The Case Against Anarchy

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.

28 thoughts on “The Case Against Anarchy

  1. Fephisto

    “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).”

    I’m not so sure. It may be possible to create an argument that synthesizes the whole ‘counter-revolutionary’ science idea with the ‘rationalistic individualist’ approach. I am afraid I am still thinking this through, but if you’re willing, please let me explain the idea…

    For example, you could argue against Hoppe’s rationalistic individualist approach to ethics for the reasons that you have done so eloquently in this post (I’m not defending argumentation ethics, I’m just using it as an example, so let’s ignore the Murphy/Callahan/etc. counterarguments). Yet, at the same time, there could be made a synthesis with the spontaneous order approach. I can not make the argument fully rigorous, but I imagine it would go something like this:

    Hoppe argues (more or less) that X must be taken as a norm because it is necessary for argument to take place.

    Likewise, Hayek would argue that X is taken as a social norm because the processes of social tradition have allowed X to appear in the emergent ‘ethical order’.

    (for example, ‘X’ in the above could be ‘Private Property’)

    It seems to me that those norms which can be rationally identified via the argumentation principle are necessarily a subset of those norms identified via an evolutionary reasoning. This is because if a norm is necessary for argument to take place, then the same norm is necessary as something that would allow it to survive the selection principles of the social orders. In this way, one might be able to come up with such a synthesis…if what I said makes any sense.

    1. JCatalan

      If I get some of the general ideas in Hayek’s The Sensory Order, he posits that the human mind can only completely understand orders less complicated than itself. I don’t know how this has fared against improvements in psychological theory since then, but at least it’s an interesting idea. It makes sense to be able to recognize relatively low orders of the past and understand them, but I’m not sure if this is really rationalism. Could one rational mind have developed those “low orders” at the time? Also, while this argument may be more of a stretch, it’s possible that there are alternative “low orders” that could have arisen that we just don’t know about — and had they arisen we might have claimed that these were absolutely indispensable (even though, based on our experience, this wouldn’t be true).

      1. Fephisto

        I’m not sure a single mind can comprehend all orders at once either, this is why I said:

        “It seems to me that those norms which can be rationally identified via the argumentation principle are necessarily a subset of those norms identified via an evolutionary reasoning.”

        Emphasis on the word ‘subset’.

        Nonetheless, there _are_ still lower orders that _can_ be identified, and I don’t think that simply because it’s lower order that it’s trivial.

        1. JCatalan

          I guess my point is that just because we can identify these doesn’t mean that they’re orders that ought to exist indefinitely. In other words, that we understand them doesn’t offer them a special role in our theory of the social process.

          1. Fephisto

            …..unless I’m misunderstanding you, you seem to be saying that higher order knowledge might contradict lower order knowledge. Yet, to bring an example out, the creation of the higher order biological processes in nature does not suddenly violate the lower order physical principles like conservation of energy. I think there’s a strong philosophical case that can be made for the knowledge being obtained in lower orders being preserved in higher orders–lest you create an epistemology of complete skepticism, which I’m not sure how it could not end up becoming self-contradictory.

            Does that sound right? I feel like I’m misreading you somewhere.

  2. Mattheus von Guttenberg

    Forget transition, if there were a button to end the state I would blister my thumb pushing it. I’m optimistic about people’s ability to realize their self-interest and spontaneously create institutions toward those ends. I don’t imagine chaos for very long.

    If the govt told us “We’re firing all police officers, we’re not protecting your property anymore,” I don’t think most people would sit on their hands. They would probably call their insurance companies and try to strike a deal, or they would make their own protection “firms” and hire ex-police or something. And I think the emergence of Bitcoin with regards to the monetary situation is analogous.

  3. Eeyore

    So you’re saying:

    1. We should prefer violent institutions over a voluntary society because violent institutions provide us with order.

    2. We should prefer violent institutions over a voluntary society because we can’t perfectly predict what may happen in that completely voluntary society.

    3. We should prefer violent institutions over a voluntary society because the term “anarchy” is an empty concept.

    Prisons also provide “order”. If someone currently in prison is deemed innocent, we should probably just keep them there, or at least come up with a transition program where they’re only introduced to freedom for a couple hours at a time for the first few years before letting them be completely free. We wouldn’t want to cause them any disorder.

  4. JCatalan

    @facebook-654245414:disqus : That could very well be true, but I suspect that in most cases this process will be imperfect. I also suspect that there will be plenty of opportunities for exploitation of power. Further, as we see in, for example, Somalia, anarchy is not the only possible outcome. There could be strong forces, even if they’re exogenous to the society in question (e.g. foreign manipulation), that lead to a new state. Or, what used to be the state can fracture and several independent polities can develop in its place, where you have some anarchic societies and other state-based societies (not that this is a bad outcome). I just think it’s a little bit more complicated than we’d like.

    @TheFlyingDutchman:disqus : Order and disorder aren’t independent of violence. A devolution into disorder will probably come with violence. It may also come with political exclusion due to asymmetries in the distribution of power. So, no, my argument is not that we should reject utopia because of some vague concept of “disorder,” it’s because this utopia, if even feasible, is not immediately feasible and needs to be developed. There are different paths of development, some preferable to others, and all of them will be imperfect. So this dichotomy between “coercive societies” and “non-coercive societies” is a false one. I’d even advance the thesis that there will be plenty of coercive institutions in anarchic society, so advocating anarchy by itself is not the same thing as advocating a utopian non-coercive polity. Finally, in your point on prisons, I’m not arguing against change in general. Institutional development is change. But, there are different degrees of change, many of which can have bad outcomes.

    1. Mattheus von Guttenberg

      That’s true. I hope I’m not painting too rosy a picture. I imagine the transition from a state society to an anarchy or some other political alternative would involve the imperfections you describe. But I would regard any of those as a superior alternative to our current political position. We are regularly and predictably looted, spied upon, killed, etc. just as a matter of current politics. Any reduction of that is welcome.

      I don’t honestly believe a foreign state could ever impose it’s will on the US. We have too many private gun owners who would resist the Russians or the Chinese a la Red Dawn style before succumbing to foreign occupation. I mean, especially with the future advent of 3d printing guns.

  5. JosephFetz

    As you know, I am philosophically an anarchist. In fact, I’ve often said something to the effect that all minarchists are future anarchists, because I think that once you enter the libertarian philosophy and accept it is correct, then it is only a matter of time before you start to trend toward the logical conclusion that the state is abhorrent.

    However, I do have a single thread of belief that is related to conservatism, that is: any radical shift in society will necessarily involve violence and chaos. I have no idea how long that would last, or how deeply it will be realized, but I do believe that to be true. Plus, many radical shifts end up in a worse state than the one you wished to transition from, very rarely does a more preferable state of affairs result (at least historically).

    I don’t make statements to the effect that we should end the current structure of society in any immediate sense because of this belief, but I do attempt to get people to think about the implications of anarchy and the state on their own in hopes that I can change their minds (or that they change their own minds, which is even better), so that we can begin to transition toward a certain direction. Also, I focus more on getting people to accept that decentralization is a far better prospect than centralization, at least in terms of the evolution of human society. Basically, I try to get people to understand that even if we are to have power centers, that it is much more preferable that they be smaller and more discrete rather than larger and systemic. That I think is the idea and trend that I would like to see humanity follow, and eventually reach its logical conclusion: no power centers.

    1. JCatalan

      I think there’s value is leading people towards certain conclusions, and there’s no harm in making the case for a specific set of institutions. I pretty much agree with your sentiments here, but the only qualification I’d make is that while the state is abhorrent, maybe a future state will be better in that regard, or maybe there is *some* possibility that *some* aspect of anarchy will be worse than the coercive properties of the state. For example (and I’m not saying this would happen — it’s an extreme example just to make my point), if anarchy led to the enslavement of masses of people then no matter how bad the state is having a (modern) state may be preferable anyways.

      1. JosephFetz

        One of the problems for those of us who engage in social theorizing is that you never truly know how your theories will manifest themselves in practice. I think that most people who are honest and have spent much time studying and thinking about this are already aware of this, whereas a lot of people who are a little less mature often have knee-jerk reactions to such prospects (“of course it will work, my theory says so”). It is what it is, I just try to be as realistic as I can, even in light of the extremely radical views that I hold.

        Certainly when the founders were forming this government they had no idea how it would evolve over time, I think that most of them were pretty skeptical that it would work out well (Jefferson is a good example). In any case, I doubt that any of them could foresee just how crappy it would become (i.e. that it would turn into this monster that we have now). They were pretty lucky in that the story of the US was one of the rare cases where the chaos and violence of the revolution was pretty short-lived, but whether the result of that was a better or a worse condition than that of the prior is definitely a case that is up for debate.

        Ultimately, in order to get any headway you must change the beliefs of society, there really is no other way, so that is my place. That’s why I spend far more time on the internet and in meetup groups and whatnot, rather than in more political-type atmospheres. What I often fear is that we may change just enough people’s minds that they might try to make the transition too soon, before the rest of society is ready for it. And that would probably end badly and set us back for a long time.

  6. Ferranti

    I don’t think most people would sit on their hands. They would probably call their insurance companies and try to strike a deal, or they would make their own protection “firms” and hire ex-police or something

    Apart from those who couldn’t afford to do so, of course. But hey, omelettes and eggs …

    1. JosephFetz

      There’s no reason to believe that such services would be prohibitively expensive or that there wouldn’t be charity in order to provide for those who couldn’t afford it. Also, those who are in a similar case could certainly pool their resources with others in the same case. In any case, even if we assumed that neither of these cases applied, these people would still be able to free ride off of the benefits of such services provided to others.

      It is not as if this question has not been thought of before and it’s actually not all that hard of a question to answer.

      1. JCatalan

        Your positive externality argument aside (which deserves to be considered), there can be a problem with the assumption that the private market will provide all the necessary institutions. For the market to provide something there has to be a coordinated network of interests. If an anarchic society excludes segments of society — e.g. the homeless, the extremely poor, et cetera –, then outcomes may be non-optimal. This is an important reason as to why we may want something like the state to provide certain members of society with a living income, if they don’t have the opportunity to earn it themselves. If other institutions can include more people in the political debate/process, it may be that they’re preferable.

        1. RePete Nonaggressionist Walker

          An interesting case study is the Amish. There maybe some anomalies
          I’m not aware of, but they have no documented cases of murder within
          their society (done to them but not by them). Same for the extremely
          poor or homeless.

          Although an atheist, I’m willing to learn how
          they and others like them prevent such evils from occurring in the first
          place. Until mainstream culture learns such things, there will be all
          those symptoms to deal with.

          1. Corricopat

            Is it true that the Amish create dependency from an early age and do not provide higher education? They exclude any deviation from their regime? They constrain creativity and resist change? They are in small and limited congregations who all know each other? They are stuck in the 17th to 19th centuries economically (agricultural with some artisanal industries)? Not a wage-based society? Also, to what extent do they provide for medical care, I wonder? I do not know, but I wonder. Interesting group to look at….

        2. JosephFetz

          Is a state institution somehow more efficient and/or more altruistic in providing services to those who are at the lower rungs of society?

          Obviously, somebody will be at the bottom, there is no escaping that, but I don’t know that a state institution is necessary to care for them, or that it could do so better than more private means. Certainly, if people support state welfare, they would certainly support private welfare in the absence of the state.

          I’d much rather that private management, which is entirely dependent upon the effectiveness of their program in order to gain funding, be the giver of such services than to have such services encumbered by the inefficiencies of a bureaucracy.

          Certainly, a bureaucratic management system does not add value in nearly the same way that private management does, because their funding is not based upon market means (they don’t have to rely on the voluntary nature of such funding, they instead impose it by force), thus the management of a bureaucracy cannot be said to be adding value in any economic sense (this is not to say that they can’t do so, but it is unlikely due to the nature of their funding). Also, bureaucratic institutions are not as able to adapt to changes due to regulatory considerations (set rules vs spontaneity) thus they cannot test new procedures and implementations as effectively to meet the ever-changing demands of a live economy. Further, monopoly institutions of welfare aren’t exposed to competition in the same nature that fully private institutions are, thus there is no real incentive to innovate beyond a particular established standard, nor is there any real incentive to cut costs while increasing services.

          None of this is to say that bureaucratic institutions cannot or have not provided beneficial services, but I find that their very nature puts them at a disadvantage in doing so, and that they are also far more susceptible to the whims of the political winds (just or unjust, good or bad).

    2. Mattheus von Guttenberg

      That’s because the state makes them poor through its tax, monetary, and regulatory policies. Nevertheless, private protection services would be more favorable and far cheaper than the public monopoly alternative.

  7. RePete Nonaggressionist Walker

    Perhaps rather than “anarchy”, small g government, as in
    self-government. Capital G Government, aka The State, is a social
    institution similar to and sometimes the same as the social institution
    of slavery. Both depend on double standards. Government Insiders are too
    big/important to jail for murder, torture, theft, fraud, etc. Another
    double standard is Government being a violently enforced monopoly and as
    all monopolies it expands and becomes inefficient until collapsing
    under its own weight or being seriously challenged.

    It’s possible
    for Government to be replaced/transcended by competing forms of
    governments such as dispute resolution agencies aka DRAs/DROs, but
    developing such scenarios and prototypes requires a background outside
    of mainstream culture, which of course is mostly ran by Government. Upon
    hearing words such as anarchy or DRO, the mainstream response is to
    process concepts according to indoctrination rather than to think.

    1. JCatalan

      I agree with you that more likely than not whatever future “state” there is it will look radically different from today’s, where the scope of decision making (for each politician) is reduced and the costs of the decision are better internalized (not just for making bad decisions, but for all the reasons you write: fraud, theft, torture, et cetera). But, you’re also right that to make these changes there has to be a social impetus, which usually only really comes when the institutions of the present fail to a sufficient enough degree.

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  9. Bardhyl N. Salihu

    As an anarchist I’m in favor of abolishing the State, but I am opposed to Rothabard’s idea of immediate abolition for strategic reasons. Given that the market is a process which takes time, the creation of private defense agencies at a level desirable to quell unrest and disorder upon abolition would also take some time (probably long). This is more evident knowing the lack of culture or understanding in the provision of these services at this scale, both on the part of entrepreneurs and the general population (customers). The vacuum between the abolition and the establishment of these agencies would create ample room for the said unrest and disorder, thus very likely invalidating the idea of a stateless society in people’s eyes. This is what happened (with a few more twists and turns) in Albania in 1997.

    I think abolition should be preceded by a transitional increase in private protection agencies and Alternative Dispute Resolution courts along with a decrease in government police and courts (not to mention other interventions).

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