Sunday, June 8, 2008

I am an anarchist, here's why

While I still have a large anarchist's standard library reading deficit (I have read zero Spooner, Tucker, Thoreau, etc.), I am quite convinced that anarchy is the correct global organizational principle.

Let me clear away the stereotypes. I am not an angry teenager, I have a career, I am married and I have children. I do not want chaos, I want my children and grandchildren to live in the best of all realistically possible worlds. I am not emotionally maladjusted, I have a normal relationship with my parents, I don't have a problem with authority, having only been fired once (for love!) and my most serious run-ins with the state have been speeding tickets (none in the last five years). I am not an atheist, I believe in God and I am deeply religious.

The 2000 Presidential election was the first time I was old enough to vote and, as a good Republican, I cast my vote for W. I was raised a small-government conservative and I believed that the Republican party genuinely stood for small-government conservatism since that had been its platform since at least the time of Ronald Reagan. In the eight years which have passed since I first voted, I have seen Federal spending balloon to unprecedented heights. For six years, Republicans controlled both Congress and the Presidency. The Republicans broke record after record for fastest budget growth, largest total Federal budget ever and so on. It became painfully obvious that the Republican Party was using the same recipe the Democrats had used to hold Congress for nearly forty years before 1994: buy the incumbency. But if the party of small government used exactly the same tactics as the Democrat party once they obtained power, instead of using their power to scale back the Federal government, decentralize and delegate power back to the states and so on, then neither party represented small government. The idea of a small government party was a myth created by Republicans to obtain power in the first place. That is, the Republican party talked about small government only because they knew there were a lot of disaffected folks out there who wanted smaller government who would vote for anyone who appeared to be in favor of scaling back government.

Then it struck me that it was a matter of course. Why does someone go into politics except to govern? And once power has been achieved, by whatever means, what incentive is there to scale back one's own authority? Granted, such principled people have existed, for example, George Washington demonstrably chose less power than he could have had. By contrast, Franklin D. Roosevelt rode his wave of popularity to a lifelong Presidency (think about it). The vast majority of people, if given a groundswell of popular fervor like that which greeted Washington and FDR during their Presidencies would have made the same choice as FDR - ride it out for as long as it lasts. Every generation, there may be a Washington or two out there but those people would never choose to go into politics because, for the politician, politics is about self-aggrandisement, which is repulsive to the rare Washingtonian personality. We all like to imagine that, given the choice, we would choose like Washington, not FDR but this is just a symptom of our own narcissism. We love to flatter ourselves on how selfless, giving, and others-oriented we are. When you look at the historical record, and how people actually choose when really faced with the choice between power or self-restraint, the choice, with extremely rare exceptions, is power.

Sometime before Christmas last year, I was at Barnes & Noble and I happened to be looking at the discount books. I noticed a pile of political books and, since I fancy myself a philosopher of religion, politics, etc. I gravitated towards it. One book, Basic Economics, caught my eye both because I had been thinking I needed to better understand how the economy works, and because I noticed its author was Thomas Sowell, who I had heard interviewed on radio and TV on several occasions. I had been impressed with his concise reasoning and no bullshit mentality. I bought the book, hurried home, and started reading voraciously.

As I began reading, I began to have my mind blown by the simplicity and far-reaching consequences of economic philosophy. Sowell's book has no math equations and does not present a mathematical case for a particular school of economics. Rather, his book makes philosophical arguments about human behavior. The first principle he introduced which thoroughly rewired my way of thinking was this: People tend to do more for their own benefit than for the benefit of others. I have since run into this principle in many different forms. Milton Friedman in an old television interview I saw on YouTube says it this way, People never take care of the property of others as well as they take care of their own property. Or, stated another way (David Friedman, Milton Friedman's son): People have goals and tend to make the choice among the alternatives facing them which best achieves those goals. When these principles are consistently applied to all people - whether police, government bureaucrats, elected officials, charity workers, clergy or business owners - the change in one's perspective is revolutionary. I would go so far as to say that, despite finishing a bachelor's degree in computer engineering, I had not really learned to think critically until I began studying economics. I had never learned to analyze the "irrational" choices that other people make which I would not have made in their circumstances. I assigned the "crazy" actions of other people to wickedness, stupidity, ignorance, insanity, corruption or any other number of human maladies. While human behavior is not completely predictable, there are predictable elements to it. By assigning the choices which people make that I don't understand to irrationality, I was giving up and failing to think critically about why, really why they make the choices they do.

I think part of the reason for this sloppy thinking is what I call the myth of vulgar altruism. That is, we each like to believe that we are George Washingtons, not FDRs. We each like to believe we are humble, selfless, self-effacing, giving, altruistic, caring, trustworthy individuals. If such attributes are as rare as George Washingtons are, then we are very special. But since most of us don't fancy ourselves as being that special, we suppose instead that most (good) people are like us: selfless, giving, caring, etc. The reality is that pursuit of self-interest often underlies even our apparently selfless acts. I don't think I really need to belabor the point that much as I know you know what I'm talking about. A biblical example is Jesus's discussion of the Pharisees who make a pretense of giving, but blow a trumpet before doing so to make sure that everyone around sees how good and laudible they are. This is an obviously self-interested act, since it is motivated by the desire to be perceived in a certain way by others. It is the result of a simple cost-benefit analysis: the benefit of being perceived as good by other people exceeds the cost of the money being deposited into the temple treasury. This hardly seems like true self-sacrifice, giving despite pain and real, net loss to oneself. Jumping on a grenade to sacrifice oneself to save the lives of nearby soldiers, on the other hand, is clearly an act of absolute altruism.

But in most of the "selfless" things we do, we are more like the Pharisees than the grenade-smothering soldier. Whether it be to prop up a certain mental self-image or to create a certain perception of selflessness and virtue among others, we usually act in what is our self-interest, despite appearances to the contrary. Common selflessness or vulgar altruism is simply a myth which we all agree to perpetrate to maintain an artificially inflated self-image of virtue.

This is all rather cynical, of course. Is no one virtuous, is no one truly selfless? Of course people exhibit real virtue, real selflessness, but I think the bar is higher than we like to imagine. Jesus said, "Love your neighbor as yourself." I like to read this as "Love your neighbor as selfishly as you love yourself." What Jesus is calling for in the second greatest commandment is real altruism, that utter emptying of one's self-interest to the point of offering yourself to be consumed by the selfishness of your neighbor. The idea that you can just go to church every Sunday and achieve this kind of morality is utter hogwash. Maybe the Church needs its own Medal of Honor to give Christians a sense of what real sacrifice means. There are a few people out there who really do it. The rest of us are just pretending.

To bring this back to the Republican party, I began to think critically about why government had grown more under the Republicans than it had under the Democrats when a vital component of the Republican platform had been to scale back government once they attained power. 9/11 is no excuse for the overall budget growth we've seen. The reason, really, is simple: Both Democrats and Republicans have an interest in increasing the size of government. The difference between them is which government programs they champion. That's it. Since people tend to act more in their own interest (political gain) than in the interests of others (constituency), it is inevitable that elected leaders - whether R or D - will always increase the size and scope of government.

That's when I realized that there is no hope for limited government. The Libertarian Party and other independents sit on the sidelines waiting for the "some day" when Americans start voting for something other than Republicans or Democrats, but it was clear many years ago that this is futile. There is no political solution to the problem of political government. Government, by virtue of the fact that there is no force which may oppose it, always grows.

So, I began to think about what if there were no government. What would happen? Would chaos ensue? Would we have "nature red in tooth and claw" or the all-against-all jungle predicted by Hobbes? I think the answer, given sufficient qualification, is no. I will explore why I think the answer is "no" in future blog posts, as this post is already too long.

I will try, however, to compress into one sentence the basic reason why it is possible to imagine a realistic (not idealistic), ordered anarchy. The reason is this: The free market can provide all the services which government currently provides to maintain peace, law, order, safety and the public welfare at a lower cost, better quality or both by inducing organizations which perform these services to compete with one another under the constraint of profitability.

Books have been written to explain how this can be achieved, what the limitations are and, most importantly, how to get there from here. I have not yet even begun to put a dent in those books but, as I learn along the way, I intend to regurgitate what I have learned - along with my own interpretations and improvisations - here. I learn by explaining, so explaining things (on a forum, blog, in conversation, etc.) helps cement ideas and concepts in my mind. So, I'm not really wasting time on this blog, I'm actually acting in my own self-interest, after all!

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