Liberty Matters

Two Cheers for Pessimism


Roderick Long has, unsurprisingly, produced a terrific little essay on the life and thought of Gustave de Molinari. From it, readers can get a rich sense of the breadth, sophistication, and audacity of Molinari's thought. To be an anarchist of any stripe in the mid-19th century was a sign of tremendous intellectual independence and political courage. But what set Molinari apart from other anarchists, and secured for him a permanent position of honor in the history of libertarian thought, was his willingness and ability to go beyond a merely negative criticism of the state, and to provide real positive detail about the likely functioning of a stateless society. It was an ingenious insight, all the more so for being the kind of genius that appears obvious and inevitable in hindsight. If market competition is the most effective means for providing commodities like corn and linen, then why shouldn't the same commonly accepted economic logic be applied to the traditional security-providing functions of the state?
In 1849, Molinari saw no reason why it shouldn't. Fifty years later, however, he had changed his mind, reverting to the position that a single agency (the state) ought to have a monopoly on defensive services within a geographical area and that competition ought to be restricted to operating between states, not within them.[1] Long attributes Molinari’s apostasy to his falling sway (improperly, in Long’s view) to the influence of public-good type objections. David Hart, on the other hand, attributes it to a pessimistic spirit that Molinari seemed to develop in his later years.[2]
"we cannot choose but admit the right of the citizen to adopt a condition of voluntary outlawry. If every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man, then he is free to drop connection with the state—to relinquish its protection, and to refuse paying towards its support."
Interestingly, this same “pessimism” has also been suggested as the explanation for another well-known 19th-century libertarian’s retreat from anarchism. In 1851, Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics put forth a vision of a stateless society as a moral ideal. In this ideal, “states,” or something like them, might continue to exist, but individuals would have the “right to ignore” them for any reason they chose, meaning that states would simply be one among many possible forms of voluntary organization.[3]
Spencer never exactly repudiated this anarchistic ideal. He did pull the chapter on the right to ignore the state from the 1892 revised edition of Social Statics, along with some other material, including a defense of women’s suffrage and a provocative argument against the legitimacy of private property in land. But, as George Smith correctly argues,[4] this change is best explained by a shift in Spencer’s belief about the likely timing of a stateless society, not its desirability as an ultimate goal. Even in the original edition of Social Statics, Spencer was careful to note that the practicability of his moral principles “varies directly as social morality” and that attempting to apply it in a society of men whose moral character was not yet sufficiently developed would be productive of “anarchy” – a term he used, presumably, in a pejorative sense.
"I had come to see that institutions are dependent on character; and, however changed in their superficial aspects, cannot be changed in their essential natures faster than character changes. It had become manifest to me that men are rational beings in but a very limited sense"
What changed for Spencer was his belief that human character would be ready for anarchism any time in the foreseeably near future. By 1899, when he wrote his Autobiography,[5] Spencer had come to doubt that men would be ready any time soon for the kind of freedom he had advocated as a young man. Human beings, he now believed, were governed primarily by their emotions and desires and were rational only “in a very limited sense.”[6] Social and political institutions were even more dependent on character than he had previously thought. And the character of human beings wasn’t progressively evolving, as he had once hoped and thought it would, in a way that would allow for peaceful and rational social cooperation among all human beings. Rather, he wrote in one of the 1896 concluding chapters of his Principles of Sociology, “The baser instincts, which dominated during the long ages of savage warfare, are being invigorated by revived militancy.”[7] The consequences of this development were hard to predict with any accuracy, but Spencer’s outlook at the dawn of the 20th century was decidedly (and prophetically) grim.
I think an examination of Spencer’s pessimism sheds important light on Molinari’s own move away from anarchism, and puts into sharp relief hard questions with which any contemporary advocate of market anarchism must deal. Molinari embraced a theory of human social and moral evolution not unlike Spencer’s, including the important idea that human societies were evolving out of a stage in which militancy and hierarchy were appropriate, to one in which peaceful commercial relations would dominate.[8] And though he doesn’t say so explicitly, it seems reasonable to infer that Molinari shared Spencer’s belief that a stateless society was not a timeless ideal, but one appropriate only to a particularly advanced stage of human moral evolution.
Once that stage had been reached and the state had been abolished, Molinari, like his contemporary market-anarchist followers, believed that violent conflict among producers of security would be rare.
Under the rule of free competition, war between the producers of security entirely loses its justification.… Just as war is the natural consequence of monopoly, peace is the natural consequence of liberty.[9]
Contemporary market anarchists generally make the same point by noting that violence is expensive.[10] If your security firm is frequently getting into violent conflicts with other firms, then you’re going to have to pay for more guns, more funerals, and higher wages to compensate your employees for their increased risk. Because violence is expensive, rational firms will have a strong incentive to avoid these costs by resolving their disputes peacefully, probably through some form of prearranged binding arbitration. Firms that must bear the costs of violence themselves are less likely to resort to it than governments that can coercively impose those costs on their citizens, and so we have good reason to believe that an anarchist society will generally be a more peaceful one than a society governed by a state.
In general, I think there is a lot to be said for this form of argument. Rational customers will not buy cars that blow up when they are involved in minor fender-benders, and so rational, profit-maximizing firms will tend not to produce such cars. Usually.[11] But is there something special about the market for security? The argument that market anarchism will not produce excessive violence, like the argument that automobile markets will not produce exploding cars, depends on an assumption that consumers and producers will generally act rationally. When it comes to automobiles, that assumption is probably close enough to correct to generate the right outcome, most of the time. But is there something special about violence?
In what follows, I want to argue that there is something different about violence – actually that there are three important differences --and that this fact significantly weakens the case for the young Molinari’s claim that an anarchist society will be a peaceful one. The young Molinari’s belief, I will argue, depends on an overly optimistic view of human nature that the later Molinari and the later Spencer were correct to reject. When it comes to violence, we have good reason to expect bad things from human beings. A certain amount of pessimism is thus a perfectly rational response to the limited potential of humanity’s crooked timber.
The first point I offer in support of this claim has to do with the alleged costliness of violence. It is true enough that most people, most of the time, regard engaging in violence as a costly and undesirable activity. But there are at least some circumstances where people seem to regard violence as a positive benefit – a kind of consumption good, as it were. Consider, to take only two very recent historical examples, the kind of brutal ethnic conflict that took place in Central Africa between roughly 1960 and 1994, or between the Serbs and the Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s. Did the Hutus who hacked their Tutsi neighbors to death with machetes really consider those violent acts a cost? A burden to be borne, grudgingly, for the sake of some offsetting hedonic benefit? On the contrary, it seems much more plausible to say that, for them, the violence was a constitutive part of the hedonic benefit -- not an obstacle standing between them and their goal but part of the goal itself. And I suspect that the same is true of much of the violence involved in primitive tribal conflict, the Christian Crusades, and contemporary street-level gang violence. It is no doubt true that some of this violence served an instrumental purpose. But there’s nothing incoherent about violence being both instrumentally and intrinsically gratifying, and I suspect that this is the best way of understanding the motivation of at least many of the perpetrators of these types of violence.
Second, even when violence is regarded as a cost, it is not always one that we can count on individuals to rationally weigh against expected benefits in determining their best course of action. Whatever one might think about the rational-actor model of humanity in general, it is a model into which much real-world violence can be fit only by pushing very, very hard. Take, for example, any episode of the once popular reality show Cops. Is the husband who gets drunk and beats up his wife for the third time this year rationally weighing the costs and benefits of his behavior? Is the meth-head who – while in handcuffs – tries to pick a fight with his arresting officer? These examples are cheeky, I admit. But the lesson is real. We know from our study of the brain that aggressive impulses are correlated with a very different and much more primitive region than that responsible for rational calculation. So when we see on Cops that people often make strikingly irrational decisions about violence, or for that matter when we see on Teen Mom that people often make strikingly irrational decisions about sex, we should not be surprised. 
The third and final point has to do with the effects of people’s decision to use violence. By way of contrast, suppose that people make irrational decisions about what car to buy, and so end up purchasing vehicles that they later come to regret (because they break down, get poor gas mileage, or whatever). For the most part, the negative effects of their bad decision are internalized, and any external effects are relatively trivial. By contrast, the negative effects of decisions about the use of violence are largely externalized and can be devastating. Adam Lanza is only the most recent and tragic case in point. As a result, society has a much greater interest in preventing people from making bad decisions about violence than we do in preventing them from making bad decisions about cars.
These brief considerations do not, of course, settle the issue of whether some form of state is preferable to anarchy, all things considered. If the arguments I have presented are sound, then what they show is that an anarchist society will not be as peaceful, and hence will not be as desirable, as Molinari predicts. But it is possible, of course, that state-based societies might be even worse. If, after all, people are irrational and prone to violence, then this will be true of those who hold the reins of state power as well, and allowing such individuals access to the concentrated and monopolistic power of the state might very well magnify the damage they can do.
It is natural for the state-produced horrors of the 20th century to dominate our thinking about such matters. But we should resist the temptation of historical myopia. Stephen Pinker has argued persuasively[12] that even taking the hemoclysms of the first half of the 20th century into account, the world today is a much safer, much more peaceful place than it has ever been before. And a substantial portion of the credit for that fact, on his analysis, goes to the development of the modern state. In absolute terms, to be sure, more people die violent deaths in state-based societies than in stateless ones. But that’s largely because there are more people around to be killed today than there were in our anarchistic past. In relative terms, one’s chances of dying a violent death in a state-based society are significantly lower than in a stateless one – somewhere between 6-25 percent as low, to be precise.[13] Anarchist societies may not have had nuclear bombs or concentration camps, but the constant raids, skirmishes, and low-level conflicts took a heavy cumulative toll. 
Of course, the emergence of states isn’t the only reason for the decline of violence over time. The development of commerce no doubt played a major role as well, by transforming human interaction from a largely zero-sum game into a largely positive-sum one. And one can, if one looks hard enough, come up with a few examples[14] of anarchist societies that were not so violent after all. But I suspect that most thinkers attracted to anarchism as a normative political ideal are not actually driven by a careful examination of the relevant empirical data. For most, the argument is an almost entirely a priori one. The theory comes first, and the search for supporting factual data comes only afterwards, if at all. For some, like Rothbard, anarchism is a conclusion that one can logically derive from the “axiomatic” moral principle of nonaggression. For others, like Molinari, the fundamental premises are economic, rather than moral, but the derivation is once again purely logical, and the conclusion is held with the same apodictic resistance to potentially falsifying evidence.
Anarchism of this sort thus demands from us an enormous confidence in the power of human reason to radically redesign and improve evolved social institutions. And it is precisely this sort of confidence that classical liberals have long warned us to be wary of. That kind of confidence is an example of the “unconstrained vision” that Thomas Sowell[15] found displayed so prominently in the work of the 18th-century anarchist  William Godwin.[16] It is an example of the “false individualism” that Friedrich Hayek[17] saw manifesting itself in so much French social thought and that led him to dismiss anarchism as “but another product of the rationalistic pseudo-individualism to which [true individualism] is opposed.” And it is what Molinari’s classical-liberal contemporaries  Charles Dunoyer, Charles Coquelin, and Frédéric Bastiat[18] described as the “illusions of logic” that had led their friend and colleague so astray.
Perhaps, then, the later Molinari’s apostasy from the gospel of anarchism was not so much a product of pessimism as it was the product of a life full of experience – experience that undermined the tidy certainty of his earlier syllogistic reasoning. The Molinari of 1899 was not ignorant of the many virtues of market arrangements. Nor were the Hayek of 1945, the Sowell of 1987, or the Dunoyer, Coquelin, and Bastiat of 1849. But they were wise enough to doubt that one could demonstrate the moral or economic imperative of “smashing the state” from the armchair. They would be more impressed, I suspect, with what Peter Boettke[19] has described as the “positive political economy of anarchism.” But even here, the best case for anarchism that can likely be made will be an incremental one, not a revolutionary one. If Pinker is right and the modern state is responsible for much of the peace and security that we enjoy today, then we ought to be very, very cautious about dismantling it. Endnotes 
[1] Gustave de Molinari, Esquisse de l'organisation politique et économique de la Société future (Paris: Guillaumin, 1899). English translation: The Society of Tomorrow: A Forecast of its Political and Economic Organization, ed. Hodgson Pratt and Frederic Passy, trans. P.H. Lee Warner (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904). <>.
[2] David Hart, “Gustave de Molinari and the Anti-Statist  Liberal Tradition, Part 1,” Journal of Libertarian Studies, vol. 5, no. 3 (Summer, 1981), pp. 273, 282, 283.
[3] Herbert Spencer, chapter 19, “The Right to Ignore the State” in Social Statics: or, The Conditions essential to Happiness specified, and the First of them Developed, (London: John Chapman, 1851). <>.
[4] George Smith, "From Optimism to Pessimism: The Case of Herbert Spencer, Part 4", July 31, 2012,  <>.
[5] Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer. Illustrated in Two Volumes. (New York: D. Appleton and Company 1904). 2 vols. 1st ed. 1899. <>.
[6] Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, vol. 2, Chapter LV. </title/2323/219861/3522845>.
[7] Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Sociology, vol. 3, 1874-96.
[8] Molinari, Esquisse de l’organisation politique et économique de la Société future, 1899.
[9] Molinari, “The Production of Security.”
[10] See, for instance, David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom, especially chapter 29.
[11] Mark Dowie, "Pinto Madness," Mother Jones, September/October 1977 <>.
[12] Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011.
[13] This fact should not be especially surprising, especially to libertarians attracted to an Oppenheimerian “conquest theory” of the state. If states originated in order to allow their rulers to more effectively extract rent from their subjects, then it follows that rulers will have a strong incentive to suppress violence within their population. Every dead subject is, after all, a subject who can no longer be exploited. See Franz Oppenheimer, The State: Its History and Development viewed Sociologically, authorized translation by John M. Gitterman (New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1922). <>.
[14] David Friedman, "Private Creation and Enforcement of Law: A Historical Case" (1979). <>.
[15] Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (Basic Books; Revised edition 2007).
[16] William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1793). In 2 vols. <>.
[17] Friedrich Hayek, "Individualism: True and False" in Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1972. 1st ed. 1948). Available online at <>.
[18] [Possible author: Joseph Garnier, editor of the Journal des Économistes], "Question of the Limits of State Action and Individual Action." Discussed at the Society of Political Economy (1849). Journal des Économistes, vol. 24, no. 103 (15 October 1849), pp. 314-316. <>.
[19] "11. Peter Boettke's Comment on Buchanan et al." [March 26, 2013] <James Buchanan an assessment>.