"The sovereign, after taking individuals one by one in his powerful hands and kneading them to his liking, reaches out to embrace society as a whole. Over it he spreads a fine mesh of uniform, minute, and complex rules, through which not even the most original minds and most vigorous souls can poke their heads above the crowd. He does not break men’s wills but softens, bends, and guides them. He seldom forces anyone to act but consistently opposes action. He does not destroy things but prevents them from coming into being. Rather than tyrannize, he inhibits, represses, saps, stifles, and stultifies, and in the end he reduces each nation to nothing but a flock of timid and industrious animals, with the government as its shepherd.
~ Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 2 
As I read Butler Shaffer's outstanding piece "The Messenger is the Message," which was ostensibly about Tim Russert, but was actually about so much more, several things occurred to me. First, Dr. Shaffer almost always seems to cover the concepts I've been considering better than I would have. Secondly, the timing of his essay was ironic given that I had recently been pondering something: would the State "work" if the population didn't "believe" in it? The coercive apparatus of the State, fine-tuned in the U.S. since the time of Washington and Jefferson, has risen to a level of fine art as it generates a belief in its necessity while simultaneously remaining just out of view.
Given that we are both anarchists, it is no surprise that I have enjoyed Dr. Shaffer's essays, most recently citing him in my "Anarchy, Anarchy — Wherefore Art Thou?" piece. That the solid logic that undergirds market anarchism — or whatever you want to call it — remains somehow in doubt is one of the most troubling and fascinating subjects to which I apply my available skills of analysis and modest writing talents. Why is it that almost any suggestion of even the possibility of a peaceful, anarchistic society is so often met with pseudo-intellectual derision or worse yet, insulting, pat-on-the-head "utopian dreamer" condescension? Excluding the corruption of those who enrich themselves from the State, it is met with these responses because honest people have been conditioned over years and years of public (Read: statist propaganda-laden) schooling.
I do not draw this conclusion — that the stability of the State requires belief — anew in the sense that no one has said it before. Thinkers such as Hoppe have eloquently spoken about the fact that the State obtains its legitimacy from those upon whom it aggresses. Instead, I make this assertion in direct answer to those who question the possibility that an anarchistic society is possible, as they simultaneously fail to note that a severely freedom-limited, statist regime is possible only as a result of a shared belief among the citizenry in the legitimacy of that State. That portion of a statist society that should be most treasured — peaceful voluntary interactions — is an outcome of anarchy's not-so-secret weapon, universally preferable behavior, while that which actually makes a statist society stable — propaganda — is not needed under market anarchism.
His Imperial Programming Is Strong
When I say "people have been conditioned" I'm not talking just about other people. I include myself in that category as well. The phenomenon of which I speak came into view recently, again ironically, in a thread I was reading on the FreedomainRadio Discussion Forum (FDR), the creation of another staunch anarchist (and one of my occasional co-authors) Stefan Molyneux. In that thread, entitled "My Emotional Resistance to Anarcho-Capitalism" the initial poster summed up the feelings of many budding anarchists with:
We [people who suggest that anarchy is not only possible but also preferable] are talking about completely abolishing the public sector. Are there any guarantees that we (and I use the first person plural because I am strongly sympathetic to your arguments) will not create a nightmare like the intellectuals that dreamed of completely abolishing private property?
Or, to ask a more concrete question, do you believe that any society, from ancient Iceland to 1917 Russia to modern Iraq, is capable of anarcho-capitalism? Are there certain infrastructures and philosophies that must be in place first? Can anyone think of a realistic narrative to the creation of anarcho-capitalism? And, most importantly of all, would there be any requisite change to “human nature?”
To say that many an anarchist has heard these questions more than once would be a gargantuan understatement. If you read FDR with any regularity you will probably come across several similar questions, posed by very sincere people with very sincere concerns, at least twice a week.
Furthermore, I would bet my very last money that any person who alludes to having the slightest sympathies for even the so-called limited government ostensibly envisioned by the founding fathers would be besieged by similar questions regarding, among other things: maintenance of the common goods, the certain destruction of any semblance of peace, and (of course) the eventual rise of roaming rape gangs. (Mad Max lives! That the prevalence of bathtub ring and the lack of a cure for hemorrhoids are not also mentioned just as often is probably dumb luck.) Having personally taken part in more than a couple of these debates with thoughtful people spanning the educational spectrum from Ph.D. to high school drop-out, I still didn't understand the stickiness of such reasoning until recently.
Note the words I've emphasized in the quotations above. Is there any "guarantee" that the abolition of the State won't create a nightmare? Is society "capable" of anarchy? Can one furnish a "realistic narrative" of the past creation of an anarcho-capitalist society? Verily I say unto thee (yes, even an atheist can use Bible-esque sentence structure) I've been answering these same questions, or variations of them since (and before) my "A Libertarian Cheat Sheet" column was published. And I've not been alone. Many gifted, and often more talented, writers than I have attempted to do the same thing.
Still, this emotional resistance to the possibility of a "stateless society" (and more distressing, a psychological blind spot to the fact that the universally preferable behavior upon which a stateless society is based is a foundational reason for the State even working) rises like a Phoenix out of the ashes of the burnt, inconsistent, barely noticeable logic — and use the term very loosely — of statism! What in the hell?
Same Question, Same Answer
What valid guarantee has ever been offered for any societal construct? None. Is society capable of anarchy? Of course. If not, then no peaceful voluntary interactions would ever take place. Not surprisingly from my standpoint, I haven't had to call the police to help me deal with another human being in, well, ever. I handle my disputes privately. I wander through shopping malls, crowded streets, open-air markets in the U.S. and abroad, interacting with other people and vendors willy-nilly, with no concern that around the corner there lurks a criminal waiting to pounce or that someone with whom I deal will require government oversight to treat me fairly. I've been in ghettos, or, if you prefer, inner cities, all over the U.S. and in fact, unfamiliar communities all over the world and had similar experiences.
Never once have I thought I should take a cop with me, just in case! I've also never mistakenly concluded that it was only because a policeman or other "law giver" was close-at-hand that kept the hideous folks at bay. In fact I defy anyone to logically conclude that the presence of the threat of police presence provides one ounce of protection. Consider: I can virtually guarantee that in some communities with which I am intimately familiar, a robber could break into your home, beat you to within an inch of your life, take a shower, roll a huge spliff, and smoke it completely before you got off hold with 9-1-1. How's that for a realistic narrative?
As I responded to that poster, I will similarly declare here. People forget, I think, that every societal construct is based upon: shared beliefs, Schelling Points, and yes, maybe even propaganda to some extent. In other words, we learn from very early ages much, if not all, of the behavior that undergirds our societies. (Hat tip: "All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten" – although that book title is probably a stretch on the concept.) Exactly which lessons are taught, and in what order, given what priority, which are omitted, undergirded or justified by which authority, is a direct result on pre-existing and long-standing societal mores. Happily for us anarchists, it turns out that the undergirding premises of anarchy exist as universally preferable behavior! In other words the things that make anarchy stable are needed for any stable societal construct.
A school child in Iraq already "knows" (and more importantly accepts) many of the premises that will govern his life choices and behavior. Exactly the same can be said about a middle schooler in North Dakota. (That some folks believe that the current version of freedom in the U.S. — such as it exists — is not taught, is troubling, but expected. When paternalism is mistaken for patriotism even though neither is a proper substitute for a logical, evidence-based, dare-I-say, scientific paradigm for distinguishing truth from falsehood, this is the outcome.) On top of these early premises is layered a belief in the necessity of the State and a belief in the ostensibly otherwise unavailable benefits of statism. Both of these latter beliefs are taught in government schools and are seminal to their existence and the need for them. In fact, the (un)stated mission of government schools spells this out for all to see.
A brief visit to the website for the Alliance for the Separation of School and State provides a few educational (pun intended) quotes from the past.
"Our schools have been scientifically designed to prevent over-education from happening. The average American [should be] content with their humble role in life…"
~ William T. Harris, U.S. Commissioner of Education in the late 1800s
"Only a system of state-controlled schools can be free to teach whatever the welfare of the State may demand."
~ Ellwood P. Cubberley, former superintendent of San Diego schools and Dean of Stanford University School of Education (late 1800s-early 1900s)
Now, I am not suggesting that once the propaganda has taken root in one's mind that he cannot unplug from the socket. People take the red pill all the time. But it is indeed difficult to do so. Nor am I suggesting, as the Alliance for the Separation of School and State seems to imply, that it is primarily via religious teaching that society can be peaceful. My opinions on any type of unquestioned authority, no matter its genesis should be clear by this time. Think for yourself. Treat people with universalizability — if everyone did this, would society still work — in mind. The argument from morality informs us.
Far too much of a statist society is based upon the acceptance of naked authority, and this reliance and belief begins very early in people's lives. Many a parent has answered his child with, "…because I said so!" in response to incessant use of the anti-authoritarian's favorite question, "Why?" (I openly admit to extreme embarrassment that I ever uttered those words, but I digress.) The raw fact is that the State says, "…because I said so" often enough and in so many situations that the practice can easily retreat into the white noise of what we mistake for a civilized existence.
Contrary to the most basic premise of the garden-variety anti-anarchist — that under anarchy society would devolve into chaos — it is far truer that without the free-thought-squelching grip of statist propaganda, the typical statist society is much closer to pandemonium than almost any anarchistic society. I submit that without the inculcation in the supposedly-inherent goodness of the State, the U.S. would have an uprising like the Whiskey Rebellion every other week! Let us place this assertion in context.
The amount of tax on whiskey imposed by Alexander Hamilton's mercantilist scheme amounted to about 7 to 18 cents per gallon. Today there is an average of about $1.16 of tax per pack of cigarettes. (One should note that that the amount of taxation on cigarettes is far from uniform, as was the case with the whiskey tax. Major tobacco states have an average of about $0.33 per pack while other states average out at about $1.27 per pack.) When you hear about cigarette producers or cigarette consumers taking up arms and refusing to pay the taxes on cigarettes let me know.
During the time of the Whiskey Rebellion, the late 1700's, there was no income tax in the U.S. Today, in the early 2000's, the average U.S. tax slave works for about four (4) months to pay his share of income taxes. Still, no armed revolt is imminent. Hell, even unarmed whining, if combined with non-payment, can land you in prison. More shocking, for most of these charges to stick, a jury of your peers would have to find you guilty of not freely submitting the theft of your property! (Okay, I give up. What the hell is "willful failure to file" supposed to mean?)
Indeed, the bulk of the population seems to agree that [place government program here] is not only a good idea, but also that without it [place negative outcome here] would most assuredly happen, and all without one shred of evidence! The faith — the belief — that supports not only the presence of heavily statist practices, but also the apparent willingness with which they are accepted provides ample evidence that the government educational system is producing exactly the effect for which it was created. (One may lament the apparent lack of good performance in the three R's, but let us conclude that an ignorant statist is very likely a better citizen for the coercive state than an informed anarchist and leave it at that.)
As such, there is no need to prove that anarchy is stable or possible, since statism itself requires considerable intellectual investment to be stable, despite the obviousness of universally preferable behavior upon which market anarchism and peaceful human interaction is based.
Wilt Alston [send him mail] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.