Saturday, November 20, 2010

How Does Anarchy Avoid Corruption?

When a friend with whom I share a considerable amount of discontent with our present social systems asked me how I envision police and military working under anarchy, I referred him to an article I wrote years ago adapting the ideas of Stefan Molyneux to a Christian audience. My friend responded at some length:

I don't think your system would work[,] and [it] would eventually become corrupt, as is the present system, which was designed initially to protect the innocent. Incentives do not always prevent crimes, especially [those committed by] criminals who prefer to return to prision. Personally, I think you are too lenient on child molesters - I would put them to death! I do not believe you can have reasonable [conversation] (if such a thing is even warranted) with the parent of a child who was molested.

He has essentially raised two important questions: What would keep anarchy from becoming corrupt? and What should be done with perpetrators of heinous crimes? To keep the size of this post manageable, I will deal with only the first question here and the second in another.

"Incentives do not always prevent crimes." My friend is implying that unless anarchy were to be perfect, it would not be preferable to the status quo, and because I can't promise perfection, he can shake the dust off his feet. But hang on. We have a state system, and it's far from perfect, as he acknowledges. We agree that it was better (the slavery system excepted) two hundred years ago. But it wasn't perfect. There were still crimes committed. So no state can guarantee that crimes will not be permitted.

Today we live in the first nation in history that has targeted civilians with atomic weapons and chemical weapons. Even more surprising, ours is the only nation in history to pass laws making its entire population subject to groping of genitals and female breasts by government agents. My friend would like to see child molesters executed; to that I say, if touching the genitals of a prepubescent is molestation, it is the agents of the state, not anarchists, who should be the objects of his wrath. To disparage anarchism because of potential abuses in the face of such real abuses by "the greatest nation on God's green earth" is breathtaking, to say the least.

So we're back to the question of what system will do a better job of dealing with the human tendency to violate others' bodies and property to further selfish interests. And to deal with that, we need to discuss incentives.

I would agree that incentives do not always prevent crimes. In fact, they can even motivate crime, as my friend claims when he says, "...especially criminals who prefer to return to prision." My friend has proven my point. Humans make almost all important decisions in response to incentives, doing what they think, rightly or wrongly, will be in their own interests. If a prisoner prefers to return to prison rather than to be free, he has—you got it—an incentive to commit crimes.

But let's be biblical. Did Jesus believe in incentives? Ja, you betcha!

"What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?" (Lk 9:5). Jesus is appealing to naked self-interest here. Far from telling us not to live for the bottom line, he's implicitly acknowledging that we can't help but live for the bottom line. He's telling us here that the bottom line is further down than we think it is.

"His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'" (Mt 25:21). "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (Jn 10:10). If the promise of a happy, full life as a reward for faithful obedience isn't an incentive, what is it? Was Jesus disinterestedly stating a fact, or was he using incentives to motivate rational, self-interested people to channel their desires into a conscious effort to love God wholeheartedly and their neighbors sacrificially as themselves?

"But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness." Why? What's in it for me? "All these things will be given to you as well" (Mt 6:33). Ah, now that's incentive!

I'm afraid this argument puts me at odds with these sentiments expressed decades ago by Keith Green (whose spiritual kneecaps I can reach if I stretch):

And when I'm doing well
Help me to never seek a crown
For my reward is giving glory to you.

Brother Keith's words are like those of one proud of his humility. If Jesus believed in incentives, we should too.

So if we can't avoid incentives any more than we can avoid eating or breathing or sleeping, then somewhere in the discussion we need to compare the incentives inherent in an elitist state with those that would exist under anarchy. And let's begin with the Bible.

The first king of Israel was not Saul son of Kish and father of David's friend Jonathan. It was someone we would today call a neoconservative, a fellow named Abimelech (Jg 9:6). Not content with the separation of powers and the checks and balances of his day, he promoted what Dubya's legal advisor John Yoo called the "unitary executive"—and, of course, who better for the job than him?

On the day of his accession, his half-brother Jotham told a parable, the point of which was that people who want to live productive lives have better things to do than to go into government, and those who do go into government will make life miserable for the productive members of society (Jg 9:7-20). Why is that? Because the power that is government provides incentives for its agents to indulgence their natural desires to fulfill the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (Dt 17:16-20; 1 Sa 8:11-17). And the more powerful the government, the more opportunity for self-indulgence it provides and the less able the populus is to resist it. It follows that the less powerful the government is, the less incentive there is to become part of it and the more incentive there is to continue to produce the oil, wine, and fruit that cheer both God and man. If the most powerful government official in the nation were the town librarian, how fierce would the competition be for the job? The reason politics is such a dirty business is that the stakes are so high: the winners live off the labors of the losers. So everyone wants to be net beneficiaries of government largess and avoid being net taxpayers.

If no one has power over anyone else, how do we get what we need and want from other people? The only avenue open is service. Yes, people would still be sinners under an anarchic system, but the vast majority of them would find that their self-interest is served best through serving their neighbors. Think of your favorite friends and trading partners (merchants, customers, employers, employees) today: are they all Christians? Would you want to insult them by saying that if it weren't for the presence of the police they would rather get what they're after by plunder than by being good neighbors? For that matter, is the threat of jail what keeps you in line?

What does this have to do with Jesus? Well, it seems to me that a greater proportion of the population of the US is going to hell than ever before. How does the view of government espoused by Christians affect that?

Let's take school textbooks as an example. The morality of government schools rests on the idea that people have the right to vote money out of others' pockets to pay for their own children's education: might makes right. Might also makes right regarding the choice of textbooks: whether the biology books teach "creationism" or "evolution" is decided by political power, not by right or wrong: obviously, both sides think they're right and resent the idea of their tax money going to fund books that teach against their version of the truth. So when Christians stand up for their "right" to have their tax money go to books they agree with, they are ipso facto taking others' money for purposes those others disapprove of.
This situation is repeated whenever Christians seek to keep from having their tax money go to purposes they find objectionable, whether erotic art or abortion (or in my case mass murder overseas). Is it any surprise that those who have to fight Christians so that their tax money goes to what they want don't want to listen to the gospel?

The more anarchistic the society, by definition the smaller the government, and the more we Christians are able to say, "What's yours is yours; I won't take it away from you (though maybe I can interest you in a trade). But I do have a message I think you ought to listen to, and I'll leave you free to decide whether or not to accept it." What is not good neighborly about that?

If the Great Commission is about building the kingdom of God rather than preserving or extending the might of our rulers, the more we act like servants and less like wannabe masters, the more likely we are to be the salt and light we are called to be, and the more likely (in human terms) we are to get a hearing.

Is corruption inevitable? Yes. If it can happen to Israel, it can happen to anyone. What was the root cause of the breakdown? The people had rejected God as king over them (1 Sa 8:7); as Cotton Mather said about Massachusetts, "Religion brought forth prosperity, and the daughter destroyed the mother." What was the result? The people wanted a state, and God punished them by giving them one. And far from rescuing Israel from the corruption of anarchism, their state delivered them into the hands of their enemies. Only godliness can keep people from tyranny, and one important component of godliness is that we not trust government (Ps 146:3).

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