The Buck Never Stops

Anarchy, or “the state of nature” as it was often referred to in the past, is a way of living that requires responsibility from those living in it.  This requirement, however, is very often misunderstood.  This misunderstanding tends to lead to the Hobbesean argument that, since people are irresponsible by nature, Anarchy can never “work.”  I would like to know more precisely what some of those people mean by it “working” or “not working,” but let’s assume for the moment that by “work” they mean “allow us to live peacefully and harmoniously.”

Anarchy does not depend on people behaving responsibly.  Anarchy depends on nothing except the understanding that no one has a legitimate claim to any power that anyone else doesn’t have.  It’s more the case that Anarchy imposes responsibility on people.  This imposition is not understood or acknowledged by most statists.  If people behave badly in an anarchist society, they are the ones who will ultimately suffer most.  This may seem counter-intuitive to those of us who grew up and live in a society whose edges are delineated by the state, but it is precisely the state which allows the irresponsible to get away with their irresponsibility.

One way in which this is so is in the nature of centralized enforcement.  The state takes upon itself the function of meting out justice and reward.  The more it does so, the more complex its task becomes and, thusly, less efficient.  The police (or what passes for the “punishing authority” in a particular situation) cannot be everywhere at once, looking in every nook and cranny of the world for evildoers.

Ironically, it is the worst of the evildoers that are the most equipped to evade detection and capture.  As that old cliché goes, if we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns.  To take it a bit further, the more you outlaw guns, the more of an outlaw those who still have guns will be.  The obvious real-world example is the so-called “war on drugs”.  Only the most violent and clever drug dealers will survive, the more the government succeeds in cracking down on drugs.  A less obvious example is the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  As antibiotics become stronger, every bacterial strain that survives ends up more and more resistant to antibiotics.

Another way is in the corruption of the state itself.  The ability to mete out justice is precisely attractive to the unjust because it is the perfect way to evade it.  Even if you started with a government of angels, in a few generations it would become a government of devils.  Their primary motive is to use this power to evade responsibility and thrive nonetheless.  Our entire corporate economy is predicated on just this sort of evasion of responsibility, quite openly and explicitly.  Mechanisms of interlocking debt and selective enforcement establish an elite who are “too big to fail”, while pushing their burdens onto those who cannot enlist the state to their advantage.  When someone in the government does do something horribly irresponsible and gets caught, some spokesman will come out on television and say something like “Mistakes were made”.  That line right there, tells you all you need to know about the mindset of the state. Everyone by now has heard stories of police who abuse their power and suffer nothing more than a paid vacation and possibly their name in the paper.  These stories are more commonplace than one might think.  Radley Balko’s blog, The Agitator, has done a good job of collecting and documenting these stories.

For a more recent example, look at the recent Wikileaks “controversy”.  The US government would like to spin the story that they are trying to protect lives by keeping all this information under wraps, but if you look at what is coming out, they are really just trying to evade responsibility for their actions.  Some of this stuff has no specific information that could be used to hurt anyone, but is very embarrassing for the US government.  Wikileaks has cleverly even asked the US to go over their documents and “redact” anything that has specific information that could hurt someone.  This of course was refused; because that would entail admitting that some of those documents had no good reason to be classified.

Beyond all that, even in its ideal form the Hobbesean statist idea is putting the cart before the horse.  It says “People are irresponsible; therefore we shall institute a state which can take on ‘responsibility’ for them.”  With this guiding attitude, there is no incentive for anyone to take on any additional responsibility, since, on the one hand doing so will not reward them much compared to what they risk and not doing so will not expose them to much, if any, danger.  It is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.  It creates a system of avoidance, where people become more concerned with evading punishment than seeking reward.  And in the final stages of this madness, the state begins to punish people for taking responsibility for their own lives, thus creating the perfect feedback loop into apathy and slavery.  “It’s not my job.”  Or the famous Ebenezer Scrooge line “The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor then?”

In an anarchist society this is not so.  No one may evade the consequences of their actions, unless the mercy of their neighbors allows such.  To be sure, here and there, a bit of it may slip away through the cracks, but a systematic pattern of irresponsibility cannot exist in anarchy.

One reason for this is that it is the state of nature that determines what counts as responsibility in the first place.   For an example, if there’s a person who doesn’t seem to do very much, makes silly impractical decisions, fails to live up to their agreements, and yet, this person manages to scrape by in an anarchist community, there must be some reason they put up with it.  Maybe he’s a genius engineer who manages to build stuff that is so awesome, that people will put up with his other quirks.  Maybe he’s really entertaining to be around (the Dude from the Big Lebowski comes to mind).  But whatever it is, he’s responsible enough in context in order to survive.  In the end, scarcity itself imposes certain limits.  A society of Dudes wouldn’t last very long, nor would a society of thieves, without a central authority who can protect them from the consequences of their actions by shifting the consequences onto someone else (assuming there was someone else to exploit).  But however we the people decide to organize ourselves, we will have to be responsible for ourselves and each other without any external “authority figure” to pin the blame on, or to give credit to, or to appeal to.

A Hobbesian might claim that what I’ve said is true, yet people are incorrigibly irresponsible nonetheless and will insanely and suicidally misbehave even in the face of their impending doom.  In fact maybe they will not recognize that doom in the first place, even with all of the signs pointing to it.  In that case, if that is true, no attempt to establish a state will help one bit.  If people do not respond to incentives, they will not respond to the incentives added by a state.  Because that’s what a state does, in practical terms, it shifts incentives.  The purpose of punishment and policing is to create a deterrent, or a set of behavioral incentives that will change the behavior of people.  If people don’t respond to incentives, then the state can’t improve the situation.

We know from practical experience that people do respond to incentives.  If they didn’t, simple robbery would never work, or it would work so randomly that it would never have developed as a recognizable form of behavior.   But if people do respond to incentives, then there is no need for a state.   The people themselves can police themselves.

To claim that large scale irresponsibility and anarchy can co-exist, is to claim that there is a set of values that make up responsibility that is external to the values of people at large, and in contradiction to the laws of nature.  It is an attempt to impose a specific, preferred code of behavior on people that don’t share that code with you.  In short, it’s tyranny.

As I’ve outlined above, even if you feel justified in your particular “benevolent tyranny” it won’t do what you want it to do.  And if your code is contradictory to scarcity, then not only is it tyranny, but it is hardly benevolent, because someone will have to pay for everyone whom you shield from the consequences of their actions.  In fact it is the more corrupt and flexible forms of tyranny that have survived, because they are able to bend to the laws of nature and the will of the people, when they have to.  A rigid idealistic state that was contrary to human desires would fold up in a few years (and if it’s not contrary to human desires, it’s unnecessary).   So if you’re a statist, and you’re a benevolent statist, you’re just making your own system more unstable, the more you clean it up.

In the end it’s about us, our values, the laws of nature, and our ongoing struggle against scarcity.  There’s nothing in that situation that a centralized authority can add to a society, but much that it can take away.  A state is only good for shielding people from responsibility, which implies punishing responsible people, shifting the costs of irresponsibility onto them.  The state is either unnecessary or evil, or both.

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