannot be counted on to do the smart thing", the key word being "his", which is obviously not me.
My point was merely economic, that big-ticket items like fire departments would be very expensive for users if others could opt out. I made no judgement on the arrogance or morality of the "state", nor did I concern myself with the intelligence of the voting populace.

My original intention in commenting here at all was to point to the ludicrous idea Mike put forth that, under a libertarian system, a service would be provided to a non-subscriber with the expectation that he could be billed for services he did not contract. That doesn't seem very libertarian now, does it?

 
At 4:30 AM, Blogger Ron said...

finn: I'm not hard-of-reading today.

You re-iterated Bobby's scenario, described it further, and used it to explain why *you* would "consider [fire protection] a 'common good' best provided by the 'state.'"

You can't very well say "nor did [you] concern [yourself] with the intelligence of the voting populace" when using it as a basis for what you consider as "underfunding" to which you noted you'd also expect the "underfunding of 'essential' services because too many of 'us' would find more attractive things to spend our money on" actually explicitly stating that others *would* find other goals more attractive, which you seemed to take as a hindrance to your plans.

I can't see you raising those points if you weren't arguing at minimum for a minarchist *State* and the attendant coercion.

Mike's point isn't ludicrous at all. Subscribers would pay a set actuarily and profit based rate. A person who was not a subscriber, howver, were they to initiate a call for help to such a department in a time of peril, would be accepting a contract for services--at a rate arrived at differently--by explicitly asking for the assistance.

That's assistance, thenm, that they *would* be contracting for. Elsewise, they may just as properly do without it.

 
At 4:34 AM, Blogger Ron said...

those who did choose to pay for fire service would pay more dearly to have the same level of service they have now because there would be a smaller pool of bill-payers to cover the costs

...and other things would be cheaper because people would be much freer to produce and compete in the marketplace.

...and that's even accepting the assumption that there would be no competition for the provision of fire services, which could lower the price even with fewer subscribers.

 
At 9:19 AM, Blogger Mike said...

Had it not for my hockey game last night, I would have answered pretty much exactly as Ron had (thank you sir!).

Finn, my points were very much addressing yours, especially the idea that forced taxation is somehow the same as paying for a service you have asked for and utilized.

I will thank you, though, finn, for aptly demonstrating an attitude and an assumption that people should really examine in themselves - that you should be allowed to force people to pay for things so that those who really want them can have a lower price or better quality service; that somehow a select few who run the state know better than everyone else what to spend their money on or how to interact. Lord knows they might just spend it on beer and popcorn instead of fire services, and we can't have that, can we?

Freedom sometimes means letting people make poor, wrong, and stupid decisions that you or I would not make.

"Its for the greater good" - the motto of tyrants and the creed of slaves.

Nasty,

I find a colourful jersey best...say something in rouge- bleu-blanc with a nice "C-H" in the middle.

How are the Oilers doing anyway?

;)

 
At 9:26 AM, Blogger Mike said...

Oh, and just to be clear, I personally see no "public good" or service presently provided by the state that cannot be provided - usually more efficiently and effectively and with greater choice - by other means.

Those other means could be private enterprise, but they could (and in many instances would) be done via cooperatives, non-profits organizations (unions, professional associations etc) or simple community groups and ad hoc cooperation among neighbours.

Almost all of these would be better than paying against your will for goods and services you do not use (or wish to use) which may be substandard because they are offered as a monopoly.

I have far more faith in human nature.

 
At 1:59 PM, Anonymous DazzlinDino said...

Man, services is a sticky are. Like anything else, they would start massively espensive until a private service price war happened. Then when your house was on fire, you would have to research for who's got the "deals" at the time, call, see if they are available.

If your house is burningn, press 1, If your house is smoldering press 2, If your house WAS burning and now it's smoldering, press 3.

The system itself I think is valid when you look at it that way. The main problem is we have let it encompass our decisions. It has grown too large. It's why I am a HUGE believer in referendums. In our present day, the internet could make this so easy it's not even funny. If the government comes up with an idea to spend out money on, we all vote, it's that simple.

The flipside of course is partisan voting and uninformed voting, but at least we would then be getting a more hands on form of democracy. For example there are still loads of people that the current government changed the Afghanistan mission from a peacekeeping to a combat mission. Military decisions should be left to the military, but day to day running of our lives should be up to us, or at the very least, the majority.

 
At 3:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The state is a specialization apparatus. People are not stupid. People are busy. People are too busy living their lives to have the time to research the bazillion things that goverment takes care of, such as a national highway system so that food can get transported, competing interests between environmental concerns and oil & gas development, developing policies and laws to ensure food sold won't kill you, etc.

As such, we elect people to specialize in researching this crap and hopefully make better decisions about it than we'd be able to because we're busy researching what would be a good stock investment or what pre-school our daughter should be sent to. We use elections to tell these people when their decisions don't agree with the majority of us.

And incidentally, you are not coerced to live under a state. Your presence here is voluntary as there are many areas of the world that are state free -- large portions of afghanistan and pakistan for example -- and there are no walls or guards that imprison you in this society. That you continue to live where you do indicates you find the cost-benefit ratio to be acceptable. In other words, you're already making your libertarian choice, and it just happens to be that of living under a state.

To answer the argument of how do you repel organized outside force with "well invasions happen already" is not an answer. It's an avoidance of the question. Yes, they do happen already, but if you look, they primarily happen against those who are *not* organized. Occasionally we get a war where they take down Saddam or something like that, but most often where you see force applied is against much smaller groups and collectives -- warlords attack other tribes far more often than they attack nations. There is safety in numbers.

The argument that asks by what right do two people have of taking the resources of a third does not get answered by libertarianism whatsoever. Those two people would *still* take the resources of the third if that's what they wanted to do. All government does is provide a means whereby the damaged 1/3rd has a chance to convince the other group -- by convincing the leaders -- that doing such a thing is not in the best interests of all involved. Having 10 people convince 3 who represent all 30 is much easier than having 10 people try to convince all 20 -- or even 5. And this gets even more extreme as the numbers increase.

Again, however, Libertarianism does absolutely nothing to solve this problem, and in fact can make it worse as you can have small local groups making decisions to impose their will in the local region, with no higher authority available for the damaged parties to turn to. Of course, they may choose to form larger, stronger collectives, which would probably require some sort of payment in order to maintain a system of laws and courts -- and into which their children would be born and be given a choice of stay under that collective or.. well.. leave.. say to a place like Afghanistan or Pakistan where such collectives -- commonly called a "state", don't exist. Hey wait, that sounds familiar.

The system we're under didn't spring up apropos of nothing. Before the state existed, we were in that lovely state of libertarianism you ascribe to. It ended. Whether that was by choice or by force is immaterial, as the one thing you can be sure of is that if you ignore the history, you will wind up repeating it.

 
At 4:59 PM, Blogger Ron said...

anonymous: I agree, actually, that most people are not stupid. It's a bell curve, with most folks in the middle and the truly gifted and truly stupid at ends of the curve, and folks are undeniably busy. Now, the middle ground may not be any great shakes, but at least relatively, it's not "stupid"...but it's not possoeesed of any fabulous collective insight either.

And that still doesn't mean the rest of your argument naturally follows.

I'm too busy, for only two of a milion possible examples, to research the development and distribution of high-def televisions and quad-core computers, but I seem to be able to buy them everywhere--and Wal-Mart and UPS (for only two examples) seem to be able to develop service and product distribution systems quite well...and the entire original US turnpike system was built non-governmentally using tolls and 3% bonds. Additionally, Consumer Reports--for just one example--does a pretty good job of advising citizens on safety and product utility, but then so do the millions of reviews available on the 'net.

I "elect" people to "research that crap" buy paying them, especially after I see a decent track record shown by what they've done with their own resources and the help of early investors.

(A quick aside regarding this: The argument that asks by what right do two people have of taking the resources of a third does not get answered by libertarianism whatsoever. Those two people would *still* take the resources of the third if that's what they wanted to do....they wouldn't do it with legal permission, and the person so aggressed would be within their rights to repel the theft, and if they wished, they could be better armed to do so.)

As for: "And incidentally, you are not coerced to live under a state...That you continue to live where you do indicates you find the cost-benefit ratio to be acceptable. is not precisely true; I stay here because I have a right to be free (as opposed to a legal permission) *anywhere* I am, limited only by voluntary contract and property rights--so here will do as a place to work for more freedom.

Onward:

"In your efforts to reduce government, aim for zero. If you ever get there and don't like what you see, I guarantee that it will be the easiest thing in the world to pick up the nearest telephone and have another one established on the very next day." Robert LeFevre (1970) quoted by Billy Beck at two-four

 
At 8:34 PM, Anonymous alfred said...

So, the question is, why do we need an institution with the monopoly on legitimate violence? Why do we need a state?

I do not know that we "need" a state but I do believe that they are inevitable. The kind of co-operation described by libertarians logically presupposes that a condition of civil peace exists in which the free agents can operate; warring factions pay no heed to niceties like morality. History shows us that any land not organized enough to defend itself is overrun. Furthermore, it shows that such organization is the province of "nations", "tribes", "empires" and the like, and these do not ever voluntarily relinquish power.

 
At 9:08 PM, Blogger Mike said...

anon,

Ron clearly has more patience for trolls than I do - I pretty much stopped trying to engage in your nonsense when you claimed that Afghanistan and Pakistan have no state, when both do (indeed Pakistan is still a dictatorship until the election is sorted out). It was a vain attempt at guilt by association indicating your are not interested in actually debating and discussing this. Feel free to come back when you are.

alfred,

I don't consider them inevitable or that the peaceful cooperation is that unusual. Cooperation is, both biologically from evolution and societally the norm most of the time. Most of the wars and conflicts you describe were between states, not individuals or even groups.

It seems though that both you and anon are conflating "state" with "nation" or "country" in the geographic sense (which could explain anon's " if you don't like it here, move to Afghanistan" attitude). By "state" I mean not only what Max Weber said, but a social institution of the rulers over the ruled, where some are able to exercise the "legitimate" use of force over the rest. Some states coincide with countries or nations, but not always. It is entirely possible to have a country where there is no operating state, where relations between people and the services to do so, are done privately or cooperatively.

Its possible to have states witb no countries (Palestinians, Tibetan government in exile) or many counties - the UN.

Pleas think of the social instiution run by governments whereby the rulers can force the ruled to do their will, not the geographic area known as a country or nation.

 
At 10:39 PM, Blogger Tim said...

I see some of you have never lived in the country, away from all the "services" that most take for granted. Fire dept. completely volunteer. Equipment provided by donations from members of the community. Ambulance service, same thing. Major winter storm? Farmers tractors suddenly become a massive snow removal crew. he lists goes on and on... There is very little of the "me" factor in the country. Everyone knows that they need to depend on their neighbors at some point and time. It is just inevitable.

Now I hearken back to the city. I shall use Edmonton as an example here. My property taxes have gone up a min. of 7% every year since I purchased my home. The roads are pitiful. Yet our elected officials deemed it necessary to spend 88 million on a new art gallery (City 21 mil, Province 15 mil, Canadian 10 mil). Only 12 million has been raised from donations. They are a tad short if my math is correct. A mere one quarter of the cost has been voluntarily supplied. Does that suggest that there is an over whelming "need" in the community for this project? I would suggest that most people would prefer to see that money spent on more pressing "needs". This would never happen in a small community. The projects that get done are the ones that the "majority" are behind and support not only with words but by actions. Whether that be donations or volunteering labour.

 
At 6:35 AM, Anonymous alfred said...

"Pleas think of the social instiution run by governments whereby the rulers can force the ruled to do their will, not the geographic area known as a country or nation."


I do think of the "state" in the manner you describe above, Mike, and I think my observation still stands. Humans are tied to geography: we all must live somewhere, after all. I mentioned "tribes" as a societal unit to cover exactly the kinds of peoples who lived nomadically. While they "co-operated" in a sense they also lived under a hierarchy.

As to the notion of "legitimate" use of force, I submit that "legitimate" means lawful(usually the first definition given), and that "law" means principles of conduct in a community established by some authority( again, usually the first definition given), so even the notion of legitmacy is tied to the concept of authority. It seems to be human nature to organize into groups for mutual benefit and then install some sort of hierarchy to govern behaviour. Think of any club you can freely choose to join: they all have "rules" under which they operate and fees or dues that are collected to finance whatever activity is the purpose for the club's existence. Unions are no different(as I know from personal experience).

None of this, of course, proves that a libertarian society could not function, but it does show that hierarchy seems to be the natural evolution of humans gathering together for mutual benefit or interest. I cannot think of an historical example of co-operation on a societal level without the existence of a hierarchy as well.

 
At 7:27 PM, Blogger Boris said...

Mike,
Good post/thread. Some thoughts:

I think an anarchist or libertarian society could work but not necessarily at the level of scale and complexity that we now operate. The historical examples of more egalitarian/less hierarchical human groups tended to be smaller and less materially sophisticated (eg. !Kung of southern Africa). The larger and more complex a group gets the more room there is for people to consolidate into groups and accumulate power and material wealth, particularly when it evolves a cultural-economic ideology that encourages this. Technology aids the complexity by extending the resource base needed to maintain a society from the local to the global scale. Further, as these groups form, they adopt collective identities and group-think sets in. Some members acquire power and others follow.

The state system we have now has promoted nationalist identities and a assumption of hierarchy as the only path, and that goes unquestioned by the vast majority of people to the point where not only the top echelons of the state will defend with violence but the plebes as well. A libertarian system has to overcome this cultural trait and I don't think this can be done from within. Most folks I think still identify with state=nation=culture.

Should JH Kunstler's ideas about peak oil scenarios play out, or some other scenario where the state becomes irrelevent to people's immediate needs, the stage could well be set for a return to a more cooperative or libertarian social system. If needs and production are more localised, the scale and complexity of the system required to administer it simplifies and the capacity to monopolise force diminishes.

I think it really comes down to how big a population can get before it loses its capacity to effectively self-organise and starts producing hierarchies to manage itself. Tim's city-country description is an example of what I mean.

 
At 7:54 PM, Blogger Boris said...

[Ok, more thoughts while I wait for the chick peas to boil]

Then again, there localised responses getting closer to your ideal that exist within complex modern state environments:

http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2008/04/transition-town.html

Refining what I said earlier, naked anti-state libertarianism may not be feasible, but if the prime actor and focus becomes the local community instead of the overall state, then something might come of that. State level metrics like GDP and employment rates could be ignored in favour of intensely localised versions geared toward soc-eco-econ sustainability. This structure could still make use of the state for administering heavy national infrastructure like rail, defence, or legal codes, thereby keeping intact the culture-state-national identity without civil war. Defence, though national, could again be decentralised into local volunteer territorial militias and not permanent expeditionary armies that get us into more trouble than out.

 
At 10:18 PM, Blogger Ron said...

boris, with respect: I see things quite differently. I wouldn't expect any anarcho-libertarian society to be egalitarian or less hierarchical. In fact, it may--even properly become far less egalitarian, and much more hierarchical.

Other than the proviso that people all ought to be equal under the law, and all associations voluntary and/or by contract, I'd only expect those who want things to get them by trade, not by manipulating the State to provide what they can't provide themselves voluntarily.

I would further expect (even hope) that individuals of exceptional skill, insight, ability (you get the picture) would indeed live lives that were decidedly not equal to those around them, and that many of those people would become *leaders* in various ways.

You wrote: "if the prime actor and focus becomes the local community instead of the overall state, then something might come of that" but I disagree. You're quibbling about the *size*; I'm here to tell you that, regardless of the size of a collective, the prime actor is always the individual.

There is no collective that doesn't have as its base unit *individuals*--and the only difference between a community and a state is size and the breadth of the definition you use. It is the individual that is the ultimate minority, a minority of one, in any of those collectives--and it is from individuals that ideas and achievements flow. No matter the size of a collective, a collective has no brain of its own, and though certainly cooperation, trade and discourse are required for progress, it is still individuals minds, and individual goals, that drive progress. This is true even when the goal is a proposed benefit or advancement for the collective--and it is still true even when voluntary cooperation results in a huge mass of people working for the same achievement.

 
At 12:15 AM, Blogger Boris said...

Ron,
It may well be become far less egalitarian, you are correct. But it also may not be. This is where I see culture and collective behaviour playing a role in outcomes. In communities where cultural norms are conducive to cooperation and dialogue - communalism - then a more egalitarian society may be an outcome. In others where individualism is stressed, then perhaps less so as this is not conducive the collaboration. [Aside: a poster on another thread suggested watching Jericho, so I did, and it was interesting to see how the subtext did not challenge notions of private property even in times of resource scarcity, but was clearly taking a stab at privatisation and corporatisation of public institutions].

Anyway, let me be clear, I am not suggesting that the societies I describe would not be without hierarchy or inequality, but that it is more feasible at smaller scales to establish social systems that harbour more egalitarian traits and less polarised hierarchies.

I do feel that size, when coupled with complexity acts against anarcho-libertarian systems. In smaller, simpler social groups, there is a more limited capacity for tolerance of wealth disparity than in a larger, more complex version. Rule sets are simpler in the former, and your individual can participate more meaningfully in process. There is a much less bureaucratic path from idea to action in a smaller, simpler social group.

I also disagree with the suggestion that a collective does not have a brain of its own - its internal discourse is its thinking. No individual can reproduce a society, but they can contribute ideas that aid the whole. No person is an island, every individual is part of many groups, and these groups (families, political parties, nations, curling clubs, etc) are the institutions that govern the society in which the individual resides. The base unit might be the individual, but that person is more of a building block: the reproduction of society tends to mostly happen through institutions.

 
At 12:40 AM, Blogger Ron said...

boris: I appreciate your thoughtful and gentle response. It's actually more from *that* that I expect good things individually and societally than from anything that could be called political will.

You'd make a fine neighbour, which is--at core--all I ask of anyone.

...now I get to thinking about what you've written.

 
At 11:08 AM, Blogger Boris said...

Ron,
Cheers. It's not often that this polarised blogosphere can get into a good conversation about society that doesn't turn into something partisan and reactionary.

Woke up thinking about the monopolisation of force...

Taking my discussion on moving most decision making and resourcing to the simpler, local level, has advantages to the use of force. As I spoke the descentralisation of defence into local militias (conducive to anti-invasion hedgehog defence) instead of permanent forces, the same could be done for police and fire functions. Giving all members of the community an opportunity to participate in policing deconcentrates the monopolisation of force by one institution and disperses it through the local community. Same with fire. So, a community could give everyone police training where they could then rotate through police duties on a part-time basis...

This also eliminates the need for competition between services Mike asks about by empowering everyone to participate in delivery.

 
At 11:29 AM, Blogger Mike said...

Ron and Boris,

Great discussion, please keep it up. this is what I was hoping for (but no really expecting) when I posted this.

Boris,

I am all for decentralization. Indeed, I think that would be a natural consequence of ridding ourselves of the state. I think in some communities your model would work well and in others, competition among agencies or associations would also work.

The beauty is that, without out a state enforcing a one-size fits all "solution" I think both paradigms would come about and coexists to varying degrees. One town could be the decentralized model you advocate and one could have competing policing or fire agencies (for instance). In fact, a cooperative voluntary policing or fire agency would be a viable alternative to competing services for hire.

So long as people are free to choose, you coop model, the competing services model or some combination of them could easily work.

 
At 12:22 PM, Blogger Boris said...

Mike,
Definitely think the coop model or combo could work.

I am not sure the competition-only model is ultimately workable if there is interest in preventing the concentration and monopolisation of power. One service may outcompete the others through legit, and illegit means and we'd be back where we started. Democratising and institutionalising conventions that help prevent this from occurring are a means safeguarding against this. The Antigonish movement stressed democratisation and education - empowerment - of the individual in its organisation, but operated as a cooperative.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antigonish_Movement

Great thread.

 
At 4:38 PM, Blogger Josh Gould said...

So, the question is, why do we need an institution with the monopoly on legitimate violence? Why do we need a state?

A much better question asks why we do not need a state and, indeed, if this is the case, how will this new state of affairs benefit me and everyone else, materially, socially, etc.? Will people be healthier? Wealthier? Happier?

And assuming the state can be done away with, how would this be effected? What sorts of social dislocation would occur? Would violence be a practical requirement? Against whom? If you are proposing revolution, I am interested in just how this revolution would transpire, particularly given the rather sorry record of past revolutions.

 
At 7:08 PM, Blogger Boris said...

Josh,
My take on your question asks whether the state is a sustainable enterprise.
I'm not a fan of revolutions for the reasons you suggest. I tend to think of things in terms of evolution or transformation. With sustainability, we can look at the trendlines in economic, political, social, and ecological circles, analyse how and where they intersect and ask what this means for future of the state. Climate change in oil depletion, growing wealth disparity, and declining public participation in the political discourse, and low public awareness of critical issues are some things that play into question. I don't think that a anarcho-libertarian revolution is possible or probable because the vast majority of the public is not literate enought to know what it is. But I do believe something like oil scarcity will spawn changes in the system as people find ways of coping. More local emphasis at the expense of the state apparatus is where I see these trends pushing us.

 
At 7:36 AM, Blogger Mike said...

Josh,

I think I've stated why we don't need a state. I'm curious what justification there is for allowing a minority of people to exercise the power to take the property and use violence against everyone else. Its an exercise. Examine your assumptions closely. Why should people be ruled by other people?

I also don't advocate violent revolution, but pure civil disobedience, if needed, as a means of change. Better yet, ignore the state. Use and if necessary, create, non-state services that replace the state. The Soviet Union didn't fall from violent revolution, but ceased functioning when people simply stopped obeying it - violence only occurred when coup, organized by those who wished to perpetuate the Soviet Union, used it and the people defended themselves.

There are many ways to make social changes and sometimes those changes are tough. As Boris points out, sometimes they are inevitable.

 
At 7:21 PM, Blogger Josh Gould said...

I think I've stated why we don't need a state.

No, you've provided a lot of vague speculation about how all the functions of today's governments would be fulfilled via "market" or "cooperative" solutions. To repeat: how will this new anarchic state of affairs benefit me and everyone else, materially, socially, etc.? Will people be healthier? Wealthier? Happier?

I'm curious what justification there is for allowing a minority of people to exercise the power to take the property and use violence against everyone else. Its an exercise. Examine your assumptions closely. Why should people be ruled by other people?

A loaded question, since I do not believe that people should be subjected to the arbitrary rule of such a "minority". What I do believe in is a society of laws and, fortunately, I'm lucky to live in a country which functions that way, most of the time at least. We appoint (or elect) people to implement those laws, and use institutional innovations like the separation of powers to keep matters in check.

Yes, there is a tendency for a state to degenerate away from its constitutional - that only means that periodic renewal is frequently required.

Any big organization places certain people higher up the organizational chain of command than others - it's inevitable. We have elections and independent law enforcement appartuses to deal with those who abuse their positions.

So, in short, I don't believe that a minority should "rule" over everyone else, but since elites exist in all societies, I rather like that we're able to elect at least some part of our aristocracy.

I also don't advocate violent revolution, but pure civil disobedience, if needed, as a means of change. Better yet, ignore the state. Use and if necessary, create, non-state services that replace the state. The Soviet Union didn't fall from violent revolution, but ceased functioning when people simply stopped obeying it - violence only occurred when coup, organized by those who wished to perpetuate the Soviet Union, used it and the people defended themselves.

Huh? The Soviet Union was borne in a violent revolution, and in its wake was left a collection of weak and fiercely authoritarian states (Yeltsin's Russia as compared to Uzbekistan). Moreover, thanks to the ideological zeal of neo-liberal reformers, Russia ended up with the worst sort of kleptocratic economy dominated by "oligarchs" and organized crime. That the authoritarianism of Putin is seen as a vast improvement to that state of affairs is a clear testament to the fact that your ideas have far from universal appeal. In short, political stablity matters. We have it now; I'd like to keep it that way.

There are many ways to make social changes and sometimes those changes are tough. As Boris points out, sometimes they are inevitable.

If the global economy collapses and takes the current state system with it, I can't say I look forward to the "social changes" that will go with it. Does the collapse of civilization as we know it usually have happy consequences? Political affairs are no more self-regulating nor convergent to stability than is the free market.

 
At 10:28 PM, Blogger Ron said...

Boris re: I am not sure the competition-only model is ultimately workable if there is interest in preventing the concentration and monopolisation of power

I actually don't think a competition-only model exists in reality. Simply put, people must cooperate *to* compete (or do much of anything else as well); it's part and parcel of getting thing done no matter what one wishes to accomplish, beyond a number of rudimentary. I think Mike's thoughts on "peaceful coexistence" between the more or less typically cooperative models and "capitalist" models is likely--and for good reason.

In Alberta, for example, we have Co-op stores and gas, credit unions and Mennonite colonies...and McDonalds :-) Clients of one are generally clients of the other as well. More later...

 
At 9:08 AM, Blogger Mike said...

"So, in short, I don't believe that a minority should "rule" over everyone else, but since elites exist in all societies, I rather like that we're able to elect at least some part of our aristocracy."

Well I don't believe elites should exist nor do I want to be ruled by any kind of aristocracy, elected or not. Would slaves selecting their masters make them any less slaves?

"Huh? The Soviet Union was borne in a violent revolution, and in its wake was left a collection of weak and fiercely authoritarian states (Yeltsin's Russia as compared to Uzbekistan). Moreover, thanks to the ideological zeal of neo-liberal reformers, Russia ended up with the worst sort of kleptocratic economy dominated by "oligarchs" and organized crime."

Agreed, except I never mentioned anything about the creation of the Soviet Union, only its demise. The Soviet Union collapsed, along with many satellite states (Hungary, Czechsolvakia East Germany) not through violent revolution (save Romania, of course and the people having to fight off the Coup), but through people merely ignoring the corrupt state. What happened after the collapse was terrible, but a lot of it resulted from Yeltsin printing rubbles and using a crazy lottery scheme to "privatize" state property - all state interference. And Jefferey Sachs may be a "neo-liberal" but not a libertarian.

"If the global economy collapses and takes the current state system with it, I can't say I look forward to the "social changes" that will go with it....."

If the global economy collapses, it will be because of how it is currently "managed". I don't look forward to it either. But such a collapse does not necessarily mean the Mad-Max apocalypse you seem to be envisioning. People, for the most part, cooperate and I don't see that suddenly stopping in the absence of a state. In fact, I see it becoming more common.

Now I'm still curious as to the reasons we need a state (my original question that you "answered" by asking another question to deflect). So far the only reasons I have heard is that "we have always had one" or "its the natural order" or "without it humans will descend into barbarity and mob rule" - all the same excuse used in decades and centuries past to defend slavery, Jim Crow, the divine right of kings and just about every other oppressive law and social institution that has since gone the way of the dodo.

Since I asked first, why don't you answer my question and then I'll answer yours in more detail.

 
At 11:46 PM, Blogger Josh Gould said...

Well I don't believe elites should exist nor do I want to be ruled by any kind of aristocracy, elected or not. Would slaves selecting their masters make them any less slaves?

The normative question doesn't have much relevance - elites exist in various forms throughout history, but a "ruling" political or economic class has existed in every civilization since the rise of civilization. By the same token, many such elites have been overthrown, to be replaced by an elite of a different sort, leaving power more or less dispersed than before.

So what's the solution to the empirical existence of an elite? Abolish it? How?

Agreed, except I never mentioned anything about the creation of the Soviet Union, only its demise. The Soviet Union collapsed, along with many satellite states (Hungary, Czechsolvakia East Germany) not through violent revolution (save Romania, of course and the people having to fight off the Coup), but through people merely ignoring the corrupt state. What happened after the collapse was terrible, but a lot of it resulted from Yeltsin printing rubbles and using a crazy lottery scheme to "privatize" state property - all state interference. And Jefferey Sachs may be a "neo-liberal" but not a libertarian.

Yet in each case the Communist state gave way to a post-Communist state, but a state nonetheless. Sclerotic institutions gave way to new ones, and the condition of freedom that resulted was directly related to institutional change. How do you strip political conditions of freedom (or oppression) from the context?

If the global economy collapses, it will be because of how it is currently "managed". I don't look forward to it either. But such a collapse does not necessarily mean the Mad-Max apocalypse you seem to be envisioning. People, for the most part, cooperate and I don't see that suddenly stopping in the absence of a state. In fact, I see it becoming more common.

People in small groups tend to cooperate when trust is easily established and maintained. When a society reaches a scale in which no one can possibly personally know but a fraction of the population, this becomes more difficult. How do you run a city of tens of thousands or millions by relying on the assumption that people's good natures will be sufficient to keep the peace?

The examples of Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan are pertinent; in regions where the writ of the central government does not reach, you do not have a situation of idyllic libertarian cooperation, but religiously-infused tribal rule. People will indeed find ways or organizing themselves in the absence of a modern, centralized state, but it is deeply naive to assume that the results would be a situation of freedom which coincides with individualist libertarian beliefs. Whatever you may assume about the illegitimacy of communitarian arguments or arrangements (outside the "anarcho-syndicalist commune"), you cannot simply assert that alternative philosophies are wrong because your ideological predispositions say so.

Now I'm still curious as to the reasons we need a state (my original question that you "answered" by asking another question to deflect). So far the only reasons I have heard is that "we have always had one" or "its the natural order" or "without it humans will descend into barbarity and mob rule" - all the same excuse used in decades and centuries past to defend slavery, Jim Crow, the divine right of kings and just about every other oppressive law and social institution that has since gone the way of the dodo.

What we need is a clear recognition that the institutions of the state and of society generally are not the product of some sort of alien oppressive influence, imposed by a kleptocratic elite, but rather the very things that underlie our present societal condition, for good or ill.

If I may offer an opinion, you are assuming that history is teleological in nature - since humans are naturally cooperative, we will eventually realise that we don't "need" a state or a government, and thus usher in a a new era of "voluntary" civilization where no one is subject to the will of another, i.e. under the power of another person or group. In short, we are "everywhere in chains" due to "systems of domination" (the State), and we have only to realise the corrupting and oppressive nature of the State to throw off our bonds. Is that at all correct?

It's just Rousseau - and his solution was a voluntary society as well, for the conditions he set upon the Social Contract (it would have to be renewed at every Assembly of the people) make it effectively impossible for any conceivable state to satisfy. A thin reading of Rousseau's arguments gave France the Terror, and later such utopianism had no better effects.

Since I asked first, why don't you answer my question and then I'll answer yours in more detail.

My answer is simple - it's the next best solution, not only because many forms of anarchy are highly undesirable but because no such anarchy endures long before some other system or outside force fills the power vaccuum. I am, indeed, conservative on such matters, anti-revolutionary and skeptical about schemes which assume that the power of "reason" can give rise to a better world. Here's a quotation:

"Rationalism encourages us to believe that anything that can be conveived can be brought into being. The rationalist perversion in modern politics consists in the determined effort to understand and shape people and societies on the basis of inadequate, oversimplified theories of human behaviour... Rationalism not only encourages utopianism, but utopianism is a form of rationalism.

"The rationalist spirit of the age... (is) that spirit that assumes that human nature in the future may be qualitatively different than in the past, that views non-rational factors such as sentiment, habit, and custom as obstacles that can and should be overcome, the spirit that views each situation as a tabula rasa on which a plan can be imposed and therefore sees experience in other times and places as having no relevance... The rationalist spirit takes no note of the fact that institutions are patterned human behaviour that exist and function through the people of a society, and that radically changing institutions means radically changing the lives of people who may not want their lives changed. Because it assumes that man and society can be brought to a preferred plan, the rationalist orientation tends powerfully to see everything as possible and prospects for progress as unlimited."

You may counter that this does not apply to the anarchist/libertarian project. I think it does. Entirely. (I'll give the author of the quote later.)

Call me a pessimist of human nature if you like, but we have thousands of years of history to show that hoping for the best does not excuse us from expecting (and planning for) the worst. It's not as if the history of revolution since 1789 provides much cause for optimism. That's not to say that your plan of civil disobedience is at all comparable to past revolutions, but I don't see it having much effect either.

 
At 12:53 AM, Blogger Ron said...

Josh: re How do you run a city of tens of thousands or millions by relying on the assumption that people's good natures will be sufficient to keep the peace?

I would presume the same way my brother and I run our business.

We make the assumption that people's good natures will be sufficient to keep the peace and then act accordingly. We get ripped off occasionally but that's a limited damage to us compared to the damage we'd cause to ourselves and to the way we treat our customers by being untrusting all the time...and we'd *still* get ripped off occasionally because thieves are thieves. My point is that government is basically in the "fear reduction" business--but, try as they might, accidents still befall us, some folks are efficient and even muredrous creeps, and the overall death rate remains at 100%, one per customer.

re: People will indeed find ways or organizing themselves in the absence of a modern, centralized state, but it is deeply naive to assume that the results would be a situation of freedom which coincides with individualist libertarian beliefs.

You're right here. It is deeply naive to assume such would be the case. It is however not naive to work and educate towards such an achievement; it just ain't gonna be quick--and you are absolutely correct that it will be difficult, and that it is unlikely.

I certainly don't expect to see it; my goal is to keep alive the idea that it is *possible*. And that it is a worthy goal for humans.

Oh, and--in the meantime--to preserve and claim as much free ground as I can, inch by inch, as consistently as I can manage. That's *my* human nature.

 
At 2:30 PM, Blogger Boris said...

Josh,
"The examples of Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan are pertinent" only to their own socio-cultural context. While religiously infused tribal rule may not be recognisable as a the optimal state of affairs to us, it is where they are at. They manage to make that system "function" even though some aspects of it offend our sensibilities. Our correcting does not seem to have done much more than breed war.

The decline or absence of the state's influence has different effects in different contexts. Katrina saw poor capacity for local self-organisation due to pre-existing tensions within the larger NOLA community. Low social capital. The state response when it did catch up included armed troops, police and mercenaries.

The 1998 Ice Storm here in Canada saw millions without power in the middle of winter but people generally came together to help each other out. 15 000 troops (i was one) were deployed, unarmed, to help. People were for the vast majority of the time coping well. Had soldiers not been able to deploy, social order may well have maintained itself.

When a society reaches a scale in which no one can possibly personally know but a fraction of the population, this becomes more difficult. How do you run a city of tens of thousands or millions by relying on the assumption that people's good natures will be sufficient to keep the peace?
That city contains many social networks that form smaller scale communities that can and do help each other. Families, friends, clubs, workplaces, neighbourhood associations, etc all consistitute small, adaptive, highly responsive entities. The city is not a monolithic block of individuals. A healthy city with high positive social capital/participation can do much to avoid a mad-max scenario.

In short, not all situations are equal. It is possible to find indicators that suggest the degree of community capacity for postive self-organisation in absence of the state.

 
At 12:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the end we have a state because there must be a refuge for those who cannot wield enough physical force to protect themselves or their property from violation by those who would simply do what they will. There aren't many such creatures, but there are enough to birth the monster we know as 'government'. Perhaps god could set it all right, but if he exists, he's clearly chosen to leave us to our own devices. Not nice, really.

OC

 

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