If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956
Impresarios of the doom pornography variety nearly always carry the day. Society is melting, they warn. With Jehovah’s Witness clarity, they screech deft eschatology regarding hideous inflation surely around the corner, wars of mass murder at every turn, domestic crackdowns – the list is endless. The choice for someone attempting to dabble in stateless philosophy is either swallowing lame and ever-failing predictions or joining ranks of crotch-grabbing, bandanna wearing hoodlums. The truth, as William of Occam tried to grasp it, is a little straighter, a little simpler, though written in crooked prose. Our modern world is leagues, leaps, heaps better in every metric, from material life (living longer, better) to spiritual life (individual rights are in vogue as never before). Ennui in anti-authoritarian, voluntary circles is so pervasive partly out of the dogmatism to never giving states shelter, never to concede social or economic strides at the hand of governments, but also due to lack of serious, sober inquiry. One needn’t give-in to heroin slamming despair nor to utopian fantasies about the prospects for voluntary, stateless human organization. It’s already happening. Pockets are emerging from democratic societies, well fed and wealthy, to challenge the foundation of coercive institutions. At first glance, this might seem paradoxical, and perhaps it is. But the evidence is there.
For those immersed within Western traditions, little doubt about inherent cynicism's philosophical father, English Enlightenment figure Thomas Hobbes, remains as to its genesis. Hobbes stressed an allegorical Leviathan, a muscular government monster in the sense set down in the Book of Job, an overpowering monopoly on violence, a state, to keep nature's war of all against all at severe distances.1 Yet another cousins war arose within England at the time of his writing, and it is not irrational to suppose how completely incompatible civility would be without a sovereign, a state. The English Civil War had the makings of a Hobbesian proof: religious strife, lack of order with governments popping up and being summarily sacked, regicide, the works.2 Surely this example is all anyone would need to insist life without a firm, strong, central government exacerbates the state of nature's nasty, brutish, and short features.
Human history has plenty more to supply Hobbes a lasting legacy.
Old Hobbes' lines of reason run throughout even more contemporary lights of individualism. No one less than dean of the Austrian School of Economics, Ludwig von Mises, himself warned against monkeying with the last vestiges of Leviathan. A full three centuries after Hobbes, and a man personally chased from The Continent by hideous governments, ... the tug of a coercive monster as a barrier between individuals in the Hobbesian sense could not be dislodged from Mises. "Government," Mises wrote furiously, "as such is not only not an evil, but the most necessary and beneficial institution, as without it no lasting social cooperation and no civilization would be possible."3
No slouch herself on the subject of individualism, especially as it related to government, novelist and philosopher, Ayn Rand, wrote of a society without Leviathan "as a political concept, is a naive floating abstraction: . . . a society without an organized government would be at the mercy of the first criminal who came along and who would precipitate it into the chaos of gang warfare."4 Rand's entire biography is a testimony to escaping the clutches of arguably the worst form of government ever devised, the Soviet Union.5 Go figure.
It does appear, even given superior philosophical chops, hugely sound economic theoretical reasoning, and the ability to conjure gloriously fictional heroic worlds are all no guard against the emotional pull of Leviathan.
A key to sussing out gold from thinkers who are less than perfect on a given issue is to understand ideas evolve. Rather than a straight line, a progress inevitable, ideas must have intercourse. They must meld, mesh, swap, trade, and, by random chance, come upon functional truths. There's no guarantee ideas will reach peaks we encourage. In fact, ideas, good ones, often find an audience only to be quickly snuffed out. For ideas to copulate, as it were, they must also be divorced from their arbitrary specializations. It's very fine and reasonable for intellectual disciplines to be specific, but that's not the way life is in the real world. Every discipline depends upon others, be they biological sciences incorporating basic physics and chemistry and mathematics, and so on.
How to separate out good ideas from bad is a tad trickier. Most thinkers advocate religion of one kind or another, as a spiritual transformation of humans must take place. That's well beyond the scope of anyone seriously beginning to take-on Leviathan. Utopian human, the very notion, has a last century body count in the hundreds of millions.6 Soviet Russia, Germany, China alone stand as testimonies against lures of drastic inner change. They simply grew Hobbes, who favored monarchy, by factors of cults of personality. Those hoping for societies voluntarily organized, at the very least, have to discard utopia.
Clearly bad ideas are evident, obvious. From outer space a rational person can view the Korean experiment, for example, in two governments just by way of night satellite imagery. It's a striking exercise, especially when placed against terra firma metrics of average heights due to caloric intake. Far from a spiritual enlightenment to sweep the world, good ideas can be spread with simple abstract reasoning, the stuff of science.
If forms of governments are the only choices, empirical, real-world data can help us conclude from an is statement to an ought statement: democracies > autocracies, and so we therefore should encourage democracy. A little less than 120 democracies exist on the planet, and they're preferable when assuming Leviathan because they tend to protect individual rights, allowing for an average person to pursue her life in a manner she sees fit. An ambitious study surveyed over two thousand militarized disputes from the early 19th century to the end of the 20th century, using the Polity Project ( www.systemicpeace.org ), which scores democracies on a 1-10 scale (constraints on power, open elections, competitive political process).7 While exceptions surely exist, social scientists concluded with developing what's known as the Democratic Peace Theory. When fully democratic, conflicts between such nations decrease by half. When less democratic governments slide to autocracy, conflicts increased by one hundred percent. Factors such as geography, economic success were accounted for. The eventual formula revealed itself: As democracy > violence <.8
The assumption of a state remains, but states are wildly more inclusive than at any other time in recorded human history. During the writings of Hobbes, governments were captured whole by propertied folk, and the average European was tossed from war to war, from agonizing and terrible idea to another. During Mises and Rand, both lived roughly at the same time and not that long ago, governments were expanding on every front except at the individual level. That today more people have many more individual choices be it in terms of economic mobility, migration, education, health, entertainment, employment, marriage is hardly arguable. It's perhaps too easy to relegate these gains to states, to governments themselves, but it is also intellectually dishonest to ignore their role. The irony is Leviathan, still brutal, still lumbering and crushing, has evolved to include more individuals in its decision-making, and more individuals have blunted its sharper edges. It is beyond safe to assert now is the golden age of civilization, and the future for individualism bodes well.9,10
It is less and less controversial to make plain the horrors of coercion at the hands of governments. With states expanding to include more of their inhabitants in ruling affairs, again ironically, many more people are entertaining cutting out the middle person (government) altogether.
Despite sweet and very obscure anthropological studies cited by those groping for historical examples of stateless societies, few exist and less are compelling enough to merit serious consideration. This inevitably starts a spiral of philosophical dread among those who've taken advantage of living in democratic societies to argue for abolition, to cede fully to the individual what democracies have begun. Since that has never been done, since there is no track record, why even entertain the idea!
To reiterate, ideas take a long time to evolve. In the abstract a great many people smile at the notion of an individual sovereignty. What they'll usually wind up doing is talking themselves away from the idea. They'll insist they can be trusted, but the guy next to them cannot be afforded such a luxury. Seemingly, we're back at square one, merely awaiting the next moment in time when autocratic governments are cheered to ascendency.
Not so fast.
Once a taste of autonomy is had, it's very, very difficult to give it up ... not matter the political promises. Tellingly, no terrorist group, using modern parlance for official baddies, has managed to sack a democratic government. This might mean the philosophical pendulum has swung so far in favor of the individual that there is no going back.
Hopeful signs in this regard abound.
Cognitive Science is embracing the gains of Evolutionary Psychology, and at least one study is venturing to impact social life. Expanding on a classic study, a recent study "showed that acting under coercion deeply modifies the sense of being responsible for outcomes of one’s actions. It also attenuates the neural processing of outcomes. Both results can be interpreted as a cognitive operation of 'distancing,' or reducing the linkage between one’s own decision-making, action, and outcome."11 The implied goal of the study is to bring about greater awareness to individual actions, actions taken at the behest of order-givers. The results are profound. They essentially prove a physiological change in humans occurs when they're under the illusion of not having a choice. If there ever were a better argument against autocratic governing, it hasn't been printed.
These amount to rips in the state fabric, pin holes for sure, but more gains against authority and its assumptions are being made in every way. Sometimes the solution is clumsy, and conflations of state power are equated with individual freedom (the 1964 Civil Rights Act comes to mind). They're not entirely wrong, it's just they've yet to strike the root, the nature of authoritarian structures necessarily.
Beyond the laboratory, real life ammunition of Hayekian-like spontaneous order happen within freer economies. And it’s not just the tale about pencils or assembling a wonderful breakfast plate. Bold, innovative measures to individualize business structures are also happening in the shadow of democratic societies.
Morning Star Company is the world's largest tomato processor, earning a healthy quarter share of the world market. Real world, right now. They handle everything from harvesting to trucking. In two decades plus, while the industry has grown by about one percent a year, Morning Star's volumes, revenues, profits have paced at double digit rates. Instead of the traditional top-down corporate structure, somewhat modeled on state thinking (some executives even fancy themselves Presidents) Morning Star practices a no manger style arrangement with its employees. In other words, no one position is above that of another. Employees in different parts of the process negotiate with the others, creating agreements to get at the mission: processing tomatoes as efficiently as possible in order to make the most money possible. It's an inter-conglomeration of 23 different businesses within one business. Employees at every level wield seemingly incredible amounts of power over budgets and capital.
It amounts to "a manager-free payroll" and that "has cost advantages. Some of the savings go to Morning Star’s full-time employees, who earn 10% to 15% more than their counterparts at other companies do. By avoiding the management tax, the company can also invest more in growth."12
Ideas of escaping from a managerial class, especially of the coercive sort, is a long, arduous process. It's happening in pockets all over the world as governments are more transparent and, as a result, businesses are freer to experiment. The future is bending toward the individual, one crazily crooked step at a time.
And I mean it.
1. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil. 1651.
2. Phillips, Kevin. The Cousins' Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph
Of Anglo-America. 1999.
Of Anglo-America. 1999.
3. Mises, Ludwig von. The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science: An Essay on Method. 1962.
4. Rand, Ayn. "The Nature of Government," The Virtue of Selfishness. 1964.
5. Heller, Anne Conover. Ayn Rand and the World She Made. 2010.
6. Rummel, R. J. Death by Government. 1994.
7. Oneal, John R.; Russett, Bruce. Triangulating Peace: Democracy, Interdependence,
and International Organizations (The Norton Series in World Politics). 2000.
8. Shermer, Michael. The Moral Arc: How Science Leads Humanity Toward Truth,
8. Shermer, Michael. The Moral Arc: How Science Leads Humanity Toward Truth,
Justice, and Freedom. 2015.
9. Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. 2011.
10. Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. 2010.
11. Caspar, Emilie A., et al. “Coercion Changes the Sense of Agency in the Human
Brain,” Current Biology. Volume 26, Issue 5, pgs 585-592, March 7th, 2016.
12. Hamel, Gary. “First, Let’s Fire All the Managers,” Harvard Business Review. December 2011.