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Society with laws but without enforcement?

0 votes
I've been playing with this idea recently and would like your thoughts: the trouble with government, rules, laws, hierarchy, etc. is the loss of individual free will. If not for the desire of some for power over others, mutually beneficial volontary agreements would be common, spontaneous, flexible and temporary. In a way, contracts formalize promises; parties exchange liberty. Isn't this an exercise of free will? Maybe it increases both the parties' individual and combined free will (if quantifiable, say, by calories available for individuals' pursuit of their respective personal objectives). I am coming around to the point of view that webs of coordinated self-imposed rules are net positive -- as long as they can be freely broken. So, what if a government passed a law making it illegal for anyone to use force or threat thereof other than for self-defense? I think I would like living in such a society, and even support local voluntary militias set up to help me with my self-defense when needed...
asked Feb 11 by Syrphant (890 points)
I should add, to help you visualize the hypothetical society I'm thinking of, that the people could still elect representatives to a congress that passes and modifies laws. The laws are unenforceable of course, but serve a valuable purpose nonetheless: they are "generally accepted social norms." They are written and published strictly as guidelines. They are established as debatable majority-opinions about ethical social behavoir. There would be some social pressure to conform, and I expect people would largely conform to formally adopted collective expectations in most cases because humans are generally social. The key is having the option to disobey any particular rule at any time. Rule-breakers would have to accept the unenforced, but very real consequences of deviant behavior; that's what freedom is all about.
I think I am missing something about your question/proposition Syrphant. Why would there still be elected representative bodies? To what end? Social groups (cliques, crews, neighborhoods, towns, etc.) come up with social standards appropriate to their specific context organically. Often these standards deserve to be challenged as they stratify into social mores. but I don't quite see where an elected body has much of anything to do with challenging that aspect of power.

i think some definitions are required to even think critically about this question. how do you define "laws"? what about "enforcement"? if a "law" can be freely broken, why would you call it a law? are you in fact talking about something more along the lines of principles, or (shared) personal ethics?

to me, anything that cannot be enforced is not a law. and to have enforcement of laws is to codify authority, and hence stray directly from anything anarchistic in my mind. so, without enforcement, what would make something a law? 

having elected bodies to define laws (even unenforced ones - again, a contradiction to me) is to delegate power; how can that be anarchistic?


"So, what if a government passed a law making it illegal for anyone to use force or threat thereof other than for self-defense?"

one question: do you honestly see anything anarchistic about anything in there? even if you accepted one common definition of "self-defense" (a hugely subjective concept by any measure), you still are talking about government, laws, and illegality. do you seriously see any of that as even remotely anarchistic?

Funkyanarchy, take a look at my comment to asker's answer. Yes, I see the absence of law enforcement as anarchy. I invite you to drain the notion of coercion from all those words and see what's left.

As for self-defense, I admit I don't fully understand it, but it is resistance to coercion, right?  My plants are attacked by predators and parasites; the plant can fight them off to some degree with chemicals, but sometimes they need my help if they are to survive. I don't consider picking a sap-sucker off a plant and crushing it between my fingers as aggression, I consider it assisting the plant in its self-defense. Indeed, very fuzzy, depends on perspective and basically ensures that life will never be peaceful.

But this question is not about what is possible or impossible with the use of power, but rather about what should and should not be tolerated by an ideal society (hence the tag "ethics"). Society can be flexible on the meanings of words. It is the notion of enforcement that should be condemned by a large majority of people. Then we have anarchy.
sryphant, the people and situations where i relate anarchically don't involve anything written down (contracts, laws, penalties, etc). so when i imagine extending anarchy to more people/relationships/situations, i don't see it by creating laws. i'd rather extend the same sort of intimacy and trust i already feel when relating without authority now. and when that type of intimacy doesn't feel desirable, or possible, i'd rather disassociate, or defend myself if necessary, in any way i can.

an "ideal society" and "what should be tolerated" sounds like authoritarian thought to me. unless you somehow think you can get thousands/millions/billions of people to come to consensus on what that means.or unless you mean idealized or tolerated for yourself and people who choose to interact in that way with you.

and you speak about governments taking actions and passing laws...i don't understand how that means anarchy to you.
A law without enforcement or threat of enforcement of said law wouldn't be a law.

Anyhoot, what you're describing sounds similar to minarchism to me with the whole thing about government passing some laws or something like that.

1 Answer

+1 vote
This may not exactly be the answer you are looking for, but:

In an essay on Kafka, Benjamin has this kind of beautifully perverse line, where he says that "the law that is no longer applied but only studied is the gate to justice."

He's talking here about a story called "A New Attorney" in which a lawyer named Dr. Bucephalus is admitted to the bar but spends all his time poring over old books, never actually prosecuting a case.

Bucephalus is of course the name of the horse owned and ridden by Alexander the Great. Alexander, you might remember, is supposed to have tamed Bucephalus by pointing the creature's head directly at the sun. This cured Bucephalus of his fear of his own shadow.

In Kafka's story, it seems to me that the lawyer Bucephalus has remembered that fear and is doing his best to look into it, which is exactly the right thing to do. You can see that this is much different than doing away with the law entirely, because it takes seriously the need to understand how one got to be "tamed" in the first place, and it also takes seriously the intellectual work of undoing that.

I realize that what you are asking about is a different means of enforcing the law, which - sorry - does not interest me.
answered Feb 12 by asker (9,800 points)
Actually, I am not asking about a different means of enforcing the law, but about an entire society of people like Bucephalus. Your answer is very helpful; It is good to know a respectable thinker has already given this some thought.

I am talking about a society of zero enforcement, in which any attempt by one or several persons to force an individual to do anything is universally considered agression. I would defend myself and my neighbors against agression, as I think most people would, but as long as law enforcement is considered legitimate and desirable by most people they won't help my neighbor fight off the repo-man.

The difficulty and simplicity of this mental exercise is using a single idea - no enforcement - to change the meaning of many words rather than changing the words. To get from current society to anarchy, I think, it would be sufficient to pass a "law" declaring any and all coercion/enforcement as "criminal" aggression, theft, assault, terrorism...  Obviously, "government" cannot even legitimately enforce that "law," so basically we have anarchy but keep the communication value of formal, evolving written statements of how most people expect and desire other "citizens" of a territory to behave.

I guess my own manner of doing business is very similar to how you say Bucephalus practiced law. My business is based on agricultural production contracts: you agree to grow a crop for me, I agree to buy it at a certain price upon harvest, or vice-versa. My business is also based on intellectual property: I am a plant breeder and the use of my varieties is illegal without my permission. I see a lot of value in this system because, in productive activity involving two or more persons over a relatively long period (like a crop season), informal, vague, oral comittments lead to confusion: too often in such cases, my memory of what was agreed or implied wanders in a different direction from my partners' memories. Frustratioon and anger results as someone feels betrayed, making it difficult to continue working together next season.

So I negotiate contracts, we write them together and sign them. That way, at the end of the season we can get them out and remember what was agreed. Useful.  HOWEVER, I like to make it clear -- usually written into the contract -- that I WILL NOT PURSUE LEGAL ACTION IN CASE OF DEFAULT ON A CONTRACT OR ILLEGAL USE OF MY INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY.

So the way I do business precludes enforcement from my side. This changes the relationship. Just last week a farmer decided to default and told me "you said I didn't have to pay you." I responded "we made an agreement. As promised, I won't force you to honor it. You do what you feel is right and we will both know what kind of man you are."
I get it. I just think it's boiled nonsense!

syrphant, at the very least, i think that you're being hampered by the words you're choosing, certainly as they mean anything to me. i definitely agree with F@, that laws without enforcement are not laws. enforcement/coercion is the only thing that makes the word law mean anything stronger than agreement... and it's the emotional force of the word law(-which-comes-with-enforcement) that i imagine makes you want to use the word. in an anarchic situation, we would have social mores and relationships to gauge our behavior against. if that feels weaker to you, then that is exactly the point?

if nothing else, you would probably like emile armand (if you haven't got that thinker in your belt already. i can't remember...)

I don't like to think why, but it suits my mood to elaborate instead of doing the work I should be doing.

Your "solution" naturalizes the law into a moral impulse. The reason this seems plausible and why it sometimes works is because contracts, promises, and legalistic modes of thinking have become internalized to such a degree that most of your business partners care deeply "What kind of a man" you perceive them to be on these grounds. What I mean when I say that you are talking about a different means of enforcement is that they care about your judgment (and their self-judgment) in basically the same way that they would care about literal punishment.

I urge you to try and think in a way that looks for the real determinants of the problem rather than reproducing it at another level in fundamentally the same terms.

Another reading suggestion would be Nietzsche's book On the Genealogy of Morals