All Commentary
Tuesday, February 26, 2013

To Free One’s Mind

People often ask me, “When did you become an anarchist?” It’s not an easy question to answer. Deep changes in one’s intellectual outlook do not happen overnight. You first entertain the idea. Then you assess its plausibility. You might even embrace the idea fully, but only in the abstract. Real intellectual change comes when you can see how the idea works in the real world—even in your daily life. That’s when confidence in an idea comes.
For this reason, it always mystifies me that anyone could become a socialist. It is the least plausible idea imaginable. Scarce goods cannot be literally owned on a socialist basis. Try socializing your laptop or your shoes or any capital or consumer good. Two people cannot be simultaneous and full owners of the same thing. Socialism always ends in State ownership and control, which leads to disaster every time it’s fully implemented. Real-life socialists either don’t understand the idea or they just decide to live in an illusion.
The first time I heard of anarchism of the private property sort was when I saw Murray Rothbard’s book Man, Economy, and State on a professor’s bookshelf. The title alone dealt directly with problems I was thinking about at the time. I asked the professor about it and he was alarmed, as if I had seen something I was not supposed to see. He quickly warned me against reading the book. “Rothbard is an anarchist,” he said ominously. I immediately wanted to read it (but I couldn’t because it was not in the school library and I couldn’t figure out a way to actually poach the professor’s book from his shelf).
Instead, I put the idea on hold and plunged more deeply into the free-market tradition. The more I read, the more I was impressed. Milton Friedman was right. Henry Hazlitt was right. Ludwig von Mises was right. F. A. Hayek was right. Leonard Read was right. This whole tradition dating back to Adam Smith was really onto something spectacular. The world was trying to manage economies through State edicts and yet getting it all wrong. Only freedom and private property are truly productive, creative, progressive, and empowering of everyone in society.
And yet, each of these other thinkers stops short of saying that we don’t really need a State. They all seem to agree that the State is necessary to keep the peace. It is really all that stands between us and total chaos. Without the State, we couldn’t even get to that first step in the social order. There would be no path to the security we take for granted. Essential goods and services couldn’t be provided. There would be no courts, no military, and maybe not even roads. The State provides things that the market can’t provide—or so the thinking goes. 
Over the course of time, these illusions were shattered one by one for me. Roads, mail, communications, and even legendary public goods like lighthouses—from a purely historical perspective—have all been provided by the free market. Then the government took these over. Courts? In the 1980s, the government courts were already full and so inefficient that businesses and individuals didn’t want to use them. Private arbitration was a much better option. Even in regular business affairs, contracts were being written so that disputes had to be solved in private courts. To my mind that meant that even these services were not something exclusive to government; they could be provided exclusively in the free market. It was the same with household and personal security. It’s not the State that keeps us safe day to day but our own precautions and preventive measures such as private locks, guns, and security services. 
And yet all this was happening for me in the waning years of the Cold War. A nuclear holocaust threatened us every day. Foreign enemies surrounded us. The communists wanted our way of life. It seems a bit nutty even to talk about this today, given how incredibly poor and pathetic all countries in the Soviet bloc were revealed to be after 1989. But back then it was scary. We couldn’t disarm as a nation because that would risk our way of life. 
While reading into the history, I began to find interesting things. The Red Scare, it turns out, was something that ebbed and flowed in U.S. history. People were terrified of the commies in the 1920s, just as in the 1980s. In between there was this weird period when the American and Soviet leaders were considered close allies in the struggle against the Japanese and the Germans. In fact, the United States did many things to keep the Soviet regime in charge, and after World War II, the United States itself helped turn Eastern Europe over to Soviet control. After that, the Soviets suddenly became the enemy again. It was to draw attention to that absurdity that George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. (The title is a spin on 1948. The book was published in 1949.)
These facts began to complicate the picture. I don’t need to go through the whole of historical revisionism here, but suffice it to say the picture of the United States at war in the twentieth century turned out to be much less clear than it appeared in the ideologically polarized news weeklies. The Cold War was not a story of devils and angels, despite the nationalist impulse to cheer on one’s own State. It was a struggle between States, both of which were inclined toward lying to their people, exploiting their populations, and favoring conflict over peace. It was also impossible not to notice that the more the United States ramped up its war machine against communism, the more the government at home became a menace to American liberty. War, as it turns out, was never a friend of liberty.
Meanwhile, I began to realize that if the United States were ever really invaded by a foreign enemy, governments might help but also might hurt by imposing martial law, nationalizing industry, and taking guns—as governments tend to do in any emergency. In practice, it will be private citizens and markets that will be decisive in overcoming invaders through private means: our own guns, security apparatus, friendship networks, and individual and community efforts. As I thought about it, it was an absolutely laughable idea that we could depend on government for all our protection. Based on experience, government could cause even more harm simply because governments tend to use emergencies to their advantage—and to the advantage of those who empower them (special interests). Even worse, people with power tend to encourage or even create emergencies when they have the power to do so. 
This was the course of my development over a period of probably five years. Finally one day I stopped in my tracks and asked myself the following question: Is there anything that the government does that needs to be done that cannot be better and more efficiently accomplished by free association? 
I kept turning over the question in my mind. I could think of no answer except that there is nothing the government does that is worth doing that could not be better accomplished through free association. It was a scary thought. Was I becoming an anarchist? Was this thought going to change my life? If I went in this direction, would I be doing something terribly irresponsible? I found solace in the possibility that I had not gone all the way, that perhaps there was something about the way that I formulated the question that overlooked some one tiny aspect of government that I could embrace so that I would not have to regard myself as crazy.
It was in the lobby of a hotel where Murray Rothbard was staying that I finally just asked him this question. I put it to him straight. If I answer no to the question above as formulated, does that mean I am an anarchist? Murray said yes. I clarified further: If I have concluded that the State contributes nothing of value to the social order and can make no real improvements to what we create on our own, am I an anarchist? He said yes again. I responded: Well, I guess I am then. He burst into a smile, shook my hand vigorously, and exuberantly congratulated me, all with his well-known sense of joy. Wow. I guessed the deed had been done.
And yet, I was wrong. The intellectual deed had been done, but it was still too easy to keep the idea as an abstraction, not anything that affected my daily work or life. It is one thing to have some far-flung vision of the light but another thing to see that light all around us. This step took many more years of thinking about particulars such as human rights, market services, the workings of freedom, the way the State functioned in history, and the way it works today. The final stages of this thought process were many years in the making. 
What I gradually discovered in the course of my daily life is that anarchism is all around us. The State does not wake us up in the mornings, make our beds, weave our sheets, build our houses, make our cars work, cook our food, cause us to work hard, produce the books we read, manage our houses of worship, give us clothes, keep the time, choose our friends and loved ones, play the music we love, produce the movies we watch, care for our kids, tend to our parents, choose where we vacation, dictate our conversations, make our holidays beautiful, or much of anything else. 
These are all things we do ourselves. We shape our own world. Through the exercise of human volition, we all work to make the world around us orderly. This is what the whole of the world population does. We all work from our rightly understood self-interest to find ways to have a good life and work with others on a mutually beneficial basis to see that our good lives do not come at the expense of other people’s rights and liberties. Freedom is where the beautiful things in our own lives come from. And this is true the world over. It has always been true. A beautiful anarchy is the great source of civilization itself. 
What role does the State play? It interferes. It takes property from us, reducing our individual wealth one by one. It blocks opportunities through regulations and the creation of cartels. It does worse than that: It looks for ways to start wars, it intrudes into our families, it punishes peaceful behavior that harms no one, it slows down development in myriad ways. The State is the great external. It is exogenous to society itself. Most of the world functions as it does, and civilization flourishes nonetheless, because people struggle to ignore the State as much as possible. What if it went away? I can see no real downside and plenty of upside.
And yet there was still the problem of those who warn of the apocalypse if the State goes away. Most people who believe in limited government (“minarchists”) conjure up this idea. Even great thinkers like Ludwig von Mises and Henry Hazlitt believed this. They all accept some version of the nightmare conjured up by Thomas Hobbes: In the absence of the State, life would be nasty, solitary, brutish, and short. Well, he wrote during a time of political upheaval, a time when religious tribes were struggling to control the State. Life without the State would have been exactly this way—but precisely because of the presence of the State, not because of its absence. 
I won’t go into every permutation of this notion, nor try to refute every justification for the State in this space. But I will mention a very common intuition that many people have. People say that there is not much point to eliminating the State because people will just create another in its place. I don’t doubt that this statement is true. People have the illusion that the State contributes something important to society. They want leaders who rule from the top, even if they know the downside. 
Think of Samuel from the Hebrew Scriptures. People came to him wanting a king. He warned that a king would take their property, put their children in servitude, start terrible wars, and eventually enslave everyone. No matter: They wanted a king anyway.
Such is the way people are. They sometimes ask for their own enslavement. That’s why the State keeps being reinvented. All credit goes to those who at least understand that it must be limited if it is to exist. But such limits have never really worked. That’s why it’s better just to let society flourish without one. The great project of liberty is to enlighten people against going for the illusion that any State can be a friend and benefactor of human liberty. This is what the liberal revolution of the late Middle Ages through the Enlightenment was all about. We need to understand the beauty of freedom if we are to achieve it.
Since the opening of the digital age, we’ve been allowed to observe the stunning creative power of human volition firsthand. Every nanosecond, individuals the world over are working to create new kinds of associations, institutions, capital, and means of prosperity. We are seeing things unfold before our eyes that we never imagined possible even a decade ago. It has only just begun. We are on the ground floor of institutions like 3-D printing, alternative currencies, and cloud-based civilizations capable of giving us more movies, books, art, and wisdom than any human being in past ages could have acquired in several lifetimes. This newly emerged world is transforming our lives. Take notice: No State did this, no State approved this, and no State is guiding this. 
Finally, let me admit that my anarchism is probably more practical than ideological—which is the reverse of what it is for the most well-known anarchist thinkers in history. I see the orderliness of human volition and action all around me. I find it inspiring. It frees my mind to understand what is truly important in life. I can see reality for what it is. It is not some far-flung ideology that makes me long for a world without the State but rather the practical realities of the human struggle to make something of this world though our own efforts. Only human beings can overcome the great curse of scarcity the world has imposed on us. So far as I can tell, the State is, at best, the great annoyance that slows down the mighty project of building civilization.