Thursday, May 25, 2006

In Government We Trust?

In the comments to my post on the absurdity of voting, my friend Steve said that one of his problems with the idea of a stateless society is that he wouldn’t be able to trust the general public in such a situation. Undoubtedly this is a fairly common sentiment (there are, obviously, not a lot of anarchists in the world). But it immediately brings to my mind a number of pressing questions.

Don’t we basically exist in a stateless society a majority of the time? When you’re doing 55 down a busy two-lane highway aren’t you putting a lot of trust in the drivers of the cars in the opposite lane not to veer into yours? Is the reason they don’t do this because there’s a government? When you go shopping do you not shoplift because you’re afraid of the government, or could it be because of the owner of the store (assuming you’re not simply a decent person, I mean)? This idea that people act “civilly” out of fear of the state is reminiscent of the religious person’s idea that without the prospect of eternal damnation people would simply devolve into sin.

Maybe people in general aren’t trustworthy, but is the answer then to create a state – a centralized monopoly on the use of coercion? How does doing this alleviate the “untrustworthy” problem? How is it that the general public – so unworthy of trust otherwise – suddenly becomes a bunch of saintly experts in sociology and public policy when they step into a voting booth? (Didn’t we already go over that?) How is it that only the “good” people will take the reigns of government (and who gets to define what “good” is?)? Isn’t this an overly optimistic idea? Doesn’t it fly in the face of hundreds of years of historical evidence to the contrary?

Wouldn’t we be better off not giving untrustworthy people a mechanism by which they can take advantage of the rest of us?


steve said...

Again, point well made. It would be an interesting experiment. Who knows, maybe it really could work better than what we're experiencing now. For some reason I just envision this dreadful scenario where people start forming all these tiny, Lord of the Flies like mini-governments. I guess I'm wondering if it really is in our human nature to not have a leader--a president, a dictator, a king, or whatever you want to call it. Is it inevitable that we'll simply begin to gravitate to it (government) again, if we would hypothetically decide to try otherwise?

Einzige said...

An excellent question!

To put it another way: Wouldn't we just end up right back where we are?

Unfortunately, looking at history, I have to admit that the prospects for a stateless society seem bleak. Examples are rare (Iceland in the 11th century... much of Pennsylvania in the mid 1600s...) and don't seem to last longer than a few hundred years, at most.

On the other hand, it might be said that progress has been made. Imagine trying to explain today's representative social democracy to a 14th century feudal serf. And totalitarianism has been discredited everywhere except for in a couple localized areas. Assuming our civilization survives the next 500 years, who knows what the structure of society will look like then?

This is why I describe myself primarily as a "philosophical" anarchist - I'm against government in the same way that one is against theft. Its elimination is seen as an admirable goal to strive for, even if, for all practical purposes, one may never be able to reach it.

steve said...

Well, I'd probably fall somewhat in that category as well then. I think people like you and me could perfectly handle it (hope to not sound arrogant or elitist here) but many people, who tend to more or less resemble sheep, seriously, probably could not. How's that DEVO song, "Freedom of Choice" go again? Or when the Soup Dragons covered the Rolling Stones' song where the rasta guy yells "Don't be afraid of your freedom!". It sounds absurd but many people are very much afraid to choose even remotely for themselves.