This is the first of a perhaps interminable series I might call “How I Went So Wrong.” Now, I happen to be quoting below from Thomas Knapp and Roderick Long, but I don’t mean to be picking on them. In fact, I am explaining my own mistakes here – reading Knapp and Long recently just happened to have brought them to mind.
OK, so the first quote from Knapp I will note has to do with immigration, about which he writes:
“Let me get straight to the point: there is no difference in principle between a ‘national border’ and the turf claim of a street gang. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.”
Well, since these things are quite obviously very different in many, many ways, we have to suss out what Knapp means by “in principle,” since obviously different things may always be the same “in principle” if one just selects the proper principle. Dying peacefully in one’s bed and being slowly eaten alive by fire ants while buried neck deep in desert sand are no different “in principle” if the principle in question is that of having a heartbeat at the end of the process or not. Here I suspect the principle Knapp is thinking of is something like, “Both rely on coercion to impose some restriction on the movement over land, the use of land, and so forth, on others who never agreed to the legitimacy of the borders which are held to set out where the restrictions apply.”
But consider the institution of private property, which anarcho-capitalists often hold out as ‘peaceful’ and ‘voluntary,’ as opposed to the ‘violent’ and ‘coercive’ State. Well, it is true that private property is peaceful – just so long as everyone agrees to follow the same property rules, in other words, its peacefulness depends upon its voluntariness. But the latter is often absent. Many, many times, people fail to agree on just who owns what – and then private property turns violent and coercive. Let’s say you believe wild lands should be free for all to roam, while I believe I own some woods in which I employ my truffle pigs. If this difference of opinion cannot be resolved, and the issue is of some importance to each of us, one of us will wind up coercing the other to accept his point of view.
The State is either peaceful and voluntary or violent and coercive in just the same way and for just the same reasons. As long as everyone agrees to and follows the State’s rules, there is no need for violence and coercion. It is only when there are disputes over the rules, or an unwillingness to follow them, that violence ensues.
This, of course, is the classical left anarchist complaint about anarcho-capitalism: since it doesn’t do away with private property, it doesn’t do away with coercion at all -- and the left anarchists are correct in pointing this out. (The problem with their solution is, of course, once you have done away with the State and with property, you have also done away with society.)
And so, when Roderick Long writes: “Bob Sanders wonders (May 8th) why we would fear Uncle Grady the tax assessor. Surely the answer is: because Uncle Grady’s edicts are ultimately backed up by threats of violence from Uncle Sam” – he has also stated a reason for fearing anyone laying claim to any property whatsoever – ultimately that claim is backed by threats of violence.
In any case, by the same principle Knapp and Long invoke, we can get straight to the point: there is no difference in principle between a ‘property line’ and the turf claim of a street gang. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
So this clearly isn’t a very useful principle.
In another article, Knapp states:
“’A little government’ is like ‘a little cancer.’ Once the state establishes a foothold in the body politic it invariably metastasizes, shutting down vital cultural organs and devouring every living thing in its path. The speed and directions of its spread varies from society to society, but the end result is never in doubt: If the cancer is not cut out, it will eventually kill its host."
It is hard to imagine what Knapp means by the ‘once’ in “once the state establishes a foothold in the body politic,” since, as Oakeshott put it, “Governing is an activity which is apt to appear whenever men are associated together… Indeed, it may be said that no durable association of human beings is possible in the absence of this activity… No large association has ever been known literally to govern itself, or in any direct manner to appoint its own rulers.”
Knapp’s suggestion that the State “invariably metastasizes,” and kills off society unless it is “cut out” is a little puzzling as well. States in the ancient world pretty much never metastasized, but perhaps the 3000 years of Egyptian culture just weren’t quite long enough to see the cancer beginning to spread. Odd, though, that the Egyptian culture seemed to fade precisely when the “cancer” of its State was cut out.
States only began undergoing this “invariable” process in the last few hundred years, which also happens to be the era in which ideology and perfectionism have come to the forefront in first European and eventually world politics. This does not strike me as coincidental: since ideologies attempt to replace the concrete, messy world of real politics with a vastly simplified abstraction, they always fail to achieve their goals, but, until the ideology is finally abandoned, the response is always to try even hard, meaning more money, more manpower, more legislation, and so on.
But anarchism is just a mutant strain of the ideological bacillus that is causing the rapid degeneration of most modern societies. It is certainly not the cure for its fellow bacilli. Rather, the anarchist depiction of the State as nothing more than a street gang only serves to increase the amount of State coercion. The actual way forward towards a less coercive society consists not in de-legitimizing the State, but in legitimizing it, in other words, promoting voluntary compliance with the State's laws in so far as they are just, and working to change them peacefully in so far as they are not. To the extent that anarchists recommend the State be ignored they thwart the former movement, and to the extent anarchists scorn participation in the current political process they prevent the latter.
Now, just how do smart people like Knapp and Long, and rather dull people like me, become ensnared in such obvious confusions? The answer is ideology – but more on that in our next installment.