Sunday, November 20, 2011

Is the Decline in Violence the Road to Voluntaria?

Ron Bailey has interviewed Steve Pinker in a video for Reason magazine.  One can see here that libertarians like Bailey are attracted to the argument of Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature, because they would like to see the evolutionary decline in violence as a historical trend towards a libertarian future in which societies would be organized through voluntary cooperation rather than physical force.

In fact, there are many parts of Pinker's book where he points to the moral and political philosophy of classical liberalism or libertarianism as a prime factor favoring the decline in violence (xxi, 180, 237, 284-88, 636-37, 662-63, 690-92).  As I have suggested in my previous post, the libertarian implications of Pinker's argument become even more evident when one looks at James Payne's book A History of Force and notices how much of Payne's thinking has shaped Pinker's writing. 

But while Payne is explicit--in the last chapter of his book--in indicating how the historical decline in violence provides "lessons for voluntarists," Pinker refrains from any open endorsement of libertarianism.  Payne has adopted the "voluntaryism" of Auberon Herbert, a British libertarian individualist.  Although Herbert was sometimes identified as an anarchist, he refused to accept that label, because he thought there was a proper role for government in using force defensively against aggressors who have initiated force, but he denied that government could initiate force to advance seemingly good ends.  He regarded the use or threat of physical violence as the greatest evil in human life, because it denied the liberty that was the condition for human happiness.  He accepted the purely defensive use of violence against violent aggressors--murderers, thieves, invaders, and so on--as a necessary evil dictated by human imperfection.  Herbert's thought has been summarized by Eric Mack and Gary Galles.  In recent decades, the "voluntaryist" position has been revived by Carl Watner and others.

Having adopted this libertarian voluntarism, Payne goes further in rejecting violence than does Pinker.  Like Pinker, Payne recognizes and celebrates all of the historical trends towards reducing violence.  But unlike Pinker, Payne laments that we still rely too much on coercive force.  He observes: "Judging from some of our practices, we do indeed appear to believe that force is a sound and proper basis for human institutions.  The modern welfare state with all its taxation and regulation utterly depends on it" (249).

In Payne's book on the history of force, there is a chapter on taxation as a form of legalized violence, in which government agents use force or the threat of force to compel people to give up their money.   Although this is widely accepted today, Payne looks forward to the future evolutionary decline in violence as bringing about the abolition of taxation.  By contrast, Pinker says nothing about taxation as violence.  Nor does he look forward to its elimination as part of the historical trend towards declining violence.

That we could abolish taxation sounds ridiculously utopian to many of us, because we agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes that the coercion of taxation is "the price we pay for civilization."  But Payne responds by observing that this is what people in the past thought about torturing prisoners, burning heretics, and other forms of cruelty that were thought to be absolutely necessary for maintaining social order.  Through a gradual process of evolution, we have learned that such violent practices are unnecessary and undesirable.  Similarly, Payne argues, we will eventually discover that without coercive taxation, we can fund our public projects through voluntary means such as lotteries, user fees, and philanthropic generosity.

Payne has defended his libertarian voluntarism in a series of fictional works written in the style of children's books.  In the last book in the series--Princess Narnia Visits Voluntaria--he presents the land of Voluntaria, where people organize their social order through voluntary cooperation.  

The people of Voluntaria have no conception of government, and it seems that they have no need for government, and therefore that they are living in pure anarchy.  But it turns out that they do have something that looks like government, although it's very limited.  In each community, there is a voluntary association to punish criminals--murderers, thieves, and others who initiate aggressive force.  If government is defined as an agency for using force, then this is government.  But this government uses force only negatively or reactively to restrain aggressive force.  If government is defined positively as an agency that initiates public force to solve social problems or to punish nonviolent behavior that is regarded as offensive, then Voluntaria has no government.

If the entire course of human history shows a progressive decline in violence, as Pinker and Payne argue, can we anticipate, as Payne argues, that we are on the evolutionary road to Voluntaria?   

1 comment:

J.K. said...

The premise is the problem.

"If the entire course of human history shows a progressive decline in violence, as Pinker and Payne argue, can we anticipate, as Payne argues, that we are on the evolutionary road to Voluntaria?"

The course of human history don't show anything like that. It's particularly enlightening to consider the way Pinker evaluates the last decades of conventional conflict. WWII finished some 65 years ago (in evolutionary terms, a blink) so, the better angels are driving us to Utopia. The little problem are that thingies called Mutual Assured Destruction, Thermonuclear War, Cold War and Fourth Generation Warfare, which are the real forces behind the relative absence of major conventional wars (and just in the First World)

And what about Communism with its brutal death toll or the miriad of terrorist movements?

Anyway I got to confess I'm not a big fan of Pinker since I read him stating, against all known evidence, that "only differences between a bantu and a swede were cultural".