Friday, August 29, 2008


Communitarians argue that communities are the basic unit of human existence and that individuals can be completely explicated in terms of groups. Many if not most communitarians argue that individuals do not even exist! I believe communities are natural and an essential component of the good life, but I do not believe that we can reduce individual human beings to the communities that they spawn. One of the hallmarks of the modern era is that we can now associate ourselves with both small communities and large communities. Hence, there are both small group communitarians (that identify human fulfillment with small communities) and large group communitarians (that identify human fulfillment with large communities). In my view, small communities are supported by biological evolution, or our natural tendency to associate with our families and friends. During the Pleistocene era, say 3 million years ago, human communities were limited by the capacity for leaders to control followers. Our brains are the brains of hunters and gathers. We are naturally inclined to live in small groups. The formation of large urban communities required a lot of cultural evolution; most notably, communication technology, which facilitated the exchange of information, and weapon technologies which increased the efficiency of the use of coercive force. Now both small and large communities tend to rely on the use of coercive force, but I think large communities are more likely to actually employ it. That's because it is easier for small communities to monitor and enforce rules, while it is more difficult in large communities. That's because, we are individuals and we tend to use communities to advance our self interest. Large communities tend to accumulate free-riders that enjoy the benefits of group membership without abiding by its rules. Free-ridership is obviously less common in small communities. Unfortunately, given our unlimited capacity for fast-paced cultural evolution, small communities tend to get taken over by large communities. Some libertarians prefer to live in large communities that have a lot of rules that are impossible to monitor and enforce, while others prefer to live in small communities that have leaders that they know personally, fewer rules, and have fewer free-riders. Paradoxically, the larger the community the less efficient they become at serving the public good. However, our capacity for living, voluntarily in large groups has been enhanced by the evolution of morality; that is by our capacity to willingly comply with certain rules without being forced. I do not steal from others because I believe that it is immoral, not because I'm afraid that I will get caught and punished. I will not employ physical aggression either. Large communities, therefore, can be voluntary to the extent that their members willingly choose to not steal, keep their promises, and eschew violence. Today most human beings live in large impersonal nation states that rely more on legality (coercive force) than morality (consent) and therefore require ever-increasing levels of taxation to pay for more policemen, lawyers, judges, and prisons. As these large communities attempt to do more and more on our behalf with increasing levels of inefficiency, our tax burden increases along with our desire to avoid paying those taxes. Hence, most large communities have a very active underground economy. I am a communitarian to the extent that communities are voluntary; that is to say that individuals can freely enter or exit those communities in the absence of physical aggression or threats. Obviously, I would rather live in a society ruled by morality than legality, but not many large nation states are ruled by morality. Therefore, most libertarians are realists. We acknowledge that nation states must monitor and enforce their most important rules: rules that control theft and murder. But that's about it. The less legality, the more room there is for liberty and personal morality. Hence, my beef with communitarians is that they expect government to do too much and often tolerate the violation of the non-aggression axiom. Good communities are communities that survive because individuals CHOOSE to associate with them.

Freedom's Philosopher

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