This Text Can Be Found in the Book,
The Evolution of Consent: Collected Essays (Vol. I)
Upon learning about anarchism for the first time, many questions pop into the head of the initiate; questions about law, money, and general civility. That is, questions about the welfare of society spring up. Who will build the roads? The hospitals? Who will deal with criminals? Will there be law to define criminal activity in the first place?
In this essay, I hope to dispel the myth that government, a state, is necessary to induce cooperation and mutual aid. I will demonstrate the evolutionary origins of cooperation and examples of cooperative organizing throughout history, before turning the discussion toward the non-necessity of government intervention in our lives.
Conflict Over Welfare
Welfare carries differing meanings for various people, but upon hearing the word, it generally brings to mind its application in today’s society, as a government program, rather than carrying its intrinsic meaning, which exists much deeper than attempts to apply it politically: the general well-being of a person or society. The overall meaning of welfare has been distorted. It has been corrupted by the state. In most people’s eyes, welfare is a question about taxes, representing ways money can be spent wisely, or wasted, depending on the holder of the perspective and their opinion about the program in question.
Welfare, the well-being of individual and community— something which should be celebrated by all according to the laws of happiness—has created divide in our society. Some on the right want social welfare to be abandoned completely, and desire a society of “everyone for themselves.” On the left, the sentiment is largely reversed, and many would abandon the sovereign individual’s liberty to look after their own welfare, desiring instead a society of “everyone for each other.” This kind of division is unnatural, as social interests are the creations of individuals.
The divide springs forth from arguments of where tax money should be spent, not from the individuals naturally being in conflict. There is no reason people who like to share can’t coexist beside people who don’t. It happens all of the time. We all have friends who like to share, and others who don’t, those who invite themselves to our pantries because they expect the same from us, and those who are rather uptight about their things, and expect similar in return. This is often a result of the nature of possessions and use-value to the owner. Some people, for instance, read books purely for fun, and are happy to pass them along when they are through. A person like me, however, can be stingy about the rare books they have sought after, and want to keep them around for future citations in works like this one. The degree to which we can be friends with both kinds of people, and hold both traits ourselves, is the degree to which we are dynamic individuals. No one is completely dynamic, or not at all. At times it may be necessary to draw the line, and tell a friend they have invited themselves to too much, or that they can invite themselves to something in the first place. Conflict occurs, however, when individuals who like to share and those who don’t, or like to do so in different ways, both have their resources stolen from them—taxes—and are left then to decide what is to be done with the money together. Everyone knows a household works best upon shared interests, and becomes ridden with conflict when left to be managed between parties that don’t share ideas or concerns. Imagine being forced to pool your paycheck with your coworkers; naturally, conflict about its spending would ensue. Imagining the freedom of abstention does not imply non-participation in group spending, as such absoluteness is the denial of freedom, but instead implies participation only in that group spending which is beneficial to the individual spender.
Any society over which welfare— well-being— becomes a conflict is a sick society indeed, and has much to learn. Ours is certainly among the ranks, quarantined in the minds of the rest of the world, and tossing in our beds at home, not thinking to promote balance in our health or change in the way we are doing things today, though we have felt such ailment for quite a time. We have seen people on the streets, begging for the jingle they hear as we pass by. We feel the urge to help further, but need is so vast that our actions alone are incapable of helping in the long term, and the passing of our own efforts only brings us closer ourselves to the same pits of hell. Besides, don’t we pay our taxes, and doesn’t the government use this money for good things, like the well-being of the people? Welfare?
The Evolutionary Origins of Group Welfare
Group welfare is actually very instinctual to humans. Many anthropologists suggest that the simpler societies are oftentimes very concerned with the welfare of one-another. Marcel Mauss, for instance, went into great detail about gift-giving and credit exchanges in his book, aptly titled The Gift. The anarchistic writer, Peter Kropotkin, writes in his classic book on the subject, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution,
Primitive folk […] so much identify their lives with that of the tribe, that each of their acts, however insignificant, is considered as a tribal affair. Their whole behaviour is regulated by an infinite series of unwritten rules of propriety which are the fruit of their common experience as to what is good or bad — that is, beneficial or harmful for their own tribe. Of course, the reasonings upon which their rules of propriety are based sometimes are absurd in the extreme. Many of them originate in superstition; and altogether, in whatever the savage does, he sees but the immediate consequences of his acts; he cannot foresee their indirect and ulterior consequences — thus simply exaggerating a defect with which Bentham reproached civilized legislators. But, absurd or not, the savage obeys the prescriptions of the common law, however inconvenient they may be. He obeys them even more blindly than the civilized man obeys the prescriptions of the written law. His common law is his religion; it is his very habit of living. The idea of the clan is always present to his mind, and self-restriction and self-sacrifice in the interest of the clan are of daily occurrence. If the savage has infringed one of the smaller tribal rules, he is prosecuted by the mockeries of the women. If the infringement is grave, he is tortured day and night by the fear of having called a calamity upon his tribe. If he has wounded by accident any one of his own clan, and thus has committed the greatest of all crimes, he grows quite miserable: he runs away in the woods, and is ready to commit suicide, unless the tribe absolves him by inflicting upon him a physical pain and sheds some of his own blood. Within the tribe everything is shared in common; every morsel of food is divided among all present; and if the savage is alone in the woods, he does not begin eating before he has loudly shouted thrice an invitation to any one who may hear his voice to share his meal.[i]
The drive to cooperate may be innately found in humans. As Michael Tomasello, who studies behavior and cognition in apes and human children, says,
in small-group interactions we see fundamental differences between human children and apes. From very early in ontogeny, human children are altruistic in ways that chimpanzees and other great apes are not. Although there is evidence that chimpanzees sometimes help others attain their goals behaviorally, they are not particularly generous with food (as compared with children and adult humans), and they do not offer information to one another through communication that in any way resembles the human variety. In terms of collaboration, again, from very early in ontogeny, human children collaborate with others in ways unique to their species. They form with others joint goals to which both parties are normatively committed, they establish with others domains of joint attention and common conceptual ground, and they create with others symbolic, institution realities that assign deontic powers to otherwise inert entities. Children are motivated to engage in these kinds of collaborative activities for their own sake, not just for their contribution to individual goals.[ii]
Tomasello is of the belief, and I am quite persuaded by his research (which coincides with studies on syntropy), that altruism is an intrinsic characteristic of humanity, which is culturally unlearned to a great degree, and reinforced in others. It is reinforced where cooperation and sharing is beneficial, and becomes lost where it becomes costly, and is not reciprocated.
Humans have developed communication, as Robin Dunbar argues, largely as a means to regulate the costs and benefits of cooperation. This is exemplified by gossip, which Dunbar argues— in Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Human Language— is a form of social grooming. Gossip provides ‘good’ social members—those with good social credit—with beneficial information about ‘bad’ social members, or free-riders—those who have bad social credit. In this way, cooperation is reinforced with those who are prone to reciprocate, and those who are not prone to reciprocate learn to do so, or lose the benefits of being part of a social unit. They face the consequences of non-cooperation. This creates an incentive to cooperate, without using human force or aggression. Dunbar says that language
allows us to exchange information about other people, so short-circuiting the laborious process of finding out how they behave. For monkeys and apes, all this has to be done by direct observation. I may never know you are unreliable until I see you in action with an ally, and that opportunity is likely to occur only rarely. But a mutual acquaintance may be able to report on his or her experience of you, and so warn me against you—especially if they share a common interest with me. Friends and relations will not want to see their allies being exploited by other individuals, since a cost borne by an ally is ultimately a cost borne by them too. If I die helping out a scoundrel, my friends and relations lose an ally, as well as everything they have invested in me over the years. Language thus seems ideally suited in various ways to being a cheap and ultra-efficient form of grooming.[iii]
Biologists generally follow a gene-centered view of evolution, whereby genes are selected according to their ability to continue in the long term. Richard Dawkins’ perspective of the selfish gene is a great example of this view. Genetic-selfishness, or genetic self-preference, does not always entail narcissism, but has actually been used to explain the high orders of cooperation among social organisms. The eusociality of the hymenoptera (ants, bees, termites, etc.), for instance, can be explained through this view by means of a process called kin-selection. I will not go into depth on kin-selection here, but I highly suggest you learn about this interesting aspect of evolution. Long story short, those organisms with similar genetics are more likely to cooperate, because selfishness does not lie on the level of the organism, but on the level of the genes; evolution does not attempt to preserve individuals, but genes, and, when culture exists, memes. Clearly, if genetic selfishness can lead to superorganisms, such as highly ordered ant societies, altruism on the level of the organism is clearly not outside of the picture. Reciprocal altruism, then, does not always reflect reciprocity on the outside; sometimes ants die for one another. Some acts, such as this one, can’t be reciprocated, but intentions can, which are reflections of genetic programming rather than circumstance. Dawkins says, in a New York Times interview, “It’s not the selfish individual, and certainly not the selfish species.” He then continues, “My book could have just as easily been called ‘The Altruistic Individual.’”[iv]
Clearly, altruism is an expression of our genetic selfishness, but Dawkins is commonly pigeonholed as having a narcissistic view of reality, though he has challenged this view, as above, on multiple occasions. Herbert Spencer, the great sociologist and libertarian thinker, had been subject to similar accusations to Dawkins, but long before. After all, he is one of the fathers of “social Darwinism.” He has been pigeonholed time and time again as a brilliant, but morally atrocious thinker. As Peter Richards points out, however,
The most frequently quoted passage of Spencer’s work, by Hofstadter and others wishing to smear Spencer’s reputation, is
“If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.”
This does sound harsh, but what the Spencer-knockers fail to quote is the first sentence of the very next paragraph, which transforms its meaning:
“Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated.”[v]
Mutual aid, empathy, sympathy, is clearly an evolutionary development of our own genetic selfishness, and has been selected in through a long process of evolution. Selfishness on a genetic level does not entail a lack of altruism on the level of the organism, but, in fact, implies the opposite teleological tendency; reciprocal altruism, in the long term, will be selected in. The long process of evolution has led to various systems of reciprocal altruism, including systems of law, credit, and exchange.
Welfare in the Distant Past
Law itself has its origins in reciprocal generation and enforcement, rather than domination. Before hierarchical systems of governance, people assembled together and discussed their group priorities, making final decisions together. Early societies did not commonly live under oppressive regimes. As historian, Michael Cheilik, says,
According to many scholars, at first there was very little class distinction among the citizens. To be sure, there was a variety of economic functions among the inhabitants, but there is little indication of aristocracy or monarchy before 2800 B.C. It seems to some scholars that all citizens met in an assembly to select a leader. Slavery began at a very early period, as it occurred to conquerors that killing one’s adversaries was wasteful. Why not take them alive and use their labor? But the number of slaves was quite small.[vi]
He goes on, saying “Kingship probably originated as a temporary expedient at times of emergency, with the king elected by the assembly.”[vii] This is indeed how kings originated, at least in Anglo-Saxon culture. According to Bruce L. Benson,
the development of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom emphasizes that the reason for the development of the institution of kingship was not a need for establishment of law or maintenance of internal order. Rather, government evolved due to external conflict (warfare).[viii]
The monopolization of power and the rise of technology have a direct correlation. As Gerhard Lenski and Patrick Nolan point out, “Social inequality is generally rather limited in most simple horticultural societies of the modern era.”
The more advanced the technology and economy of one of these groups, the greater social inequality tends to be. Societies that practice irrigation, own domesticated animals, or practice metallurgy for ornamental and ceremonial purposes are usually less egalitarian than groups without these characteristics. We see this clearly when we compare villagers of eastern Brazil and the Amazon River Basin with their more advanced neighbors to the north and west who, in pre-Spanish days, practiced irrigation and metallurgy. Hereditary class differences were absent in the former, but common in the latter, where a hereditary class of chiefs and nobles was set apart from commoners.[ix]
The effects of subsistence technologies on power are a constant theme in Human Societies, the book I am quoting from. Lenski and Nolan demonstrate that shifting from hunter-gatherer, to horticultural, to agrarian, and to early industrial societies all came with an increase in centralized power and domination. Industrialism, however, seems to throw the tendency a curve-ball. Later on, when discussing industrial societies, they go on to say that,
In agrarian societies, the modest economic surplus was appropriated by a small minority of the population, and if the rich got richer, the poor generally got poorer. But because per capita incomes in Britain and the United States are more than twelve times what they were in 1930 and 1870, respectively, it has been possible for the incomes of elites and nonelites alike to increase. How industrialization has affected the relative shares of income going to elites and nonelites is an issue we will return to […], but for now it should be noted that the growth in the economic surplus has greatly improved the standard of living for the vast majority of people in industrial societies.[x]
Gerhard Lenski is well-known for his ecological-evolutionary theories, which are based on the effects of environment on culture. He argues that subsistence technology has one of the greatest impacts on culture, but does not discount the effects of ideology.
Instead of social bonding being regulated by rules created and enforced by power and authority, early societies generated their own rules and ideologies, and enforced them reciprocally. Indeed, Bruce Benson suggests that, among the Kapauku of New Guinea,
“Recognition of law was based on kinship and contractual reciprocities motivated by the benefits of individual rights and private property.”[xi]
Law, defined here as rules which regulate social behavior, is not a product of the state, but developed rather contractually from the necessities of community-life. The state co-opts the beneficial behaviors of social organisms only in order to legitimize its dominance. Dominance is not necessary for beneficial social behavior. Dominance, in fact, hampers such behavior, by removing resources from producers, creating artificial scarcity and scarcity-mentality, and removing surplus and, thus, means of altruism. The state, in order to mystify this fact, co-opts and monopolizes social behavior, making it practically illegal for common people to help one another, thereby creating reliance on their oppressor. Contrary to common belief, it is not the state that allows laws to exist, but the presence of bad laws, or absence of good laws, which has allowed the state to exist.
When law is agreed upon and enforced by the people, systems of law tend to reflect common sense practices, rather than dealing in criminal processions. In custom, common, or civil law, the concern is not retribution or punishment, but rather justice and fairness. Benson says,
Reciprocities are the basic source both of the recognition of duty to obey law and law enforcement in a customary law system.[xii]
Because the source of recognition of customary law is reciprocity, private property rights and the rights of individuals are likely to constitute the most important primary rules of conduct in such legal systems.[xiii]
Instead of imprisoning, physically harming, or killing offenders, civil, custom, and common law systems focus on suits, and ways to compensate the victim, at expense of the offender. If you burn someone’s house down, according to common law practices, you owe that person a house of like quality. If you kill a family member, you owe the family for their loss. At times, common law would allow for violence, but usually violence was held as a last result, when a member of the community disagreed to abide by the rulings of the court. If you burn someone’s house down, and refuse to pay, you become an outlaw. Let’s remember, though, that, at least in early societies, one was a free subscriber to one’s community and its laws.
Early people would commonly pledge allegiance to one another, and promise reciprocal enforcement of contracts and law. Bruce Benson, citing Harold J. Berman, says,
Law can be imposed from above by some coercive authority, such as a king, a legislature, or a supreme court, or law can develop “from the ground” as customs and practice evolve. [xiv]
He says further,
Law imposed from the top—authoritarian law—typically requires the support of a powerful minority; law developed from the bottom up—customary law—requires widespread acceptance. [xv]
A good example of older forms of customary law is provided by the Law Merchant:
Because the Law Merchant developed outside the constraints of political boundaries and escaped the influence of political rulers for longer than many other Western legal systems, it provides the best example of what a system of customary law can achieve.[xvi]
The reciprocity necessary for the cognition of commercial law arose due to the mutual gains generated by exchange.
The Law Merchant evolved into a universal system through a process of natural selection.[xvii]
When it is recognized that individuals had to voluntarily enter into a contract, it becomes clear why the Law Merchant had to be objective and impartial. Reciprocity in the sense of mutual benefits and costs is the very essence of trade.[xviii]
Many societies would select individuals to be responsible for remembering the law, and reciting it to the group, as in lawspeakers, or to be responsible for facilitating the needs of the group, which was largely family-based. Their original purpose was not to decide for the group, though they could make suggestions, but to carry out the group’s decisions. It’s a shame that kingship has come to mean what it does: statist monarchism. As Polybius states in his views about kings and the anacyclosis of society,
It is by no means every monarchy which we can call straight off a kingship, but only that which is voluntarily accepted by the subjects and where they are governed rather by an appeal to their reason than by fear and force.[xix]
In many Viking societies, polycentric law was common practice, and law was dispensed by way of political churches, today called heathen hofs. Though the groups were hierarchical, and the hofs were often owned by a single Gothi (chief/priest), they were freely subscribed to, and were not forced. Oftentimes, neighbors would be subscribers to different hofs, and held reciprocal agreements of protection with a distant, rather than more local, hof. Because the hofs were freely subscribed to, leadership was generally non-coercive, and leaders sought to reconcile differences in the assembly rather than impose a ruling on the group. Oftentimes, fees were owed for maintenance and public procedures to be held, but these were not forced like taxes are, but instead were freely paid, as in modern systems of dues, in return for subscription to the group’s reciprocal systems of justice. Usually, upon joining, an oath to the group, or the group’s god, was made, and was placed on an object that the Gothi would wear, empowering him to act in the group’s interest, and affirming the group’s consent to his position. As stated in one of the Viking Sagas, one Gothi
had a temple built, and it was a sizeable building, with a door on the side-wall near the gable. The high-seat pillars were placed inside the door, and nails, that were called holy nails, were driven into them. Beyond that point, the temple was a sanctuary. At the inner end there was a structure similar to the choir in churches nowadays and there was a raised platform in the middle of the floor like an altar, where a ring weighing twenty ounces and fashioned without a join was placed, and all oaths had to be sworn on this ring. It also had to be worn by the temple priest at all public gatherings. A sacrificial bowl was placed on the platform and in it a sacrificial twig—like a priest’s aspergillum—which was used to sprinkle blood from the bowl. This blood, which was called sacrificial blood, was the blood of live animals offered to the Gods. The Gods were placed around the platform in the choir-like structure within the temple. All farmers had to pay a toll to the temple […] The temple Godi was responsible for the upkeep of the temple and ensuring it was maintained properly, as well as for holding sacrificial feasts in it.[xx]
Another account says that a Gothi
had a large temple built in his hayfield, a hundred feet long and sixty wide. Everybody had to pay a temple fee. Thor was the God most honoured there. It was rounded on the inside, like a vault, and there were windows and wall-hangings everywhere. The image of Thor stood in the center, with other Gods on both sides. In front of them was an altar made with great skill and covered with iron on the top. On this there was to be a fire which would never go out—they called it sacred fire. On the altar was to lie a great armband, made of silver. The temple Godi was to wear it on his arm at all gatherings, and everyone was to swear oaths on it whenever a suit was brought. A great copper bowl was to stand on the altar, and into it was to go all the blood which came from animals or men given to Thor.[xxi]
I’m not trying to trick the reader, violence was rather prominent in harsh Norse culture, but, within their own societies, rule of law was normally voluntarily accepted. Violence could exist as an agreed-upon duel, or even as voluntary human sacrifice, being religious in nature, during certain festivals, or as retainer sacrifices, when a Gothi, or person of similar importance, died, and their devotees were asked who would join them. According to an account by Arab traveler, Ibn Fadlan, a female volunteer was led
to an object [Vikings] had constructed which looked like a door-frame. They lifted her and lowered her several times. Then they handed her a hen, whose head they had cut off. They gave her strong drink and admonished her to drink it quickly. After this, the girl seemed dazed. At this moment the men began to beat upon their shields, in order to drown out the noise of her cries, which might deter other girls from seeking death with their masters in the future. They laid her down and seized her hands and feet. The old woman known as the Angel of Death knotted a rope around her neck and handed the ends to two men to pull. Then with a broad dagger she stabbed her between the ribs while the men strangled her. Thus she died.[xxii]
This sounds quite harsh to the modern reader, and though there was certainly some class privilege influencing the decisions of devoted servant-volunteers, one must also remember that ethics are an evolving process; the fact that the modern reader is so bothered by human sacrifice is both a testament to this, as well as evidence that voluntary human sacrifice is less likely in industrial societies, which are generally more informed of science and less concerned with superstition. Everywhere at the time of the Vikings, and in horticultural and agricultural societies today, violence of a higher degree was, and is, considered more acceptable. That’s just a general fact of socio-anthropology. As Lenski and Nolan point out, though, in regard to technological growth and oppression,
It should be clear […] that there is no simple one-to-one correspondence between technological advance and progress in terms of freedom, justice, and happiness.[xxiii]
Remember, Nolan and Lenski demonstrate throughout their book that there is a rapid rise in domination as society shifts from hunter-gatherer, horticulturalist, agriculturalist, and early industrialist. Still, they continue, showing the wrench that later industrialism kicks in the gears:
Had human history come to an end several hundred years ago, one would have been forced to answer affirmatively [whether or not technological advance has lured societies into evolutionary paths where the costs often outweigh the benefits]. During the last hundred years, however, technological advance has begun to make a strong positive contribution to the attainment of humanity’s higher goals. Whether or not this will continue in the future is another question. We can say this, however: Technology has at last brought into the realm of the possible a social order with greater freedom, justice, and happiness than any society has yet known.[xxiv]
Aside from systems of law, and enforcement of restitution upon involuntary human offense, early societies are not without other examples of group welfare, which deal with problems in regard to offenses by nature and entropy, including various forms of insurance. Where rights and original titles to property were the concern of the public, being human-based conflicts, conflicts with nature, such as lost crops, or lost merchant shipments due to weather or equipment problems rather than malintent, were considered more independently contractual. Farmers who lose their crops due to late frost have no one to blame but the weather, and customers who make purchases under the understanding that they are paying for the attempt to distribute, rather than the distribution itself, cannot blame the merchant who has merchandise stolen by highwaymen. Thus, insurance developed, whereby farmers would pool their surpluses, to be shared in time of need, and merchants sorted out various systems of insurance and credit to deal with accidents and exchanges.
Welfare in the Near Past
Getting a little more modern, during the 19th and early 20th century, mutual aid societies were especially popular among the working poor, as the rich, who made a living by extracting the surpluses of the poor, had little incentive to cooperate with others in such a manner. Immigrants, in particular, sharing similar cultural, and, oftentimes but not exclusively, class relations, looked toward mutual aid for survival. In South America and in some of the southern ‘States, especially Texas, economic mutualism was common practice. As pointed out by Roberto R. Calderón,
mutualista organizations, or mutual aid societies, [were] the most common organizational form that appeared at the turn of the century in Mexican communities of the Southwest..[xxv]
Fraternal societies, or mutual aid groups, served many purposes. Some were general organizations, which facilitated various, differing programs, while others had very specific purposes. Building societies, for instance, were created for the purpose of reciprocal acquisition of housing. People would donate their time or wealth in return for help on constructing or purchasing a new home. Other groups included benefit societies that would offer programs to deal with health concerns, burial services and life insurance. Still more would insure crops, shipments, employment, and more. Some were exclusive, pertaining to a specific cultural group, like many Mexican mutualista groups, or sex, such as mutual aid groups formed for the purpose of maternity; while others were inclusive, and offered membership across sexual and cultural lines. Mutual aid groups were a direct reflection of the needs of the populations that started them. Emilio Zamora points out that
Mutual aid societies met the material needs of their members with emergency loans and other forms of financial assistance, job-seeking services, and death and illness insurance. They also offered their members leadership experience in civic affairs, sponsored other institutions like newspapers and private schools, organized popular community events for entertainment, socializing, and public discourse. Mutualista organizations thus provided their members and communities a sense of belonging and refuge from an often alien and inhospitable environment. The community, in turn, accorded their members and especially the officers the highly respected status of responsible, civic-minded individuals. Mutualistas also served as a major point of organizational unity that spawned local and regional political struggle.[xxvi]
He continues, a bit later:
Members adopted a number of specific objectives to promote mutualism within and outside the organization. All the organizations established an insurance fund which made disability payments to ill members for up to thirty days and paid funeral costs in case of death. They also contributed to a widow’s fund that provided assistance to the family of the deceased member. Other sources of mutual and community assistance included informal job-seeking services for their members, charity funds to help needy families in the community, and savings funds which extended emergency loans to members. In some cases, the organization established libraries, newspapers and private schools for children and adults in the community. In all cases, [the mutualistas] sponsored celebrations during Mexico’s national holidays and the organization’s anniversaries.
The material benefits that the insurance coverage, emergency loans, and job placement assistance brought to the members were obvious. Most of them were poor and often without a stable source of employment. The schools, libraries, and newspapers were important contributions to the educational advancement of the membership of the community. These activities also contributed to the moral regeneration of the members and the community they served. The insurance and savings funds reinforced a measure of trust among the members who contributed their meager resources with the expectation that their money would be handled honestly and that they would receive their due benefits. The regular and timely payment of the required monthly fees and contributions also fostered frugality and a sense of responsibility.[xxvii]
Aside from offering direct benefits to the members as individuals, mutual aid societies also had a lot to offer culture. Most such groups put great emphasis on the growth of the individual, character building, hygiene, etc. Because individuals were united in community with others through contract, this extended a certain amount of positive liberty to members, who would concern themselves not only with their own lifestyle practices, but, since they were now also responsible— by way of dues, tithe, and other voluntary pooling of resources— for the prosperity of others, also with the lifestyle choices of members of their societies. After all, if you are sharing insurance with someone, it means you pay to solve their problems. This greatly incentivizes looking after the community’s well-being, and trying to stop problems before they start. Zamora says,
The strict internal rules that mutual aid societies adopted to define the responsibilities and proper ‘moral comportment’ of their members contributed the most to the practice of the ethic of mutuality. First of all, persons who applied for admissions had to be of sound moral character. The organization confirmed this by requiring recommendations from at least one member who acted as a sponsor and a committee that reviewed his local reputation as a responsible family person and law-abiding citizen. The membership was required to vote unanimously in favor of positive recommendations by the sponsor and the committee. Otherwise, the applicant was rejected.
Rules also prohibited behavior that, according to La Sociedad y Juárez from Alice, was ‘unbecoming to honest men.’ Vagrancy, giving oneself to vices, irresponsible family behavior, slander, and defamation against the organization and their brethren were cause for depriving members of their rights, and in some cases for suspending them from the organization.[xxviii]
A few pages later, he says,
The internal discipline of the mutualistas and their attendant reputation as responsible and civic-minded institutions gave importance and ideal meaning to the ethic of mutuality as a source of unity, identity, and civic pride. This ethic, however, generally remained tied to mutual aid societies until intellectuals defined and translated key cultural values into specific political objectives or strategies.[xxix]
Distant from Texas, a French writer, Rene-Georges Aubrun, writes of similar perspectives in his own country:
Inspired by the precept, ‘prevention is better than cure’, and benefitting by the teachings of modern medicine in matters to prophylactics, Mutual Aid no longer desires to wait until the evil becomes evident before applying the remedy.
All have understood that the individual interest and the collective interest, the mutualist interest and the national interest, were merged into one. Whence two new preoccupations: to educate the people, in order that they may discern the reasons of social ills, and to combat the evil information by exactly appropriate measures.
On the first point we must let the orators and lecturers speak, as well as the innumerable propagandists which enthusiasm has caused to rise up to fight for the good cause.
All of our organizations have inscribed on their programme: War against alcoholism, war against tuberculosis, war against all social conditions which engender alcoholism and tuberculosis. And war against the scourge which contains all the causes and all the germs, intitial cell of the collective ill—the unhealthy home, the hovel. This theme, largely developed at mutualist meetings, has given rise to revolts of conscience which have been translated almost everywhere into the constitution of new societies, equipped for undertaking the operations which Mutual Aid organizations were not legally authorized to undertake.[xxx]
In many ways, liberal and behavioral economic views which criticize libertarians as promoting a view of human nature as “homo-economicus,” relying on rapid calculation of consequences, are correct. People are incapable of perfect knowledge. Where liberal arguments fall short is where they assume that libertarian economics preclude association of the type mentioned above, where information is widely dispersed, as incentivized by reciprocal economic arrangements. The liberal argument is not that humans don’t calculate, but, rightly, that they do not always calculate on the spot. They have time, however, to think about longer-term affairs, from which the liberal argument for socialization, above, commences. There is nothing about free economics that precludes this liberal position, and, in fact, a free and democratic economy would better allow for, and incentivize, socialization and its related benefits. Nonetheless, and perhaps this is Spencerist of me, we must also recognize that humans are not the pinnacle of the evolutionary process, and that, though people don’t always calculate correctly on the spot, this fact does not mean that it is evolutionarily advantageous that they don’t, or that they should not be naturally selected, as individuals or groups, according to their ability to approximate such values.
Just as individuals may associate for the purpose of accomplishing larger scales of mutual aid, groups of individuals may also associate for a common goal, and, indeed, they have done so throughout history. Many mutualist societies would form confederations with one another, sometimes sharing services between members. Members were often encouraged, upon moving from their location, to join mutual aid societies within the same network. Mutual aid societies would often send letters of approval with their old members, to encourage their admission into new societies without probationary periods. Zamora says,
Mutualistas also maintained friendly relations with sister organizations. Members in good standing of sister organizations who visited or moved into the area were always welcomed and sometimes seated in a position of honor with the executive committee. Mutualista organizations encouraged members who moved to other areas to join sister organizations. They usually gave departing members letters of recommendation and other documents to facilitate their admission.[xxxi]
In many ways, this served as its own system of law enforcement. If an individual had bad credit with their society, either for unpaid debts or infringement on the values of the group (which had been voluntarily pledged to be upheld, and were decided upon democratically), they would not receive such letters of support. In this way, laws enforced themselves, by way of ethical and economic systems of credit. Rene-Georges Aubrun says,
We have here, in fact, another aspect of mutualist evolution which we have not yet examined. From being strictly local at the beginning, the association becomes little by little regional, provincial, extra-provincial, and at last collective in a national sense.[xxxii]
The Thriving of Welfare without the State
Social welfare as it exists today, supplied by the state, in the form of medical care, public utilities, justice dispersion, etc. is not a product of the state, but was rather co-opted by it. Roderick T. Long points out in “How Government Solved the Health Care Crisis: Medical Insurance that Worked— Until Government ‘Fixed’ It,” that
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the primary sources of health care and health insurance for the working poor in Britain, Australia, and the United States was the fraternal society. Fraternal societies (called “friendly societies” in Britain and Australia) were voluntary mutual-aid associations. Their descendants survive among us today in the form of the Shriners, Elks, Masons, and similar organizations, but these no longer play the central role in American life they formerly did. As recently as 1920, over one-quarter of all adult Americans were members of fraternal societies. (The figure was still higher in Britain and Australia.) Fraternal societies were particularly popular among blacks and immigrants.
The principle behind the fraternal societies was simple. A group of working-class people would form an association (or join a local branch, or “lodge,” of an existing association) and pay monthly fees into the association’s treasury; individual members would then be able to draw on the pooled resources in time of need. The fraternal societies thus operated as a form of self-help insurance company.
He continues, saying
Most remarkable was the low cost at which these medical services were provided. At the turn of the century, the average cost of “lodge practice” to an individual member was between one and two dollars a year. A day’s wage would pay for a year’s worth of medical care. By contrast, the average cost of medical service on the regular market was between one and two dollars per visit. Yet licensed physicians, particularly those who did not come from “big name” medical schools, competed vigorously for lodge contracts, perhaps because of the security they offered; and this competition continued to keep costs low.[xxxiii]
So if these institutions were so prominent and helpful, why don’t we see them around today? Roderick T. Long continues to enlighten us:
The response of the medical establishment, both in America and in Britain, was one of outrage; the institution of lodge practice was denounced in harsh language and apocalyptic tones. Such low fees, many doctors charged, were bankrupting the medical profession. Moreover, many saw it as a blow to the dignity of the profession that trained physicians should be eagerly bidding for the chance to serve as the hirelings of lower-class tradesmen. It was particularly detestable that such uneducated and socially inferior people should be permitted to set fees for the physicians’ services, or to sit in judgment on professionals to determine whether their services had been satisfactory. The government, they demanded, must do something.
And so it did. In Britain, the state put an end to the “evil” of lodge practice by bringing health care under political control. Physicians’ fees would now be determined by panels of trained professionals (i.e., the physicians themselves) rather than by ignorant patients. State-financed medical care edged out lodge practice; those who were being forced to pay taxes for “free” health care whether they wanted it or not had little incentive to pay extra for health care through the fraternal societies, rather than using the government care they had already paid for.
In America, it took longer for the nation’s health care system to be socialized, so the medical establishment had to achieve its ends more indirectly; but the essential result was the same. Medical societies like the AMA imposed sanctions on doctors who dared to sign lodge practice contracts. This might have been less effective if such medical societies had not had access to government power; but in fact, thanks to governmental grants of privilege, they controlled the medical licensure procedure, thus ensuring that those in their disfavor would be denied the right to practice medicine.
Such licensure laws also offered the medical establishment a less overt way of combating lodge practice. It was during this period that the AMA made the requirements for medical licensure far more strict than they had previously been. Their reason, they claimed, was to raise the quality of medical care. But the result was that the number of physicians fell, competition dwindled, and medical fees rose; the vast pool of physicians bidding for lodge practice contracts had been abolished. As with any market good, artifical restrictions on supply created higher prices — a particular hardship for the working-class members of fraternal societies.
The final death blow to lodge practice was struck by the fraternal societies themselves. The National Fraternal Congress — attempting, like the AMA, to reap the benefits of cartelization — lobbied for laws decreeing a legal minimum on the rates fraternal societies could charge. Unfortunately for the lobbyists, the lobbying effort was successful; the unintended consequence was that the minimum rates laws made the services of fraternal societies no longer competitive. Thus the National Fraternal Congress’ lobbying efforts, rather than creating a formidable mutual-aid cartel, simply destroyed the fraternal societies’ market niche — and with it the opportunity for low-cost health care for the working poor.[xxxiv]
Roderick Long is not alone in his analysis. The contemporary mutualist, Kevin Carson, writes a good deal about the interference in the medical market and its effects on consumers. Joe Peacott, of the Boston Anarchist Drinking (BAD) Brigade, shares a similar view to the others:
The primary result of state regulatory control of the practice of health care […] has not been protection of the health of health care consumers, but rather the protection of the market monopoly of state-approved health care professionals, drug manufacturers, and other providers of health care services. The government-enforced monopoly results not only in very expensive services and medicines and the attendant outrages profits earned by providers and drug manufacturers, but also in a greatly reduced range of services and medicines available to health care consumers. Many critics think that the solution to the problems people encounter with the health care system is for government to better regulate it and socialize its costs through some sort of national health care system. I disagree.[xxxv]
Without the state, society would thrive, and welfare— well-being of persons and groups—, would flourish. As it stands now, innovation is greatly hampered by dense regulation, licensing, and more. Some practices are plain outlawed, even when the crime is victimless or self-inflicted. Take the idea reflected in William Bains’s article on “The Biomedical Mutual Organization,” which would be illegal in today’s practice here in the ‘States:
Self-experimentation is an efficient, productive and proven way to generate new treatments for mild and serious disease. But it is limited by materials available to the individual and the amount of testing one person can do. I advocate the formation of Biomedical Mutual Organizations, self funded groups of individuals that provide mutual support for exploring new ideas in medical treatment. Such groups could achieve three things. Firstly, they could pool analytical services to validate the quality of materials and analytical services used in self-testing and self-medication, including verification of the identity and purity of medicine ingredients sourced from non-traditional sources. Secondly, they could pool resources to conduct group experiments in new treatments, interpret the results, and generate new hypotheses which could in turn be tested. Thirdly they could conduct more formal clinical trials on the group as a whole of new, indeed radical, therapies, in effect becoming a self-funded biotechnology company. While many practical objections remain to all of these, especially the last, and the last option may actually be illegal in some countries, some of the ethical objections that prevent such arrangements outside the context of a Mutual Organizations are overcome by the alignment of interests of those involved.[xxxvi]
Though there are no victims in self- and mutual-experimentation, we are told such practices must be outlawed as “too dangerous.” Still, such practices are exactly how medical procedures developed in the first place.
As it is today, many of the tasks which have been allocated to (read “stolen by”) government are not being carried out very efficiently, not just healthcare. Ever heard the phrase, “Good enough for government work”? This carries a cultural connotation for a reason; governments are not accountable to market forces, and, as such, don’t have to provide goods and services at the quantity or quality demanded. On the Hawaiian island of Kauai, for instance, local residents became fed up with government neglect of roads, and pooled together millions of dollars, completing necessary repairs of roads in a time period of eight days. CNN reports,
Their livelihood was being threatened, and they were tired of waiting for government help, so business owners and residents on Hawaii’s Kauai island pulled together and completed a $4 million repair job to a state park — for free.[xxxvii]
The volunteer group did not even take possession of the roads they serviced, which still belong to the government. Imagine if the residents owned the roads in the first place; they probably would have never gotten so bad. Indeed, Clarence Lee Swartz, in his book, What is Mutualism?, notes the capacity for common people, organized into free (not forced) associations, to build and maintain roads, and dispense insurance and justice:
While it may be quite patent to most people, there are some who cannot visualize how streets and high-ways will be built by any other agency than that of government.
Most persons can only imagine profit organizations on the one hand, or compulsory organizations, such as governments, on the other, as agencies for carrying on the business of society. Once they get the idea that non-profit organizations can take over those functions without gouging the public and also without enslaving the people, it is easy to show them how more involved problems can be taken care of. For this purpose, we may point to the various automobile clubs in this country, and take as an example the Automobile Club of Southern California.
This non-profit organization was started in 1900 by a few motorists with the object of mutual protection, the promotion of good highways, and the collection and dissemination of reliable road information. According to a recent pamphlet, more than 120,000 road signs have been erected and are being maintained by this club. It furnishes insurance to members without a profit; it employs experienced detectives to foil car theft and recover stolen automobiles; and the highway patrol service is different from the patrol of the county speed cop; it is a boon to the motorist instead of a bane. It is courtesy extended to motorists in distress, whether members or non-members, and includes mechanical first aid, towing to the nearest garage, changing of tires, furnishing of gasoline or oil at cost, giving free information, removing of glass from the highways, disentangling traffic jams, posting temporary signs, in short, aiding instead of harassing the motorist.
Why are all these activities recounted? Because they show, in the first place, a non-profit organization at work at the present time; secondly, because they prove that such organizations may be public spirited and extend benefits to others who do not pay for them; and, thirdly, because here is an organization that might serve as a nucleus for a road league of the future.[xxxviii]
Swartz is right to look for an alternative to “compulsory” and “profit” organizations. This is a dichotomy that society is yearning to break. Capitalism and socialism both scream of difficulties and dogma. As Lenski and Nolan point out,
Viewed from a sociological perspective, the mixed economies that have evolved in industrial societies during the last hundred years reflect an effort by the members of these societies to achieve two goals that seem, to some degree at least, mutually contradictory. On the one hand, they want the economic growth and higher standard of living that market systems seem better able to provide. On the other hand, they also want the economic security and attention to the needs of society that command economies seem better equipped to provide.[xxxix]
Neither capitalistic nor communistic to a vicious extreme, the virtue within “The Dialectical Thought of Mutualism” offers just this.
It should be clear that reciprocity and mutual aid are developments of evolution, that humanity’s nature in no way contradicts this fact, and neither does it depend on the state for its existence. Humans express altruism and reciprocity as part of their genetic selfishness, which has led to the construction of various systems of law, credit, and insurance, which have been found largely beneficial by society as a whole. Contrary to common notions, welfare predates, and actually becomes hampered by, the state, and society would do well to abolish the state if it truly desires welfare, well-being, whether it is for the individual or the collectivity, as the two are ultimately, and naturally, inseparable.
[i] Peter Kropotkin, 111.
[ii] Michael Tomasello, 104.
[iii] Robin Dunbar, 79.
[iv] Richard Dawkins1
[v] Peter Richards
[vi] Michael Cheilik, 14.
[viii] Bruce L. Benson, 29.
[ix] Patrick Nolan and Gerhard Lenski, 116.
[x] Ibid., 216.
[xi] Bruce L. Benson, 17.
[xii] Ibid., 12.
[xiii] Ibid., 13.
[xiv] Ibid., 12.
[xv] Ibid., 12.
[xvi] Ibid., 30
[xvii] Ibid., 31.
[xix] Polybius, 235.
[xx] Anonymous2 (translated by Judy Quinn), 133.
[xxi] Anonymous2 (translated by John Porter), 307.
[xxii] Ahmad ibn-Fadlan
[xxiii] Nolan and Lenski, 333.
[xxv] Roberto Calderón, 63.
[xxvi] Emilio Zamora, 85.
[xxvii] Ibid., 92-93
[xxviii] Ibid., 93.
[xxix] Ibid., 95.
[xxx] Renes-Georges Aubrun, 52.
[xxxi] Emilio Zamora, 94.
[xxxii] Renes-Georges Aubrun, 59.
[xxxiii] Roderick T. Long
[xxxv] Joe Peacott, 11.
[xxxvi] William Bains
[xxxvii] Mallory Simon
[xxxviii] Clarence Lee Swartz, 119.
[xxxix] Nolan and Lenski, 228.