Practical Anarchy

James C. Scott's latest book makes a low-key case for a little bit of anarchism.


Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, And Meaningful Work and Play, by James Scott, Princeton University Press, 141 pages, $24.95

Anarchy is already here, and it works great. Or so the Yale anthropologist and political scientist James C. Scott suggests in Two Cheers for Anarchism, a slight but engaging book that mostly relays life lessons on how choice and freedom make the world better in just about every sphere you can imagine. But before Scott gets down to describing the practical effects of a little anarchy on schools, roads, speeches, playgrounds, and politics, he has to disappoint the purists.

Scott, the author of Seeing Like a State and The Art of Not Being Governed, doesn't want to burn the mother down and raise the black flag. He likes the idea of "cooperation without hierarchy or state rule," and he writes that in the 5,000-odd years that governments have existed, "only in the last two centuries or so has even the possibility arisen that states might occasionally enlarge the realm of human freedom." But he believes the actual elimination of the state would be impossible, impractical, and perhaps even unwanted. Economic inequality and the exploitation of the powerless by the powerful make "a cruel sham" of the notion of an entirely stateless freedom, Scott writes, so "we are unfortunately stuck with Leviathan." He points to the 101st Airborne's role in integrating Little Rock schools to refute the notion that a state can never be used to protect individuals.

In most of his discussions of the modern world, though, Scott sounds like an anarchist again. He detests public schooling, for example: not just in this post–No Child Left Behind, standardized test–heavy era (and not just in Jim Crow Little Rock), but in general. Public schools, he writes, were developed to create good, hard-working citizens "whose loyalty to the nation will trump regional and local identities of language, ethnicity, and religion." Furthermore, "it starts out fundamentally on the wrong foot as a compulsory institution, with all the alienation that this duress implies, especially as children grow older." Scott isn't interested in telling that alienated student to work hard and embrace the social contract. And he certainly isn't advocating more government spending. He seems simply to object to the institution altogether.

Scott suggests a little anarchy would be good for the roads as well. He cites experiments in removing red lights, which started in the Netherlands in 1999 and have spread throughout Europe since then. Under the system we're used to, he points out, people depend on signs or traffic lights, not their own judgment, for guidance on when it is safe to turn or stop. With a spare, signless, somewhat intimidating roundabout, on the other hand, people pay more attention to what they're doing and the number of accidents comes down.

Scott's thoughts on economics are hampered by the fact that he isn't entirely clear on what libertarians believe. (He thinks the logical end of a purely free market is that a parent can sell a child because it's "a personal choice.") And yet he displays frequent libertarian sympathies, particularly in his opposition to various arrogant institutions, interlopers, and do-gooders. Jane Jacobs, a biting critic of urban planning, is mentioned with high praise, as is her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Scott might not use the phrases "spontaneous order" or "central planning," but his book is filled with tributes to the former and critiques of the latter. Again and again he argues that in what appears to be chaos—be it an unplanned city or a garden that follows its own botanical logic—there is a vernacular order that outside forces rarely understand.

This dichotomy between the vernacular and the imposed also infuses Scott's thoughts on the meanings of monuments. Consider his comparison between the bombastic, patriotic Iwo Jima flag-raising memorial and the solemn, reflective (literally and figuratively) memorial to the Vietnam War. The former tells the story for you, and it exalts the war in question. The latter is a chronological list of the dead, one that neither praises nor denounces their sacrifice but demonstrates the vastness of the loss. Of course, Scott notes, "A truly cosmopolitan monument to the war would list all Vietnamese civilian and military war dead, together with Americans in the order in which they had fallen." Indeed, to memorialize the war dead at all, even so quietly, is to make a statement of some kind.

Unfortunately, whenever Scott discusses the actual political process, he sounds less radical. He makes excellent critiques of the lack of real choice between two nearly identical political parties. But his chapter "In Defense of Politics" portrays politics itself as another good that should be accessed by the masses, as opposed to seeing it as the trigger for a fundamentally coercive state. Scott waves away worries that a pure democracy could be oppressive, suffering from that familiar radical left hope—seen in Occupy Wall Street camps and other protest movements long before that—that simply "having a public dialogue" in "the public sphere" about, say, education will somehow resolve the myriad issues it brings up (money, politics, religion, etc.) to everyone's satisfaction.

All the same, what Scott presents in Two Cheers for Anarchism may be of far more use than any Free Stater manifesto. He may not be a soldier for pro-market libertarianism, but Scott's eye for spontaneous order in action demonstrates that anarchy is all around us: that it's no abstract philosophy but an essential part of all our lives.

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  1. Scott’s thoughts on economics are hampered by the fact that he isn’t entirely clear on what libertarians believe. (He thinks the logical end of a purely free market is that a parent can sell a child because it’s “a personal choice.”)

    Wait, what, it isn’t? I’m out of here

    1. You can’t sell a child because the price per pound is set too high above the real market value.

      1. Well, not quite. The free range chilluns are pricey, but the ones kept in a Dickensian nightmare are quite…ahem… reasonable.

    2. And to think. The Chinese have been doing it wrong for 5000 years.

      More seriously, would it matter if they were selling said child to a barren couple who wanted an heir instead of the local slave ring?

      1. Biological parents aren’t allowed to make money on adoptions, but lawyers, judges, public and private agencies are allowed to.

        1. Basically the same as for organ donors.

          1. It’s worse for organ donors, IMO. A disarticulated kidney or other redundant organ (or single organ resultant of an unfortunate event) isn’t going to grow and poop nappies, eventually eating you out of house and home, and borrowing your car. To say nothing of allowance, twittering, and Facebooking…

  2. Scott suggests a little anarchy would be good for the roads, as well.

    Anarchy, eh? Roads, eh? Steigerwald, eh?

    1. Steigerwald is the Somali word for pothole, I believe

      1. Nonsense. It’s clearly Punjabi for “Red-Light Camera.”

  3. Wait, when’d Lucy come back? Was it just an 8-game suspension for Adderall use or did I miss something?

    1. I thought the same thing.

    2. She is still listed as a contributor but my guess is she wrote this before she left. Did anyone ever figure out what happened? Also, what happened to Cavanaugh?

      1. dammit man, Timmy can’t hang out here all the time! He’s got universes to save!

      2. Did anyone ever figure out what happened?

        According to Lucy’s blog, a certain person, whose name rhymes with “Fat Belch” wasn’t happy with her editing work.

        1. I thought rhymes with Fat Belch was the editor (or one of). I personally noticed some spelling and grammar issues in some of Lucy’s pieces, but I thought it was more of a slip on the part of her editor for still putting it through. Maybe with the instant publication that blogs allow, writers themselves have to spellcheck and edit.

          1. I would think as a libertarian, Fat Belch would realize that he should give his customers what they want.

            Which is awesome alt-text from an attractive girl, even if it wasn’t spelled correctly. Hell, we don’t even have an edit button to fix our spelling mistakes!

            1. Look, I am pretty sure I always spelled the alt text correctly. I mean, it’s the most important part of the story!

              Amirite, folks?

              1. You are correct. My first post on any topic without alt-text is complaining about the lack of alt-text.

              2. It’s the only part I read.

            2. Where did you get the (ludicrous) idea the rhymes-with-Fat-Belch was a libertarian? Surely not from his articles?

              Here in the comments we use the term “cosmotarian”.

              1. Here in the comments we call people like you “Hit&Runpublicans;”.

        2. Has he ever read a Nick Gillespie piece? Not to pick on The Jacket, but it seems like he frequently leaves in words that were in first drafts but should have been deleted when the sentences were rewritten.

      3. Ideally I’ll get my act together enough to write something for the people of “Reason” on occasion in the years to come.

        And each time I will unable to resist talking to you fools.

        1. PRO TIP: Don’t sully yourself by interacting with the H&R commentariat. Cultivate an air of serene detachment.

          1. Pretty sure the only reason people liked me was I lowered myself to their level and commented.

            What I mean to say is, it’s far too late for an air of serene detachment.

    3. The first rule of Lucy Club is you don’t talk about Lucy Club.

    4. I’d guess they just printed something by her because they are begging for money, and she’s one of the authors here that people don’t say snarky things about.

  4. “Anarchy: The only political ideology that makes any sense to me.”

    -“Stevo” Levy

  5. He cites experiments in removing red lights, which started in the Netherlands in 1999 and have spread throughout Europe since then. Under the system we’re used to, he points out, people depend on signs or traffic lights, not their own judgment, for guidance on when it is safe to turn or stop. With a spare, signless, somewhat intimidating roundabout, on the other hand, people pay more attention to what they’re doing and the number of accidents comes down.

    This man has clearly never driven in Russia or UKR. Lights and signs are merely suggestions and guidelines of acceptable behaviour on the road.

    1. Also Greece and everywhere south of the Rio Grande

    2. I have a Filipino friend who went to visit family over there a couple of years ago. Their firearms laws appear to be like this. His cousin has a Glock 18, which is ostensibly illegal there, but the penalty if you’re caught with an automatic weapon there is apparently a slap on the wrist and confiscation.

      Contrast to the US where unregistered automatic weapons are worth $200,000 and 10 years.

      1. Gotta love living in the freest country in the world where the right to keep and bear arms shall no be infringed.

        1. I wish I lived in a freer “freest” country. I would love to add a G18 to my collection.

      2. Where is there, db? In UKR, pistols are officially illegal, as are fully automatic weapons. Long guns and rifles, no worries. I could own a garden shed full of decommissioned AK-47’s and not worry about the local politsja. Depending on the circumstances of when and where (and who) you are caught with a sidearm (and if you have bribe money handy) will determine punishment.

        Punishments, as related to me, can range from fines, confiscation of the weapon, as you said, to being stuck in the reprogramming public health classes for hooligans (something similar to D.A.R.E) to incarceration.

        1. ” Where is there, db?”

          The Philippines.

          1. I was wondering which part of “I have a Filipino friend” Groovus didn’t understand. 🙂

            1. The antecedent to “there” could have been unclear, as GM was talking about UKR laws.

        2. I have an extra garden shed, since I got a biggger one. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, before.

          Gotta go! Be back…

          1. Barry “Two Sheds” D

      3. As the NRA says, ‘enforce the laws that are already on the books.’ I know they have done a lot of good, but Jesus on the Installment Plan, they lack the lust for juggler blood that would keep mainstream media from pulling Costas. There are lobbies in DC the mainstream media would never cross like that out of simple fear.

    3. Apparently those countries haven’t figured out how much revenue can be generated by zealously enforcing minor traffic violations.

      1. Apparently they realize that tarring and feathering is not a dead art in some countries.

        1. When did this country become a nation of pussies?

          I wonder if world wars had something to do with it. Uniting under the flag, submitting to deprivations for the troops, blind worship of authority, king FDR and all that.

          1. all of that, plus the bomb

      2. I wonder how much of that is even true. The cost of staffing all of those extra cops plus their medical and pensions and the cost of administering all of the infrastructure to track and process the violations and payments (both in terms of employment and capital) is a pretty high fixed cost. Wouldn’t a small jurisdiction have to write a ton of tickets per month to break even?

        Then again, this is the government we’re talking about; trying to turn a profit isn’t SOP. They probably only look at one side of the ledger and use it as justification to pad their budgets.

        1. Wouldn’t a small jurisdiction have to write a ton of tickets per month to break even?

          When they get you for a couple hundred dollars for going ten miles over the limit, it doesn’t take that many tickets a day for a cop to earn his keep.

          Thankfully in my state all ticket revenue and asset forfeitures go to the state capital instead of the department, so they don’t have as much of an incentive to set up speed traps and steal peoples’ shit.

    4. This man has clearly never driven in Russia or UKR. Lights and signs are merely suggestions and guidelines of acceptable behaviour on the road.

      Two words: South Korea. Apparently lane marking are also just suggestions. See also, India.

    1. Lovely. Clearly a market there for free-market surgery. But all the Islamo-nutbars are simply innocent religionistas, and are above reproach. Feh. And Assad isn’t much better either, with all the talk of mustardizing insurgents.

      Also, HM, are you TOEFL certified? I have a question about formally tutoring English.

      1. Can chopping off hands stop global warming? If so we may all be in trouble.

        1. It all balances out. The hand decays now, so the impact to greenhouse gases is more now, less later. On one hand, it’s possible the man will have to exert himself more throughout life, causing a net increase. On the other hand, the extra energy his body would have spent on operating the hand might cancel that out. But on the gripping hand, the extra effort and associated emissions by the crowd and handcecutioners probably outweighs any possible benefit.

          1. On one hand … On the other hand … But on the gripping hand

            I see what you did there.

      2. Also, HM, are you TOEFL certified


        Absolutely. I teach in my university’s M.S.-TEFL program, actually. What’s your question?

        1. Well, I see a possible opportunity in the future here to also tutor English/Medical English for extra cash and I was wondering what is the best, most efficient approach is to utilize from a professional linguist POV, and do you have any links to tips to point me in the right direction?

          1. Don’t you start training all those hot Ukrainian nurses to come over here and take our good American jobs. Don’t you dare! Please don’t do that!

          2. As for methodology, I’d go with the Communicative approach with “authentic assessment” of which you are more than qualified.

            One thing to be aware of is that some educationial cultures aren’t used to this approach, still using the grammar-translation method. I don’t know the culture in the Ukraine, but I’ve had a few Ukraine students before and some of them were skeptical that the communicative method was “real teaching”.

            Would you mind if I email you with more info?

            1. Please, by all means, do. Thank you.

      3. Certified? CERTIFIED!? GTFO!

      4. I teach ESL in Korea and have for two years, although I don’t have a TOEFL or a TOEIC cert. I think my girlfriend does though.

        What questions does the Doc have? I admit that I don’t know anything about ESL in central Europe, but I might be able to tangentially help with my experience.

        I also have a pretty serious question for you, if you can spare a moment.

        I have AVN in both legs, and recently (Aug 20) had to have my right hip replaced. (I’m only 25, dammit!) My left femural head is still nice and round, but this last week it has started hurting like a bitch. Getting to an English-speaking doc in this country can be a bit of a bitch.

        Kinda freaking out. If I could shoot you a message in the near future that might assuage my fears.

        1. SQUIRRELS!

          That was to Groovus. And when I wrote it there were no replies. I probably can’t help on the ESL front.

        2. I just checked this thread, Evan. I’m not an orthopedic surgeon, so I’m not quite sure how much help I could be.

          You are welcome to mail if you wish, and please describe in detail your PX S/S, and perhaps suggest PX treatment for you.

        3. I have AVN in both legs…

          Look, I like porn as much as the next guy (maybe even more) but that’s taking things too far.

    2. Yay. Go team Allah!

  6. I originally thought this book sounded interesting, but the examples quoted here (selling your child; no traffic lights) are idiotic. They are the kinds of things that an anti-libertarian usually pulls out of his ass instead of a real argument. It also reminds me of the kind of “criticism” of Ayn Rand we read every day now (“Rand’s views, taken to their logical conclusion, would allow every man to be a serial killer, with no consequences.”)

    This kind of shit, even if it’s meant to be flattering, does not help.


    1. Why is “no traffic lights” idiotic? The actual results of removing traffic lights would strongly disagree with your knee-jerk “assessment.”

  7. Your post (#3412156) has been marked as spam by a third-party spam filter. If this is a mistake, please email
    * COMMENT:

    1. “The family of 92-year-old Catherine McCann is suing the Lutheran Home for the Aged in Arlington Heights, Ill., after doctors discovered and removed 57 maggots from her ear. ”

      No link for you!

      1. No link for you!

        I think we’re all grateful for that.

        1. The system worked.

      2. John and sarcasmic would hit that.

      3. doctors discovered and removed 57 maggots from her ear.

        Are they sure those weren’t some of Kahn’s earwigs? Was she recently on Ceti Alpha V?

  8. Iran claims capture of a (small) US drone. US says inventory all accounted for.…..4?irpc=932

    When is the US going to wise up and pull a Trojan Drone loaded with explosives to go off when it’s opened up for inspection? For that matter, I’d be surprised if they weren’t already rigged to blow in such circumstances.

    1. You kidding? I’m sure that there is a policy somewhere that says the drones are not to be shot down or break down over enemy territory. And as well all know those incantations are magic. Thus no need for a self destruct.

    2. Self destruct mechanisms for reusable craft only exist in the fevered dreams of Hollywood screenplay writers.

      One does not pack uneccessary explosives into an aircraft that one uses over and over again. Because there will be hard landings. At your own bases. There will be fires etc.

      1. Yeah, I guess that makes sense.

      2. You have to balance the cost of losing a drone on a hard landing against the cost of losing the intel if the drone is captured.

        No idea which way the balance tips, but I don’t think its a no-brainer.

        1. Give the enemy new offensive technology. Now there is a need for anti-drone technology. Time to spend more money. Obviously lets give the contract to the people that made the drone.

      3. Fires won’t set off high explosives. I saw it on MythBusters so it must be true (and it is since high explosives don’t burn, they transfer energy through shock).

        1. A state of shock? You bastard, why did you put that song in my head?

      4. Reminds me of the “Far Side” with the kid sitting in the seat that had the buttons “Wings Stay On” and “Wings Fall Off”.


      5. One does not pack uneccessary explosives into an aircraft that one uses over and over again. Because there will be hard landings. At your own bases. There will be fires etc.

        Not to mention the added weight.

  9. State = Force. That is all it does. When might force be desirable? In protecting individual rights. As has been pointed out many times here, anarchy is unsustainable because power abhors a vacuum. If we can limit government force to be used only to protect individual freedom, I’ll take that for now.

    1. When might force be desirable?

      When someone else has something that you want, and you’re too lazy to produce it yourself.

      A monopoly on organized violence is a license to steal.

      1. Hence, the 2nd Amendment.

        1. You mean the one that authorizes the National Guard to arm itself (it is the militia, right?) and allows people to have hunting weapons?

          1. No, I was talking about the other one. The one that keeps the president and his sychophants in the media from declaring him el presidente for life.

            1. Nothing stops them from doing that except their own restraint.

              Power changes hands voluntarily. No one can force the president to step down. He does so of his own free will and because of tradition. If a president decided to not recognize election results and declare himself dictator for life, who would arrest him?

              It will happen sooner than later.

              1. If a president decided to not recognize election results and declare himself dictator for life, who would arrest him?

                There would be a long line of people ready and willing to eject this person from the White House, starting with members of their own party adverse to the terrible publicity.

      2. When might force be desirable?

        Dating a virgin comes immediately to mind.

        1. Virgins are overrated.

    2. State = Force. That is all it does.

      Whoopsies! You left out fraud. They do more fraud ’cause its cheaper.


  11. Luuuuccccccyyyyy!

  12. Fuck you, third-paty spam filter.


    1. I’ve been getting that too.

      It wouldn’t let me say Congratulations! the other day.

  13. I think it was Peter Thiel who made a similar argument: Our society is already over 80% anarchist. In some areas we are completely anarchist.

    1. Prostitution and illegal drug sales are anarchist, or any other banned transactions where there is significant market demand.

  14. Replacing red lights with roundabouts isn’t going from central planning to anarchy. It’s just a different outcome of planning, with the social goal “make drivers pay more attention” in mind.

    Anarchy is a practically absurd concept. You don’t like public education, fine. You’re not gonna like 90% illiteracy and a preindustrial economy either. So offer up innovative changes to the system, but to pretend that you can run a modern society without hierarchies and central planning is a fantasy.

    1. So, there is so much evidence against your total state fantasies being effective that you’re down to arguing semantics with straw men now? Have you ever been right about anything, you statist dipshit? A society that does not recognize a monopoly on the use of force would be demonstrably, and drastically, superior to your authoritarian wet dreams in every way.


      1. But it’s not a strawman to claim that every state is equal to an authoritarian state?

        Societies, like most things, go through a darwinian process. If stateless societies are superior, why aren’t there more of them around? Perhaps they are even superior in a lot of theoretical ways, but they’d still have to compete with currently successful forms in the real world.

        1. It’s a straw man to jump from “less centralized control over roads and education leads to better results” to “OMG YOU WANT 90% ILLITERACY AND A PRE-INDUSTRIAL ECONOMY,” you retarded fucking troll. And where do you get “in a lot of theoretical ways,” you dishonest piece of shit? Charter schools beat public schools in every verifiable statistical measure, removing traffic control has resulted in lower accident rates. Everywhere it’s been tried, libertarian theory has been proven correct. So fuck you and your pathetic obfuscatory denials.

          1. My point is that neither charter schools nor innovative traffic control techniques are “libertarian” in the sense of less central planning or less taxing and spending by government. Everyone should be for what works better. Those couple of examples certainly do not imply “therefore, a libertarian or anarchic society is best,” not least because they are examples of neither.

            I don’t think you want 90% illiteracy, but that’s what we had before public schools were invented, so I can only assume that we’d revert to the same if we went back to a nonsubsidized system.

            1. That’s idiotic. We were an Agg society then.

              1. ” Everyone should be for what works better. ”

                I look forward to T o n y’s support for the full privatization of education in the future.

    2. Oh, Tony, I missed you so.

  15. Eh bien, je suis un bon poste watcher vous pouvez dire et je ne donne pas une seule raison de critiquer ou de donner une bonne critique ? un poste. Je lis des blogs de 5 derni?res ann?es et ce blog est vraiment bon cet ?crivain a les capacit?s pour faire avancer les choses i aimerais voir nouveau poste par vous Merci

    ????? 2017 ????? ???????.

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