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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Permanence of Politics

Any society needs governance.

When I give talks at libertarian seminars, questions about what an ideal society would look like usually come up.  The discussions tend to be pretty theoretical because there are few examples, historical or especially contemporary, of, say, communities without government (not that that is necessarily ideal – it’s just what most folks want to talk about).  The question I’d like to touch on here is whether, with limited government or even no government at all, politics would become unimportant.

That question actually rarely arises at those seminars.  I think most people assume politics begins and ends with government.  I’ve been thinking about this ever since a young colleague sent me a documentary film about people who are living “off the grid” on the mesas of New Mexico.  (HT Alina Dimofte.)  More on that in a moment.

Ayn Rand on Politics

Carl von Clausewitz, the German military theorist, defined politics as “war by other means” because, like war, it is essentially a struggle over who will hold the means of coercion and compulsion.  And I believe it was in her novel Atlas Shrugged that Ayn Rand said, speaking through a character:  “I am interested in politics so that one day I will not have to be interested in politics.”

I interpret Rand to mean that the need (or at least her need) to engage in political struggle will largely disappear once government is limited to the minimum functions she thought proper. Actually, few would argue with this idea, including market anarchists and maximal-state socialists. They also assume politics will disappear when they achieve their objectives.

Would politics disappear?  I don’t think so.

Life “Off the Grid”

The documentary I mentioned is Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa.  It’s fascinating, and if you can spare an hour I think it’s worth taking a look.  A word of warning: It’s got some foul language and “adult content.”  The loose community, all white, is made up of men, women, and children.  They include people who are working class, drop-outs, college-educated, war veterans, drug addicts, and runaways.  All are misfits who prefer the harsh conditions of the desert to life in the mainstream.  One wonders how difficult their lives must have been to give up running water and reliable electricity.

Living off the grid means being effectively outside the law, and their independence is precious to them.  That, and their guns.  I don’t think you will find a group of people who are more individualistic, more hostile to authority, than these folks.

“Cops don’t like to come out here.… [T]his place is built on being left alone by the authorities,” says one, “…[W]e don’t want your government!”  Another says,” There are very few rules that we have out here…. [T]he basic rules are ‘don’t steal from your neighbor’… ‘don’t shoot your neighbor.’”

So they have rules, and many have lived on the mesa for years.  In fact, if you watch the film beyond the first couple of minutes, which tend to play up the giddy gun-toting aspects, you will see that most appear to live contentedly; at least as contentedly as most people “on the grid” appear to live. It’s not the sort of place most would imagine as their ideal, but it’s perhaps a community that in essence an anarchist might approve of (though not necessarily want to live in).

Politics Off the Grid

Toward the middle of the documentary, the community faces a serious problem.  Members of a nearby group of runaway teenagers have been stealing from some others in the group.  The absence of government does not mean that people who want to initiate aggression disappear.  Do the others, this band of rugged individualists, look out only for themselves?  No.

The oldest, most respected , and most experienced members of the community — “the elders” — take charge and discuss what should be done.  First, they organize a meeting with the teens, which doesn’t go well.  Then they decide to send a group of women, “the Mothers,” to talk with them, apparently with more success.

There is no government here, but the community does have an informal structure of leadership that doesn’t claim a monopoly over coercion and that comes into play when conflicts inevitably arise.  These are not settled, as the early scenes might lead one to expect, with violence, but through peaceful discussion, which probably involved some pretty noisy haggling.  (You could argue, however, that behind that debate, perhaps even enabling it, is the understanding that using violence to settle the matter is a viable option.)

So residents of the larger community have to decide who has the authority to speak and negotiate for everyone else, and the teens probably have to do something similar.  And then there has to be a struggle, within agreed-on rules, between the two groups over who has the right to do what with whose property, or perhaps over what even constitutes private property and over the legitimate use of violence.

This is pretty close to politics.  In fact, it is perhaps the essence of politics.

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.