The General Evidence on Anarchy is All Around Us

A reply to Nicole Hassoun for the Molinari Society meeting, December 29, 2008

by William Thomas




In her comment for this panel, Nicole Hassoun uses an element of my paper “Objectivism Against Anarchy” (in Anarchism/Minarchism, Long and Machan, eds.) as a foil for a methodological comment. Her point is that anecdotal evidence of cases cannot be decisive. If we want to consider empirical evidence, she says, we need “macro-level” evidence.

She also adds that perhaps we should not care about the practical implications of our political ideals. Perhaps this was the point she meant to emphasize: I’m not sure. However, to that I must comment that practical implications have to matter. I hope that all of us here would agree that we have antecedent commitments to rationality and human well-being that we think any human institution, including any political system, should accord with.

That said, Hassoun’s comment got me thinking about the evidence that is brought up in discussions of anarchy, and this brought to the forefront of my mind a basic question I have about what anarchism is and means.

Anarchism means, of course, a social order with no government. Anarchist arguments usually try to show that all governments are illegitimate (as does our panelist Crispin Sartwell in Against the State) and/or that a social order without government is possible and preferable (e.g. Roderick Long, “Market Anarchism as Constitutionalism” in Anarchism/Minarchism). Empirical debates around anarchism usually revolve around looking for situations without government. Then we debate cases: is Somalia a valid test case? What about university security forces? What about the Polish Confederation? The Law Merchant?

To move beyond anecdotes like these, we need to identify a principle that would isolate market anarchist behavior from other kinds of behavior. And this where my question comes into play.

Market anarchism, as well as I understand it, is a positive hypothesis about political organization. Market anarchism holds that a society in which people can act independently to defend their own rights, is one in which a legal order consonant with rights can and should evolve without any need for a unitary government as such. The political process in a market anarchy, in other words, will see to it that rights are protected, or at least better protected than they otherwise would be.

This is an analogy to free market economics, which holds that if people act on their own self-interest and deal with each other by trade (and if they are unable to impose externalities on each other), they can and should reach efficient relations of trade, employment, and production. The market process gives everyone powerful incentives to work to improve the quality and quantity of tradable goods.

For evidence of free market behavior, we look to historical situations where people have acted with freedom to own and trade property. For instance, a debate is currently raging over whether the current financial crisis provides a clear case of the results of allowing people to deal with each other freely by contract and trade. We wouldn’t accept obviously regulated institutions as evidence: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac aren’t good examples of the free market at work. But perhaps the Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO) market is a good example of the free market at work, since those contracts and the market for them were cooked up in private firms and between private firms, with no government involvement beyond providing background contract law.

My point in mentioning these cases isn’t to discuss them in detail: my point is simply this, that some economic activities, or societies, count as evidence of the free market at work, and others don’t. The difference, if we boil it down to essentials, is that some appear to be conducted free from the initiation of force, and others do not. Broad empirical studies, like the Economic Freedom of the World report, use this principle to analyze the effects of economic freedom around the globe and over time.

Now, as regards anarchism, this is where I find myself deeply puzzled.

A market anarchist society is one in which people can act independently to defend their own rights. Another way of putting this is to say that there are no “barriers to entry” in providing legal services. But, what would count as a society where people cannot act independently to protect their rights? What would count as a “barrier to entry” in a field in which to enter is to be willing to contest by force the policies of competing institutions?

It seems to me that in every society people can act independently to defend their own rights; whether they choose to do so is another matter. After all, it’s a basic principle of methodological individualism that individuals do the acting in all human institutions.

When we get right down to it, what we are talking about here is not trade, but violence. There is nothing preventing anyone from taking up arms to defend his liberty, except the fact that plenty of others will probably take up arms to defend the government, the law, and their own political ideal. And if this is right, all political institutions, including the governments and international organizations we have today, are the products of the competition between individuals. The process aspect of market-anarchist theory is being tested every day, and the choice of the people is almost always and everywhere government, and mostly illiberal government at that.

So let me put my question this way: free market economic behavior is only at work when people are economically free; but what is the corresponding condition of freedom for market anarchist behavior to be allowed to work?

The market anarchist can’t argue that in the political arena today, people are not free to defend their own rights. If he did, this would seem to imply that anarchic provision of law can only take place in the context of some overarching order that already rules out violations of rights, or at least rules out any form of government.

I advocate limited government because I think that the effective provision of law is necessary for rights to be protected as a social norm: thatís what I take a limited government to do, whatever its elements may need to be. In aiming toward such a society, we should work to clarify what rights are, why we need them, what they imply, how they can be institutionalized, and how they can be effectively protected. Insofar as many anarchist accounts seem to assume that some process as such will ensure rights protection, I think this is assuming the result we need to work to create. It is this assumption about process that my question today is meant to address.

If what we have today politically is in fact the result of free competition in the provision of law and the use of force, then the general evidence of the effects of competition over governance lies in every political institution that has ever existed, not in some subset. We don’t need statistical tools to tease out the evidence: we just need to study political history.

If this is right, so much the worse for the idea that there is a strict analogy to market behavior in the competition to control the use of force. But then so much more will we need theorists, researchers, and advocates, whatever we call ourselves, who want to build a culture that values and institutionalizes liberty.

William Thomas
The Atlas Society