"He is free who knows how to keep in his own hands the power to decide at each step, the course of his life, and who lives in a society which does not block the exercise of that power." ~ Salvador De Madariaga
Seven Samurai, Times Ten
Column by tzo.
Exclusive to STR
In Akira Kurosawa's classic film Seven Samurai, a village of farmers must contend with raiding bandits. Not being skilled in or equipped for the martial arts, the farmers are easy prey for the armed thugs on horseback.
Near the beginning of the story, the bandits are about to invade the village when they realize that they did just that not too long ago and it may be better to wait a bit until the next crop is harvested. This discussion is overheard by a farmer, who returns to the village with the news of yet another impending attack.
The farmers decide to hire “hungry samurai,” who will assist them in the defense of the fruits of their labor in exchange for food, the only coin available to the farmers.
Seven samurai are eventually recruited, and they help train the farmers in putting up an armed resistance to the bandits.
Along the way, it is discovered that the farmers may have killed previous bands of hired samurai after their services had been rendered, and the enraged samurai entertain thoughts of killing the dishonorable farmers themselves. But one of the samurai points out the hardships faced by the farmers, who must eke out their survival while living under constant threats from the warrior class, and then points out that the for-hire samurai themselves are partially responsible for making the miserable farmers behave as they do.
The samurai continue on with their task after this without animosity and the bandits are eventually fended off, but at great cost to the samurai. Only three survive.
The story ends with the farmers happily working in the fields after the threat has passed, while the remaining samurai are left to wander off in search of work and food once again. The samurai consider themselves the losers, while the farmers are seen as the winners. But winners for how long?
What a timeless, universal, and fascinating theme. What options do producers have when they find themselves immersed in a world full of plunderers?
They can allow the bandits to raid their harvests and try and keep what they can for themselves.
The farmers can hire protection services from samurai. But if the farmers are at the mercy of the bandits, and the samurai are strong enough to defeat the bandits, then the farmers will be at the mercy of the samurai. The best-case scenario here is that most of the samurai get killed in the defense effort so the farmers can either finish them off or let them walk away.
The farmers can become proficient at fighting, but this reduces their ability to farm, and they will be going up against a professional warrior class. Fact is, if they wanted to be warriors, they wouldn’t be farmers.
So there really are no good long-term solutions for the farmers. I believe they actually found the best stopgap solution in hiring the hungry samurai, considering their position. If success in the world is predicated upon being able to exert leverage over others in order to make them serve your needs, then what better choice could they have made? If your only choice is to become the winner or the loser, you try to win. Obviously. Too bad for the other guy, but if it’s between him and me…
But consider that this story takes place in 1587. It deals with an isolated village of a few dozen farmers, perhaps 30-35 roving bandits, and seven hungry samurai. In such situations of remote communities and groups of human beings, the issue of protection, if individuals are unwilling or unable to provide it for themselves, is indeed a tough nut to crack.
Amazingly, a large percentage of people today still consider the viable options for the provision of security as being limited to the feudal-era Japanese menu items. Without surrendering tribute to a dominating gang in exchange for protection, bandits will plunder production worse than the tribute that needs to be paid in exchange for receiving protection from the plunderers.
But come on: The world has changed juuuust a little bit since then. Almost half a millennium has passed, and the communities of today, numbering in the thousands, are bound tightly together by sophisticated communication and transportation systems that connect many millions of people together. Very few communities today are truly isolated.
Governments purport to be the defenders of productive individuals, but their modus operandi is identical to the gangs of bandits with whom the producers have worked out uneasy arrangements while having to consider the swords hanging over their heads. This Old World, 1587-style arrangement is severely outdated. It’s like insisting on using candles and outhouses when electricity and running water are readily available.
Using force to make peaceful people behave in a desired manner is old and tired. Are we really bound to having to exploit others in order to meet our needs? Is there no way to voluntarily cooperate and change all the win-lose relationships into win-win?
Well, it’s just possible that dependence upon these self-appointed government “defenders” is in fact declining, and that these fraudulent entities are being seen more and more as the parasitic plunderers they really are, and not the honorable providers of security they proclaim to be.
Today, arbitrary physical borders laid down by governments are effortlessly traversed by wireless signals. Information, money, and markets can increasingly break the artificial constraints laid down by governments.
Slowly, the invisible bonds may be loosening and breaking. If we venture to update our feudal-Japan scenario just a bit, perhaps we can get a glimpse of how the problem of defending the producers against the plunderers may best be solved.
Producers naturally connect with other producers in a free market in order to facilitate trade. Now imagine a collection of ten interacting villages instead of just one. Each producing village then becomes dependent upon the others for their markets. This is a good dependency, because mutual benefit always results from the win-win voluntary exchanges of goods and services that takes place between them.
Now imagine that each village has its own seven samurai dedicated to its defense. If 30 or 40 bandits manage to organize themselves for an attack on a village, the combined strength of even a portion of the defense network of 70 samurai (with the assistance of the farmers) is sufficient to repel the invasion.
The keys here are having connected and interdependent production centers, each with their own independently-funded security force. There are not really 70 samurai, there are seven samurai, times ten. There is a critical difference. A band of 70 samurai may decide to run roughshod over each village, one at a time.
But ten groups of seven, each receiving their paychecks from different sources, will have some very strong incentive barriers and logistics problems to overcome before deciding that the most advantageous course of action would be to mutiny against the network of producers.
But could this unfortunate regression actually happen? Is it possible that these independent bands could congeal back into a government gang? I suppose so. Would it be inevitable? Certainly not. Probable? Can’t really know unless we try. And how can it make sense not to try, considering what’s at stake? If the absolute worst-case scenario is ending up right where we are currently standing, then it seems that every other result is pure upside. This would appear to be an unbeatable, nearly-infinite reward/risk ratio, as the risk is pretty much zero.
Relationships between producers (trades in a free market) are win-win. The production of defense and security must be identified as one of the many goods and services available on the free market. The time has come to treat these providers as the production specialists they are and bring them into the production fold by instituting win-win voluntary exchange relationships between them and everyone else.
Applying this updated win-win model of voluntary exchange and mutual benefit to today’s communities that can instantaneously exchange information with and respond to one another seems to be a much more reasonable, desirable, and successful model than the one currently being implemented.
Win-lose is so passé. It’s time to get over it.
Anarchism is not a romantic fable but the hardheaded realization, based on five thousand years of experience, that we cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners. ~Edward Abbey