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Is government a legitimate means of improving society or can humans influence each others’ behavior in more effective ways?


Violence Breeds Violence

More and more through science we are confirming the Buddha’s teachings on karma. In an article last month at Wired.com, kindness was shown to breed further acts of kindness.

Experimenters created a game where “selfishness made more sense than cooperation,” however, “acts of giving were tripled over the course of the experiment by other subjects who were directly or indirectly influenced to contribute more.” Here is a visual representation of those effects:

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Understanding karma, I believe this multiplying effect should also hold true for acts of violence, coercion, or threat. If we treat people poorly, they are likely to treat us poorly in return. Therefore, evidence seems to show that we should follow the good ol’ golden rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated.


The Non-Aggression Principle

As I understand it, the Buddhist moral notion of karma is congruent with libertarian-anarchist ethic of the non-aggression principle – which states that all initiation of physical force, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons is inherently illegitimate.

Although Buddha obviously cannot comment on the political theories past his time, I think if he understood our current understanding of government he would see that it is in strict violation of this principle.

Libertarian anarchists consider non-voluntary taxes (a process used to fund almost any government that has ever existed) to be a form of initiated aggression. Therefore, no matter the well-intentioned goals of politicians, the very means of government is seen as immoral. In Ayn Rands words, “Force and mind are opposite; morality ends where a gun begins.”

I think Buddha too would agree that you cannot create a moral society through the immorality of government coercion. Only free choice builds moral fiber. Even when people are forced to pay for others health care, housing, or food, they are in the process of becoming slaves, not saints. Not only is this a morally illegitimate way of building the society we want, it is impossible. In Buddhism the means don’t justify the ends: the means determine the ends.


Lead By Example, Not By Force

Karma teaches reciprocity. Only by being the change we wish to see in the world can we make a positive difference. We don’t create society by stepping into a voting booth once a year, we create society through our day-to-day actions and how we treat others. We lead by example; and when we do this, we inspire people’s hearts and minds to do the same.

An individual’s freedom is a prerequisite for all moral behavior. You cannot force or threat others to be good, you can only guide them through example and reason. People too can be guided the wrong way through example and reason. Morality is always and everywhere a battle of ideas. It starts in our minds and it spreads through our actions.


Government: Old Idea, Bad Idea, or Both?

The need to govern others is an ancient idea: master and servant, leader and follower, boss and worker are all distinctions buried in our unconscious. It is not just an old idea, but an idea we often take for granted. Modern America condemns it’s history with slavery but doesn’t yet see the the shapes and forms it takes through the veil of democratic government; in which, even Thomas Jefferson considered “mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.” Today this is sometimes referred to as tyranny of the majority. To learn more I recommend Hans Hermann Hoppe’s great book, “Democracy: The God That Failed: The Economics and Politics of Monarchy, Democracy, and Natural Order.”

Schools somewhat condition us to accept government; democracy being the glorified system of “fairness.” Many people I know find it hard to even imagine a peaceful society without any form of government. Instead they hear “anarchy” and imagine Molotov cocktails being thrown through windows – complete chaos and rebellion. But the truth is humans self-organize all of the time without the help of government bureaucracy. Even children can put together community baseball games without authoritarian oversight. The Austrian economist Friedrich A. Hayek would probably draw a parallel between this kind of social behavior and the “spontaneous order” of a laissez-faire economy.

My point is that the absence of government is not equal to a state of disorder. Humans organize voluntarily (out of their own free will) all of the time; of all people, Buddhists should recognize this inherent interconnectedness between individuals. So we shouldn’t need government to command our actions like some sort of ant colony – our ability to get along with others is a built into our humanity.

Am I suggesting that anarchy is a utopia? It may sound like it, but I assure you that I am not. How can you expect a perfect society from imperfect individuals? You can’t. It’s not realistic. But it is realistic to believe that humans can coexist peacefully without big brother government. Sure, there will still be crime and evils in the world and we will have to deal with those accordingly. But government may not be the answer to poverty, drug abuse, or even murder. Perhaps before looking to our paternal state for all the solutions to society we should take a deep gaze into ourselves; and see how we as individuals are personally responsible for the world around us.

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