Why I’m not an anarchist

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.

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10 Responses to Why I’m not an anarchist

  1. TerjeP (say tay-a) says:

    Whilst I tend to agreee I do think anarchy offers us some useful thought experiments. As in “how would we do X if there was no government?”. Good government would think like this and work to get out of our way and also out of it’s own way.

    In terms of security we would only need to organise the occasional mob for deterence (which is about all the police manage to achieve most days). As in steal from a house on our street and the mob gets together and breaks your legs. People would join such an ad-hoc mob for reasons beyond benevolance towards their neighbours. For instance lynch mobs usually had active participants beyond those who suffered the actual crime. Of course lynch mobs didn’t always have a reputation for getting the details right.

  2. Jarrah Job says:

    I concur that anarchy provides useful counterfactuals when thinking about governance issues. It is by teasing those out that I arrive at my objections to anarchy. That doesn’t mean I reject it utterly, only that I think its purest form won’t work in the long run.

    Re mobs, like I said in the post about group retaliation, I realise they have their place in Anartopia. However, I have concerns (leaving aside ones about justice, truth, proportionality, etc) that they aren’t sustainable either. If they don’t have the support of the wider community, a mob’s actions could cause ructions. And what about retaliation for the retaliation? That way leads to gang warfare.

    There are more subtle problems. Posses tend to have leaders, or instigators. If someone starts to like how they feel leading a group of angry violent people, they’ll make sure it happens as often as possible. That doesn’t sound good!

  3. Every system is unstable. Democracy will fall one day.

  4. Jarrah says:

    Democracy falls constantly. Or its facade is preserved while it morphs behind the scenes into dictatorship or oligarchy or plutocracy.

  5. So the instability of anarchy is not a meaningful complaint. The anarchist Iceland community lasted about 300 years. That’s a decent innings.

    There are lots of examples of people buying a good which benefits their neighbour. You are correct that security might be one. But so is a rose garden. It doesn’t follow that you need to require coerced payment from all people that benefit from the rose garden.

    Anyway — I think you’re over-estimating the degree to which security involves “drive bys”. I have never seen the police drive by my house. And if I did, it wouldn’t make me feel any safer. It’s more likely that security services would involve a home security system linked (for an extra fee) to a quick response unit. This already exists. Then another service would be hunting down people who do you harm. The police are hopeless at this… so it’s hard to see how any other option could be worse. This already exists in a limited form, but State regulations and government-subsidised competition restrict the viability of the private alternative at the moment.

    The case study in “anarchist security” that I would like to see done more rigorously is the legal system that was built up in the Mafia (and other organised crime networks & gangs). The general impression is that they always kill each other but I have a sneaking suspicion that we might not be getting the full story.

    If you were on an island with 500 other people and starting a new civilisation, would you really insist that we create an institution of coercion? Surely we could work something else out.

  6. Jarrah says:

    “So the instability of anarchy is not a meaningful complaint.”

    Yes, it is. If anarchy tends to become non-anarchy that is potentially worse than our current non-anarchy, why bother striving for anarchy?

    “The anarchist Iceland community lasted about 300 years. That’s a decent innings.”

    The episode to which you refer is more accurately described as decentralised government. I also note certain factors (size, remoteness, social and ethnic cohesion, tech level) may have contributed to their stability, and are not applicable to a general anarchic formula.

    I will say that one way in which their social contract was superior to the modern day was that the proto-state-like entities weren’t geographically based. This meant you could ‘shop around’ without emigrating as we must do today. Though this probably only worked due to the fact Iceland is relatively small.

    “I think you’re over-estimating the degree to which security involves “drive bys”.”

    Not at all. The back-to-base alarm system fits very well what I had in mind (the free-riding problem) – if several in a street get it, robbers are more likely to stay away from that street, so not everyone has to get it.

    “The police are hopeless at this… ”

    Statistics vary, but it’s fair to say police in Australia solve about half of all crimes. It’s clearly quite easy to do worse. It’s also clear that improvements are needed. Perhaps reassigning cops to solving damaging crimes rather than wasting their time on drug users could help 😉

    “If you were on an island with 500 other people and starting a new civilisation, would you really insist that we create an institution of coercion?”

    No. I’m saying one would evolve fairly naturally, and could end up worse than what we’ve got.

    I’m sure I’ve given you my gated community example before, but for anyone else reading, imagine an anarchic community where rules are subscribed to voluntarily. Until children come along, who haven’t consented (and can’t consent) to the community rules. Their parents make them obey regardless, until they mature. They can then leave if they still don’t like the rules, but find the world full of such communities. Fast-forward a handful of generations, and how would you tell the (socio-political) difference from our current situation? Same result through different processes.

  7. Jax says:

    “They vary dramatically sometimes, with the weirdest being anarcho-communism – they reject both the state, and private property and the market.”

    Aaaand you don’t know what you’re talking about.

  8. Jarrah says:

    “you don’t know what you’re talking about.”


    From Wikipedia:

    Anarchist communism[1] (also known as anarcho-communism, free communism, libertarian communism,[2][3][4][5] and communist anarchism[6][7]) is a theory of anarchism which advocates the abolition of the state, capitalism, wages and private property

    From Kropotkin himself:

    Anarchism, the no-government system of socialism, has a double origin. It is an outgrowth of the two great movements of thought in the economic and the political fields which characterise the nineteenth century, and especially its second part. In common with all socialists, the anarchists hold that the private ownership of land, capital, and machinery has had its time; that it is condemned to disappear; and that all requisites for production must, and will, become the common property of society, and be managed in common by the producers of wealth. … As regards socialism, most of the anarchists arrive at its ultimate conclusion, that is, at a complete negation of the wage-system and at communism. And with reference to political organisation, by giving a further development to the above-mentioned part of the radical program, they arrive at the conclusion that the ultimate aim of society is the reduction of the functions of government to nil—that is, to a society without government, to an-archy.

    And finally, from the people who actually identify as anarcho-communists:

    Anarchist communism is a form of anarchism that advocates the abolition of the State and capitalism

  9. john walker says:

    Jarrah, Nicolas Rothwell on 8 August in The Australian published a very long article about the damage and destruction that the artist resale royalty scheme has done to the commercial independent art sector. It does make a few references to some of my writings: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/royalties-scheme-shines-stark-light-on-a-divided-landscape/story-e6frg8n6-1226692983000

  10. I seldom leave a response, but i did a few searching and wound up here Why I’
    m not an anarchist | Scrivelling. And I do have
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    to keep up with anything new you have to post. Would you make a
    list of every one of your public pages like your twitter
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