Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The radical writ

I find myself responding at length to Robert Bell over at Libertopia fairly often. I should probably explain why: On many blogs, I confine myself to kibitzing in the "comment" form. Bell's blog, however, is a cut above in one particular respect, that being that he spends a lot of time dealing with my favorite issue: the state versus anarchy. He's a minarchist, but he doesn't seem to want to cut off that discussion, and therefore I'm like as not to continue replying at blog- instead of comment-length and try to push some traffic his way to keep that discussion going.

So, to Robert's latest post (all quotes from therein unless otherwise noted):

"While I have a great deal of respect for 'abolitionists' and have no use for a bloated, overbearing state, I think that anarchists fail to articulate a feasible alternative."

I could argue that: The body of anarchist literature of all types is quite extensive. As a confirmed anarchist myself, I know that I've never been able to do more than dip a small bucket into the well of the classics, let alone keep up with the current literature. Even if we exclude that portion of the anarchist corpus which is both purely theoretical and consists more of indictments of the state than of proposed practices, there's a huge pile of "articulated alternatives" which any given reader may find more or less feasible. So let's discuss a few of the ones I've personally found important (some available on the Internet at no cost, some in book form).

I usually like to point people first to L. Neil Smith's essay on "pizzacracy," Majoritarianism versus Unanimous Consent, because the first objection to anarchism seems to be that people can't get along without some external entity riding herd on them. Smith establishes, irrefutably, that that's just not so. People get along all the time, every day, everywhere. Life is anarchy in action. The state is something which exists only in the interstices between normal situations -- places where the perception is that this getting along breaks down. Whether that perception is even correct or not is an open question -- and once the state has filled those interstices, it tends to try to spill over into every other area of life, too.

Are the institutions which facilitate getting along, or even force people to get along, limited to the mechanisms of the state? I'd hold that the answer is clearly "no," and as an example of work dedicated to establishing that answer as fact, I'll simply point to the work of David D. Friedman. Much, perhaps most, of it is available on his web site. Friedman has closely examined how human institutions of law can develop -- have developed -- in market, rather than state-imposed, situations.

On the print side, I can't recommend Bob Murphy's Chaos Theory highly enough. It's a short book, consisting of two essays -- one on private law, the other on private defense.

Of course, there's a limit to how many authors and volumes I can cover in a blog post. For more in-depth consideration of "anarchy as a feasible alternative," check out The Molinari Institute ... and stand by for another "feasible alternative" project coming soon, the Center for a Stateless Society.

My suspicion is that Bell is not so much looking for a "feasible" alternative as one that strikes him, personally and subjectively, as credible. I believe that he's missing the anarchist forest because he's seeing leaves that aren't there on the state tree.

"Suppose that a majority of Americans, acting against type, decided that the state had outlived its usefulness," says Bell. "Further, suppose that all elected officials, also acting contrary to their nature, freely relinquished power, thereby dissolving the government. The country would then be populated by fully emancipated individuals, in addition to all of the newly released convicts from each and every prison and jail in the land. And they all lived happily ever after?"

Well, no. I don't expect the abolition of the state to result in lions lying down with lambs, manna falling from heaven and Fox convincing Chris Carter to deliver five more seasons of X Files. Even to the extent that anarchism is utopian (and yes, to some extent it must be -- see Smith's Unanimous Consent and the Utopian Vision for why), it's not some kind of papier-mache perfection.

If the state had to pass the same test for "feasibility" as anarchism, Bell would find it a failure as well. In case nobody's noticed, the state hasn't eliminated violations of rights -- or proven equitable in remedying them. It hasn't eliminated crime, it hasn't eliminated poverty, it hasn't eliminated inequality, it hasn't eliminated war, it hasn't eliminated violence, it hasn't eliminated any social problem, and in many cases it has exacerbated or even embodied those problems. So to object to anarchism on the basis that it can't wave some sort of magic black flag and make all the bad things go away does not constitute a reasonable argument in favor of the state. It's not like anarchists are asking people to give up something that's been successful in favor of something that hasn't been tested. The whole point of anarchism is that the state hasn't succeeded in addressing human problems and that it has often been the cause, or at least a cause, of those problems.

Bell: "Who or what is to be the final arbiter of inter-personal disputes? Is one to assume that no faction would ever assert control and devise various regulations that favor a sub-set to the detriment of others? Admittedly, the US government is guilty of much of this, but to a lesser degree than many other countries. The reality is that states invariably arise to fill a power vacuum … it's better to suffer the devil we know …"

I disagree, vehemently. So did someone else who probably carries more freight with readers than I do:

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. -- Tom Paine, Common Sense

It is possible, even likely, that society will never achieve perfection and harmony ... but just because life's going to include miseries, that's no reason heighten those miseries by enshrining them in permanent, monopolistic form. Better to face the possibility of devils we don't know than to interminably entertain and humor the devils we do.

The difference between Paine and the anarchists is that, after more than 200 years of the experiment he helped launch, we conclude that he was in error. Government (or, more precisely, the state), even in its best state, is not a necessary evil, but an unnecessary evil. It doesn't solve the problems it purports to solve. It often makes those problems worse -- and it creates new problems, to boot.

"The only state that I support, albeit reluctantly, is an impartial referee to 'call foul' only when the natural rights of an individual have been infringed by another," says Bell, and that is the rub: He regards anarchy as a non-feasible, imaginary construct -- and I regard his mythical "impartial referee state" as exactly the same kind of construct. No state such as that envisioned by Bell exists on the face of this earth. No state such as that envisioned by Bell ever has existed on the face of this earth -- and anyone who believes otherwise need only Google the phrase "Whiskey Rebellion" to figure out just how dry the ink was on the Bill of Rights before Washington used it as toilet paper.

The state, as we know it, has had 400 years to prove its efficacy with respect to the tasks which Bell considers important. It has utterly and invariably failed to do so. Bell argues that anarchists have not articulated a feasible alternative. While I disagree, the more important question is "alternative to what?"

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