What is civilization?

Wed, 01/29/2014 - 15:26 -- webmaster

One of the "marketing problems" the freedom movement has pretty much always had is the inability to speak the language of those who are believers in 'government as a good thing'. When we speak of compassion for the poor, they hear it as us wanting to throw poor people out in the streets. When we talk to them about improving education, they take it as us not wanting any education at all. Clearly there is some underlying difference in thinking that keeps us from effectively communicating. I think I have one piece of the puzzle, or at least a good clue.

Defining Civilization

Libertarians and their fellow travelers tend to think of civilization in terms of reduction of aggression. That is, the less a society condones the initiation of force the more civilized it is, and conversely the more a society utilizes the initiation of force the more barbaric it is. Thus a more free society is a more civilized one.

On the other side of the chasm of miscommunication, the defenders of the state tend to see civilization as the reduction of fear. The state passes and enforces laws that supposedly protect you from the actions of your fellow society members, meaning the state is required for their concept of civilization. You are "free" to live your life without worrying about all kinds of possible crises that might arise, and willingly give up some of your other freedoms in exchange.

These two concepts of civilization are mutually exclusive. You cannot consistently believe that the goal of civilization is the elimination of aggression and at the same time believe it is the elimination of fear. A recent opinion piece in the New York Times talks about the resulting difference in attitudes about government:

Hobbes in “The Leviathan” argued that fear effectively motivates the creation of a social contract in which citizens cede their freedoms to the sovereign. The people understandably want to be safe from harm. The ruler imposes security and order in exchange for the surrender of certain public freedoms. As Hobbes saw it, there was no other way: Humans, left without a strong sovereign leader controlling their actions, would degenerate into mob rule. It is the fear of this state of nature — not of the sovereign per se, but of a world without the order the sovereign can impose — that leads us to form the social contract and surrender at least part of our freedom.

Most philosophers have since rejected this Hobbesian picture of human nature and the need for a sovereign. We have learned that democratic states can flourish without an absolute ruler. The United States of America was the original proof of concept of this idea: Free, self-governing people can flourish without a sovereign acting above the law. Even though the United States has revoked freedoms during wartime (and for some groups in peacetime), for most of its history the people have not been under the yoke of an all-powerful sovereign.

Fifty States of Fear

The United States of America was founded under the concept that civilization was the reduction of aggression. Its national anthem mentions that it is the "land of the free and the home of the brave", and I have often said that it was the land of the free because it was the home of the brave. Freedom requires the members of the society to put aside fear and take some risks. Personal responsibility, which is required of a free society's members, means there might not be a safety net available, or at least that you have to behave so as not to piss off the safety net providers.

The supporters of the state, on the other hand, believe that further reductions in fear, even at the loss of freedom, is advancing civilization. This, to them, is progress. For example they support a safety net that is equally available, which the freedom lovers see as damaging to personal responsibility while they see it as ensuring the benefits of civilization to everyone.

The Problem with Civilization as Fear Reduction

There is a big problem with the concept of civilization as fear reduction however. It inevitably leads to the use of fear as a tool of politics, driving politicians to desire an increase in fear so they can be viewed as promoting civilization.

Even if you ascribe good intentions to politicians, if they are not seen as "doing something" about whatever the crisis of the day is, they will not get re-elected. If they aren't re-elected they cannot promote their presumably positive agenda. So when some fear inducing event happens they must do something, even when doing nothing is the correct course of action. This improper leadership inevitably leads to some bad outcomes which increase fear. In a vicious cycle, fear leads to bad governing which leads to more fear generation.

The Solution is Simple but Hard

In the end, the political system cannot continue but must end either in crisis and revolution or by evolving away from the concept of civilization as fear reduction. As tyranny builds and the mismanagement of societal systems causes pain, people will demand solutions. Unfortunately, in desperation, people often turn to those who profit on fear, who promise a restoration of the order they have become familiar with while continuing the politics of fear.

I do see some ways we can work to prevent the cycle from recurring though. We can build up, via agorism, alternative institutions that supply better solutions to those provided by governments. We can, understanding the different conception of civilization, improve our attempts at communicating with and educating our fellow society members. And we can, as we are here in New Hampshire as part of the Free State Project, live our lives as members of a brave civilization that embraces freedom and serve as an example of how freedom can reduce fear.

Content Category: