Archive for June, 2012

June 28, 2012
Mises Daily

Laissez-Faire Learning
by David Greenwald on June 27, 2012
As a teacher in a public high school, I am daily confronted with the lamentable realities of state-monopoly education. Student apathy, methodological stagnation, bureaucratic inefficiency, textbook-publishing cartels, obsessive preoccupation with grades, coercive relationships, and rigid, sanitized curricula are just a few of the more obvious problems, attended by the cold-shower disillusionment and gradual burnout among teachers to which they almost invariably lead.

While outcomes such as these are certainly tragic, the process that produces them is not exactly the stuff of Greek theater. There is no climactic battle, no cathartic denouement, no salvific moral lesson to be taken home when the curtain falls, and seldom are there any readily identifiable heroes or villains. It is not a single, epic calamity but a thousand trivial defeats a day, each too mundane and too quickly obscured by its successor to be considered noteworthy. Like a bad movie, public education somehow manages to be both tragic and boring. It is only its cumulative result that would have impressed Sophocles.

Oddly enough, although there is overwhelming public support for compulsory, tax-funded schooling, enthusiasm for what actually goes on in public schools is noticeably lacking. Not only are they generally acknowledged to be falling short in their efforts to produce an enlightened citizenry, but it is even conceded that they have failed in what is ostensibly their most exalted mission: the provision of equal opportunity for all via a standardized system of mass instruction in which all students receive the same basic set of knowledge and skills. Nor has this indictment originated solely from among the ranks of those opposed to egalitarianism on principle. To the contrary, it is largely the refrain of embittered progressives for whom “free” universal education has long been the desideratum of social justice, and who cannot understand how the behemoth they so vigorously midwifed into existence and then wet-nursed for a century could have so thoroughly betrayed their loftiest and most cherished ideal.

Yet ironically, it is the unassailable faith in the achievability of precisely this ideal of universal equality that immunizes public education against every reasonable argument advanced in opposition to it. Notwithstanding its manifest shortcomings, none of which has found a remedy despite decades of legislative reform, hardly anyone is prepared to see this system replaced by anything resembling a real market in education due to the deeply held conviction that that those of lesser material means either would not be able to afford market-based schooling or, in the very best case, would receive only substandard services inadequate to the task of ensuring equality of economic opportunity later in life. It is a further irony, though hardly surprising, that neither the economic knowledge nor the analytic discernment necessary for an examination of these claims has ever been or will ever be taught in a public school. No emperor willingly trains his own subjects to recognize nakedness when they see it.

Given this state of affairs, it devolves on individuals, both within and outside of the school system, to educate others about education. In what follows I will attempt to address what I see as the three primary objections raised against the idea of market-based education:

that educational services on the market would be at a premium, with prices high enough to exclude at least the lowest-income strata of society;

that even if the less affluent could afford some market-based education, it would be of a substantially inferior quality to that received by wealthier consumers of educational services; and

that the lack of a universal curriculum and standardized criteria of achievement would render the market incapable of providing the equality of opportunity that public education, however unsatisfactorily, at least aims in principle to ensure.

We will examine each of these arguments in turn. As will be shown, the first two rest on a misunderstanding of markets, while the third stems from a grossly distorted concept of education from which, if they took the time to examine it closely, probably even most progressives would recoil in horror.

Argument 1: Affordability

In order to understand why educational services on a free market would as a rule be priced well within the reach of the vast majority of income earners, we must first ask why the market produces anything at all for such persons. Since it is obvious that the wealthiest few have far more purchasing power per capita than those in the middle- and lower-income strata, why does the market not produce only for the former group and leave the latter two homeless and starving? Why is sugar, once a luxury of the rich, today a household item so widely and cheaply available that the US government feels called on to impose tariffs on imports and buy up domestic surpluses to keep the price artificially high? Why is the same kilobyte of computer memory that cost around $45 twenty years ago today priced at a fraction of a cent?

The simple answer is this: competition. When a good first appears on the market, the supply of it is strictly limited. To the extent that consumers value it highly, they will bid against each other for the minimal stock available, causing the price to rise until all but the wealthiest consumers drop out of the market. As long as there is no expansion of supply, and assuming the consumers do not change their valuations, the good will remain a luxury of the rich.

However, it is precisely this condition that provides producers with the incentive to increase production of the product. The high price yields supernormal profits that draw venture capitalists and entrepreneurs into that line of production, thereby increasing the supply, lowering the price, and most importantly, bringing exponentially greater numbers of consumers into the market. This process continues until that portion of profits that exceeds the general rate prevailing in other industries disappears, bringing the expansion to a halt. But by that time, the good has long since ceased to be a toy for the rich. To paraphrase Mises, yesterday’s luxury has become today’s necessity.

Of course, while this process works in essentially the same way for all goods, some goods — diamonds, for example — tend to remain luxury items indefinitely due to the high cost of producing them. It is, after all, the consumers who, in the aggregate, must ultimately pay for any lasting expansion of industry. If the capital expenditures necessary for the production of a good exceed the willingness or ability of the consumers to offset them, no sustained increase in the supply of that good will be possible.

So how would this dynamic work on a market for education? Assuming that educational services as such would be given high priority on the value scales of most consumers, would the cost of producing them keep them priced beyond the means of the typical wage-earner? Here we must be particularly careful not to engage in what psychologists call static thinking. We must ask ourselves, not how much it would cost for private entrepreneurs to produce curricula and instruction as these are presently constituted, but rather to what extent and in what ways schooling in its current form squanders resources, and how it might be streamlined and otherwise improved in the crucible of free competition.

One point is clear: the greater and more numerous the inefficiencies of the current system, the more radical its transformation by the market would be. And just how inefficient is the present system? Well, who runs it? On what principles does it operate? Does it allow students the freedom, for example, to take courses in what they are most interested in and eschew subjects they do not wish to study? Or does it rather saddle them with a bloated, one-size-fits-all curriculum prodigiously crammed full of skills and information they neither need nor want, thereby creating artificial demand for teachers and administrative staff, stimulating construction of needlessly large (or simply needless) facilities, boosting energy consumption and capital maintenance costs, and so forth? To get an idea of the sorts of “practical competencies” students in today’s public and state-regulated high schools are expected to (pretend to) master and retain for use in later life,[1] here is a randomly-selected excerpt from the scintillating epistle “Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Mathematics,” issued by the Texas Education Agency:

§111.35. Precalculus (One-Half to One Credit).

Knowledge and skills.
The student defines functions, describes characteristics of functions, and translates among verbal, numerical, graphical, and symbolic representations of functions, including polynomial, rational, power (including radical), exponential, logarithmic, trigonometric, and piecewise-defined functions. The student is expected to:
describe parent functions symbolically and graphically, including f(x) = xn, f(x) = 1n x, f(x) = loga x, f(x) = 1/x, f(x) = ex, f(x) = |x|, f(x) = ax, f(x) = sin x, f(x) = arcsin x, etc.;
determine the domain and range of functions using graphs, tables, and symbols;
describe symmetry of graphs of even and odd functions;
recognize and use connections among significant values of a function (zeros, maximum values, minimum values, etc.), points on the graph of a function, and the symbolic representation of a function; and
investigate the concepts of continuity, end behavior, asymptotes, and limits and connect these characteristics to functions represented graphically and numerically.
Got all that?

$15.00 $10.00

Of course, administrative costs and restrictions on entry and labor-market flexibility also impact cost-efficiency. How do public schools hold up in these areas? Are their operational rules and procedures clear, concise, and easy to follow? Or does it take, say, 670 pages and whole cadres of lawyers, consultants, and administrative support staff just to implement a single program? Regarding entry, how easy is it to qualify as a member of the academy? Is anyone who demonstrates a potential aptitude for meeting the educational demands of students given the opportunity to try to do so? Or is club membership restricted by legal quotas and licensure requirements necessitating lengthy and expensive formal training?

And how flexible is the labor market? Can an underperforming or incompetent employee be readily replaced? Or does even a mere suspension require a hearing before a three-member commission?[2]

We do not have space here to speculate on all the optimizing innovations creative entrepreneurs might come up with, and to do so would be presumptuous in any case. As John Hasnas has pointed out, if we could forecast the future market accurately, our very ability to do this would be the greatest possible justification for central planning.[3] Suffice it to say that today’s public and government-regulated private schools dissipate resources with a profligacy that would have made Ludwig II blush. We can hardly claim, then, that these institutions — whose costs are externalized onto the whole society — are paragons of affordability. Yet education is not a capital-intensive industry, and market competition would surely eliminate most of this waste in short order, allowing educational entrepreneurs to reduce their costs, lower their prices, and take advantage of economies of scale. As for those few who might still be unable to pay, lower prices would mean that private scholarships, grants, and student loans would be available in greater abundance than they are today, and the latter would no longer require ten years of indentured servitude to pay off.

Just as with sugar, automobiles, civil aviation, and cell phones,[4] so too in education high initial profits would draw competition, increase supply, reduce cost, and multiply innovation. There is no reason for market-driven educational services tailored specifically to the desires of those who consume them to be prohibitively expensive.[5]

Argument 2: Quality

A second argument against leaving education to the market is that to do so would result in grave disparities in quality of service. The rich, it is said, would get steak, while the poor got rump roast. Of course, there is a kernel of truth in this. The more you are prepared to offer for something, the more quality you are in a position to demand. The market is indeed a place where the principle embodied in the cliché “You get what you pay for” prevails.

But what exactly do you pay for? The answer to this question is not necessarily obvious. To illustrate, I offer a personal example.

Many years ago, I worked at a tavern-style restaurant that was part of a nationwide chain. With its eclectic menu, modest prices, and dollar-a-mug draft beers, it was a place where families could go on a budget, and weekend drinkers could go on a binge. Not exactly Alain Ducasse, but we did offer a steak (T-bone, as I recall) for around $10. What is interesting about this is that right next door was a more upscale steakhouse that also served T-bone; only this one went for something like $22. Nothing unusual about that, but here’s the catch: both restaurants were owned by the same company and both served exactly the same T-bone steak.

At first blush, this seems absurd. Why would any company compete with itself? And why, for that matter, would anyone in his right mind pay $22 for a steak he could get for less than half that just by walking across the parking lot? Situations like this have led to calls for governments to step in and “protect” consumers from their own “irrationality.” But there is nothing irrational going on here. The two restaurants were not in competition, because they served different clientele, and patrons had definite reasons for the choices they made about which restaurant to patronize. Ours wanted to cut the frills, sit at the bar, and save money; theirs were willing to pay more than double the price for the plush seats, subdued ambience, and tuxedoed waiters. The essential thing, however, is that both were eating the same steak.

The relationship between price and quality is therefore not as straightforward as we might imagine. It is certainly true that you get what you pay for, but it is equally true that you pay for what you get. To be sure, on the education market, those with the wherewithal could attend schools equipped with indoor swimming pools, tennis courts, amphitheaters, and state-of-the-art IT. But this does not mean that everyone else could not make do with less extravagance and still get the same basic service.

Of course, all this in no way suggests that quality of educational services would be identical. Such a conclusion would be absurd. What we have demonstrated is simply the fallacious reasoning behind the common assumption that where price is low, product must be unsatisfactory. What does not satisfy is not profitable. Products and services that do not meet the needs of consumers — rich and poor — will soon have, not a low price, but no price.

Argument 3: Opportunity

We now turn to a final argument for public education that goes beyond economics, though even here there is a parallel. Deeply rooted in the belief that justice means equality and equality means identical circumstances, this view holds that educational standards and curricula must be essentially uniform for everyone if all students are to be given the same opportunity to succeed in life. Here, the anticipated failure of the market lies, not in its high prices or disparate quality, but in its presumably excessive flexibility and diversity. In essence, this argument is really nothing more than a special case of the more general socialist contempt for the division of labor. But what is the “division of labor” in education? What is its meaning, and why should we fear its emergence?

We are accustomed to conceiving of education, not as an abstraction, but as a “real thing” existing in the world outside; a commodity possessed by some people whom we call “teachers” and transferred, more or less mechanically, to other people called “students.” This habit of thought is reflected in our language: it is far more common to talk about getting an education than about becoming educated. Yet the greatest thinkers in this area have repeatedly emphasized that education is, in fact, a process of becoming. This is what Maria Montessori meant when she said that if our definition of education proceeds

along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man’s future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual’s total development lags behind?

Montessori urged an approach to pedagogy that would “help toward the complete unfolding of life,” and “rigorously … avoid the arrest of spontaneous movements and the imposition of arbitrary tasks.”

John Dewey expressed similar views. In his seminal work Democracy and Education, Dewey places the onus of responsibility for education squarely on the shoulders of the individual student:

One is mentally an individual only as he has his own purpose and problem, and does his own thinking. The phrase “think for oneself” is a pleonasm. Unless one does it for oneself, it isn’t thinking. Only by a pupil’s own observations, reflections, framing and testing of suggestions can what he already knows be amplified and rectified. Thinking is as much an individual matter as is the digestion of food. [Moreover], there are variations of point of view, of appeal of objects, and of mode of attack, from person to person. When these variations are suppressed in the alleged interests of uniformity, and an attempt is made to have a single mold of method of study and recitation, mental confusion and artificiality inevitably result. Originality is gradually destroyed, confidence in one’s own quality of mental operation is undermined, and a docile subjection to the opinion of others is inculcated, or else ideas run wild. (p. 311–12)

For both Dewey and Montessori, education starts from the inside and moves outward.[6] Its purpose is to stimulate discovery and development of the personal resources latent within the self by allowing the student to experience the myriad possibilities for bringing them to bear creatively on the external world.

This means that becoming educated is not a matter of passively acquiring what is given, but of actively discovering what one has to give. It means that education does not create opportunity; opportunity creates education.

Regimentation and uniformity must therefore be jettisoned entirely; the individual must reign supreme within the sphere of his own development. The function of the school is to provide a stable environment rich in stimuli across a broad spectrum of disciplines, while the role of the teacher becomes primarily that of the observer who watches as closely — and intervenes as sparingly — as possible.

From this it follows that no two individuals would or could possibly educate themselves in exactly the same way. The self-directed intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual explorations of millions of people simultaneously thus result in an unfathomable diversification of interests and activities that amounts to an educational “division of labor” — one that supports and enhances the division of labor of the market economy, and is in fact its logical precursor.

It must surely be obvious that such a philosophy is in every way wholly incompatible with systems of compulsory or universalized schooling aimed at “equalizing opportunity,” and moreover, that even to use the word opportunity in connection with compulsion or regimentation is to abuse language, otherwise we might just as well reinstate slavery in the name of providing equal “employment opportunity.”

Education, if it is to be worthy of the name, demands a method opposite to that of bureaucratic management and entirely irreconcilable with it. It requires flexibility, parsimony, innovation, and above all, a means of daily subjecting the producers of educational services to the competition of their peers and the approval or disapproval of their clients.

It requires, in other words, the free market.

Conclusion

$10.00 $7.00

In Slovenia where I teach, the verb “to learn” literally translates “to teach oneself.” If the truth behind this linguistic convention were widely recognized, it would discredit the very premise on which all systems of public education are founded. But, as the great economist Frédéric Bastiat warned more than a century and a half ago, there is a pronounced tendency when confronted with important questions to consider only what is seen and ignore that which is not seen. And this just as true in education as it is in economics. We see students go to school day after day for 12 years, do as they’re told, get their diplomas, and finally go on to do something with their lives. Perhaps from our vantage point it does not look so bad. But what we do not see is what they might have become had they been allowed to be the architects of their own fate from the beginning

Advertisements

Here are three quotes from John Holt. We need more John Holt types in what we call ‘education’ today.

“Education… now seems to me perhaps the most authoritarian and dangerous of
all the social inventions of mankind. It is the deepest foundation of the
modern slave state, in which most people feel themselves to be nothing but
producers, consumers, spectators, and ‘fans,’ driven more and more, in all
parts of their lives, by greed, envy, and fear. My concern is not to improve
‘education’ but to do away with it, to end the ugly and antihuman business of
people-shaping and to allow and help people to shape themselves.”
— John Holt
(1923-1985) American author and educator, proponent of homeschooling, and pioneer in youth rights theory
Source: Holt, J. (1967). How Children Learn. New York: Pitman Publishing Corporation
http://quotes.liberty-tree.ca/quote_blog/John.Holt.Quote.1C40

“I believe that we learn best when we, not others are deciding what we are
going to learn, and when we are choosing the people, materials, and experiences
from which we will be learning.”
— John Holt
(1923-1985) American author and educator, proponent of homeschooling, and pioneer in youth rights theory
Source: Holt, J. (1967). How Children Learn. New York: Pitman Publishing Corporation
http://quotes.liberty-tree.ca/quote_blog/John.Holt.Quote.59BD

“The most important thing any teacher has to learn, not to be learned in any
school of education I ever heard of, can be expressed in seven words: Learning
is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of
learners.”
— John Holt
(1923-1985) American author and educator, proponent of homeschooling, and pioneer in youth rights theory
Source: Holt, J. (1967). How Children Learn. New York: Pitman Publishing Corporation
http://quotes.liberty-tree.ca/quote_blog/John.Holt.Quote.5804

Eric Peters throws in the woods again.

Going Deep

June 12, 2012

By

Some friends have been actively talking about their Exit Plans – about getting out of this country before the curtain goes down. While there is still time. They believe the situation to be hopeless. That despite the upwelling of liberty-mindedness among some, the vast majority of Americans are not liberty-minded. That Americans – tens of millions of them – are stupid, unreachable, mean, irrational, authoritarian-minded Babbits and poltroons. People who always speak in “we” – and lust to control others.

Reluctantly, I have to concede the point.

I have had exhaustive (and exhausting) conversations with countless people – some of them probably a lot smarter than I in terms of raw IQ – who just can’t connect the dots.

Or – much worse – don’t care to.

The problem is as much psychological as it is intellectual. There may just be a defective sub-species of human being, homo servilus, who – much like a bee in a hive – is programmed to crave the collective and therefore accepts its corollary – coercion – as the natural and right order of things.

It’s very easy to get these “bees” to reveal their true natures. Their core antipathy to individualism – and its corollary, liberty. Just let them know, for example, that you find sports/celebrity worship disgusting. Or that you don’t subscribe to any particular religious doctrine – or much care what doctrines others subscribe to, so long as they leave you be.

Let them discover that you don’t feel obliged to pay more taxes for “our children” – only an obligation to take care of your own children. Criticize war.

Make a negative comment about cops… .

So, I don’t disagree that jumping ship is probably a smart move. Nonetheless, I’m reluctant to leave the country, for many reasons – high among them just orneriness. This is my country, dammit. I hate the idea of just giving it to … them.

That said, I am beginning to wish I’d “gone deep” when I selected our fallback redoubt. We consciously moved to very rural SW Va. from the Northern Virginia area (near DC) about eight years ago to a great extent to limit our exposure to what’s surely coming. But I am thinking now that we would have been smarter to have moved to rural Idaho or Wyoming or Montana (like Chuck Baldwin did) instead. There are too many Clovers here.

And signs of sprouting continue to worry me.

For example: Several recent “letters to the editor” in our small community newspaper go on and on about how “we” need to raise taxes on real estate so that “our schools” will have “adequate funding.” There is one school – an elementary school in a far corner of the county – threatened with closure because of limited “revenue” and not enough students to justify keeping it open. So the idea was floated to close it and consolidate it with another. “The children” would then get bussed a little farther to their new school. This is an outrage to the parentsites of these children, who believe others should be compelled to provide the necessary “revenue” to keep the old school open for their children.

Everything discussed in terms of “we,” of course. It’s never my children need you to pay for their school.

If I were to speak at a public hearing about this and ask why don’t people who chose to have children bear the responsibility for raising their kids – which includes educating their kids – as opposed to their kids becoming an open-ended claim on the property – on the liberty – of other people who had nothing to do with it… I’d likely be the victim of a mob beating. At minimum, I’d become a community pariah – regarded as “selfish” and “anti-child” (as well as “anti-education”) … because I am troubled by armed men threatening to kill me and take my property so that it may be given to someone else’s kids – kids I’ve never even met let alone had anything to do with bringing into this world. It is no defense, either, that such a policy makes it that much harder for people who’d like to pay their own way to do so.

Other people’s kids take  precedence. Over everything.

It never occurs to these “freedom loving” Americans that freedom can’t exist when you are no longer free to say no to being forced to hand over your rightful property to other people to whom you properly speaking owe nothing – other than goodwill. That if “the children” becomes a justification for theft, then any other reason is just as good a reason.

But don’t dare say it out loud…. these freedom-loving Americans will very quickly show you just how much they actually believe in freedom… including even the freedom to speak your mind, if your mind differs in any meaningful respect from  the parameters of orthodoxical Republican or Democrat parameters.

The only cardinal sin is to commit non-authoritarianism. To state that you don’t want anything from anyone except their respect for your rights – and are willing to extend the same courtesy in return.

It is a thought increasingly foreign to Americans – even here, in a rural southern farming county 35 miles from anything in most places and often a lot farther than that.

Another example:

In our tiny, literally on-stoplight county, the same government that moans about not having sufficient “revenue” for “the children” recently spent probably several thousand dollars painting at least six “pedestrian crosswalks” in town, complete with “safety man” icons imprinted into the pavement plus signage. Apparently, people cannot cross the street unaided here, either. I have no doubt that tickets for jaywalking are right around the corner. Tazerings for the non-compliant.

Signs of the apocalypse.

There is talk of writing zoning laws – which this county has never had – and which will surely mean The End of everything that made moving here worth doing. People will no longer just be able to freely buy and sell their land, to be used however the new owner wishes. There will instead be restrictions on how a lot can subdivided – and what may be “lawfully” constructed on said lot. I can already see a time when BTK-type “zoning enforcement officers” will be knocking on people’s doors, threatening them with onerous fines (and ultimately, county seizure and auction of “their” land) if they don’t mow it, or have too many cars parked on it or a “not approved” shed built upon it… .

Clovers. The god-damn bastards are here now, too.

It only took them eight years to find this place – and ruin it.

It’s entirely possible that nowhere in North America is a safe redoubt.

What happens, ultimately, depends on the character of the people. And the character of the American people – by and large – is one that reflexively defers to authority – willingly, worshipfully. That happily submits to the most despicable degradation if it will “keep them safe.” And which never fails to speak in terms of we.

So, where do the rest of us – the remnant that still believes in I – go to get away from we?

That, friends, is the question of our time.

Throw it in the Woods?

Source: http://theruleoffreedom.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/has-anarchy-existed-before/

Has anarchy existed before?
by Menso
I am often asked if anarchy has ever existed in our world, to which I answer: almost all of your daily behavior is an anarchistic expression. How you deal with your neighbors, coworkers, fellow customers in shopping malls or grocery stores, is often determined by subtle processes of negotiation and cooperation. Social pressures, unrelated to statutory enactments, influence our behavior on crowded freeways or grocery checkout lines. If we dealt with our colleagues at work in the same coercive and threatening manner by which the state insists on dealing with us, our employment would be immediately terminated. We would soon be without friends were we to demand that they adhere to specific behavioral standards that we had mandated for their lives.

Should you come over to our home for a visit, you will not be taxed, searched, required to show a passport or driver’s license, fined, jailed, threatened, handcuffed, or prohibited from leaving. I suspect that your relationships with your friends are conducted on the same basis of mutual respect. In short, virtually all of our dealings with friends and strangers alike are grounded in practices that are peaceful, voluntary, and devoid of coercion. – Butler Shaffer

Anarchists endlessly get asked if anarchy has ever existed. It could be argued that anarchy is wherever people do things without being forced to. I believe this answer is why we should believe anarchy could work: it works every day as we interact with the people around us. But it does not get to the heart of the question: can a society exist without a state?

If you are looking for an example of a modern nation state that has gone anarchist, you will not find one. The very idea that a nation state could somehow eliminate its government and retain its territorial integrity is silly. It would almost inevitably become a number of self-governing communities. A large country can only be held together by force. As I write elsewhere, Somalia is not particularly anarchic; however, to the extent that it is, it is doing pretty well. Other societies throughout history, however, have done far better.

Anthropologist David Graeber says anarchy has existed in thousands of places before. Anarchy means no initiation of force; or at least, no rulers with the ability to initiate force over an entire populaton. Anarchy is an ideal condition of humanity. It is not something that will be accomplished in six months of reading books. But in one way or another, at different times, there are opportunities to throw off the state and work and cooperate freely. As such, there have been a number of relatively or completely anarchic societies throughout history. They may have been small communities defending themselves from encroaching empires, confederations with basic local governments, or other voluntary, self-governing collectives. Anarchy has existed. It is simply democracy without the state.

It was the norm for a long time. Yale professor James C. Scott explains. “Until shortly before the common era, the very last 1 percent of human history, the social landscape consisted of elementary self-governing kinship units that might, occasionally, cooperate in hunting, feasting, skirmishing, trading, and peacemaking. It did not contain anything one could call a state. In other words, living in the absence of state structures has been the standard human condition.” The era of statelessness was the longest era of human governance, and the first states that arose were trivial compared to those of today. “To an eye not yet hypnotized by archaeological remains and state-centric histories, the landscape would have seemed virtually all periphery and no centers. Nearly all the population and territory were outside their ambit.” Living outside the state was a realistic option until only a few hundred years ago.

Scott’s book is called the Art of Not Being Governed. In it, he explains the history of the ethnic groups in the highlands of Southeast Asia, who descended from groups that left the lowland state. It is not certain whether they fled purely in order to avoid state aggression, but they did spend close to a thousand years outside it. (See here.) The people of the whole region reorganised their lives and social structures to be inaccessible to the state. The social structure presented no hierarchy that encroaching states could have used as agents of control. Until the recent rapid increase in the power of the state, they lived in an autonomous association of free people.

Ireland was effectively anarchic until conquered by England. It functioned as a number of confederations (called tuatha) composed of independent political units that came together annually to vote on common policies. People were free to, and did, secede from their confederation and join another. Association was voluntary.

Laws were not changed at the whim of rulers, because Ireland was not ruled, but when people voted in an assembly to change them. Laws were not created by a clique, as in our time; nor was justice dispensed not from a single, monopoly provider. Parties to disputes selected from a number of professional jurists chosen for their wisdom, integrity and knowledge of customary law. Several schools of jurisprudence existed and competed for the business of dispensing justice. Other people, in effect insurance companies, were independent from the jurists and joined with the party that won the case to exact punishment on the loser. If the loser did not pay, the entire community considered him an outlaw and would no longer engage in contracts with him.

Ireland suffered small-scale conflicts, but without a central state that taxes and conscripts, these were negligible compared to the bloodbaths of the rest of Europe. Ireland may not have been the ideal anarchy, but in the absence of Enlightenment ideas of freedom, justice and equality, it did pretty well.

Opportunities to escape the state arise during revolutions and wars. During Egypt’s recent revolutionary uprising, nearly every neighbourhood in Cairo formed—within 48 hours—lagaan shaabiyya, or popular committees. When the police suddenly left the streets, the government opened up the jails, letting out thugs it used to terrorise the people into begging the police to come back. Instead, despite thousands of years of dictatorship, the people organised and substituted for the police, protecting the people in their communities and even cleaning the streets. They made decisions as communities and demonstrated amply that they could replace the state if necessary.

During the Spanish Civil War, the state was in crisis and lost its ability to govern large parts of the country. Workers controlled factories, peasants collectivised farms, people used barter instead of money, started libraries, schools and cultural centres, and even organised militias to fight in the civil war. Spain’s brief experiment with anarchy was by no means utopian, as war imposes a variety of constraints on people. But it could be replicated and improved on.

In Ukraine in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, a free state emerged comprising millions of people. Throughout the Russian Empire, as imperial authority collapsed, workers, soldiers and peasants began to reject any outside authority and establish self-governing cooperatives. They began by arresting state officials, occupying government buildings and disarming police. They were eventually ruthlessly crushed by the central government, much as the communities in Spain were. But they demonstrated, as the did the Southeast Asians, the Irish, the Spanish, the Egyptians and, as we shall see next, the French, that anarchy is desirable and practical—if it can be maintained in the face of state aggression.

In the wake of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, the Paris Commune was established. The Commune was independent of the French state and self-regulating. The armed workers defended Paris against German soldiers and for some time French government aggression, but were eventually overwhelmed and murdered in droves. Like some of the other examples, the Commune was not the ideal picture of anarchy, and was perhaps more along the communist ideal, but it nonetheless comprised free people in community warding off oppression. They did well in the time they had. As Mikhail Bakunin said at the time,

Contrary to the belief of authoritarian communists – which I deem completely wrong – that a social revolution must be decreed and organized either by a dictatorship or by a constituent assembly emerging from a political revolution, our friends, the Paris socialists, believed that revolution could neither be made nor brought to its full development except by the spontaneous and continued action of the masses, the groups and the associations of the people. Our Paris friends were right a thousand times over.

Future posts will give a variety of other examples, including the modern free communities of Yubia, Keene, Grafton and Concord, and how they can be emulated. For now, rest assured that the answer is yes, anarchy has been tried and has worked in many places at many times.

But it does not really matter if it has been done before. New ideas work if they make sense and enough people agree to put them into practice. When John F. Kennedy said the US would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, nobody asked if it had been done before. When slavery was abolished, it was not important to ask if there had been historical precedents. The abolition of slavery was an idea whose time had come. But a lot of people thought that it was impossible to get rid of slavery—after all, that would be extremism—and that slaves were better off in captivity than free. Turns out, they were wrong. Anti-abolitionists used to ask “but how will the cotton get picked?” But if the cause is moral, it does not matter how the cotton will get picked or the roads will get built. People who need a historical precedent for anything before they consider it have not attempted to use their imaginations. Whether it has existed or not is irrelevant when considering if it could work in the future.

Menso | June 11, 2012 at 10:20 pm