Coercion Free for 70 Years

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I wasn’t raised as an anarchist, so I didn’t think it would be possible for an organization to function effectively without rules and leadership. But one of my friends seemed to be claiming that there was a group that operated with neither. She told me there was only a temporary person in charge, and a different person was chosen for each meeting.

At this point in the conversation, my inherent skepticism was already showing. “How is this temporary, one-nightstand leader selected? Do they start each gathering with an election? And who runs the election?” “There isn’t an election. The leader is chosen by the secretary.”

“Well, now we are coming down to it. The secretary is actually the leader, like the Communist Party Secretary. I don’t want anything to do with communists.”

“God, you’re so paranoid! No, the secretary isn’t the leader. The secretary is the person who has to arrive early and make the coffee, set up the chairs, unlock the doors, and get the room ready. And part of what the secretary does is pick the person who will lead that night’s meeting. That person isn’t supposed to talk much. He or she just keeps the meeting running on time and sees that everyone gets heard.”

This was unlike anything I’d ever heard of, and it didn’t make sense. I later learned that the customs she was describing were part of a subtle but powerful set of checks and balances designed to keep anyone from amassing any power in the organization. But I’m getting ahead of my story.

I peppered my friend with questions. If this wasn’t some kind of communist organization, it was probably a religion. “Do you have to believe in God? Because you know I don’t, and I can’t just start believing again.”

“You don’t have to believe anything. It’s not like that. Listen, I can’t really explain this very well. If you want to find out more, you have to investigate this for yourself.” She gave me a little book and a pamphlet. Then she walked away.

Her hands-off attitude also puzzled me. She had always been a big promoter of whatever she was “into” at the time. She tended to beat one about the head and shoulders with advice and recommendations – but this time, she just left it up to me.

The lack of proselytizing fervor was refreshing. And when I finally got to a meeting, I was ignored, which was a big relief. There was, as she said, a leader to run the meeting but not do the talking, and everyone there seemed to know what to do. When I came to a second meeting it was all different people with a different leader. Although there were commonalities, the activities were different.

I enjoyed the discussions and the break from work, so I kept attending. There were no dues or fees for membership, nothing to sign. There was nothing official at all, ever. I couldn’t tell you when I became a member, although I think

The lack of proselytizing fervor was refreshing. And when I finally got to a meeting, I was ignored, which was a big relief.


I did. Nor can I tell you when I stopped being a member, although I certainly have. There are no written records of my ever having been a part of this anarchistic organization. But there were a great many important lessons written into my heart, lessons about how well people can manage without any authority telling them what to do. I had become a libertarian in my thinking, thanks to years of participation in the near-anarchy called Alcoholics Anonymous.

For seven decades A.A. has been a natural laboratory for how civil society can operate effectively without government authority. I’ve been surprised, therefore, to have seen A.A. mentioned only once in libertarian publications. It was in a rant that appeared some years ago in Liberty, complaining about the apparent collusion between A.A. and the judicial system: courts have sentenced people to attend A.A. meetings, thereby enriching the organization.

Having seen the phenomenon of court-ordered attendance at A.A. meetings from the inside, I found the rant deliciously ironic. People in trouble for drunk driving are commonly assigned to attend some number of meetings, over a period of time. The judge gives them a “court card” to get signed at each meeting they attend, and they return the completed card as proof that they were there. The courts have a variety of inducements, such as avoiding jail, to make sure that these cards are returned completed.

So here’s the irony. There is nobody in charge at A.A. No one ever signed a contract (who would be authorized to sign it?) and agreed to do this service for the courts. In fact, there are some folks in A.A. who don’t think they should sign the cards – and this made for some interesting exchanges, like the following.

The adjudicated drunk, we11 call him Jared, walks up to Lisa, the meeting leader, with his unsigned court card, saying, ‘0’1 think you forgot to sign the court card. I put it in the basket when it went around, but there’s no signature on it.”

Lisa says, “This is my first time being the meeting leader. I’ve never done this before. But I don’t think I can sign court cards. I’m not really anybody official. Maybe you should take it to the secretary.”

Jared, who isn’t crazy about being forced to attend A.A. meetings in the first place, is a bit put out by this. “Jesus, can’t you people get your act together? I attended the whole damn meeting. Every other meeting I’ve gone to you put your card in the basket and picked it up at the end of the meeting – signed. Why are you giving me the run around?”

Lisa, quite embarrassed by this time, says, “I’m sorry I don’t know how this is supposed to be done. This was only my third time coming here and I told Al – he’s the meeting secretary – that he shouldn’t have asked me to be the leader. But he wouldn’t listen. He said I only had to read this script and call on people. He didn’t say anything about signing court cards. I’m not even a regular member. C’mon, let’s go ask Al to sign your card.”

When the two reach Al, Lisa starts to explain, while Jared thrusts his court card at Al. Raising his hands palm forward and shaking his head, Al leans backward: “I ain’t signing no effing court cards. Those bastards got no effing right to try to force you guys to attend meetings. You don’t even belong here. Like the Big Book says, you’re welcome if you have a sincere desire to stop drinking. But they can’t make you.”

Jared rolls his eyes. “I don’t want to be here either, old man. But I’ve got to attend 20 meetings or I go to jail. I don’t have time to attend meetings I don’t get credit for. The judge said I have to get this court card filled up. Just sign it here.” AI’s voice gets louder. “I told you I wasn’t signing anything. I’m frigging anonymous here. The judge didn’t say nuthin’ to me – so I don’t gotta do nuthin’ bub.”

At that point, Larry strolls over. “It’s okay, Al. You’re right, you don’t have to sign anything. And I agree it is shitty what the courts are doing to these guys. But hell, this guy is kind of jammed up here. No sense making him suffer. Here, give me your card. Urn, I didn’t catch your name?”

“Jared. Thanks. Here you go.”

Larry scribbles on the card and hands it back. Jared looks at it and says, “You signed three lines, two with yesterday’s date and one for today.”

Larry grins. “Well I’m giving you credit for the meetings I attended. I’m sorry Al unloaded on you. He hates the courts. You should get him to tell you about it someday. He has quite the story. See ya’ around, Jared. Keep coming back.”

I saw this type of exchange many times. I found it hilarious that the courts found these signatures meaningful. Not even the people in A.A. meetings can say who is “in” A.A., so any scribbled set of initials is as good as any other.

Generally, leaders or secretaries do sign court cards. But they sign the darn cards simply to be accommodating to the poor schmuck who has been forced to get these signatures. A.A. members generally don’t counsel people sentenced to A.A. meetings to fill up their own court cards. On the other hand, the anti-authoritarian streak in A.A. is pretty pronounced – and I have heard people suggesting just that. Four friends and three pens could fill a court card in about five minutes, and there would be absolutely no way to distinguish that from months of attending meetings, except for the wear and tear on the card itself.

A.A. has no central authority and no mechanism for making anyone abide by any rules. All that happens in A.A. is governed by the same social pressures that we libertarians call civil society. And it works wonderfully well.

Let’s start with the money issue. There is no fee required to joinA.A., nor are there any dues to pay. In fact, there is no way to become a member officially. So you can’t have your membership revoked or rescinded. Those court-ordered attendees don’t fill the A.A. coffers, because they aren’t required to pay anything. Generally a basket is passed at each meeting. The social convention is to put in a dollar bill, or two if you’re feeling generous, as the basket is passed by you. Quite commonly,

The only source of income is what’s put in the basket by people in the meetings. Perhaps our government should be funded that way!


as this is done, a statement is read to the effect that “We are self-supporting through our own contributions. There are no dues or fees for membership, We collect money to pay for coffee and rent.”

Some leaders or groups will suggest that new guests should not contribute. Others ask that people with court cards not contribute anything other than the court card. It’s not unusual for leaders with a sense of humor to say something like “Contribute if you can, take if you need it.” And indeed there are homeless people who will attend meetings to get warm, get a free cup of coffee with a day’s supply of sugar, and occasionally palm a couple of bucks out of the basket.

There is no pledging system in A.A. No one has any way of keeping track of who is paying what. What’s even more amazing, A.A. doesn’t allow donations from outside the membership. Because there are no rosters of members, this effectively means that it will not take money from individual donors. The national office of A.A. regularly returns all outside donations. (Try it and see!) Grants are not sought. Bequests are not accepted, even from former members. A.A. has no business enterprises or money-making activities. The only source of income is what’s put in the basket by people in the meetings. Period. End of story. That’s gotta warm a libertarian heart. Perhaps our government should be funded that way!

A.A. has a national office in New York and regional offices in cities and counties (known as “central offices” in A.A. parlance) around the nation. Their function is to publish the

These offices are funded by voluntary donations from the meetings. There are no dues or fees or taxes anywhere in the whole organization.


schedule of meetings in the local area, man the A.A. hotline, and keep a supply of literature and other A.A. supplies for the groups. These offices are funded by voluntary donations from the meetings. There are no dues or fees or taxes anywhere in the whole organization. Don’t you love it?

The tradition is that if a meeting collects more money than it needs for coffee and rent and literature, the excess beyond a “prudent reserve” ought to be contributed to the local”central office” and to the national offices of A.A. Note that because there is no mechanism to enforce rules, A.A. doesn’t have any. It just has traditions and social expectations. People in A.A. do things because it is “right” and because they feel good about doing the right thing, not because there is anyone to make them do it. After a few years in A.A., I came to understand, deep in my bones, that not only was this workable but it was actually the best way to run things, for a number of reasons. I have an interesting story about that; I’ll tell you later.

So how does it happen that a meeting sends money to the local and national offices? Central office contributions usually come only from meetings that have organized themselves as a “group.” Some regularly scheduled meetings don’t even know that they should organize as a group and contribute. But if a meeting does so, it can put its meetings in the schedule published by the central office and send its representative to central office meetings. Of course, in keeping with A.A.’s libertarian leanings, meetings that neither formed a group nor contributed to the central office are still sometimes listed in the schedule. Someone who typed up the schedule simply decided to put them in any way. Or the local group representatives didn’t want to exclude them. Go figure. On the flip side, I’ve heard of self-appointed people walking wads of dollar bills down to the central office from an unorganized meeting that had excess funds but no treasurer or bank account.

Groups form the foundation of what little organization A.A. has. They don’t have to meet any requirements of orthodoxy. One thing they should have is business meetings (outside of regular, recovery meetings), where they can get people to serve as treasurer, meeting secretary, and central office representative. All positions in A.A. are unpaid volunteer positions – and none of them have any power. The treasurer has to collect the funds from the basket, keep the books, and report on the amount of cash in the kitty. It would be at such a meeting that the decision would be made to send money (in excess of the prudent reserve) to the central office.

The only authority in all of A.A. is the “conscience” of the group – that is, what the group decides. Occasionally a business meeting will be overrun by clueless newcomers who show up (remember there are no rules about membership) and vote against A.A. traditions they don’t understand. That sounds like disaster, to those who are prone to disaster thinking. But generally, when the newcomers don’t show up at the next month’s meeting, things can be put right again.

The fact that the national office of A.A. has to depend on voluntary contributions from groups means that it has no power that was not given to it, on a case-by-case basis, by the groups. A.A. has state and national conventions where resolutions are introduced and weighty issues discussed using

All positions in Alcoholics Anonymous are unpaid volunteer positions – and none of them have any power.


parliamentary procedure. But even in the rare event in which something passes, it doesn’t follow that the representatives who disagreed will pass the word down to their groups, that those groups will agree, or that groups that disagree will continue sending money to the national. The convention needs to develop a consensus to go along with the idea. If the representatives can’t jawbone their groups into agreement, the decision means nothing. The convention cannot punish groups that refuse to go along – because it has nothing to withhold. The groups have all the money and therefore all the power. One recalls the position of the states relative to the central government under the Articles of Confederation.

How did A.A. come to have, and retain, such an anarchistic flavor? Why did it adopt structures that kept the national governance of A.A. impoverished and subservient to the individual groups? Early in its history, some A.A. groups got involved in recovery hospitals and other businesses and amassed some money and property. Then came struggles over money and property, and the stress caused members to go off the wagon. The goal of A.A., which is to keep members spiritually centered and calm, was incompatible with the effort to run a business, make decisions about large amounts of money, and possess the power to do all that.

Many in A.A. think that alcoholics have a distinctive personality type marked by resistance to authority, stubbornness, and a desire for power. True or not, the traditions of A.A. prevent self-aggrandizement. Like our nation’s founding fathers, the founders of A.A. did not rely on the goodness of individuals. Instead, they built in checks and balances so that no individual could have power. Alcoholics in recovery can’t afford to put themselves in positions where problems of money, property, or prestige can imperil their sobriety. A.A. members often joke that while attending A.A. (recovery) meetings is essential to their sobriety, attending business meetings is the biggest threat to it. If those meetings involved real power or money they would indeed be a serious danger.

Just as the limited governance structures of A.A. prepared me to accept the libertarian view of good government, so the mechanisms of recovery prepared me to accept the notion that within the capitalist system pursuit of self-interest leads to the greater good. A.A. members learn that helping others helps them reinforce their own recovery process. The fact that it helps others if you attend meetings, tell your story, and work with newcomers is a plus – but it isn’t why you do it. You do it to help yourself stay sober. To people outside the fellowship, that sounds like pure selfishness, but it is the way things work – just as in the capitalist system, where maximizing profit means doing the best possible job serving your customer. And I learned this libertarian idea in A.A.

In A.A. I also learned the concept of tough love, of letting people learn from the results of their own choices. A.A.s call it “enabling” to help people keep on doing the wrong things without suffering the consequences. Pain is a necessary prerequisite for learning. I’ve heard libertarian economists call protecting markets and market actors from the downside outcomes of risk-taking “moral hazard.” (Thank you very much, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.) I learned in A.A. that people are ill-served by programs that shelter them from those consequences. This taught me the fundamental flaw in ill.any leftish proposals to “help” poor people. It’s not that we don’t care, but that it is counter-productive to “help” in the wrong way.

A closely related idea that A.A. taught me is that you cannot help people who don’t want to be helped or make a change in themselves. Some folks are determined in their pursuit of hell on earth. Other than periodically checking in to see whether they’ve had enough, there’s nothing anyone can do for them but let them suffer. Anything else you do will simply prolong their slide.

A.A. tradition recommends that to get sober you need a “sponsor.” You share your secrets with your sponsor, so he or she knows all your tricks. This is because a helper needs to have intimate knowledge of the person being helped in order to be effective – something a government social worker cannot replicate, let alone a set of national policies.

The we-must-have-a-government-program crowd seems to forget that A.A. (and N.A., Narcotics Anonymous) operate without any government subsidy – probably doing more good than the government-sponsored programs with which they compete. Since it’s perpetually broke, A.A. can’t give you much more than a cup of coffee (sometimes with cookies or cake). This lack of financial largesse serves wonderfully to focus newcomers on responsibility for their own lives. No one gets better until he stops trying to manipulate others to “enable” them. This taught me that more money doesn’t necessarily make everything better, especially in social programs.

Now for the story I promised you. The A.A. community in one town in which I lived had a longstanding controversy about financing its central office by running a recovery-oriented bookstore. One side said this was against the traditions; the other saw no harm in it. First one group would get the upper hand, then the other would get more of its people at the meeting and beat the first group back.

After one of these power seesaws, I got roped into being chairman and was saddled with the problem. I learned that the battle over the bookstore had been going on for more than a decade. But one of the A.A. traditions was the idea that “all important decisions be reached by discussion, vote, and, whenever possible, by substantial unanimity.” Well, that was a far cry from what had been happening.

The starting point in solving the problem was to present two honest, feasible proposals for the membership to consider. These proposals were embodied in a flyer and sent out with an invitation to a big meeting where the issue was supposed to be decided. I had determined that speakers would strictly alternate between sides of the issue and have as long a debate as needed. I brought coffee – it would be a long night.

The first to speak was a leader of the pro-bookstore side. Instead of making a speech he turned to me and said, “Do you mean we could actually make it without the bookstore?”

“Well, it wouldn’t be easy,” I replied, “but yes, it looks like we could manage. We’ll need more volunteers. We’ll have to get a bit more money from the groups, but we know that many are withholding donations because the bookstore is paying the bills.”

“In that case,” he says, “I think we ought to get rid of the bookstore. It’s been a source of trouble for years now. That must be why the traditions say we should not own any businesses, you know, because of the problems they cause.” Then he sat down. And no one else wanted to talk. So we voted. Selling off the bookstore passed with substantial unanimity. And it was over.

The entire A.A. community heaved a sigh of relief. The meetings became tolerable. Donations went up again. The number of volunteers rose to meet the need. And the bookstore went on under private ownership. Everyone was amazed at the outcome.

The thing that stunned me most was the fact that the key to resolving the issue was having a goal of substantial unanimity rather than the political goal of cobbling together a voting majority. The goal of consensus meant that we needed to listen to the concerns of both sides, that we shouldn’t focus just on getting enough votes for our side, but on what would meet the needs of the other side too. Here’s a big reason for limited government: just because one side or the other temporarily gets the upper hand doesn’t make that side right. And just because one side or the other can’t win control of the political apparatus doesn’t make that side wrong. There can be no peace as long as each side tries to dominate the other politically in order to force its way.

This event was probably the final nail in the coffin of my belief that winning political battles could ever be the key to winning the good life for me or my country. What you win through the political process in the government, you can lose by the same route. Important things should be outside the political process and not subject to the political winds. If an issue is really important, we should be free to decide it for ourselves. And because a lot of things are important, the more things that are outside the political process, the better. The way to benefit our country, and ourselves, would be to limit government power and influence over as much of the economy, the schools, the environment, and our lives as possible. As I said, A.A. taught me to be a libertarian.

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