Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Anarchy, State, and Polyanna

Cato Unbound is seemingly taking a summer vacation from issues of broad interest this month to focus on anarchy, a topic which wouldn't even catch my eye, were it not for ten years of dealing with arrogant, anti-intellectual, exasperatingly doctrinaire, largely Rothbardite pop anarcho-capitalists at the grassroots level in the libertarian movement. The level of discussion at Cato Unbound is sure to be above this; the lead essay, by George Mason public choice economist (and Austrian who publishes in mainstream journals!) Peter Leeson, offers something both new and far distanced from the fantasylands and houses-of-cards of the slouches.

Leeson's thesis is that anarchy--taken here to mean decentralized, minimal, semi-voluntary, and spontaneously organized governments--works better than its detractors would think. The evidence cited comes in two parts, the first being the world's relative lack of "effective governments" until very recent times, the second being the success of spontaneous governmental mechanisms in 18th Century pirate vessels and modern-day Somalia.

The State is still neither omnipresent nor omnipotent; social order depends, as surely as it did in the Middle Ages, on voluntary obedience to the law. That people were able to live their daily lives and conduct their business before the days of police raises the fundamental questions about legitimacy. Why do people obey the law? Out of custom, fear of being caught, or common decency? By Leeson's argument, fear is not the only reason, although in an era when thieves or even debtors were sent to the gallows, it cannot be entirely discounted.

Likewise, the interruptions of warfare aside, the Somalian was and in some regions is able to live his daily life in the absence of a central and powerful state. It must be remembered that while many anarchist theories depend on pre- or non- institutional property and contract rights (and are every bit as stupid as that implies), after any collapse or withering away of the state, the property and contract rights are post-institutional. People carry with them some notion of what property rights are and are not, and what obligations are entailed by contract. It doesn't surprise me one bit that the country is doing better under the makeshift institutions set up to protect against criminals and enforce these customary rights and obligations than it was under Siad Barre's "Scientific Socialism" and kleptocracy. That's not much of an accomplishment. What remains to be seen is whether, pace Nozick, the answer to the inadequacies of Somalia's anarchic regime will be increasing standardization and cooperation between the governing institutions spontaneously created in the wreckage of the state.

Someone less friendly to anarchism than Leeson could take the pirate constitutions as evidence of Man's tendency to form governments in his enlightened self-interest. The pirate governments, as described, were as central as can be; Leeson does not describe an on-board free market in governmental services. Neither separation of powers between captain and quartermaster nor the lack of an outside authority to make sure the government follows its law makes pirate ships anarcho-capitalist, no more than the United States is anarchist because it has a President, Congress, Supreme Court, and no higher power enforcing the Constitution. The questions that come up are, again, about legitimacy. A pirate vessel's charter is easily legitimated because joining pirate society is voluntary. Lysander Spooner would be delighted: "Sign here!" On the ground such things simply do not apply, except to clubs and business partnerships.

The question of what happens when the law must be changed remains. Strict universal consensus is out of the question even on pirate ships. When the law changes, take it or walk the plank. Not even anarchy satisfies the aforementioned doctrinaires' precious "non-initiation of force principle".

Especially tricky for anarchies would be diffuse harms with diffuse sources of harm. It does not seem as though people in an anarcho-capitalist society have any means to get around the prisoners' dilemma and ratify a planet-saving Montreal Protocol or create a new property right out of thin air to correct the externality called anthropogenic global warming. Those who, out of stupidity or spite, deny that they're doing anything harmful would secede, a legitimate move in an anarchy. The harm would persist, with war (between a camp with roughly below and roughly above average IQ?) being the only solution.

It is not sufficient for anarchists to merely show that people will create decentralized institutions to enforce customary rights. It must be shown that

  1. Anarchy would not represent a dimunition of liberty, especially a system in which the poor simply do not have rights, to those living under liberal regimes.
  2. Anarchy can accomodate solutions to environmental problems, including those characterized by diffuse harm, diffuse sources of harm, or both.
  3. Anarchy can accomodate pluralism and dissent.

The way for anarchists to show this is to, step by step, effect change towards a more voluntary social order and decentralized government, in other words, to demonstrate. Leeson attempts to show by example, but it, by his own admission, is unconvincing, as pirate ships are situationally much different than common society, and "better than the old Somalia" doesn't stand for much. At least he's not badgering minarchists and undermining the efforts of people supposedly on the same side. This anarchy of the possible is always welcome.

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