Anarchists and libertarians fail to acknowledge the nature of collective action problems, and the ways in which various modalities (including hierarchical organization, of which government is one example) are used to address it. The trick is to most effectively blend these different modalities, not to reduce reality to a caricature that allows us to pretend that that challenge doesn’t really exist.
(There’s a famous example used in economic literature, of a barge-pullers guild in 19th century China, that hired overseers to whip slackers in order to eliminate the free-rider problem. In other words, the barge-pullers themselves chose to impose on themselves an overseer in their own collective interest. It’s a strange and complex world in which we live; we need first and foremost to face up to that fact before rendering judgment in broad brushstrokes that fails to acknowledge fundamental aspects of reality.)
The “problem” with government isn’t its existence or the fact that people rely on it for certain purposes, but what in economic, legal and managerial theory is called “the agency problem.” In a popular sovereignty, government is constituted as an agent of the people, its principal. This is in many ways a reversal of most ancient notions of sovereignty, which saw the people as “subjects” of the sovereign. The problem, or challenge, is the degree to which reality can be made to correspond to theory.
In one view, this reversal of theoretical roles occurred organically, because in the crucible of European internecine warfare the crown’s (particularly the English crown’s) need for revenue to finance such wars drove an ongoing liberalization of the political economy to generate such revenue, In other words, international competition drove sovereigns to empower ever-more ever-broadening swathes of their citizenry, since those that did so fared better in the wars among relatively small and easily swallowed states.
In the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, this reversal was institutionally recognized, laying the groundwork for the American revolution’s clearer codification of that institutional shift in its break from Great Britain. The challenge then became aligning the agent’s action’s to the principal’s interests, a challenge compounded by the size and diffuseness of the principal in comparison to the agent. This is the ongoing challenge we face.
A centralized agent ostensibly working on behalf of a diffuse principal can always exploit the transaction costs facing the principal in its translation of some hypothetical “popular will” into a mandate to the agent in order to serve the agent’s interests at the expense of the principal’s. This is the challenge we must continually face. But to then leap from the reality of that challenge to the conclusion that the existence of the agent is a sign of our own self-enslavement neglects the real need we have for such an agent, the real function it performs, and the costs of choosing to “liberate” ourselves from any centralized agency through which to address the collective action problems that face us.
The bottom line is that we live in a complex and subtle world, and that our neat reductions of it, our caricatures of reality, do not serve us well. While it’s true that, historically, governments of large political states were established through military conquest and exploitation, it is also true that the benefits of civilization are a derivative of that brutality, and that there are indeed benefits (as well as costs) of civilization, of a large-scale division of labor which freed up some to do things other than produce food. Our challenge now is not to feed our emotionally gratifying sense of superiority to “the Sheeple” for “knowing” that government is our oppressor, but rather to face, intelligently and effectively, the real challenges and real enterprise of aligning the actions of our agent with the interests of its principal, of making government ever more something that serves the interests of the people in general and ever less something that serves the interests of the few who capture it for their own benefit.
And that is a complex challenge, a complex enterprise, best framed in precise, analytical ways. It is our task to work to maximize the robustness, fairness and sustainability of our political economy, by applying disciplined reason and imagination to methodically gathered and verified information in service to our shared humanity. Unfortunately, caricatures of reality like those popular among ideologues of all stripes do nothing to help us accomplish that, and do much to interfere with our ability to do so effectively.
In many on-line debates, a well-informed and well-reasoned argument is met with the greatest scorn, often in the form of responses decrying the arrogance of the person making the argument. These responses are almost always devoid of substance, a string of z’s or a sarcastic announcement that the opponent obviously isn’t intelligent enough to have an opinion. Often a request is made to cease making such well-informed and well-reasoned arguments, to protect those who feel intimidated by them from having to be challenged so discourteously.
Putting the best face on it, one can argue that there is some merit in this objection, that everyone should feel safe to express their own opinion, and that intimidating arguments, such as those found in courts or the halls of academe, are not appropriate in the forums of public discourse. But this fails to understand the value of free speech, its purpose, and what is lost when we are more concerned with protecting arbitrary opinions from factual and rational challenges than we are with, together, arriving at the best informed and best reasoned conclusions.
Those who are most ideological and least analytical are most committed to a view of public discourse as being the futile “exchange” or arbitrarily held and inflexible dogmatic convictions. Those who are most analytical and least ideological are most committed to a view of public discourse as being a robust debate between relatively well-informed and well-reasoned arguments. Among the fundamental meta-debates underlying all other issue-specific debates is the between these competing narratives, with one side favoring entrenched dogma courteously left unchallenged, and the other favoring an increasingly disciplined process of discovery.
There is an ongoing battle on such forums whether we should be more committed to lowering or raising the level of discourse. It might seem odd that anyone could argue that we should lower it, but many implicitly do. It does a disservice to our nation and to our shared challenge of self-governance to take such a position. As uncomfortable as rational debate might be –particularly to those who are least rational– it must be the ideal toward which we continue to aspire.
On my Facebook page’s link to the post What Does Democracy Mean When The Outcome Of The Election Is All But Certain?, Dave Schemel wrote: “This Democracy is a corporate illusion,” to which Stan Dyer responded: “People have no one to blame but themselves when they believe democracy fails them. For one thing, it should never be considered a “large” turnout because more than half of the eligible voters find time to cast ballots. For another, we can’t put all of the burden of change on the backs of elected officials. Many changes can be enacted by ourselves in our own lives. We all have the power to treat each other equally, to recycle, to promote alternative energy, to talk to our neighbors about positive change, to lend a helping hand, to volunteer, to be a positive influence, etc., etc., etc.. Kennedy said it 50 years ago, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’
I responded to both: “Well said, Stan. I do think there are roles for government that people can’t effectively perform without it, due to the nature of public goods and transaction costs. But government is our agent, and when it does not act according to our will, that is ultimately our own responsibility. When people refer to the influence of corporations over our democracy, what they mean is that because candidates know that elections hinge on expensive advertising, the need for corporate money to win campaigns makes office-holders beholden to them. But, to the extent that that’s true (which is considerable), it’s true because too many people allow themselves to be too swayed by that expensive advertising, and are not diligent enough about understanding the issues and knowing the facts.
“The failings of our democracy are not caused by those who benefit from them, but by those who participate in them. Perhaps, to some extent, the failings are in human nature itself, or perhaps just the current state of human consciousness. If corporations can undermine democracy so easily, by paying for expensive ads that people allow themselves to be swayed by, then the absence of corporate influence would only mean that electoral decisions are being made on equally shallow bases, even if influenced by other mechanisms.” Or, I would now ad, “even if surrendering their sovereignty to other overlords.”
I’m facing an example of this vis-a-vis Jefferson County Public Schools right now. Several months ago, I formed the South Jeffco Community Organization, and suggested as a first project the development of a robust community volunteer tutoring and mentoring program for South Jeffco kids. It made sense to try to organize such a program in cooperation with Jeffco Schools. Cindy Stevenson’s first reaction, in a Columbine Courier article on the project (http://www.lcni5.com/cgi-bin/c2.cgi?038+article+News+20100420190738038038001), was mildly dismissive (in what I’ve come to know as her style of always sounding open to ideas that she is going to do everything in her power to obstruct).
I’ve since spoken at a School Board meeting, met with Holly Anderson (area superintendent for South Jeffco), met with SJCO members, worked with another SJCO member who compiled a list of volunteers, and complied with requests to distance myself from the project so that Jeffco Schools could avoid any appearance of political favoritism (by actually engaging in politically motivated disfavoritism). But it became increasingly apparent that Jeffco Schools was shining us on, in the end telling us to write a letter to our volunteers suggesting they contact their local schools and offer to volunteer in the classroom, something we and they could have done without Jeffco Schools’ involvement.
In an exchange of emails with Cindy Stevenson, she continued to barrage me with empty assurances, insisting that Jeffco Schools loves having volunteers in the schools, has many, and so on and so forth. But the vision she kept anchoring these assurances in was one of a small trickle of volunteers into the occasional classroom, helping out teachers in very marginal ways. My vision of a robust school-community partnership was clearly not anywhere within the range of possibilities she was willing to entertain (a range basically limited to her own preferences and predilections only).
Rather than play the role she had written for me, of letting her politely stonewall me while wasting my energy accomplishing nothing, I started to challenge her, referring to “the dysfunctional status quo” and “the Kabuki theater of faddish professional development workshops”. As a result of challenging her, I received an aggressive letter from a school district lawyer, stating that Dr. Stevenson will not work with me as a community partner.
In the response I will send to School Board after the election, I write:
[I[f the Jeffco Schools administration refuses to work with me as a community partner, volunteering my time and energy in the hopes of improving our schools, on the basis of my . . . criticisms of some aspects of how Jefferson County Schools is being run, that is a decision over which I have no control, except to insist that it is a violation of the district administration's essentially fiduciary duty to its stakeholders (Dr. Stevenson manages the school district in trust on our behalf), and to strongly urge that the administration either change or be changed. Dr. Stevenson's strong-arm attempt to exclude the participation of an interested and knowledgeable Jeffco parent, on the flimsy basis that that parent had the gall to be critical of her, merely serves as further confirmation of the accuracy of my observations, and the legitimacy of my concerns.
In a democracy, constituents have a right to take an interest in, comment on, and even criticize particular policies and particular government officials, when it is their considered belief that those policies are contrary to the interests of the people on whose behalf they have been implemented, or those officials are acting in interests other than the interests of the principal whose agent they are. Despite Dr. Stevenson's insistence to the contrary, I have every right to make such observations about Jeffco schools, and about Dr. Stevenson herself, without losing my status as a member of this community, and a parent of a Jeffco Schools student....
In accord with my past experience and observations, and numerous confidences shared with me by others, it appears to me that being directly or indirectly critical of Dr. Stevenson (or those she has hand-picked to serve her will), or placing the interests of students above allegience to her, is an invitation to be aggressively targeted. One might speculate that it is precisely this autocratic tendency which motivates her to be so opposed to implementing any truly robust partnership with the community.
As a Jeffco resident and father of a Jeffco student, however, I have a right and a responsibility to take an active interest in how my school district is being run. I will continue to be a vocal community advocate for the implementation of a robust school-community partnership, which I believe is very much in the best interests of our students and of our communities. And I will continue to advocate for fundamental improvements in my school district’s administration, reducing the degree to which internal politics undermines the effectiveness of the school district in delivering the highest quality educational services, and reducing the degree to which ritualism preserves a sub-optimal status quo. These are goals that all people sincerely committed to improving the quality of our schools should find completely uncontroversial….
The only issue at hand is the quality of our school district, and the only questions to be addressed involve the merits of what I am advocating, and the accuracy of my concerns about what internal district dynamics are obstructing consideration and implementation of such proposals on the merits. I am not asking for a seat at some internal school district table from which I can be excluded (as Dr. Stevenson seems to believe); I am taking my seat at the table to which I already belong, that of a Jeffco resident and parent. This is our school district, and Cindy Stevenson is our employee.
Here’s the point: Cindy Stevenson does not succeed at being an autocratic local ruler because of corporate backers, or big money, but rather because of constituent complacency and inattention. It may be that Dr. Stevenson’s talents are more beneficial than her autocratic tendencies are costly, but that is a calculation that the public should consciously and knowledgeably make, not one they should surrender to Dr. Stevenson’s own political maneuvering. But the public is oblivious to what many who work in the district have long known: It is a crony-ridden fiefdom, with many talented people chased out and several egregiously incompetent or counterproductively overbearing ones retained and promoted due only to their personal loyalty to Dr. Stevenson.
Why would the people of Jefferson County surrender their sovereignty, surrender their school district, to an autocrat? Why would the school board that represents the people allow this to happen? The answer to the former question is that the residents of Jefferson County (or any other county) just don’t care enough to take an active role in the governance of their school district, and the answer to the latter is that, knowing that they just don’t care enough, the question for the Board isn’t whether the superintendent is an autocrat, but rather how effective an autocrat she is.
Jeffferson County Schools is a microcosm of the nation. We surrender our sovereignty by either apathy or ignorance (or, usually, both), because the former allows government to serve those who serve it, and the latter, even if not accompanied by apathy, only adds the challenge of disinformation and manipulation to the nexus of power. It does not return it to our hands. Recovering it again is no mean feat. It requires a commitment to well-informed robust participation, something that is currently in far too short supply.