“We suggest that hierarchy is a solution to the problems of voluntary organization…instead of personal leadership, authority is invoked.” –Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers
For whatever reason it’s easier for us to fall in line than to all share a common understanding of behavior. Personal responsibility cedes, ironically, responsibility to a higher authority that advocates for personal responsibility in the first place. Rather than handle our problems ourselves, we have to defer to the hierarchical system of punishment that supposedly knows best as to the proper course of action. Hammurabi’s Code would tell you that a punishment has to be proportional to the crime; this, I would say, makes sense to us on an instinctual basis. As a society we’ve codified this understanding to protect us as individuals from what Americans have immortalized to be cruel and unusual punishment. It is not proportional, say, to demolish someone’s house because they stole your newspaper.
The problem comes in when, while we agree on proportionality, we don’t agree on the terms and conditions of proportionality—someone might indeed think that demolishing a house for the crime of theft is proportional. Neither do we agree on the terms that dictate when punishment is even merited in the first place. Human beings, despite our best intentions, in spite of our best efforts to suppress our animalistic ancestry, contain within each person a degree of unreasonableness—the Chaos Factor, we can call it. It’s worse, actually, than animalistic since we can act irrationally all the while being aware of how irrational our action is, something Dostoyevsky called humanity’s “most advantageous advantage” in Notes from the Underground. This is the element of humanity that will always leave an unknown, an empty slot in the space of possible reactions and future decisions. Because we retain the right to act irrationally—perhaps this is the only right we keep, even after all others have been taken away—we are unable to organize ourselves as a society that completely abandons the idea of a higher power, or authority, or governing body. Based on our history, I would argue that we learned this lesson quickly and it’s only recently that people have thought they could do without this limiting and ruling actor or assemblage.
A system that truly advocates personal responsibility is a system that simultaneously roots for complete anarchy. What is anarchy? From an academic perspective, anarchy is simply what you have when you don’t have government: Anarchy is the absence of government. Personal responsibility, if everyone is one the same page, would lead everyone to follow the same set of unwritten rules. If a person breaks an understood rule, it is the responsibility of the affected party, not of everyone else, to rectify that breach, lest the crack in understanding and quid pro quo response become a rupture that results in ever increasing confusion. Just as a child tests the waters with how much bad behavior he can get away with, a society that operates under mutual understanding has a responsibility not to let spoiled behavior go unchecked. The only difference is that, in a society operating under anarchy, each individual member holds the complete role of not only calling out the breach of trust, but also fixing the leak. If the offender succeeds in his violation, the realm under which everyone else is operating with—that of personal responsibility—crumbles, completely. Acting as a coalition to right a wrong similarly destroys the anarchic system since it would then be substituted for a sectarian one, or one that advocates for a basic hierarchical system.
Why is that? Because we become aware that, if we cannot trust each other to play by the same rules, we have to recognize that we are not all built in the same way. The strong, should they decide to, will pummel the weak; the fast will take advantage of the slow; the lucky will overpower the unfortunate. A society operating under anarchy is extremely fragile, impossibly fragile, even. So we have hierarchy, instead, and power structures that recognize our inherent differences in intellectual or physical prowess. Is government, then, the safeguard for the weak and disabled? The answer to that depends on your priorities. Ayn Rand and her libertarian lot would say, yes, absolutely. Worse than being a safeguard, government is a looter that takes from the able and gives to the disabled, that is, the worst of society. A more sympathetic supporter of government would agree with a Benthamite description, meaning that government should exist to provide the greatest good for the greatest number. Rather than being the safeguard for the weak and disabled, government is the safeguard of the populace’s general happiness.
Like it or not, we can safely say that, as a species, this hierarchical model is what has aided our survival—that model is not just ours, by the way, since this is also true of pack animals and insects, like ants and bees. If our population were small, perhaps the strongest and smartest among us would recognize their place among their peers, but the smart knows that the strong can destroy him, just as the strong is smart enough to recognize that he may fall in the trap of the smart: In other words, the maniac may fall to the guile of the brainiac, and vice-versa.
Given the size of our societies, no one can be sure that they are the smartest AND the strongest, so hierarchies assure everyone that culprits will be forced to abide by the rules that have protected them, up to the point where they thought they were strong enough or smart enough to destroy them. Advocating for the overthrow of a present hierarchy, then, would bring to mind that lyric from The Who: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Perhaps we could be more enlightened about the way our hierarchy is formed, so that those at the bottom are better protected, but that would still depend on a strong enough, though perhaps more benign, ruling body to look out for the well-being of society’s lower rung.