Friday, 25 October 2002
Winston Churchill once said that "democracy is the worst form of Government, except all those others that have been tried from time to time." With all the recent talk of "regime change" in Iraq, and since I did my patriotic duty this afternoon, I thought I'd post a rejoinder to Eric Raymond's Why I Am An Anarchist essay, and explain why I'm for democracy.
(Eric has since written that 9/11 is causing him to re-examine his beliefs, because an anarchy may not be able to defend itself against Al Qaeda-like threats. What better time, then, to make democracy's case?)
Why not anarchy?
Anarchy is really the absence of government, rather than a form of government: It proposes that, instead of a central body, individual citizens perform the duties of governments. The "state" has no armies, but rather a group of people who come together in time of need, and then return to peaceful pursuits afterwards. The heavily armed population is self-policing, and they promote justice and tranquility through the simple technique of minding their own business. Vernor Vinge's short story "The Ungoverned" is about a society where anarchist farmers with nuclear weapons fight off an invasion from a neighboring military state, and is probably a good depiction of the anarchist ideal.
As a political system, anarchy minimizes the risk that a heavy-handed government will interfere in the lives of citizens and businesses, because there isn't any government per se. Anarchy relies on market forces to provide necessities like product safety and environmental conservation—the FAA, FCC, FDA, and other government agencies are privatized and subsidized by industry—and you're free to take whatever drugs you like, educate your children in whatever manner you prefer, and generally live your life as you please.
The problem with the anarchist utopia is that it doesn't exist outside of science fiction. History's empirical evidence suggests that anarchist societies can't exist, or at least that anarchies are about as stable as francium isotopes and are doomed to rapidly decay into tribalism, feudalism, or city-states. Anarchy requires a balance of power among citizens that is difficult to establish or maintain, and it demands behaviors from its citizens that run counter to the patterns we know.
Anarchy effectively requires that all citizens be equal in their ability to call upon force at need, which in turn requires economic parity—if you have to choose between putting food on the table and paying for privately-run police and fire services this month, you're not going to last in this system. Likewise, if your rich neighbor decides to become a tyrant, you can either pool resources to match him or become his 19th province; you don't have any other recourse. Anarchy is a poor distributor of scarce resources (e.g., water and fishing rights), and its lack of a binding legal system means that dispute resolution is likely to be inefficient as well.
Even if you do manage to set up a working anarchy, though, it will very likely degrade into tribalism within one generation. The chilling implications of the Milgram experiments suggest that humans are predisposed to obey authority figures, and will follow orders from an authority figure even when those orders violate their own morals and the person will suffer no extraordinary consequences from refusing the order.
An anarchist might argue that Milgram's findings are the end results of a lifetime of indoctrination in an authoritarian society, and that people who lived under anarchy wouldn't follow this pattern of behavior—in hacker parlance, that it's a bug in the software, not the hardware. But what if it isn't? What if we apes are hardwired for hierarchies, and the anarchist utopia is no less alien to human nature than the Communist utopia?
It would certainly explain a lot of things. If one person in every hundred has an inbred authoritarian streak, and the other 99 are pre-wired to follow orders, then the ideal anarchist society will quickly degenerate into Afghanistan. With apologies to Voltaire, history suggests that if an authority figure does not exist, human nature will find it necessary to create one.
More on this topic next week.