The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published August 9, 2009,
as Part of Issue CCII of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 2, 2014
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Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CII of The Rational Argumentator on August 9, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator. The arguments in it continue to be relevant to discussions regarding minarchism and anarcho-capitalism, and therefore it is fitting for this publication to provide these arguments a fresh presence.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 2, 2014
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As one of the many libertarians who loves individual freedom and free markets but nevertheless perceives an important role for government, I have been challenged numerous times on my stance. The best way to describe my position is that I am a minarchist in theory; I happen to agree with Thomas Jefferson that “that government is best which governs least,” and yet I recognize that an active government is necessary for combating force and fraud and for ensuring that the natural rights of individuals are not transgressed upon by other private parties. In practice, I am an incrementalist – a strong supporter of evolutionary change rather than revolutionary change of any sort. I believe that real-world political reform is a delicate process, and that the sequence of transitions matters just as much as the abstract desirability of any given transition. We want to implement the right changes, but we also need to implement them in the right order – just as a doctor who wishes to cure a patient using theoretically sound procedures cannot just apply the procedures in an arbitrary sequence and hope to succeed.

Following Murray Rothbard (who, unlike me, was a noted anarcho-capitalist), I believe that liberty is the most desirable political end, but it is not necessarily the most desirable end of all. The length, prosperity, and security of every individual’s life are to me much more important – and I see liberty as the surest means of attaining those ends to the greatest extent. However, it is possible for those ends to also be partially and tolerably well attained – at least in the short term – in an environment that lacks complete liberty. This is why I developed a rough system that “measures” degrees of government oppression using a mixture of cardinal and ordinal approaches. Irrespective of the particular criteria of comparison, any reasonable thinker will agree that some governments today are much more tolerable than others – and a few are quite innocuous and even outright beneficent, especially when we consider governments over smaller jurisdictions, such as states and localities, and particular agencies of those governments which do not employ coercion to any substantial extent. Metaphysically, I agree with Ayn Rand that there is an objective reality, where A = A – i.e., every particular thing is what it is and not what one’s mental model of it happens to be. Thus, I believe in judging every particular instance of government or governance not just as “government or governance in general” but rather as precisely what it is specifically – which means that a government is nothing more than the sum of the people who compose it and their actions, which need to be judged on their own merits or lack thereof. I am therefore open to the possibility that some governments may be able to solve some problems without infringing on natural rights at all. I am equally open, of course, to the possibility that those problems may be solved on the free market without government participation.

Here, I will present a basic outline of my objections to anarcho-capitalism as it is typically presented today. Anarcho-capitalism can be defined as the position that government is unnecessary altogether and that market-based services can provide all of the essential functions of government recognized by the minarchist as legitimate – including police protection, protection from foreign invaders, enforcement of contracts, and adjudication of disputes.

My Foremost Political Goal

I define a state of complete liberty as the absence of the initiation of violence or coercive dishonesty by any individual against any other individual. By “violence” I mean the physical disruption of either the integrity of an individual’s body or that of the material things which that individual owns. The term “coercive dishonesty” encompasses fraud, breach of contract, bad-faith dealings, and failure to fully disclose information that would affect the decision of a party in a business transaction. By “initiating” violence or coercive dishonesty I mean being the first party to inflict such acts on another, without having had such acts inflicted on oneself by that other and without defending some other innocent party against those acts inflicted by that other. I do not consider retaliatory force – provided that it is a proportional response to the initiated force and does not harm innocent parties – to be illegitimate or undesirable.

Thus, I believe that the state of the world which minimizes violence and coercive dishonesty as much as possible is the most desirable state. To be sure, both many governments and many private parties throughout history have engaged in these heinous acts – and I am not defending any entities that have. My position does not embrace governments as they currently are, but as they can be and ought to be. Anarcho-capitalists may object to my position by arguing that few, if any, governments in history have subscribed to minarchist principles and initiated no violence or coercive dishonesty. To this, I will reply by quoting John Lennon: “You may call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” Few, if any, societies in history have been viably anarcho-capitalist, either. Neither my position nor the anarcho-capitalists’ has any existing real-world incarnation. The question before us, then, is which of these positions would result in less overall violence and coercive dishonesty if implemented in practice?

Objection 1: Lack of an Ultimate Arbiter

Anarcho-capitalists posit that dispute resolution – be it of the character of police action or judicial proceedings – can occur among entirely private entities on the free market without any government involvement at all. For sake of conciseness, I will call the entities that engage in this manner of dispute resolution DRAs – or dispute resolution agencies.

It is true that many forms of dispute resolution can occur without government participation and do occur in this manner today – within families and business arrangements subject to private arbitration. If a private dispute is resolved satisfactorily by the relevant private parties themselves, then there is no need for recourse to government. However, there also exist instances – all too many today, as evidenced by the overwhelmed American judicial system – where private parties cannot reconcile their differences solely through private means. Anarcho-capitalists’ typical response to this is that in a wholly free market (as they define it, that is, with no government altogether) ex ante arrangements would exist whereby, if DRA X and DRA Y – representing two different and opposing parties in a dispute – could not reach a mutually satisfactory decision, the power of decision would be delegated to a third DRA – Z. This is conceivable, but it is by no means guaranteed that such an arrangement would occur in all cases. Thus, under anarcho-capitalism, there is nothing theoretically preventing there being no ultimate resolution to a dispute – ever – from the standpoint of legitimacy, in which case there would be no recourse left but to the principle of “might makes right.” If a dispute cannot be resolved peacefully, then it will devolve into violence – which is the least desirable of all outcomes. Anarcho-capitalism lacks an ultimate arbiter that would step in irrespective of prior contractual arrangements or lack thereof in order to quell the initiation of violence if it were to occur.

It is conceivable that a government could leave most dispute resolution to the private market – unless the market has demonstrated its failure to achieve lasting, peaceable resolution. In that case, the government, as the ultimate arbiter, would need to intervene and offer a resolution, either through a decision of its courts or through the interposition of armed agents whose presence would prevent violence from erupting. It is important to remind my readers that my foremost objective is the prevention of violence breaking out. If two private DRAs were about to begin a miniature war – and they happened not to have contractual procedures in place for preventing it beforehand – then it is desirable for a third agency with greater powers than a mere private entity to decisively put an end to such coercive and damaging behavior.

Objection 2: Lack of Legitimate Enforcement against Violent Non-Parties to Contracts

The way an anarcho-capitalist society would work – according to most of its advocates – is that all members would bind themselves by contracts in their mutual interactions, and the contracts would stipulate consequences for non-compliance. This raises an interesting issue: What if a person within the society refused to bind himself by any contracts whatsoever and simply raided, stole, and murdered as he saw fit? If there is no law other than what individuals choose to bind themselves by, then what legitimate recourse do other non-coercive members of the society have against this initiator of violence? Moreover, if this person were to team up with a host of others who similarly chose not to bind themselves by any contracts that prohibit initiation of force, could not a formidable criminal gang form and terrorize – if not overwhelm – the peaceful portions of the anarcho-capitalist society? Of course, somebody in the anarcho-capitalist society could always simply kill or detain the aggressors in practice, without regard for whether the aggressors broke a contract or not. However, such an act would not be legitimate in an anarcho-capitalist society. Illegitimate acts can and do occur – both with and without governments – but what counts as an illegitimate act matters. Under a government, murder can and does happen, but murder is considered illegitimate. Under anarcho-capitalism, murder by non-parties to any contracts is not illegitimate, but punishing by force a person who commits such a murder is illegitimate. A system where legitimacy fails to apply to actions with obvious morality and desirability is a troubling system indeed.

Objection 3: The Oxymoron and the Danger of Markets in Force

A market arrangement is an arrangement based on voluntary participation of all parties – an arrangement where trading is substituted for compulsion. On a free market for a typical good or service – such as an item of food or a construction job, for instance – no individual is required to buy and no individual is required to sell, except on terms mutually favorable and explicitly agreed upon. However, the term “market” no longer applies in this sense when any element of compulsion is introduced. When a “market service” involves wielding weapons and enacting violence against individuals who do not wish to have this violence inflicted upon them, it ceases to be a “market service” and becomes something quite different. This does not necessarily make such a service illegitimate, of course – as the potential for retaliatory force is a necessary component in minimizing the initiation of force. However, this difference does invalidate the application of typical principles of analyzing markets to such “services.” There can be no market-based analysis of a service that does not entirely rely on voluntary consent from all parties involved.

One of the glaring dangers of a “market service” specializing in the use of force is that such a service could simply use the force it “produces” to extort or steal other people’s wealth instead of earning it in voluntary trades. Without an external authority to enforce a prohibition on this behavior, there is no guarantee that such behavior would not occur. A free-market DRA would not always do this, of course, but there are conceivable scenarios where every incentive would favor such behavior. Only when there are substantial disincentives to the use of force from other armed parties on a free market or when the DRA administrator is particularly humane, benevolent, and enlightened could a DRA be reasonably expected not to violate individual rights. There are two ways for such incentives to arise without reliance on anyone’s personal virtues. Either 1) there could exist a “balance of power” among the DRAs such that each of them is afraid of transgressing against clients of the other or 2) there could exist an authority external to the DRAs that would always protect the parties unjustly aggressed upon, irrespective of the power differential between the aggressors and the targets of aggression. I favor solution 2), because it is not as contingent on a particular balance of power being in place.

Moreover, many anarcho-capitalists claim that one of the problems with government is that it has a monopoly on the use of force and that, as a monopoly, it necessarily offers a lower quality and lower quantity of its product at higher prices. I urge the reader to recall, however, that we are not here discussing a monopoly on otherwise entirely voluntary transactions. It is useful to ask the question whether it is desirable to have force offered in “higher quality,” higher quantities, and a lower price. I, for one, would prefer it to be more expensive to kill a person rather than less – and for the methods of killing to be both of lower quality (i.e., less reliable at killing) and available in lower quantities. Perhaps a monopoly on force has the potential to minimize the use of force compared to “competition” in force. This, I believe, is an empirical question – but even the question itself challenges many anarcho-capitalists’ assertions that governments are necessarily bad because they are monopolies on the use of force.

Objection 4: Each Person a Judge in His Own Case

This objection to anarcho-capitalism comes from none other than one of history’s first libertarians – John Locke. Locke believed that a government is necessary to resolve disputes and decide on punishments, because no individual is qualified to be an impartial judge in his own case. Virtually all of us, when we feel wronged, have a tendency to exaggerate the magnitude of the injury we have suffered and to demand a punishment that is likely to be disproportionate to the offense. On the other hand, when a person has wronged somebody else, he has an incentive to maintain his innocence or to argue that his act was not as grievous as was truly the case. A third party, not itself a victim or a perpetrator of the wrongful act, is needed to ascertain both the facts of the case and the apportionment of guilt and punishment. Sometimes, such a third party could indeed be a private arbiter. However, it is entirely possible for two private DRAs to each be vested – either emotionally, financially, or both – in the interests of their particular clients in a manner that would detract from objectivity in reaching a decision. In that case, I believe that an indispensable role exists for government to provide the desirable impartial arbitration.

Objection 5: Over-Emphasis on Names, Under-Emphasis on Reality

My concern with anarcho-capitalism is it substitutes consideration of the names of political arrangements for the reality of those arrangements – i.e., the physical actions performed by physical people in the physical world. Whether a function is called a “market” function or a “government” function is not as important as the physical movements involved in carrying out that function. If the physical movements involved do not cause disruption of body or property (as in violence) and do not involve the formation of chemical reactions corresponding to false impressions of reality in the brains of parties to a transaction (as in coercive dishonesty), then the action is legitimate from the standpoint of natural law. On the other hand, if the physical movements of individuals correspond to acts of violence or coercive dishonesty, then these actions are illegitimate – irrespective of whether the individuals call themselves (or are called by others) government officials, free-market DRAs, or private gangsters.

Anarcho-capitalists might respond here by noting that, in the 20th century, governments have killed more people than possibly all private crime in human history. This is true – but it does not undermine the case for any government whatsoever. The killing was done by some governments – such as the governments of Nazi Germany, the USSR, and Maoist China – but not others, such as many of the governments of American cities, towns, and villages. Moreover, even in the governments that perpetrated the killings, only some of the officials were responsible for either ordering the killings, promoting them as desirable, or carrying them out. Millions of government employees have never committed a single coercive action (and yes, that even includes their mode of earning a living – as quite a few government positions are not tax-financed). It does not seem fair to lump a peaceful bureaucrat doing research or mediating consumer complaints at his desk with an NKVD officer massacring villagers in the Ukraine. Both are “government” functionaries, but they could not be farther apart in terms of what they do, and the atrocities of the latter do not de-legitimize the former. The anarcho-capitalist characterization of all government as violent, coercive, and unnecessary is a poor substitute for a thorough consideration of reality. Moreover, it is a violation of the principle of methodological individualism, which evaluates the actions of each person as an individual person, and not primarily as a member of a collective. Collectives do not act or think; only individual people do – although the incentives people face depend on the institutional structure to which those people are subject.

Objection 6: No Practical Application

To date, I have not found a single viable proposal for the attainment of anarcho-capitalism in the real world. Anarcho-capitalists have tended to spend most of their time on either 1) describing what an ideal anarcho-capitalist society would be like or 2) discussing why government, in its various manifestations, is undesirable. At the same time, some anarcho-capitalists have disdained and even actively discouraged participation in “the system” as it currently is, because that would grant “implicit recognition” to existing power structures. During the 2008 Republican Primaries, for instance, many anarcho-capitalists (though, of course, not all of them; I do not mean to offer a blanket characterization) endeavored to actively dissuade people from supporting the Ron Paul movement, arguing that attempting to reform the U.S. government from within would grant legitimacy to the structures of the U.S. government. These anarchists were preoccupied with formal structures over the substantive functions of the government – which could be better or worse than they are today. Moreover, these anti-Ron-Paul anarcho-capitalists undermined a movement that had the potential to eliminate many of the abuses of the U. S. federal government against its subjects’ liberties.

I happen to believe that political theory is more than a mind game; it has relevance to the real world, and it ought to have real-world implications for how we act in our own lives. It is not enough to simply state that one would like the world to be a certain way. Rather, a specific, technical, and quite involved series of steps is necessary to transition from the status quo to any state considered desirable. To simply contemplate the end outcome without any idea of how to attain it or even approach it is to divorce one’s political thinking from reality. We find ourselves today with a highly imperfect political system – one that involves numerous violations of individual liberties and also jeopardizes the economic prosperity and technological progress of the Western world. To solve today’s political problems, we cannot but participate in government in some way for the purposes of reforming it or at least protecting ourselves. To reject government altogether instead of endeavoring to improve it is to hide from the real, pressing problems of our time.

Perhaps the anarcho-capitalist ideal will be realizable in some distant future time, once human beings have progressed morally and technologically to such an extent that the initiation of force is no longer lucrative to anybody. I even suggested that this would happen in my short story, “The Fate of War.” In that enlightened time, violence would altogether not be within the realm of human consideration, and a viable anarcho-capitalism would be the natural corollary to that state of affairs.

Meanwhile, however, we are alive today – and if we do not have that which we consider good within our lifetimes, we shall not have it at all. If it is liberty we want – and the anarcho-capitalists have not come up with a viable way to have it without government – then we must have liberty with government. This endeavor will require working through government as well as through private channels; it will require not rejecting the existing system, but modifying it incrementally to move it toward more liberty and less violence. At the same time, a revolution against government is the least desirable course of action, because it would devastate our current levels of prosperity, health, and stability. Individuals who are wealthy, productive, and in control of their lives will come, over time, to civilly demand increasing amounts of independence from centralized control. On the other hand, individuals whose livelihoods have been ruined and whose prospects for upward mobility have been thwarted by an unstable macroeconomic and political climate – which inevitably accompanies revolutions – are easy prey for demagogues and would-be tyrants. Advocates of freedom must be patient, civil, and cautious. While challenging abuses of government authority as such abuses occur, freedom-loving people ought never to do anything that would undermine the standard of living or the safety and comfort of people in the Western world.