Liberty Matters

Anarchy Here and Now

In the 17th and 18th centuries it was common for defenders of monarchy to point to history as being on their side.  Most advanced countries were monarchies; republics were widely seen as outdated relics of antiquity, unstable experiments prone to civil strife.  Clearly monarchy was the wave of the future.  
Likewise in the 19th century, defenders of male supremacy pointed to the universality or near-universality of women’s subordination as evidence that the inherited wisdom of the human race bore witness against the equality of the sexes.  
Now of course the fact that “verdict of history” arguments against the viability of republics, gender equality, and the abolition of slavery all turn out to have been mistaken does not prove that similar arguments today against anarchism are likewise mistaken.  After all, sometimes the reason a certain social form is historically scarce is that it’s not viable.  Nevertheless, such examples should make us very cautious about betting against liberty and equality, or assuming that the range of social forms that has hitherto predominated is anything like a representative sample of the possibilities.
Matt tells us that “[i]f we can’t find any successful examples of market anarchist societies, then we should probably ask ourselves why,” since “something is going on, and it’s been going on long and regularly enough that it’s probably not just bad luck.”  But exactly the same thing could have been said about slavery, or male supremacy, in 1800.  We should demand better reasons than those before acquiescing in systems of oppression.
It’s true that, as Matt notes, there are “no state-sized societies organized along market anarchist lines in existence today [or] in all of recorded history.”  But it’s also true that there are no state-sized minarchies (libertarian minimal states) in existence today or in all of recorded history; so by the “actual examples” test, we have as much reason to be skeptical of minarchism as of anarchism.  Matt’s argument is thus a case for skepticism about libertarianism generally, not just about its anarchist version.   (On theoretical grounds, of course, I think we have far more reason to be skeptical of minarchism than of anarchism.)
Some may point to some earlier period in the United States (before LBJ? before FDR? before Wilson? before Lincoln?) as a golden age of minarchy and laissez-faire; but even if we ignore (as we shouldn’t) the legal status of women and nonwhites – i.e.,, most of the population – during that era and focus only on the liberties of white males, we can hardly call the 19th-century U.S. a laissez-faire minarchy, given the myriad ways in which the American state has from the earliest days of the republic systematically intervened in the economy to rig markets in favor of the wealthy and against workers and consumers.[2] 
Moreover, Matt surely overstates his case when he speaks of a “complete absence of persuasive empirical evidence” regarding market anarchism.  For we do have good empirical evidence for each part of the market anarchist equation; each of the mechanisms on which market anarchists rely has proven itself “in the field.”  To be sure, the fact that all the components work well separately does not prove that they would still work just as well when combined; but their separate success is surely relevant to an empirical assessment of their prospects for combined success, and thus better than a “complete absence.”
True, “stories about cattle ranchers in Shasta County, or about the increasing use of private mediation, or private security forces in homeowners associations” are not themselves examples of market anarchy.  But they are examples of the mechanisms to which market anarchists look for the provision of order without the state.  The greater the extent to which people rely on nonstate rather than state mechanisms in their daily lives, the stronger the empirical case for market anarchism becomes.  
Moreover, such historical evidence serves at the very least to rebut certain standard anti-anarchist arguments.  The success of the Law Merchant,[3] or the financial arrangements of 17th-century Amsterdam,[4] may not prove the viability of anarchism per se, given that these phenomena occurred under states; but the fact that they occurred without state assistance, and indeed in the face of state hostility, makes an effective counter to the claim that only states can develop sophisticated legal systems.[5]
After all, the anarchist claim is not that some magical order button lights up the minute we cross the bright line from state to anarchy. The claim is rather that it is “anarchic” relationships that provide such order as we enjoy even under states, and that they do so more and more successfully as state hindrances are removed. As Colin Ward writes:
[A]n anarchist society, a society which organises itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow.... [F]ar from being a speculative vision of a future society, it is a description of a mode of human organisation, rooted in the experience of everyday life, which operates side by side with, and in spite of, the dominant authoritarian trends of our society. This is not a new version of anarchism. Gustav Landauer saw it, not as the founding of something new, ‘but as the actualisation and reconstitution of something that has always been present, which exists alongside the state, albeit buried and laid waste’. And a modern anarchist, Paul Goodman, declared that: ‘A free society cannot be the substitution of a “new order” for the old order; it is the extension of spheres of free action until they make up most of social life.’ ... Anarchists are people who make a social and political philosophy out of the natural and spontaneous tendency of humans to associate together for their mutual benefit.[6]
(The description of anarchy as “the cement that holds the bricks of society” together has also been attributed[7] to Ward, but I’ve yet to track down the source.)  On this model, the anarchy whose unhampered release we seek is one that is already here around us, operating in a hampered manner, and so in seeking to understand full-fledged anarchy, an examination of these hampered anarchic forces and relationships is not a change of subject.  To insist on examining anarchy only in its purest form is a bit like rejecting Galileo’s experiments with inclined planes and demanding that only tests with vertical free fall are relevant to disproving Aristotelean dynamics.  Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.
Now of course it’s conceivable that anarchy might be “dose-dependent” (like adrenaline, which – if I remember correctly from high school biology – slows down responses when taken in small does but speeds them up when taken in larger doses), so that removing hindrances to these anarchic relationships causes at first an increase and later on a decrease in order.  But the burden of proof lies with those who make this claim.
Compare: In every generation social conservatives tend to accept as progress the gains in gender equality and/or homosexual equality that were made a few generations earlier, but argue that any further gains along those lines will bring social chaos.  How seriously should we really take their worries?
Matt dismisses examples like stateless Somalia’s superiority to its state-ridden neighbors and own state-ridden past on the grounds that “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.”  But as David F.  points out in his response, most modern states are different from Somalia and medieval Iceland in a lot more ways than just the presence or absence of a state; so if we want our comparisons to be relevant to the anarchy/state dispute, we need to control for vast numbers of other factors, which we means we should compare states and anarchies that are broadly similar in economic, cultural, etc. respects.  
By analogy we should compare bubonic plague victims under a doctor’s care with bubonic plague victims not under a doctor’s care, not bubonic plague victims under a doctor’s care with plague-free people not under a doctor’s care or vice versa.  Expecting a modern anarchy to look just like the ancient anarchies that Pinker condemns makes as much sense as expecting a modern state to look like ancient states.[8]
Herbert Spencer, like Pinker, argued that rates of violence tended to decline historically, but he took this trend to be correlated with the shift from status to contract, or from militant to industrial society, and thus to be favorable to the prospects for successful anarchy.  Without a causal theory, then, statistics by themselves offer relatively little guidance.
Pinker’s own causal theory is unpromising; he regards the “spread of the reach of government” as a cause of diminishing violence, on the grounds that “if you outsource your revenge and justice to a disinterested third party, there will be less bloodshed than if you are judge, jury and executioner of the crimes against you”[9] – an ignoratio elenchi which suggests that he is unaware of the difference between deferring to a third-party arbiter and deferring to a monopolistic third-party arbiter.  
As I’ve written elsewhere:
Locke’s worry ... is that, in the absence of a monopoly government, each individual will have to act as a judge in his or her own case, a situation that inevitably raises the specter of partiality and bias. Now I think Locke is quite right in judging that, emergencies aside, submitting one’s disputes to a neutral arbiter is preferable to judging them oneself; the offices of prosecutor and judge are better separated than combined. But how does an argument for neutral arbiters suddenly become an argument for monopoly government? The historical record shows that stateless legal orders tend to generate quite effective incentives for people to submit their disputes to arbitration.Locke appears to be drawing an erroneous inference from the premise “Each person should delegate retaliation to an impartial third party” to “There should be an impartial third party to whom each person delegates retaliation.” This is simply a fallacy of composition, analogous to the inference from “Everyone likes at least one television show” to “There’s at least one television show that everyone likes.”It is actually government, not anarchy, that suffers from the problem of judicial bias.  Under anarchy, any dispute can be submitted to third-party arbitration; but under a governmental system, in disputes between a citizen and the state, the state – which as a monopoly of course recognises no judicial authority but its own – necessarily acts as a judge in its own case.... A monopoly government, i.e. an agency that refuses to submit its use of force to external adjudication, is by definition lawless; thus anarchy is the completion, not the negation, of the rule of law.[10]
If, as Pinker maintains, universal submission to third-party arbitration should lead us to expect a diminution in violence, then that’s an argument for anarchism, not against it.

[1] John C. Calhoun, “Speech on the Reception of Abolition Petitions,” February 6, 1837; online: <>. See also John C. Calhoun, Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun, ed. Ross M. Lence (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992). Chapter: "Speech on the Reception of Abolition Petitions. Revised Report" [November 3, 1837] </title/683/107124>.
[2] For examples, see Kevin A. Carson, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy (2004), chs. 4-8; online: <>.
[3] Tom W. Bell, “Polycentric Law,” Humane Studies Review 7.1 (Winter 1991/92); online: <>.
[4] Edward P. Stringham, “The Extralegal Development of Securities Trading in Seventeenth Century Amsterdam,” Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance 43.2 (2003); online: <>.
[5] On this point see John Hasnas, “The Obviousness of Anarchy”; online: <>.
[6] Colin Ward, Anarchy in Action (London: Freedom Press, 1996), pp. 18-19; online: <>.
[7] Simon Read, Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Anarchism But Were Afraid To Ask (Rebel Press, 2004); online: <>.
[8] As for Pinker, I’m curious: Does he draw a distinction among homicides involving willing combatants, homicides involving unwilling combatants, and homicides involving noncombatants? I for one would rather live in a society with a high homicide rate where most of the homicides occur among stroppy warriors challenging each other to duels, than in a society with a lower homicide rate where it’s much harder to avoid being one of the homicides.
[9] “Podcast: Steven Pinker on Violence and Human Nature” (1 November 2012); online: <>.
[10] Long, “Market Anarchism As Constitutionalism,” pp. 136-141; online: <>.