Sunday, April 6, 2014

Two Cheers for Anarchism

I have been doing a lot of reading on anarchism recently (no, not the "throwing bricks through the window of Starbucks" type, but the "we don't really need government" type).  Most recently James C. Scott's Two Cheers for Anarchism.  In it Scott outlines many areas where the immediate instinct of most people is that "government needs to do that" whereas the reality is that a lack of government control actually improves the situation.

A few things that stood out:

  • "there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression ...  We are here -- we are here because we are tired now"  Martin Luther King, Jr

  • Jane Jacobs: The Death and Life of Great American Cities: A critique of 50s (and present presumably) urban planning which destroyed the vibrancy of cities by replacing theoriginal city with "planned" developments which lacked the life of  naturally occurring and mixed development.  This particularly interests me as a member of the Planning Commission for my town as we discuss what downtown "should" look like.

  • Edward Anderson's observations in "Plants, Man, and Life" on what he called "Vernacular Garden Design" in Guatemala, where what appeared to be a random collection of plants was actually a well designed garden where various plants complemented each other by providing shade, nutrients, and minimizing the spread of pests.

  • Danish playground design at Emdrup which basically was an empty area with a large stock of wood and tools.  The children, who had previously ignored the multitude of playground accoutrements, spent countless hours building and rebuilding their own structures.
  • Chuang Tzu "We make the path by walking".  This was tested in a large grassy area at a major university where no paths were constructed.  The builders instead waited to see where people would walk and then paved over the clearly delineated paths.

  • Hicksian Income: income that accrues only if the means and manner of production are not degraded. For example, farming that depletes the soil would have a lower income rating than farming that replenished the soil for future production.

  • Drachten, Netherlands removed all the traffic lights to see what would happen to traffic flow.  It improved.  Motorists and pedestrians substituted their independent judgement about safety for the mandated structure of the red lights, resulting in an improvement in traffic flow and a reduction in accidents.

  • Unintended consequences: pre-revolution French authorities imposed a tax on numbers of windows and doors of dwellings, on the assumption that richer residents would have more of them.  Over the next two hundred years the French rebuilt their houses to eliminate windows and thus reduce their taxes.  The tax resulted in French people having a reduced standard of living rather than increased tax revenues.

  • More unintended consequences: establishing "ratings" for various industries leads to an increase in the number of firms figuring out how to increase their ratings with no commensurate increase in quality.  The end result, an increase in price to the consumer with no increase in quality assurance.  Any time you add a rating you make it possible for people to "reverse engineer" the rating process to figure out how to get the highest ratings, instead of figuring out how to attract customers by providing a higher quality product.

3) Further reading:

  • Jane Jacobs: The Death and Life of Great American Cities: 

  • Edgar Anderson: Plants, Man, and Life

  • Colin Ward: Anarchy in Action

  • John Hicks: Hicksian Income

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