Anarchy literally means ‘no rulers’, as opposed to (among others) monarchy, oligarchy, plutocracy, or democracy (where kings or queens, an elite, the rich, or the public make decisions about governance). Despite what reporters, politicians, and the average person on the street thinks, it does not mean chaos, it does not imply a lack of order, and it does not connote a state of wild abandon. You can’t call riots or Boxing Day sales ‘anarchy’. Please remember that next time you hear it or want to use it in that manner.
Anarchism essentially means no government. As a political philosophy, there are umpteen versions of anarchism to choose from. They vary dramatically sometimes, with the weirdest being anarcho-communism – they reject both the state, and private property and the market. I don’t want to casually dismiss the intellectual labour of thousands of people, but if they don’t want production and distribution done by voluntary actions (market), and they don’t want them done by involuntary actions (government), then what the hell is left? This unworkable mess, it seems.
In its simplest non-weird form, anarchism is, in my oh-so-humble opinion, unsustainable. That is, the politico-economic state of being that is the absence of government will inevitably self-destruct, due to the natural evolution of proto-government-like entities and the likelihood that they will grow and mutate into recognisable government(s).
I’d go so far as to say that those entities would be inferior to our current system of government, where at least we have obtained some rights and freedoms, and where we can modify the government and its powers and priorities in a peaceful manner.
Take a broad look at a basic anarchist utopia – there is no coercive government, social interactions are conducted freely. Without laws, customs must suffice (these can be very powerful, acting with the same or greater force than laws). Individual and group self-defence and retaliation limits acts that weaken the social fabric like murder, rape and assault, and collective sanctions (shunning, banning, boycotts, etc) act as punishments for transgressions. These are all elements that exist in every society since the dawn of time, so it’s no real stretch to imagine them given full flight in place of police and courts.
Take a closer look, at a group organising the defence of their persons and property (for example), say a family or workplace. Beyond a certain size, it would require active and sustained (rather than ad-hoc) organisation. Larger still (there are good reasons to make a larger group, as economies of scale kick in) and it makes sense to have the people best able to provide defence to take it on more than others, even making it a major part of their duties to the group, perhaps even full-time. Before you know it, you have security guards, supervisors, a miniature hierarchical bureaucracy, and the wider group paying them (however you want to formulate that) to do it.
Who cares, right? No breakdown of Anartopia so far (apart from the natural emergence of hierarchies, but that is a topic for another time). But look again, see what naturally develops from obvious practical and economic pressures.
The multitude of groups providing for their own defence (and there would be a multitude in any scenario bigger than a few thousand people) have strong incentives to pool their resources. After all, why waste physical and mental effort, and money if it exists, when a little sharing of the burden will make things easier for everyone? Thus do security firms come into being.
Now, with some exceptions and only to a certain extent, security fits the definition of a public good. For example, monitoring the street for thieves on behalf of No. 23 and No. 27 Proudhon Road effectively guards No. 25 as well, even if they didn’t pay for it. And No. 25’s benefit doesn’t reduce the benefit gained by Nos. 23 and 27 (bearing in mind the exceptions, which only complicate the picture and don’t qualitatively change it).
So the most reasonable course of action is to levy a fee from most or all within a firm’s jurisdiction, regardless of their desire to use the benefit the firm provides or not, given transaction costs of negotiation and the limitations of social norms. Since this is conceptually identical to taxes being demanded by a government, anarchism has effectively ceased to exist in Anartopia.
That’s the nice, civilised version. It could go the other way, the Somalian way, where warlords rule. Interestingly, a few years ago some Somali businessmen and judges created a militia (probably to prevent future violence and provide a peaceful environment for trading), and were making good progress towards becoming a national (or at least regional) government by eliminating or marginalising other armed groups. That is, until Ethiopia and the US intervened (can’t have Islamic governments, oh no). I’m not defending the ICU or their actions, I’m only showing that my hypothesis has empirical backing.
Don’t be put off by the defence/security angle. This logical progression can apply to many possibilities that could be considered to be public goods, though maybe not as many as you’d think. Local roads could be one, but long-distance roads are probably not. Famously, lighthouses appear to be classic public goods, but historically were often funded privately due to the privileged group effect. Environmental goods are obvious candidates (hence my support for government action on climate change, to be addressed in another post).
Lastly, I want to point out that positive externalities that are non-excludable and non-rivalrous – thus appearing to be public goods – don’t necessarily require government action to be produced effectively or efficiently. Education provides social benefits above and beyond the benefits that accrue to the people getting educated, and this is often cited as a reason for the provision of education by government. However, non-government education gives the same set of benefits to the wider community. Therefore, it must not be assumed that things that appear to be public goods can’t be provided privately. Just remember the lighthouses.