Human Nature, Violence, Anarchy

Do we need government?

Though many people have already made up their minds, and take it as given that we do, those who are not so sure are called anarchists. Anarchism is a term that is poorly understood. It is not synonymous with chaos. Modern anarchism is the belief that one does not need, and indeed should not have, a government with a monopoly on the use of force to maximise virtue.

Their arguments are simpler than they seem. The fact is, we live most of our lives without being told what to do by the state. We are basically free to choose our friends, lovers, clothing, food, occupations and actions. We are legally prohibited from such acts as theft or murder but most of us would not likely engage in them in any case. However, the basic reason anarchists distrust the state is that they feel no one should be allowed to initiate the use of force against anyone else. Since taxation is forced out of us, taxation is coercion; and all actions taken by an organisation that forces you to pay all its costs are illegitimate. Thus, government begins with violence.

Statists, on the other hand, often argue that, to curb the violent side of human nature, we need a strong state, one capable of imposing its will, at least as arbiter, if not through powerful security forces that necessarily take away our freedom. This view, too, is not without merit. Among those most notably in favour of a strong state was Thomas Hobbes. Writing during the English Civil War, Hobbes believed that what he saw around him was what happened when the state could not impose its will and prevent fighting among the people it governed. His solution was a powerful but ultimately benevolent state to end the violence. Both statist and anarchist positions should be considered when idealistically discussing the type of society we want.

Some anarchist thinkers, including my favourite, Stefan Molyneux, have often brushed aside the claim that mankind is inherently violent. They tend to concede that we could be violent, but that war and other brutality is more a result of indoctrination (excluding the 1% of people who are psychopaths, many of whom delight in violence). They may be right about the effects of indoctrination, that we only kill people we have no prior connection with because propaganda creates enemies, and that violence is shouted into us by drill sergeants. But let us examine a psychologist’s argument.

In one of my favourite books, the Blank Slate, Steven Pinker writes that brutal violence in humans and our ancestors goes back at least 800,000 years. It is part of our nature. No human society knows no violence, but modern societies, with their police forces and militaries, whose torture and war crimes characterise the annual reports of Amnesty International, have far less violence than many more isolated hunter-gatherer groups.

Of course, most anarchists would not want a return to such a way of life. They would not deny the need to minimise violence, simply that there are better ways than law enforcement. But to assume that the government is somehow to blame for most violence in society is misguided. War happens between small societies where everyone has a weapon, just as it does between larger ones where personal weaponry is illegal. It occurs in cultures where mass media (including violent television) consumption is pervasive and where it does not exist. And violence is a fact in societies with poverty and disease and those with effective government-funded social programmes. We are still not clear on the causes of human violence and war, and there is no consensus among social scientists.

Presumably for this reason, anarchists have not yet found (and admittedly, not yet been allowed to test) a solution to natural human violence. Nonetheless, their arguments are compelling. First, as stated above, since government relies on violence, discontinuing one form of violence is worth attempting in order to move in the right direction. Stefan Molyneux argues that violence cannot be used to create virtue, just as rape can never create love. Second, the development that modern anarchists envision is that the involuntary institutions of government be gradually replaced by voluntary ones. Instead of healthcare, education and collective defense into which we are forced, everyone will instead organise themselves and come up with their own solutions. (After all, food is more important than healthcare or education, and yet the free market has no trouble distributing it.) Anarchists alone do not have the solutions, because no one person or organisation could. Third, Stefan’s idea is to create dispute resolution organisations, or DROs, that are like arbiters who hold parties to contracts accountable to each other and use perhaps public shaming when they do not. They would function similar to insurance companies and credit rating agencies, neither of which require government.

A further question is, is our modern, “civilised” society less prone to violence and thus no longer in need of government? This question falls in between the “expanding circle” and the “Hobbesian trap”. When mankind was organised into small bands, our circle, meaning those whom we care about and treat as equals, would be no more than our tribe. Peter Singer describes the expanding circle as the evolution of the consciousness of civilised people toward treating ever greater numbers of people as kin, from the larger community to the nation and now of course to the entire human race. In this environment, war is less likely as the circle expands, because instead of, say, Germans’ seeing the French as a separate race less deserving of respect, they have embraced them as, though perhaps not brothers, partners in improving the world. On the other hand, with no leviathan (to use Hobbes’ word), or powerful state, a Hobbesian trap could arise. There is safety in numbers, and when people feel threatened, they tend to retreat into the groups of their primary sources of identity (eg. the nation). But since neighbours may feel they are outnumbered or outgunned, they are apt to do the same, and may attack preemptively to avoid a more dangerous conflict later. The Yanomamo, an ethnic group in the Amazon with huge kill rates relative to most other groups, obsess over possible invasion by their neighbours, and often engage in preemptive strikes on them. As a result, their neighbours are equally nervous of invasion, prompting them to strike earlier and harder. A government can prevent this trap, as it plays the role of the parent breaking up fighting children–the bigger force prevents serious violence between the smaller ones.

Democratic and despotic governments alike, plus those intent on violently assuming power, killed well over 100m people in the twentieth century. And yet, government is considered a necessity to limit violence. But would those numbers decrease without government? Does the state actually resolve conflicts? Government provides us with some measure of control and order. We have a desire to control, or at least influence, our surroundings. Democracy might be ideal because it gives us the illusion that we are in control, without the responsibility of running a country or an economy. But perhaps we should no longer subscribe to the ideal of democracy. One lesson I took from the movie Fight Club is to stop trying to control everything and just let go.

Which political system optimally solves the violence problem, while giving us everything else we expect? Despotism, where one is jailed just for looking at a gun; anarchy, where the punishment for shooting someone could be anything from being shot oneself to nothing; or democracy, where rights are usually upheld but which still fall prey to Hobbesian traps? If you have already decided, you may be fortunate: people are still debating, and killing each other over, the answer.