Sunday, May 25, 2014

Anarchy in History

I was talking with someone a while ago about political anarchy, the idea of people living without any government.  There are certainly anarchists around, though my sense is that the heyday of political Anarchism was in the late 19th and early 20th century, being just as much a specter as Communism in the US's First Red Scare.  Societies without government aren't anything we expect to see anywhere in the developed world or in recent history, possibly barring Somalia, but over the course of human history it might very well be the case that societies we'd call anarchic outnumber societies with a government.

A government is basically an organization that can force you to do things through the threat of violence.  This is practical with settled farmers, but it's a much more difficult thing to implement in a Band Society of hunter gatherers.  If you and your friends don't like what you're told to do, you can just go off and hunt elsewhere.  And if some person who fancies themselves chief doesn't like that there aren't any soldiers to send after the dissidents.  Political exit is easy enough that ordering people around just isn't practical.

And societies that settle and start farming don't necessarily develop governments automatically, but they do allow them.

In fact, a lack of formal government among many of the tribes of Native Americans and the misunderstanding of this by Europeans was a major source of conflict.  There were some tribes, such as the Powhatans that had governments but many others didn't.  Negotiators would try to make binding treaties despite the fact that the chieftains they were negotiating with could only try to use persuasion to get their tribes to abide by the terms they were agreeing to.  If a chief promised to abandon certain hunting ranges and a group of people from his tribe still wanted to hunt there, then they'd choose a new chief to follow who was amenable to their plan.

There is, perhaps, something to be said for governments being a tool for large groups of diverse people to find ways to live beside each other.   But in the case of the West the US government had such a poor record of living up to it's own promises that it's unlikely it made any difference in this case.  European settlers ignored the terms of treaties to seize off limits land.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs was notoriously corrupt and often it's agents just pocketed the goods they were supposed to deliver.  And popular prejudice often led to the election of politicians who would just rip up existing treaties.

Book review: The Righteous Mind

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