Can A Society Without Government Be Better Run than What We Have Now?
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
— from The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
The title of this essay has two meanings.
The first is the reference to the Yeats poem quoted above, The Second Coming.
The second is a reference to C.S. Lewis’s immensely popular book of Christian apologetics, Mere Christianity, a phrase C.S. Lewis picked up from a Christian apologist writing three centuries earlier, Rev. Richard Baxter.
What Yeats meant was the end result of entropy; what Lewis and Baxter meant was core sustainable beliefs. Clearly I’m choosing to deal here with antithetical thoughts.
In common usage the word “anarchy” is a synonym for chaos and anomie, just as in common usage “anarchist” is a synonym for terrorist or nihilist.
It places an immediate communications burden on anyone who believes, as I do, that a stateless society can be not only as well-ordered and agreeable as any society which attempts by a constitution to limit the powers of government for the purpose of ensuring common individual rights, but in theory could do a better job of preventing a reemergence of tyranny.
I’m not alone in this skepticism regarding the American experiment with Constitutional government. This caution comes from one of its original authors.
Upon leaving the Constitutional Convention of 1787 Benjamin Franklin answered a lady’s question whether the convention produced a republic or a constitutional monarchy with the bitter and prescient warning, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
If we’ve kept the Constitution at all after:
- A Civil War
- A century of central banking and income tax
- A three-decade drug war
- An undefined War on Terror
- A Supreme Court that considers legislative intent more than original intent
- An elected Congress whose rate of change is about that of Britain’s House of Lords
- Orwell’s Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace
- State, County, and Local Government officials eunuched whenever a federal agent shows up
- Demand for government secrecy paired with demand for citizen transparency
- Eminent Domain Laws that steal property from one private citizen as a political payoff to another
- A Bill of Loopholes where a Bill of Rights is supposed to be; and
- An Imperial Presidency …
… it’s only by the skin of its teeth. In 223 years of mastication, many of the Constitution’s teeth have fallen out, some are impacted, many have cavities requiring root canal, and even the remaining relatively healthy teeth are dulled, loose, and painfully difficult to chew with.
In my lifetime the Constitution is more Poligrip than Politics.
So why — when the Constitution of the United States is clearly in crisis as to whether it can sustain its original intent to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” — are alternatives offered to try and do the job better looked upon with such fear and loathing?
Well, for one thing, the proposed alternatives have never worked on a large scale before.
Various forms of anarchism have been tried out in microcosmic experiments. The Old Testament tells us of a time before Kings when the Israelites had only Judges.
In the ancient Irish túatha — while you had a king — at least you were free to choose which one you wanted.
There were anarchist-based communes both in Europe and in America. None of them expanded into the general population and few survived into a second generation.
And — well — historically too darned many high-profile anarchists have in fact been nihilists, trouble-makers, and terrorists.
Yes, yes, yes, I know. There is a rich and peaceful tradition of individual anarchism, which includes Henry David Thoreau who wrote in his 1849 essay Civil Disobedience:
I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe – “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.
Maxham daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau
made in 1856
No less than Mohandas K. Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., have each attributed their successful uses of non-violent resistance to the anarchist Thoreau.
Other historical anarchists — William Godwin, Lysander Spooner, Voltairine de Cleyre, Benjamin Tucker, Emma Goldman, and Thomas Hodgskin — as well as anarchists I’ve known personally in my lifetime — Murray Rothbard, Robert LeFevre, L. Neil Smith, David Friedman, Victor Koman, and Samuel Edward Konkin III — have all advocated anarchistic visions of society that are neither chaotic nor nihilistic — and one can convincingly argue that, despite their protests, both Ayn Rand and Robert A. Heinlein made far better cases in their fiction for anarchistic societies than they made for government in their nonfiction.
Plus I must note here that Franz Oppenheimer and Albert Jay Nock found it necessary to make a clear distinction between government and the State.
But cutting to the chase, are any of these visions of a stateless society both doable and sustainable?
I believe they are, if certain conditions are met.
- It must be a society that recognizes the concept of Sovereign Rights. The concept of a Sovereign Right means that each one of us has the individual sovereign power to do whatever each of us wants without prior consent of anyone else, providing that by our doing so it does not invade the equal sovereign right of anyone else to be left unmolested. In the case of any being or even any thing which is regarded as having such sovereign rights, the test is whether such an entity can be held accountable for the consequences of its actions. If the answer is “no” then some other individual with Sovereign rights whom Nature has appointed or who has otherwise agreed to be held answerable for that irresponsible entity — whether fetus, child, mental incompetent, animal, tree, or Frankenstein’s Monster — is the guardian, overseer, in loco parentis, and steward of that entity until such a time as the entity can answer for the consequences of its own acts.
- The organizing principle must be that arbitration can only be initiated where one or more Sovereign Individuals file a complaint. So, for example, possession of a substance with the intent to use it could not be a crime because possession of a thing, nor an intent to do something with it, is not Action; and unless you Act against Someone Else no Sovereign Rights Violation has yet occurred. Making a threat against someone is an action; and could be adjudicated. Possessing something which by its nature is a danger to others would have to prove that the danger is real and present, not theoretical, statistical, or only under unlikely conditions.
- Private property rights must be recognized as the natural boundaries between competing claimants for needed places and things, and peaceful non-neighbor-impacting individual use of them must not not be overly burdened by entailments, covenants, contracts, and restrictions.
- A social ethic of laissez faire — live and let live, what people do on their own property within their own circles is none of my business so long as they don’t throw their garbage on my lawn and interrupt my sleep with blaring music — must dominate social interaction.
- TANSTAAFL — There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. You want it, you pay for it. You want me to support it in mutual aid, charity, or common cause, you ask me instead of telling me. The most you can do to punish me for refusing to sign on to your holy crusade is to have nothing further to do with me.
- Law is necessary for a peaceful and stable society, and may be either a commercial product or a product of non-profit organizations just like any other useful thing. Judges can offer their own law books in private arbitrations, and even cut the court costs by offering their trials as public entertainment — such as all the TV Judge Shows, which are already private arbitrations held in public. A General Submission to Arbitration is the necessity and hallmark of a responsible neighbor and a free society. The absence of a General Prior-to-Conflict Submission to Arbitration is the primary reason that no anarchist society has worked in an Industrial or Post-Industrial Mega-Population Society. If this is a new drug to fix the ills of society, I say let’s start the Clinical Trials now.
- The right of self-defense includes the right to kill in self-defense … and to be held accountable for it by a standard of reasonable men in a court with a judge to which the accused has consented, with a presumption of innocence, all the accused’s procedural rights protected, and with no civil or criminal penalties imposed without a conviction by a jury of the accused’s peers. The Bill of Rights got almost all of this correct.
- Finally and most important, the right to self defense is always present, and the weapons and techniques enabling effective and efficient self-defense are always legal in a free society. I won’t argue that there is no place for professionals in the fields of defense, security, and protection — and I won’t even argue about the necessity for standing military or posse comitatus to be prepared for threats — but no society can remain free or stable in the long run if the individual is not the first and last line in defense of his own rights and the rights of his loved ones, family, friends, neighbors, and nation.
Assuming for a moment that such a society is practical, is there a way to get there?
I believe that answer is also yes.
Even a society under the thumb of a totalitarian government– some would say especially societies under the thumb of totalitarian governments — have black markets.
Historically black markets are populated by criminals with few ethics and less self-control. Without any “honor among thieves” crime and violence are endemic.
But what if black-markets were operated by people more lawful, rational, and ethical than in the legal-edict society rather than less lawful, rational, and ethical?
What if the black markets had less crime than the above-ground markets because property-rights were better recognized and enforced by private arbitrations?
What if the bare minimum of business structure was cheaper to operate in — and fostered more productivity — than trying to start a business under layers of burdensome bureaucratic regulations, taxes and payoffs to politicians and their appointees?
What if — even with the extra costs of maintaining secret communication, transportation, and protection operations — it was still far cheaper to operate your business in these underground networks than in a debt-ridden, inflation destabilized, highly taxed and regulated, and hostile business environment as we now see in our current Constitution-impaired society?
Would not capital naturally flow into such better-operated markets and act to enrich them, empowering better use of technology and more efficient allocation of scarce resources for the purposes of expansion and growth?
What if the next tax haven wasn’t offshore but a well-concealed and protected network of markets right under the government’s stuffed nose?
That was the strategy of countereconomics — the philosophy of Agorism — proposed by myself and Samuel Edward Konkin III, presented first by Sam at the two CounterCon conferences I organized in 1974 and 1975, presented first in fiction (as Ayn Rand did with her philosophy in Atlas Shrugged) in my 1979 novel Alongside Night, and first presented in a work of nonfiction a year later in Samuel Edward Konkin III’s New Libertarian Manifesto.
Samuel Edward Konkin III, author of The New Libertarian Manifesto
Now, some may say what I’ve proposed above is not anarchy at all, but limited Constitutional Government.
I won’t argue the semantic point.
Call it what pleases you. Sam Konkin and I called it Agorism. This is the Thoreau-inspired vision of a free society I’ve been working towards in the past four decades of my life.
J. Neil Schulman
See also my later article here, The Agorist Revolutionary Alternative.
Winner of the Special Jury Prize for Libertarian Ideals from the 2011 Anthem Film Festival! My comic thriller Lady Magdalene’s — a movie I wrote, produced, directed, and acted in it — is now available free on the web linked from the official movie website. If you like the way I think, I think you’ll like this movie. Check it out!