Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“Every friend of freedom must be as revolted as I am by the prospect of turning the United States into an armed camp, by the vision of jails filled with casual drug users and of an army of enforcers empowered to invade the liberty of citizens on slight evidence.”     Milton Friedman

January 22, 2007

Why I’m Not an An-Cap

by Brad Warbiany

A few weeks ago, I delved into the question of Libertarianism and Utilitarianism. The two are competing moral philosophies, with Libertarianism valuing personal liberty as its paramount goal, and Utilitarianism valuing maximizing utility (aka “the common good”) as its highest goal. I believe that the logical end of Libertarianism is anarchism (which, to be truly anarchist, will likely take the form of anarcho-capitalism). The logical end of utilitarianism, to most people who believe in “the common good”, is socialism, but that’s not necessarily the case. The logical end of utilitarianism is a political system which best maximizes utility, which socialism has proven— at least in practice— to be far from maximizing utility.

I call myself a libertarian, but I don’t consider myself an an-cap. The reason I’m not an an-cap is that I have a bit of utilitarianism in me, and I see the tradeoffs of anarcho-capitalism as being less able to maximize utility than a just minarchy. Ideologically, I see anarcho-capitalism, if it were to be stable, as being the most moral possible system. My understanding of humanity, though, makes me think that the end result of a society set up as an-cap will be worse than the a just minarchy.

When I look at the world situation, I think of a sort of an-cap model. Essentially, we have competing governments without any binding super-government above them. What result do we have? Some governments are good, and treat their citizens well. Some governments are bad, and oppress their citizens. Most governments agree not to fight with each other, because the costs are very high, but occasionally wars do occur. The key point is that competing governments has not resulted in peace and freedom, but in relative stability and widely varying results. Of course, the an-caps will point out that these competing governments are based upon territory, and their competing security firms are not. In theory, they are correct. But in reality, my belief is that we would quickly return to government.

The question, of course, is the Stability Problem. David Friedman, the man who [literally] wrote the book on anarcho-capitalism, addressed the stability problem. His belief is that the aspects of competition and the idea that the people attracted to security agencies wouldn’t be the power-mongering type we have now lead him to believe the situation wouldn’t devolve into government. But I don’t think the pages he devotes truly proves this. A competing viewpoint would be that of Paul Birch, who sees an an-cap society quickly devolving into a city-state society. He believes there is an inherent instability when multiple competing security firms and courts occupy the same territory, and that competition will lead to one firm completely dominating the market, to the exclusion of other firms.

In reality, I think of it more as a mafia situation. I look at how the mafia operates, i.e. protecting those outside the law. Because those outside the law have no recourse to take their disputes with the mafia to the “legitimate” authorities. The mafia, however, knows that it can only go so far. If they truly overextend their boundaries, their “customers” will seek asylum with competing families, but to do so includes high transaction costs (i.e. the fear of retaliation). While war between families is rare, since the costs are extremely high, families care little whether opposing families are exploiting their customers unless they see a way to exploit the situation. The customers are offered a service that they cannot find from the “legitimate” sources, and the only people who provide that service are the people who are willing to back themselves up with force.

The question is whether a free market in protection services could avoid this? I’m not so sure. I see Birch’s point about competition between security firms being inherently unstable, i.e. firms working out disputes between their own customers will be cheaper than working out disputes between their customer and those of an outside firm. Thus, competition within a certain area (since most disputes will be between people located geographically near each other) will tend to be dominated by one firm. But what kind of firm will it be? Will it attract good people, or will it be run like a mafia might? What will the transaction costs be for leaving the territory for another, and how will a firm that acts as a mafia handle people who have left the territory? For example, if I work and live in one town and leave because I’m upset with the security/court situation, will I be harassed if I drive in to work each day?

Of course, the an-caps will have a response to this. Minarchist governments often don’t stay that way. And that I cannot refute. Our own federal government in the USA began as a minarchist state, but has grown into the leviathan. I cannot even begin to defend it. The real question is whether anarcho-capitalism will devolve into a bad situation faster than our style of government, and whether it will devolve into something worse. That, again, is a question I can’t definitively answer, but I do see a potential difference between the two systems. I can see an-cap devolving into a city-state system pretty quickly. The question between that and a federalist minarchy such as what the USA was designed to be is that the federalist minarchy has a binding higher authority to appeal to. City-states, much like our current world order, doesn’t have a binding authority to appeal to. Thus, if you’re stuck in one of the bad ones (bad enough, like communist Russia, or East Germany) where they don’t let you escape, you have no recourse.

So that’s why I’m not an anarcho-capitalist. Simply put, I would have more trust in a limited and well-designed minarchy than market anarchy. However, I consider the an-cap community to be fellow travelers, and while I disagree with them, I’m not 100% sure they’re wrong in their beliefs. I’d love to see, should we reduce the size of our current government (or overthrow it) down to the level I’d prefer, to see some an-cap experiments. Because I ideologically love the idea of an an-cap society, I’d love to see it get a chance. I’m just not sure it will live up to its billing.

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8 Comments

  1. that competition will lead to one firm completely dominating the market, to the exclusion of other firms.

    In reality, I think of it more as a mafia situation. I look at how the mafia operates, i.e. protecting those outside the law. Because those outside the law have no recourse to take their disputes with the mafia to the “legitimate” authorities. The mafia, however, knows that it can only go so far. If they truly overextend their boundaries, their “customers” will seek asylum with competing families, but to do so includes high transaction costs (i.e. the fear of retaliation). While war between families is rare, since the costs are extremely high, families care little whether opposing families are exploiting their customers unless they see a way to exploit the situation. The customers are offered a service that they cannot find from the “legitimate” sources, and the only people who provide that service are the people who are willing to back themselves up with force.

    yep. thats what would happen. the powers would be centralized and grow, becoming a de facto mafia for sale to the highest bidder.

    Our Constitutional system worked rather well until the stock speculators and corporate gangsters like Standard Oil decided a rigged market was more profitable than a free market and quickly put into place such thing as corporate personhood and limited liability.

    Our system is now so corrupt to it’s core thats it’s not likely to survive. But I think it lasted about 229 years longer than any anarchist “system” that has never existed in modern form.

    philosophy held above reality on the ground has no chance to become reality on the ground. We either go for the guns (suicide without large scale moral backing) or we try to reform through the system in place, flawed as it is.

    Comment by Timothy West — January 22, 2007 @ 6:52 am
  2. I don’t know if this is an appropriate analogy, but you brought to mind the state of the buroughs and townships of Philadelphia County before the consolidation in 1854. There were a lot of border issues, especially in regards to fire companies jurisdiction. At that time fire companies were not run by the township or volunteer, they were part of an insurance plan. There were a lot of fights resulting from this and travel also being a hassel between townships; the differences being in the quality of roads, security and cost. We are not talking about miles between the townships but the other side of the road.

    Comment by VRB — January 22, 2007 @ 8:05 am
  3. An ancap society would only function if the culture strongly discouraged violence. I know this sounds like a radical change in human nature reminiscent of the communists’ “New Socialist Man”, and seems at first blush to be unrealistic, but in the end that is what is required.

    Over the course of a year, everyone of us takes part in thousands of economic interactions with other people. Very few of those interactions are violent. Most of us pay for what we buy, do not steal etc. Most of us do so, not out of fear, but out of cultural conditioning.

    There have been functioning stable anarchies as recently as the 17th century (Colonial Pennsylvania). The consolidation of power resulting in the establishment of ministates did occur in midieval Iceland, but they are the exception: most anarchies seem to collapse when a neighboring state invades (Ireland) or they get caught in the crossfire between interstate wars (the Accadians of Newfoundland and the Colonial Pennsylvanians).

    The problem with states are that they tend to drive the culture in a violent direction, since the people within the state have an incentive to increase their wealth or power by expanding the state’s zone of control. By encouraging people to demand that the state provide services instead of voluntarily acquiring them for themselves in trade or charity, the state breaks down the bonds of trust and fellowship between people.

    Honestly, I would much prefer to live in a minarchical society rather than the current one. I think that to remain minarchical, a minarchical society would require the same cultural attitudes towards unearned wealth and political action that is required to make an an-cap society work.

    Comment by tarran — January 22, 2007 @ 10:14 am
  4. “and I see the tradeoffs of anarcho-capitalism as being less able to maximize utility than a just minarchy. ”

    This raises the question of how you get and maintain a “just minarchy.” You wouldn’t, after all, think I had adequately dealt with the stability problem if I had simply defined the system I was proposing as “a stable anarcho-capitalist society.”

    You recognize the problem, but I think you miss one part of the argument which ought to be particularly interesting to a utilitarian. I offer an argument–sketched in _The Machinery of Freedom_ and expanded a bit in the chapter “Anarchy and Efficient Law” in _For and Against the State_, webbed at:

    http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Anarchy_and_Eff_Law/Anarchy_and_Eff_Law.html

    to show that the market for law in an a-c system will tend to produce economically efficient (roughly although not precisely speaking utility maximizing) law. I don’t think know of a corresponding argument for any form of minarchy. From that standpoint, my argument ought to be more compelling for a utilitarian than for a libertarian, since the claim that a-c will produce libertarian law depends on a further step–that utility maximizing law is usually libertarian.

    Comment by David Friedman — January 22, 2007 @ 10:29 am
  5. David,

    You’re officially the most famous person ever to comment on one of my posts… I feel like I’ve arrived ;-)

    Thanks for stopping by. I’ll take a look at your link. Given the fact that I like an-cap philosophy from an moral perspective, I’d love to be convinced from a logical perspective.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — January 22, 2007 @ 10:39 am
  6. Brad, as you know I have long argued that “libertarian” or “an-cap” outcomes are much more utilitarian than state outcomes. The beauty of my socio-political beliefs are that they are both ethical and utilitarian. :-)

    Thanks, David, for stopping by. Great points for Brad and our readers to consider.

    Comment by Adam Selene — January 22, 2007 @ 10:45 am
  7. [...] society will last longer or be optimal for longer than the ideal an-cap society. As I brought up last time I covered this subject, the question is largely whether minarchy or an-cap will turn into bad [...]

    Pingback by The Liberty Papers »Blog Archive » Question For The An-Caps — February 9, 2007 @ 10:14 am
  8. [...] was basically an anarcho-capitalist and, for many of the reasons that Brad has expressed recently here and here, I don’t buy into the anarcho-capitalist idea. Secondly, Rothbard’s view of [...]

    Pingback by The Liberty Papers »Blog Archive » Libertarians Of Will, Intellect, and Action — February 9, 2007 @ 11:42 am

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