Beyond the Privatives

2003-01-10

A privative is word that expresses the lack of something -- two controversial examples are atheism and anarchism. It's never helpful to describe one's ideas in privative terms, because you're not stating your positive views, and there are many ways to deny another idea. An atheist could be an utter nihilist, or he could be a highly principled adherent of a humanistic philosophy. An anarchist could be a violent sociopath, or he could be a communitarian pacifist. The denial of fealty to God or the State is only the beginning, only the first step. What matters most are the subsequent steps, not that first one.

I have been a non-believer -- i.e., an atheist -- since the age of nine. At first I didn't know what to make of my discovery that God does not exist. In my teenage years I found in Ayn Rand's philosophy a coherent world-view that seemed to account for the lack of a deity. In college and after I have continued to explore philosophies that are not theistic, including Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, Taoism, Buddhism, Nietzscheanism, and other such viewpoints. Yet I'm not hung up on unbelief, as some atheists seem to be. Rather, I'm focused on personal enlightenment and ethical living. It just so happens that I pursue those in a naturalistic fashion, without recourse to a god.

In the last few months I've started to take the first step with regard to government as well. I've been reading a lot of books in political theory that question the need for a State, and I'm slowly coming to think that the State may not be necessary -- indeed, that it is positively inimical to human life. Here again, the privative is the first step. The important thing is what you do after you take that first step. For me, what comes after denying the necessity of the State is a more lawful society that is not subject to the arbitrary depradations of a monopoly on power. In his book The Structure of Liberty, Randy Barnett calls this a "polycentric order", which contains even more checks and balances than the vaunted American Constitution (a document that may have worked for a while in protecting liberty but that has utterly failed by now). So yes, I am coming close to considering myself an anarchist (as much as I consider myself an "-ist" of any kind); but as with my nominal atheism, it is not the privative that matters to me, it is the positive vision that follows the initial denial. And in the case of political theory I'm still coming to grips with what that positive vision might be.

So stay tuned for further reflections...


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