Two weeks ago, I discussed state-society, the libertarian minarchists’ vision of a perfect society. What I did not discuss was libertarian anarchism or anarcho-capitalism and for obvious reasons: anarchism demands the abolishing, not the taming, of the state. Today I will address that oversight by analyzing Ancapistan, the goal of anarcho-capitalism, not strictly to criticize it, but to draw out nuances of anarcho-capitalist theory. My argument, put simply, is that anarcho-capitalists should become neoreactionaries.
One advantage state-society has over Ancapistan is that it is much easier for us living today to conceptualize. State apparatus’ are so broad, so firmly entrenched, and have existed for so long that imagining in concrete terms how society would look without the state is much harder than imagining how society would look with a much smaller state. Indeed, the way anarcho-capitalists sometimes talk about Ancapistan makes it sound like some kind of Underpants Gnome scheme:
Step 1: Abolish the state.
Step 2: ??????
Step 3: Profit!
To ameliorate this difficulty, let’s start with something simple. Suppose everyone in the U.S. woke up tomorrow morning a committed anarcho-capitalist and with whatever knowledge is necessary to coordinate the dismantling of the state. Everyone then participates in dismantling the state and at all levels, so there is no more federal government, no more states, no more counties, no more cities, what-have-you.
But then people start rebuilding the old state institutions: the people living in Auburn form a corporation called “the City of Auburn,” and it is located within territory controlled by another corporation—“the state of Alabama”—which in turn is part of “the United States of America.” These institutions are built up in libertarian fashion, with voluntary contracts and property transfers, and there is no conscious scheme or active coordination toward this end; it simply emerges out of the spontaneous order of the market process. Eventually, exactly the same system that presently exists, with all the same agencies, bureaus, powers, and prerogatives, comes into being.
So why did we bother abolishing the state? Everything we didn’t like about the present day has been restored and with the imprimatur of anarcho-capitalism. What good has it done us to tear down the United States of American only to see it replaced with the United States of Ancapistan?
The anarcho-capitalist may respond with a variety of changes I have not noticed. For instance, fractional-reserve banking may not exist in the U.S.A. anymore, police brutality may have been reduced, along with corruption in general, or the U.S.A. is less imperialistic in its foreign policy. But all this is small potatoes next to abolishing the state: if these were the things we wanted, establishing Ancapistan seems like an extremely inefficient way to accomplishing them.
The United States of Ancapistan does offer one feature that the United States of America did not: the possibility of legal exit. If you don’t agree with the process leading to the restoration of the U.S.A. (or if you want out later), you don’t have to participate. At least, no official appears at your door telling you that you are participating whether you like it or not. You may be subject to boycotts or other forms of shunning; there may be some vandalism or other attacks against you that just can’t be solved; or if you can receive justice through the U.S.A. system, the wheels may turn very slowly. If there are a lot of you, y’all could band together and support each other, but even so, there might well be very strong incentives to either acquiesce or leave.
Theoretically, you can exit quite easily; practically, that proposition becomes rather trickier.
It seems that if you expect people to reestablish existing institutions—in other words, if people are basically satisfied with the state structure today—then there is little reason to support anarcho-capitalism. All the fruits of abolishing the state can be reaped more easily by simply reforming the state.
Now let’s shift gears and consider a different scenario, one radically different from the U.S.A. Imagine that some catastrophe strikes the world and utterly destroys society as we know it. However, there is a small group of anarcho-capitalist preppers who survive and form a community somewhere in the wilderness. These preppers band together for mutual support and collective protection from outsiders, and they establish protocols for dispute resolution. To top it all off, each adult swears an oath to abide by the laws of the community.
Years pass and children grow to be adults. When a child reaches the age of majority, he or she is given the choice of swearing the same oath as the founders or being exiled from the community. As the population grows, people begin to appropriate unused land, and the territorial extent of the community begins to grow. Disputes may become more frequent, considering that there are more people to have them, but they are still resolved according to established law, and the Free Town of Ancapistan flourishes.
Now let’s throw some wrenches into this system.
Let’s suppose that the preppers didn’t swear an oath, or at least didn’t make their kids do it when they grew up. Everyone still knows the rights and responsibilities of town citizenship, and people who openly refuse to accept these terms are still exiled, but there is no ritual whereby a person indicates that they consent to the community contract. As long as they don’t leave, they are assumed to give tacit consent.
Tacit consent is a notion frequently invoked to counter anarcho-capitalist claims about the legitimacy of present-day states: the statists claim that everyone knows the terms of living in a country, and if they don’t like those terms, they are free to emigrate. “America: love it or leave it,” they say.
Does reliance on tacit consent transform the Free Town of Ancapistan into the People’s Republic of Prepperville? Is the divide between state and non-state merely that in one you raise your right hand and say some words when you turn 18? Presumably not, but if not, then contemporary states have legitimacy: their subjects do consent to being ruled by them. The problem with states, then, is what they do and how they rule, not that they lack the consent of the governed.
Returning to Ancapistan, let’s not worry about the oath and go in a different direction. Imagine that the Free Town of Ancapistan has a neighbor, the Free Town of Nozickville. Ancapistan and Nozickville each control a certain territory by dint of original appropriation, but this isn’t all the land they use. There is a forest where both Ancapistanis and Nozickvillers hunt deer, which could lead to conflict between the two towns. Fortunately, the Ancapistanis and Nozickvillers reach an agreement on hunting rights, stipulating that the forest will be reserved for hunting, that hunters from both towns will be permitted to hunt there, and that the number of deer each town may hunt will be limited in order to maintain the deer population. They furthermore agree to defend the forest from any outsider who tries to hunt there.
This sounds like a fine exemplum of anarcho-capitalistic legal practice: two parties settling their differences through negotiation and respect for property rights. The problem is that neither town has the right to enforce their claim on the forest against anyone else because they didn’t originally appropriate it. Sure, a hunter owns the deer he kills, but that doesn’t mean he owns the grass the deer eats or the forest where it lives. Even if the towns build a fence around the forest, you don’t automatically own land you enclose with a fence.
So when hunters from the Free Town of Rothbardia come to the forest and kill some deer, Ancapistan and Nozickville naturally protest, but according to anarcho-capitalist theory, they have no grounds to do so, and the Rothbardians would be completely within their rights to ignore their agreement and hunt in the forest anyway. If both sides prove obdurate, what results is war.
Well, crud. Anarcho-capitalism was supposed to prevent war, but here it is causing it. On the one hand, the Ancapistanis and Nozickvillers claim that they had an agreement establishing their exclusive right to use the forest; on the other, the Rothbardians claim that they cannot be bound by an agreement to which they were not party. The root of the dispute is whether property rights have to be established by original appropriation or whether they can be established by convention instead.
Now an anarcho-capitalist would here claim that the two parties would not go to war but instead seek arbitration by a third party. Perhaps, but why should they? If the disputants’ power is lopsided—that is, if Rothbardia could easily capture the forest, or if Ancapistan and Nozickville could easily hold the forest—then the stronger party has little reason to risk their claim by submitting to arbitration. Arbitration might be cheaper, but war is more certain. Only if their powers were comparable would arbitration be expedient, and even then they might well war until they realized its futility.
The only other defense by the anarcho-capitalist would be to say that Rothbardia is in the right—property rights cannot be established merely by convention but only by original appropriation. This has the advantage of preventing war, but it also causes a tragedy of the commons: because no one has property rights over the forest, there is overhunting and the deer die out.
Convention-based property rights are extremely useful for managing resources that are consumed when they are appropriated. You own the deer that you kill through original appropriation, but you only own the wild herd through convention. They’re also useful for settling disputes before they have a chance to fully develop. For instance, Ancapistan and Nozickville could negotiate borders well beyond the territory they have originally appropriated in order to prevent conflicts over land in the future. The only problem with convention-based property rights is that even a committed anarcho-capitalist is not required to respect them if he is not party to the convention that established and sanctioned them. This leads to conflicts which anarcho-capitalism cannot resolve peacefully.
Let’s now try to summarize what we’ve learned by examining these hypothetical Ancapistans.
From the United States of Ancapistan, we learned that abolishing the state is only worthwhile if we think people really want something radically different; otherwise they will just rebuild exactly what we tore down. We also determined that the goal of “exit,” which both anarcho-capitalists and neoreactionaries seek, requires more than the abolition of the state. Eliminating the state, at least as it is currently constituted, may be a necessary condition for “exit,” but it is not sufficient.
From the Free Town of Ancapistan, we learned that whether or not people expressly consent to their government should not be a major concern. If the governing institution is constructive, then tacit consent should be sufficient for us to accept it; if the governing institution is destructive, then we should oppose it because it is destructive, regardless of whether or not people consent to it.
Fetishizing consent is a distraction.
We also discovered that anarcho-capitalism has a serious dilemma: either it must accept that its own system can produce conflicts in which both parties have justification or it must deny the validity of convention-based property rights. Such rights may be extremely useful, but they also open the door to irreconcilable conflict.
Neoreaction and anarcho-capitalism share a deep disquiet about contemporary affairs, a feeling that there is something very wrong with the Western world as it is presently constituted. The main difference is that anarcho-capitalism claims to have found a solution to our problem: abolishing the state and establishing respect for private property. Once this is accomplished, those of us who seek “exit” will be free to leave and build our own institutions, and the destructive elements of our current society will stand revealed and be dismantled.
Neoreaction does not have a solution because we think the situation is much more complex. The state is not the only social evil, nor is it always and invariably the worst social evil. Indeed, the fact that people have created states so frequently indicates that the state arises from some inherent feature of human nature, the irrational desire to enforce one’s will on the world and to dominate others. If the state can put limits on this lust for domination, allowing a basically peaceful society to exist and flourish, we shouldn’t worry too much about whether people actually consent to it or whether every single property right accords with anarcho-capitalist norms. We won’t make the perfect the enemy of the good when it comes to the state.
Anarcho-capitalism, on the other hand, is obsessed with the state and with property rights. An anarcho-capitalist believes that if the proper forms are filled out and filed correctly, all solvable social problems will solve themselves. Sure, not everything wrong with society will be fixed in Ancapistan, but that’s just because we can’t eliminate scarcity. Ancapistan isn’t supposed to be a utopia, just the next best thing.
The road from anarcho-capitalism to neoreaction is paved with the realization that the Cathedral and Leftist entryism are even graver threats than the state. It is easy enough to see that Leftism, with its hostility toward private property, is a natural enemy to anarcho-capitalism, but its institutions and tactics make it an especially dangerous foe.
Anarcho-capitalism accepts that the state requires ideological support in order to survive, but its understanding of the relationship between the state and the organs of propaganda is primitive. It takes as its model the bandit lord who settles down and hires a press agent, assuming the state always holds the upper hand. This is not the case in democracies, where Cathedral-type networks are the actual decision-making bodies. Just on a pragmatic basis the Cathedral is a greater threat than any state: even if you could somehow abolish a Cathedral-controlled state, the Cathedral would simply rebuild it.
Leftist entryism is another phenomenon that is simply too complex for anarcho-capitalism to handle. Physically removing Leftists from Ancapistan is one thing, but given Leftists’ propensity to lie about their motivations and intentions until they acquire the power to enact their agenda, ferreting out hidden Leftists and keeping them out of positions of influence have to be significant concerns for Ancapistan. It does us no good to build a functioning society only for Leftists to swoop in and destroy it.
Neoreaction marks an improvement upon anarcho-capitalism with its flexibility. Anarcho-capitalism is an important set of ideas, emphasizing the importance of private property and the effectiveness of non-state institutions at solving problems today considered solvable only by the state. Combining anarcho-capitalism’s political and legal insights with empirical knowledge of which other practices and institutions contribute to human flourishing will not help us create a perfect society, but it will make our best practicable approximation more resilient.