Liberty Matters

Anarchist Theory, Examples, and Counterexamples


When it comes to market anarchism, we have an abundance of provocative theory and an almost complete absence of persuasive empirical evidence. There are no state-sized societies organized along market anarchist lines in existence today. And, for that matter, there are no examples in all of recorded history either. The closest we have is a handful of examples of societies like Medieval Iceland that seem to both a) possess some of the features of a market anarchist society, and b) be reasonably tolerable societies in which to live, at least compared to the feasible alternatives.
On the other hand, we have a large number of historical examples of societies without a state, and a much smaller number of contemporary ones. So if we want to know what life in a stateless society has been like for most people who have actually lived in one, we need to look at all of the examples, not just the ones where things have turned out the way our theory has predicted they would. 
And when we do this, things do not look very good for the anarchist, at least if we take Steven Pinker's data at face value. It’s true that far more people have died violent deaths in societies with states than in societies without them. But that's mostly because there are far more people alive in societies with states than ever existed in societies without them. (And perhaps this itself is something that ought to be considered a point in states’ favor?) When we look at rates of death in societies governed by states and compare these with the rates of death in stateless societies, anarchist societies appear to be far more violent -- even taking into account the genocides, World Wars, and various bloodlettings of the 20th century. Taking all forms of organized violence over the 20th century into account, the average annual rate of violent death for the world as a whole was about 60 in 100,000. That's significantly higher than the corresponding figure for the most peaceful states in the world – about 1 in 100,000 for the states of Western Europe at the turn of the 21st century. But it is much lower than the average for the nonstate societies Pinker surveys -- about 524 in 100,000.
Roderick Long wonders why we should focus on rates of death rather than absolute numbers. And I admit that there are some difficult moral questions here. I am not sure whether a universe in which 8 out of 10 existing people are killed is better or worse, from the point of view of the universe, than one in which 10,000 out of one million existing people are killed. But I am pretty sure that I know which society I would rather live in, if I had to choose. 
And thatis why Pinker's focus on rates of violent death is relevant to this debate. If we, like Molinari, are engaged in a normative debate about whether a state or a nonstate society is more desirable, it seems clear that one of the questions we will want to have answered is: What are my chances of dying violently in each? Or, less egoistically, what are the chances that a random person in each will die violently? The specific numbers that Pinker draws on can be subject to criticism of the sort identified by Long. But even if we build in an enormous fudge factor by doubling Pinker’s rate of violent death for the 20th century, and halving it for the stateless societies, that still leaves your odds of dying a violent death over twice as high in the latter as in the former.
That anarchist societies are, in general, more dangerous places to live than societies with a state is compatible with the claim that some anarchist societies are less dangerous places to live than some state-based ones. It is even compatible with the claim, advanced recently by Benjamin Powell and Peter Leeson, that a particular society like Somalia is better off without a state than it was with a state. Some states, like Somalia’s prior to its collapse in 1991, are particularly dysfunctional and predatory in nature. But the fact that a society would be better off stateless than with a bad state doesn’t show that statelessness is better than statehood, any more than the fact that a sick person would be better off with no doctor at all than with a bad doctor shows that avoiding doctors altogether is good for your health.
Examples and counterexamples have an important role to play in political philosophy in general, and in the debate over the possibility and desirability of market anarchism in particular. But it is important to understand their significance and limits. Here, to bring this comment to a close, are a few reflections on this matter.
  1. A single example of a phenomenon is sufficient to demonstrate the possibility of that phenomenon -- but only if it is actually an instance of the phenomenon in question. So, for instance, a single instance of a market anarchist society would show that market anarchist societies are possible. But stories about cattle ranchers in Shasta County, or about the increasing use of private mediation, or private security forces in homeowners associations do not. Those examples are indeed instructive in other respects. But they are not examples of market anarchist societies and so cannot suffice to demonstrate the possibility of such.
  2. Even a successful demonstration of possibility isn’t all that impressive. I know some people who smoke, drink, and don’t exercise, and who nevertheless live to a ripe old age. But if I had to place a bet on a successful strategy for longevity (as, I suppose, I do), I’d put my money somewhere else. To show that it is possible for a market anarchist society to exist and thrive is not to show that it is likely. To arrive at judgments about likelihood we need more than just a handful of examples, we need good statistical analysis of a lot of them. Or a very good theory. But preferably both. Which leads to my last point…
  3. A lack of examples can’t disprove a claim of possibility -- but it should make you think twice. If we can’t find any successful examples of market anarchist societies, then we should probably ask ourselves why. Perhaps people aren’t behaving as rationally as our theory assumed they would? Perhaps there’s some extraneous factor our theory hasn’t accounted for? Or perhaps anarchist societies, plagued by collective action problems, are unable to defend themselves against being swallowed up by their state-based neighbors? Whatever it is, something is going on, and it’s been going on long and regularly enough that it’s probably not just bad luck.