THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 407, February 25, 2007
"...Nihilistic self-righteous devotees of the Great Penguin."
Is Libertarian Anarchy Possible?
Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise
The Probability Broach is based on the success of the Whiskey Rebellion late in the 18th Century and the presidency of Albert Gallatin. I find this premise highly unlikely, for the following reasons.
There was no developed body of theory supporting full libertarian capitalism at the time. There was some writing suggesting that Laissez Faire capitalism was preferable to the merchantilism of the monopolist Chartered companies but this didn't go so far as to consider the elimination of government from people's affairs. The Independent Whig and Cato's Letters, collections of essays by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, certainly championed personal freedom over political authority and regarded limited government with increasing favour, but they assumed some measure of government with the consent of the people. Their writing, between 1719 and 1723, published in English newspapers was reprinted in the American colonies and formed part of the basis for the political thought that culminated in the revolution.
Representative democracy based on the model of the Roman Republic was seen as the revolutionary principle to adopt. Even then, it only succeeded in the USA because the Americans had about a hundred years of being left to their own devices while the British dealt with their civil war and its aftermath (all those foreigners as rulers from William & Mary to the German Georges). They were isolated enough during this period to have set up their own local government without interference. The American revolution built on that. Contrast it with the French Revolution where there was no developed local government or grass roots democracy in place. The American revolution was essentially bottom-up. The French attempt was top-down.
I believe that communications technology determines the potential shape of society by determining what is physically possible. Consider the case of democracy.
The Athenian Greeks had rhetoric as their developed "technology". This was limited to the range of the human voice. It sufficed to run a single city state but was not scaleable. Getting the male voters together to determine the outcome of a proposal took time away from other business and was possible in Athens because of the limited geographical area involved.
Roman improvements over the Athenian model were organisational. By making their democracy representative using delegates empowered to decide on behalf of their constituencies, a permanent staff of professional politicians became possible. While the Romans maintained and developed their organisational expertise the empire flourished. It fell when they began to rely on social momentum to run it instead of social energy inputs. The people of Rome were bribed with "bread and circuses" instead of being involved in running things, and without the development of the talent necessary to keep things going they declined.
The development of Gutenberg's printing system was the enabling technology that made national government possible. Once nationalism was possible, representative democracy became scaleable and the representative democracy of the American revolution became viable.
Telegraphy, combined with newspapers and railroads constituted the enabling technologies that let the United States develop the centralisation of government that exists today. The American Civil war was principally about the shape of the future US government. The southern states were based on agriculture and decentralised, while the northern states were becoming based on industry with increases in central control. Centrally controlled machine industry defeated dispersed agricultural muscle powered agriculture. (It actually wasn't as definitive as that, but as a sound-byte it conveys a basic difference in philosophy between the two sides.)
In order for a Libertarian society to develop, it therefore follows that certain enabling technologies will need to be in place, because the organisation of a libertarian society requires that the individuals of that society be able to run their own lives and do a better job of it than other people could. Some of these technologies are being put into place at the moment. Digitally networked mobile phones do not require the kind of infrastructure development that the previous copper-wire POTS needed. They can be owned by dozens of small companies, decentralised and yet interoperable. Personal computing together with the internet gives potential access to information processing and management to individuals to an extent previously impossible.
Desireable technologies that would increase the chances of the development of a Libertarian society are many and varied. Personally owned and operated Artificial Intelligence programs that can look after their owners interests would suffice, but others could be as effective. Nanotech manufacturing and medical science could make true self-sufficiency possible. Every technology that increases the self-sufficiency and independence of individuals within society increases their capacity for private autonomy.
The user-supported software development model that began with Gnu/Linux and has extended to Mozilla and elsewhere, together with the various ways internet standards have been developed offers a new paradigm that is a good, adaptable fit to the Libertarian philosophy of self-rule and co-operative endeavour.
If this model can be extended to hardware development in a nanotech based environment then there is no limit to the possibilities. Human beings could become autonomous immortal cyborgs within a libertarian society (ref. Marc Steigler, The Gentle Seduction) or, depending on their choices they could do something else. Their available technology extends their range of options.
Downsides exist. Chiefly, the possibility that the enabling technologies that make libertarian modes possible will be used to further authoritarian agendas. Technology is a two-edged sword. It can be used to increase our liberty or to imprison and enslave us. The way it turns out depends on who devises things as much as how developments are used.
Artificial Intelligence programs in the hands of governments can be used to watch our every move and thus enable them to manipulate the information we get and thereby to manipulate us. This makes a perfect police state possible.
In corporate hands, it enables better targeted advertising and possible manipulation of our perceptions to their profit. Political advertising combines both areas in manipulation of the electorate. This supposes that we aren't running our own AI systems and getting un-filtered data to cross-check and straighten out our own situation.
Advances in psychiatry, pharmaceuticals and cyborging permit possible mind-control, from conditioned Pavlovian responses to perceptual remodelling. This is touched on in The Venus Belt where "brain-bore" technology is used to make mind controlled slavery possible. In Tom Paine Maru the same "brain-bore" technology has been used to extend human capacity instead.
Perhaps I should clarify my 'take' on AI. I do not require it to be self-aware or even able to think for itself in any sustained fashion. An expert system capable of understanding spoken English and following instructions while requesting further information or instruction in cases of ambiguity would suffice. I am not proposing the re-introduction of slavery disguised by the non-human nature of cybernetic machinery. If the AI can also run simulations of aspects of the real-world and give the results, so much the better. Such simulations would be a formidable design tool when researching disease, developing nanotech, urban-planning or any of a host of other research and development projects.
Microsoft Vista has just been released. One of a continuing series of operating systems that will be superceded in due course by more to come. The perfect operating system would be an Artificial Intelligence that would run on any reasonable hardware and be upgradeable indefinitely. Once we have our first true AI we won't need any others though I daresay they will be developed anyway.
Originally, hunter-gatherers had the capacity to operate without authoritarian government. Any adult at odds with his or her fellows could leave the group and go elsewhere. The main limitation that they laboured under were ignorance and tradition. Life was hard enough inside the group/tribal environment without going it alone even though the potential was there.
Developments of science and technology since those times have tended to favour centralisation and authoritarian rule until even fairly recently. The American 'Wild West' serves as the basis of self-organised anarchy though this lacked the philosophical framework that libertarian anarchy needs. The books of Louis L'Amour are populated with western characters who take an interest in government or take it for granted. It is true that his characters often work on the frontier or in the wilderness outside of civilisation but law enforcement in frontier settlements is a function of local government funded by taxation.
If we study the bible, we find that after the Israelites left Egypt in the exodus they settled in Canaan. At that time the twelve tribes had the "Law of Moses" and the patriarchs or prophets to order their lives. Despite this they went to Elijah and demanded a King be chosen to rule over them so that they could be like every other nation roundabout them. They were warned about conscription and taxation by went ahead anyway having Saul as their king, followed by David and Solomon et al.
The Jews had few kings that they could point to as symbols of greatness. Solomon was the one that held sway over the largest dominions that the Jews have ruled as a people. As a consequence, when the Jews look back to a golden age they generally look to the Kingdom of Solomon. If they were libertarians they'd look back to the times when the twelve tribes were subject to the rule of law without rulers.
The only other time that I can think of where anarchists attempted to run some sort of local society was a period during the Spanish Civil War. There were utopian attempts at settlements in various places around the world but these were usually more theoretical than actual.
My basic thesis is this: If a libertarian society was currently viable it would have been demonstrated, therefore it is not currently achievable.
To make it achievable requires a much better educated populace, all of whom understand the basis of libertarian society. I doubt that this is possible in the current intellectual environment. Much of the thrust of current education is vocational. It's about being able to hold down a job. It's not about abstract thinking or philosophy.
If it can't be done by changing peoples minds, (and Socialism was a distinct failure when it attempted to produce altruism to order) then it can be done by enabling people to live that way using cheap and readily available technologies that leverage the power of individuals over their own lives. Instead of preaching a libertarian philosophy, we can get to the same place by making its lifestyle both possible and desirable. People will stop paying taxes for things they don't need when they have what they need without paying taxes. Government ceases to be a necessary evil when it ceases to be necessary. At the moment too many people are dependent on it. Once they are free of it they won't pay attention to it.
Libertarians will tend to be self-sufficient technologists. AI assistance, open-source standards, decentralised power sources, computer networks and private manufacturing of advanced technology all operate in the positive direction. Increased policing, anti-terrorism surveillance, centralisation and corporatisation all favour the negative.
The Libertarian future is possible, because we can imagine it, but it is by no means certain. The choices we make in the next fifty years (or less) may determine the future of the human race for the next several millennia. If we are conscripted into an authoritarian safe society in the meanwhile, we all lose.