Thursday, February 11, 2010

A misanthropic anarchist

Commenter Mr Aversion recently emailed me, and I want to give special attention to his prefatory remarks, reprinted here with permission and with only minor corrections to obvious typographical errors:
I don't think I am the sort of anarchist apologist that you perhaps expect. I realize that there are tremendous, possibly insurmountable, obstacles preventing the successful implementation of the 'ideal' anarchist social structures (even assuming there is agreement on the broad outline of what that means). I am really more of a misanthropic anarchist: I don't really care whether other people are capable of living the way I think people should live; I only care that I am capable of doing so. The social problems of others don't interest me, much, except in the abstract. If other people are too stupid, or too nasty, to cooperate peacefully, that's really their problem, not mine. It only becomes my problem when I am confronted directly by coercion. And when that happens I either kick back or I don't, the decision being predicated on the material, physical consequences of either course of action. However, if I don't kick back, that doesn't mean I approve of or willingly comply with the actions of my enemies. It means, precisely, that I have been coerced.
In one sense, this is the only logically physically possible response of any person to coercion: you either comply or resist. It's an important scientific position though, because it correctly denies the Altemeyer authoritarian submissive belief that some socially-constructed authorities must be obeyed just and only because they possess socially-constructed authority.

In another sense, Mr Aversion alludes to a moral and ethical position of some importance, again denying an implicit ethical position of authoritarian submissives: it is wrong and bad to delegate your moral authority to another, to accept another person's opinion uncritically as to what is good or bad. It is at least debatable whether it's wise or good to delegate enforcement, but I share Mr Aversion's condemnation of delegating or pretending to delegate one's moral authority and judgment.

(In other words, it seems wise on one hand to morally judge others on the totality of their circumstances; we might in some cases judge that some circumstances, such as the presence of coercion, mitigates or excuses some action that we would judge more negatively absent those circumstances. On the other hand, I do not approve that any circumstances, even the presence of coercion, would exempt a person from judgment.)

He goes on:
I consider paying taxes, for instance, to be an involuntary act forced on me at gunpoint by hoodlums; functionally and morally equivalent to a protection racket. I believe this and I say this openly to the receiver of revenue, but I comply because the alternative is worse. My act of compliance does not invalidate my opposition to the principle.
(Mr Aversion is not strictly coerced into paying taxes, or at least not if he were an American citizen. If you restrict yourself to a fairly low income, you can avail yourself of most socially provided services without paying income tax. (I would find it hypocritical that anyone would assert a "natural" or inalienable right to have an arbitrary level of income in a socially constructed economy.) If you buy only certain items, such as food, you can eliminate sales taxes or minimize them to triviality. True, if you have any income at all, you must pay Social Security and Medicare taxes. It's humanly intolerable*, however, that we let any old person starve or deny him or her basic medical care under any circumstances. Therefore each person has a concomitant obligation to contribute to his own and others retirement.)

*If you disagree, I'm just not interested in hearing from you.

I ask "so what?" in the sense that anyone who's actually coerced of course objects to what he's being coerced to do or not do. It's always possible to express that objection as "principled"; a moral position does not change character just because it's expressed as a principle. (The position that, "I might not agree with his principles, but I admire him because he has principles," is utter nonsense.) Essentially, we* don't care about your personal dissent; if we did care, we wouldn't coerce you in the first place. Approve or disapprove as you please, so long as you comply. That's what coercion is.

*Me and the mouse in my pocket.

I assume Mr Aversion intends the pejorative sense of "hoodlums" and "protection racket": he is explicitly making a moral judgment: something is not just of a particular character, but is bad and wrong. Assuming that we do care (in a philosophical sense) about his dissent and judgment, we have to examine what precisely it is he's judging and dissenting from.

There are three ways to interpret this statement. Mr Aversion might object just because taxation is coerced; the coercion itself establishes the status of tax collectors as "hoodlums" who are operation a "protection racket". Alternatively Mr Aversion might object because some other unspecified characteristic of tax collectors themselves establish them as "hoodlums". Or, finally, the specific character of taxation (or the specific uses to which its put) might establish tax collectors as hoodlums. None of these three interpretations, however, hold much water.

In the first interpretation, though, we would have to find that Mr Aversion universally condemns coercion. (Otherwise, he's just objecting that he himself is being coerced: so what?) But his other commentary clearly indicates that does not universally condemn coercion. So this interpretation is easily eliminated.

Even under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, there are substantive functional differences between taxation and a "protection racket"; I must charitably assume that Mr Aversion is simply being hyperbolic, and not rewriting the facts to suit his preferences. It's notable (and perhaps unintentionally ironic) that one of the fundamental reasons we pay taxes is precisely to pay for police, who do in fact and by design suppress actual protection rackets by actual hoodlums.

One substantive difference is that taxation is predominantly compulsory whereas most other uses (that Mr Aversion presumably approves of) are prohibitive. It's definitely a coherent (non-self-contradictory) ethical preference to disapprove of compulsory coercion in general and approve of some prohibitive coercion: the distinction, while sometimes fuzzy, is susceptible to objective determination.

But this distinction just moves the "so what?" to the meta-level. I pretty much know how Mr Aversion will vote, but since his position at least presently appears to be in the minority, he's doomed to be coerced unless and until he can persuade enough people to join him to at least create effective resistance. I personally do not object in principle or in general to compulsory coercion (I do, of course, object to some forms of compulsion on the basis of their specific character), and I derive more benefit from having a tax-supported society that I would by having that money for myself without the kind of society supported by taxation. Why do I want to change my vote?

Mr Aversion goes into considerably more detail in both his comments and the email, which I will examine and discuss in future posts.


  1. I think he has to define exactly what he means by "protection racket" before it can be understood what he means. Does he mean that if you don't pay up the IRS comes and forecloses your property? Does he literally mean that taxes go toward stabilizing society and funding police that provide him protection? You have to consider that a protection "racket" isn't necessarily such a bad thing. (Wikipedia "protection racket"). It can mean choosing to pay money for protection against threats other than the racketeers. Admittedly, it's all a bit shady, especially when there's collusion between the protectors and the threat. However, it's not all that different than publicly funded policing.

    Other considerations are that you really DO have the option to not pay taxes, to opt out of society. Thousands of hippies did it in the 60's. You can do it today. I live in Hawaii, and believe me, there are plenty of people living on the beach not paying taxes. If anything, not paying taxes and setting foot on a public roads, enjoying the benefit of public safety means that you are stealing from the public.

    There are two options; you can opt out and live a pretty delimited existence, or you can participate in society and pay up. What you can't do is participate and not pay your dues.

    Determining what constitutes a justifiable payment is a completely separate issue.

  2. Hunt: Yes indeed.

    Keep in mind that I moderate comments. Blogger does not offer either a white- or black-list: your comment will not appear until I manually approve it.

    You can also use HTML to embed links: i.e.
    <a href="">Protection Racket</a>

    will become

    Protection Racket

  3. My apologies; I had trouble with Preview/Post. Yes, blogger is pretty primitive, and it doesn't seem to have improved in a long time.

  4. Blogger at least has the advantage of simplicity, and good enough for my simple mind. Wordpress is much too complicated for my taste.


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