Uncle Frank never let that word “citizens” pass without a tirade. “We are not a government!” he always yelled. “We are not a government! We must not think like a government! We must not think in terms of duties and receipts and disbursements. We must think in terms of the old loyalties that bound the Syndic together!” Uncle Frank was sedentary, but he had roused himself once to the point of wrecking a bright young man’s newly installed bookkeeping system for the Medical Center. He had used a cane, most enthusiastically, and then bellowed: “The next wise guy who tries to sneak punch-cards into this joint will get them down his throat! What the hell do we need punch-cards for? Either there’s room enough and doctors enough for the patients or there isn’t. If there is, we take care of them. If there isn’t, we put ’em in an ambulance and take them someplace else. And if I hear one goddammed word about ‘efficiency’—” he glared the rest and strode out, puffing and leaning on Charles’ arm. “Efficiency,” he growled in the corridor. “Every so often a wise guy comes to me whimpering that people are getting away with murder, collections are ten per cent below what they ought to be, the Falcaro Fund’s being milked because fifteen per cent of the dough goes to people who aren’t in need at all, eight per cent of the people getting old-age pensions aren’t really past sixty. Get efficient, these people tell me. Save money by triple-checking collections. Save money by tightening up the Fund rules. Save money by a nice big vital-statistics system so we can check on pensioners. Yeah! Have people who might be working check on collections instead, and make enemies to boot whenever we catch somebody short. Make the Fund a grudging Scrooge instead of an open-handed sugar-daddy—and let people worry about their chances of making the Fund instead of knowing it’ll take care of them if they’re caught short. Set up a vital statistics system from birth to death, with numbers and finger-prints and house registration and maybe the gas-chamber if you forget to report a change of address. You know what’s wrong with the wise guys, Charles? Constipation. And they want to constipate the universe.” Charles remembered his uncle restored to chuckling good humor by the time he had finished embroidering his spur-of-the-moment theory with elaborate scatological details.
[Cyril M. Kornbluth, The Syndic, first published in 1953]
Kornbluth’s paleo-anarchist vision of the future is a far cry from that of the anarcho-capitalists of our time. His concept was, in H. L. Mencken’s phrase, “a government that barely escapes being no government at all.” The Syndic, a putative descendant of the variety of “organized crime” that facilitates lesser vices (e.g., gambling, untaxed liquor, prostitution) maintains order in the Eastern United States after the eviction of the “hopelessly corrupt” U.S. government. It’s an odd creature, neither fish nor fowl. It “governs,” in that it performs the functions of a classical-liberal “night watchman” state (cf. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia). But it neither claims nor exercises the critical privileges of a State as we suffer them:
- It collects revenues from private parties, but it does not do so coercively.
- It neither promulgates nor enforces moral laws or economic regulations.
- It maintains no army, navy, nor any other fighting force.
Also, as the snippet above indicates, the Syndic operates extensive charities – medical, old-age, and indigent-support – and it does so without any of the bureaucratic trappings of government-run charity in our time.
Now, it’s been said that unlike reality, fiction must make sense. Does the above vision make sense to you, Gentle Reader? How long could a “regime” like the Syndic, with its noncoercive quasi-governance and its open-handed charities, possibly remain stable? Decades, years, or a few months?
Kornbluth wore no rose-colored glasses. Here’s his assessment from the end of the novel:
Somehow for a century we’ve achieved in Syndic Territory for almost everybody the civil liberties, peace of mind and living standards that were enjoyed by the middle classes before 1914—plus longer life, better health, a more generous morality, increased command over nature; minus the servant problem and certain superstitions. A handful of wonderfully pleasant decades. When you look back over history you wonder who in his right mind could ask for more. And you wonder who would dare to presume to tamper with it.
I can see Kornbluth shaking his head in wonder and dismay as he wrote the last sentence above. For always there will be “wise guys” who want to tamper with it: persons avid for power, profit, and prestige they cannot earn on their merits, and others who, however great their abilities, are unwilling to exert themselves under a regime of freedom.
Perhaps worse yet, there will always be the well-meaning: they who see “a necessity” of whatever sort, and conclude that “someone must take charge” before things can become “intolerable” (cf. the emergence of a government toward the end of Freedom’s Fury). It’s possible that the well-meaning have done more harm from sincere good intentions than all the tyrants and corruptocrats that have ever reigned.
Just a few gloomy thoughts for your Tuesday morning.