The Basics

Don’t we need government to keep order?

We were taught in school that if we didn’t have a government everything would become “mob rule”.   Gangs would roam the streets, looting, raping and pillaging.  Somalia is said to be the poster child for this, where the official state mostly collapsed and the country reverted to fiefdoms run by warlords who now launch pirate raids on ships.

But does Somalia give us a true picture of society without government, or is it just another example of government, but in a different form?  Let’s dig a little deeper, starting with an examination of how we got government in the first place.

The world for early humans was a fearful place, full of mystery and danger.   The survivors were those who grouped together to defend themselves against attacks from other humans and worked together to counteract nature’s vagaries with thoughtful planning.

The natural defensive unit was the family and the tribe, the latter being the extended version of the former.   This was usually dominated by the eldest male, who earned his position of authority by demonstrating success–in planning against nature, in defending against intruders and in breeding healthy offspring.   Like wolf packs and other groupings of social animals, it was an authority system in which the alpha male maintained his dominance until overthrown by someone younger, stronger or smarter.

That’s how authority and violence became the organizing principle for what are now known as nation-states.  Writing has moved from clay tablets to paper to computer screens, and medicine has moved from shamans to serums and operating rooms, but our way of living with each other hasn’t budged at all from its authority- and violence-based prehistoric origins.  The Enlightenment gave rise to democracy as a replacement for monarchy, but so thoroughly embedded was the idea of the necessity of authority that no one gave a thought to getting rid of it entirely and replacing the monarchs with societies based on voluntary cooperation.

Democracy was thought to be the panacea that would cure the excesses of the monarchs and bring peace, but now, with the benefit of a couple of centuries we’re able to see the disappointing truth: Democracies are just as able to produce atrocities as the kings and queens and czars and despots they replaced.  Much more sophisticated atrocities, much more convoluted and difficult to pin down on account of the complex nature of democratic systems, but atrocities nevertheless, and if you’re a family whose house has been demolished and the children killed by a drone attack, it’s hard to see the difference.

We made it from monarchy to democracy, so we should be able to take the next step.  It’s been five millenia or more since the beginning of recorded history; it’s time to re-examine the whole idea of authority and violence as a useful way to organize society and come up with something better.

Next: Why government is an immoral institution regardless of whether its behavior is currently naughty or nice.