Liberty Matters

Vertical and Horizontal Competition

As Jacob will not be surprised to learn, I think he is right that “vertical contestation--between groups and states--can provide some space for freedom.” But I hope we can do better.
First, a brief qualifier: I am not sure that the anarchist is committed to the view that “purely horizontal competition among groups is … [a] stable guarantee of doing any better.”
That is, I think that a free society should expect to be sustained not only by similarly situated voluntary associations but also by institutions of other sorts, including religious traditions. (I would expect providers of Jewish law and Catholic and Anglican canon law to be among the entities fostering extended social cooperation in such a society, for instance.) I would expect overlapping jurisdictions and communal memberships to play an important role here. And this means that the relevant sort of competition simply wouldn’t be “purely horizontal,” if what Levy has in mind with this phrase is “similarly situated and constituted, with clearly defined ranges of authority.”
Second: I certainly understand that something useful might emerge from the competition between states and intermediate institutions. But it’s not clear to me that what we could expect as the output of such competition would be any better than what we might get from the more complex (if not narrowly horizontal) competition I’d prefer.
It seems, in any case, that for the kind of competition Levy favors to work, actors at both the state and the intermediate level would need to have embraced norms treating each set of institutions as legitimate. That is, each kind of institution can effectively push back against the other only if each regards the other as rightly possessing authority it cannot simply override. If state actors believe it’s perfectly OK for them to assimilate intermediate institutions or ignore their traditional claims to legal standing, they will likely have the force to do so.
States do not, of course, in general persist because of the actual or threatened use of force. Rather, they maintain their power because people exercise that power as something they are entitled to do, whether because of divine right, the social contract, or some sort of Hobbesian or Humean necessity. If belief in that sort of entitlement disappears, the state will, I think, fight an increasingly uphill battle to maintain itself in existence, since it will then need to rely solely on the threat of force. (And will the state functionaries whose task it is to employ state violence to maintain order be as inclined to keep doing so once they, too, see that the state lacks any deep legitimation?)
But if this is the case, then it does not seem as if competing nonstate institutions are in any obviously worse position than states as sources of social order. If they can be seen as legitimate—and I submit that there is a pretty straightforward case to be made for them on both Lockean and Hobbesian/Humean grounds—they can enjoy the same sort of stability, rooted in perceived legitimacy, that the state now enjoys. Suppose people embrace not only individual institutions on these grounds but also, and more importantly, the ecology of a free society, one in which the competition among institutions is consciously endorsed as crucial to maintaining freedom. And suppose this ecology is seen as not only desirable but a consequence of the maintenance of institutions with their own underlying legitimacy. In this case I think there’s at least a case to be made that competition among institutions in a free society could, indeed, do a serviceable—or better—job of protecting liberty without the state.