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Why I am not an Anarchist

December 28, 2012

As a libertarian, I believe people can get by on a lot less government than they think they can. But I think there is a limit to how far and how quickly this can go.

Society is far too complicated to be able to determine what is best a priori. There are just as many ideas for a better society as there are people in the world. I’m not arrogant enough to think that I’m going to be able to sit down and think of “the best” one just with logic and sheer brainpower. So, instead I think the only way to really get a good idea of what kind of society is good is to look at actual existing societies and see which ones seem like they are doing pretty well. When I look at countries I’d like to live in, I wind up with a pretty darn similar list to the Heritage Freedom Index’s top countries. Therefore, I support the sorts of policies which would take us higher up such a list.

Lodestars vs. Practicality
It’s wonderful to have some clear goal to shoot for, and it’s refreshing to think about the best policy world unconstrained by politics, but we don’t live in that world. The best can be the enemy of the good, and implimenting a good policy is better than not implementing the best policy. I have lost respect over the years for political extremists who never offer compromise. What good is done by such a stance? Anarchism is an extreme position. If small government works fine, move to minarchism. If minarchy works, then try anarchy, but one step at a time.

Violence is an inherent part of human nature, but it is also a product of local incentives. Anarchists often point to the violent nature of government as proof of its evil, but I have a different viewpoint. A government is simply a firm with a military. And in order to finance a large, economically unproductive group, such as a military, they need to leverage their comparative advantage in violence, which is fancy talk for using force to take productive people’s money, aka taxes. To maximize tax revenue, governments establish property rights (which requires coercion) and other revenue enhancing regulations, such as state monopolies. Governments don’t want other governments cutting in on “their” income, so they protect their borders from other governments and roving bandits. How does anarchy look from this worldview? Like a target, really. They might be really productive for awhile, but what’s stopping another government from conquering them? And who enforces property rights? Taxation may be theft, but it’s better to have one long-run profit maximizing thief than to face double marginalization from multiple taxers.

No violence just isn’t an option. It’s always going to be with us. The only question is do you want the violent capacity monopolized or distributed? Let’s say you get a gang of thugs together (I’m sorry, “private security firm”). Planned violence pays off if you think you can overpower a rival and take their stuff. With a central monopoly on violence, your odds of winning that fight are trivially small. With distributed violence, you could probably pick a target or two who could be overpowered. We have competitive markets in things we want more of. But violence is a bad, so shouldn’t it be monopolized? I get the arguments that government should be small and limited in scope. And I get the arguments for more policy experimentation and devolution. What I don’t find compelling is the idea that the essence of government, organized violence, should be distributed.

Further reading:
Caplan responds
Kling on Clans

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 28, 2012 10:59 pm

    I heard someone say once that anarchy is inherently unsustainable because eventually the strongest will take over and establish non-anarchic rule (or something like that). I suppose that’s similar to what you’re saying with your violence framework: anarchy may protect you from a monopolized government violence, but it doesn’t protect you from the distributed violence of a thousand nearby individual/group ‘governments’. I might even go further and state that the distributed violence is likely to eventually stabilize back to a monopolized violence, anyway. I’m kind of just thinking “out loud” here, and I’m not an historical expert by any means, but I would hypothesize that history might support that.

    To be fair, I’m even less of an expert on how anarchy is “supposed” to work. And I suppose there might be those who argue that a libertarian/minarchist type system might be inherently unsustainable as well, for various reasons. But I would at least need convincing that such a system is likely to be less stable than an anarchist system.

    • December 28, 2012 11:50 pm

      I agree that an anarchy may develop into a centralized government again, as one group consolidates power. Part of a minarchy is that there is still a centralized government with a military, so while a minarchy maybe unstable, it won’t be because of violent competition.

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