Reply To Alrenous On Anarcho-Capitalism

Alrenous has graciously penned a rebuttal to my piece on anarcho-capitalism. Most of our differences of opinion arise from a misunderstanding of my original argument, for which I, as the original author, am of course responsible, so I hope here to clarify matters that I did not adequately express before. Some disagreements, however, are more substantive, going to the very heart of anarcho-capitalism; Alrenous’s understanding of anarcho-capitalism is quite unique and deserves special attention.

First, let me address the misunderstanding. In my piece, I presented three potential Ancapistans: the United States of Ancapistan, the Free Town of Ancapistan, and a world containing the Free Towns of Ancapistan, Nozickville, and Rothbardia. Alrenous erroneously assumes that these are supposed to be realistic depictions of what would happen were the state abolished, and the bulk of his criticism concerns the implausibility of these scenarios. We cannot assume, he claims, that Ancapistan would look anything like what I have imagined. Indeed, the very reason for establishing Ancapistan is that neither we nor those who presently hold power are as wise as the market process, which will ultimately decide the form Ancapistan takes.

This is all well and good but also beside the point. My purpose in imagining these three Ancapistans was not to consider them as remotely likely outcomes; rather, it was to employ the method of imaginary constructions. The archetypal use of this method is Mises’s Evenly Rotating Economy in which everyone has perfect knowledge of the future but still goes through the motions of economic activity. The ERE is utterly fantastic, but it is still useful for elucidating the difference between profit and interest.

The three Ancapistans serve the same function: to help tease out details and nuances of anarcho-capitalism that aren’t immediately obvious. They are carefully constructed artifacts manufactured for the sole purpose of occasioning specific questions. The only requirement for these scenarios is that they arise through processes sanctioned by anarcho-capitalist norms.

The three Ancapistans do meet this requirement for Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism. Rothbardianism starts with a basically Lockean property system but updated to fix various problems in Locke’s scheme. The Lockean proviso is gone, and original appropriation consists of altering un-owned resources in an objective and intersubjectively ascertainable fashion, whatever that means for the resource in question. Contracts regarding the exchange and use of property allow for a wide variety of relationships: buying and selling of goods, loans of funds, rents for land, insurance policies, and even corporations and community covenants allowing for collective decision-making. There are also a variety of rules governing what sorts of contracts can be made and enforced, requiring many volumes to fully enumerate and describe, but which roughly correspond to those points of agreement between the common and civil laws.

Rothbardianism has three great advantages. The first is that it is extremely flexible: pretty much whatever way a group of people want to peacefully live together can be arranged according, though some clever lawyering may be required. The second advantage is that it is realistic: it actually matches how people have settled and continue to settle disputes in the real world, not perfectly of course, but still quite closely.

The third advantage is an intellectual one: Rothbardianism makes a clear distinction between what is lawful (its concern) and what is prudent, equitable, aesthetically pleasing, or what-have-you. This makes it possible to compare reality with an ideal, and allows people to act contrary to other norms. It may be a good idea to lock your door when you go out, but if you don’t, Rothbardianism will not excuse the man who stole your television set.

Alrenous’s anarcho-capitalism is a rather different animal. He does not follow the Lockean theory of property. Instead, he identifies a person’s property with those resources the person is capable of defending. If you can defend something from someone trying to take it, then it’s yours; if you can’t defend it, then it wasn’t yours to begin with.

This may sound like a bad caricature of anarchism or a rephrasing of “Might is Right,” but there is more to it than that. Where Rothbardianism looks first to establish property rights and leaves for another time the question of how to defend them, Alrenous makes defense primary and looks for legitimacy later. There is good reason for this inversion: you can claim as yours all the resources you like, but if you cannot defend your claim against rivals, well, then your claim doesn’t amount to very much.

Alrenous’s approach has the advantage of giving people with poor impulse control and high time preference a very good reason to respect private property: if they do not, they suffer immediate and severe retribution. Defense also doesn’t have to be individual; you and your friends can band together or you can hire someone else (probably multiple someones) to do the job for you. These organizations of people also enforce contracts, demand arbitration, and maintain the anarcho-capitalist order by punishing those who seek to disturb it.

Sounds good so far, but let’s look a bit deeper. How do you make sure that your defense organization doesn’t loot your property? After all, you’re expecting them to defend you from enemies that you couldn’t handle yourself—they’d better be dramatically more powerful than you are alone. There are three ways.

One, you can defend yourself really well and specifically develop defenses against your defense organization. For instance, though your town might build high walls to protect against invaders, you can still fortify your own house. Alternatively, there is the possibility of switching defense providers. If your current provider menaces you, you simply hire someone new who will be eager to prove his worth.

The danger with both of these options is that they can be turned against you. Suppose you contract to do some work for your neighbor Jim but he stiffs you on the bill. You appeal to your shared defense organization to enforce the contract. If Jim can defend himself or can switch providers, you might well find yourself in a pickle. This isn’t likely to happen often, but more than one city has devolved into feuding factions because one man injured another and comparable forces supported the cause of each.

The third way to defend yourself is to only hire people whom you trust. These may be co-religionists, relatives and co-ethnics, long-term trading partners, or just good friends of yours, ideally some combination of all four. These factors help you together form a high-trust society in which the likelihood of your defense provider trying to loot your or your neighbors trying to cheat you is dramatically smaller.

Now what about arbitration? If the criterion for ownership of a resource is the ability to defend it, why would anyone submit to arbitration? If you can take and hold a resource, you do that; if you can’t, then you don’t get it. Everything seems fairly straightforward.

Arbitration comes about because war is expensive even when you’re sure to win. Jim can hole up in his house, but what if he wants to go to the market? Trade is very hard to engage in when you’re constantly trying to cheat everyone or resorting to violence all the time. It’s much simpler and cheaper to submit your disputes to third parties and abide by their decisions.

All in all, it looks like Alrenous’s approach is actually superior to the Rothbardian one. By making defense the basis of private property, we have ensured at the outset that property rights will be protected. The Rothbardian legal system comes into effect out of this milieu not because everyone is ideologically committed to anarcho-capitalism but because it’s a good idea. And material interest is a much more secure foundation than ideology.

I know, dear reader, that you’ve been awaiting this for a long time now, and I shall not disappoint: there are problems. The main problem is that I don’t have to formulate some far-fetched fantasy in order to find a world in which Alrenous’s rule that it’s yours if and only if you can defend it holds sway; we’ve already got one: the real world. The one with states all over it.

So what went wrong? How did we get states where we should have gotten anarchy?

To see this, let’s first consider the following question: how would Ancapistan prevent a state from emerging? Statists raise this question quite frequently, and anarcho-capitalists have a number of responses. The long and the short of these responses is that Ancapistan is a stable equilibrium: any perturbation, any attempt to establish a state, will be met with force adequate to eliminate it. Today we live under states which defend their power vigorously; in the same way Ancapistan will organically defend itself.

Alright, but what guarantees that Ancapistan can sustain its equilibrium indefinitely? This equilibrium depends on a kind of balance of power between all the defense providers; why should we assume this balance of power will be perpetual?

In fact, nothing assures that Ancapistan will last forever. Nor should we expect it to; it is unreasonable for the statists to make such a demand. Societies wax and wane and so do their institutions. The Ancapistanis of today are fierce defenders of their liberties; their grandchildren may be different creatures.

Now let’s consider another imaginary construct. You live on an island and in a town established and protected along anarcho-capitalist lines. One day, however, a large group of strangely dressed people calling themselves Athenians appears and makes various demands of you and your people. They call upon you to maintain an Athenian garrison, accept rule by what they call a “democracy,” and join the Delian League, a group of cities who pay tribute to Athens. If you refuse, they threaten to level your town, kill all your men, and enslave your women and children.

Now, you’re none too keen on accepting these terms, but you don’t have very good options. Your own town’s defenses could hold out for a while, but these Athenians have a reputation for persistence and the wealth to support their troops through a long siege. Perhaps a network of defense providers could defeat the Athenians? Indeed, there is one called the Peloponnesian League, led by your friends the Lacedaemonians, that has fought mightily against Athens, but that conflict has proven extremely expensive and the Lacedaemonians have agreed to peace with the Athenians.  Justice argues against acquiescing to the Athenians’ threats, but material interest suggests capitulation.

Indeed, the Melians found to their sorrow that in the real world “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

At various points in time people have discovered ways of defending claims to resources that are dramatically more effective than those used by their neighbors, and instead of sharing this knowledge for the benefit of all mankind, they used it to subjugate their neighbors. That is why states emerged out of the supposedly stable equilibrium of Ancapistan, and states remain in existence because drastic disparities of power also remain.

So does this mean that anarcho-capitalism is bunk? Should we cast aside this lovely dream, Ancapistan, and all become statists “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” style?

I say, “No.” Show me a flawless philosophy and I will see it picked apart; show me ideal institutions and I will watch them become corrupt. As Herodotus put it, “Many once great cities are now small, and the small towns of old have grown great in my own day.” Show me a perfect society and I will prophesy its doom.

Rothbardianism reminds us of the value of private property in constituting civilization; Alrenous corrects Rothbardianism’s overemphasis on abstract justice, reminding us that the enjoyment of rights requires the power to defend them. Neither system is perfect, and they both share certain flaws, but they still point in the right direction: civilization as opposed to chaos.

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  1. Wrong Side of History August 10, 2015 at 3:56 pm

    Great post. My objection to ancaps has always been that ‘the state’ is emergent in much of the same way that ‘time’ is emergent.

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