WAS JEFFERSON A "RATIONAL ANARCHIST"?
> i have heard many people say that jefferson was an atheist, and i agree with > you that he certainly was not. however i was wondering, i have noticed that > although he wrote many a governmental paper, he appears to be a rational > anarchist, not only have i noticed this but so has robert heinlein and > several of my colleagues. what is your oppinion? I do not think it is entirely accurate to call Jefferson a "rational anarchist," although he comes close. The quotations below pretty well describe his position on this matter, and I know of nothing that he wrote that would contradict these sentiments. "It will be said that great societies cannot exist without government." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XI, 1782. ME 2:129 "It is a problem, not clear in my mind, that [a society without government, as among our Indians] is not the best. But I believe it to be inconsistent with any great degree of population." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. ME 6:64 Jefferson much admired the Indians, and used them as an example to demonstrate that the next natural stage above the family is not a monarchy, but a representative form of government. "Our Indians are evidently in that state of nature which has passed the association of a single family... The Cherokees, the only tribe I know to be contemplating the establishment of regular laws, magistrates, and government, propose a government of representatives, elected from every town. But of all things, they least think of subjecting themselves to the will of one man." --Thomas Jefferson to Francis W. Gilmer, 1816. ME 15:25 More than anything else, I would call Jefferson a populist. He believed in national self-government, i.e., a society where the people themselves were the ultimate sovereign, and to the greatest practical extent govern themselves. Government, whatever its nature, exists merely to facilitate self-government and to make it practical and workable. At a more primitive level, it is true: almost no government at all is sufficient. But Jefferson recognized that great societies need higher, more complex levels of government in order for them to function effectively. What would he think of our government today? I'm sure he would be alarmed at many aspects of it, and the many government agencies that are virtually immune from popular oversight. But overall, I think he would be pleased that the basic governmental forms instituted in the early stages of our republic were sufficient for this nation to grow into the richest, most powerful that has existed in the history of the world. A society as advanced and complex as ours is unthinkable without an equally advanced and complex form of representative government. But it is important that this government remain properly bound "by the chains of the Constitution."
> I've thought about your letter, and found that while your statement's about > his beliefs seem accurate. i dont think you understand exactly what a > rational anarchist is. a rational anarchist believes that while > laws/government are helpful for most people, he knows that he himself is the > only one responsible for his actions. and will only follow laws as long as he > feels it is morally acceptable. hence, most true anarchists are not the > rebelling teenagers but are very peaceful and spiritual by nature/philosophy. > so while an anarchist feels laws are necessary for you, he will not hesitate > to break ones he does not agree with. and so government is at a personal > level and so is punishment. while this is a simplification of the > philosophy, i think you'll understand why jefferson can be seen as believing > in this philosophy. Perhaps you are right: I probably did not fully comprehend the ramifications of the term "rational anarchist." As you further define it, it seems (without trying to be derogatory) that it could be defined as a "selective anarchist," or even a "partial anarchist." Whether Jefferson can be called such an anarchist is an interesting question, and I would like to try and explore it. (This means, I don't really know at this point where this discussion is going.) Offhand -- gut feeling -- I would tend to disagree: I don't think Jefferson believed in that philosophy. But let me see if I can back that up. First off, in a sense all decent and responsible persons could be called rational anarchists. No respectable person will obey a law which he feels is morally repugnant and contrary to all standards of right and justice. This is the principle behind Civil Disobedience, and every person of good moral character does, or should, stand ready to practice civil disobedience in any clear case. There are a huge number of quotations that could be used to illustrate Jefferson's position on rebellion against unjust government authority. Even when the judgment of the people is wrong, it is nevertheless important that they act upon it. "The people cannot be all, and always, well-informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty." --Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, 1787. ME 6:372, Papers 12:356 Hence, governmental authority in and of itself is not absolutely binding on our conscience. Just because a law is put in place by governmental authority does not mean we are absolutely obligated to obey it. "Law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac H. Tiffany, 1819. So, in this sense, Jefferson was indeed a "rational anarchist." Nevertheless, there is something about the way that you define rational anarchist that is unjeffersonian. You say that "while laws/government are helpful for most people," and that has a very elitist tone to it, as though the individual was always acting on his own, and not in concert with his fellow citizen, whereas Jefferson's views never seemed to be based on such isolated individualism. When disobeying the law, the individual is almost always on safer ground if he acts in concert with others, thus helping to assure that he is not merely acting out of a perverted self-interest. You continue, "he himself is the only one responsible for his actions." This is true, of course, even when he is acting in concert with others. But Jefferson never seems to consider civic responsibility on the basis of such isolated individualism. There seems to be a sense in Jefferson that the individual acting on his own is in a dangerous position. "Laws made by common consent must not be trampled on by individuals." --Thomas Jefferson to Garret Vanmeter, 1781. ME 4:417, Papers 5:566 "Every society has a right to fix the fundamental principles of its association, and to say to all individuals, that if they contemplate pursuits beyond the limits of these principles and involving dangers which the society chooses to avoid, they must go somewhere else for their exercise; that we want no citizens, and still less ephemeral and pseudo-citizens, on such terms. We may exclude them from our territory, as we do persons infected with disease." --Thomas Jefferson to William H. Crawford, 1816. ME 15:28 I think it is safe to say that Individualism as we know it today is not really consonant with Jefferson's philosophy. You continue, "[he] will only follow laws as long as he feels it is morally acceptable." To the extent that this is merely the mirror image of civil disobedience to laws that are morally repugnant, this would seem to be correct. Somehow, however, the way you phrase it makes it sound whimsical. Is it morally unacceptable to follow laws that you do not like for personal reasons? After all, some people find it unacceptable that *anybody* tell them what to do, because that violates their personal sovereignty, which is "morally unacceptable." Hence, there is a certain vagueness about this standard that itself seems devoid of morality. As though, "morality is what I choose to like." There seems to be a need for something clearer here, because morality always involves a responsibility to others, not merely a "feeling." Every criminal follows laws that HE feels are morally acceptable. Finally, you add "while an anarchist feels laws are necessary for you, he will not hesitate to break ones he does not agree with." This implies that the anarchist feels himself above the law, and not just above morally repugnant laws (which itself suggests some broad social agreement on that judgment), but above any law "he does not agree with." And since we know all too well the power of the individual to justify almost any course of actions he has determined to pursue, no matter how heinous, this begins to appear to be a standard devoid of all morality whatsoever. As though, "what I like is moral; what I dislike is immoral." Rational Anarchism then sounds like "rationalized" anarchism -- a self-deceptive philosophy to justify a person in doing anything they please. People who follow such a code may end up living basically moral lives, but if they do so, it is probably from some unconscious code of conduct, and not actually the result of their stated code. The latter probably exists only to soothe their conscience whenever they make minor infractions of the former. I don't think Jefferson would believe in such a philosophy. But perhaps I have drawn it out unfairly.
> your conception of rational anarchism is fairly accurate, but the rational > part of the philosophy is in that he knows that 99% of the population 'needs' > government and so will not try to subvert it. The anarchist also does not > feel above the law, he just feels that laws are not necessary and that > while he generally follows them(not out of fear like almost everyone, but out > of his knowledge that the majority of laws are sensible and are good common > sense) he feels he should be his own judge/jury/executioner and he/god should > be responsible for his own punishment, hence the great spirituality. Thank you for your further explanation. There is little more that I could add except to say that I believe, and I feel sure that Jefferson also believed, that government and law are a function of a society. We are not forced to be a member of society, but it would be very difficult to have anything approaching a decent civilized life apart from all societies. It does seem that a truly rational person would choose one or the other. To straddle both is (1) to be slightly dishonest, and (2) to exploit the connection to society for whatever advantages it has to offer while secretly refusing to support the society to the extent one can get away with it. It comes down to not a matter of a person "needing" society and its government and laws, but whether a person chooses to be a part of society or not. After all, the truly rational person realizes that without the rest of society, we each would have next to nothing, and be little more than an animal. To say that we will accept the advantages of society, but that we don't "need" its laws is to assume that society and its laws are not dependent on one another, are not parts of an integrated whole. In any case, I don't think "rational anarchism" as you define it is a viewpoint that Jefferson would embrace.
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