Saturday, August 20, 2011

There's a Lot of Space Between the Poles

North Pole: The Elves awaken on the shore of Cuiviénen, with no history, no biological nature, and no other sentient beings around in the world. They each pick out a plot of land for themselves -- plenty to go around, no need to fuss! -- and settle down. When there is some need for collective action, they all get together and chat. Whoever wants to chip in does.

South Pole: You are born as a worker ant. Your entire life is devoted to the collective. You lack any individuality, and any good except the common good. The collective will happily sacrifice you, and as many of your comrades as necessary, to save itself.

The real world of humans is always somewhere between these poles. Let's start in the rough neighborhood of the equator. We meet a group of beings who awaken to political conscious in the presence of a customary allotment of duties and obligations, honed and arrived at through millions of pre-political years of evolution. For instance, in this group, a hunter who brings back a kill allots it amongst the tribe in some traditional distribution (but probably gets the choicest portion for himself). Those who can hunt and gather are understood to have an obligation to feed those unable to do so, e.g., the elderly. If a child is orphaned, it is understood the tribe will find a way to raise it. And someone who refuses to honor those customs suffers a punishment, generally, banishment. But there is a great deal of room for individuality: each tribe member has her own personality, and each sings, dances, and so on in a unique fashion. There is room for private possessions: one's hut, one's spear, a favorite talisman. It is obvious (to me) that it is ludicrous to call those mutual obligations to share that exist in the above group "looting," or the punishment allotted to the non-compliant some form of "aggression" against them.

All human societies have wandered between these two poles, sometimes closer to one, sometimes the other. Although there is no a priori "right" place on the globe for humanity, both the far north and the far south are inhospitable places for humans to live. Societies that drift too far in one direction or the other naturally produce a reaction, and at such times, descriptions of the wonders of the more distant pole may serve a beneficial purpose. But either pole, if ever per impossible achieved, would end humans' existence as human beings.

And given that last fact, it is clear that anyone who seriously advocates either pole as a livable place, who communicates politically by shouting angry slogans such as "All taxation is theft!" or "All property is theft!" has lost himself in a dream of an exotic, beautiful location which he never has and never will visit. Anyone who believes that, say, any location the least distance from the north pole is "totalitarian collectivism" or that the Soviet Union is essentially the same as Switzerland has become lost in such a dream. And to be lost to reality in a dream is, of course, a sort of madness.

It is not easy to awaken from such madness, since the logic of the dreamworld it creates is all inclusive, and every bump or cry from reality is re-interpreted from within the context of the dream. The falls and bruises produced by the attempt to head, as the crow flies, straight towards one pole or the other, ignoring every feature of the real world one stumbles over along the way, is recast as "Opposition from the [statists/capitalists]!" or as a failure to head south/north swiftly or unwaveringly enough. Those who call to the dreamer from the waking world are interpreted as being, themselves, dreaming. The dream gives a single, simple answer to every political question: "Head north!" or "Head south!" To abandon such an unambiguous form of guidance is no trivial matter.

But a dreamworld is no place to spend your life.

UPDATE: Just in case someone thinks I've erected a strawman in this regard, I just ran across the assertion that "all government is the same." That's right, between Hitler's Germany and present-day Sweden, there is not the least difference.


  1. Ok now this is interesting. I seem to agree with both the overall message of this post, and the concept of that wacky guy you linked to as well! (And not just because he has an awesome email address.)

    So how to reconcile this? Well, the first thought that comes to mind is its not necessarily a bad thing to hold two conflicting ideas in one's mind. It seems like finding merit, seriously considering, or just giving significant thought to, ideas that conflict with previous ideas is probably overall a pretty good thing.

    However, I'm not finding that it is either a case of your 2006 article being "madness" or calling this blog post rubbish is necessary. I think there is some reasonable logic in both.

    The 2006 post I totally understand why you are now regarding as madness. I think why I don't quite see it that way, and what I feel has merit about it is best understood if one considers philosophies of social order as abstract, mechanical objects. Or for lack of a better comparison, let's pretend they are mathematical equations. Approaching it from this angle, I can understand the idea that minarchy is more similar to totalitarianism than it is to libertarianism, because contained within minarchy are the same elements that result in totalitarianism. Sort of like how Pythagoras's Theorem already exists within the concept of a triangle. However, libertarianism (anarchy) is devoid of this quantity completely. The deduction that yields to producing totalitarianism can not follow from the elements that comprise anarchy.

    Viewed in this light, that seems like an interesting observation that on its face seems counter-intuitive and not one I would consider to be a sign of madness!

    However, the legitimacy of today's post is also quite strong. And I think why, at least in my mind, both of these posts can be valid, is that today's posts focus with people and their ideas, as opposed to the abstract concepts of societal organization.

    One can easily understand that to regard a minarchist, that is a person whom strongly supports liberty and tirelessly works to keep the state as small and limited as possible, as sharing much more in common with a anarchist, than a totalitarian is quite reasonable. Whereas the anarchist and minarchist both hold as their ideals and goals the protection of liberty and individualism, to the collectivist or totalitarian, these are not goals at all, but rather impediments to the superior goal of the top-down utopian society they yearn for, which a necessary and valued inherent aspect of is the use of force to impose the will of the leader(s) upon all others.

    In this regard it would certainly be quite foolish and possibly even mad to assert that the individual holding the views of minarchy is more similar to a totalitarian than an anarchist. A great example of this is Ludwig Von Mises. Perhaps the prototype of a minarchist whom never even thought anarchy deserved serious consideration, yet to suggest that Mises is equivalent to a Marx or Stalin because he did not embrace anarchy is ludicrous.

  2. [Continued from my comment above: I had reached max character limit on initial comment.]

    People are not abstract concepts or mathematical formulas, as such, it is wrong to categorize them according to the same rules and format one would do with the latter. Intentions matter. Values matter. Yes I understand the objection the anarchist would raise that all the good intentions in the world are meaningless if pursuing a policy that leads towards tyranny. However tyranny is not some external object that is forced upon us. It is a classification for a type of society that is still ultimately and always comprised of individual human beings. And if all these human beings hold Mises' worldview and value of liberty, the inherent flaw within minarchy is of much less significance than it first appears when analyzed in our intellectual laboratories.

    That is why I would agree with the good Dr. Callahan here that it is certainly madness to equate a minarchist as being philosophically closer to one who yearns for tyranny, as opposed to who yearns for liberty.

  3. Very worthwhile comments, Robert!

  4. This post and Robert's comments got me thinking.

    I think the problem here is how abstractions are used. All words are, in a way, abstractions. A word is a convention we use to refer to a class of things/actions/phenomena/etc that share some characteristics. Both a white dog and a black dog are represented by the word "dog". This is fine provided that when you reason about dogs, you are careful not to ignore the differences between the two when these differences should not be ignored. For instance, someone might say of the black dog "this dog is difficult to see at night", and then conclude that the white dog will be difficult to see too, just because it's also a dog. In this case, the color matters, so it would be better to use less general abstractions: "white dog" and "black dog", instead of "dog".

    Someone might say that "theft" and "murder" are both "violations of individual rights". But the words "theft" and "murder" exist because we need to treat them differently. The same happens with states. A totalitarian state, a republican state and a democratic state are all states, but they are different. This does not mean that it's wrong to lump them together and say of all of them that they are immoral, if one thinks that some characteristics they share make them so. I can understand that, the same way I can understand someone who says "I like dogs". But just as the person who likes dogs might prefer a dachshund to a rotweiler, someone who generally is opposed to the state might prefer a republican one to a totalitarian one.

    You can say that the difference between a democracy and a totalitarian state is a difference of degree. But that's because you are using a given set of abstractions. If you use another set, you may conclude that they are essentially different. You are certainly allowed to say that a government that organized systematic mass murders, like the one of Nazi Germany, is essentially different from one that does not, like the modern German government!

    Taking only some features of two things while ignoring the rest so that one can say that the two things are the same is fallacious reasoning, unless we are in a context in which these differences do not matter. Context is very important.

    When reasoning, we should think of the purpose of our reasoning. Instead of having abstractions govern our thinking, our thinking should chose the abstractions best suited to the problem we are trying to solve, and to its context.

  5. What interests me in this is the idea of "all taxation is theft" is equated to a history-lacking, biology-free existence.

    By presenting the axiom that "taxation is theft", I'm not ignoring history, biology, or any other fact of life. I'm not even presenting an extremist view. Compulsion is compulsion, labeling it a "tax" makes it no less compulsory.

    Nor is my humanity eliminated by removing that compulsion.

    It may very well be an impossible dream, the stateless society. The state could be so deeply rooted in the human psyche that people will put themselves voluntarily under the yolk if they find themselves with that choice.

    That does not change the simple fact that decreasing compulsion increases the individuals quality of life. Which means I will always push for the logical extreme of individual liberty, and reject the hive.

  6. "I'm not even presenting an extremist view."

    Well, yes, factually, you are.

    "Compulsion is compulsion, labeling it a "tax" makes it no less compulsory."

    Yes, that is true, but... so what? I compel my children to brush their teeth, but would you call that a form of theft? No trespassing laws compel me to stay off of the property of others, but does that mean they are stealing from me? My landlord compels me to pay my rent. Theft?

    "Nor is my humanity eliminated by removing that compulsion."

    So, was someone claiming that untaxed people are not human beings? Who?

    "That does not change the simple fact that decreasing compulsion increases the individuals quality of life."

    Far from being a "simple fact," this is just plain false. What we ought to want is not the *minimum* amount of compulsion, but the *optimum* amount. We want compulsion that makes things better, and we want to eliminate compulsion that makes things worse.

    By compelling my children to brush their teeth, their life is better. I really ought not eliminate that compulsion.

    A few years ago, NYC compelled dog owners to clean up their dog's poop after it went. This *increase* in compulsion made things much, much better in the city.

    I think the laws that compel people not to rape are very good indeed.

  7. Good morning, Dr. Callahan.

    First, "darn" you (and your readers) for posting really interesting topics and comments. I don't always agree (for that matter, I don't always understand). I do, however, always have my thinking challenged. That is the hallmark of a good teacher. (The lack of "challenged thinking" is what is hurting our modern-day educational institutions. But, I digress.)

    You say: "A few years ago, NYC compelled dog owners to clean up their dog's poop after it went. This *increase* in compulsion made things much, much better in the city."

    How much do you think laws really compel people? (I am asking this not as a challenge, but to get your honest opinion.)

    I guess the word "law" is a bit vague, for "tax law" compels people, and some people would not pay taxes if it was not for said law. For instance, take Warren Buffet: he wants higher taxes for the mega-rich. He can surely call for higher taxes, but I am not sure why he doesn't simply get out his check book and donate to the government. Then, he could use his example as a way of "setting the pace" for other mega-rich folks. He, however, seems to want to wait to be compelled by the government.

    Some laws, like tax laws, clearly do compel. But, I am thinking more about the laws like picking-up your dog's poo.

    My wife and I have three dogs that we love very much. Every morning, I take them on a walk through a nature preserve. There is no sign which tells me to pick-up the waste. In fact, like I just said, it's a nature preserve; so, there are plenty of reasons why I could just leave the poo there.

    Nevertheless, I pick it up because that's what I think the right thing to do is. I want a "clean" nature preserve, and I don't really care what the law says or does not say.

    Another area is texting while driving. I am "compelled" to not text. The compulsion, however, comes from my desire to not leave my wife without a husband and to not injure/kill someone else.

    If I don't care about the loss of or injury to life, I am not sure why the state's penalty of $800 should comple me to do anything.

    Nevertheless, I was just wondering about your thoughts on the matter.

    Thank you.

  8. "First, "darn" you (and your readers) for posting really interesting topics and comments."


    "How much do you think laws really compel people?"

    Before the pooper-scooper law, there was a whole lot of shite on the sidewalk. Afterwards, a lot less.

    Of course, some people would do the right thing without a law.

    "For instance, take Warren Buffet: he wants higher taxes for the mega-rich. He can surely call for higher taxes, but I am not sure why he doesn't simply get out his check book and donate to the government."

    Free rider problems.