How Do You Like Them Apples(tm)?

For most people, the word “anarchy” evokes visions of chaos — disorder characterized by violence and terror — and frankly, we who call ourselves “anarchists” are partially to blame for that. When preaching the gospel of “the stateless society,” we emphasize the former and all but ignore the latter. Our criticisms of the state have the wheel; the alternatives are left to lounge in the back seat listening to their iPodsTM and passing the time.

There’s a ready-made excuse for this: Plausible alternatives to the state are many and varied. Remove the yoke of government from society’s neck and who knows what might follow? But excuses are like … well, you know. Everybody’s got one and they all stink. It’s entirely understandable for the skeptic to assume, in the absence of persuasive arguments to the contrary, that anarchy is Pandora’s Box, not a WonkaTM Bar wrapped in a golden ticket.

History is only partially helpful in envisioning the stateless society. Previous and current such societies fall into two general types: Primitive societies which few would today wish to live in (ancient Iceland, for example), and modern “failed states” surrounded by, and under constant assault from, existing states (Somalia and Afghanistan, to name two).

These examples aren’t entirely without value. Betwixt and between invasions and attempted impositions of government, Somalian “kritarchy” has proven remarkably resilient and adaptive. The Somali standard of living goes up in “hockey stick” fashion between rounds of fighting off the Ethiopians, the Americans and the Islamists. And Afghanistan seems to be once again answering the question of whether or not a stateless society can remain stateless in the face of external threats (unless you consider a “government” which controls a few city blocks in Kabul and some scattered police outposts, and that only with the aid of a multi-national occupation force, to be a viable state).

Alas, this isn’t enough. Most people don’t want to live in Somalia or Afghanistan. They want peace, freedom, prosperity, safety, security, stability and progress — and who can blame them? Proving that the state offers none of these things (or, rather, offers a little of each at the expense of the others) is only the first step. Without further bona fides, anarchy remains a pig in a poke.

I’m obviously not going to make the case for anarchy, at least to the specifications above, in one 1000-word op-ed piece. But I’m going to take a stab at one little piece of it, and that piece is “progress.” I have in mind a common household appliance, available in government and anarchist versions, and I’d like to compare them. That appliance is the one I’m writing this piece on, and that you’ll soon be reading it on: The computer.

Government can rightfully claim a share of credit for the computer’s invention. The first general-purpose electronic computer was ENIAC (“Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer”), developed for the US military and used for calculations in designing the hydrogen bomb. ENIAC, unveiled shortly after the end of World War II, was a descendant of other intensive military efforts at “information processing.” It cost half a million dollars in 1946, the equivalent of about $5.5 million today.

The history of computing from ENIAC until the mid-1970s was: High prices, slow progress. Computers were the domain of Big Government and Big Business. They were widely disdained as tools of bureaucracy, and the punch cards they used for “batch processing” became the visual symbol perhaps commonly most associated with the folding, spindling and mutilating of the individual.

Out on the fringes, though — out in that anarchic no-man’s land of geekdom — interesting things were going on. The history is too convoluted to get into here (if you’re interested, I highly recommend Steven Levy’s book Hackers), but by the late 60s and early 70s, kids and hobbyists were turning the computer into something that Big Government and Big Business not only couldn’t imagine, but couldn’t imagine a use for.

In a suburban California garage in 1976, two hobbyists created a machine far more powerful than ENIAC — without a dime of government money or a dollop of government supervision — and sold it at retail for $666.66 (about $2500 in 2009 dollars). When Steve Wozniak presented the Apple I computer to his “day job” employers at Hewlett Packard, they weren’t interested. When the existence of the “personal computer” was brought to the attention of IBM executives, they couldn’t see a market for it.

Government, at great expense and in plodding fashion, built a room-size machine to calculate artillery firing tables. Unfettered (by disposition on their part and by accident on government’s part) individuals like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, following their dreams, created a desktop machine to do, well, pretty much anything its users could think of doing. They also created a new industry which now employs millions (many of them at the bureaucratic dinosaur companies which laughed at the “personal computer” until it visibly became no laughing matter) … and, in effect ushered in a new era of history without using violence to do so.

All of which may seem a rather convoluted argument for anarchy, until you consider three propositions which I believe it speaks to:

First, government’s vision is narrow. When it innovates, as it occasionally does, it does so for its own extremely narrow purposes, at the expense of others who may or may not be willing to bear that expense.

Secondly, the aggregate vision of free individuals is broad. They innovate continuously, for a variety of self-chosen purposes, and when they do so it is to the benefit of others who willingly bear the expense of purchasing their products and services.

Third, government innovation and individual innovation demand the same resources. The money government takes from you to buy itself the latest descendant of ENIAC is money you can’t spend to buy yourself the latest descendant of Apple I.

Government inhibits useful innovation by doing a poor job itself, and by confiscating resources which others would make better use of. If your goal is progress, dump the state.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory