From Centralized and Domineering to Decentralized and Actualizing
How could a society with some bad actors survive without a central authority that had the power to restrain them? Humans are far from perfect, you may say, and that justifies the need for centralized power structures, especially to produce a “public good” like security. But that statement is itself contradictory — if humans are not perfect, then neither are our “rulers.” And as history has shown us, even splitting the government into three equal branches (Executive, Legislative and Judicial), comprised of imperfect humans has not worked very well! But one might counter with “it is the good people amongst us that want to serve, who are attracted to government.” No doubt that may be the case with many politicians and bureaucrats, however the coercive infrastructure of our political systems, in the words of political philosopher Edmund Burke, “lead good people to do bad things.” Therefore, it is foolish to establish a political structure whereby we provide a handful of imperfect humans with enormous power, backed by a monopoly on the use of force, to control and possibly inflict harm upon many in society.
Granted, there are major differences of opinion. On the one hand, our culture has been imbued with the idea that without a State to keep order, society would run amok and spin into chaos where ‘might makes right’ — they believe that the State is a necessary evil, and must use coercion to “keep us safe.” It is almost as if the relationship between the populace and their government is analogous to the Stockholm syndrome on steroids. But on the other hand, many would relish abolishing the fool-hardy antics of preening government officials, coercing innocent citizens to abide by their view of what is in their best interests. And then there are those who just want to maintain the status quo, but those are the ones who have been absent from planet Earth lately!
Let us reframe this from the perspective of technology. Modern technology has made the power balance between those governed and those governing, namely, the State, far more asymmetric. If both have only stones and spears, as in prior millennia, it is relatively balanced. But if the State has AI, surveillance technology and weapons of unimaginable destructive power, while the governed still only have “stones and spears” because they have been disarmed by law, the governed are, by definition, chained to authoritarian power. And the State is now exapting the technologies of commerce and using them as technologies of control. Nirvana for the State, dystopia for citizens!
Let us be clear, this is not a call to arms for individuals, it is a call to disarm the State. It is not a matter of physically overthrowing the control that governments have over us — that will only lead to violence and bloodshed which will harm the innocent and provide the State with greater motives to expand its grip on society. As we discussed in a previous article, it is a matter of overthrowing the control that deep-seated archetypes have over us, and that governments are exploiting. Governments have begun to resemble a cancer which is metastasizing and creating havoc in our world, and unfortunately, democracy is the “sugar” that feeds it.
Large central governments have become an albatross for freedom-loving people. They are not structured to reflect the actual nature of humans: that the creativity of people living in a free society of smaller communities can innovate a system of benevolent order in which coercion is not required for prosperity and compassion (notwithstanding the existence of malicious behavior by the very few who are unscrupulous). Let us dig deeper.
“Bad actors come in three flavors: first, there are the “common criminals” who violate a victim’s right to life and property using aggression, fraud being a subset; second, there are the State “commerce criminals” who break the rules of the governing jurisdiction with victimless acts such as selling drugs, sex, and even, laughingly, a child’s lemonade stand without a permit; and third, there are the “State criminals,” who create the commerce criminals, with the rules they impose, but also create other rules under the guise of “good intentions” which directly harm the civilian population — from lockdowns and mandatory medical procedures, all the way to the full brunt of an authoritarian regime.”
Dissolution of a coercive governing structure would, by definition, eliminate the second and third types of criminals, which some say give rise to the major problems in society, such as crimes associated with drugs. But then how would we defend against common criminals in a free society devoid of a central government?
A nation of strangers, a term attributed to sociologist Max Webber, describes a society where the degrees of social separation between any two individuals can be greater than 2, as social psychologist Stanley Milgram described in the 1960s. Everyone that you know is one-degree of separation; those who they know are then two-degrees of separation, and so on. If you know a hundred people in a community, and they each know another hundred, the size of the community is around 10,000 people, minus common crossovers. The point is that when the degree of separation is greater than two, we migrate to a community of strangers. When we say “know” we do not mean a “digital know” like on a social network; we are referring to “face-to-face.” Why is face-to-face important? Because, all things being equal, we are less likely to act like jerks with people who we know — our friends, our neighbours, and those with whom we interact with and obtain services from.
Roughly 50 years ago, Anatol Rapoport, then a mathematical psychologist at the University of Toronto, was studying game theory as it applied to the evolution of cooperation. “He devised a simple algorithm ‘Tit-for-Tat.’ The algorithm opens by cooperating with its opponent. It then plays exactly as the other side played in the previous game. If the other side defected in the previous game, the algorithm also defects; but only for one game. If the other side cooperates, the algorithm continues to cooperate. The algorithm punishes the other player for selfish behaviour and rewards her for cooperative behaviour — but the punishment lasts only as long as the selfish behaviour lasts. This proved to be an exceptionally effective sanction, quickly showing the other side the advantages of cooperating. It also set moral philosophers to proposing this as a workable principle to use in real life interactions.”
Now here is the obvious message which some have forgotten: you are more likely to cooperate, be kind and generous with people with whom you have a personal connection. On the other hand, it is far easier to be rude and act like a jerk when you are apart and behind a twitter handle, for example. When we live in face-to-face communities, being kind, generous, and at times even risking oneself for one’s neighbour is actually in one’s own self-interest because of future reciprocity! And we are not speaking of altruism here in the sense that it is a “duty.” Over millions of years of evolution, these predispositions have been built in, which is why we see people, at times, risking their lives to save others, even strangers. What we are saying, though, is that we will see more benevolence and cooperation in smaller communities where most people know each other — a radical decentralization from where we are now! From a Darwinian perspective, people in communities who support one another are fitter than those who fight. Such smaller communities, which could serve as distinct laboratories for political experiments, would also enable residents to reach consensus on rules more readily, or even simply a meaningful accommodation of not necessarily aligned interests. And there is plenty of historical precedence for this.
For example, the original common law had no connection with governments. It was a bottom-up innovation resulting from individuals in communities using consensus to minimize aggression. Circa 500 A.D., the European territories were small laboratories of judicial experimentation. There was a natural tendency for many cultures and communities to evolve common law systems in which there were a few constants that emerged across regions, namely, protection of persons, property, and restitution, in contrast to retribution. The goal was to make the victim whole again. One example of a unique method was the use of the practice of outlawry to increase the probability that the offender had paid his/her debt if convicted. Common Law judges were like roving wise oracles in a given jurisdiction, who would adjudicate cases between a plaintiff and defendant, and then make a ruling. Early on, a judges did not have at their disposal, the police, troops, or prisons to enforce decisions. A criminal could simply walk away.
“Suppose one person harmed another. The judge, after hearing the evidence and ruling in favor of the plaintiff, would instruct the offender to make restitution to the victim. If the offender refused, or even refused to be present at his trial, the judge could use a procedure called outlawry. Under outlawry the judge was saying to the perpetrator: we will not force the law unto you. You have decided to be outside the law; so be it. And, since you do not accept the responsibilities of the law, neither shall you have it as protection. From now on your legal status shall be no different from that of a rabbit or any other wild animal outside the law.” [To PETA — that was 1500 years ago!]
The description of this person who decided to be an outlaw would be publicized. Then anyone could hunt him down and enslave him, or perhaps kill him. It was none of the court’s business, the outlaw had made his choice. The victim might even hire a bounty hunter to track the criminal down and sell him as a beast of burden. It is difficult to believe there were many cases in which judges found it necessary to use outlawry. Of course, there was always the possibility someone would make a mistake. The bounty hunter might capture the wrong person. The police sometimes do this today. But under common law, the bounty hunter had a strong incentive to do the job right. If he harmed an innocent person, he could end up an outlaw himself. Courts could make mistakes too, so there was an appeal system that enabled persons who disagreed with decisions to tell their story to a higher court.”
The point is not that we should emulate this system in its entirety; it is simply that without an overseeing coercive State, people in communities innovated a justice system from the bottom up that seemed to work for them as a function of their geographic locality and the context of the times. Of course, it was not perfect, but it did establish a high price to pay for choosing to be an outlaw. Society, in effect, policed itself via both cooperative and competitive entities. Under common law, the offender’s debt was to his/her victim, not to the State. It was based on restitution, not retribution — to restore the victim as nearly as possible to his/her original condition. This included paying the victim for all damages including time lost from work, court expenses, emotional stress, and so forth.
“And several of these systems came up with detailed list of prices for doing harm. For example, in the Frankish Kingdom, a group of lawyers wrote down the Lex Salica, around 508 AD, which contained a detailed list of restitutions and their prices. So, it is not surprising, that under most common law systems, imprisonment in those days was rare. A person who sits rotting in a jail can’t earn money to pay the debt he owes his victims. And certainly, his victims don’t want to pay to have him supported in a prison.”
Historically, various jurisdictions have developed a rich tradition of common law even though, over the last century, much has been replaced by statute; but the knowledge is still with us, and there would be no need to “reinvent the wheel.” Within the context of common law, freedom is not so much a political belief, as it is a moral view, cast as its two fundamental principles from which all others evolved: 1) “Do all that you have agreed to do,” which is also the basis of Contract Law; and 2) “Do not encroach upon other persons or their property,” which also forms the basis of Criminal and Tort law. These two principles, which formed the foundation of the “Common Law,” gave rise to what some view as “magic,” in that jurisdictions that adopted these became the most free and prosperous.
With the increasingly sophisticated technologies of surveillance and physical force at the disposal of the State, societies will become even more tyrannical unless there is a radical decentralization of power into smaller communities in which each individual may speak for her/himself. In such communities, each person may contract with free market entities for products and services including security and protection, which would be competitive and thereby offer choice. The work of Rapoport strongly implies that face-to-face knowledge of others in the community would provide far greater cooperation and benevolence than currently in nations of strangers. Although still embryonic technology, face-to-face does not exclude virtual reality in which one can see, hear, sense body language and even possibly smell, since pheromones are an important means of personal communication.
However, a monopoly of power must never be conferred on any individual or institution beyond that which it can earn itself by providing a service to others as a free person amongst free people, in a free market. An insidious side-effect of a lack of free markets is undeserved corporate monopolies, which may only survive through the help of State regulations. If you forcibly lock down “brick and mortar” vendors, then it is not surprising that online vendors will become larger and more powerful.