24 May 2016

Some observations on libertarianism and anarchism

Like many intellectually-curious people, I once went through a phase of taking Ayn Rand seriously, and was quite enamored of her ideas for a time. But that's not how things work in reality. Like most primates, humans exist in social groups and couldn't really function normally outside that context. Highly successful people in the modern world do, in many cases, owe their success to personal talents to a great extent -- but none of them could have become anything like what they are without the benefit of the education, written languages, technology, infrastructure, and stable societies which existed before they were born and are maintained by masses of people. I have talents which have served me well, but if I'd been born in the year 1360 instead of 1960, my life would have been utterly different, stunted by the sheer backwardness of that environment. Randism is the philosophy of "those who were born on third base and think they hit a triple".

I abandoned economic libertarianism partly because I came to realize it was essentially a scam concocted to justify the position of the parasitic financial elite, but also because I'm basically a pragmatist and care about results, not about ideological purity. Most libertarians seem to have an attitude of following their ideology completely inflexibly no matter what the consequences, or they insist that whatever consequences follow from libertarian ideology must by definition be the right ones. That's not how you actually get anything done in the real world. It's voluntarily turning oneself into a mindless robot following a program.

As for real anarchism, it also couldn't work in reality. There are reasons why all complex societies have states. The death rates from violence, both inter-group (war) and intra-group (murder) in hunter-gatherer societies are astronomically high by our standards, as they are in chimpanzee social groups. The history of civilization is a history of increasing size and complexity of societies, increasing power and sophistication of states, and falling per-capita levels of violence. The per-capita death rates from violence in modern times are much lower than in pre-state or weak-state societies, even when phenomena like World War II are factored in. When the authority of the state breaks down for any length of time, chaos and violence explode out of control, Somalia after the collapse of the Siad Barré regime being the best-known recent example.

One thing that might be of interest here is the fact that very few women are anarchists or libertarians. I think biology (relative physical weakness, plus an awareness of the vulnerability that comes with pregnancy and nurturing small children) makes women less susceptible than men to the delusion that a human can exist purely as a "rational economic actor" or some such abstraction. In most democracies, women vote in greater numbers than men for parties which promise a strong social safety net, and they also attach more importance to the state's role in maintaining order. They are more conscious of the dangers implied by weakening of those things.

Civilization cannot exist without a strong state. Even hunter-gatherer bands have leaders; even chimpanzee groups have leaders. Dominance hierarchies are a distinctive feature of all primate social groups. When dominance hierarchies break down, the result is escalating violence, not greater freedom. The simpler forms of social organization in primitive pre-state societies don't allow much personal freedom in practice, since in those societies human behavior is strongly constrained by the expectations of tradition; and as we now know, levels of violence in such societies are staggeringly high by our standards. Also, such systems only work for small population sizes. If a society has a population above a few tens of thousands, in practice the only workable form of organization is the state. Historically, most states have not provided much freedom because doing so hasn't been a priority (in fact, historically one of the features of the state is large-scale slavery), but they do at least usually maintain order fairly effectively, which is actually a higher priority -- freedom is not meaningful in a situation where violence and thuggery are pervasive. The only societies where anything like freedom as modern people understand it has existed have been some societies with strong states which, for whatever reason, did choose to make protecting individual freedom a priority. Modern socialist states do the best job of this, since they restrain the tendency of the wealthiest to dominate everyone else.

[Note:  This post is adapted from my side of some correspondence I had with an anarcho-libertarian a few years ago.  I thought some of these points might be of broader interest.]

6 Comments:

Blogger Ryan said...

Despite the prevalence of atheism among them, libertarians tend to share religionists' inflexibility and deontological ethical perspective, which are among their worst qualities. Their rules may not be arbitrary like many of the religionists', but their obsession with them to the exclusion of all else is. Property and freedom are not our species' only values, nor are they the most important. Even if they were, the best way to protect them is still to take some of them away. Real rational self-interest is not too myopic to see that.

24 May, 2016 12:33  
Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

While I never went through a libertarian phase myself, there was a time when I was quite sympathetic to Marxism, which could probably be considered libertarianism's mirror image (and a philosophy that's flawed in many of the same ways - for example, I've heard it said that Marxists assume humans are far more rational than they really are).

Interestingly, I've seen more than a few Christian fundamentalist-types espouse libertarianism as the best of all possible political philosophies, which has always struck me as odd. For example, it's hard to reconcile a belief in liberty above all else with the desire many of these folk seem to have to impose a repressive, Old Testament-style theocracy on the rest of us. There's also the way they trot out the usual fundamentalist claptrap about the human heart being wicked in all things, while simultaneously believing that people are sufficiently good-natured that private charity will be more than enough to take care of all the poor and unfortunate members of society.

On a tangential note, you're right about chimpanzee societies being very violent. Indeed, I've heard it said that, as cute and human-like as they often are, chimps are absolutely, positively the WORST animals to try keeping as pets. Not only is it all but inevitable that they'll turn on their owners eventually, but when they do, they'll really fuck them up.

25 May, 2016 01:17  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The angels rejoice when someone rejects Ayn Rand. The reason a person turns away is because deep inside of that individual resides a decent person. Ayn Rand was pretty dogmatic for a philosopher. It's the dogmatism that makes it seductive. And she has a way of talking to the reader. If the reader isn't careful, it's possible to turn into a disciple. Hell, Alan Greenspan's still believes in her after the real world has proven her philosophy doesn't work.

Vic78

27 May, 2016 00:43  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Well Infidel ... this is a well thought out and put together piece (really good piece), makes alot of sense! The libertarian issue has been laid out to me several times, as a matter of fact, I was at a gathering a few cweeks ago (large cookout and gathering I was invited to outside Dallas by some folks that I know ... very heavy right wing types and libertarians) and had some heavy discussion with a small group of libertarians there (few already knew me), several are followers I know of Alex Jones. It was interesting because I had the opportunity to explain why I support a 'certain' amount of socialism, and think it is healthy for business too (and they actually wanted to hear what I had to say, weird, eh?). What I noticed is that some folks kind of get the wrong idea of what socialism is, or define it different I reckon, even some of the old timers think of old school USSR (I guess from popular thinking post WW2, McCarthy, etc). A few guyz were shocked on the other hand that I feel strong defense, militias and guns are needed in our society (which of course, they really agree with), but at the same time I thought that socialism (to an extent) was healthy in capitalism, and a benefit to a degree, along with fairly good size government, and the importance of a large enough government for our population and the benefits of such. I could go on and on guy, because we had some in depth talk of our ideas, and I actually got a good deal of positive feedback when explaining the importance of progressive ideas and rights FOR ALL (in particular LGBT rights), even though we have way different wayz of thinking, I think we both learned from each other. Many of these folks are the pro- 2nd amendment types, live way out in small towns, work damn hard and stand strong for their families, they just have different views than some of us who lived in the city most of our lives. It's good for us to communicate with each other, and we learn from each other. Anywayz, Thanx for the read guy ....

27 May, 2016 04:43  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ryan: Their rigidity and preference for dogma over real-world evidence are among their most striking traits, and their most religion-like. I do value freedom above almost all else, and that's why I could no longer be a libertarian once the true implications became clear.

Zosimus: It's always struck me that libertarianism and Marxism share at least one distinctive error -- a tendency to reduce everything to economics.

The logical incoherences in modern right-wing Christianity are enough to make one's head spin. I suppose an inability to spot such flaws is a prerequisite for being a true believer at all, though.

Apes make very bad pets, for the same reasons humans would.

Vic78: It's hard to read Rand's books without getting the feeling that a lot of it was just her venting her hatred toward people who disagreed with her.

Ranch: Anyone who thinks socialism and communism are the same thing is too stupid to argue with (I like to say that the difference between the two is the difference between West Germany and East Germany). If they knew history they'd know that socialism is not a step toward communism. It's a vaccine against communism, keeping life from getting so intolerable that people opt for the extreme alternative.

27 May, 2016 18:48  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Good point Infidel ... THAT IS EXACTLY what many folks think, and NO, they do not know much of a damn thing about history, it's almost like a cult mentality, I mean, when you ask some these folks about 'socialism' ... they absolutely THINK it's the same as communism ... I actually think that talk/ mindset though goes back to the cold war, and people look at the term/ name of 'Union of Soviet Socialist Republic' for the word 'socialist' (wonder if they take the name 'republic' for being 'republicans'?, heh, heh, heh, heh, heh {:-), just like the common use of the word 'commie' ... if that makes nay sense. I use the term 'corporate communism' myself, but it's more of a tongue in cheek kind of thing, I realize what the 2 separately mean, I clumped to 2 together out of sarcasm. Example ... when I told a few folks that HATE the idea of 'socialism', I told them to forfeit their social security, driving on the freewayz, post office library, etc ... and NO ... they sure as Hell would not quit any of that, however, they dont look at that as socialism ... where I do.

28 May, 2016 04:26  

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