The Hard Problem: Part II

“A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

(U.S. Constitution, Second Amendment)

When I wrote Chapter 34, more than forty years ago, I described national defense as the hard problem. Its logic has not changed and it is still hard, although less hard now that the Soviet Union no longer exists as a threat. But I have had additional thoughts since then of ways in which it might be solved. They are based on an odd variety of sources: the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, paintball, the Society for Creative Anachronism, the Open Source movement, and a short story by Rudyard Kipling. I will start with the Second Amendment.

As I interpret the relevant history, the Second Amendment was intended as a solution to a problem strikingly demonstrated in the previous century. Oliver Cromwell, in winning the first English Civil War, had shown that a professional army could beat an amateur army, which was a good reason to have one. By winning the second English Civil War he demonstrated something else a professional army could do—and ruled for five years, until his death, as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, aka military dictator. [13] That was a good reason not to have a professional army. Damned if you did, damned if you didn’t.

The solution hit upon by the founders was a compromise, a kludge. Combine a small professional army with a vast amateur militia consisting of all adult men of suitable age. In peacetime, give Congress and the professionals the job of producing enough coordination so that, in time of war, the state militias and the regulars could function tolerably well together:

“The Congress shall have Power … To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;”

(Article I, Section 8)

If the professionals tried to seize power, they would be outnumbered by about three hundred to one. In case of war, the large size of the militia combined with the skills of the regulars would, with luck, make up for the militia’s low quality. It was an ingenious solution and one that worked, judged by the nonexistence so far of either foreign conquest or military coup.

A similar solution might work for a stateless society. It too requires some way of dealing with foreign aggressors. It too faces the risk that a military sufficiently formidable to defend it might be formidable enough to seize power. It, unlike a state, faces the additional problem of funding a military without tax revenues. Amateurs are cheaper than professionals. Cutting your cost per soldier in half does not solve the problem of paying for the military if you need more than twice as many soldiers, but reducing it to zero does. Which brings in the next element of my plan.

I know quite a lot of people who not only train to fight without being paid, but pay the cost of their own equipment to do so; for many years I was one of them. It is true that our equipment, consisting of swords, shields, and armor, would be of little use in modern warfare—or medieval warfare, given that the swords are made out of rattan, not steel. But if the same resources of time, energy, and money were put into similar training with more up to date equipment, the result would be an amateur army, a militia numbering ten thousand or so, a first small step towards an adequate military.

The Society for Creative Anachronism, which fields armies of upwards of a thousand fighters a side for its annual Pennsic war, is one part of a much larger picture, people who engage in military exercises for fun. The sport of paintball, in which I have not participated, is another. The weaponry and skills are much closer to those relevant to modern warfare; paintball is sometimes used by the U.S. military for training. The number of people involved is also somewhat larger; according to industry estimates, more than ten million people in the U.S. played paintball at least once in 2006 and almost two million played at least fifteen times a year. Expenditures for equipment came to about four hundred million dollars. That is getting towards the numbers required for an adequate militia.

Paintball and SCA combat are fun and exciting. They could be even more fun if there was more of a point to them, if the participants believed that in addition to playing a game, they were also training to protect themselves, their loved ones, the society they lived in. Structure the institutions right and you have the labor for your militia and at least part of the gear for free. Not that different from the militia contemplated by the Constitution.

Which gets me to one of Rudyard Kipling’s odder stories: “The Army of a Dream.” The narrator has just returned to England after an extended absence. An old friend, a military officer, explains the changes to him.

The central one is very simple. War games, the kind you play in field or forest at a scale of an inch to an inch, have replaced football and cricket as England’s most popular sport. Public schools compete with each other in fake battles refereed by volunteers from the military, with bets on the outcome.

‘I should say it was,’ said Pigeon suddenly. ‘I was roped in the other day as an Adjustment Committee by the Kemptown Board School. I was riding under the Brighton racecourse, and I heard the whistle goin’ for umpire—the regulation, two longs and two shorts. I didn’t take any notice till an infant about a yard high jumped up from a furze-patch and shouted: “Guard! Guard! Come ’ere! I want you per-fessionally. Alf says ’e ain’t outflanked. Ain’t ’e a liar? Come an’ look ’ow I’ve posted my men.” You bet I looked! The young demon trotted by my stirrup and showed me his whole army (twenty of ’em) laid out under cover as nicely as you please round a cowhouse in a hollow. He kept on shouting: “I’ve drew Alf into there. ’Is persition ain’t tenable. Say it ain’t tenable, Guard!” I rode round the position, and Alf with his army came out of his cowhouse an’ sat on the roof and protested like a—like a Militia Colonel; but the facts were in favour of my friend and I umpired according. Well, Alf abode by my decision. I explained it to him at length, and he solemnly paid up his head-money—farthing points if you please!’

Kipling is not describing an anarchist society—the initial training is compulsory and the system is elaborately interwoven with the professional military. But a central part of his vision is a society where learning military skills is something people want to do, enjoy doing, and get social as well as governmental rewards for doing.

‘We’re a free people. We get up and slay the man who says we aren’t. But as a little detail we never mention, if we don’t volunteer in some corps or another—as combatants if we’re fit, as non-combatants if we ain’t—till we’re thirty-five—we don’t vote, and we don’t get poor-relief, and the women don’t love us.’

The result is a society that can field an enormous army if needed but does not have to spend an enormous amount to create and maintain it.

It is, of course, the army of a dream:

Then it came upon me, with no horror, but a certain mild wonder, that we had waited, Vee and I, that night for the body of Boy Bayley; and that Vee himself had died of typhoid in the spring of 1902. The rustling of the papers continued, but Bayley, shifting slightly, revealed to me the three-day-old wound on his left side that had soaked the ground about him.

Combine Kipling’s imagined picture with the observation that millions of people already engage in military games and military training for fun. Add in the institutions of open source software, [14] the system that produced Linux, the third most popular desktop operating system, as well as the Apache software that a majority of web servers run on. Open source software is developed by volunteers, mostly unpaid, for a mix of non-pecuniary reasons: to get the programs they want, to get prestige with their peers, to demonstrate their coding ability to potential employers. It provides a striking example of how sophisticated voluntary production in a non-market context can be.

Individual military equipment may be paid for by the individual hobbyist, but not many enthusiasts can afford a tank, an artillery piece, or whatever the equivalent will be in the military technology of the future. Companies, on the other hand …

Every April 15th, the platoon fielded by Apple Computer marches in the Liberty Day parade led by a robot tank flying Apple’s banner—clear evidence that Apple is a responsible and patriotic company whose computers (and phones and tablets and watches) you should buy. Microsoft tries to do them one better, parading its larger platoon, also employee volunteers, under a swarm of armed robot drones.

I have offered a rough blueprint for fielding a very large militia at a very low cost. There remains the problem of coordination, of how to get millions of volunteers divided into thousands of independent units to work together. For that we require professionals—funded, as many functions are funded already, by charity. It should not take too much charity, since we do not need very many of them.

We are back with the military structure of the Second Amendment, a large militia of amateurs, a small cadre of professionals. In peacetime the professionals provide services to the amateurs, possibly for pay, making sure that all their communication devices can talk to each other, refereeing their mock combats, encouraging some degree of standardization of parts and ammunition. In war, if there is a war, the professionals make up the top cadre of officers.

I do not want to overstate my argument; when trying to analyze how imaginary institutions would work, certainty is in short supply. I have sketched one way in which a stateless society might defend itself. How well it, or other alternatives that have not occurred to me, worked would depend in part on how serious the threat was. When I wrote Chapter 34, the threat was a Soviet Union allied to China, both equipped with arsenals of nuclear weapons. That was one of the reasons I was not at all sure that a future American anarchy could defend itself.

Today the situation is rather different. Before the first Gulf War I added up the GNPs of the two sides. The odds were just about a hundred to one. Currently, the nearest thing the U.S. has to a serious enemy is Iran. Its GNP is about one fiftieth that of the U.S. and it is a long distance away. Mexico and Canada are closer, but neither seems likely to invade us. In that respect, the situation has sharply improved.

A second factor, one hard to predict, is the culture of the stateless society. The mechanism I described assumes a society most of whose inhabitants approve of it, want to defend it. Without that condition, it might work much less well.

On the other hand, that mechanism shares with the original system of the Constitution one important advantage over a more centralized system: The army it creates is poorly suited to pull off a military coup. The militia is made up of a multitude of different groups with different views and loyalties and it outnumbers the professionals a hundred, perhaps a thousand, to one.

[13] “King, Lords and Commons, land-lords and merchants, the City and the countryside, bishops and presbyters, the Scottish army, the Welsh people and the English Fleet, all now turned against the New Model Army. The Army beat the lot.” (Winston Churchill, History of the English Speaking Peoples)

[14] For a good summary account and analysis, see Eric Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

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