August 14, 2008
art: Markus Vesper
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 received.
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 equally good.
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 whatsoever.
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 I prefer.
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 place?
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 mystery bare.
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 baby.
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 question…
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 upon?
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 rather abolished.
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 reformed.
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…
This is Part 5 of the free book ‘Everyday Anarchy,’ available at www.freedomainradio.com/free
Stefan Molyneux is the host of Freedomain Radio, the most popular philosophical podcast on the Internet, and a Top 10 Finalist in the 2007 Podcast Awards. He is the author of Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, On Truth: The Tyranny of Illusion, and the novel The God of Atheists.
From: Strike the Root