[Originally published in the Front Range Voluntaryist, article by Noah Leed]
Many of us were heartened by the recent story of how a human chain was formed to save nine struggling swimmers caught in a rip current off the Panama City Beach on the Florida coast. Two boys had become stranded offshore, and as other members of the family swam out to their aid, those swimmers also struggled in vain to get to shore. Others on the beach went from being onlookers to being "on duty" as they linked arms to form an eighty-person human lifeline, pulling those stranded in the current back to safety.
Words like "heroic" and "miraculous" come to mind as apt descriptions of what occurred, but there is one word most people wouldn't consider using here, a word that in fact perfectly describes how this family was saved: they were saved by anarchy. Most tend to use that word as a synonym for chaos and lack of structure or organization, but in the political sense it simply means lack of a formal or mandated authoritative hierarchy. It means self-organization rather than centrally planned organization.
It is immediately important to note that such self-organization necessarily rests on whatever moral foundation might underlie it. People will organize themselves, or not, according to the system of values they have in common. So in that sense, there is indeed an important hierarchy at play in anarchy, the hierarchy of values and morals that has evolved over the countless generations that preceded ours. Some might differ in what constitutes that foundation (using terms such as "The Enlightenment" or "Judeo-Christian") but there can be no doubt that beneficial forms of anarchy are deeply rooted in history. We don't make up values on the fly.
To be sure, this human chain didn't just magically materialize, and arise spontaneously without any inputs of leadership. It required someone to first have an idea for the chain, and then for that person and others to communicate the idea and to facilitate its realization by recruiting and coordinating willing volunteers. But the point is, the manifestation of this life-saving team required no preexisting hierarchy or formal organizational structure or authority, and required no threat of punishment or other enforcement mechanisms to make it work. Those who wanted to participate simply did so, and those who didn't, didn't. Whatever minimal elements of leadership and hierarchy (i.e., non-swimmers closest to shore and stronger swimmers in deeper water) that were needed had to arise in the moment, voluntarily and organically. And they did.
It's a shame that the word "anarchy" has never been given a chance to gain more popular use in contexts that actually reflect this true definition. As thinking adults, the moment we hear that word we are likely to not really think about what it might mean. Instead, by default, we give it the emotional weight and negative connotations that were likely loaded into our heads the few times we heard the word in common use as children: anarchy is what results when people riot, or when tornadoes tear up towns, or when nobody does the dishes (or cleans his bedroom... right now!).
So we are used to seeing the word "anarchy" incorrectly thrown around to describe things like the gang-rule and barbarism that overtakes failed states like Somalia. That is not anarchy. Rarely is the word used in any but negative and unappealing contexts. Perhaps, though, the word deserves equal time in getting fair use to describe the positive voluntary social organization and human cooperation that arises almost instantaneously in group scenarios such as the Panama City Beach rescue (or, say, United Flight 93). And further, perhaps we should consider the potential negative outcomes that might have resulted if anarchy had been suppressed in the case of this rescue, as well as in other situations.
Representative democracy is highly thought of as a way to structure the governing institutions that help order our society and address its problems. How well would a microcosm of political democracy have worked on that Panama City Beach? In the name of "fairness" we might want to consider all reasonable alternatives to the human-chain idea, and we might want to vote on which idea to deploy and on who should lead the group, and we might want to consider potential costs as well as benefits of our options, and we might want to consult or defer to authorities and experts and public servants on the details of executing the plan... after another vote, of course. But by taking time to formalize the life-saving process and make it soundly democratic, that democracy would probably have failed the nine people that anarchy managed to save.
In case anyone thinks I'm just bashing government here, imagine the utter failure that might result from assigning the task to a meeting of middle-managers mired in the typical bureaucracy of a huge corporation! Direct and efficient (and risky) action and full accountability can get stifled in the hierarchies of any large and complex organization, whether public or private, because large organizations commonly breed a certain amount of ass-kissing and ass-covering (not to mention foot-dragging, finger-pointing and thumb-sucking). It's just the nature of large organizations.
The large organization will have many structures, rules and policies that have evolved to "safely" (ass-covering, again) give guidance in most situations, but not in all. A bureaucracy is always obedient first and foremost to itself, at the risk of sacrificing those stray few who might be in situations that fall outside its rigid regulatory regimes. To best respond to certain situations -- like an entire family stuck in a rip current -- agents of larger organizations must be given the freedom to decentralize, to temporarily break free from the mother-ship and reorganize organically. They must put the unique needs of the present situation above the structural and machine-like demands of the organization.
They must be given the freedom to give anarchy a chance, if that's what the situation calls for. They must be given the freedom to be human.
The group actions that arise from having the freedom to be human will be as good, or as bad, as the people of the group. Clearly the people on the beach that day were a pretty good group of people. Which is to say, they were ordinary. They performed something extraordinary because it is our nature to do so when the need arises, given a spark of determination and leadership by one or two people (which are also traits intrinsic to our nature). Is it hard to picture a group of them voluntarily banding together to solve other problems that might arise on a beach, like finding someone's lost keys, or moving a vehicle stuck in the sand? Not at all. Things like that happen all the time, without making news. Community happens.
Looking at the Panama City Beach rescue, it seems apparent that the responding authorities -- police and paramedics -- were willing to give anarchy a chance. The human chain was organized and deployed without either needing their authority or being impeded by it. Imagine an alternative scenario where lifeguards or other authorities might have insisted that only professionals attempt the rescue, and might have used their legal authority to forbid a human chain, to limit risk. A strict adherence to hierarchy and deference to authority could have been tragic. The freedom of anarchy is the freedom to act boldly and decisively and, yes, cooperatively.
One can imagine a person in an official capacity advising those treading water to keep doing so, until "official" help arrives. Likewise, when a high-rise building is ablaze, the authorities might recommend you stay put. And 99% of the time, that is the correct advice. You should come to that conclusion yourself, on your own, for your own good. But what if you or others are convinced your situation in fact represents the outlying 1% this particular time? Will you follow the advice of authority? Will authority command that you follow, and turn that advice into a mandate? I'd say this would be a good time to pull out that old bumper sticker that reads, "Question Authority."
It's worth considering that other modes of voluntary cooperation without formal hierarchy or any kind of coercive enforcement can and do work to help solve all sorts of problems, and are of great use beyond just the urgent situations where lives would be lost without immediate action. Yet we have endured decades of a sort of political and social divisiveness that some perceive as a drowning in the figurative sense, or perhaps as only barely treading water, and we have endured it under a system that greatly depends upon coercion and force rather than voluntarism..
Our elected and appointed (figurative) "lifeguards" and our supposedly democratic institutions often appear to be failing us, don't they? Still, we keep looking and striving for the political solutions that never seem to materialize, while marginalizing voluntary action and genuine charity as obviously insufficient to meet our growing needs. This is the same kind of thinking that supposes a lack of government-paid lifeguards "obviously" leads to nine people drowning. Yet the nine people were saved, because guarding-life is something all decent humans just do. The public is served by the public, not just by official public servants.
Nobody's asking you to become an anarchist here, and this is not a call to eliminate all forms of government, or to privatize everything, or to tear down "the system." It is simply an effort to show that anarchy is not the five-letter word we think it is (chaos), an effort to open some minds to the the idea that it might be in our collective best interest to allow voluntarism to work its magic whenever possible. We might be surprised at the life-saving and spirit-lifting results.
Panama City Beach shows us that anarchy in action can do wonderful things, and transform everyday beach-goers into the wonderful humans that we all have the potential to be. Let's give anarchy a chance.