Anarchism

I was following the comments on this post and wrote a response that turned out to be long enough for a post. So here goes:

Here is my principled (not utilitarian) argument [against anarchism].
To implement the non-aggression principle, people must agree on what constitutes aggression, not just at a philosophical level but at a more detailed level. For example, firing a gun in the air is not aggression but firing it close to someone’s residence is. Even if I am a champion shot and the bullets do not hit anyone. That might not be the best example, but the point is that some of these distinctions are not philosophical but merely a matter of convention or reasonable definition. If such distinctions are not made beforehand, then the non-aggression principle is meaningless. Establishing the process by which people can agree to such distictions is what politics is (should be) all about. Saying that each person must form his own answer and never commit to any answer (committing would mean agreeing to be bound by it) is an abdication of politics. As you mentioned, politics only arises in a social context and therefore must involve social processes. Because these distinctions depend on convention (by necessity, not for any lack of good philosophy), there is a need for legislation – a process by which people can agree to and modify (when necessary) conventions.
So the answer to Rothbard’s question “how does the state get the authority to govern?” is:
By the delegation of those who choose to form a state. Ideally, the state would be formed by those who subscribe (philosophically) to the non-agression principle. If someone does not recognize the authority of the state, he is not harmed by the state. Unless he breaks its institutionalized definitions of aggression. As long as the state does not break its own definitions of aggression and as long as the definitions are not philosophically wrong, the mere existence of a state is not aggression against any individual.

As I wrote above, anarchism is an abdication of politics. It is merely a moral position that states: man should not submit to be bound by legislation. The answer to that position is merely “Don’t submit”. The funny thing is: I dont know of any sane anarchists who follow that moral position. A seemingly political way of framing anarchism would be: “In an ideal society, no organization of people should have a monopoly over the exercise of force.” But that is a thorougly contradictory position. What sort of monopoly is being referred to here? Metaphysical or existential? If it is metaphysical, then we already have anarchy, since no state can have a metaphysical monopoly on force (or on anything else). If it is an existential (or de facto) monopoly that the anarchist wants to abolish (not the right word, the right word would be ‘wish away’), then the anarchist is claiming that other people should not grant their consent to a de-facto monopoly on force. But then, that is a moral position.

Psychologically, an advocate of anarchism is saying:
I refuse to be bound by <i>any</i> institutionalized principles. Even if I agree with those principles today. I do not wish to take responsibility for my beliefs. The desire for anarchism is not a desire for freedom from aggression – it is a desire for freedom from responsibility.

Deep rooted altruism

Plenty of work coupled with a lack of motivation to spend time on editing has meant that its been quite a while since I last wrote a proper,  thought-out post although I do have plenty of accumulated material to write about. While the lack of motivation hasn’t changed, I thought I should just put this down.

In a short conversation over lunch, one of my colleagues talked about how hedge funds are now back in business after all the losses they made recently (probably based on a report from bloomberg.com). He then went on to say that there should be some protection – government regulation – for the consumers. As I resisted, the discussion went on to the food and drug industries. I mentioned how regulations against drugs prevents people from using new drugs even if they sorely need them and are willing to take the risk. He countered by saying that it is not possible for any individual to take responsibility for evaluating all the available goods (be they drugs or foods) and so a government agency is needed. I replied that doctors should certainly be capable of doing the required evaluation. He replied “saare doctors bike hue hain” – all the doctors are mercenaries and have been bought over (presumably by drug companies). I asked “And how about the employees in the government?” and that was the end of the conversation.

Note the reason given to justify the existence of regulation – the people who are competent to evaluate are mercenaries and so, will not act in the interests of consumers, whereas a neutral government body not motivated by profit, will. There is plenty of evidence – living in India, I will not bother to write about it – about how “neutral” government bureaucrats – known, not so fondly as babus – act. How then does an intelligent guy offer such a reason? The short answer is altruism. Just a week back we had a discussion about altruism in which I argued that it is for moral reasons and not economic ones that people accept socialist ideas. My colleague is well aware of my views and probably does not explicitly believe in altruism himself. But he has not explicitly rejected it as evil either. The deeply rooted morality of altruism makes him look with implicit suspicion at the profit motive and – by extension – at all private activity. It seems safer to trust a faceless bureaucrat working in a non-profit organization than to trust a doctor who stands to profit by selling you unproven drugs regardless of all the corruption that the bureaucracy is famous for. After all, by the altruist morality, the non-profit government organization has a noble aim – to serve others. The private doctor is just a lowly human driven by his own profit (which tends to morph into greed). According to the altruist morality, the doctor would have to make a sacrifice to forego the quick cash that he could make by being unscrupulous. And as everyone knows, very few people make sacrifices. So the altruist morality implicitly implies that private individuals will tend be more unscrupulous than public organizations. The facts do not bear this out. And it is simple to see why. Once one assigns a face to a bureaucrat instead of referring to a convenient collective called the government, it is clear that the bureaucrat is also working for profit. And unlike the doctor, whose career depends on his reputation, his career depends on – as Ayn Rand eloquently described in Atlas Shrugged – the aristocracy of pull. If a doctor makes a mistake or even if he is simply thought to have made a mistake by the public, his career is ruined. The faceless bureaucrat has no such responsibility. The profit motive cannot be abolished just by choosing to think of a certain group of individuals in terms of a collective – government. Within a framework of voluntary trade, the profit motive is not evil but good. It is what makes individuals want to prosper. It is what motivates them to work. Within a coercive framework of government regulation, the profit motive produces what is called “corruption”. A bureaucrat has nothing to gain by being scrupulous and a lot to gain by being unscrupulous at little risk. So he chooses to be unscrupulous. If his actions ever get traced back to him, the altruists have a field day damning his greed and the profit motive. But what is it that is corrupt? An unthinking bureaucrat doing what everyone around him does? Or the ethical system that invariably sets up men in situations where they stand to gain by duping others?

One should also look at the secondary consequences of oppressive regulations (take a look at other pages on FA/RM too). Regulations enormously raise the cost of compliance to standards – both directly in terms of the costs of running a regulatory agency and indirectly through the aristocracy of pull (lobbying is a nice euphemism). This effectively puts local small-scale industry at an enormous disadvantage and gives an unfair advantage to the bigger players. It also converts local, easily correctable problems such as occasional food poisoning into large systemic problems (in the same way as centrally controlled money supply creates systemic problems in the financial sector). The first strengthens the aristocracy of pull. The second creates even more demands for its continued existence.

At the end of the discussion, another colleague with whom I recently had a long discussion about the concept of sacrifice (note the reference to sacrifice above) mentioned that it will take another 50 years for people to reject socialist ideas. Today people look to the government for a solution to every problem. That is true. But socialist ideas will never be rejected until one first rejects their basis – the altruist morality – and discovers the alternative – egoism. The history of the U.S. which is now descending into just the sort of socialism that India is coming out of is proof of this fact.

Compromise?

I recently read Jeffrey Archer’s novel “A Prisoner of Birth”. The novel could have been much better if it had an original plot – instead of borrowing the plot of “The Count of Monte Cristo”. But this post is not about the novel. It is about an interesting issue that I thought was worth pondering over.

At one point in the novel, the protagonist is falsely accused of a murder. Most of the evidence is against him and the jury is expected to pronounce him guilty. The prosecution makes him an offer to plead guilty and his lawyer advises him that he could get off with a two year sentence for manslaughter instead of a twenty two year sentence for murder. The protagonist immediately refuses.

What would you do? And why?

20,000 civilians killed in Sri Lanka?

Recently, there have been reports about the killing of large number of civilians in the recently concluded military operations in Sri Lanka. Now, I have never followed Sri Lankan politics in any detail. So I cannot comment on which side (if any) is in the right. But that is not the purpose of the post. I am writing this post because I am a little surprised at my own reaction to this. Or rather the lack of reaction. I feel nothing at all. No sympathy for those killed, no anger or admiration for the fighters on either side, nothing at all. A single untimely death can be a tragedy but 20,000 just leaves me untouched. I believe in the benevolent universe premise and thus have a default good-will toward people I do not know, an expression of the idea that human life is valuable. Does the lack of reaction contradict this premise? Have I turned into a cynic?

To get atleast some minimal understanding of what the conflict was all about, I looked up LTTE on wikipedia. In a long article, the only reason mentioned for the cause of the conflict is this one line: “The Tamil Tigers claimed to be fighting to protect the country’s Tamil minority from discrimination at the hands of the successive Sinhalese majority governments that have ruled the country since independence”. That and the two maps in the same article indicate that the conflict is ethnic. An ethnic conflict is inconceivable to me in the sense that I cannot even remotely understand the kind of thinking that would motivate a person to participate in it. I have zero respect for any religion (never had any) or for tradition for its own sake. That people are willing to fight and kill for the sake of religion and/or tradition is inconceivable.

The conflict is not new. It has been going on for decades. What have all these “civilians” been doing while a civil war was raging in their country? Either they have actively supported it or they have ignored it even though they knew they would be caught in the cross-fire. Either way they have not demonstrated any respect for human life, not even their own. If they never cared much about their own lives, why should I? Anyhow, I don’t even subscribe to the idea that civilians should be exempt from military operations.

The first time I heard about the LTTE was when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. I was only a kid then. It is telling that in all the time since then (almost two decades) I did not even know what the conflict was about. I have never been particularly interested in politics but that does not explain it. I knew what the American civil war was about, for instance. I never knew what the conflict was about because in all the reports that I must have read or glanced at, I found no sensible reasons.

To sum up, my lack of reaction was because I did not care about these people at all, not because I did not know them but because I knew (only implicitly) that they were not acting sensibly. I still hold that “human life is valuable”. But human (in this context) is more than a biological description. And people who are willing to participate in ethnic strife or to live passively while it destroys everything around them do not qualify.

Note:
As I was writing this I remembered that Aristotle The Geek had recently written somehing about Prabhakaran (the LTTE leader). So I searched for LTTE on his blog and found these two posts. The first reveals that socialism was part of the idealogy of the LTTE. So the civilians who supported the LTTE are not just tribalistic but also socialist. The comments in the second raise another issue – how do collectives relate to individualism and should one recognize them? I will write about that later.

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