Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Anarchist Underpinnings of The State

For most people, it seems, The State "just is". While a lot of thought seems to have gone into the question of what the purpose of the state is, whether or not it is a desirable institution, I've not read a whole lot about the question of why The State exists in the first place, outside old assertions that it was originally brought about by a deity. In the following paragraphs, I hope to describe how The State is favored by market forces in the same fashion as productive enterprise, and in so doing advise caution when contemplating Anarchist Utopia.

Most analyses of market processes I have read contrast market action with violent action. It is presented as a choice: wealth acquisition by production and exchange OR by theft. But not everybody makes the same decision in that contrast: there will always be those who steal, and so people must have some means to defend themselves and their property. Even in this matter, there are many choices to make: to defend oneself and one's own property, to act in concert with others, to hire help, to rely upon the State. The ability to do violence, wither initial, defensive, or retaliatory, thus shapes the decisions market actors the same as the availability of capital, prices, and so on.

Let us suppose a situation of Anarchy, in which there is no State, but rather all relations are either voluntary or violent. What are the market incentives to various forms of violence?

First off, the distribution of violent capabilities must be considered. In some societies, the capacity for violence will be more generally distributed; in others, more concentrated in select individuals. I think it can be assumed that, ceteris paribus, the capacity for violence (for whatever purpose) will be more concentrated in societies with a more developed division of labor, less concentrated where the division of labor is lower. I don't believe there is anything special about the skills and tools associated with violence. In a society where few know how to grow, process, or preserve their own food, there will also be fewer who know how to use and maintain weapons. So while in a less economically developed society every person can be assumed to have access to and be familiar with the use of a serviceable weapon or two, in a more developed society there are and will inevitably be some who develop violent skills and arsenal to a point where they can make a living off them, and others who cringe at the thought of even handling a weapon (at the extremes). What professional use of weapons will the market favor in such a situation?

I divide the "professional" use of weapons into a spectrum bounded by two extremes. At one end you have the violent criminal: one who uses his capacity for violence purely for the satisfaction of his desires at the unwilling expense of others. On the other hand you have the virtuous mercenary: using violence only in exchange for payment, to prevent or remedy the violence of those at the other extreme. But ultimately, this is a spectrum. Even the most virtuous might succumb to the temptation, not necessarily to rob someone outright, but perhaps to bully a bit? Strongarm a deal? Maybe take a somewhat iffy contract, enforcing questionable property rights? On the other end of the spectrum, perhaps a robber might take pity on a pretty girl and protect her, instead of robbing her (or worse)? Maybe he has an aged mother who needs help with some of the local toughs? Maybe someone finally offers him enough money to take up legitimate employment... for a time? And then there's the middle of the spectrum, where you've got men of violence who are concerned purely with the money. If it is profitable to protect, they will protect. If it is profitable to rob, they will rob. This suggests the traditional "protection racket", a forerunner of The State if ever there was one. But which does the Market favor?

Consider the costs of living by violence. First, there is the material: the direct costs of maintaining weapons, a stock of ammunition, as well as the opportunity costs of developing and maintaining the skills of violence. There are the moral  (purely psychological and social) costs, which will be greater or lesser depending on the individual's level of aversion to the use of violence for various purposes. Finally, there is the cost of managing mortality risks. He who lives by the sword dies by the sword... but not necessarily right away if he is careful and clever. For whom will the gains be greatest relative to the costs?

We can assume that whomever is engaged in a particular kind of violence has found a way to minimize the moral costs of their particular kind of "business". While the moral cost is an important component when discussing cultural degeneration, the importance of tradition, religion and/or spirituality and such, I think it can be ignored for the purpose of economic analysis. But what about material costs and mortality risks?

The virtuous mercenary must defend his clients against both the ordinary thug and the operator of a protection racket. He must maintain a capacity for violence sufficient to deter both, and must risk retaliation and the hands of either. The operator of the protection racket, on the other hand, particularly if he has successfully "horizontally integrated" the various protection rackets in his area of operation, needs only maintain that capacity necessary to deter the basic thugs; his own enforcers can be kept in check with but a command. The virtuous mercenary will not be a problem unless he chooses to attack the mercenary's clients.

This brings us to a second factor: economies of scale. A larger business in protection (whether they allow their customers the choice or not) will, assuming they don't surpass the technical limits of effective coordination, be able to provide more protection for lower costs. This is due to their ability to concentrate more force than their competitors; the mere threat discourages violence they would otherwise have to remedy at full cost.

Of course, to be competitive in the market, firms must pass on a portion of their own savings to their customers. If one is in the market for protection, the services of a large firm who makes offers one "can't refuse", is not only the less risky option... it's also probably cheaper (assuming away the cost in personal pride, of course). The larger and more responsive to their "customers" such an operation is, the more "State-like" it becomes.

Thus, from a situation of anarchy, absent a culturally homogeneous population that is willing and able to incur the costs of excluding something like The State, The State will inevitably arise from nothing more than the primordial soup that is the market in a situation of anarchy. The process by which the State arises, however, is messy, as violence is as much a part of the process of "horizontal integration" as "production" itself, and violence, like other "industrial" processes, can have undesirable "byproducts" (read: "collateral damage").

Sunday, September 22, 2013

On Negative Campaigning

Something I've figured out during my 35 years on this earth and only just now found the words for is this: people seem to identify most strongly in a negative fashion. Go among a group of like minded people and try to say something good about what they all ostensibly like, and usually you'll get a lukewarm reception. Go in their midst and insult their common interest and, of course, they'll rally in defense. But nothing gets quite so much of a reaction as going in and insulting something they collectively hate.

I'll give you an example of what I'm talking about. I am a nerd. As such, I am a devoted fan of a number of different things, Japanese music included, and I mod a Google Group dedicated to this interest. If someone shows up and posts a song, or a picture associated with the subject, they'll get a few +1s, maybe one or two, maybe even eight or ten. Then some kid comes in with a "Justin Bieber sucks" memepic... and the forum goes nuts in agreement. Then I mod it out of existence, since I don't want this group to be about what we hate, but what we like, and Justin Bieber is decidedly off topic.

This is just a juvenile example, but I've seen it everywhere. Tell me the same doesn't happen in political groups. A politician talking about how good his policy will be will maybe get a few yawns and some accolades from a few marginalized intellectuals. Claim that his opponent eats babies and maintains a shrine to Hitler in his basement... now that will get a supportive reaction. Politicians understand this, of course, and the most savvy of them will always make use of this. I pity the poor, principled politician who attempts to campaign in a purely positive manner.

I can guess why this is. In a past world, one in which people were divided into far more, and far smaller, and far more independent groups of people, warfare was pretty much a constant in life. A tribe or clan needs unity most when an enemy threatens from without, and a people who lacks this negative unity is likely a people who will not pass their ways onto the next generation.

But perhaps it is time we become conscious of, and reexamine, this particular impulse. What was once an important adaptation may well now be maladaptive. So next time someone shows up with a post decrying something you agree is a bad thing... stop and think a moment. Is this really necessary? Is it a true threat? Is the self-congratulatory dogpile that is almost guaranteed to ensue worth the psychic damage that hate, even of the best intentioned kind, can cause?