A recent guest post On the [US] Constitution as a “Counter-Revolutionary” Act by John Venlet (who blogs at improved clinch), and the subsequent discussion, has helped crystallize my objection to anarchism.
This can be summarized as: you cannot get there from here and, even if you could, you could not stay there. When states and rulerships collapse, we do not see anything resembling the stable anarchic orders of anarchist (including anarcho-capitalist) theory. Instead, we see highly chaotic situations marked by rulerships of varying size and stability where economic activity (and thus social possibilities) drop to a much lower level. (This drop often including serious population collapses.)
When we look a periods of sustained economic growth, one of their basic features is stable legal orders. Not necessarily a single legal order but, nevertheless, stable legal orders enforced by one or more effective states or rulerships.
To understand why this is so, and where anarchist theory goes wrong, one of the comments on the above post responding to an “how would it work?” query is an excellent starting point:
An anarchist working from moral principles might say: I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. If the individual is sovereign, then he is sovereign. He isn’t merely sovereign-except-when-it-comes-to-stuff-like-strips-of-asphalt. He has the right to live free from coercion, full stop. Everything else is superfluous detail.
Anarchism is generally based on some sort of natural law concept, since it is based on a notion of rights and liberties that do not require a state to create or enforce them. The above comment makes the classic mistake of natural law theory: it reads a particular set of values into the universe by the process of definition.
Rights do not exist in themselves: they are the creations of human thought and action. The key aspect of a right is some sort of acknowledgment of that right by others. The point of a right, after all, is to restrain the actions of others so as to give the right-holder a specific realm of action. To simplify somewhat: you have the rights that are acknowledged by others.
This acknowledgment can come from a shared system of belief that translates into restraints on behaviour. Or it can come from some system of enforcement. Or both. Given that people vary in both their beliefs and adherence to moral norms, then an effective system of rights needs belief (accepted constraints on behaviour), signalling (telling what rights exist and what their boundaries are) and enforcement (including dispute resolution). An effective legal order provides all of these things. An anarchic order reliably provides none of them—hence the massive levels of rights infringement, or simple non-acknowledgment of rights, that occur when states or rulerships collapse.
How things started off for homo sapiens
Something is a living thing if it has (or is capable of) revealed preference. This what distinguishes living things from non-living things: that they have actions with intent. Both the actions and the intent might be extremely rudimentary, but even a
virus [bacteria] acts in a way a rock does not because the virus [bacteria] seeks things while a rock does not.
Thus there is no morality of rocks. Living things may have moral issues towards rocks, but there is no morality for rocks. Actions with intent create a realm for morality, but they do not of themselves create morality. For that, what is needed is some sort of moral sense: the ability to acknowledge other living beings as having purposes and interests that one can help, or at least not hinder and that this should restrain or direct one’s behaviour. Such as, for example, rights to use particular things in particular ways.
Homo sapiens are typically built to acknowledge the concept of property, of rightful control. Indeed, that is what most distinguishes us from our primate relatives. Not tool using per se, not even the capacity to learn, nor some moral sense, but the notion of ownership of things such as tools.
That our ancestors developed the concept of ownership of things greatly expanded the possibility of cooperation. There is not much point in investing any effort in tools, for example, if the tool you create is not acknowledged by other members of your band as being yours.
But once you have such a concept, then the possibility of exchange hugely increases the cooperative possibilities. It is not labour that distinguishes the productive power of homo sapiens from other primates—all animals engage in labour—it is the notion of property, of rightful control, and thus the power of exchange. For all exchange is a change of control of the thing exchanged, and requires the notion of rightful control—of ownership—to work. A species that develops exchange greatly increases its access to resources. An individual or group can have access to resources beyond their own locality or efforts. It also increases the benefits to being able to “read” people, to being able to communicate and to being able to make deals. It rewarded both our thinking and our moral sense.
This process of exchange became part of human pair bonds: the males hunted and the females gathered. The former maximised the use of stronger male upper body strength, the latter female dexterity while enabling them to also suckle and supervise children. Such an exchange gave women more access to proteins, men more access to food plants and both more ability to support children than doing everything themselves would have.
It is in our control of things that economic life exists at all.
Strangers, kin and enforcement
Alas, self-enforcement of one’s control over property and fairness in trade is expensive: hence the importance of kinship connections in providing support in defending one’s life and property. It is perhaps no accident that the one common feature of all human marriage systems is that they create in-laws: wider networks of kin support.* For example, the dynamics of pastoralist (i.e. herding) families, clans and lineages is largely driven by their role in defending life and property. In some ways, their social arrangements are closest to the anarchic ideal of stateless social order.
Yet it is also conspicuous that pastoralist societies regularly created vast empires and competing rulerships. There are two basic problems. First, the gains from controlling trade. Anarchy does not abolish these gains, nor the opportunities to seize them. On the contrary, it encourages a race to effective rulership to do precisely that.
Second, there are dangers and opportunities from populous river valleys. Stationary peasants are even easier to control and fleece, so are particularly easily subjected to rulership. Especially as the river provides both a highway and increased returns from establishing a common set of rules for trade. If there is any high return trade (such as the silk trade) there is an incentive among pastoralists to both combine to gain monopoly control of the trade and to deal with the river valley rulership. That is, the existence of rulerships both creates dangers from not having one and opportunities from having one.
The mobility of pastoralists compared to peasants also created opportunities for theft and raiding. Just as a mobile life-style in itself reduces the costs of theft (since one is less likely to be having repeated interactions with the same people). Both these create pressures for a common protective (including legal) order.
This is deeply connected with another on-going problem: that of out-group and in-group. The notion that people of one’s own group have greater claims on one than people who are not so is very powerful. Indeed, the entire kinship-and-lineage support system rests on it. It creates a legal order, but a distinctly limited one in its ambit. The typical response to a lack of a moderately trusted state or effective rulership (particularly if it persists) is not to broaden one’s sense of a shared moral community, but to narrow it. Connection and knowledge are sources of support; lack of connection and being not-known sources of threat. This both lowers the level of trade and thereby reduces the benefits of out-group cooperation.
The notion of moral universalism is very far from a universal human norm. Consider arguments during the last couple of centuries over granting Jews, women, blacks and queers equal protection of the law. (The last dispute is still going on.)
Moral universalism has typically been spread by religion, notably Buddhism and monotheism. Yet, within monotheism, there has been a persistent pattern of limiting or subverting that moral universalism on the basis of categories deemed to be religiously, and thus morally, significant. The notion of a common moral order is much less common than folk generally realise.
Pressure for autocracy
The existence of rulerships creates pressure for rulership. But even without rival rulerships, the dangers of raiding, or even more serious aggression, by out-groups creates pressure for rulership. Historically, such rulership has overwhelmingly been autocratic, since autocracy minimised coordination problems (including in handing out the extracted goodies). Hereditary autocracy also minimised succession problems and reduced the cost of autocracy by expanding its time horizon so as to extend the commitment of the ruler to the stability and productivity of the rulership. (To put it in game theory terms, interactions between ruler and ruled become a long-term game: though not necessarily so for the ruler’s agents.)
The representative principle (i.e. electing people to represent you) did develop in Latin Christendom, as kings asked for elected merchant delegates to represent the growing mercantile commercial interest. (Contrary to Anglo self-importance, it was actually an Iberian innovation.) Yet it is conspicuous that, by the mid C18th, even in Europe, the representative principle was largely restricted to archipelagos (UK), isolated peninsulas (Scandinavia) and inaccessible mountains (Switzerland). That is, where geography permitted the coordination delays involved in “government by discussion”. Conversely, the liberum veto of the Polish Sejm resulted in the destruction of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by its autocratic neighbours.
The geographical “moat” effect provided by separation by seas from major external threats has been very important in the evolution of Anglo-America. It reduces the pressure of the protective imperative. To the extent that people can be quite unaware of the protective imperative’s power in moulding human social and political history.
Culture, using the definition that Douglass North does as:
the transmission from one generation to the next, via teaching and imitation, of knowledge, values, and other factors which influence behaviour
both matters and responds to incentives and circumstances. The classical liberal/libertarian element in Anglosphere culture is a response both to inherent cultural diversity (so dealing with diverse expectations and preferences: there is a reason the most liberal form of economics originally grew up in the reductio ad absurdem of culturally diverse polities, the Danubian Monarchy) and to its insulation from immediate external threats.
Protection against both the unruled and other rulerships is something a rulership can offer. Conversely, ability to move between rulerships—the competitive jurisdictions effect—can be a check on the actions of rulers. (This was important in both European and Japanese—given the extent that daimyo could make the rules for their provinces—institutional development.)
The collapse of central government in Somalia has led to some libertarian trumping of Somalia as displaying the possibility of a stable stateless order.
This being the stateless order which has brought us warlords, pirates and dumping of pollutants. In other words, we get the modern versions of the violence and predation that a lack of a protective order created historically.
“Stable stateless order” commentary from Michael van Notten, the von Mises Institute, the Independent Institute should be taken with large shovelfuls of salt. Particularly as the CIA Factbook entry makes quite clear that it is more a case of competing statelets than genuine statelessness.
More conventional analysts describe the situation as a power vacuum, which has been filled by Islamic militants. (What’s Somali for ‘Taliban’ I wonder? Remember how the Taliban originally came to power in Afghanistan: by providing a more motivated providers and imposers of public order.)
The Times article makes Somali developments sound like a fairly conventional consolidation of a new sovereign authority: a mixture of armed might and better provision of basic public goods (such as courts), each feeding off the other.
Lack of a central authority does not mean all economic activity ceases. Some can actually flourish—Somalia has effective mobile phone systems. But there are basic issues such as, well, protection against violence, that tend to encourage creation of a sovereign authority sooner or later. Lack of a state does not mean a life free of coercion: it can mean quite the opposite.
The paradox of politics
“Rulership is an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself.” Ibn Khaldun
The paradox of politics is that we need a sovereign authority to protect ourselves against predators but sovereign authorities are themselves the most dangerous potential predators. This paradox can be managed with varying degrees of success, but never solved. Those who claim that either (1) it’s easy, don’t have a government or (2) there is some form of government that just won’t be predatory, are both equally away with the pixies.
I am reminded of a comment I read some time ago:
I tend to think of libertarianism as an ambiguity translated into a political philosophy. They take the sentence “no government works particularly well” and assume that it means “no government works particularly well”. So to speak.
Though the second madness (there can be some inherently non-predatory government) has generally been much more common than the first (just get rid of government).
The American Revolution was comparatively successful precisely because none of the Founders thought for a moment that government was, or could be, inherently trustworthy. (Contemporary American politics consists of two sides each accusing the other of not getting the American Revolution: they are both correct.) The French Revolution was a failure because Robespierre and his friends thought that a Reign of Virtue could be created.
One Revolution created a constitutional order robust enough to survive a hard-fought civil war. The other slaughtered political opponents in public spectacles, pioneered the savage repression that has come to be associated with its successor Revolutionary Projects and ended up in a militarised autocracy.
Clearly, trust in government as (whether in current practice or future possibility) a realm of virtue is dangerous, arrogant and stupid. Such misplaced confidence comes in various forms. The tyrannies and slaughters of Leninism and Nazism are one extreme, the most extreme manifestations of the tendency of state power to kill.
A much milder, and more common version, is the notion that interests are outside the state’s realm of politics and policy—rather than politics and policy creating, and being open to, being “gamed by” interests—so that the state can be trusted to “manage” and “be insulated from” such interests. (A point nicely made here and, a bit more formally, here.)
But the record of the madness of believing the political paradox can be solved by the “right” sort of “virtuous” government—the arrogant delusion that centuries of wrestling with the problem of containing power doesn’t apply to those who are sufficiently Clever and Virtuous—does not mean that the delusion that the political paradox can be solved simply by not having government is any more correct. Not least because it is a ban that cannot be sustained. As Mogadishu and its environs have been discovering.
But not only is it a ban that cannot be sustained, it is a ban that we should not want sustained. The human possibilities from living in a stable legal order are so much greater than from the lack of it that a surprising amount of political malfeasance is worth the difference. Not only for basic protections, but in massively lowering transaction costs: something that, in itself, hugely increases social possibilities.
If we want a strong system of rights across a significant territory and range of people, we need those rights to be believed in, to be signalled and to be enforced, where the signalling and enforcement thereby strengthens the belief. In other words, a system of acknowledged rights. Only an extensive legal order can do that. An extensive legal order that statelessness does not and cannot provide.
* This is the error that the claim that “marriage is for children” makes. Marriage is for (usually two) people to build a life together. It is building that life together which makes marriage a suitable vehicle for raising children. But a marriage does not have to have children to fulfil its primary function.