"It [government] covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd." ~ Alexis de Tocqueville
A Fine and Functioning Anarchy
Column by Alex R. Knight III.
Exclusive to STR
Those of you who may perchance recall (or might care to read for the first time) my second piece ever published here at STR, “Anarchism and Alcohol,” are in for a bit of a converse experience.
A recent acquaintance of mine – I’ll call him Larry, for purposes of anonymity (the further relevance of which shall become clear shortly) – related a story just earlier at the time of this writing, in which a friend of his referred to a certain venerable organization as a prime example of the title of this essay: a fine and functioning anarchy. That organization happens to be Alcoholics Anonymous – a private, non-profit group of voluntarily participating individuals who all share the common and simply understood (though not always simply achieved) goal of sobriety. That is, for those individuals who have arrived at the personal conclusion that they are problem drinkers to stop consuming alcoholic beverages altogether.
Larry, being a member himself, related certain characteristics of A.A. within a rather unusual context: Albeit that the most recent U.S. Census was now conducted over two years ago, it seems that the government bureau directed to administer that asinine decennial ritual randomly selected Larry’s household as a sample demographic of the area in which he resides. Accordingly, they have been telephoning him on a routine basis with an ever-expanding list of questions – a practice which, according to Larry’s own testimony, has become borderline “harassment.” (Note: This also brings to mind another prior STR piece of mine, from which Larry and others might benefit in the future, “Don’t Answer the Census”). At any event, the U.S. Census Bureau-crat on the other end of the line most recently asked Larry whether he was involved in anything that might be classified or construed as “volunteerism.” Evidently, the Bureau-crat in question, under the preposterous auspice of protecting privacy (were he really concerned about that, he would not be phoning Larry in the first place – nor, for that matter, would the Bureau-crat have the employer he does), did not ask Larry to identify by name any organizations which might be categorized as falling within the purview of such activity. Rather, he inquired strictly about the nature of any such volunteerism – if in fact any did exist in Larry’s daily affairs. When Larry replied, with some understandable degree of hesitance, in the affirmative, the Bureau-crat then proceeded to regale him with questions such as whether or not it was a community-based organization. Whether it accepted public funds. Whether it was comprised of any official leadership. And so on.
Most if not all of Larry’s responses were in the negative. For A.A. members are indeed volunteers – but wholly independent. There exist no “leaders” within A.A. membership. All funds are raised by internal voluntary contributions. No funding is either solicited, or accepted, outside of A.A. membership. Nor are there dues, fees, or any other mandatory financial obligations on the part of A.A. members, or requirements for membership other than a sincere desire to stop drinking and both achieve and maintain sobriety. A.A. also neither endorses nor opposes any and all causes, and intentionally and most stringently stays out of all controversial arenas such as politics, religion, and media exposure. In addition, all A.A. groups are autonomous and independent of one another – though members are free to attend meetings and participate as they freely choose within the overall A.A. milieu. In fact, A.A. actively shuns the concept of organization, as such, and shies entirely away from the concept of promoting poster-boys or prominent personalities in order to carry the message of sobriety to others. Rather, A.A. relies upon outside voluntary attraction. They are there to assist the alcoholic who decides to seek help on their own, without forcible coercion.
These revelations so befuddled the Bureau-crat to whom Larry was speaking, that he evidently felt obliged to reveal the organization’s identity. It perhaps comes as no surprise that A.A. was and is an organization so relatively unique and anarchistic in its structure (or relative lack thereof), that it does not fit within the bureaucratic framework of the U.S. Census Bureau’s categorization – a fact that, according to Larry, he pointed out to the Bureau-crat . . . who in turn stated that he ought to pass such information along to a supervisor. I’d like to think that might produce some kind of marginally beneficial result. However, jaded libertarian that I am, my reaction is almost a default cliché: “Good luck with that.”
When we reflect that A.A., part of the societal landscape since 1935, has had such an unprecedented level of success the world over in treating alcoholism by helping countless alcoholics achieve lasting sobriety, and has done so by actually denying leadership and organization – instead relying upon the goodwill, sincerity, insights, and expertise of individual members – it sheds some significant light on precisely why a violent and coercive institution such as government functions so poorly by comparison. Larry’s equally anonymous friend, all the evidence shows, is precisely correct: Anarchy can and does function just fine, where and when it is permitted to bloom.
And that’s a life lesson most anyone can learn, no matter where or who they are.