Part 3 of 7
June 3, 2008
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.
anyone who works from historical evidence and even a basic smattering of
first principles, this answer is, to be frank, outlandishly unfounded.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
is the situation that highly intelligent, well-educated people – with
perfectly straight faces – say should be solved through the creation
of a government.
is this such a bizarre solution?
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
fact that people can repeat these absurdities with perfectly straight
faces is testament to the power of propaganda and self-interest.
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.
– the solution that is proposed by almost everyone to the
“problem” of voluntary economic interaction?
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.
voluntary and peaceful “monopolies” are a great evil – but the
involuntary and violent monopoly of the state is the greatest good!?
you see why I began this book talking about our complicated and
ambivalent relationship to voluntarism, or anarchy?
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
is truly an unsustainable and irrational set of positions.
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.
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.
other words: “I haven’t a clue.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?”
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
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!”
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.
simple and basic fact of life is that no individual – or group of
individuals – can ever be wise or knowledgeable enough to run society.
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.
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.
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.
these the demi-gods whose only mission is the care, nurturing and
education of our precious children’s minds?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
short, democracy is predicated on the premises that:
majority of voters are wise and virtuous enough to judge an incredibly
wide variety of complex proposals by politicians.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
is a blatant and massive contradiction, and it is highly informative
that it is nowhere part of anyone’s discourse in the modern world.
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.
you see how we have an ambivalent relationship not just with anarchism,
but with democracy itself?
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.
this involves a rank contradiction, which involves democracy.
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!
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!
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!
when this basic argument is put forward, the myth of the noble citizenry
evaporates once more!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
of the truly tragic misunderstandings about anarchism is the degree to
which anarchism is associated with violence.
as commonly defined, is the initiation of the use of force. (The word
“initiation” is required to differentiate the category of
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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…
is Part 3 of the free book ‘Everyday Anarchy,’ available at www.freedomainradio.com/free
Stefan Molyneux is the host of Freedomain Radio, the most popular philosophical podcast on the Internet, and a Top 10 Finalist in the 2007 Podcast Awards. He is the author of Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, On Truth: The Tyranny of Illusion, and the novel The God of Atheists.