This is a post I’ve been putting of writing for a while now because I didn’t really know how to start it and, although I’m not confident, I’ll give you what I have.
“Liberal” theorists from Mencius to Augustine to Locke have argued, in some form or another, that humans are innately good – that is, humans are born pure and clean and are corrupted and/or succumb to evil desires due to extraneous circumstances. John Locke, for example, popularized the idea of tabula rasa, or “blank slate”, which states that all humans are born empty, arguably without any intrinsic behaviors, and learn how to act (thus becoming “good” or “evil”) based on interactions with other humans.
Conversely, theorists such as Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Schmitt have argued that humans are innately bad and have a tendency to act selfishly and in ways that harm greater society and, more often than not, degenerate in pure hedonism and personal expansion.
It is my view, and the view that will be advanced after the jump, that humans are fundamentally irrational and, when unrestrained, resort to violence, environmental degradation, and societal destruction to further their self interests. The result of the above is not “spontaneous order”, which anarchists like to argue, but rather chaos.
Albeit cliché, I believe the statement made in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, “Absolute freedom is no better than chaos”, is fundamentally correct and is a good tool for analyzing governmental institutions.
Before I really dive in, however, I want to clarify a few words used previously and my opinions on them. When one speaks of “good” or “evil”, often the words are associated with objective characteristics that have meaning across boundaries and borders. For me, there are no objective moral standards, rather there are ways of being that are either beneficial or harmful to a third party and from that third party, one extrapolates the value of the action.
For example, I will say that environmental destruction is bad, however when I say “bad”, I don’t mean it is morally repulsive (for that implies a moral standard which doesn’t exist) rather it is destructive to another thing’s value which exists on it’s own ontological trajectory independent of one’s own. For a more in depth explanation of what I mean and my argument for environmental ethics, please read “Part 1: Ecosophy – Deep Ecology, Anthropocentrism, and Intrinsic Value”.
I. Locke’s Man: The Utopian Ideal
For John Locke, when man is born he is born good. Man is born pure and void of any societal urges. As he grows up, suckles at his mother’s teat, learns to walk, learns to talk, learns to build, and learns to destroy; he gains knowledge of society and how humans interact and this knowledge and understanding translates into a state of being – that is, for lack of a better word, good or bad. Locke’s man is rational and empirical, bound to reason and seeking truth. These traits make for a man who is autonomous and can live within his means while respecting the rights of other men. Through famine, disease, pestilence, what have you, man continues and at the end of the day, returns to one thing: rationality. And it is this trait that allows man to respect the rights and existence of others.
But there’s a problem. Locke’s man is utopian and non-existent. Humans are not born a blank slate (whether they are innately good or bad is what will come next), rather we change as we co-evolve with our environment. The environment around us changes and we change to fit in, and vice versa, and these changes, which happen over generations, ultimately create fundamental shifts in the human genome. In fact, in the past 5,000 years alone we have witnessed a “prolific” change in the way humans are wired and how we will eventually interact with the environment we’re born into (Subbaraman). This shift has changed the way we interact with the world around us and natural selection pressures have forced the brain to be wired to act in specific ways given the context your specific strain of DNA comes from. This re-wiring of the brain to operate better under changed conditions is an example of the slate actually being a template that is, as evolutionary psychologists will argue, far from blank (Bailey and Gillespie).
What’s more, Lockean property rights and “unalienable rights” rest upon a major assumption that is never called into question: the supposed rationality of humans and the equality of that rationality.
For Locke (and subsequent rationalists *cue Ayn Rand*), all humans are inherently rational and every man is capable of making equally important rational decisions. This view, if true, would probably mean that pure anarchy would work because each individual is actually capable of making rational decisions despite the circumstances and can thus act in harmony with others. But, as has happened to many philosophers, Locke was confined within his own world and didn’t look at the squabble of daily life. What’s more, he wasn’t privy to the knowledge that we now have in the field of neuroscience. The fact of the matter is that humans are not rational and tend to make irrational decisions…a lot. Evidence for this exists from studies about confirmation bias, the “Bandwagon” effect, and the availability heuristic (among others). Sadly, the human brain is so flawed and susceptible to so many different biases or effects that we simply are not the rational animals Locke makes us out to be. We are, on average, an irrational species and resting on the supposed laurels of a return to rationality is a counterfactual (Dvorsky) (SA).
What’s more, recent studies in the fields of behavioral genetics and cognitive neuroscience reveal the each human born into this world is born predisposed towards different levels of rationality due to their specific genes and prenatal conditions. The fundamental genetic differences between individuals are so stark that they are able to be predictors of criminality, among other things. The simple fact is, no two humans are the same and because we are made up of different sets of genes, we are predisposed to act in fundamentally different ways that either contradiction notions of “free will” or “rationality” (Eagleman).
If you wish to read more about the “blank slate”, I suggest you check out Arkaim’s nice collection and summarization of the data gathered over the past 30 years, here.
Now if humans are fundamentally irrational, that begs the following, partly rhetorical, question: how can a group of irrational people, governed by nothing but their own self interests, progress in life?
The situation get’s stickier, however. Locke assumes that all humans have the same ability to make rational decisions and thus, when confronted with an option, can all make an equally rational decision (albeit a different decision with different justifications). Ignoring the previous two paragraphs and assuming humans are rational, this other assumption falls as well.
Allow me to ask a rhetorical question before continuing; if all humans posses an equal ability to make rational decisions, why then do some humans make irrational decisions in situations where others would make rational ones? And what’s more, why do those same humans make the same irrational decisions again when others would learn from their original mistakes?
Individualists or champions of rationality falsely assume that all humans have equal strength to structure their lives rationally. The simple fact is, however, that most people do not have the strength or rationality to conduct their lives in the perfectly rational way that is consistent with the Lockean ideal for man. Note: this is not to say that most people are incapable of controlling their lives, rather that most people are unable to remain rational and calm for all their decisions and thus the harmony that would occur under an idealistic view of Lockean rationality would never happen because some people would make “x” decision rationally whereas others wouldn’t which would lead to conflicting rights and, ultimately, chaos.
At the end of the day, the fundamental irrationality of humans and the lack of rational equality makes it such that effective spontaneous order will never work because vast segments of the population will be irrational and act in ways that will conflict with the founding principles and rights of self governance and freedom.
II. Nature’s Man: The Tyranny of the Individual
Here is where the situation get’s interesting because the question changes from one of genetic human nature (see The Selfish Gene) to one of cognitive human nature.
You see, organisms (collectively), when in the base state of fighting for the survival of their species, are not inherently selfish but tend to cooperate because it is beneficial for the survival of the species (Hogenboom) (Tomasello et al.) and although there are some data that indicate that selfishness and altruism may be genetically linked to families, I will be going with the mainstream consensus indicated above (Phys). However, once an organism passes the first, and arguably second, rung on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the organism (individual) gains a sense of security and autonomy and the focus of the organism’s actions change. After attaining a sense of stability/not fighting to survive, organisms within a group then begin to act egoistically and pursue ends that are designed to promote self interests (again, see Maslow’s Hierarchy). As individual organisms climb the hierarchy, they become increasingly hedonistic and self absorbed which comes at the expense of any semblance of rationality and respect and one gets the problems articulated in the previous section.
What’s more, post exiting the state of fighting for survival, any attempt to place organisms back in a similar situation leads to chaos and violence. For examples of this, one doesn’t need to look far. When modern humans are put in amodern situations where it’s life or death, the cooperation that occurs before the original exit no longer exists and humans will loot, kill, rape, etc. to satisfy their desires. A prime example of this phenomena is the looting and violence that occurred right after Hurricane Katrina. While it probably would have been advantageous to band together to survive, humans had been out of the state of nature (and I use this term trepidatiously) for so long that individualism had taken hold. And the state of being demonstrated during Katrina is not an isolated incident but rather indicative of a larger trend. As is argued by proponents of the “Tragedy of the Commons” theory, when things are publicly available and the need for them is such that it dictates whether an individual survives, there is no cooperation but, quite literally, an “every man for himself” world (Ophuls). Additionally, while I don’t want to state the obvious here, humans in this epoch are primarily driven by self interest and hedonistic actions (click here).
But all the above, however, still leaves one question that needs to be answered: why is individualism or selfishness “bad”?
Although there are certainly more than two reasons, I will isolate two. First, it leads to anti-social behavior that damages the society around an organism and the people therein, and second, unrestrained hedonism tends to lead to environmental destruction and lack of accountability.
Contrary to the claims of the claims of Ayn Rand her ilk, selfishness is not a virtue but rather a drain on society and something that tends to infringe upon other people’s “rights”. You see, Rand, like Locke, takes an over-idealistic view of humans in that she supposes the messianicity of rationality and assumes that all humans will respect each other. Reality, however, is much different. There have been an obscene amount of articles written about how selfishness is harmful to society and so I will only cite a few, but I think one of the most important includes an argument about parental modeling. Self interest and lack of obligations or restraints has created a culture in relationships where each party thinks they have to be happy 100% of the time or something is very wrong. But the fact is, human interaction is a roller coaster with ups and downs and going in with a selfish mindset and a “me! me! me!” attitude has not only been linked to increase in divorce rates (which harms the children in a given family and leads to intimacy issues later in life), but has been shown to be a value system that spreads across society and negatively affects the mental attitudes of children. This change in mental attitude leads to children being distrusting and more aggressive in nature which fosters violence and a positive feedback loop within society wherein there is less social cohesion (Martin) (Doheny).
What’s more, individualism and the prioritization of the self over the common good harms society as a whole and, ironically, harms the self in the process. As organisms within a society become more individualistic and self focused, they tend to trust each other less and that leads to less social cohesion within society (indicated above). This decline in social cohesion leads to a decrease in the ability for a society to survive and take care of the people within it which in turn, ironically, leads to a damaging of the self (Patkotak). Additionally, there’s an interesting, and rather obvious, case to be made that self interest harms the economies of societies and was one of the root causes of the 2008 financial crisis. What’s more, the distrust that individualism and selfishness breeds and the individualistic ethic, coupled with a lack of rationality, will inevitably lead to one party infringing upon another parties “rights” in such a way that the Lockean or Randian ideal can never successfully work because individuals will not respect other’s “rights”.
Next, despite the cries of anarcho-primitivists, unrestrained self interest and hedonism leads to personal expansion in an attempt to one-up another which, in turn leads to environmental destruction. When individuals are unrestrained, finite resources are used and abused by individuals in an attempt to gain greater social standing and/or be better than one’s neighbors. This phenomena, as indicated above, is called the tragedy of the commons and examples are rampant. For example, fish stocks in the North Sea have been decimated due to individual exploitation and the environment around the people fishing there has been turned into a source of revenue generation and a means for personal expansion, at the cost of the environment’s well-being I might add (Humphrey et al).
What’s more, under the man vs. man world of capitalism and individualistic competition, there’s no incentive for short term, or even long term, preservation of the environment. Rather, there’s an incentive to destroy the environment in order to expand one’s own power in the moment. The over exploitation of resources and the destruction of the natural is an action intrinsic to ethics of individualism and selfishness/competition and is, arguably, the root cause of environmental destruction (Alvater) (Magdoff and Magdoff).
It gets worse though. Not only has this type of rampant individualism caused numerous problems, but it has lead to blame abdication. When there is no central authority governing such systems, the individuals own self interest motivates them to avoid blame and seek to dump it on someone else. Blame abdication is something that goes hand in hand with individualism because no one wants to take individual responsibility for destroying the environment around them, and it is this mindset of “hey, someone else is at fault” that leads to error replication (De Geus *Note: This source is a compilation of arguments from different people and as such, it includes all sides to the argument. I choose to take a very specific side that is consistent with my views, but De Geus makes no final conclusion, rather he presents the evidence. If I am incorrect in my representation of his writing, feel free to correct me and I shall remove the citation. I suggest, however, that you read the section cited for yourself and decide).
Ultimately, if one adopts an individualistic ethical standpoint, that ethical standpoint is fundamentally incompatible with the environmental ethics I lay out in “Part 1: Ecosophy – Deep Ecology, Anthropocentrism, and Intrinsic Value” and I reject that standpoint as being environmentally unethical and is (to tie this back into the first two paragraphs I wrote after the jump), to be blunt, “bad”.
I want to close this section with an interesting quotation I found:
Human beings are the most selfish species in this universe. You see, even when someone dies we weep, not for the sake of being sad, but mourn the fact that the person is not here to give us what they once were able to give. A sudden void in our adaptation causes us to despise the sacred, to blame the creation for the destruction, and to become so narcissistically self-absorbed that we’re blinded to the love thereof. -Everlyn (Everlynxo)
III. Anarchy vs. Chaos: The Question of Authority (Warning: Semantics and Parsing of Words to Follow)
The next two sections will take a bit of a different turn from the previous two for you see, the previous sections assumed that absent some state or governing body there is absolute freedom. This assumption, however, was called into question by a friend of mine when she posted the following picture along with the following commentary in reply to the image immediately before the jump (link added – out of respect for her potential wishes to not be doxxed, I will cite her Tumblr handle):
1. Freedom from a centralized authority with a monopoly on force does not inherently mean absolute freedom (if absolute freedom or “reedom” is taken to mean a state in which absolutely nothing can restrain a person from doing anything). Individuals can restrict themselves, they can be restricted by social relationships, they may voluntarily submit themselves to other restrictions (Mespetitesméditations).
While I think this is an interesting criticism, I am unconvinced and would argue that the voluntary restrictions individuals submit themselves to are still part of the same “centralised authority with a monopoly on force” that is, as per the picture, the antithesis of anarchy and thus submitting to those restrictions would not be anarchic. Allow me to provide some analysis on the definition in the photo as well as some definitions that will be important (definitions will be cited via footnotes and working definitions, when they are defined, will be italicized).
The photo uses the word “oppressive” but is very vague about what that actually means. The only context clue we have is that a “monopoly on force” is oppressive which means that we either have to err to the most limited definition of “oppressive” (having a “monopoly on force”), or redefine it. If we choose to redefine it, Oxford Dictionaries (arguably the premier dictionary in the world) defines “oppressive” as “unjustly inflicting hardship and constraint, especially on a minority or other subordinate group”. While this definition is good, I feel that discussions of “just” or “unjust” when definition anarchy will be spinning wheels and thus I will err to the definition provided by the context of the photo: oppressive means having a “monopoly on force”.
Next, I want to define “authority”. Oxford defines “authority”, in this context, as “a person or organization having power or control in a particular, typically political or administrative, sphere”. With this definition, it is very important to note the use of the word “typically” for it indicates that authority can also be had in spheres that are NOT political or administrative.
The next phrase that is of importance is “monopoly on force”. Oxford defines “monopoly” as “the exclusive possession or control of the supply or trade in a commodity or service” and “force”, in context, as “coercion or compulsion, especially with the use or threat of violence”. Thus, as per the definitions of “monopoly” and “force”, it is safe to say that the phrase “monopoly on force” is defined as “the exclusive possession or control of the powers of coercion or compulsion”.
(A note for readers familiar with Max Weber: Weber has a definition that is specific to the state on the phrase “monopoly on legitimate violence” which is important only if the word “legitimate” is used in the phrase. Since the word is not used in the picture’s definition, I shall shy away from discussions of what constitutes “legitimate violence” and leave that question for another post)
What’s more, it is important to note a few things:
- The image’s definition, and the subsequent definition of “oppressive”, make no mention on voluntary vs. involuntary action;
- Nowhere in the definitions of “monopoly” or “force” is the state (political or administrative spheres) said or even implied;
- Thus having a monopoly on force is NOT limited to the state, but rather any person or group who has exclusive possession or control of the powers of coercion or compulsion. The most simple example would be one person having a gun and another being unarmed and a pacifist; the former clearly has a monopoly on force.
So why did I define all those words? I defined them so I have definitional support in saying the following: person to person relations can still involve an oppressive monopoly on force without the state ever being included. In other words, anarchy, as per all the former definitions, has to be absolute freedom and total equality or else there is still the possibility for a monopoly on force and thus isn’t anarchy as per the definition above.
My friend tries to preemptively answer my last statement when she says “[i]ndividuals can restrict themselves, they can be restricted by social relationships, they may voluntarily submit themselves to other restrictions” but each of these examples are instances of either absolute freedom existing, just not being exercised, or monopolies on force existing. Let’s look at each one:
- “[i]ndividuals can restrict themselves” – While it is true that individuals can restrict themselves, that does not change the fundamental state that they are in. For example, I can choose to censor my language but my choice to restrict myself does not change the fact that I still have, under the American Constitution, freedom of expression.
- “they can be restricted by social relationships” – While it is true that social taboos may restrict individual’s actions, this creates an interesting doublebind. Either the actions of an individual are restricted to the point that even if an individual wanted to do X, they would be practically unable to do so for fear of punishment – a monopoly on force; or the actions of an individual aren’t actually restricted by any tangible amount which means that despite social taboos, the fundamental state that they are in would still be there (see the self-censorship example above) – that is, absolute freedom.
- “they may voluntarily submit themselves to other restrictions” – First, there is no need to include the word “voluntarily” because the picture is not using Weber’s definition and none of the above definitions imply voluntary vs. involuntary. Second, while it is true that individuals may submit to other restrictions that reduce their freedoms, one gets the same doublebind that was stated above. Third, the phrase “other restrictions” implies that there is a body laying out these restrictions on freedom which is, as per the Oxford definition, “authority” and if the restrictions are enough to change any state of nature, then the “authority” (note: it doesn’t have to be the state as per the Oxford definition) has “a monopoly on force”.
Basically, if there are restrictions that are strong enough to change a state of nature from being a state of absolute freedom to one of “less-absolute” freedom, then the people who are laying out the restrictions have a monopoly on force and the system is not anarchy, as per the picture. The only truly anarchic world under the definition presented in the picture is a world of absolute freedom.
So yes, “[f]reedom from a centralized authority with a monopoly on force” DOES inherently mean absolute freedom.
Mespetitesméditations does make a second point that, like the first, requires a discussion. She says (definitions and quotations are italicized):
2. The correlation between absolute freedom and chaos shows some interesting assumptions. So first let’s look at what chaos is; Webster’s defines chaos as “complete confusion and disorder: a state in which behavior and events are not controlled by anything.” This definition offers us two interpretations of chaos, one as a lack of order, and the other as a lack of authority. However upon examining the definition of order “the state of peace, freedom from confused or unruly behavior, and respect for law or proper authority” we see that order is just another interpretation of a state under authority. Now while I could extrapolate on some reasons why chaos is associated with a lack of authority, I will not. What I will say is that if chaos is a lack of authority, I don’t see anything inherently bad with that. Even if absolute freedom was the equivalent of chaos, that doesn’t seem all too problematic (Mespetitesméditations).
As before, while I think the criticism is interest, I am unconvinced. While I will accept the definition of “chaos” that is given, there are a few things I would like to dispute. First is the definition of “order”. The definition that is provided is number is 7a in Merriam-Webster’s list of definitions and I think it is far from the best definition and is a cherry picking of the definitions. I err to Oxford’s general definition of order which is “the arrangement or disposition of people or things in relation to each other according to a particular sequence, pattern, or method”. I err to this because it directly interacts with the given definition of “chaos” and this should preferred because 7a from Merriam-Webster is state specific (as Mespetitesméditations points out) and serves a predetermined end whereas the definition from Oxford is the general antithesis to the given definition of “chaos”.
What’s more, assuming that the definition of “chaos” has two interpretations, one being a lack of order and the other being a lack of authority, is flawed. While it’s true that “chaos” is a lack of order, nowhere in the definition is “authority” mentioned or even implied. “Authority”, as per the definition laid out above, is a person having power over a particular sphere. The definition does not specify how large the sphere has to be, who it has to encompass, etc. rather, just that a person has power over it. Because of this, an individual controlling their own lives a la free will is, arguably, authority since the individual has authority over the sphere that is their own life/body.
This creates a paradox, for you see, if we accept that “authority” is antithetical to “chaos”, then if a system is chaotic, there can be no free will since individuals can’t control their own lives (for that would be an example of authority), but since they can’t control their own lives, they are subservient to something unknown…which would also be a form of authority. The only way to avoid this silly paradox is to recognize that “authority” is not antithetical to “chaos”.
While the second criticism is good, I don’t think it actually answers any claims made nor does it provide a warrant for why chaos “doesn’t seem all too problematic”, it just asserts it.
At the end of the day, I’m left saying the same thing; true anarchy DOES in fact mean disorder and chaos and “absolute freedom is no different than chaos” which ties back into the problems articulated in part II and the individualistic ethic which I reject.
And so, as with the previous section, I want to close with a quotation:
Although I am an anarch, I am not anti-authoritarian. Quite the opposite: I need authority, although I do not believe in it. My critical faculties are sharpened by the absence of the credibility that I ask for. As a historian, I know what can be offered. – Ernst Jünger (Jünger)
|Ernst Jünger and Carl Schmitt|
As our Stanford colleagues Deb Gruenfeld and Lara Tiedens show in their detailed review of research on hierarchy, although the forms it takes vary wildly, it is impossible to find groups or organizations where all members have roughly equal status and power. Whether researchers study people, dogs, or baboons, hierarchies are evident after just minutes of observation. And when strangers meet for the first time, a hierarchy of leaders and followers begins to emerge immediately. This rapid development of pecking orders is seen, for example, in groups of college students who meet in psychology experiments and when strangers start chatting on the street corner – leaders, followers, and other signs of status differences nearly always emerge (along with more subtle roles such as “joker,” “hero,” and even “scapegoat”).
Gruenfeld and Tiedens conclude: “When scholars attempt to find an organization that is not characterized by hierarchy, they cannot.” (Sutton)
Further, Sutton argues that social groups that attempt to eschew hierarchies are plagued by dysfuction and chaos and tend to return to hierarchies (Sutton).
To further bring this point home, the concept of “natural leaders” needs to be examined. In times of distress, leaders always have this mysterious tendency to emerge. Although not perfect, we can isolate specific traits that tend to make for a future leader and we see that specific traits, such as wisdom, respect, etc, are more common in some and thus they become leaders whereas they are less common in others and they don’t (Andersen).
Finally, a discussion of governments needs to be had. Although the naive anarchist will argue that the state is not inevitable, writers on all sides of the political spectrum disagree. For example, you have Hobbesians’s arguing that states are inevitable and good and on the opposite side you have libertarians arguing that while states are inevitable, they are not necessary and should be curtailed.
But simply, public security and the fact that humans have a psychological bias against the unknown and thus favor safety ensure that a state will rise in order to protect them and their individual rights. Under a truly anarchist system (see part III) there will be no enforcer of rule, no Judge Dredd, and thus there’s nothing to stop me from stealing your food or your land, for example. Peoples long long ago realized this fact and came up with common law. With the rise in law we saw the rise governance and in order for any society to survive, the hierarchies that existed expand and become governments to protect public safety (TH).
Additionally, I would argue that the inherent scarcity of resources and the tribal nature of early peoples ensured that a state-like entity would emerge in some form or another in order to better manage resources and the lives the citizens
Ultimately, I view the emergence of a state as just another incidence of the hierarchies that are so prevalent in nature. The State, much like the social stratification in lion prides, is just another incarnation of hierarchy amongst individuals in a society. The organic state arose out of like individuals banding together and so the organic state will stay.
Finally, I want to leave you with something a tad funny. Libertarian economist Randall Holcombe wrote an essay entitled Government: Unnecessary but Inevitable wherein he argues, as the title suggest, that government is inevitable. This essay was not well received by the Austrian economist Walter Block who wrote a reply entitled Government Inevitability: Reply to Holcombe wherein he took to answering Holcombe’s arguments. And of course, like the good economist Holcombe is, he wrote a reply to Block’s reply entitled Is Government Really Inevitable? which then spawned a third party reply. This orgy of ideologies and Libertarians arguing with Austrians is really quite amusing from a third party’s point of view…especially a statist’s. Seeing this in-fighting did give me a good chuckle and reminded me of the sad reality of politics – all sides of the political spectrum are plagued by partisanship and semantic disputes.
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