Do we need governments at all?

Tolstoy no less in his essay “On Anarchy” in 1900 asked whether we need government at all and concluded that on the whole we would be better off without – provided we, people at large, take responsibility for our own actions and behave as moral beings: 

“The Anarchists are right in everything; in the negation of the existing order; and in the assertion that, without Authority, there could not be worse violence than that of Authority under existing conditions. They are mistaken only in thinking that Anarchy can be instituted by a revolution. But it will be instituted only by there being more and more people who do not require the protection of governmental power … There can be only one permanent revolution – a moral one: the regeneration of the inner man”. 

By the end of the 19th century, after some centuries of tsarist rule, a great many Russians had had more than enough of Feudalism. Anarchism had become a significant force, at least among intellectuals like Tolstoy (1828-1910) and his younger contemporary and fellow aristocrat Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921). Neither, though, supported the idea of an all-out revolution which by the first decade of the 20th century was already brewing.  Both agreed that real change must come from individuals’ change of mindset and in particular from a shared desire to cooperate for the common good. As Kropotkin wrote in Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution”: 

 “In the long run the practice of solidarity proves much more advantageous to the species than the development of individuals endowed with predatory inclinations.” 

Indeed, Kropotkin was first and foremost a biologist, who greatly respected Darwin and Wallace’s concept of evolution but took issue with Darwin’s apparent emphasis on competition. The present economy and all politics are rooted in the idea that we, human beings, must above all compete; individual against individual and society against society, and indeed that competitiveness is one of life’s chief virtues. But as I argue throughout this website and in The Great Re-Think (and many others argue too), this is bad biology and truly dreadful morality – just as Kropotkin said 150 years ago. 

However, pace Tolstoy and the other thinking anarchists, societies in general almost certainly do need governments of some kind just to keep things coordinated. But Tolstoy’s point applies nonetheless. Much or most government is bad: morally suspect; often (usually?) corrupt to some degree; and rarely able to do what’s needed even when, as is sometimes the case, it is well-intentioned. Of course, perfection is too much to ask for. The principle of non-linearity applies in politics and economics at least as much as in wild ecosystems. As Robert Burns observed in a somewhat different context – 

“The best-laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley”

Even so, as Tolstoy said of the tsars, we surely can do better than we do now. So how do we go about it? 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *