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Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival, by Butler D. Shaffer

"When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." I've been fortunate enough to have a few excellent teachers appear in my life when I've been at an important crux; and now I'm pleased to add Butler Shaffer to that very short list. A long-time fan of his essays at, I approached Shaffer's book Calculated Chaos with the expectation that I would be in for more of the same, that is to say, a clear exposition of ideas relating to the challenges facing liberty-loving individuals.

I was right, but I was also very wrong. Calculated Chaos is indeed a marvel of clear, deep communicating of many important ideas. Despite Dickensian-length sentences, Shaffer presents his ideas very clearly, and without an abundance of jargon or otherwise dense prose. It requires only attentive reading to extract much of value; if one wishes to devote more time to reading, digesting, and thinking about what Shaffer's saying, I daresay one will be much more richly rewarded. (I'm looking forward to those rewards with another reading, without the pressure of a deadline or the necessity to interrupt my reading at ill-suited intervals.)

I was wrong in that I underestimated the power of this relatively thin volume (322 pages, plus excellent footnotes). A republication of the 1985 book, the subtitle -- Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival -- says more about its contents, but still isn't sufficient to convey the richness within. As one who folds corners and otherwise marks books to help find the really juicy parts again, I found myself with so many folded corners as to render my markings relatively useless. Similarly, trying to extract quotations that give an accurate overall impression is difficult. Without explicitly hoisting the flag of anarchy, Shaffer nonetheless extols its virtues in ways that can resonate more strongly than the symbol does, and to a wider audience than if he'd used that "dreaded A word". On page 96, he summarizes the problem many who want to help make the world a better place recognize:

If peace, cooperation, order, love, and mutual respect are important to us, our established practices are terribly ineffective.
Why are they ineffective? A previous snippet summarizes well the full message of Calculated Chaos (pp. 46-47):
In our carefully nourished innocence, we believe that institutions exist for the purposes they have taught us, namely, to provide us with goods and services, protection, security, and order. But in fact, institutions exist for no other purpose than their self-perpetuation, an objective requiring a continuing demand for their services. .... If institutions are to sustain themselves and grow, they require an escalation of the problems that will cause us to turn to them for solutions. .... Unless one is aware of the symbiotic relationships between mutual enemies, between problem solvers and their problems, one's understanding of institutional behavior is bound to be superficial.

In developing his thesis, Shaffer examines both the institutions that he pinpoints as responsible for much of the violence and unhappiness in the world, and individuals who have allowed them to wreak so much havoc upon ourselves and our dealings with others:

If we wish to understand the nature of political institutions, we must be able to observe them with minds that are willing to abandon many of their most cherished illusions. In so doing, we will discover that we have been sanctioning the greatest of irrationalities: placing our lives and well-being at the disposal of men and women with appetites for power over other people, and who amuse themselves and gratify their egos while others suffer and die. .... The political State represents nothing more than the institutionalization of unprincipled power and naked force. Though we delude ourselves with trying to measure differences between fascism and communism, democracies and dictatorships, conservatism and liberalism, moderates and extremists, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, the fact remains that every form of government is a police-State, every political system is tyrannical. (pp. 117-118, emphasis in original)

If institutions and our continued enabling and feeding of their rapacious appetites is the problem (and I agree with Shaffer that it is), what is the solution? Well, isn't how one answers that the essence of the pro-freedom activism problem? Libertarian Party activists exhort us to vote in freedom, while non-voters scoff at using a tool of the state to free ourselves. Minarchists of varying stripes call for scaling back the state in equally varying ways, but implicitly allow by so doing that the institution is worth saving. Anarchists argue over whether we can bring about liberty by working together, as Rothbard advanced, or whether individual action is the only genuine means to true liberty. Carl Watner addresses this issue in an excellent Voluntaryist article, Does Freedom Need to be Organized?. Shaffer would seem to agree with Watner, who answers that question with a clear "No". There's much more to this issue, but I'll leave it for the interested reader to pursue when he or she is ready for Shaffer's masterful teaching.

Calculated Chaos offers much to think about, and as I've said, I've not yet had the luxury of time to devote to that thinking. I expect visitors here and to my blog will see results of that effort trickle out in various ways. I'm not sure that I completely agree with Shaffer in some areas, most notably on pragmatism. While at one level, unprincipled pragmatism -- and especially institutionalized pragmatism -- isn't a good approach to solving problems, at other levels that analysis fails. After all, evolution is a process driven by pragmatism: what works survives, and what doesn't either changes or dies. Thus, to entirely eschew pragmatic perspectives seems perilous.

Despite being twenty years old, Calculated Chaos is not dated in any way, save for the lack of recent examples of institutional buffoonery. If anything, that helps focus the reader on the essentials of the problem rather than current particulars. For those pro-freedom individuals who retain hope for state-based solutions to society's problems, Shaffer's insightful offerings, peppered with amusing stories (my favorite being the Pringles one) may be the best chance of an enlightening. For anarchists who wrestle with the issue of "how to get there from here", Shaffer points a way that may not be to one's liking, but ultimately is the only way, in my view, to get to a genuinely free society. Will we get there? I don't know. I don't expect to see it in my lifetime ... but that doesn't stop me from taking my own, individual steps toward bringing it closer.

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