October 27, 2014

Anarchists unite!

In Poseidon of the East, Rokuta (whose job it is to appoint the next emperor) says, "People can scrape by without an emperor. It takes an emperor to truly destroy a kingdom, to turn it into a wasteland where nothing can survive."

To really scorch the earth, as in a nonstop Sherman's March to the Sea, the means of destruction have to be led and organized.

In the conduct of his own personal life, Rokuta is more of a libertarian with a healthy disregard for centralized authority. Even though he chooses the emperor, he afterwards denigrates him with every other breath (the feelings are mutual, though they don't let it interfere with their work).

Libertarianism of late has become a synonym for anarchy. Even accepting that premise, anarchy as a political abstraction is not the same as chaos. Kant defines anarchy as "law and freedom without force," and Webster's (Random House) offers as one definition:

a theory that regards the absence of all direct or coercive government as a political ideal and that proposes the cooperative and voluntary association of individuals and groups as the principal mode of organized society.

In theory, of course. The typical rejoinder to the idealistic anarchist and strident libertarian is: "So do you want to live in a place like Somalia?"

It's one of the dumber strawman arguments out there. But as it turns out, somebody has answered that question for real. Peter Leeson at George Mason University analyzed the data and concluded that the average Somalian was, in fact, better off stateless.

State predation can actually reduce the welfare of the citizenry below its level under statelessness.

The data suggest that while the state of this development remains low, on nearly all of 18 key indicators that allow pre- and post-stateless welfare comparisons, Somalis are better off under anarchy than they were under government. Renewed vibrancy in critical sectors of Somalia's economy and public goods in the absence of a predatory state are responsible for this improvement.

The human proclivity to self-organize is so deeply rooted--it would have been a key trait advantaged by Darwinian selection--that it takes a real outbreak of entropy to eradicate it.

Sherman's March to the Sea lasted a little over a month, the Civil War four years. More prolonged conflicts such as China's Three Kingdoms period (220–280) and the Thirty Years' War in Europe (1618–1648) can indeed turn apocalyptic in the scale of destruction. Everybody looses.

Except China and Europe are still here. Civilization can take a drubbing and bounce back pretty quickly.

During its Warring States period (1467-1573), Japan's internal political order was similar to that of the Italian city-states. The tiny amount of arable land pretty much meant that the combatants had to live where they fought when the fighting was over. So "scorched earth" was pretty much out.

Armies march on their stomachs, and that requires a thriving agricultural economy plus a trading surplus, because guns and swords don't grow on trees. All the more reason to shepherd your resources, even when raining down fire.

NHK's historical dramas will usually toss in a few scenes depicting the warlord inspecting the fields, dealing with unhappy farmers, supervising the construction of levees, and auditing accounts. This was what warlords spent most of their time doing, not fighting.

Only a few scenes, grant you. Cinematic anarchy (The Road Warrior) makes for better fiction than reality. Push come to shove, I'd prefer a little too much government than too little. The problem is that a "little too much" has so easily turned into "way too damned much."

Even there, what concerns me the most isn't necessarily the size of government as the distribution of government. In other words, if you think Northern European countries represent the epitome of functioning democracies, first consider their size and population distribution.

Sweden, for example, has about the same population as North Carolina. Germany has twice the population of California (biggest in Western Europe) but is smaller in area than Montana. When distributing government services, population density matters too.

The "economy of scale" is the great temptation of modern-day governance. The problem is, building big things is easy. Managing them is hard. Far more people think they have the chops to run big organizations than they actually do. At least in the private sector, those people can be fired.

When it comes to governing, small is more than "beautiful." It's the only political philosophy that will reliably work over the long term.

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