The Ant in Us

Published on 20th December 2005

Ants are a good analogy for free people. This seems outrageous on the surface – after all, ants are mostly drones, and don’t seem to have anything resembling free will – but from the perspective of an outsider, a free society has many of the characteristics of an ant colony. If you and I were allowed to behave as freely as we usually allow ants to behave (at least when they’re not in our kitchens), progress towards human peace and prosperity would be accelerated dramatically.

If you leave something ants want on your kitchen counter, they’ll find it. Ants swarm over whatever they like, and carry it back to their colonies, one micro- tidbit at a time. They have a sophisticated tracking technique: Ants leave their own trails of slimy scent. This allows them to leave the nest and travel distances that are vast, on their scale, and always find their way home. More threatening to our kitchens, when an ant finds something of value, it carries a piece of it home; more significantly, it leaves a special sort of scent trail. Other ants are keen to the signal, which explains why you might find a major infestation within an hour of leaving a piece of cut fruit on the kitchen counter. Ants rove far from the colony constantly; so, if there’s a useful morsel within a certain radius of home, they’ll find it. 

Entrepreneurs are everywhere in free societies, and constantly combing the ground looking for opportunities. Unlike ants, entrepreneurs would prefer to keep the information to themselves when they find a succulent opportunity – a market for their invention or service – but the market doesn’t keep the information to itself when it finds something it likes. The ant-like swarm of customers to an exceptional offering is a message in itself, and other entrepreneurs pick up this signal and set to work, creating their own swarm. Once the dust has settled, entrepreneurs in this market are back to the 10-15% normal profit that an efficient producer can realize over the long term, and customers enjoy greater selection and lower price. The customer ant-bed and the entrepreneur ant-bed feed off each other, and everyone’s better off.

This has implications for national security. Stick your finger into an ant hill, and you’ll learn that the ants do an admirable job of defending themselves. Again, they don’t really have free will, and they aren’t acting as a result of superior intelligence. Regardless of how it happens, beings with superior capacities, such as cattle and people, avoid stepping in ant beds (never mind beehives). Nations are in a sense the equivalent of ant beds, but of a special kind: Most of us must apply for permits to defend themselves and their colonies, and are never allowed to stray beyond their borders to defend their homes against invaders. Only the Government Ants can do this. After long enough, most of these ants lose the capacity to defend the colony.

The analogy gets a little strained at this level, but the outsider still sees ants: Allow the private production of regional and national defense; erase laws that prevent civilians from defending themselves both individually and cooperatively, and outsiders would learn quickly not to step in our ant bed. Insurance companies, entrepreneurial mercenaries would find and attack the real culprits behind such crimes as September 11, (though in a fully free society such events as September 11 would be far less likely in the first place). The prospect of preventing billions in insured losses would be enough to motivate and direct free people and their agents to defend themselves successfully.

While it doesn’t sound flattering to compare people to ants, the point is not the view from the inside. Ants are mindless, and as individuals they are without will. The point is the view from the outside, and it is the outright inevitability of the ant bed getting what it wants that we see from the outside, and this is what terrorists and everyone else would see from the outside of our society – if we were a fully free people. 


Brad Edmonds writes from Alabama.

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