Tuesday, March 12, 2013

a dose of anarchism

I think the biggest reason I stopped being an anarchist (after identifying as such for my four years in university) was sheer laziness. Despite loving to write and talk about political philosophy, I could only take so much "B-but, who would provide roads/schools/fire departments/police/space programs/killer drones??" It really wears one down.

So it was a delightful blast from the past to read the lead essay in the current Cato Unbound forum by Michael Huemer. I've linked to Huemer before for his wonderful essay arguing that migration is a human right. The new essay at Cato Unbound is a teaser for his recently published book The Problem of Political Authority, which is currently nestling in my queue. He argues in the essay that all the arguments for the legitimacy of government authority fall short. When I was an anarchist, it was for exactly these reasons. I still find these arguments against government legitimacy compelling. Here are some disconnected highlights.

[T]hose who kill large numbers of people to bring about some political change are dubbed “terrorists” and are widely condemned, regardless of whether their goals are desirable . . . unless they work for a government, in which case they are called “soldiers” and may be praised as heroes. When an individual is forced to work for someone else, this is called “forced labor” or “slavery” and is widely considered unjust . . . unless it is imposed by a government, in which case it may be called “conscription,” “national service,” or “jury duty.” 
(“If you don’t want a government, simply move to Antarctica!”) Very briefly, the problem with this suggestion is that it presupposes that the state owns all the territory over which it claims jurisdiction, or that for some other reason it has the right to exclude people from that area. But there is no way to establish such a right on the part of the state, unless one has already shown that the state has legitimate authority. This therefore cannot be presupposed in an argument designed to establish the state’s authority. 
Imagine that someone proposed that the key to establishing social justice and restraining corporate greed was to establish a very large corporation, much larger than any corporation hitherto known—one with revenues in the trillions of dollars. A corporation that held a monopoly on some extremely important market within our society. And used its monopoly in that market to extend its control into other markets. And hired men with guns to force customers to buy its product at whatever price it chose. And periodically bombed the employees and customers of corporations in other countries. By what theory would we predict that this corporation, above all others, could be trusted to serve our interests and to protect us both from criminals and from all the other corporations? If someone proposed to establish a corporation like this, would your trepidation be assuaged the moment you learned that every adult would be issued one share of stock in this corporation, entitling them to vote for members of the board of directors?

Anarcho-capitalist critiques like this all boil down to the notions that (1) any non-government entity who behaved in the ways governments routinely behave would be regarded with moral horror, (2) there's no compelling reason to think that rights violations by governmental actors should be measured by a different ethical metric than rights violations by non-governmental actors, and (3) even if there were a reason to judge them differently, there is no non-arbitrary way to choose who gets to become a member of this ethically unbounded institution.

I find it hard to articulate why I'm not an anarchist. Perhaps in some ways I still am. I do think that an agent of the state is morally responsible for their actions performed for the state. I don't think an election confers any more legitimate authority than emergence from a royal womb. At the same time, I think there's good reason to think the Leviathan does lessen violence between its subjects. A government is also an effective way to deal with collective action problems, especially those arising on the scale of modern populations. I think the benefits outweigh the costs, even though I'm not particularly a utilitarian.

And anarchism has its own contradictions. The whole notion of private property that animates so many anarcho-capitalists has about as much justification as political authority. And the world itself is already anarchic: there is no one world government (this should come as a relief to right wing conspiracy enthusiasts). So it seems pretty obvious by virtue of example that anarchy is liable to degrade into territorial gangs that rule by force. The honest anarchist faces a nasty bullet to bite in that none of the best places in the world to live can at all be characterized as anarchic, minarchic, or having a weak government. I doubt many anarchists would willingly trade living in one of the modern liberal democracies for any exotic anarchy found in history (medieval Iceland or wherever). Finally, the prohibition against coercion at the heart of anarchism is a universal acid that can dissolve many more human interactions and institutions than just the government: there is no consent to be born, for example, and childhood is an experience of profound coercion, even in the most enlightened families.

So, I'm (still, maybe) an anarchist in that I do not respect the authority of any government in a pretty fundamental way, for all the reasons you can read about from Huemer. But I'd mostly like us all to keep carrying on as if our governments did have some kind of authority. I would also like to have my cake and eat it too. When dusting off all my old anarchist thoughts for this post, I noticed a parallel with religion/atheism, and not the old Neither Gods Nor Masters parallel that freethinkers go on about. There is the argument that religion has to have provided some evolutionary advantage given its ubiquity and costliness. Whether or not religion is still necessary for group cohesion or whatever, it probably was at some stage of human development. But at no point was any religion ever true in any prosaic sense. Likewise, political authority may be illegitimate but still useful.

My recent tolerance toward religion provides another parallel. I've come to think it's quite a bit more important for religion to be benign than for it to cease altogether. I'm okay with religion sticking around if we get to keep the feel-good stuff like holidays and community and a metaphorical platform for discussing moral ideas, but we get rid of all the out-group hostility and outdated cultural mores. And it's even better if all the logically impossible beliefs are only nudge-and-wink beliefs. Modern theistic belief systems are evolving, at least in the West, to accommodate knowledge from atheistic science and secular Enlightenment reasoning.

Maybe something similar can be hoped for in the realm of political philosophy: a theory of a government that is defanged by some basic insights from anarchism, where government is granted some authority to do warm and fuzzy things like enforcing traffic laws and providing a social safety net while we play along, smiling and nodding at the mostly harmless chicanery. But the inherent absurdity of political authority would be close enough to the surface of consciousness that a government would be inhibited from doing substantial evil. Today, most of us treat IRS employees as civil servant bureaucrats doing their fairly mundane jobs. Meanwhile we lionize soldiers and insist on shielding them from the criticism we might be applying to whatever wars they are participating in. And we expect politicians to behave basely; indeed the clever among us excuse them because "they're only doing what they have to do to get (re)elected," especially when they're on our team.

With a little influence from our anarchist and anarcho-curious friends, more mainstream folks would probably continue to treat the tax collectors about as well as they treat employees of the DMV. The anarchist's sanity check "What if my neighbor demanded under veiled threats my money to build a school?" wouldn't get much traction because hey--"Someone's gotta build a school and those anarchists take themselves too seriously anyway." Taxes aren't really extracted by gun-waving government goons in most cases; they're collected from a populace participating in a civic norm, as close to tipping as to robbery. Most people are not visualizing shouting gunmen kicking down their front door and offing the family pet when they're figuring out their taxes.

But with any luck, the politically mainstream would start to treat actually violent policies (wars, targeted killings, American-style mass incarceration, and the like) with a bit more skepticism. The anarchist's sanity check "What if my neighbor butchered a bunch of innocent people the next town over because they were in the vicinity of arguably less innocent people she was aiming at?" carries greater weight because there is no good excuse to kill innocent people.* We would treat police and soldiers as grown-ups capable of making their own informed moral decisions (which eager young military recruits do not realize their actions will quite likely result in the deaths of innocents?). And we would feel at least as much outrage at the politicians advocating human rights violations (again, especially if they're on our team) as we feel when similar crimes are committed by foreign regimes.

The point is that you don't have to buy the whole worldview to get something useful out of anarchism. Admittedly, I probably have the cart before the horse in this post. We would have an easier time holding the politically powerful morally accountable for their crimes if we first regarded their victims, usually the marginalized members of society, as worthy of our full moral consideration.

*outside of far-fetched philosophers' thought experiments