While I don’t know the history of the intellectual movement well, I think it’s safe to say that anarchism, broadly defined, is held in more serious regard in the present than it has been in the past. In recent decades, we’ve seen a lot of anthropological research of early anarchist societies and, at least it seems that, academically anarchist political philosophy has gained a strong base. Contemporary libertarianism, although maybe only in the circles I run in, also has stronger anarchist overtones than it did in the past, probably thanks in large part to Murray Rothbard. But, there are strong reasons not to be an anarchist. Instead, libertarians ought to be more open-ended and instead advocate the, admittedly vague, concept of continual institutional development.
As many faults as present governments have, including democratic institutions, they still provide an order. The sudden dismantling of these institutions would likely cause disorder. Instead, it may make more sense to assume a gradual transition to stateless societies. In this scenario, institutional change is more piecemeal, therefore the shock to order wouldn’t be as disruptive. We can even think about this gradual transition as a perpetual process of institutional competition, where orders arise simultaneously and then are chosen against each other. There might be disagreement about how difficult it would be for society to create the necessary anarchic institutions, but we nevertheless should all more-or-less agree on the necessity of transition.
Most libertarians probably believe in the theory of spontaneous order. But, in spontaneous order ends are chosen by all individuals, and therefore it represents a plurality of opinions, preferences, and beliefs. And, in fact, we don’t actually know what the aggregate outcome will be. An important tenet of the theory is the limitation of human knowledge, implying the inability of one mind to develop complex institutions. In other words, not only is the range of potential outcomes broad, but we don’t know even know what some, or most , of these are.
Doesn’t this present libertarian anarchism with a dilemma? How can we argue that anarchy is preferable to all other possible outcomes, while admitting that we don’t even know what these alternatives are? It could be that a system of political governance is developed, vastly superior to modern day democracy, leading to a different, unique path of institutional evolution that may completely bypass the “anarchy phase.” Alternatively, maybe society will progress into anarchy, but thereafter transition to something else entirely. Advocating anarchy, in other words, is arguing that there is one end that we all ought to work towards, and this ideology, in my opinion, is opposed to liberalism (which is a pluralist philosophy).
Anarchy does have its appeal. There is a substantial literature on anarchic organizations and institutions, from free banking to broader work on anarchic institutions of justice. Much of it could very well be more-or-less right. But, the actual value of this work isn’t in proving the absolute superiority of anarchy, rather its use is in illustrating that there is good reason to believe that we can do better than the present. It helps reduce some of the uncertainty attached to unplanned order. However, it should not be interpreted as this “spontaneous” dialectic, if you will, that somehow must lead to statelessness.
I suppose that one could argue that anarchists aren’t actually advocating for “The” anarchic society, but rather imply a broader concept inclusive of all possible stateless societies. Yet, then we should consider that the term is then an empty concept (apart from the above-mentioned fact that it’s also possible that there will always be a state — even if it looks radically different from present day ones). The institutional possibilities becomes so broad that the term “anarchy” is hardly useful for knowing anything at all about these institutions, apart from the very general and vague concept of “statelessness” (property is territorial monopoly, as such there is an entire spectrum of possible configurations between completely individual sovereignty and the modern state).
Nevertheless, a legitimate argument may be that there is a strong possibility that anarchy is where we’re headed. In this sense, it’s okay to argue a strong feeling in favor of anarchy. In the back of our heads, however, we should always be aware of our fallibility. As Hayek argued, liberals — libertarians or otherwise — shouldn’t be “rationalistic individualists.” We shouldn’t accept theories which necessarily assume a common goal that we’re aware of and understand. Instead, we should accept the limits of our knowledge and instead restrict the range of choice to the area that each, unique, individual — or organization (e.g. the firm) — has enough knowledge on. This process of restriction doesn’t arbitrarily and/or suddenly come into existence, but rather that it has to be developed over time and is therefore necessarily imperfect.
Admittedly, this kind of open-ended individualism can be relatively unappealing. First, it’s hard to come up with a romantic name for it. Second, it invites criticism of nihilism, but even if it were true I’m not sure being skeptical (even very skeptical) is a shortcoming. Third, it forces us to admit that we have no idea where society is headed, undermining our ability to dogmatically oppose concepts we dislike or are uncomfortable with. In some cases there are legitimate arguments against political institutions we know and understand and our opposition to these is sensible, but these represent a minority of potential institutional outcomes. Fourth, it also leads us to recognize the probability of regressive outcomes. The process of spontaneous order, like all complex outcomes of human action, is imperfect too. In this case, though, I think the unappealing position is the most coherent one to take. Otherwise, I’m not sure how you can reconcile the plurality of liberalism with the homogeneity of “The” objective — it ceases to be an individualistic political philosophy.
Addendum: Thank you to whoever linked to this post on Reddit! The first comment on that thread argues that “spontaneous order is anarchy.” Anarchy in what sense? The state is the outcome of a spontaneous order. Is the state, therefore, an anarchic institution? Again, I’m concerned that “anarchy” is becoming an empty concept.