2013-08-22

The Limits Of Political Theory

Christopher Morris has an interesting post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians in which he highlights some conceptual problems with anarchy. Near the beginning, he writes:
It’s easy to show that anarchy is possible. We can describe a possible world where there are no states, government, and legal systems (in something like Hart’s sense). And we can also tell a story about how such a world could emerge and maintain itself.... But are we seriously to believe that anarchist communities could emerge and sustain itself in our world?
Morris' analysis - while intellectually valuable - serves to underscore not merely the limitations of the concept of anarchy (or voluntaryism, or anarcho-capitalism, or whatever we happen to be calling it today), but the limitations of using political philosophy to design the concept of a free society.

There are plenty of anarchic or near-anarchic rural communities across the globe, and I am quite certain we can point to many of them as being communities in which there is a high degree of coercion. Morris specifically mentions the Israeli kibbutzim; it's not that these communities are tyrannical or despotic, but there is no denying that they are theocracies backed by the legitimacy of a god's authority. Even Amish communities here in the United States function largely according to their own rules and are in a sense voluntaryist and anarchic; but again, in such communities coercion takes the form of scriptural rather than legal mandate. If we wish to include some African communities, we can further demonstrate the severity of the coercion involved with three horrific words: female genital mutilation.

Such communities are certainly functional. They do work, so of course all criticism that "anarchy wouldn't work" is - at least in my opinion - spurious. But to suggest that these communities improve mankind's essential liberty is a much stronger proposition that is not, in my view, grounded in reality. It might be possible that some hypothetical voluntaryist community is freer than contemporary American public life, but there is certainly no guarantee, and there actually appears to be a great risk of the opposite.

But this is not a post about anarchy.

There are limits to what we can achieve by this kind of theorizing. We can design any number of philosophical thought experiments that either confirm or contradict our priors. We can debate the specifics and maybe even establish a rigorous and intellectually consistent political theory that justifies the kind of political system we'd like to see. But, in the end, large numbers of us will disagree with one another about what the ideal design is; and besides, most of us recognize that utopia is impossible. So, what to do?

It is my belief that the best way to achieve a free society is at the individual level, by simply applying the Golden Rule. If we as individuals simply treat each other with the respect, privacy, and autonomy that we deserve, it hardly matters what our political system looks like.

James Madison said, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary" in order to make the point that human imperfection necessitates government. But the flip-side of this idea is that government becomes less necessary the better human beings are at being ethical. Examples are plentiful here: The more private charities serve mankind, the less we need a social safety net; the more we respect each other's private property, the fewer contract disputes will occur; the more honestly we deal with each other in business, the fewer economic disputes we'll have; and so on.

I'm not naive, of course. I understand that despite anyone's best wishes or intentions, mankind will always fall far short of ideal behavior. But it's important to remember that political philosophy hasn't managed to solve that problem yet, and certainly never will. I can implore my fellow man to behave more ethically, and ultimately people will still do me wrong; similarly, political philosophers can design many grandiose ideologies, but ultimately people will still find a way to game the system and/or coerce each other.

The benefit of focusing on promoting ethics-independent-of-political-theory, however, is that we need not wait for drastic political change. After all, it is probably more likely that you'll win someone over to the idea of "honesty is the best policy" (for example) than it is that you'll turn a Republican into a Democrat, or vice-versa, or turn anyone into a libertarian, or whatever else.

So, maybe we should just focus on promoting virtue and watching to see what happens in the political arena in response to that.