Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Government

Unfortunately, an important part of our political lives is government. Years ago when i was in school i took a couple of political theory classes that were basically surveys of justifications for governmnet: from Hobbes, Rosseau and Locke, to Bentham and John Stuart Mill, to Plato and finally Marx. A recent interview between Julia Sweeny and Penn Jillette (find it here: and subsequent discussion has put the subject into my mind, so now i put my thoughts down, because this surely deserves a portion of space in the final laying out of my theory.

The way Hobbes framed the question, as a choice between anarchy, the war of all against all, and government, the covenant and what-not set up the framework for the rest of my perspective on this. I came down on the side of anarchy every time. The difference between anarchy and government is only a matter of perspective.

Let's define some terms:

ANARCHY means 'without central authority'. It does not mean 'without control or without balance'. It doesn't mean mass murder and crazy people running in the streets. Anarchy has been the norm in international relations forever (if you follow the state-as-rational-actor model) and it is (sometimes) a very stable system, where the powerful say "we get what we want" and the not so powerful bow down. It's not a just or wonderful system, but when practiced correctly it is fairly stable.

GOVERNMENT means an institution that one considers a legitimate enforcer of rules. The only thing that makes the government different from a coporation or a church is that we decide the government can shoot us if we break the rules.

So, if you mash those two definitions around in your head, if you think about what 'the war of all against all' means, read some Hobbes, etc, you'll see that anarchy is all about power relations, and power relations are ultimately all about perception. So, rational actors seeking to maximize their self-interest in an anarchist framework should be expected to use any means at their disposal to get their way. One of the best ways to 'get your way' is to convince everyone that you should be allowed to shoot them if they don't do what you want. Thus we have government. In this way anarchy is the default arrangement of humanity. The war of all against all is on.

If we aknowledge that everyone is out for blood, giving some people authority to shoot others is like giving them a huge advantage in the war of all against all. When you pledge allieigence you are basically surrendering your position in that war. Hobbes said this was a good idea, that any authority (no matter who or what that authority was) was necessary for order. But, it seems obvious to me that, if everyone is a selfish bastard, giving some selfish bastards authority to push everyone (probably myself included) around is a pretty lousy way to do things, thus i oppose government.

So i am an anarchist, not because I think anarchy is great and wonderful and peaceful, but because it seems to me anarchy just is. Anarchy is not a prescription for the world as much as it is a description of the world.

There are many ways to fight the war of all against all, and the way it's currently being fought in the USA (capitalist oligarchy masqurading as representative democracy) is a pretty ugly game, I think we can do better.

This brings me to Penn Jillette. He called himself a radical anarcho-capitalist. So he believes that nobody should be able to shoot you to make you follow rules. They think all services should be provided by private businesses. Roads, parks, etc...

That's a fine theory, it sounds nice, i can buy into it abstractly, but when you start thinking in practical terms it doesn't hold up. It'd work great if we were all honest brokers and good people. But we're not, we're selfish bastards. Maybe it'd work if we were all really good at smelling out a con. Maybe that's why Penn makes those BS movies and stuff, he's trying to train us. Thing is, we'd have to be good to the point of psychic divining powers or bringing a chemistry set to the grocery store.

Here's a theoretical: Lets say Penn wants to make sausages. He makes the best sausages ever, all organic meat from happy free range well fed cows and the highest quality everything. They're darn good sausages. He packages them up and sells em to the grocery store. They go into the meat case, Penn goes to the grocery store and sees his sausages, and he's proud. Then he notices these other sausages right next to his, marked for half the price. A price at which Penn would lose money if he charged it for his sausages. The sausages say "premium quality" and "organic" on them. Penn smells a rat and decides to investigate. He buys the other guys sausages and takes them home to his chemsitry lab and whaddaya know, the sausages are full of sawdust and rat shit. Penn is outraged. He calls together a press conference to expose this guy's bullshit sausages. But, just as he's about to lay out the results for the news the owner of the other sausages drives up with a bullhorn and a fresh $20 bill for every camera man that looks his way and says: "these new Penn Jillette sausages, they're false advertising, my panel of experts tested them, they're full of pig snot and pencil shavings" Penn yells, "lies! Liar!" but the news agencies are all owned by the other guy's brother in law and Penn's cries are not heard.

Customers get sick, they try and test the authenticity of the sausages, but for every study that proves Penn's sauages are the only real sausages there's a bigger study, with more news coverage saying the opposite. In a last ditch effort, Penn starts cutting his sausages with pig snot and cuts his prices, but the bad press is too much and his business fails. Then the other guy, not having competition anymore jacks up his prices, everyone who likes sausages gets poor and sick and then dies. the end.

You can claim it wouldn't happen this way, but, before the muckrakers and the FDA, there was sawdust and rat shit in the sausages. Also, in our more enlightened times, businesses are are working ways around the FDA, wittling away at the regulations, and working all kinds of questionable chemicals and cost saving measures into your food. Any businessman who doesn't want to poison his customers (or ruin the environment, or let his factory managers rape children who work for him) is appealing the government for intervention, for regulation, because they can either adopt these practices, or go out of business.

If their appeals fall on deaf ears and the government goes totally hands off, then capitalism will work itself into a group of useless monopolies that basically kill people to make low quality products. Laborers and consumers revolt. The government attempts to protect the businessmen, but their tanks and guns were made by children in foreign countries that screwed the barrels on wrong and they blow up in the soldiers hands. The mob tears the businessmen out of their offices while they shout about 'competitive business practices', and 'the needs of the market.' They're hung by their neckties and society falls into a new dark ages.

The moral of the story is: capitalism has a paradoxical and deeply flawed relationship to society and requires government to reconile this relationshp, but then has an animosity to this government and will inevitably swing too close to lassaiz faire for too long and then self-destruct.

Capitalism cannot sustain itself, it can only be sustained by force.

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