15 October 2011

Lessons From The Amish


It occurred to me that one could view the Amish as a working example of a form of anarchy. It is a very strange form, since the rules that the Amish are under are considerably more constraining—including rules on what styles of clothing they can wear, rules against owning automobiles or flying on airplanes, and much else—than the rules the rest of us are under. But those rules are all voluntarily accepted, and the system that generates them may reasonably be viewed as a competitive system of private law.
To expand on that, for readers not familiar with the Amish. The only level of Amish "government" with any authority is the congregation, typically made up of about thirty to forty households. Its authority is over individuals who, as adults, have chosen to swear to accept its rules. The only punishment it can impose is shunning—the refusal of members of the congregation to associate in various ways with a member who has been excommunicated. Members, including excommunicated members, are free to resign from their congregation and join any other congregation that will accept them, or drop out of the Amish sect entirely.

There are a couple of conclusions to be drawn from this.

1.  This is how the church should operate.  While Christians are not expected to rebel against the state (per Romans 14), it does not follow that the Christian need to go to the state to solve any of his problems with his brethren.  I’ve posted on this before in regards to marriage (look under the heading “Righting the Ship”), so I’ll be brief here.

I Cor. 6 makes it that the church not only can serve as a replacement for the legal system, but that it must, at least in some cases.  I do not think that it is a stretch to say that the church can act as a complete substitute for the legal system, at least for its members.  This seems to be the practice with the Amish.  As such, the church should make a point of resolving any and all problems its members have with each other, instead of allowing them or expecting them to go to the authorities.  This model can work, per the Amish, although I would say that its ability to work is largely contingent on the shared religious beliefs of the members of the church.

Note that this model does not apply to members interacting with non-members.  This would mean that the state would more than likely be necessary for redressing the crimes irreligious people practice against religious people.  Also, the proper application of this model would require a form of religious isolationism, wherein members would be expected to isolate themselves from the world as much as possible.  This will likely be a sticking point for those who believe they have a responsibility to proselytize others.

2.  There is likely a genetic component to functional anarchism.  The Amish are largely composed of white Europeans that come from a very small number of countries (mostly Switzerland and Germany by my reckoning).  In fact, they seem to call from a relatively small number of families.  It seems that the Amish, also called Mennonites, have a genetic predisposition to maintain their familial culture. Obviously, genetics cannot account for everything, but I bet it plays a significant role.  It is nearly impossible to find non-white Amish, and very difficult to find non-European white Amish.  While this is not conclusive proof, it does suggest that genetics may play a role in supporting the Amish’s functional anarchism.

If it is, in fact, the case that functional anarchist societies are dependent to some extent on genetics, then one can reasonably conclude that there will be some people who will be genetically predisposed towards statism and against anarchy. This further suggests that certain people/cultures that will have tendencies towards anarchism and that certain people/cultures will have tendencies toward statism.

3.  A functional anarchist society is inherently opposed to intentional multiculturalism.  Since the closest modern working example of a functional anarchist society is a relatively homogeneous group, I think that one can safely conclude that anarchy is definitely at odds with multiculturalism, especially if anarchy is to survive.  There are plenty of statists in this world, and the only way to prevent them from ruining an anarchist society would be to exclude them from participating in said anarchist society.  Therefore, if libertarians think that an anarchist society would promote heterogeneity, they are going to be in for a rude surprise.

4.  Anarchist societies will likely be more segregated and less libertine than most libertarians think.  Part of what has enabled the Amish to exist as a distinct society for so long has to undoubtedly be the social pressure to conform to Amish beliefs.  I imagine the same pressure of social conformity will be present in every other functional anarchist society, since people like to surround themselves with like-minded people.  Furthermore, conformity exists as a signal for trust, which is a crucial good in a society where no one has coercive power to enforce contracts and smooth over market interactions.

5.  Anarchist societies will likely be less progressive, in a technological sense.  When one thinks about the inventions that personify the modern world, one usually thinks of things like the electrical power grid and computers.  Interestingly, both these things enjoyed a good deal of government subsidy that enabled them to become so ubiquitous.  The TVA, for example, was put in charge of building up power lines in rural areas.  Also, the modern computer enjoyed quite a bit of development from the defense department in WWII.  These two marvels of the modern world owe some of their success to the state.  (Incidentally, modern video games exist, in part, because the army needed an expensive way to train soldiers.)

This is not to suggest that the state would have been necessary for accomplishing either the mass production of the computer or the universal distribution of electricity.  However, the government does deserve credit for speeding up the mass acceptance and usage of these things.  Governments tend to be progressive since those who are attracted to ruling others usually have a tendency to make an ideal society.  Thus, the government has a tendency to speed up the timetable for modernization.

In contrast, anarchist societies are considerably more likely to be conservative than statist societies, and anarchist societies will be less-inclined toward progress.  Anarchist societies will be hesitant to try put new things, in part because new things are a departure from tradition (and keep in mind that anarchism promotes a rather homogeneous culture, which inclines itself nicely to following tradition).  This is not an inherently good or bad thing.  It simply is.

Thus, in summation, libertarians who think that society is going to magically progress if only the state got out of the way are going to need to readjust their expectations.  Not everyone wants to get rid of the state, and not everyone can live peaceably without it.  And of those who can live peaceably in a stateless society, many will be very conservative and traditionalist, which is not very conducive to a market-based utopia of free love and drugs.  It’s not even necessarily conducive to rapid technological improvement.

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