Part 3 of 7
by Stefan Molyneux
June 3, 2008
Anarchy and the 'Problem of the Commons'
Ask almost any professional economist what the role of government is, and he will generally reply that it is to regulate or solve the 'problem of the commons,' and to make up for 'market failures,' or the provision of public goods such as roads and water delivery that the free market cannot achieve on its own.
To anyone who works from historical evidence and even a basic smattering of first principles, this answer is, to be frank, outlandishly unfounded.
The 'problem of the commons' is the idea that if farmers share common ground for grazing their sheep, that each farmer has a personal incentive for overgrazing, which will harm everyone in general. Thus the immediate self-interest of each individual leads to a collective stripping of the land.
It only takes a moment's thought to realize that the government is the worst possible solution for this problem ' if indeed it is a problem.
The problem of the commons recognizes that where collective ownership exists, individual exploitation will inevitably result, since there is no incentive for the long-term maintenance of the productivity of whatever is collectively owned. A farmer takes good care of his own fields, because he wants to profit from their utilization in the future. In fact, ownership tends to accrue to those individuals who can make the most productive future use of an asset, since they are the ones able to bid the most when it comes up for sale. If I can make $10,000 a year more out of a patch of land than you can, then I will be willing to bid more for it, and thus will end up owning it.
Thus where there is no stake in future profitability ' as in the case of publicly-owned resources ' those resources inevitably tend to be pillaged and destroyed.
This is the situation that highly intelligent, well-educated people ' with perfectly straight faces ' say should be solved through the creation of a government.
Why is this such a bizarre solution?
Well, a government ' and particularly the public treasury ' is the ultimate publicly-owned good. If publicly-owned goods are always pillaged and exploited, then how is the creation of the largest and most violent publicly-owned good supposed to solve that problem? It's like saying that exposure to sunlight can be dangerous for a person's health, and so the solution to that problem is to throw people into the sun.
The fact that people can repeat these absurdities with perfectly straight faces is testament to the power of propaganda and self-interest.
In the same way, we are told that free-market monopolies are dangerous and exploitive. Companies that wish to voluntarily do business with us, and must appeal to our self-interest, to mutual advantage, are considered grave threats to our personal freedoms.
And ' the solution that is proposed by almost everyone to the 'problem' of voluntary economic interaction?
Well, since voluntary and peaceful 'monopolies' are so terribly evil, the solution that is always proposed is to create an involuntary, coercive, and violent monopoly in the form of a government.
Thus voluntary and peaceful 'monopolies' are a great evil ' but the involuntary and violent monopoly of the state is the greatest good!?
Can you see why I began this book talking about our complicated and ambivalent relationship to voluntarism, or anarchy?
We see this same pattern repeating itself in the realm of education. Whenever an anarchist talks about a stateless society, he is inevitably informed that in a free society, poor children will not get educated.
Where does this opinion come from? Does it come from a steadfast dedication to reason and evidence, an adherence to well-documented facts? Do those who hold this opinion have certain evidence that, prior to public education, the children of the poor were not being educated? Do they genuinely believe that the children of the poor are being well-educated now? Do they seriously believe that anarchists do not care about the education of the poor? Do they believe that they are the only people who care about the education of the poor?
Of course not. This is a mere knee-jerk propagandistic reaction, like hearing a Soviet-era Red Guard boy mumbling about the necessity of the workers controlling the means of production. It is not based upon evidence, but upon prejudice.
If the 'problem of the commons' and the predations of monopolies are such dire threats, then surely institutionalizing these problems and surrounding them with the endless violence of police, military and prisons would be the exact opposite of a rational solution!
Of course, the problem of the commons is only a problem because the land is collectively owned; move it to private ownership, and all is well. Thus the solution to the problem of public ownership is clearly more private ownership, not more public ownership.
Ah, say the statists, but that is just a metaphor ' what about fish in the ocean, pollution in the rivers, roads in the city and the defense of the realm?
Well the simple answer to that ' from an anarchist perspective at least ' is that if people are not intelligent and reasonable enough to negotiate solutions to these problems in a productive and sustainable manner, then surely they are also not intelligent or reasonable enough to vote for political leaders, or participate in any government whatsoever.
Of course, there are endless historical examples of private roads and railways, private fisheries, social and economic ostracism as an effective punishment for over-use or pollution of shared resources ' the endless inventiveness of our species should surely by now never fail to amaze!
The statist looks at a problem and always sees a gun as the only solution ' the force of the state, the brutality of law, violence and punishment. The anarchist ' the endless entrepreneur of social organization ' always looks at a problem and sees an opportunity for peaceful, innovative, charitable or profitable problem-solving.
The statist looks at a population and sees an irrational and selfish horde that needs to be endlessly herded around at gunpoint ' and yet looks at those who run the government as selfless, benevolent and saintly. Yet these same statists always look at this irrational and dangerous population and say: 'You must have the right to choose your political leaders!'
It is truly an unsustainable and irrational set of positions.
An anarchist ' like any good economist or scientist ' is more than happy to look at a problem and say, 'I do not know the solution' ' and be perfectly happy not imposing a solution through force.
Darwin looked at the question, 'Where did life come from?' and only came up with his famous answer because he was willing to admit that he did not know ' but that existing religious 'answers' were invalid. Theologians, on the other hand, claim to 'answer' the same question with: 'God made life,' which as mentioned above, on closer examination, always turns out to be an exact synonym for: 'I do not know.' To say, 'God did it,' is to say that some unknowable being performed some incomprehensible action in a completely mysterious manner for some never-to-be-discovered end.
In other words: 'I haven't a clue.'
In the same way, when faced with challenges of social organization such as collective self-defense, roads, pollution and so on, the anarchist is perfectly content to say, 'I do not know how this problem will be solved.' As a corollary, however, the anarchist is also perfectly certain that the pseudo-answer of 'the government will do it' is a total non-answer ' in fact, it is an anti-answer, in that it provides the illusion of an answer where one does not in fact exist. To an anarchist, saying 'the government will solve the problem,' has as much credibility as telling a biologist ' usually with grating condescension ' 'God created life.' In both cases, the problem of infinite regression is blindly ignored ' if that which exists must have been created by a God, the God which exists must have been created by another God, and so on. In the same way, if human beings are in general too irrational and selfish to work out the challenges of social organization in a productive and positive manner, then they are far too irrational and selfish to be given the monopolistic violence of state power, or vote for their leaders.
Asking an anarchist how every conceivable existing public function could be re-created in a stateless society is directly analogous to asking an economist what the economy will look like down to the last detail 50 years from now. What will be invented? How will interplanetary contracts be enforced? Exactly how will time travel affect the price of a rental car? What megahertz will computers be running at? What will operating systems be able to do? And so on and so on.
This is all a kind of elaborate game designed to, fundamentally, stall and humiliate any economist who falls for it. A certain amount of theorizing is always fun, of course, but the truth is not determined by accurate long-term predictions of the unknowable. Asking Albert Einstein in 1910 where the atomic bomb will be dropped in the future is not a credible question ' and the fact that he is unable to answer it in no way invalidates the theory of relativity.
In the same way, we can imagine that abolitionists would have been asked exactly how society would look 20 years after the slaves were freed. How many of them would have jobs? What would the average number of kids per family be? Who would be working the plantations?
Though these questions may sound absurd to many people, when you propose even the vague possibility of a society without a government, you are almost inevitably maneuvered into the position of fighting a many-headed hydra of exactly such questions: 'How will the roads be provided in the absence of a government?' 'How will the poor be educated?' 'How will a stateless society defend itself?' 'How can people without a government deal with violent criminals?'
In 25 years of talking about just these subjects, I have almost never ' even after credibly answering every question that comes my way ' had someone sit back, sigh and say, 'Gee, I guess it really could work!'
No, inevitably, what happens is that they come up with some situation that I cannot answer immediately, or in a way that satisfies them, and then they sit back and say in triumph, 'You see? Society just cannot work without a government!'
What is actually quite funny about this situation is that by taking this approach, people think that they are opposing the idea of anarchy, when in fact they are completely supporting it.
One simple and basic fact of life is that no individual ' or group of individuals ' can ever be wise or knowledgeable enough to run society.
Our core fantasy of 'government' is that in some remote and sunlit chamber, with lacquered mahogany tables, deep leather chairs and sleepless men and women, there exists a group who are so wise, so benevolent, so omniscient and so incorruptible that we should turn over to them the education of our children, the preservation of our elderly, the salvation of the poor, the provision of vital services, the healing of the sick, the defense of the realm and of property, the administration of justice, the punishment of criminals, and the regulation of virtually every aspect of a massive, infinitely complex and ever-changing social and economic system. These living man-gods have such perfect knowledge and perfect wisdom that we should hand them weapons of mass destruction, and the endless power to tax, imprison and print money ' and nothing but good, plenty and virtue will result.
And then, of course, we say that the huddled and bleating masses, who could never achieve such wisdom and virtue, not even in their wildest dreams, should all get together and vote to surrender half their income, their children, their elderly and the future itself to these man-gods.
Of course, we never do get to actually see and converse with these deities. When we do actually listen to politicians, all we hear are pious sentiments, endless evasions, pompous speeches and all of the emotionally manipulative tricks of a bed-ridden and abusive parent.
Are these the demi-gods whose only mission is the care, nurturing and education of our precious children's minds?
Perhaps we can speak to the experts who advise them, the men behind the throne, the shadowy puppet-masters of pure wisdom and virtue? Can they come forward and reveal to us the magnificence of their knowledge? Why no, these men and women also will not speak to us, or if they do, they turn out to be even more disappointing than their political masters, who at least can make stirring if empty phrases ring out across a crowded hall.
And so, if we like, we can wander these halls of Justice, Truth and Virtue forever, opening doors and asking questions, without ever once meeting this plenary council of moral superheroes. We can shuffle in ever-growing disappointment through the messy offices of these mere mortals, and recognize in them a dusty mirror of ourselves ' no more, certainly, and often far less.
Anarchy is the simple recognition that no man, woman, or group thereof is ever wise enough to come up with the best possible way to run other people's lives. Just as no one else should be able to enforce on you his choice of a marriage partner, or compel you to follow a career of his choosing, no one else should be able to enforce his preferences for social organization upon you.
Thus when the anarchist is expected to answer every possible question regarding how society will be organized in the absence of a government, any failure to perfectly answer even one of them completely validates the anarchist's position.
If we recognize that no individual has the capacity to run society ('dictatorship'), and we recognize that no group of elites has the capacity to run society ('aristocracy'), we are then forced to defend the moral and practical absurdity of 'democracy.'
It may be considered a mad enough exercise to attempt to rescue the word 'anarchy' ' however, to smear the word 'democracy' seems almost beyond folly. Fewer words have received more reverence in the modern Western world. Democracy is in its essence the idea that we all run society. We choose individuals to represent our wishes, and the majority then gets to impose its wishes upon everyone else, subject ideally to the limitations of certain basic inalienable rights.
The irrational aspect of this is very hard to see, because of the endless amount of propaganda that supports democracy (though only in democracies, which is telling), but it is impossible to ignore once it becomes evident.
Democracy is based on the idea that the majority possesses sufficient wisdom to both know how society should be run, and to stay within the bounds of basic moral rules. The voters are considered to be generally able to judge the economic, foreign policy, educational, charitable, monetary, health care, military et al policies proposed by politicians. These voters then wisely choose between this buffet of various policy proposals, and the majority chooses wisely enough that whatever is then enacted is in fact a wise policy ' and their chosen leader then actually enacts what he or she promised in advance, and the leader's buffet of proposals is entirely wise, and no part of it requires moral compromise. Also, the majority is virtuous enough to respect the rights of the minority, even though they dominate them politically. Few of us would support the idea of a democracy where the majority could vote to put the minority to death, say, or steal all their property.
In addition, for even the idea of a democracy to work, the minority must be considered wise and virtuous enough to accept the decisions of the majority.
In short, democracy is predicated on the premises that:
- A. The majority of voters are wise and virtuous enough to judge an incredibly wide variety of complex proposals by politicians.
- B. The majority of voters are wise and virtuous enough to refrain from the desire to impose their will arbitrarily upon the minority, but instead will respect certain universal moral ideals.
- C. The minority of voters who are overruled by the majority are wise and virtuous enough to accept being overruled, and will patiently await the next election in order to try to have their say once more, and will abide by the universal moral ideals of the society.
This, of course, is a complete contradiction. If society is so stuffed to the gills with wise, brilliant, virtuous and patient souls, who all respect universal moral ideals and are willing to put aside their own particular preferences for the sake of the common good, what on earth do we need a government for?
Whenever this question is raised, the shining image of the 'noble citizenry' mysteriously vanishes, and all sorts of specters are raised in their place. 'Well, without a government, everyone would be at each other's throats, there would be no roads, the poor would be uneducated, the old and sick would die in the streets etc. etc. etc.'
This is a blatant and massive contradiction, and it is highly informative that it is nowhere part of anyone's discourse in the modern world.
Democracy is valid because just about everyone is wise and moral, we are told. When we accept this, and question the need for a government, the story suddenly reverses, and we are told that we need a government because just about everyone is amoral and selfish.
Do you see how we have an ambivalent relationship not just with anarchism, but with democracy itself?
In the same way, whenever an anarchist talks about a stateless society, he is immediately expected to produce evidence that every single poor person in the future will be well taken care of by voluntary charity.
Again, this involves a rank contradiction, which involves democracy.
The welfare state, old-age pensions, and 'free' education for the poor are all considered in a democracy to be valid reflections of the virtuous will of the people ' these government programs were offered up by politicians, and voluntarily accepted by the majority who voted for them, and also voluntarily accepted by the minority who have agreed to obey the will of the majority!
In other words, the majority of society is perfectly willing to give up an enormous chunk of its income in order to help the sick, the old and the poor ' and we know this because those programs were voted for and created by democratic governments!
Ah, says the anarchist, then we already know that the majority of people will be perfectly willing to help the sick, the old and the poor in a stateless society ' democracy provides empirical and incontrovertible evidence of this simple fact!
Again, when this basic argument is put forward, the myth of the noble citizenry evaporates once more!
'Oh no, without the government forcing people to be charitable, no one would lift a finger to help the poor, people are so selfish, they don't care etc. etc. etc.'
This paradox cannot be unraveled this side of insanity. If a democratic government must force a selfish and unwilling populace to help the poor, then government programs do not reflect the will of the people, and democracy is a lie, and we must get rid of it ' or at least stop pretending to vote.
If democracy is not a lie, then existing government programs accurately represent the will of the majority, and thus the poor, the sick and the old will have nothing to fear from a stateless society ' and will, for many reasons, be far better taken care of by private charity than government programs.
Now it is certainly easy to just shrug off the contradictions above and say that somewhere, somehow, there just must be a good answer to these objections.
Although this can be a pleasant thing to do in the short run, it is not something I have ever had much luck doing in the long term. These contradictions come back and nag at me ' and I am actually very glad that they have done so, since I think that the progress of human thought utterly depends upon us taking nothing for granted.
The first virtue is always honesty, and we should be honest enough to admit when we do not have reasonable answers to these reasonable objections. This does not mean that we must immediately come up with new 'answers,' but rather just sit with the questions for a while, ponder them, look for weaknesses or contradictions in our objections ' and only when we are satisfied that the objections are valid should we begin looking for rational and empirical answers to even some of the oldest and most commonly-accepted 'solutions.'
This process of ceasing to believe in non-answers is fundamental to science, to philosophy ' and is the first step towards anarchism, or the acceptance that violence is never a valid solution to non-violent problems.
One of the truly tragic misunderstandings about anarchism is the degree to which anarchism is associated with violence.
Violence, as commonly defined, is the initiation of the use of force. (The word 'initiation' is required to differentiate the category of self-defense.)
Since the word 'ambivalent' seems to be the theme for this book, it is important to understand that those who advocate or support the existence of a government have themselves a highly ambivalent relationship to violence.
To understand what I mean by this, it is first essential to recognize that taxation ' the foundation of any statist system ' falls entirely under the category of 'the initiation of the use of force.'
Governments claim the right to tax citizens ' which is, when you look at it empirically, one group of individuals claiming the moral right to initiate the use of force against other individuals.
Now, you may believe for all the reasons in the world that this is justified, moral, essential, practical and so on ' but all this really means is that you have an ambivalent relationship to the use of force. On the one hand, you doubtless condemn as vile the initiation of the use of force in terms of common theft, assault, murder, rape and so on.
Indeed, it is the addition of violence that makes specific acts evil rather than neutral, or good. Sex plus violence equals rape. Property transfer plus violence equals theft. Remove violence from property transfer, and you have trade, or charity, or borrowing, or inheritance.
However, when it comes to the use of violence to transfer property from 'citizens' to 'government,' these moral rules are not just neutralized, but actively reversed.
We view it as a moral good to resist a crime if possible ' not an absolute necessity, but certainly a forgivable if not laudable action. However, to resist the forcible extraction of your property by the government is considered ignoble, and wrong.
Please note that I am not attempting to convince you of the anarchist position in this (or any other) section of this book. I consider it far too immense a task to change your mind about this in such a short work ' and besides, if you are troubled by logical contradictions, I might rob you of the considerable intellectual thrill and excitement of exploring these ideas for yourself.
Thus in a democracy, we have a highly ambivalent relationship to violence itself. We both fear and hate violence when it is enacted by private citizens in pursuit of personal ' and generally considered negative ' goals. However, we praise violence when it is enacted by public citizens in pursuit of collective ' and generally considered positive ' goals.
For instance, if a poor man robs a richer man at gunpoint, we may feel a certain sympathy for the desperation of the act, but still we will pursue legal sanctions against the mugger. We recognize that relative poverty is no excuse for robbery, both due to the intrinsic immorality of theft, and also because if we allow the poor to rob the less poor, we generally feel that social breakdown would be the inevitable result. The work ethic of the poor would be diminished ' as would that of the less poor, and society would in general dissolve into warring factions, to the economic and social detriment of all.
However, when we institutionalize this very same principle in the form of the welfare state, it is considered to be a noble and virtuous good to use force to take money from the more wealthy, and hand it over to the less wealthy.
Again, this book is not designed to be any sort of airtight argument against the welfare state ' rather, it is designed to highlight the enormous moral contradictions in ' and our fundamental ambivalence towards ' the use of violence to achieve preferred ends'
This is Part 3 of the free book 'Everyday Anarchy,' available at www.freedomainradio.com/free