Having taken a break from the libertarian internets, no sooner have I properly come back to the fray than I’ve inadvertently, well, deliberately in fact, found myself once more debating the difference between minarchy and anarcho-capitalist approaches with the fine bunch of chaps at the UK Libertarian Forums. And feeling a little sense of deja vu, since an extensive and exhausting argument about just the same thing over at Samizdata was one of the things that made me want to take a break from things.
For anyone reading this who isn’t entirely au fait with the glorious philosophical differences within libertarian “thought”, minarchy and anarcho-capitalism are the two basic ideological approaches; a minarchist wants a state, but a small, tightly restricted one with very few responsibilities. Anarcho-capitalists think that’s ideologically cowardly, and the only logical position is to abolish the state altogether. They then propose that a voluntary system of law enforcement, courts etc either will arise or should arise (these are two quite different things but it’s not often clear which is being suggested) in the anarchy. Anarchists tend to accuse minarchists of being crypto-statists, or confused, or too cowardly to let go of nanny’s apron strings. Minarchists tend to accuse anarchists of being utopians or hopeless extremists. And ne’er the twain shall meet; which isn’t so different to any other political movement in fact, just as on the left you have purist communists and social democrats, or there are hardline tories and “wets”.
Minarchist arguments against anarchism tend towards a few themes; either that the anarcho-capitalist system will not arise, or if it does it will collapse into something else, or it’s internally logically inconsistent. But I’ve spent a lot of time discussing this thing off and on, and always with the niggling feeling that I’ve not made the right arguments because I’ve been missing something, and just yesterday I think I figured out what that thing is. As a general rule, as it goes, I always feel that one error we all often fall into is not getting the right answer because we aren’t asking the right question, even though we think we are. And I think that’s the case here.
So, let’s declare a starting point. Why are we libertarians? The straight answer here is that- as portrayed by the name of our movement- we prefer liberty. And what is liberty? It is freedom from coercion. A libertarian thinks it is nobody else’s business, least of all that of the State, if he wishes to buy a beer at 3am, or watch Zombie Flesh Mauler Island on his home TV and so on. He resents government inspectors poking around in his rubbish bin. He wants to be left alone to do as he wishes, so long as he does not infringe on somebody else’s liberty. In other words, we have the basic libertarian “non-aggression principle”; that you may do what you wish so long as you do not aggress against somebody else; and the same for everybody else. So the basic libertarian question is, or at least should be, what kind of society will give us all the most liberty? So to state that clearly again, the libertarian is seeking to answer the question-
What type of society will embody that principle that no man may initiate force against another?
Now when we look at the world we live in, we see immediately that it is the State that takes our liberty away by initiating force against us. It is the state which passes the laws which bind us, which expropriates our property via taxes, which “regulates” business for selfish ends, which imposes a police force to oppress us, and which declares wars and conscripts us into armies to fight them. And we say to other people when explaining liberty (and I myself often make this type of point), “the private sector can only try to sell you things. It can’t force you to buy goods and services you don’t want like the State can. It cannot force you into an army like the State can. It cannot take your property and your liberty and incarcerate you or kill you like the State can”. In other words, in our society, the State is synonymous with coercion. Ergo to reduce coercion, you must reduce the state. And ergo, the anarcho-capitalist says, it is only logical that you can reduce coercion to zero by reducing the State to zero. What other logical strategy is there? But at this point we must note something important that we have just accepted without (so far) discussion- that is, that in our current society, the State claims a monopoly on force. It is the only structure we inititates force, because it uses its own force to prevent anyone else doing so. It thus deliberately makes itself the only suppressor of liberty.
Now for a moment, let’s digress into the anarcho-capitalist system as presented (and we will for the rest of this article presume that it is viable; i.e that it will arise, and will be stable. Both are questionable assumptions, but we will accept them). One of the problems I’ve had discussing this with anarcho-capitalists is that there are many formulations- about as many as there are anarcho-capitalists in fact- and they tend to slide slyly from one to another in mid discussion, and trying to pin down what they’re specifically advocating at any moment is like trying to wrestle Proteus. So let’s look at the main ideas.
The anarcho-capitalist system is based on abolishing the perceived need for State law (the most basic function of the State from a minarchist point of view) and showing that it can be provided by private individuals and organisations. There seem to be two main methodologies which are not apparently compatible but somehow often exist simultaneously in an-cap theory. The first of these is propertarian. In this methodology, property owners make the laws. When you walk onto their land, you are assumed to be accepting a contract to obey their laws. So for instance, you go to a pub, and the landlady owns the land, and there is a list of laws on the wall as you walk in. And it might say “He who barfs in the urinals shall be hanged by the neck until dead” and by walking in, you’ve accepted that, so if you barf in the bogs it’s curtains for you.
The second formulation attaches laws to individuals. It is, er, individualitarian or something. In this formulation, people purchase legal services, including the laws they themselves live under, from third party providers; there are free market courts, and free market “private defence agencies”, which are private police forces. So in this system I might choose to buy a set of laws similar to mediaeval canon law, and you might choose to live under something concocted from the elven system described in The Silmarillion, or under Sharia law, or the Law of the Sea, arrr. Now there appear to be all sorts of problems with this, when some interaction is considered lawful by one individual but not another, and whether I can carry my law into that pub, when that already has its own laws, but we won’t get into all that here because it’s not the point of the article. We’re going to be very kind and presume that somehow this system cobbles together and works (defining the word “works” here as, “doesn’t fail entirely”); the normally proposed an-cap “glue” that makes it work is yet more third party courts who arbitrate between the other courts, and courts that arbitrate between those courts, in a dizzying legalistic spiral. (As an aside, whenever I read Rothbard talking about this kind of thing, I find myself visualising a society in which everybody spends their whole time trundling from court to court, with occasional breaks for food and sleep; it’s a very American lawyered-up kind of vision for society).
But it’s at this point that, if we stand back, we realise that the anarcho-capitalists have played a sly trick on us (and, perhaps, on themselves too). We started off asking what society would provide the least coercion. We then noted that the power to coerce is a monopoly of the State. So, by confining the State, we confine coercion. The more we confine the State, the less coercion there is; it is as if coercive power is some violent beast, and we put it in a cage of constitutional limitations. But the anarcho-capitalist isn’t asking that question any more. They are now asking the question-
How can the private sector provide what the State previously provided?
And the product that the State was providing was coercion itself! We started off asking how to rid ourselves, as much as possible, of the whole panoply of arbitrary laws, and courts and police to enforce those arbitrary laws and so on, and the answer the anarcho-capitalist has come back with is, “don’t worry, under my system there will be arbitrary laws and courts and police in abundance!” Our quest for liberty has entirely disappeared, replaced with the search for how to restrict liberty in the absence of a state!
It is as if some group of radical feminists were to say, “what can we do about wife beating?” and then they say, “only men beat wives” and then say, “so let’s kill all the men”. Well, that’s extreme, but it’s a rational course. But then the anarcho-capitalist sits in the corner writing a complex system of how beating of women can still be provided in the absence of men, by a system of beating agencies and so on, in order to prove that the effects of men can exist in the absence of men. We’re off the rails entirely.
So here’s the thing. If we want those things we like to call “natural” rights protected, we need some laws- against those standard things muder, assault, theft, rape and fraud. But we wanted to ensure that there weren’t loads more laws against buying beer at some time of day, or playing cricket on sunday morning, or other trifling nonsense. But the anarcho-capitalist system is actually predicated on our post-statist society being able to produce laws of any kind. If it is correct, it actually just proves that anarchy will not be liberty- in fact, as one of my an-cap debating pals said, it’ll just provide whatever laws are on the market and (and he didn’t say this, but it naturally follows) if there’s no law against rape but there is a law against smoking dope in your property area, or from your private law provider, or somebody else’s or whatever well, tough titties.
The anarcho-capitalist idea started as an attempt to prove that everything the State currently does can be done privately. But it misses the point that everything outside of law is non-coercive, whereas law is inherently coercive. The private sector can provide healthcare, or “utilities”, or banking, or whatever. No problem. But law is, by its nature, coercion. We want coercion in some areas (murder, rape, theft etc) but we want to restrain it from leaking into all those other areas it has leaked into, which is why the minarchist seeks to restrain the coercion beast in a cage. The anarcho-capitalist sets out to prove- and succeeds (in his own mind at least)- that the private sector will provide any number of coercion beasts, roaming free and preying on the public at large.
So, the State is currently our only enemy precisely because it is the monopolist. Take away the monopoly and replace it with anarcho-capitalism, and, literally, everybody else- for everyone is now free to be a coercion beast- becomes the enemy. Anarcho-capitalism may be a viable system. It may even exist one day, somewhere. But it turns out that it is not a libertarian system at all. It does not answer our initial question regarding liberty and, crucially, it doesn’t even try to. It is simply a proof that all the bad things that are currently done only by the State- in particular the curtailment of liberty- will exist even when the State is eradicated.
And thus strangely, we have found that, rather than anarcho-capitalism being the natural goal of libertarianism, it is actually opposed to libertarianism. It seems we must choose between one and the other.
Afore I go, one possible objection I can pre-empt is that some formulations of anarcho-capitalism appeal to “voluntary law”. This tends to be a bit of a slogan, but when asked for specifics, it is suggested that there will be a law without coercion. I’m not sure how widespread this meme is in the an-cap community, but certainly some seem to appeal to it when it suits their argument. Under this idea, nobody is ever arrested, or forced to go to court, and so on. This seems a trifle implausible. The answer given as to why anybody would ever bother going to court is that they would do so to “clear their name”. This doesn’t seem to be much of an inducement to guilty people to attend court. There’s not much point trying to clear your name if they’ve already found the six teenage girls buried under your patio. The secondary inducement then is that anyone not playing ball with the private courts would be publicly identified and then the rest of society will shun them, and refuse to trade with them, and they will starve to death.
This doesn’t seem very plausible to me either, for several reasons. Firstly, what gives the court the right to ruin a non-convicted man’s life by publicly identifying him? Oh wait, that doesn’t matter, because nobody has any rights any more. The bigger question is whether Mr Patel in my local shop can memorise millions of mugshots in order to make sure he doesn’t sell a known criminal a crate of alcopops and a pack of Rich Tea, or what would prevent anyone in a society of billions of souls, without identity documents of any kind, from simply growing a lush moustache, assuming a new name, and starting over. The last point of course is whether society en masse will boycott the criminals anyway. Al Capone was known to be a mobster and the Krays were known to be mobsters long before being convicted of anything but didn’t suffer much in the way of shunning. Indeed, so far as history tells, being a known gangster was at least in decades past about the best way to pull a third-rate starlet and become a society figure.
So anyway, the prior argument is based on anarcho-capitalist law agencies arresting people, and forcibly trying and punishing them, on the basis that politely asking Mad Axeman Frankie MacPsycho to turn up and face the music like a man has only a remote chance of being greeted with anything other than ridicule.