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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Economic justification for government oppression

Stefan Molyneax, one of my blog's few blogrolled bloggers, has a book out. He's occasionally a bit of a pompous ass, but less so than the other political writers that people gobble up. This is probably due to the unshakable confidence that anarchists get from their elaborate and carefully researched ideas.

I'm tempted to buy the book for some friends of mine that recently got married. They're fairly intelligent, but also came from arbitrary and authoritarian families. Not that you would normally think of the kindly mother of the bride as authoritarian, but.. well.. authoritarian doesn't just mean frightening children with random acts of abuse. Even belief in the moral, rather than pragmatic, utility of traditions can be authoritarian. Many traditions are authoritarian in nature. The family is presumptuous as well.

Molyneux has been exploring the relationship between political beliefs and childrearing lately. I've had similar thoughts myself. The gist of the idea is that most people have a core set of values that are arbitrarily trained into them by their parents (think Pavlov). If your parents give you arbitrary rules, chores, allowance, etc. you WILL be more in favor of government control than someone like me who had three rules to cover every situation:
1) Don't stand on the furniture.
2) She may be your mother, but she's my wife.
3) Put your pants back on.

There was once an exchange like this:
Mom: Don't hit girls.
Me: I stuck my fist out and she ran into it. I thought she was going to stop, but she didn't.
Mom: (Frown).

Well, it was the truth. That's just the kind of credibility I have. Incidentally, who the hell would run into an outstretched fist?

Seriously, no one ever told me NOT to eat all the ice cream in the freezer. I just didn't do it.. I didn't buy it, and it's a scarce resource that should be conserved. I'm not sure it occurred to me to eat the food in the fridge before I was 10.

Economic Justification for Government Oppression

Not justification as such, but... We often think of government as an entity that evolves over time based on philosophical ideals, religious beliefs, and social forces. I won't totally contradict that, but I think that the form of government is MUCH more reliant on the underlying technological and economic base.

This argument isn't similar to Marxist arguments wherein the distribution of wealth determines the economic system and government. I'm not saying that amassing all the wealth in the hands of a few people will lead to aristocratic government.

Instead, I'm saying that the structure of government is determined by what is TECHNOLOGICALLY the cheapest way to make decisions.

Did feudalism die because the spread of Catholicism made people realize the innate worth of human life? No. Was it the Magna Carta? Superficially, that was an effect. Did we just evolve to a higher state of understanding? Nay.

Feudalism is a top-down decision making structure where the physical distance between members of the hierarchy is related to the need for quick decision making. Technologically, Serfs had no time to plan national defense or read the morning paper. They had no time to learn to read. The society required so many agrarian workers, and the process of farming was so straightforward, that only a few decision makers were needed because there were few decisions to be made. The only method of communication for the Serfs was word-of-mouth. They had to be physically close to the decision maker, the feudal lord. Preferably they were within half a day's travel, I would assume.

I'll skip crop rotation and the rise of the middle class. When the Renaissance hit, the more complex economy required more complex decision making. Thus, more people were brought into the process via parliament and such. This pattern has been repeated everywhere, with variations such as slave labor and shoguns. The printing press allowed long-distance communication and the governmental hierarchy flattened out. Instead of a long chain of subdivided land grants, with Serf-Knight-Baron-Count-Duke-Prince-King relationships, there were Commoners, Nobility, and Royalty. Of course social classes continued to exist, but the point is that with increased communication abilities (technology), and increased decision making requirements at lower levels (economy), the society became more egalitarian.

The USA was, at the time it was established, the most literate society on earth. This was probably due to Protestants reading their bibles, and to a certain extent the various free thinkers, British officers, and speculators swarming to the new world. I'm not an expert on the demography. The industrial revolution and the division of labor were well under way by this time, so the USA was created
1) Deliberately
2) With a highly literate population and plenty of newspapers and rivers
3) With a somewhat diverse economy that was consciously aiming to catch up to Europe in terms of industrial capability

The fact that the US constitution was drawn up with relatively little constraint makes it an excellent gauge of governmental structure relative to economic and technological conditions. A government that evolves, like Britain's, must at the very least lag societal conditions. It also faces vested interest, external pressures, its own traditions, et cetera. The US was RELATIVELY free from these, being geographically isolated and free of entangling alliances at the time.The creation of a new government also allows a break with prior laws and power arrangements where desired.

The result was a successful democracy, although power has tended to centralize over time. Still, compared to Renaissance England (Or 1855 Japan, or the Han Dynasty, or the Aztec civilization...) we're far more decentralized and egalitarian.

Information Technology is the explicit realization of the importance of data analysis, communication, and decision making to our daily activities. It allows the creation of an economy that is literally more complex than the human mind can conceive. I'm not limiting IT to the computer, here. The address book is a primitive database that allows us to surpass the limits of human memory, creating better business opportunities. The computer simply allows for more rules, heuristics, and decisions to be implemented in daily life that would be impractical before.

For example, when I go shopping, it is a simple matter to get to three different stores with relative ease. I go to Fry's because it usually has the best quality/price and such. There are surely some days when Safeway has a sale on chuck roast and ice cream, and on those rare occasions I'd save a few dollars going there. Is it worth my time to search the ads every time I go shopping? No.

If I had a wristwatch that told me which one to go to, based on my tastes, with no effort from me, it would make the economy that teensy bit more efficient.

Now, visions of a future libertarian or anarchist society have one great obstacle to overcome: they're too complicated. We'd all be better off making our own decisions, rather than having the government tell us what to do, but for many (most?) people, it's just not worth the effort to plan their own life. They have to work 9 hours, drive one hour, play with the kids, eat dinner, fix the garage door, and after that they barely have time to watch the news and figure out what our existing government is doing to screw us all today. They DON'T have time, and many don't have the education, to sift through MSNBC data on what business transactions are underway by the local utility co-ops and private security forces.

If current trends continue, one day most people WILL have the time and education to maintain a stateless society. Technology will assist them in filtering information. The economy will require decentralized decision making - it already does. The creaks of the bureaucracy are heard every time a hurricane destroys a major city and the inhabitants sit around waiting for death.

To all appearances, the government is actively trying to prevent the creation of a super-rational population, but based on my half-baked historical revisionism, the stateless society is inevitable.


Blogger Kevin said...

That's an interesting take on the question. Obviously from my perspective you've left the critical question of force out of the mix - government is, after all, nothing but force. That's what the anarchists all decry; the taking (by force) of value from the populace to support that government oppression. I wrote some time back about the force component here.

The biggest problem I have with anarchism as a philosophy was best expressed by The Geek with a .45 in a comment. To wit: "A truly enlightened society must ultimately be composed of 95%+ enlightened individuals...and the bell curve just doesn't support that premise." That, I believe, is the point you were making in your third-to-last paragraph, and for that reason, I believe your concluding paragraph is in error.

9:04 PM  
Blogger Stefan Molyneux, MA said...

Thanks for the interest in my book bro - I'll do my best to be less pompous! ;)

8:12 PM  

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