Putting anarchy to the test

Most libertarians believe that we should have a small government, which is limited to core activities of law & order, some public goods, and perhaps a dash of welfare. Minarchists remove the public goods & welfare from their list. But a small minority of libertarians go further and want to privatise law & order. These are the anarchists.

Anarchy does not mean chaos. Anarchy is the lack of a government. Chaos is when people run around burning cars (Paris) and throwing rocks (Bangkok).

Non-anarchists object that anarchy is not viable, as only the government can provide sufficient law & order. Anarchists respond with a bunch of theories for how a society could coordinate its security requirements without government. The argument is interesting, but mostly theoretical.

We need to put anarchy to the test.

There are several examples we could use. David Friedman likes to talk about Iceland around 1000AD, which maintained a governmentless and relatively peaceful existence for a few centuries. Others like to mention the recent trails & tribulations of Somaliland (north Somalia), which has seen some advances and some setbacks over their past three decades of weak (or no) government.

But one of the best places to look for evidence on anarchy is the American west. In the mid 19th century American settlers were building communities outside the reach of the American government in what came to be known as the “wild west”. But as Anderson & Hill pointed out back in 1979, the pseudo-anarchist west was not so wild.

Their conclusions are:

1) The West, although often dependent upon market peace keeping agencies, was, for the most part, orderly.

2) Different standards of justice did prevail and various preferences for rules were expressed through the market place.

3) Competition in defending and adjudicating rights does have beneficial effects. Market agencies provided useful ways of measuring the efficiency of government alternatives. The fact that government’s monopoly on coercion was not taken as seriously as at present meant that when that monopoly was poorly used market alternatives arose. Even when these market alternatives did become “governments” in the sense of having a virtual monopoly on coercion, the fact that such firms were usually quite small provided significant checks on their behaviour. Clients could leave or originate protective agencies on their own. Without formal legal sanctions, the private agencies did face a “market test” and the rate of survival of such agencies was much less than under government.

13 thoughts on “Putting anarchy to the test

  1. There was also the fact that they were agrarian communities spread far apart that may have helped them.

    A form of semi privatization may be a good reform for the important sections of the judiciary/policing to be elected.

    I always found the difference between here and the US striking in terms of policing. Report a car stolen here and they don’t give a toss. You don’t get the same shoddy service in the American burbs where the local head cop is elected to the position.

    You also find that cops do a lot of security work by driving up and down streets checking out what’s happening around homes etc. the responsiveness is far better. Cops in Australia are too far removed from the people they are supposed to serve.

    crime victims are also listened to by the prosecutor there.

  2. Ultimately the wild west (or the peaceful west if you prefer) failed as a political system because it permitted government to invade from the east (and to emerge locally). Perhaps it would have faired better if there were some sizable natural barriers but I still think the rein of anarchy in the wild west was always destined to fall.

    Besides the Indians had systems of government long before the europeans turned up so the extent to which there was ever a pure anarchy is questionable. Mostly there was just a lack of highly centralised authority so the minimalists could also claim the wild west as their own.

    I don’t think anarchy leads to chaos (necessarily) and that has never been my objection to it. My objection to anarchy is that it is not a stable political state of affairs. That it leads to government and not necessarily the small just variety. That is what history shows us. Of course the counter point is that history also shows us that a small just governments lead to big government also, so I’m actually just riding on a hunch. I don’t think history has two many parallel situations which conclusively demonstrate the best way to innoculate society against big government. I think a revered document called a constitution has shown some merit but perhaps I place too much faith in that approach. I’m open to hearing alternatives.

    In the interum I hope the anarchists will work with us minimalists to push back the state. We need all the muscle that can be mustered especially now that there are no practical frontiers that we can escape to (Mars anyone?).

    I should also be clear in that I don’t see the track record of central government as entirely bad. The creation of central government in places such as Japan and the USA (and arguably more recently the EU) brought a common currency and greater trade between regions. In antiquity the Romans did the same exporting a system of good governance across Europe (later less impressively they exported Christianity). The bad of central government may perhaps out weigh the good, however that does not mean that there is no good.

  3. Terje — in the long run every political system is changed and every country has been invaded.

    Anyway, the point is that private security systems emerged, which indicates that the government is not necessary for security.

    And I question your interpretation of history re: the benefits of centralisation. Just on the Roman example, there is a strong argument that the Britons were developing quickly as they traded with the Romans (and others) and that the Roman invasion of Briton did nothing to further their advance. That would indicate that the political union of areas is not necessary for their economic development… though economic development can lead to political unions.

    The States in America were also developing strongly before central government. And Europe was already rich before the EU came along. Australia was the richest “country” in the world before our federation.

  4. I read in the paper today that UK is going to be ‘allowed’ to keep its’ Imperial measures. Brussels had been trying to metricate them, but has conceded defeat (defeet? One loss would be a defoot?). Localism wins!

  5. John – I’d agree that on balance the benefits of political union between an anarchy and a state are probably nowhere to be found for the anarchy. However when conquest means the displacement of overtaxing governments and/or the replacement of trade barriers it may have a positive impact. There is an argument that the Romans were so good at conquest not merely because of good armies but also because locals could sometimes see merit in the existing government being replaced by Roman government (and lower taxes). Any anarchists living in between were merely collateral damage. Temujin may understand. 😉

  6. “But a small minority of libertarians go further and want to privatise law & order. These are the anarchists.”

    That’s wrong, unless there is some part of libertarian theory that says an anarchist can’t be a libertarian unless he is in favour of law and order as such (it also doesn’t define “privatise” – for some people, that just means institutionalise in a corporate way). But it’s quite possible to be an anarchist without wanting those, either in their own right or as means to ends, but instead having other goals pursued in other ways. For instance, an anarchist who favoured a solitary lifestyle would only ever come together with others from time to time for specific reasons in an almost ad hoc way, and would want those interactions maintained on some other basis. Eric Frank Russell’s “And then there were none” describes an anarchist society with no law and only occasional emergent order (the point here is not to address its viability but whether it is conceivable that there should be no law and order, with people not wanting them).

  7. PML — I don’t think you understand the word “privatise”. It does not imply that all people need to buy the thing being sold. It just says that the thing in question will not be provided by the government.

    If there was no demand for a service, then the market would not provide it. So if we get to a position where nobody wants “security services” then the market will not produce it.

    Personally I think that such an outcome is quite utopian and unlikely… but irrespective of whether it is viable or not, it is included in the definition I used.

  8. John Humphreys, I think you don’t understand what I wrote.

    I am asserting that it is quite possible to be an anarchist and not be in favour of “law and order” as such at all, whether provided by government or no. Such an anarchist – and at a philosophical level I am one such – is after certain things that “law and order” are supposed to provide, but no more thinks that they are inherently necessary means to those ends than he thinks governments are.

  9. Prime Minister Lawrence, you should have pointed out that the story also had the world not using money, but relying on personal honour and memory of obligations, which were traded amongst themselves. I think that some people might have traded their muscles for security, as part of an agreed swap. I always wondered- what happened to the old people on such a world? Those who couldn’t remember how much they were owed?

  10. PML — I never said that an anarchist had to support “law and order”, so you’re disagreeing with a straw man.

    Saying something should be privatised does not mean that the same thing should continue to exist. The private horse & buggy industry died out when it wasn’t needed. The private law & order industry will die out if/when it is not needed.

    I suspect that there would continue to be some demand for security services. But that’s just a guess, and my guesses about the future aren’t relevant to the nature of the anarchist political philosophy. There is no prescribing exactly what goods & services would exist in an anarchy.

  11. Nicholas Gray, you’re taking the illustration too far. I wasn’t putting it forward as some kind of model or display of anarchist proposals, but as a concrete case of someone (the author) coming up with a scenario that didn’t have law and order going on in a society.

    John Humphreys, with respect, please follow my posts back to what I originally stated. I was pointing out that, unless there is something within libertarianism that defines law and order in, so that anarchists who don’t believe in it are ipso facto not anarchist libertarians, there was an error in your formulation. Without some test like that, you could quite easily get anarchist libertarians who did not “want to privatise law & order”, because they do not want law and order at all, let alone privatised.

    So, while it is quite true that “privatised” law and order as you describe it could well pass away, or be summoned into being by demand in a free market, that is quite irrelevant to the question of what an anarchist is in himself and is after as an objective. It has as little to do with it as whether an anarchist is conceding a statist position if he recognises that states and governments actually do exist. Indeed, the anarchist might well fear that “privatised law and order” of that sort is like being a little bit pregnant, or only buying a Rottweiler puppy – that it would open the way to institutions with entrenched power bases and captive “markets”, that the whole idea of privatised enforcement services provided to distinct customers by distinct providers is incompatible with free activity. That is, it would be impossible in the sense that a snowball in hell is, with its circumstances and situation changing so rapidly that its actual existence would be insignificant.

    So I’m not disagreeing with a straw man. Plainly and simply, I’m disagreeing with something you wrote, that “…a small minority of libertarians go further and want to privatise law & order. These are the anarchists.” (with the caveat that you may have something in mind from the libertarian end that makes it true as a tautology, by definition). It is certainly not true of all anarchists, even of some who I might describe as libertarian.

  12. Some days I quite enjoy the ability that people here exhibit in splitting hairs right down the middle. It requires great dexterity both for the author and the reader.

Comments are closed.