Liberty Matters

Molinari, Rationalism, and Anarchy

Thanks to Matt, David F., David H, and Gary for their excellent and thoughtful contributions. Since Gary’s and David H.’s comments leave me nothing to disagree with, and David F.’s with very little – and the only real disagreement with me that David F. raises (about the reasons for the dominance of large hierarchical firms) is already preemptively addressed in Gary’s piece – I’ll focus my remarks on Matt’s response. I don’t feel too guilty about this, since I expect that Gary and the Davids will have plenty to take issue with, both in Matt’s piece and in one another’s.
Matt speculates that Molinari retreated from an anarchist position not so much because of public goods worries as because of a pessimism inculcated by life experience that undercut the confident rationalism of his youth; and Matt further suggests that Molinari may have been right so to retreat.
But Matt’s picture of the Molinari of 1849 as possessing an unrealistically rosy view of human motivations, and as having excessive confidence in the power of reason to remake society – a utopian idealism to be tempered by the sadder and wiser Molinari of 1899 – seem hard to square with what we actually find in Molinari’s early writing. After all, it is in 1849, not 1899, that Molinari describes the “sense of justice” as “the perquisite of only a few eminent and exceptional temperaments,” and ridicules the assumption that “human reason has the power to discover the best laws” – both passages helpfully quoted in David F.’s contribution.[1] (Hayek’s indictment of French liberalism as being a hotbed of constructive rationalism is notoriously difficult to substantiate with reference to actual French liberal thinkers; see, e.g., Ralph Raico’s Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School, especially chapter 6.)[2] 
I also think the parallel that Matt draws between Molinari and Spencer is misleading. Both, to be sure, were pessimistic about the coming 20th century, which they expected to be dominated by state socialism and war. (For their predictions, see David H.’s discussions here[3] and here.[4] But Spencer believed that a prerequisite for the achievement of an anarchist society was a transformation of human nature, a transformation that was slowly but surely being wrought by the evolutionary process; so any evidence of inadequate moral development in human society would therefore be a reason to think anarchism unviable for the near future. But Molinari’s model of anarchism was based on the application of economic incentives to human beings as they already are; and his account of historical development, though bearing the clear impress of Spencer’s influence, differs from Spencer’s in stressing economic over moral evolution; hence Molinari lacks Spencer’s reasons for doubting anarchism’s short-term viability. 
Nor does The Society of Tomorrow[5] – the 1899 work in which Molinari repudiates his earlier anarchism -- show the kind of pessimism needed to support Matt’s hypothesis. After all, one of the chief themes of the work is that the factors that have been driving war are finally disappearing.
I don’t see why we shouldn’t take Molinari’s own word as to why he turns toward monopoly provision in 1899 – namely the public-goods problem:
The first duty of government is to ensure internal and external security to nation and citizen alike. Services proper to it differ essentially from those of the private association for they are naturally collective. Armies secure an entire nation from external aggression, and a police force exists for the equal benefit of all who inhabit the district which it serves. It is therefore no less necessary than just that all consumers of these naturally collective services should contribute to their cost in proportion to the service rendered and the benefit received. The failure of one consumer to bear his quota of the costs of such production reacts on the entire community, who are compelled to bear a proportion of his defalcations over and above their own contribution. [Society of Tomorrow, part II, ch. 3.]
Molinari was writing at a time when – by contrast with today – little work, either theoretical or historical, had been done on nonstate provision of public goods, so his doubts are hardly mysterious. 
The charge of excessive rationalism is one that Matt brings against Molinari’s contemporary anarchist successors as well. Matt attributes to anarchists “an enormous confidence in the power of human reason to radically redesign and improve evolved social institutions.” But what anarchists seek is to withdraw support from the state – i.e., from an ongoing project of massive constructivist intervention into and reshaping of evolved social institutions – and turn social order over instead to spontaneous evolution (at least in the consensual and polycentric senses, and to a considerable extent in the emergent sense as well; for these three senses see Part IV of this piece).[6] If seeking a radical decrease in constructive rationalism and a radical increase in spontaneous order counts as constructive rationalism and a distrust in spontaneous order, it is at least constructive rationalism of a nonstandard sort.
Matt further argues that violence is a “consumption good” for many people; and even when it is not, its costs are ones that people often fail to “rationally weigh against expected benefits in determining their best course of action.” Well, sure. And it’s true enough that when the demand for violence is inelastic enough, anarchy will not prevent it. But neither will the state. Indeed, when there are hierarchical states, people with an appetite for violence manage to find their way into positions of power within them, from abusive cops and prison guards to presidents who rain death down on children while quipping about WMDs[7] and predator drone strikes.[8] Surely increasing the costs of violence is a better bet than decreasing them; to the extent that the demand for violence is elastic, we’ll be better off, and to the extent that the demand for violence is inelastic, we’ll at least be no worse off. Matt points out the externalities that violence imposes on others; but the anarchist point is that states make it easier for those who choose violent to externalize onto others costs of violence that would otherwise fall upon the agent.
In any case, economic incentives to choose arbitration over violence are often effective even when the prospects for optimism look most bleak. Consider medieval societies like Iceland and Anglo-Saxon England, in which the system of blood feud, initially pervasive, was gradually eroded by a polycentric, restitution-oriented legal system – showing that economic incentives can manage to tame even societies of quarrelsome Vikings who glorified revenge as a matter of honor. Or consider Somalia, riven by civil war, that has nevertheless achieved, under statelessness a more peaceful and prosperous condition than either its state-ridden neighbors or its own state-ridden past (see here[9] and here.[10] The advantage of anarchic competition is that it tends to do better with any given level of economic and cultural development (and of bloodthirstiness) than monopoly states would do with that same level, because by increasing the costs of violence and the benefits of cooperation, it exploits to a greater degree whatever cooperative potential exists in the society.
As for Matt’s appeal to Steven Pinker’s thesis that states make for less violence, I find Pinker’s reliance on percentages problematic (does one murder in a population of a hundred really constitute a level of violence equal to ten thousand murders in a population of one million?), and there are reasonable concerns that he whitewashes recent state action.[11]
Matt speculates that “most thinkers attracted to anarchism as a normative political ideal are not actually driven by a careful examination of the relevant empirical data.” Perhaps so; but examining the data we offer and psychologizing about our motivations for offering it are two different things, and the latter is no substitute for the former.
[1] Readings p. 111, from “The Production of Security.”
[2] Ralph Raico, Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School, Forward by Jörg Guido Hülsmann, Prefce by David Gordon (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2012). Chapter 6 "The Centrality of French Liberalism", pp. 219-53. <>.
[3] David M. Hart, "The Future of Individual Liberty: Classical liberals confront the New Century (1900 and 2000)" [5 July, 2000]. A Paper presented at the Australian Historical Association 2000 Conference "Futures in the Past" at the University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, 5-9 July, 2000. <>.
[4] David M. Hart, "Gustave de Molinari and the Future of Liberty: "Fin de siècle, fin de la liberté"?" (This is the draft of a paper written in April 2001). <>.
[5] Gustave de Molinari, 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). 8>. 
[6] Charles Johnson, "Women and the Invisible Fist. How Violence Against Women Enforces the Unwritten Law of Patriarchy," Molinari Institute (Auburn, Alabama, Version 2012.1019). <>.
[7]"Bush jokes about Weapons of Mass Destruction",, Uploaded on Jan 3, 2009 <>.
[8] "Obama Jokes About Killing Jonas Brothers With Predator Drones",, Uploaded on May 2, 2010 <>.
[9] Benjamin Powell, Ryan Ford, Alex Nowrasteh, "Somalia after state collapse: Chaos or Improvement?" Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 67 (2008) 657–670. <>.
[10] Peter T. Leeson, "Better off stateless: Somalia before and after government collapse," Journal of Comparative Economics, 35 (2007) 689–710. <>.
[11] David Peterson, "Reality Denial : Steven Pinker’s Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence," ZNet (July 22, 2012) <>.