I am also, in case you were wondering, not an Anti-Christ.
I’m less than certain what I want, and am very vague on the subject of how to get it.
I’ve been following the Broadsnark blog for a while now, and trying to learn a little something about the political philosophy of anarchism. I’ve flirted with libertarianism in the past, and I’m big on the idea of personal freedoms, so it’s an interesting concept.
It’s also extremely easy to know more about anarchism than almost everyone else. The term “anarchy” is usually only brought out to refer to things like riots, where large numbers of people are acting chaotically and aggressively, and society seems to have completely broken down.
But if you think that angry mobs throwing bricks through windows is a fair representation of anarchy, you might as well think that communists want to saw people’s legs off until everyone’s the same height.
Anarchists, broadly speaking, are opposed to the existence of a state, which uses force to coerce the general population into doing things they wouldn’t otherwise want to do. Within that criterion, there are many differing ideas, but they’re all basically against hierarchical authorities ordering people about.
With me so far? Congratulations! You now know more about anarchists than 98% of the world (and 100% of mainstream media outlets (note: both of these numbers are estimates that I just made up)).
Anyway, Mel’s latest post on Broadsnark is in some ways a good summing-up of why I’m not an anarchist.
She admits to some cognitive dissonance, and to trouble in settling on a complete set of “ideologically pure” points of view. Despite being against the state’s very existence, she admits that:
The need for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and for social security is real.
It’s not hard to understand what’s causing her dilemma. The ideals she strongly believes in don’t allow for a governing authority… and yet the benefits such an authority can bring may be vital.
I’ve struggled with similar ideas myself. I’m against almost all restrictions on free speech, but do I really want the Westboro Baptist Church to be allowed to picket soldiers’ funerals? It would make things so much nicer if some powerful state force could just shut them up, wouldn’t it?
There are two obvious ways the dilemma can be resolved. On the one hand, you can acknowledge that holding unwaveringly and inflexibly to your fundamental principles is not, in practice, the best thing to do in every situation. Maybe some types of speech are so hateful, offensive, or damaging, that they should be restricted. Maybe some kind of governing state is necessary to provide for certain basic societal needs.
Alternatively, we could stick to our guns, grit our teeth against the unfortunate consequences that might not go entirely our way, and believe that these principles are worth holding onto, and are more noble and important than our momentary personal preferences. Yes, even despicable homophobes can have their say. Yes, freedom from authority is more important than any potential personal benefit from government handouts.
I often find myself going the compromise route. Although I like to consider myself a capitalist, I also think that various tax-funded social “safety nets” are a good thing, or at least have the potential to be. The NHS, for instance. I’m not sure what would replace that in an anarchist society, but I’m not convinced it would be an improvement. (Which isn’t to say the government-run NHS couldn’t be improved upon. Of course it could, but my optimism about what the state could achieve is what fundamentally sets me apart from most anarchists, I guess.)
As for Mel’s resolution of her internal struggle… well, it’s not really clear. She’s seen people who’d have had much less of a chance at having a decent life if not for state efforts like social security. But this itself isn’t persuasive enough to induce a compromise on principles. The conclusion she reaches is to “embrace the doubts, ambiguities, and moral dilemmas”. Which seems to be a useful but unsatisfying way of pushing the problem aside and deciding not to worry about any inconsistencies for now.
Personally, I have no trouble compromising on this one. There are drawbacks to a system of authority like a state, but centralised government can provide many things which I’m not convinced would otherwise exist, so the benefits of having the infrastructure seem worth the trade-off. (I still take issue with some aspects of the current arrangement, but that’s not to say I don’t think it should be there at all.)
So. Is compromise ever okay, if what you call your “principles” are to mean anything? Is it irrational fundamentalism not to allow some wiggle room based on the pragmatic effects of those principles? Are brick-throwing mobs always bad? Let me know what you think.