In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a massive super computer is asked for a simple answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. It spends 7 and a half million years to determine that the answer is 42. Of course, the realization is quickly made that a simple answer to an extremely complex question, or more accurately many difficult questions, is ridiculous on its face. The real answers to all the big problems are not easy, however badly we may desire them to be.
A lot of irrational beliefs have been fostered and perpetuated by barbaric civilizations in their desperate quest for answers. Virgins have been thrown into volcanoes to appease angry volcano gods. Rain dances have been performed to water dried up crops. People pray to various gods to heal a sick loved one. I happen to be an atheist*. If I tell a person his prayers won’t work because his god doesn’t exist, it’s not so I can give him a new god to pray to instead. The point is encouraging him to abandon the simplistic answer to a very difficult problem so he can face the cold hard reality. There are many realistic cures for cancer being pursued with varying degrees of success, but they can be painful, time-consuming, expensive, and don’t always work. If he pursues these and his loved one gets better, his god will get the credit. If not, he will make excuses. Perhaps his faith wasn’t strong enough! Through an atheist’s eyes, his prayers had little to do with his loved one getting better except perhaps from a placebo effect.
We look to governments in much the same way we look to gods, to offer us easy answers. Similarly, when things work, we give governments credit. When they don’t, we make excuses. We still have crime, war, car accidents, poverty, sickness, and death, despite the fix-all of authoritarian monopolistic governments, and sometimes because of. Instead, governments are forgiven for these massive failures and we continue to insist they have some crucial role to play.
I don’t present anarchy as an alternative fix-all solution just as atheism is not a cure for cancer. If I tell you that your prayers are doing nothing to heal a sick loved one, that doesn’t mean I have a cure for their cancer. It just means I’m encouraging you to seek any one of many possible treatments that have some basis in reality. Otherwise your efforts are futile at best, and possibly even harmful if they’re delaying you from pursuing real solutions.
The answers to the difficult problems aren’t simplistic. We can’t simply pass the buck to gods and governments and expect them to get resolved. It’s a hard pill that we each must swallow if we’re to evolve our societies. Our irrational beliefs provide comforting delusions not easily given up. This is true of notions of gods, mysticism, and paternalistic governments.
When someone asks me something like how anarchy will prevent crime, the question sounds absurd. The question has it’s origins in an incorrect presumption that our governments are preventing crime. Instead, police spend most of their time creating and enforcing false crimes like making plant possession illegal, and writing tickets to predominantly innocent people to pay their own salaries. Meanwhile, the false sense of security they provide to true believers prevents them from taking measures that would actually make them safer like fortifying their homes, getting sufficient insurance, and arming themselves for self protection. Anarchy won’t prevent crime, but preventing the crimes perpetrated by governments would certainly be a good start in the right direction.
As an anarchist, I will confidently tell you that violent authoritarian models of government are not answers at all. They don’t solve life’s many complex problems. It doesn’t mean I have a simple solution to offer in their place. The answer many will not want to hear is that there is no superior government to offer, just as there are no new gods with healing powers to replace those whose existence I have denied. The unpleasant but truthful response is to shatter the comforting delusions so we can start the hard but inevitable march toward finding real solutions to the problems life throws at us.
Just like religions, governments comfort us with fantasies. They claim we need them to protect us from crime, but they’re the greatest perpetrators of crime. Governments take more money from us on a regular basis than thieves would ever manage to steal in their absence. Police are locking up innocent people for victimless crimes, sometimes killing them in the line of duty or torturing them with tasers while their government status protects them from the repercussions of their actions. The supposedly free country of the U.S. locks up a larger percentage of the population than any country in history. The exorbitantly expensive war in Iraq is killing our loved ones as well as countless Iraqis, all the while fueling anger that makes us more likely targets for terrorism. Right now the massive bailout is taking money from our economy and giving it to favored elite in the name of helping us. They’re swiping more wealth from the poor and middle class in one fell swoop than all the welfare they’ve ever offered throughout history, and handing it over to their wealthy supporters. They’ll amputate our legs and then offer us a free wheelchair to show how badly we need them. Authoritarian governments haven’t reduced crime. They’ve simply claimed a monopoly on it.
Why doesn’t the rain come when we do the dance? We all have a sense that governments are horribly off in some way or another but can’t quite put our fingers on it so we keep doing all the same rituals to try and fix it. Democrat and Republican candidates get more alike each election, but voters keep thinking that if they just get their guys in there, the “good guys”, and get the “bad guys” out, it will make things better. The truth is they’re all bad guys and the inherently corrupt system makes them that way. The vote they recently had was a ritual designed to reinforce and validate an irrational belief that authoritarian monopolies can be in any way accountable to the people.
Governments continue to fail us because we’ve put our faith in something that makes no sense. We’ve consolidated power but we haven’t consolidated morality. We handed our teeth and our testicles over to governments, attempting to delegate solving all the really difficult problems. People have faith that it will act on their behalf, but there’s no logic backing that faith. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In our desperation for simple answers, we have perpetuated an irrational belief that the only way society can function peacefully is if one organization has all of the power. Many call it a monopoly on violence as if that’s a good and necessary thing! They insist that governments be monopolistic over a region and that means they have to exercise violence or the threat thereof to maintain those monopolies, usually against innocent people. In essence, they claim government can only work if it’s a criminal organization. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The checks and balances that the founding fathers tried to institute are nothing more than internal checks and balances of a criminal organization on itself. There is no way to watch the watchers. Effective checks and balances can exist only to the extent that we manage to distribute power back out to sovereign individuals.
To those with a continued religious faith in the state, I say the authoritarian but also benevolent government you want is a paradox. It does not exist and cannot be created no matter how badly you desire it. Just as atheism is only a solution to futile mysticism, anarchy is only a solution to one problem, but one which is quite pervasive– the irrational belief that an organization which is inherently criminal can also be benevolent. Anarchy is not an answer in itself. It’s simply a rejection of the false answer.
There are many paths and many solutions to the difficult problems. There are many ways for us to work together without enslaving all of humanity under tyrannical mob bosses. There are many ways to fight crime without becoming criminals ourselves. There are many ways to help the poor without becoming thieves. In fact, there would be a lot less poor if governments stopped pillaging the economy. If someone doesn’t amputate your legs, you won’t need them to provide a wheelchair. Problems are solved by many people with expertise in different areas all focusing on what they’re good at. The ultimate checks and balances are the result of a truly free market of individuals working together. I’m skilled in many areas, but there are far more areas where I lack expertise. I have no idea how to make shoes and yet I am wearing nice shoes which government didn’t provide.
So anarchy isn’t the answer. However, it is the beginning of finding real answers. Anarchy is merely a rejection of falsities. The anarchist has chosen to abandon childish fantasies and face reality, and in so doing is better equipped for pooling his skills in a mutually voluntary fashion with other awakened individuals toward finding real solutions. Realizing that the magic bullet solution we’ve been pursuing is irrational and hopeless is only the first step, but it’s an absolutely crucial step if we’re to make progress toward real freedom, peace, and prosperity.
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* UPDATE 2011/04/08: At some point since I wrote this article, I find the term “panentheist” a better description than “atheist” for describing myself, bearing in mind that single-word labels will always be over simplistic for describing people.