Saturday, December 12, 2009

Society, the State, and the Government

'Nature abhors a vacuum.'

-- Francois Rabelais, 1494-1553

One of the most misused words in the English language is 'statism.'

Merriam-Webster defines the word as meaning 'concentration of economic controls and planning in the hands of a highly centralized government often extending to government ownership of industry.' They date the word to 1919 and I am willing to accept their date and definition.

In recent years, much like the words 'Communism' and 'socialism' (which also have very specific dictionary meanings), self-proclaimed libertarians have used the word to mean 'anything the government does that I personally dislike.' It is certainly perfectly acceptable to dislike action taken by the government (something many conservatives forget when it comes to liberals, or when they themselves are in power.) It is simply not correct to use the word 'statism' to describe actions that fall outside its proper definition. Nor is it correct to use 'statism' to describe the belief that government should exist at all or should take effort to solve social problems. There are a lot more words for this, all dependent on context.

If one wishes to follow the correct dictionary definition of 'statism', then I don't believe there are many 'statists' in the United States of America at all. Nor, for that matter, do I believe there are many in most of the Western world. Even the most aggrieved socialists, most critical of capitalism, believe to some degree in capitalism and markets and do not believe the government should control or centrally plan the entire economy. Many of the most aggrieved socialists are philosophical anarchists who see the state and its sponsorship of corporate power as the problem.

I would like to be a philosophical anarchist. The problem is that government isn't going anywhere. It is inevitable and inescapable. If we successfully dismantled the United States government from top to bottom today then the governments of each of the fifty states would successfully Balkanize into fifty little countries. Some of them might combine to form larger associations on the pattern of the very government recently dis-established. If we dismantled the state governments from the ground up as well, we'd still have all that local government. Cities, counties, and townships would govern themselves as separate entities or federate into larger states on their own. The latter is highly likley, as that's the whole point: cities and fuedal counties discovered that they could better manage their affairs and protect their security by combining their interests under a central authority that could respond in emergencies.

I'll even go one further. Let's say we succeeded in completely dismantling local government on top of everything else. Everyone looks after themselves as best they can, gets together in community organizations to look after themselves collectively as best they can, or pays someone to provide them with protection. The former and latter system, which today is called anarcho-capitalism, has been tried before. During the Dark Ages they called it 'feudalism.' Everyone either protected themselves or paid someone else to protect them. Ultimately, the people providing protection became the government. They had the power to do so and there was no one with equal power to stop them. The middle option, community collectives in which freemen combined to defend themselves and each other against the feudal protection racket, is frequently lauded by anarcho-socialists. Ultimately, as the protection racket got bigger and stronger and more united, cities had to all with a bigger mobster, the king, to survive.

So modern government, in its first infantile throes, was born.

Break down everything libertarians and anarchists despise in modern government, dispose of the state entirely, and you simply create an environment for feudalism to make conditions so difficult that government becomes necessary all over again.

Of course, there is one notable difference between the Dark Ages and today. We have corporations with entrenched money and power. We complain about the government being in corporate pockets, with some degree of justification in many cases, but with no government at all we'd have the pleasure of watching corporations build the kind of government and society they wanted all around us with no recourse at all. Their government would be a lot less democratic and participatory than the one we have now, and a lot less responsive to the needs of society. It would be a 'one dollar, one vote' democracy. As bad as things are now, that would be much worse.

What society needs to do is take control of government. Government needs to cease to be a means of state control over society and become a means of societal control over the state. The state came into being in order to serve specific societal needs. These include (but are not limited to) public safety, general welfare, and (whether conservatives like it or not) the redistribution of wealth through the various strata of society in order to attempt to secure a basic standard for the quality of life. The only way this will happen is if people act. Responsible and informed voters must make responsible and informed decisions for the genuine public good, rather than base their decisions on personal prejudices against their neighbors or their desire to pay lower taxes. Democratic society must be an educated society. This does not mean everyone needs reams of paper proving their formal education. It means that everyone needs to be willing to take responsibility for educating themselves for their entire life regardless of their level of formal education.

It also means that society needs to reject ignorance as a badge of honor and embrace the fact that there are things we do not know... and seek to learn what we do not know. We should be proud of what we learn, not huddle in the dark and fear the sounds from outside. The only way this will happen is if we take control of our political environment. Government must become society's servant.

This is all very radical and extremely difficult.

Unfortunately, we've already gone through far too many years of the alternative.

Who's happy with what we've got now?


PirateFriedman said...

Your attempt to draw an equivalency between feudalism and anarcho-capitalism shows you're ill informed.

The fact is that a security industry could form along the lines of feudalism, or democracy, or dictatorship without violating anyone's rights if they formed agreements to provide security to each individual.

However, every new generation would bring new adults. The security industry would need to form new security agreements with each new adults, something no feudalist society ever did.

This is a great starting point for learning about anarcho-capitalism:


Pirate Rothbard

The Eclectic Geek said...

'However, every new generation would bring new adults. The security industry would need to form new security agreements with each new adults, something no feudalist society ever did.'

This is simply historically incorrect.

First of all, the whole feudal system was based on the principle of homage: each new adult renewed their agreement with their overlord personally. This began as the negotiation of what compensation the individual would pay for protection and evolved over time into a ceremonial renewal of previous agreements between the previous generations. Feudal society itself originated in the very process you are describing and serfs, barons, counts, and kings found their place in it because of just such individual agreements.

Second, this same system of forming agreements between a 'security industry' and individual adults was quite prevalent in New York and Chicago in the first half of the 20th Century. It went by the catchy moniker 'Murder, Inc.'

A condescending faith in one's dogma and a link to the cult that keeps one's dogma going is no substitute for a valid argument.

I'm sorry, but it appears you are the one who is ill-informed about a great many things.

PirateFriedman said...

Give me an example of a feudal society that was anarcho-capitalist, give me just one.

You can't because everyone has scoured history looking for one. David Friedman said medieval Iceland came close, that's as good as it gets.

And I'll even allow you to name one organized crime syndicate that was an anarcho-capitalist society. (Meaning they respected property rights and created a society... as in, they got rid of any police presence.

The Eclectic Geek said...

In both your comments about feudalism and your comments about organized crime, you still miss the basic point. It's not about giving you examples of 'anarcho-capitalist society gone wrong' because society and sustained anarchy are incompatible. Conditions of anarchy follow political upheavals like the Fall of the Roman Empire or the end of the colonial era, but they are transitory. Something fills the power vacuum and forms a new 'state.' My criticisms of anarcho-capitalism and anarcho-socialism are based on this fact, rather than criticism of either capitalism OR socialism.

This is not to say there is no room for criticism of both. However, it's not the point. The point is that anarchy is temporary and directly opposed to basic human nature. This is why government evolved in the ancient world and why new forms of government evolved when the ancient forms were obliterated.

Even a successful 'anarchist' society (capitalist OR socialist) would merely be a stepping stone to some new form of government. History shows that the 'security industry' as posited by anarcho-capitalists holds great potential to evolve into just another feudalist system, as based on the origins of the original Western system of feudalism.

PirateFriedman said...


Let's be careful when we use the term "anarchy". For Rothbard it simply means a society where it becomes socially unacceptable to violate people's rights. Meaning there might still be some street crime, but very few would believe that the majority has a right to oppress the minority.

What you are saying is that "a society and sustained respect for people's rights are incompatible." Is that really what you believe? And if that is true, wouldn't it make sense to be a Minarchist-Capitalist, with government kept to a minimum level to ensure stability.

But I don't believe there is an inverse correlation between respect for human and property rights and social stability. Anarcho-capitalism does not create a vacuum because it provides all the basic services that prevent a vacuum from occurring, the most important one being security.

"History shows that the 'security industry' as posited by anarcho-capitalists holds great potential to evolve into just another feudalist system"

Your obsession with feudalism is peculiar.

In anarcho-capitalist society, the security industry could be a for profit corporation, a sole proprietorship or perhaps a one vote per person association. There are no limits on the structure of the organization as long as it respects human and property rights. In my view the corporate model could degenerate into oligarchy or dictatorship, the sole proprietorship could degenerate into monarchy, the one vote association could degenerate into democracy.

I don't see this as a valid argument against a society based on human and property rights. All good societies can change, that is a given. Do you avoid creating a good society because one day that society could change? No, not at all.

Unfortunately, I don't think you are even advocating minarchism. You use the phrase "transforming society". You make it clear that you want to build a society with public safety and general welfare. Rather than attempting to build a stable minimal government, it sounds like you want an oppressive government that goes far beyond minimal property rights violations to fulfill your ideological needs.

The Eclectic Geek said...

'For Rothbard it simply means a society where it becomes socially unacceptable to violate people's rights. '

Rothbard (and the original anarcho-capitalists of the 19th century who preceded him)redefined the word to fit his own prejudices. Most individuals outside a specific and rather small group would not recognize this definition of the word.

I use the word in its least politically charged and most neutral sense: the absence of government. If this is not clear from the context of my writing then I apologize, but I suspect (from the context of your own writing) that you did not misunderstand me.

Because I don't believe you did misunderstand me, you will forgive me if I ignore your childish attempt to build a strawman from my words.

'Your obsession with feudalism is peculiar. '

There's nothing obsessive about it. Feudalism evolved out a state of anarchy left when a massive and centralized state authority ceased to exist. It evolved from the kind of 'security contractors' to which you refer, because there was nothing to stop them from filling the power vacuum. I'm sorry you find this fact inconvenient.

'I don't see this as a valid argument against a society based on human and property rights.'

Human rights and property rights frequently work at cross purposes. This is not to say that property rights or capitalism are evil. They are not inherently evil. However, unfettered and unrestricted property rights combined with a lack of authority will lead those with the greatest concentration of property to seize authority. The rest of society would be unable to stop them.

It's not 'argument against' anything. It's pointing out the fallacies in the central assumption. 'Arguing against' your position would suggest I somehow thought your fantasy was undesirable. This is far from the truth. I find your fantasy very attractive.

However, pointing out why it IS a fantasy is important. Such a society is not sustainable because a power vacuum will always be filled by anyone with the resources to fill it.

As you return to your attempt to build a strawman of my own arguments after this point, there is really noting more to refute accept to repeat the original point:

Some form of government is inevitable. Since some form of government must exist, it is incumbent upon the members of society to make government serve society rather than allow the members of society to serve 'the state.' 'The state' can and should be done away with, if possible, but regardless of the form society takes from that point on there will still be some form of 'government' by which it communicates internally and provides for collective needs.

I understand that you disagree. That is your right, just as it is mine to disagree with you.

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The Eclectic Geek said...

Thanks Jim. Have the info, removing both of your comments now. :)