The Talmud and the Constitution

This post is about similarities between the development of Jewish law and American law.

A story is recounted in the Babylonian Talmud, which I am going to paraphrase slightly for clarity:

Rabbi Yehudah said, “Rav (Abba Aricha) said, “When Moses ascended Mount Sinai, up to the heavens, to receive the Biblical law, he found God sitting and adding calligraphic flourishes (crowns) to the letters.

Moses said,”Master of the Universe! Why are you going so slowly? Why aren’t you finished?”

God said to him, “Many generations from now, Akiva the son of Yosef will expound on every calligraphic detail to teach piles and piles of laws.”

Moses said, “Master of the Universe! Show him to me,” so God told him to turn around, and a vision of Rabbi Akiva teaching his students appeared. Moses went and sat in the back row, but the teaching style was so intellectual that he did not understand what they were talking about and got upset.

Then one of the students asked Rabbi Akiva, “Our teacher, where did you learn this law?”

Akiva replied, “It is from a law that was taught to Moses at Sinai.”

So Moses calmed down. He returned and came before the Holy One, Blessed be He, and said before Him, “Master of the Universe! If you have a man like this, why are you are giving the Torah through me?”

But God only replied, “Be silent. This is what I have decided.”””

2,000 years ago, when Yeshua of the house of David still walked the Earth, rabbinic Judaism–the Judaism you’ll find if you walk into any synagogue–did not fully exist.* The Judaism of Roman Judea was a temple cult, centered on the great Temple in Jerusalem (though there were others, in Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and of course, Samaria.) Ordinary Jews went about their business–raising crops, tending goats, building tables, etc–and every so often they visited the Temple, bought or brought an offering, and had the priest sacrifice it.

*Note: See the comments for a discussion of continuity between Pharisaic Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism. I am not arguing that Rabbinic Judaism was invented whole cloth.

69 AD, also known as the Year of the Four Emperors, was particularly bad for the Roman Empire. Galba seized power after Nero‘s suicide, only to be murdered on January 15 in coup led by Otho. Emperor Otho committed suicide on April 16 after losing Battle of Bedriacum to Vitellius. Vitellius was murdered on December 20 by Vespasian‘s troops.

Meanwhile, Judea was in revolt. In 70 AD, Vespasian’s son (and successor) Titus besieged Jerusalem, crushed the rebellion, and razed the Temple.

Without the Temple–and worse, scattered to the winds–what was an ordinary Jew supposed to do? Where could he take his sacrifices? How was he supposed to live in this new land? Could he visit a bath house that had a statue of Aphrodite? Could he eat food that had been sold beside non-kosher meat?

The Bible has 613 laws for Jews to follow, but do you know how many laws you live under?

I once did a research project on the subject. I found that no one knows how many laws there are in the US. We have federal, state, county, and city laws. We have the code of federal regulations, containing thousands of rules created by unelected bureaucrats within dozens of agencies like the EPA, which is enforced exactly like laws. We have thousands of pages of case law handed down by the Supreme Court.

It’s one thing to live in an organic community, following the traditions handed down by your ancestors. Then perhaps 613 laws are enough. But with the destruction of the Temple, Judaism had to adapt. Somehow they had to get a full body of laws out of those measly 613.

Enter the Rabbi Akiva (also spelled Akiba or Aqiba) and his calligraphic flourishes. By examining and re-examining the text, comparing a verse from one section to a similar verse to another, groups of rabbis (teachers) and their students gradually built up a body of laws, first passed down orally (the Oral Torah,) and then written: the Talmud.

For example, the 5th Commandment says to Remember the Sabbath Day, but how, exactly, are you supposed to do it? The Bible says not to “work” (or so we translate it,) but isn’t a rabbi preaching his sermon on Saturday working? To clarify, they look to the next verse, “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.” (Exodus 20:11) and declare that “work” here refers to creative work: building, writing, sewing, sowing, reaping, carrying (materials for creative work), building fires, or inversely, putting out fires, knocking down buildings, etc. Merely giving a speech–even if you get paid for it–is not work. (Though you can’t accept the payment on Saturday.)

The word for “work” in the Bible, transliterated as “melachah,” is further interpreted as related to “melekh,” king, relating it back to God (the King)’s work. Melachah is not found very often in the Bible, but shows up again in Exodus 31, during a discussion of the work done to build the Ark of the Covenant [which is not actually a boat] and various related tents–a discussion which is suddenly interrupted for a reminder about the Sabbath. From this, it was reasoned that work specifically mentioned in the first part of the passage was what was prohibited in the second part, and therefore these were among the specific varieties of work forbidden on Shabbat.

If a suitably similar verse could not be found elsewhere in the text to explicate an inadequate passage, rabbis found other ways of decoding God’s “original intent,” including gematria and the aforementioned calligraphic flourishes. Hey, if God wrote it, then God can encode messages in it.

Which gets us back to the story at the beginning of the post. Note how it begins: The Talmud says that Rabbi Yehudah said, “Rav said… ‘Moses said…'” This is a written account of an oral account passed from teacher to student, about a conversation between Moses (recipient of the Torah or first five books of the Bible from God and recipient of the Oral Torah, which was just how everyone lived,) about the transformation from Mosaic Judaism, centered on the Temple and lived tradition, to Rabbinic Judaism, centered on repeated reading and interpretation of the holy text, which contains in it all of the things that used to just be part of everyone’s traditions.

The result, of course, was the Talmud–or rather multiple Talmuds, though the Babylonian is the most commonly cited. The Vilna Edition of the Babylonian Tamud runs 37 volumes, and looks like this:

The inner section is a passage from the original Talmud. The inner margin is Rashi (a famous rabbi)’s commentary, the outer margin is additional commentary from other famous rabbis, and around the edges you can see marginalia from even more rabbis.

Like an onion, it is layer upon layer upon layer.

But what authority do the rabbis have to make pronouncements about the law?

The Talmud recounts an amusing argument about whether an oven could be purified:

The Sages taught: On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him.

After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits.

The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction.

They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall.

Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute?

The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it.

A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion?

Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12).

The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context?

Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion.

The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration?

Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.

So say the rabbis!

(you might be thinking, “Didn’t Elijah live a long time before the rabbis?” But since Elijah was taken up in whirlwind he never died, and thus may still be encountered.)

The importance of this little bit of Talmudism–in my opinion–is it lets the rabbis modify practice to avoid parts of the Bible that people don’t like anymore, like stoning adulterers. Sure, they do so by legalistically telling God to buzz off, they’re interpreting the law now, but hey, “Israel” means “wrestled with God“:

So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. … Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” …

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[a] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” (Genesis 32: 24-28)

Arguing with God. It’s a Jew thing.

The downside to all of this is that the Talmud is SUPER LONG and gets bogged down in boring legal debates about EVERYTHING.

Every so often, a group of Jews decides that all of this Talmud stuff is really too much and tries to sweep it away, starting fresh with just the Laws of Moses. Karaite Jews, for example, reject the Talmud, claiming instead to derive all of their laws directly from the Bible. They have therefore written several hundred books of their own interpreting Biblical law.

Hasidic Judaism was founded by the Baal Shem Tov, a rabbi who (according to his followers) emphasized the importance of having a “spiritual connection” to God (which even poor Jews could do) over legalistic arguing about texts, (which a rich atheist could do but not a poor man.) Today, Hasidic Jews are prominent among the Orthodox Jews who actually care about extensive, strict interpretation and implementation of Jewish law.

It’s not that reform is worthless–it’s just that the Bible doesn’t contain enough details to use as a complete legal code to govern the lives of people who no longer live in the organic, traditional community that originally produced it. When people lived in that community, they didn’t need explicit instructions about how to build a sukkah or honor the Sabbath day, because their parents taught them how. Illiterate shepherds didn’t need a long book of legal opinions to tell them how to treat their guests or what to do with a lost wallet–they already learned those lessons from their community.

It’s only with the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jews from Judea that there comes a need for a written legal code explaining how, exactly, everything in the culture is supposed to be done.

Okay, but what does all of this have to do with the Constitution?

As legal documents go, the Constitution is pretty short. Since page size can vary, we’ll look at words: including all of the amendments and signatures, the Constitution is 7,591 words long.

The Affordable Care Act, (aka Obamacare,) clocks in at a whopping 363,086 words, of which 234,812 actually have to do with the law; the rest are headers, tables of contents, and the like. (For comparison, The Fellowship of the Ring only has 177,227 words.)

Interestingly, the US Constitution is both the oldest and shortest constitution of any major government in the world. This is not a coincidence. By contrast, the Indian Constitution, passed in 1949, is 145,000 words long–the longest in the world, but still shorter than the ACA.

People often blame the increasing complexity of US law on Talmudic scholars, but I think we’re actually looking at a case of convergent evolution–the process by which two different, not closely related species develop similar traits in response to similar environments or selective pressures. Aardvarks and echidnas, for example, are not closely related–aardvarks are placental mammals while echidnas lay eggs–but both creatures eat ants, and so have evolved similar looking noses. (Echidnas also look a lot like hedgehogs.)

US law has become more complex for the same reasons Jewish law did: because we no longer live in organic communities where tradition serves as a major guide to proper behavior, for both social and technical reasons. Groups of people whose ancestors were separated by thousands of miles of ocean or desert now interact on a daily basis; new technologies our ancestors could have never imagined are now commonplace. Even homeless people can go to the library, enjoy the air conditioning, log onto a computer, and post something on Facebook that can be read, in turn, by a smartphone-toting Afghan shepherd on the other side of the world.

The result is a confused morass. Groups of people who don’t know how to talk to each other have degenerated into toxic “call-out culture” and draconian speech codes. (Need I remind you that some poor sod just lost his job at Google for expressing views backed by mountains of scientific evidence, just because it offended a bunch of SJWs?) Campus speech codes (which infringe on First Amendment rights) are now so draconian that people are discussing ways to use a different set of laws–the Americans with Disabilities Act–to challenge them.

Even the entry of large numbers of women into colleges and the paid workforce (as opposed to unpaid labor women formerly carried out in homes and farms) has simultaneously removed them from the protective company of male relatives while bringing them into constant contact with male strangers. This has forced a massive shift both in social norms and an increase in legal protections afforded to women, whom the state now protects from harassment, “hostile work environments,” rape, assault, discrimination, etc.

Without tradition to guide us, we try to extrapolate from some common, agreed upon principles–such as those codified in the Constitution. But the Constitution is short; it doesn’t even remotely cover all of the cases we are now trying to use it to justify. What would the founding fathers say about machine guns, nuclear missiles, or international copyright law? The responsibilities of universities toward people with medical disabilities? Medications that induce abortions or unionized factory workers?

The Constitution allows Congress to grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal–that is, to officially commission pirates as privateers, a la Sir Francis Drake, private citizens allowed to attack the boats of (certain) foreign nations. But Letters of Marque and Reprisal haven’t actually been granted since 1815, and the practice has been out of favor among European governments since 1856. Like stoning, privateering just isn’t done anymore, even though it is technically still right there in the Constitution.

By contrast, the Supreme Court recently ruled that the Constitution says that the states have to issue gay marriage licenses. Whether you agree with gay marriage or not, this is some Rabbi Yehoshua, “It is not in heaven,” level reasoning. I’m pretty sure if you raised the Founding Fathers or the authors of the 14th Amendment from the dead and ask their ghosts whether the Constitution mandates gay marriage, they’d look at you like you’d just grown a second head and then call you crazy. Gay sex wasn’t just illegal in every state, it was punishable by execution in several and Thomas Jefferson himself wrote a bill for the state of Virginia which penalized it via castration.

But “living constitution” and all that. A majority of modern Americans think gay marriage should be legal and don’t want to execute or dismember homosexuals, so society finds a way.

It’d be more honest to say, “Hey, we don’t really care what people thought about gay marriage 200+ years ago; we’re going to make a new law that suits our modern interests,” but since the legitimacy of the whole legal edifice is built on authority derived from the Constitution, people feel they must find some way to discover legal novelties in the text.

Like a man trying to fix a broken fence by piling up more wood on it, so American law has become an enormous, burdensome pile of regulation after regulation. Where traditions can be flexible–changing depending on human judgment or in response to new conditions–laws, by nature, are inflexible. Changing them requires passing more laws.

The Talmud may be long, but at least I can eat a bacon cheeseburger on leavened bread on a Saturday during Passover with no fear of going to jail. Even Israelis aren’t significantly restricted by Talmudic law unless they want to be.

By contrast, I can be put in prison for violating the endlessly complex US law. I could spend the next ten pages recounting stories of people fined or imprisoned for absurd and trivial things–bakers fined out of business for declining to bake a gay wedding cake, children’s lemonade stands shut down for lack of proper permits, teenagers imprisoned and branded “sex offenders” for life for having consensual sex with each other. Then there’s the corporate side: 42% of multi-million dollar patent litigation suits that actually go to court (instead of the parties just settling) result in the court declaring that the patent involved should have never been granted in the first place! Corporate law is so complex and lawsuits so easy to bring that it now functions primarily as a way for corporations to try to drive their competitors out of business. Lawsuits are no longer a sign that a company has acted badly or unethically, but merely a “cost of doing business.”

How many businesses never get started because the costs of regulation compliance are too high? How many people never get jobs as a result? How many hours of our lives are sucked away while we fill out tax forms or muddle through insurance paperwork?

Eventually we have to stop piling up wood and start tearing out rotten posts.

 

PS: For more information on the development of Rabbinic Judaism, I recommend Visotzky’s Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as we Know it.

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Wed. Open Thread: The Astronomical Clock Tower of Prague

c1rrrzuucaavmmr I hear this clock tower is in Prague, one of the world’s most beautiful cities. I mean really, if you’ve ever wanted to live out your steampunk/gothic aesthetic in real life, Prague is the place for you.

I am tired so I am jut going to say that clocks are really pretty and I love escapements and then go back to work.

Comment of the Week goes to Erik Gertkvist for creative app ideas:

I am almost negatively impressed by the lack of imagination from those that try to help the Gypsies. Wouldn’t a text-to-(Roma) voice smartphone app be a temporary solution to analfabetism among Gypsies? Similar to offer some “dating outside your small group”-app as a way to stop inbreeding, “find a Gypsie-friendly doctor in your town”-app or teaching materials? Given the billions EU have assigned to help Gypses (that simply aren’t used) some app developers could deliver these support apps within a year.

Jefferson had an interesting post on the effects of density:

I’m a bit of a broken record on this, but there is a much cleaner explanation for density’s negative consequences. Density has two components, removal from natural feedback mechanisms, and social disruption (exceeding the Dunbar’s number, and the as yet unnamed version of this for acquaintances). Both of these components lead, inevitably to increased narcissism and increased status signaling (which have multplicative effects on each other). …

And heading back to an older post, Barry Jones has some interesting thoughts on atheism, homosexuality, and complexity:

I believe America is becoming way too polarized in its disagreements about everything under the sun, and Joseph Tainter correctly predicts the collapse of any society precisely because their solutions to immediate problems always increase the overall complexity of the society. For example, new laws allowing employees to sue to get their jobs back was an immediate good, but contributed to an already congested court system, motivating many judges to engage in more dismissal of cases than they used to. us Americans are brutally stupid in our penchant for thinking short-term solutions are the end-all, be-all of existence. …

So, what are you guys up to? Any requests for future posts? Any recommendations on the subject of pastoralism/pastoralits? Or the Cowboy/Sheep man conflict? (I’ve been trying to find sources on that and only turning up indirect references.)

Have a great week!

Micro solar panels for Detroit?

We Americans like to think we live in a first world country, but there are plenty of areas–like inner cities or far rural regions–where the complex supply chains people take for granted in the suburbs (“Of course I can buy raspberries in January. Why wouldn’t I?”) don’t work or don’t exist.

For example, relatives of mine who live in a rural part of the country and therefore are not hooked up to a city water pipe are dependent on well water. But a recent drought dried up their wells, and they ended up with no running water for several years. Thankfully the drought ended and they now have water, but droughts recur; I would not be surprised if they ended up without water again sometime within the next couple of decades.

Likewise, there are people in Detroit who lack running water, though for very different reasons (my relatives were amply willing to pay for water if anyone would pipe it over to them.)

I was reading the other day about the difficulties surrounding gentrification. Basically, you start with an urban neighborhood that’s run down or perhaps has always been kind of shitty, and eventually someone clever realizes that there’s no sensible reason why one piece of urban real estate should command higher prices than another piece of urban real estate and starts trying to fix things. So they buy up decrepit old buildings, clean them up, get new businesses to move into the area, and generally try to turn a profit–house flipping on the neighborhood scale. Of course, as soon as the neighborhood starts looking nicer and stops scaring people away, the rents go up and the original residents are forced out.

Which is a big win if you’re a developer, because those original residents were a large part of the reason why the neighborhood you’re trying to flip was so shitty in the first place, but kind of sucks if you are one of those people who can no longer afford rent. Which means, among other things, that you’ll often get  local kick-back against your gentrification schemes: (h/t Steve Sailer)

Hardline tactics succeed in keeping outsiders away from Boyle Heights, the Latino community that is the last holdout to Los Angeles gentrification.

A realtor who invited clients to tour the neighbourhood for bargain properties and enjoy “artisanal treats” felt the backlash within hours.

“I can’t help but hope that your 60-minute bike ride is a total disaster and that everyone who eats your artisanal treats pukes immediately,” said one message. “Stay outta my f****** hood,” said another.

Fearing violence, the realtor cancelled the event.

So you end up with a lot of articles about people who want to gentrify neighborhoods but swear up and down that they don’t want to drive out the local residents or destroy their lives, and some of these folks might actually be honest. But these goals are often incompatible: gentrification raises rents, which drives out the lowest classes of society.

As I see it, economically depressed areas, be they urban or rural, have one thing in common: low complexity. Rural areas have low complexity because that’s just a side effect of being far away from other people; urban areas end up with low complexity either because of shifts in economic production (eg, the death of American manufacturing leading to abandoned factories and unemployed people across the “rust belt,”) or because the folks in them can’t handle complexity.

Human society is complicated (and American society, doubly so.) Businesses don’t just get opened and people employed because someone wants to; there’s a whole lot of paperwork involved before anything gets done.

I am reminded here of a passage in Bourgois’s In Search of Respect: Selling crack in el Barrio, where a Harlem drug dealer who wanted to go straight and get a legal job attempted to open a small food store, but got shut down because his bathroom was not wheelchair accessible. So the guy went back to selling crack.

On a similar note, when my relatives ran out of water, there existed an obvious technical fix: deepen the well. But drilling wells is neither cheap nor easy, if you lack the right tools, and beyond the average individual’s abilities. How lucky, I thought, that there exist many charities devoted to drilling wells for people! How unlucky, I discovered, that these charities only drill wells in the third world. I made some inquiries and received a disheartening response: the charities did not have the necessary paperwork filled out and permits granted to drill wells here in the US.

Much regulation exists not because it benefits anyone (trust me, a wheelchair-bound person is better off with non-ADA compliant food store in their neighborhood than a crack house,) but to shut down smaller businesses that cannot handle the cost of compliance.

In simple terms: More regulation => more suffering poor people.

Everyone has a maximum level of complexity they can personally handle; collectively, so do groups of people. Hunter-gatherer groups have very low levels of complexity; Tokyo has a very high level of complexity. When complexity falls in a neighborhood (say, because the local industries move out and rents fall and businesses close,) the residents with the most resources (internal and external) tend to move out, leaving the area to the least competent–greatly increasing the percentage of criminals, druggies, prostitutes, homeless, and other transients among folks just trying to survive.

Attempting to raise the level of complexity in such an area beyond what the local people can manage (or beyond what the environment itself can handle) just doesn’t work. Sure, from the developers’ POV, it’s no big deal if people leave, but from the national perspective, we’re just shifting problems around.

Obviously, if you care about poor people and want to do something to help them, step number one is to decrease regulations/paperwork. Unfortunately, I don’t have much hope of this short of a total societal breakdown and reset, so in the meanwhile, l got to thinking about these small-scale development projects people are trying in the third world, like micro-solar panels, composting toilets, or extremely cheap water pumps. Now, I agree that most of these articles are pie-in-the-sky, “This time we’re totally going to solve poverty for realsies, not like all of those other times!” claptrap. The problem with most of these projects is, of course, complexity. You install a water pump in some remote village, a part breaks, and now the villagers have no idea how to get a new part to fix it.

If you’ve read Josephine and Frederick’s account of their attempt to drive from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa–a distance of about a thousand miles, or 1,500 km–in the DRC, then you’ve probably noticed how much of the infrastructure in parts of the third world was built by the colonizers, and has degenerated since then do to lack of maintenance. These systems are too complex for the people using them, so they de-complexify until they aren’t.

So for third-world development schemes to work, they can’t be too complex. You can’t expect people to spend three weeks trekking through the bush to order parts in the nearest cities or to read thick manuals, and they certainly don’t have a lot of money to invest.

So when these projects are successful, we know they have managed to deal adequately with the complexity problem.

Micro solar panels, for example, might provide enough power to charge a cell phone or run an electric light for a few hours, and can be easily “installed” by clipping them onto the outside of a high-rise tenement window, where they are relatively safe from random thieves. For people who can’t afford electricity, or who have to chose between things like paying rent and having hot showers, such panels could make a difference.

In rural areas with unreliable water supplies, cheap pumps could run water from local streams to toilets or filtration systems; composting toilets and the like provide low-water options.

Such projects need not be run as charities–in fact, they probably shouldn’t be; if a project increases peoples’ economic well-being, then they should be able to pay for it. If they can’t, then the project probably isn’t working. But they might require some kind of financing, as cost now, savings later is not a model most poor people can afford.

Is Taxation Theft? The state vs bandits

Inspired by Infowarrior1’s comments on Theory: the inverse relationship between warfare and homicide, I got to thinking about “What is a state?” (Please note that I am sort of thinking out loud, so I can’t promise that I’ve got every detail worked out. Feedback is welcome and useful.)

I tend to take a pretty expansive definition of “government,” including not just the formally recognized thing people mean when they say government, but also the entire power structure of the entire society, including your boss, newspaper publishers, popular people, religious leaders, and even parents. (Note: most of the time when I use the word “government,” I mean it in the normal way that people would understand it.) Under the normal definition, the gang violence is just homicide, but under the expensive, gangs are a form of small-scale government (they exert power over others, after all,) and violence between them is warfare.

Gangs do many things that formal governments do: they engage in trade, regulate contracts, tax people, punish people who break their laws, control territory, and engage in warfare. The Mafia clearly has its origins in the family-based governing structure of Sicily/southern Italy, and creates a structure within which its family members benefit from government contracts and the like. The Japanese Yakuza “began as a temporary staffing agency on the docks of Kobe” and host “an annual rice cake-making event at the start of the year in which the gang distributes food and booze to the locals. … And after the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and the great disaster of March 2011, the earthquake and tsunami and Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown, the Yamaguchi-gumi was quick to provide aid in the form of blankets, food, water, and shelter.” (source)

(It has long been somewhat of a mystery to me why the formal gov’t doesn’t just treat gangs like invading armies, and simply shoot everyone involved until they stop trying to occupy American cities.)

So what is the difference between such groups and formal governments? If we call a formal government a “state” and these other organizations “non-state governments”, then what is a state? Is ISIS a state? Yes, it seems to have enough of the normal characteristics of a state to call it a state. Is a gang a state? No, clearly a gang is not a state. What about Somalia? No, not a state so much as a state-shaped hole in the map where other states don’t want to go. The Somali government simply does not exert an organizing influence over its own territory.

Which got me thinking about the state as an institution that increases organizational complexity of a society/aids in its homeostatic maintenance within a specific territory.

By contrast, bandits, while they exert power over others, decrease a system’s organizational complexity by interfering with normal function in order to shunt other people’s wealth to themselves.

I’m sure you’ve heard the claim that “taxation is theft.” This has always seemed like a fallacious argument, especially since most things that taxes get spent on are actually programs that people want and support, and so such conversations generally lead to painstakingly laying out the fact that libertarianism doesn’t deal very well with multipolar traps yet again, which, sorry, starts quickly feeling like explaining to my kids again that, yes, things really do cost money and no, people aren’t going to just give you what you want in life because you want them to. (Not that libertarianism is all bad–just the vacuous repetition of certain catchphrases.)

At any rate, a legitimate government uses its taxes to increase the overall order of the system, while an illegitimate one uses its power to decrease order. The Somali government does not increase (or maintain) the overall order of Somalia, so it is not a state.

Let’s switch for a moment from Somalia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ne Zaire, ne the Belgian Congo.

I have mentioned before Josephine and Frederick’s account of their attempt to drive from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa–a distance of about a thousand miles, or 1,500 km–in the DRC. It’s a great story, so I recommend you read it yourself, but I’m going to highlight a few relevant bits:

When the Belgians ruled the area, they built a lot of roads. Today, if you are brave enough to go there, you can see the condition the roads are in:

Photos by Frederick and Jospehine
Photo by Frederick and Jospehine

There are a few good roads in the country–built by Belgian-run NGOs, mining companies (I believe these are generally run by the Chinese), and Catholic missionaries, eg:

“That night we talked for hours with Frère Louis. Our little adventures here dissapear in the nothing compared to everything he went trough. He had been in DRC for over 40 years, he stayed during all the wars. He had to abandon everything and run for his live three times as teams were sent out to kill him. But he always returned. Many books could be filled with his adventures.

He is also responsible for most of the bridges Katanga. He build hundreds of bridges himself. He has a small working budget from Franciscans, but he funds most of it all by himself. He has put every last penny in the Congolese people. That is why his house in Luena was so rundown.

He also told us about the Mayi-Mayi rebels that still roam the jungle. We were not prepared for the horror stories we would hear. I still have problems giving these stories a place. They are not just stories though, he gave us a 100 page document with his interviews of victims. If you thought, like us, that cannibalism was something that belonged in comic books and dusty museums about Africa. You are wrong. :cry:” [source]

Not only do the Congolese themselves not maintain their own roads, they contribute to their destruction by digging holes in them to trap passing vehicles so they can demand money in exchange for helping them out. Likewise, many of the “tolls” charged of passing vehicles go not to road maintenance (a legit reason to charge people for using a road,) but to line the pockets of the people charging the tolls.

In other words, while many Congolese are trying to use the roads to conduct trade and transport goods, others are actively destroying the roads and sabotaging that trade in order to benefit off other people’s hard work. A man who charges tolls in order to pay for improvements to the road is contributing to the structural complexity of society; a man who charges tolls to line his own pockets is a bandit.

In response to a comment in the thread–“Absolutely great to read you ! Belgians in the Congo ! You must be nuts ! “–Frederik responds:

I presume you are referring to the “not so nice” role Belgium has had in the history of Congo. For a while I thought that would be a problem as well, but it isn’t. Just about anything that still exists in Congo is made by the Belgians. The older generation who had their education from the Belgians really have fond memories of that era. And at the moment Belgium is still one of the main funders of the country (via aid). The dark pages of history during the Leopold 2 era is not what the Congolese people think about. All in all I think being Belgian was actually a plus. As a matter of fact, a lot of people asked how things were going with the “war” in Belgium :-o” [source]

Also on the subject:

“Occasionally (and I must admit, it was a rare event) we meet nice people. Like this guy on his bike. [picture] He stopped to say hello. He was a well educated person who previsouly worked as an accountant for a big company. The company is no longer there so now he survives like everybody else by trading a few things. [picture] He was a good example of the older generation. They grew up in a prosperous (relative) Congo and have seen it go downhill. They still have the pride every person should have. The younger generation grew up in disastrously f*cked up country and lack the pride. Why should they, they know they do not get any chances?
It is that old generation that longs back to the colonial time. They acknowledge there were a lot of problems in that period and that they were discriminated by the white colonisator. But at least they had a functional country. They had roads and schools. They had jobs and could buy supplies. And above all, there was stability. Now there is nothing but uncertainty.. waiting for the next war to start.” [source]

And on a related note:

If there is any thing you can find anywhere in the world it is Coca-Cola. They should know how to get their goods in the country. We had no response on mails, so we called them up. Their answer was pretty short: They do not have a distribution network outside the major cities in Congo 8O And it proved to be true, Congo is the first country we have visited were Coca-cola is hard to get once you leave the major cities.” [source]

Someone else–Christian P.–comments on his own experiences,

Before entering the country, we did not really know what to expect and we had the same exact nervosity as you were reffering. And it never went away.

The place is hard to imagine and describe. I have travelled a lot in Africa but the DRC is like nothing else. And I have only spend a few days there….

The look on people’s face is different. The vibe on the street is intense. It seems like everything is on the verge of exploding. I had never seen that many guns in one place. There is no bank, no guidebooks, no backpackers, no tour bus, no hotels, nothing. It truly still is the dark side. [source]

And I haven’t even mentioned all of the times random villagers tried to hack Frederik and Josephine to pieces with machetes, which is a definite deterrent to trade!

Like Somalia, the DRC isn’t a country so much as a country-shaped hole in the map. What government there is tends to be local, tribal, or run by folks like the mining companies or Catholic missions, and much of the time, what authority exists is actively undermining any larger systems of social/economic complexity for their own short term gain.

But what about states that are clearly “states”, but are clearly bad for the people under their rule? Soviet land collectivization in Ukraine, for example, killed 2.5–7.5 million people. Collectivization caused mass famines throughout the USSR; the exact number of lives lost is unknown, but estimated between 5.5 and 8 million deaths. The previous Soviet famine of 1921 had killed another 6 million people. Depending on whose definitions we use, communist regimes are generally blamed for somewhere between 20 and 100 million civilian deaths during the 20th century.

(How is it, then, that some of the nicest people I know are communists? Are they just idiots?)

Communist governments, I think it is safe to say, are state-level bandits.

Thoughts?