Rebirth of Reason


Defining Anarchy
by Joseph Rowlands

One of the problems with discussing politics with "anarcho-capitalists" or "libertarian anarchists" or whatever they go by, is there is so rarely a definition given for what they are promoting. They will often claim to be for a society without a government, but that's not clear. It's a negative description, and one possible alternative is the kind of anarchy most people think of involving mayhem, murder, and bloodshed. It is also unclear because when they finally get around to describing this "government" that they dislike, it is usually a strawman that no libertarian would ever argue for.


They clearly have an ideal in mind. The ideal is that there are many protection agencies, and each person can hire one to protect his rights. These agencies would compete based on price and quality of service and not through violence or war. Customers would always be free to hire or fire a service, and the agency would be unable to compel them in any way. They would operation in a free market, and the normal gains in efficiency and cost-reduction would accrue as a they usually do in a free market.


There are several problems with this ideal. The first problem is that a protection agency is required to use force on some people to defend others. If they have to stop a murderer, they will need to use force to do it. This is unlike normal businesses where the services are between the business and its clients. So these protection agencies will inevitably need to use force against people who are not their customers. This creates a conflict between the agencies. If one decides it must use force against a client of another, the other may not agree that the use of force is legitimate or of the appropriate degree.


A second problem is that this ideal makes assumptions about what agencies will or will not do when they disagree about whether a use of force is legitimate, but provides no justification or enforcement mechanism. The ideal is that these agencies will get alogn and not use violence against each other. But if that's the assumption you need to make in order to argue that government is unnecessary, everything that follows is pure delusion. Why not just assume that nobody will use force, and remove the need for the protection agencies themselves?


For normal criminals, only someone who believes in a utopia would simply assume that no crime would exist. Criminals will likely always exist. Crime can be reduced if the costs for violating them are significant and reliable. If a criminal knew he wouldn't get away with it and would incur a significant cost for his crime, he will be incentivized not to commit the crime. But the reverse is also true. If no costs are ever incurred for committing crimes, it would incentivize people to commit them. If you lived in a society where stealing was perfectly legal and could not be punished in any way, you can expect a lot more stealing.


So if an anarchist simply assumes that protection agencies will play nice and provides no enforcement mechanism to deal with those that don't, they are actually incentivizing protection agencies to be coercive. Acting on a bad assumption will lead to the opposite results. This ideal may sound like it would be worthwhile to achieve, but without a mechanism to enforce these assumptions, the result will inevitably be the opposite.  If there's no punishment for bad behavior, there will be agencies that misbehave.


Now we can look at these problems from the perspective of a government.


The first problem, as noted, was that the use of force can lead to conflicts. This is because judgment of the appropriateness of any use of force is not automatic and universal. People can legitimately disagree on whether someone is guilty or innocent. People can legitimately disagree on the how severe a punishment should be in any particular situation. If force can only be used when there is universal agreement, we would be left defenseless against criminals and criminal agencies.


A government provides a solution to this problem. In my opinion, this is the fundamental purpose of government. Judgment about whether the use of force is appropriate cannot depend on universal agreement. Instead, some kind of method must be created in order for a large group to be able to make a decision. This decision-making process does not guarantee universal agreement. But it provides a means by which a decision can be made. It seeks acceptance, not agreement.


One such method is seen in democracies, where each person has a vote. The method of voting does not guarantee universal agreement. But by creating a method this is viewed as unbiased and not coerced (in terms of the voting, not the outcome), it is a method that people can agree with even if they disagree with the results at times.


This is just one example. In our judicial system, we use a jury, which is viewed as a random sampling of individuals, to determine guilt on behalf of the larger society. In Congress, we elect representatives to act and vote on behalf of the rest of the citizens. We may add other restrictions to ensure fair results, like an appeals process, or judicial review, or a separation of powers, etc. But the important point is that a method is created that allows a large group to make a decision and for most of those that disagree to at least accept the results.


Government, when viewed as a method instead of as a group of people, is such a solution. The legislative function determines the principles or rules that define when a use of force is appropriate. The judicial function serves to apply these principles to specific situations. These two branches of government are the method by which the use of force is deemed appropriate or not.  And while agreement isn't universal, governments are pretty good with achieving acceptance.  You may not agree with the income tax, but you likely pay it anyway.


The second issue mentioned is that a protection agency is assumed to never use violence towards its 'clients' or other agencies.  From the perspective of government, this can still be a problem. Governments tax their citizens, and they occasionally wage war on other countries. There are some differences, though. A democratic form of government allows citizens some level of control over the government itself. This is a method of limiting the power of the government to abuse its 'clients'. Of course, it does no good if the majority of people favor coercion. An anarchic system would not do any better.


Contrast this to a protection agency that has gone rogue. The clients have no control over the organization, and no way to change its policies except by quitting and joining another agency. But this method of control only works if the rogue agency allows them to leave. If not, then it becomes a kind of dictatorship. The ruling class make all of the decisions, and the 'clients' are mere serfs.


The anarchic ideal is to retain the right to walk away.  If people have this right, the agencies will be forced to behave well or they'll lose their business.  This ideal expects to bring the efficiency of markets to the protection of rights.   But that's not certain at all.  Even if a client can walk away from a protection agency, the rights violator cannot have the same right to walk away, or no enforcement could ever take place.


But the larger problem is the assumption that people will retain the right to walk away.  The whole discussion of protection agencies is based on the assumption that rights can and will be violated unless they are protected by someone.  Assuming from the start that the right to walk away is unlike other rights and won't need protection leaves the entire anarchic ideal in shambles.  It begs the question.  It assumes that which it is trying to prove.  It assumes that protection agencies will not violate those rights in order to prove that protection agencies will not violate those rights.


These problems are enormous for an anarchic system. Consider the second problem. If one agency goes rogue, how would it be stopped? The only possible way is for another agency to step in an use force against the rogue agency. But this has the usual problem with force. Outsiders will need to determine which agency is rogue and which, if either, is using force appropriately. If they simply allow one agency to coerce another, there is nothing stopping the rogue agency from expanding and enslaving its 'clients'. If outsiders refuse to get involved, there is no incentive against coercion.


If outsiders do need to get involved, they need a way of determining which use of force was inappropriate, and what the appropriate response to it should be. But if their own judgment may be disagreed with and others may respond with violence again, they may be incentivized not to stop a rogue agency.  Who would get involved if it might invite more trouble.


The only way to enable the outsiders is to provide them upfront clarity that their actions will not invite reprisal from others.  They need to know that their actions will be accepted by third parties.  And this requires that principles/rules/laws are decided upon (legislative) and that those policies are applied to specific cases (judicial).


This is the same problem as the first problem, that disagreements over the use of force can lead to additional violence, and is the function that gives rise to government. And it can only work when an organization spanning the entire relevant populace (like in a geographic region) is created. And this creates a dilemma for anarchism. If anarchism is defined in terms of a lack of organization, then they can't adopt this organized way of dealing with decisions. But if they don't, they end up with an unworkable plan.


Without that method of making judgment on the use of force, rogue agencies cannot be punished. Or those who try will fear being punished themselves.


Without that method, an agency cannot use force against a criminal aggressor that has hired another agency. If it did, the other agency might retaliate, and other agencies might jump into the fray.


Anarchy is commonly defined in terms of disorder and confusion, and this is appropriate. The anarchic ideal desires order and peaceful cooperation, but rejects the necessary means of acquiring those things. The anarchic ideal makes unrealistic assumptions, and provides no method of generating those results. By rejecting an organized method of dealing with inappropriate uses of force, it is stuck with a disorganized method and the assumption that force won't be used. That assumption is not just wishful thinking. It is a necessary requirement for the anarchic ideal to work.


And we can once again contrast that with government. Government rests on the expectation that criminals will exist. And a well-designed government seeks to disperse power, add checks and balances, allow various mechanisms of control by the citizens, and limit the power and authority of government. While varying kinds and degrees of success and failure exist, it is not a system based on wishful thinking and unrealistic assumptions. It provides the ability to resist tyranny and oppression, but ultimately relies on the people of the nation to utilize that ability.


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