I think I’ve figured out why I’m not an anarchist.
It has to do with why I’m so good (or, arguably, so bad) at procrastinating. Bear with me on this.
I actually have a lot of time for anarchists and crazy libertarians. I’m a big fan of personal freedoms, I’ve never been comfortable with socialism or much of the anti-capitalist left-wing rhetoric, and there’s a profound appeal to the anti-cynicism behind a vision of society that doesn’t need a hierarchical government. I share many anarchistic concerns about the injustice and oppression of government interference in many aspects of life, and the extent to which it’s taken for granted by a populace who think anarchy means smashing windows.
Plus, sometimes anarchists’ ideas about the inherently oppressive nature of the state seem hard to argue with. Attaching the adjective “corrupt” to the noun “politician” is such a cliché that it’s practically redundant.
But the proposed alternative has never really seemed practical. I’ve tried to explain why, but felt a bit vague and uncertain about it. For all that most people’s assumptions provide a needlessly limited view of what a government should look like, I’ve never been convinced that thinking so far outside the box as “no government at all” will get us anywhere. And yet, I was never entirely sure that I could satisfactorily justify the existence of the state and the enforced authority that comes with it.
I’m ready to give it a shot now.
I’ll need to digress briefly first. I think I posted a link fairly recently to this post on the mental processes behind procrastination, and how best to overcome them. Essentially, you’re never going to be as diligent and work-oriented in the future as you fool yourself into thinking you will be. You put things off because you don’t want to do them “right now” and there’ll be plenty of time later – but when later turns up, you’re no more inclined to do them “right now” than you were before.
In the moment, I often find that checking what’s happened on Facebook or Twitter in the last thirty seconds holds more immediate appeal than constructing the rest of this sentence. I can get the work side of things done, but trusting myself to be able to avoid impulsive distractions is a sucker’s game. I’ve had plenty of time to get to know myself better than that.
So there are things I can do to make those impulsive distractions less accessible on impulse. I can shut down Tweetdeck. I can physically unplug my computer from the internet. I can use a program like WriteMonkey to provide a full-screen text editor, so that I can’t even see the potential distractions while I’m writing – this last one has been very useful to me with NaNoWriMo this year. And so on.
The point of all this is that I think the state could play a similar role in society.
There are some things humans are not naturally good at doing, when it comes to achieving what we think we want. For instance, I suck pretty hard at ignoring Twitter and getting some writing done. I know I want to write things, and I understand how much getting a novel finished means to me, but in the moment, I also want to know what Jon Ronson thinks of this week’s X Factor.
Similarly, I would prefer not to make things crappier than they already are for people in the developing world. And I know there are things which do make things crappier, which are done by many corporations to help boost their profits.
But when I’m in the supermarket confectionery aisle, I’m not going to just not buy a Kitkat Chunky for 40p.
For a start, it’s not always going to be obvious to me what activities I’m tacitly supporting by eating a chocolate bar. I’m aware that the Nestlé boycott is a thing, but for the most part I don’t know what processes are involved in bringing my lunchtime snack all the way from a field of nougat trees in Colombia, to a shelf in Sainsbury’s.
Maybe if I swap to an alternative, and refuse to support what I might think is an unethical choice, I’ll end up unknowingly supporting even more dubious business practices. Maybe the secret ingredient in Mars bars is actually orphans’ tears and I just don’t know it.
But more to the point, those orphans aren’t sitting in front of me when I’m hungry and want some chocolate. They’re a pretty distant and abstract idea. And while I might be firmly against torturing children to extract their delicious bodily fluids in principle, that might not sway me as much as it should when I just want a Kitkat.
I would be a shitty rational consumer, is what I’m saying. And I don’t think I’m alone in this.
So perhaps there should be a system whereby, if enough other people also feel strongly about my tentative no-harvesting-the-tears-of-orphans policy, we band together to remove the impulsive temptation, at some previous stage of the decision-making process. We can recognise that, in some cases, we’re inevitably going to fail to enforce the principles we value at the level of consumption. I get distracted from writing a novel by my Twitter feed, and I get distracted from ethical business practices by delicious chocolate.
Note that it’s not a question of which option – happy third world orphans, or a fleetingly enjoyable mouthful of confectionery – I actually prefer. I’m quite certain on that point. I might be momentarily alarmed and disappointed to see that my favourite snacks have somehow tripled in price, but if it’s because of legislation that’s improving working conditions in the third world, or in some other important way making things better, I’m not going to start making placards demanding we send the kids back to the sweatshops. When I think of the big picture, my priorities are clear.
So, this could be a thing for the government to do. As far as is practical, things should be left to people’s individual choices and responsibilities. But we all plan for the future, and often tacitly acknowledge that we don’t entirely trust ourselves – recovering alcoholics will avoid places they might be tempted to drink, and so on. Given our understanding of how prone our brains are to certain types of cognitive bias, this is an entirely rational way to behave.
This helpful delegation of decision-making is usually overseen only by another “version” of ourselves – one who didn’t want a cigarette as much as we do now, but knew they’re bad for us and so made sure there weren’t any in the house. But perhaps it could be expanded, and a society can take the same type of precautions as an individual.
Of course, I’m not claiming that this is a good description of any particular state in practice. Governments are often seen overstepping their mark, and anarchists aren’t the only ones to object when this happens (though they arguably have the most consistent message). And even my muffled libertarian alarm bells are ringing at the notion of a government deciding that the people “can’t be trusted” to act rationally.
But a state itself is just people, and there needn’t be sinister undertones to people instituting rules about what they find unacceptable, and making themselves follow them.
Ideally, the state would act as described above only to the limits of its usefulness – governing those social activities which are more efficiently achieved through centralised means, and stopping us procrastinating where we decide not to trust ourselves individually – and leave us alone in every other aspect of our lives. We’re a long way from there right now, and when the anarchists who I follow point to specific examples of the state butting inappropriate into people’s private affairs, I’m rarely able to disagree.
But I still think a ruling state can exist with justifiable purpose, for the greater good. What I’ve tried to outline here is how and why.
Government should be our WriteMonkey.