Anarchism

I was following the comments on this post and wrote a response that turned out to be long enough for a post. So here goes:

Here is my principled (not utilitarian) argument [against anarchism].
To implement the non-aggression principle, people must agree on what constitutes aggression, not just at a philosophical level but at a more detailed level. For example, firing a gun in the air is not aggression but firing it close to someone’s residence is. Even if I am a champion shot and the bullets do not hit anyone. That might not be the best example, but the point is that some of these distinctions are not philosophical but merely a matter of convention or reasonable definition. If such distinctions are not made beforehand, then the non-aggression principle is meaningless. Establishing the process by which people can agree to such distictions is what politics is (should be) all about. Saying that each person must form his own answer and never commit to any answer (committing would mean agreeing to be bound by it) is an abdication of politics. As you mentioned, politics only arises in a social context and therefore must involve social processes. Because these distinctions depend on convention (by necessity, not for any lack of good philosophy), there is a need for legislation – a process by which people can agree to and modify (when necessary) conventions.
So the answer to Rothbard’s question “how does the state get the authority to govern?” is:
By the delegation of those who choose to form a state. Ideally, the state would be formed by those who subscribe (philosophically) to the non-agression principle. If someone does not recognize the authority of the state, he is not harmed by the state. Unless he breaks its institutionalized definitions of aggression. As long as the state does not break its own definitions of aggression and as long as the definitions are not philosophically wrong, the mere existence of a state is not aggression against any individual.

As I wrote above, anarchism is an abdication of politics. It is merely a moral position that states: man should not submit to be bound by legislation. The answer to that position is merely “Don’t submit”. The funny thing is: I dont know of any sane anarchists who follow that moral position. A seemingly political way of framing anarchism would be: “In an ideal society, no organization of people should have a monopoly over the exercise of force.” But that is a thorougly contradictory position. What sort of monopoly is being referred to here? Metaphysical or existential? If it is metaphysical, then we already have anarchy, since no state can have a metaphysical monopoly on force (or on anything else). If it is an existential (or de facto) monopoly that the anarchist wants to abolish (not the right word, the right word would be ‘wish away’), then the anarchist is claiming that other people should not grant their consent to a de-facto monopoly on force. But then, that is a moral position.

Psychologically, an advocate of anarchism is saying:
I refuse to be bound by <i>any</i> institutionalized principles. Even if I agree with those principles today. I do not wish to take responsibility for my beliefs. The desire for anarchism is not a desire for freedom from aggression – it is a desire for freedom from responsibility.

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3 Responses

  1. Before I write anything, I want to clarify two points. Anarchism != lawlessness or refusal to accept conventions etc. Anarchism simply means existence of a society following an accepted “code of law” where there is no government monopoly on the use of force. The government (or State) is absent. But every service provided by the State – police, law courts, defense etc will be provided by private agencies. I cannot deny that some people may exist who would demand “absolute liberty” to do anything they want. But just like a society managed by a State, such people would be left alone as long as they do not exercise their “absolute liberty.”

    Further, the State that I refer to is the theoretical State which provides the three services mentioned above – has a monopoly over them (this does not preclude services like arbitration however; its just a monopoly over use of coercion to settle disputes), and which is not authorized to use coercion to collect tax (has to be purely voluntary – whatever method it chooses), or take recourse to conscription etc whenever it faces an “emergency.” I will grant it the attribute of benevolence.

    # “To implement the non-aggression principle, people must agree on what constitutes aggression…If such distinctions are not made beforehand, then the non-aggression principle is meaningless…a process by which people can agree to and modify (when necessary) conventions.”
    I agree that people have to agree as to what aggression is and isn’t. I think of “law” as a subset of “ethics” – that part which governs the use of violence. So some laws can readily be derived from ethics – those against murder, theft, fraud etc. People cannot “vote” to modify such definitions – government or no government. Even if some, like in Nazi Germany, do consider it legal to murder Jews etc, that doesn’t make it moral or legal as far as civilized people are concerned.

    The other cases, like the one you suggest are a matter of convention – they are borderline cases. Is having a loud party in my house every night legal? Is shining a high intensity beam of light into your window every day legal? What about serious cases like running machinery that emits noise that can cause deafness and/ or nausea. Or one that emits so much smoke that the air in the entire area becomes unbreathable, Or pollutes the groundwater rendering your borewells and tubewells useless? What about constructing buildings that have causeways that go over your property? Or flyovers for that matter?

    The question, here, is not one of deciding per se – the decision will have to be made regardless of the existence of a government. The question is how is the decision made? What if people do not come to an agreement? In the anarchist theory of government, the two groups could either fight it out on their own, or through various defense agencies, or they could file cases in different courts. Here I would like to go into what “might” be expected of reasonable men. As Rothbard suggests, unlike monopolistic governments, the enforcement (not codification) of law in anarchy is a for-profit enterprise. He writes in FNL-

    Let us separate the problem of police clashes into distinct and different parts: honest disagreements, and the attempt of one or more police forces to become “outlaws” and to extract funds or impose their rule by coercion. Let us assume for a moment that the police forces will be honest, and that they are only riven by honest clashes of opinion; we will set aside for a while the problem of outlaw police. Surely one of the very important aspects of protection service the police can offer their respective customers is quiet protection. Every consumer, every buyer of police protection, would wish above all for protection that is efficient and quiet, with no conflicts or disturbances. Every police agency would be fully aware of this vital fact. To assume that police would continually clash and battle with each other is absurd, for it ignores the devastating effect that this chaotic “anarchy” would have on the business of all the police companies. To put it bluntly, such wars and conflicts would be bad — very bad — for business. Therefore, on the free market, the police agencies would all see to it that there would be no clashes between them, and that all conflicts of opinion would be ironed out in private courts, decided by private judges or arbitrators.

    To get more specific: in the first place, as we have said, clashes would be minimal because the street owner would have his guards, the storekeeper his, the landlord his, and the homeowner his own police company. Realistically, in the everyday world, there would be little room for direct clashes between police agencies. But suppose, as will sometimes occur, two neighboring home owners get into a fight, each accuses the other of initiating assault or violence, and each calls on his own police company, should they happen to subscribe to different companies. What then? Again, it would be pointless and economically as well as physically self-destructive for the two police companies to start shooting it out. Instead, every police company, to remain in business at all, would announce as a vital part of its service, the use of private courts or arbitrators to decide who is in the wrong.

    (I would recommend reading, at the very least, parts one and three of Rothbard’s “The Ethics of Liberty”, and chapters 2, 3, 10, 11, 12 of his “For a New Liberty” to understand what he means by anarchism, why he is opposed to the State, and how private defense agencies and courts “might” work. Some material is common to both books.)

    How would the same thing play out in the “social contract” of government? You say legislation. Meaning people will vote and the majority will prevail? Conventions, and Law, have existed before the State did. Rothbard writes in his “Ethics…”-

    But there are other fatal flaws and inconsistencies in the concept of limited, laissez-faire government. In the first place, it is generally accepted, by limited-government and by other political philosophers, that the State is necessary for the creation and development of law. But this is historically incorrect. For most law, but especially the most libertarian parts of the law, emerged not from the State, but out of non-State institutions: tribal custom, common-law judges and courts, the law merchant in mercantile courts, or admiralty law in tribunals set up by shippers themselves. In the case of competing common-law judges as well as elders of tribes, the judges were not engaged in making law, but in finding the law in existing and generally accepted principles, and then applying that law to specific cases or to new technological or institutional conditions. The same was true in private Roman law. Moreover, in ancient Ireland, a society existing for a thousand years until the conquest by Cromwell, “there was no trace of State-administered justice”; competing schools of professional jurists interpreted and applied the common body of customary law, with enforcement undertaken by competing and voluntarily supported tuatha, or insurance agencies. Furthermore, these customary rules were not haphazard or arbitrary but consciously rooted in natural law, discoverable by man’s reason.

    As for how a “code of law” can be formed and implemented, he writes in FNL-

    It is now clear that there will have to be a legal code in the libertarian society. How? How can there be a legal code, a system of law without a government to promulgate it, an appointed system of judges, or a legislature to vote on statutes? To begin with, is a legal code consistent with libertarian principles?

    To answer the last question first, it should be clear that a legal code is necessary to lay down precise guidelines for the private courts. If, for example, Court A decides that all redheads are inherently evil and must be punished, it is clear that such decisions are the reverse of libertarian, that such a law would constitute an invasion of the rights of redheads. Hence, any such decision would be illegal in terms of libertarian principle, and could not be upheld by the rest of society. It then becomes necessary to have a legal code which would be generally accepted, and which the courts would pledge themselves to follow. The legal code, simply, would insist on the libertarian principle of no aggression against person or property, define property rights in accordance with libertarian principle, set up rules of evidence (such as currently apply) in deciding who are the wrongdoers in any dispute, and set up a code of maximum punishment for any particular crime. Within the framework of such a code, the particular courts would compete on the most efficient procedures, and the market would then decide whether judges, juries, etc., are the most efficient methods of providing judicial services.

    Are such stable and consistent law codes possible, with only competing judges to develop and apply them, and without government or legislature? Not only are they possible, but over the years the best and most successful parts of our legal system were developed precisely in this manner. Legislatures, as well as kings, have been capricious, invasive, and inconsistent. They have only introduced anomalies and despotism into the legal system. In fact, the government is no more qualified to develop and apply law than it is to provide any other service; and just as religion has been separated from the State, and the economy can be separated from the State, so can every other State function, including police, courts, and the law itself!

    As indicated above, for example, the entire law merchant was developed, not by the State or in State courts, but by private merchant courts. It was only much later that government took over mercantile law from its development in merchants’ courts. The same occurred with admiralty law, the entire structure of the law of the sea, shipping, salvages, etc. Here again, the State was not interested, and its jurisdiction did not apply to the high seas; so the shippers themselves took on the task of not only applying, but working out the whole structure of admiralty law in their own private courts. Again, it was only later that the government appropriated admiralty law into its own courts.

    Finally, the major body of Anglo-Saxon law, the justly celebrated common law, was developed over the centuries by competing judges applying time-honored principles rather than the shifting decrees of the State. These principles were not decided upon arbitrarily by any king or legislature; they grew up over centuries by applying rational — and very often libertarian — principles to the cases before them. The idea of following precedent was developed, not as a blind service to the past, but because all the judges of the past had made their decisions in applying the generally accepted common law principles to specific cases and problems. For it was universally held that the judge did not make law (as he often does today); the judge’s task, his expertise, was in finding the law in accepted common law principles, and then applying that law to specific cases or to new technological or institutional conditions. The glory of the centuries-long development of the common law is testimony to their success.

    Given all this, I think anarchism, at least Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism, shouldn’t be considered to be all those things that you say – abdication of politics, desire for freedom from responsibility etc. Its, at the very least, taking the position that the market is better than the State – in every sphere.

    # “So the answer to Rothbard’s question “how does the state get the authority to govern?” is:…the mere existence of a state is not aggression against any individual.”
    Its existence isn’t an aggression. Its position would simply be that of a protection agency “permanently” authorized by some – say a majority – of those staying in the area to deal with the exercise of coercive power. Such a authorization cannot be withdrawn except through a revolution though, unless provisions for secession etc are built into the constitution.

    # “A seemingly political way of framing anarchism would be: ‘In an ideal society, no organization of people should have a monopoly over the exercise of force.’ What sort of monoply is being referred to here? Metaphysical or existential?…But then, that is a moral position.”
    What did I mean when I referred to the metaphysical necessity of having a government? I meant – convince me that a government monopoly is the only moral way to govern – maintain law and order. I am not convinced it is.

    As for your question on the kind of monopoly, as you say, no state can have a metaphysical monopoly on force. But it does not follow that we have anarchy. Anarchy allows for multiple defense agencies to govern the same piece of “territory” simultaneously – there is no homesteading here, the exclusive right to govern.

    About existential monopoly, yes, it is a moral position. It always will be. The anarchist is questioning the moral right of a State to exist, and the moral right of such a State to use coercion against those who wish to make their own arrangements as to defense and law. Its the same position that classical liberals/ libertarians take when it comes to the size of the government, government interference in the economy etc.

  2. Much as i would like to write a response, it’s been a difficult day and I need some rest. Will respond tomorrow.

  3. First, I am going to discount all historical “evidence” that anarchism can work. I don’t know of a single society where altruism and religion were not dominant. Both are so irrational, that how these societies fared does not count as empirical evidence for or against anarchism. If the debate is to be resolved, it must be resolved on principle – it must be the answer to the question “Is a monopoly on the use of force the logical outcome of applying the ethics of egoism to the functioning of a society?”

    Before I continue, I want to mention that I strongly disagree with the position that the market is better than the State – in every sphere. From several of your posts, I know that you make a distinction between ‘market’ and ‘free market’. Therefore, I take that to mean that even an unfree market is better than the state. That is clearly contradictory. If one takes the ‘market’ to mean the sum of all human interactions (as I believe you do), today’s ‘market’ includes the state. This is the big problem with the Rothbard style anarcho-capitalism (based on your quotes – here and elsewhere on your blog). It uses the obvious benefits of the free market to argue that any market is better than the state. And on occasions, it looks like just a decentralized state but a state nevertheless. If, for example all the “competing” defence agencies have the same arbiters and agree to follow the same laws and even cooperate with each other, I don’t see much difference between this and say, the Bombay police cooperating with the Pune police.

    Coming to the main point,
    First, note that the state (as in your comment, from here on, I take the state to be an institution responsible solely for law, order and defence – nothing more) does not rule out the existence of private judges or courts. If some people are willing to accept the verdict of an arbitrator of their choosing, the state is not involved in any way. (Such private judges might often do a better job than a state judge could, especially in simple contractual or property related disputes). It is in the borderline cases where certain activities could be considered threats that anarchism becomes infeasible.
    Now, consider an example. A and B volunatarily choose a private arbitrator X to settle a dispute where A claims that B owes him something. The arbitrator rules in favor of A. If B accepts the ruling, end of story. What if B rejects it? Is this aggression? (I would be inclined to say so) If A uses force (supplied by an agency Y) to recover his claim, is that aggression? Most importantly, consider a C who is a neighbour to A and B and never agreed to have X as an arbitrator or Y as a defence agency. Is A’s use of force near C’s property an aggression against C (in the form of a threat to his property)? My point is that unless A, B and C all agree to have a common arbitrator, whose ruling (and enforcement) they agree to accept, the case above cannot be solved.
    That is the whole flaw with aggression. Aggression does not simply mean actual exercise of physical force. A threat (cetainly) or a mere accumulation of arms (possibly) can also be acts of aggression. If everyone agrees about where the line is to be drawn, there is no difference between ‘private arrangements’ and a government. An election for example is a private arrangement if everyone agrees to the rules of the election. If they do not agree, sooner or later they will breach each other’s lines. At this point, there can be no ‘order’ left. Even if the specific parties agree to reconsider and one or more parties change their minds, the act of changing their minds itself constitutes aggression. Conside an example. Group P agrees that none of its members may have more that 2 firearms. Group Q places has a much bigger limit. Some of the members of group P suspect that Q is planning a coup and decide to investigate. One of its members however is convinced that Q has no such intentions and refuses to cooperate. Shouldn’t P treat him as a conspirator and aggressor?

    To sum up, it looks like even Rothbard accepts that there needs to be a common “Law” – I am not sure I understand why the L needs to be capitalized. If the private competing defense agencies agree to cooperate, they are not really competing and there is no essential difference between a state and this diluted brand of anarchism. If they don’t cooperate, it can only mean chaos.

    Finally, regarding the metaphysical and existential aspects, metaphysically, we have anarchy and always will. Any individual or group is always “free” to set up his own law and defence systems and enforce them and several groups have done so. Existentially, a state is merely a dominant group. If it is not founded on wrong philosophical principles, I don’t see how you can make a moral claim that no group should become dominant. If a region starts out with five competing agencies and one of them gradually becomes dominant, would the moral thing to do be to break it up because it succeeded in becoming dominant? After all, there are and always will be (atleast for some periods of time) de-facto monopolies even in business. If that is not wrong, why is a de-facto monopoly (which is what a state is) on force wrong?

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