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Samizdata quote of the day

… to postulate an ideal society for which there is no precedent within the human experience, as many political theorists, including Karl Marx, have done, is very much like postulating an alternative biology without reference to the sort of biological structures that have so far proved viable.

- the late Edward Goldsmith, who, though he fitted very well the formal definition of a barking moonbat, definitely was not as mad as many say. The coherence of his approach his willingness to accept the logical consequence of ecolgism was especially troubling to Greens, who were embarrassed by the outright repudiation by one of the fathers of their church of its latterly adopted New Left values.

34 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Indeed! The very core of the rational strains of libertarian thought are predicated on the fact there will never be a perfect society because people will never be perfect… hence the need to prevent some of these imperfect people getting vast power over others jut because they call themselves a mafia government.

    People who think rational anti-statism is utopian foolishness usually turn out to be utopians themselves who believe in god-like philosopher kings when you dig down into their ideas deep enough (i.e. they think that all that state power they mistakenly think civilisation depends on will not invariably corrupt and destroy the very things they think it will protect).

  • There has never been a stateless society either. Just saying, y’know.

  • There has never been a stateless society either

    Poppycock. There have been loads of them. None I would care to emulate however, which is why rational libertarianism is not anarchist but rather minarchist.

  • Poppycock.

    Example?

    (Teeny tribal bands don’t count btw)

  • Teeny tribal bands stateless societies don’t count btw

    Fixed.

  • Alisa, small tribal bands don’t count for perfectly valid reasons; they are small enough that all members know each other and are closely related and act thus as a family/kinship group moderating their interactions personally. Thirty hunter gatherers living as a band are no useful model for any large scale society.

  • IanB, for most practical purposes, the American Wild West was stateless for quite a few decades. And it functioned quite well, until it came under the blows of state societies – Mexico and the central government of the US.

  • Attaturk

    modern day somaliland obviously, ian, and any tribal society, not just “30 people” and not just primitives too. most societies before modern telecommunication were mostly stateless in reality once you got outside the towns as society rather than state was what informed every day life vastly more than the remote polis.

    but how it any of that relevant to article?

  • Plamus-

    IanB, for most practical purposes, the American Wild West was stateless for quite a few decades. And it functioned quite well, until it came under the blows of state societies – Mexico and the central government of the US.

    A disinterested or weak state isn’t nonexistence of a state. The Wild West was part of the USA. It had laws. It had property rights. And sherrifs. Etc. A state isn’t just a “big centralised government”. When somebody’s making laws, etc, you have a state.

    Attaturk-

    modern day somaliland obviously

    Somaliland has state institutions, even if it isn’t recognised as an official country by other nations.

    most societies before modern telecommunication were mostly stateless in reality

    That’s cheating. If you’ve got a king, or a council, or a controlling priesthood, or whatever, you’ve got a state. Britain in say the 18th century had a much less intrusive central government- but that government had monarchic control of all the territory and would send the army in if it felt like it.

    but how it any of that relevant to article?

    Well, because slagging off our opponents for suggesting something that has no precedent is a bit rich when we libertarians are ourselves proposing something that has no precedent, particularly extremes like anarcho-capitalism.

  • Well, because slagging off our opponents for suggesting something that has no precedent is a bit rich when we libertarians are ourselves proposing something that has no precedent, particularly extremes like anarcho-capitalism

    Except who was doing that here? Certainly not Guy or Edward Goldsmith. The minarchist position is that states need to be vastly smaller than they are now throughout the entire western world… i.e. as they have been at a great many times in history. So who are you addressing your comments to exactly?

  • Nuke Gray

    Also, Ian, us minarchists can point to, for example, Switzerland, as an example of a better society. I am not saying it is perfect, but it’s strong Cantons are worthy of emulation, even though it does have taxes and conscription. Decentralism CAN work, and it does, there.

  • Perry, there have been smaller states throughout history, largely because of the low productivity limiting their ability to skim wealth into the ruling class, but I can’t think of a single minarchy based on libertarian ideology. Can you? A minarchy isn’t just a smallish state. It’s a deliberately restrained state; that is it is based on an ideology of smallness, rather than a state that just happens to be smallish at some particular moment. Most of them start smallish and get bigger over time as the plunder intensifies. The converse rarely seems to occur.

    Perhaps the nearest attempt was the federal constitution of the USA, but one has to note that from its inception it started growing (Hamilton, the put down of the Whisky Rebellion etc), and calling the USA a small state is cheating anyway, because of the federal structure; the USA is a federation of small countries- states- which are not and never have been minarchies, and the federal authority has simply usurped their powers over time.

    So, I can’t think of a single precedent for a libertarian minarchy. That doesn’t make it wrong- I very much hope it will happen- but that doesn’t mean we can claim historical precedent, because there aren’t any.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Ian, Britain in the late 18th Century was in some ways pretty close to the model of a nightwatchman state. I say “pretty close” because there were always exceptions. But as someone who raised the case of the Wild West pointed out, there have been examples of societies in which the state barely intruded. Your statement is, therefore, an exaggeration.

    As for the broader anarcho-cap point, I think Richard Garner has rather comprehensively (!) defended it on another recent thread.

  • mike

    Things are so bad right now, and perhaps worsening as we speak, (US, UK, just about anywhere else) that anybody who advocates specific private alternatives over State regulation – in just about any particular market – is lucky not to be dismissed as a lunatic. Going several steps further and arguing about anarchy/minarchy outside of forums like samizdata is going to be met by an incomprehending “huh?”

    Arguing against State interference on ethical principle is surely going to be a much more powerful form of persuasion in popular terms than explaining why PDAs or constitutional articles will or will not work.

    A proposal to abolish State compelled and controlled education – or even something much further down the root like a proposal to abolish the legislature, for example, is incredibly radical if not outright lunacy from a popular point of view, but is probably not something on which minarchists or anarchists would have serious disagreements (having said that I’m reaching for my tin hat…).

  • As for the broader anarcho-cap point, I think Richard Garner has rather comprehensively (!) defended it on another recent thread.

    My point in this thread was that no society even vaguely similar to anarcho-cap has ever existed. Nobody can deny that. My point in the other thread was that Richard’s formulation of anarcho-cap was actually a big government with privatised policing and semantic redefinition of the state to pretend that it isn’t one, and that the belief that such a system can spontaneously arise is wrong from both argument from principle and the inescapable historical fact that no such system ever has. It’s as impossible as communism, as intended, is. Communism can’t exist because it requires Soviet Man; anarcho-capitalism can’t exist because it requires Anarcho-Capitalist Man. Same problem.

    Ian, Britain in the late 18th Century was in some ways pretty close to the model of a nightwatchman state. I say “pretty close” because there were always exceptions. But as someone who raised the case of the Wild West pointed out, there have been examples of societies in which the state barely intruded. Your statement is, therefore, an exaggeration.

    Not really, a state with absolute power but lack of enforcement capability and disinterest from the aristocracy in micro-management (as in C18 Britain) isn’t the same as libertarianism. The abitrary imposition of theatre censorship by Walpole (because of plays criticising him) is a clear example of that. The Six Acts (early C19) are another.

    To put it another way, I daresay the Roman Empire in the early first millennium was a pretty small state compared to the modern day, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it was a military dictatorship.

    We can certainly gain useful insights from historical states which have been smallish or smaller; but the discussion in this thread is about precedents for particular political systems, which is a different thing.

  • Perry, there have been smaller states throughout history, largely because of the low productivity limiting their ability to skim wealth into the ruling class, but I can’t think of a single minarchy based on libertarian ideology. Can you? A minarchy isn’t just a smallish state. It’s a deliberately restrained state; that is it is based on an ideology of smallness, rather than a state that just happens to be smallish at some particular moment. Most of them start smallish and get bigger over time as the plunder intensifies. The converse rarely seems to occur.

    Quite so. But again, so what? Who exactly are you arguing with? The notion here is ‘our side’ is making the same error as the statists such as Marx and not basing political theories that have no relation to anything that has ever existed. And that is incorrect.

    Small states (i.e. states with small governments) have existed many times in history. Also states with restrained-by-design government exist now with varying degrees of success. Thus minarchist notions of the state can point at a great many elements in the political history of our species and postulate meaningful theories of how to capture the best bits and hopefully avoid the traps others have fallen into.

  • Richard Garner

    Switzerland apparently has the one of the smallest governments in Europe, in terms of proportion of GDP, smaller than the Federal Government in the US, and is also pretty well restrained by the canton system. Although, I suppose Ian’s point about States in the US could apply to cantons in Switzerland. (based on this report that suggests that all OECD governments are too big, including that of Switzerland.

    That said, I am not sure Ian’s comments about State’s is entirely true: The States in the US are constitutional states, after all, why claim they are not limited in the same way as the Federal Government, by the same means? In fact, the US Constitution may well have been modelled on some of the original state constitutions – New Hampshire’s and Massachusets’s seem similar (except that NH’s constitution really does enshrine that right described in the Declaration of Indpendence that when governments violate become a threat to people’s rights they have a right to alter or abolish them – it contains provides a constitutional right to rebellion!).

    On anarchism, Paul Goodman proposed that anarchism is achieved, or could be achieved, by developing the aspects of existing societies that were already anarchistic in nature, and dropping those that weren’t. In that sense he has been called a conservative anarchist, in that he was in favour of conserving aspects of existing or traditional arrangements. That was kind of the approach that Kropotkin took before Goodman, and that Colin ward followed after, to look at examples where people were behaving in “anarchist ways” or on an anarchist basis in modern society, to demonstrate that they were possible, and then propose extending such methods. Anarcho-capitalists can pretty much do the same.

  • Let me only point out that 1776 had “no precedent within the human experience” — to date.

    In this, Goldsmith was full of bullshit.

  • Ian:

    Alisa, small tribal bands don’t count for perfectly valid reasons; they are small enough that all members know each other and are closely related and act thus as a family/kinship group moderating their interactions personally..

    That’s a feature, not a bug: the smaller the better. The only reason our “societies” have gotten as large as they have is because we have been coerced into membership. So, contrary to your assertions, small tribal societies are a perfectly valid model to follow. Their real downside was that because of their primitiveness they presented their members with no alternatives: your only choices were assuming leadership by force or bending over for some else who did. Joining a different tribe usually wasn’t a viable option because of lack of information. Modern technology solved that problem.

  • “On anarchism, Paul Goodman proposed that anarchism is achieved, or could be achieved, by developing the aspects of existing societies that were already anarchistic in nature, and dropping those that weren’t.”

    Like the internet in some ways. There is not only one solution here (abolish vs reduce the State) because there is not only one problem (the State). If we were ever in any position to have the anarchist or minarchist solutions taken seriously on a popular scale, then that could only happen because a great many other relevant problems had already been solved or had otherwise disappeared.

    The debate as to whether anarchism or minarchism is the more preferable is a bit like two teenage boys arguing over whether a Lamborghini is preferable to a Ferrari when neither of them even have the cash to pay for a Vauxhall Astra. It’s ridiculous.

  • Not really, a state with absolute power but lack of enforcement capability and disinterest from the aristocracy in micro-management (as in C18 Britain) isn’t the same as libertarianism

    Correct and completely misses the point. Actually an epic missing of the point.

    If a nightwatchman/minarchist society has ever existed de facto, without the slightest hint of libertarian ideology, then the libertarian case is grounded in reality.

    The contention that human affairs can function just fine without the big state due to this being historically demonstrable is what is being discussed, that does not require the absence of the big state to have been intentional. The fact the people who lived that way did not all have “don’t tread on me” bumper stickers in their cars/wagons/woolly mammoths is 100% irrelevant.

  • George Bruce

    The original post describes those who I call the people who “want to sew bills on beavers.”

  • guy herbert

    Billy Beck,

    I think you may know less history than did the Founding Fathers of the United States.

  • Well, Guy, that’s what you think.

  • Paul Marks

    Till about 1856 some counties and small towns had no police in England and Wales.

    And till the 1830′s many of the big cities did not.

    Property rights enforcement being normally a matter of an (unpaid) magistrate calling on members of the public (who were NOT related to him) to back him up. Or just on the property owner calling on members of the public to back them up.

    Certainly the army could be called in – but no one was going to call them in over a single murder or theft, the community had to police itself. And, contrary to the propaganda of Edwin Chadwick and his kind, it normally did a reasonable job.

    On law – well few used the (wildly expensive, slow and just plain weird) government courts in England and Wales for commercial disputes till Mansfield started the process of making the courts useable in the late 18th century (although it was only the start of a process of reform that was still going on in the Victorian age) businessmen used various developments of what had once been called “law merchant” to settle commercial disputes.

    As for the criminal law – before the 1820′s (Peel’s reforms) that was almost at the “look at me in a funny way – DEATH” level.

    If juries knew that a judge took the English criminal statutes seriously (as some did) and would seek to hang someone for minor theft (and so on) they would often simply refuse to convict. Especially as everyone knew that much evidence was perjury – there were even professional witnesses who had a sign on their window (prepared to give evidence at a trial – reasonable rates) which, in spite of the savage punishments for perjury, meant that they would sware that (someone they never seen before) had (done anything you paid them to say he had done).

    In reality if someone stole stuff off you and you found out who had the stuff – you got local people together and took it back (and gave the crooks a good beating as a punishment for stealing – a beating, the stealers were NOT hanged by local people, even in the old days local people would normally only kill killers – or take them to a government criminal court, which meant they would die slower).

    That was not just an 18th and early 19th century thing – my father could remember it being done in the East End of London as late as the 1930′s. And that was at a time when the police existed and the courts were fairly honest.

    Back in the time when there was no real police and the courts were a expensive joke – the above was the norm, not the exception.

    Yet 18th and early 19th century Britain was not a primative society – on the contrary it was the most complex and advancing society that had ever existed on this Earth.

    As for the American “Wild West” well I suppose I could talk Bruce “The Enterprise of Law” style about polycentric law (“miners law” and so on), but a more interesting thing (to me anyway) is the mints.

    In England Birmingham had many private mints – but they mainly concentrated on small change.

    In the American West there was the large scale minting of silver and gold coins – and competition (and fear of the loss of reputation) made sure those coins were full weight and purity.

    You went in with your gold or silver – and the private mint would ask for a certain small percentage (as its profit) and mint them into more useable coin form.

    And no fixed exchage rates between gold and silver coins either – the great mistake of the British (and other) governments.

    Sadly various Acts of Congress destroyed the private mints even before the Civil War.

  • Nuke Gray

    Billy, the term ‘Republic’ is latin, and the Romans used it to describe their system of government, when they rebelled from the foreugn yoke of the Eutruscan kings. 1776 had precedent, and was not unique.

  • mike

    Nuke: the contention that 1776 was without precedent has nothing to do with the use of the mere word ‘Republic’. Here’s a hint.

  • guy herbert

    The Revolution was similar to previous English rebellions in asserting rights that were deemed by the colonists already to exist against the crown. The close resemblance of the Declaration of Independence, and earlier documents of the Continental Congress to the both the Petition of Right, 148 years earlier, and the Bill of Rights, only 78 years before, is not accidental.

    Nor was 1776 a particularly sharp turn in the development of the Continental Congress:

    Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense* of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent. [...] All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.

    – Jefferson, writing to Richard H Lee in 1825

    As to republics separating themselves from mighty empires, the well-read men of Congress would have known the Dutch republic of the United Provinces, a rich powerful success story by the 18th century, and, the less inspiring then, but still significant, story of the Swiss Confederation. It is worth remembering further that the 18th century gentleman would have before his mind examples of more distinctive constitutional models in recent practice than we do in a modern world almost entirely divided into populist presidential, populist parliamentary, party dictatorship and personal/family dictatorship – all of which are clothed in the same forms and exercise power through similar bureaucratic structures.

    —-
    * ‘common sense’ in the early 19th century having the stronger connotation of “that which is generally known and understood” rather than “reflex assumptions of the ignorant” as it generally signifies today.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Plamus: …for most practical purposes, the American Wild West was stateless for quite a few decades.

    Rubbish. If one is talking about the period from the Civil War to 1900, state power was very much present in the “Wild West”.

    The U.S. Army provided security against Indian attacks; Indian agents negotiated and enforced treaties with the Indian tribes.

    Land was awarded to settlers by the U.S. government under the Homestead Act.

    Other land was awarded to railroad companies to subsidize the transcontinental railroads. Mail service was provided by the government, and government mail contracts subsidized the stagecoach lines.

    Much of the West (Texas, California, Oregon, Nevada, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado after 1876) was organized into states, with governors, legislators, courts.

    The remaining territories (except Oklahoma) were administered by Territorial governors appointed by the Federal government, assisted by U.S. Marshals.

    Yes, there was informal law and vigilantism in mining camps. But it was replaced by formal law as soon as possible. The arrival of the state meant true security of property, including land title, and an end to banditry, casual violence, and domination by the most aggressive and violent men.

  • The contention that human affairs can function just fine without the big state due to this being historically demonstrable is what is being discussed, that does not require the absence of the big state to have been intentional.

    It would appear that this isn’t the case though; none of them was able to defend against the inferior form of government we see today. Using them as an example, therefore, is only valid if you assume that such intention would make the difference between survival and failure, which feels a little like begging the question.

  • Largo

    Small outport fishing villages in Newfoundland for periods prior to the early-mid twentieth century. Small, isolated, and extremely self-reliant (being fairly isolated from even nearby villages, they had to be), we were self governing without government.

    We were subjects of the crown of course, and many were ill-beholden in some aspects to merchants in St. John’s (the island’s capital), but they lived remarkably peaceful and productive lives, sans magistrate or constable.

    The isolation really was extreme. To this day (or nearly so), Newfoundland has been a linguist’s paradise, with dialects preserved that have died out in England centuries ago.

    Of course, most everyone in the village was born there, and would die there, save for moving up the coast to marry some sweetheart, or off the island to pursue a broader seafairing career; and the size of the settlements were never large, so any conclusions would have to respect scale.

    Still, I heard it once described as perhaps the purest anarchical society one would find anywhere. It is hearing this that first started me reflecting on how remarkable it was.

    Alas, these days are gone, gone, gone. Much outport Newfoundland now lives on the dole.

  • Largo

    Re: Newfoundland

    A story could be told of the masterless men who made their homes in the island’s interior. I wish I knew the story better than I do.

  • Paul Marks

    Rich Rostrom – I agree with some of what you say. Indeed PARTS (not all) of the American West had a bigger government presense than England did – due to the Indian wars.

    It is a bit like the difference between England and Ireland – in England a policeman (when you could find one at all) was a man walking about with a stick thing in his belt (at a time when firearms were common among ordinary people). But in Ireland “the police” meant the regular mounted patrols of men with rifles on their back.

    Of course one must be careful – for example Texas was not “organized” by the Federal government, it organized itself (which is why Federal land is much less common than in other Western States), but I know what you are talking about.

    And such things as the Homestead Act were indeed important – in the case of the Homestead Act a rather negative importance as it gave over to arable farming land that often was not suitable for it. And it used Eastern scales of farming – again not suitable for the often arid West.

    An important – but mistaken piece of legislation.

    Much of the West would have better left to the cattle barons and to their wars (or deals) with the Indian tribes.

    Of course Indian fighters were often friendly with Indians to – something that confuses the modern mind.

    For example, few men were harder Indian fighters than the Scots Irish like Andrew Jackson, or Sam Houston or Kit Carson – but that is not all they were.

    For example, Andrew Jackson adopted an Indian as his son and sent him to Harvard – and his chief “Indian” enemy was (all witnessess agree) a white man who had adopted an Indian name and customs.

    Sam Houston may have faught many Indians – but he also appeared before Congress in Indian dress (much to the anger of some Senators) and argued for Indian rights.

    And Kit Carson hunted Indians (so the liberals tell us) like another man hunts birds or foxes (although I have never heard of a bird or fox who fired back) – but he was also a passionate defender of Indians and is the reason there are so many Navaho alive to this day.

    There is a story of Kit Carson last hunt/fight (dependign on how you look at it). As an old man Kit Carson was called out to track some Indians who had taken captives.

    But Carson caught up too late – and the captives had been killed, near the body of captive child (badly mutilated – one of things liberals leave out) Kit Carson found an blood stained book. One of those little dime novels about captives being taken by Indians – and being saved at the last minute by a hero.

    And who was the hero in the little book? By a cruel fate it was Kit Carson.

    Now Kit Carson was as tough as they come – but looking at that book and thinking of the desperate hopes that must have run through the child’s mind before he died (and as he died – for it would have taken a long time) almost broke him then and there.

    He finished the job – but he did not live much longer.

  • Paul – would you happen to remember where you read (or heard) that story about Kit Carson?