On an email list to which I subscribe, the question has been raised: which is worse, bad government or no government?
I think, on reflection, any government at all, even Hitler, is better than no government.
There is an economic theory, by the great Mancur Olsen, that claims to explain why this would be so. Let’s imagine government is purely parasitic, purely a thief. Nevertheless, it is better for everyone else to have one big thief in control, than many little thieves. This is because thieves will act purely in their own self-interest. But if there are many little thieves, their self-interest is in taking as much as they can right away. Because if they do not, the next thief will get it. But if there is only one big thief, his own self interest limits how much he is going to take, because it is better for him not to kill his host: to ensure that there is still more to take tomorrow, or ten years from now.
Ergo, one government, even the worst, is better then none, and what Hobbes called “the war of all against all.”
Even a homicidal one. I read somewhere recently that, if the casualty rate in the wears of the Twentieth Century had been comparable to that in wars between “primitive” tribes, the death toll would have been ten times what it was. So that seems to say it all: no government is ten times worse than the worst government we can think of. The average person in Nazi Germany was a lot better off, and a lot safer, than the average person in, say, the pre-Columbian Amazon basin.
Now my thoughts start getting more speculative. Why is there nevertheless for many a nostalgia for the wild frontier? Why does a state of chaos seem to cause a creative ferment, and if it does, could it be worth the carnage?
First, it seems to me that any kind of standards constrain the bottom of the bell curve. But they also constrain the top. If one is, for example, significantly more moral than the average, laws designed to keep you moral are going to do no good, to you, and are only likely, however inadvertently, to limit you and prevent you from doing what you ought and otherwise would. Similarly, if you are significantly more intelligent than the average, laws designed to preserve some minimum standards are only going to constrain you from doing the best that you otherwise could, from being fully creative. This is why, for example, the great artists tend to hate the academy and the established rules of genre.
It follows that the most moral among us, and the brightest, will be drawn to situations in which there are the fewest rules. This once drew the best and the brightest to immigrant societies like the US, Alberta, or Singapore, and to the frontier. It also has always drawn many of the best and brightest to the expat life, where there are inevitably fewer social expectations placed on one’s behaviour. So also to the missionary enterprise. I have certainly found personally, again and again, that the sort who becomes an expat is generally exceptionally intelligent.
There is often also the illusion, in such groups, that they can do without rules: because this group also tends to be the exceptionally moral, the missionaries. Dylan said, “to live outside the law, you must be honest.” Conversely, if you are honest, you can live outside the law.
But this thesis, and this experience, always comes a cropper with time. Because situations of lawlessness also inevitably and necessarily draw the psychopath, the person who is seeking to avoid law for the opposite reason, because his abilities are below standard, or his morals are below standard. This tends to floods in as the second wave, the Charles Manson moment, the Stalin moment. Because this group is less intelligent, and so naturally slower to discover the new frontier.
As liberating as the first wave may feel, it is necessary not to get carried away. You had just better have proper law and order set up before the second wave hits, or things will not be pretty.
It seems to be a predictable cycle.