Liberty Matters

Why Aren’t More Anarchist Societies Market Anarchist Societies?


Does the fact that we have no examples of successful market anarchist societies cast doubt on the normative case for market anarchism? In  this comment [Conversation no. 9] on anarchism, I suggested it did.
Roderick, however, is unpersuaded. After all, he says, in the 17th and 18th centuries the defenders of monarchy could have used this same argument against advocates of democracy; in the 19th century defenders of male supremacy could have used it against those who argued for women’s equality; and in the 21st century defenders of the welfare state can use it against advocates of minimal state libertarianism! That systems of oppressions have been the historical norm, Roderick concludes, does not in itself give us good reason to maintain those systems. And if we don’t have any examples of successful anarchist societies because we simply haven’t tried them, then that certainly isn’t a good reason for not trying now.
But, of course, we do have a lot of examples of anarchist societies – societies, that is, without a centralized state. It’s just that none of these anarchist societies are market anarchist societies. They are not, in other words, the kind of societies described by Molinari, Friedman, Rothbard, or Long in which protective services are sold by specialized firms in a competitive market with a network of arbitration agreements and so on. They are, instead, tribal and clan-based societies that, to borrow from Arnold Kling’s summary of Mark Weiner’s The Rule of the Clan, are based on “a set of rules and social norms which are inconsistent with libertarian values of peace, open commerce, and individual autonomy.”[1]
Is this a problem for market anarchism? That depends. If market anarchism is purely a normative theory – a theory about the form of social organization that would be morally best, or most just – then I suppose it is not. The fact that people unjustly kill each other all the time, after all, does not falsify the claim that murder is wrong. So, too, the fact that people without a state have not yet organized themselves along market lines does not show that they shouldn’t do so.
But market anarchism, as I understand it, is more than just a normative theory. It is also, at least in part, a predictive theory. It is a theory about how rational individuals will satisfy their need for security in the absence of a state. In the same way that economists predict that employers will respond to an increase in the minimum wage by decreasing employment, market anarchists predict that individuals will respond to the unmet need for security by engaging in specialization and trade, and that a competitive market in protective services will emerge.
But this doesn’t appear to be what actually happens in the absence of a state. Either the market doesn’t appear at all, or it is quickly and permanently replaced by a state. 
So if market anarchism is understood not merely as a normative theory, but as a predictive one as well, then the absence of market anarchist societies constitutes not just a lack of confirming examples, it actually constitutes a wealth of counterexamples. This is much more damning evidence against market anarchism – as a predictive theory of course, but possibly as a normative theory, too, since the kinds of things that might have gone wrong to undermine the theory’s predictions might undermine at least some of our normative judgments about market anarchism as well. For instance, if market anarchist societies never get off the ground because they are easy prey for their state-based neighbors, then this should give us reason to doubt that market anarchist societies possess the normatively attractive feature of stability, and so should give us pause before we rush to transform our own society into one.
Moreover, this sort of evidence seems immune to Roderick’s charge that it could just as well have been used to defend monarchy, patriarchy, or the welfare state. In those cases, we genuinely had no examples – and so no direct empirical evidence that the systems would work, or fail to work. But we have examples of anarchist societies. Lots of them. It just that, for some reason, they don’t seem to work in the way that market anarchists say they will.
So why is that? A number of possibilities come to mind. Perhaps, as we alluded to above, market anarchist societies are unable to overcome the collective action problems so as to defend themselves against their statist neighbors. Or perhaps market anarchism is in some way incompatible with some deep-seated feature of human psychology – our desire to identify with some collective whole that is not reducible to (and subject to modification by) voluntary contractual arrangements. 
Or maybe – and this strikes me as the most optimistic diagnosis from the market anarchist perspective – people in previous anarchist societies just hadn’t figured it out yet. Competition is, after all, a discovery procedure[2] And it takes time and experimentation for societies to figure out more efficient ways of meeting their needs. Contemporary insurance markets and arbitration networks are much more sophisticated than those of even 50 years ago. So the fact that societies before ours hadn’t figured out how to make market anarchism work doesn’t show that it can’t work, any more than the fact that societies of the 19th century hadn’t figured out how to make television work demonstrates the impossibility of that technology. Some things just take time to figure out.
I’m genuinely unsure as to which of these explanations, or more likely, which combination of them and others I have not considered, provide the best explanation. But I’m curious to hear from my market anarchist colleagues. So tell me. If market anarchism is so great, then why haven’t we seen more successful market anarchist societies? Endnotes 
[1] Arnold Kling, "State, Clan, and Liberty" Econlib (May 6, 2013) <> and Mark S. Weiner, The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom. (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux), 2013.
[2] F. A. Hayek, “Competition as a Discovery Procedure,” The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, vol. 5, no. 3 (Fall 2002); online: <>.