Political Obligations: Are We Morally Obligated To Obey Our Governments?

A man without a government is like a fish without a bicycle

Imagine you live in a town, and there is a problem.

Perhaps the problem is crime – some people do bad things like steal, murder, and rape. Or maybe you think that the moral fabric of your town is being corrupted by homosexuals, drug users, prostitutes, payday lenders, unscrupulous merchants, or people who look at you funny.

One day, you decide to do something about it. Sick of all the criminals in town, you begin to investigate crimes yourself, apprehend the criminals, and then lock them up in your basement. Then you walk over to your neighbor’s house and say “Hey there! I’ve been locking away the criminals in our town, and this is a mighty costly endeavor. Since I’ve provided this service to you, it’s time for you to pay your fair share. Please provide me with a check for $500.”

How do you think people would react to you? I’d venture a guess and say that people would slam the door in your face and laugh.

Having just been rejected, you knock on their door again. When they answer, you say “Hey now. I’m locking up the criminals in our town, and if you don’t pay up, I will consider you a criminal. Give me my money, or you’ll spend the next five years living in a cage in my basement.”

Morally speaking, is this justified? Of course not! What you are doing is robbing someone and threatening to kidnap them – actions that we can agree are morally wrong.

Nearly anyone would recognize this. And yet, when the government does exactly the same thing, it is almost universally considered “taxation” and “criminal justice,” things that most believe are morally legitimate actions for a government to take. And that very well may be true – but since our moral intuitions about the actions a private individual can do and what the government can do reveal a double-standard, it is necessary for the state to have some kind of moral authority that enables it to legitimately do things that you and I cannot. To justify a law, one must justify the use of physical coercion against those who violate the law. Causing harm to others is prima facie wrong, so some account must be given to why governments are allowed to violate our common sense moral intuitions.

This is the problem of political obligation, which is the moral property that gives governments the right to coerce people in a way that these people cannot themselves, and in which the subjects of a government are obligated to obey its dictates despite individuals not normally being required to obey other people. In other words, what makes a state morally unique and differentiated from the individuals who comprise it (and everyone else)?

For centuries, political philosophers have discussed this problem and have proposed theories justifying political obligations. My intention in this essay is to show why the most prominent of these theories of political obligation fail. The arguments presented here are drawn from two wonderful books, and if you are curious to see them fleshed out in more detail, you can do no better than to check them out:

Alright, let’s get started!


The Problem of Political Obligation

When you have an obligation to do something, that obligation is not an absolute moral claim on your actions. If you have an obligation or duty to do something, that is a very good reason for acting in a particular way, but not a conclusive reason for doing so. In other words, obligations don’t override other moral considerations for acting.

Let’s say we agree to meet for lunch. I now have an obligation to go to lunch at the agreed upon time and location. But if on my way to lunch I come across a child drowning in a pond, my obligation does not mean that I ought to let the child die and continue to lunch. Clearly, other moral considerations dominate the obligation to meet for lunch.

What this means is that even if it can be established that political obligations exist and bind us to our governments, that does not mean that we are morally required to obey the government in all cases. It would provide a very strong prima facie reason to do so – but if obeying the law meant that some significantly greater harm would occur, the morally correct action is to disobey. This is an important bound to what I am attempting to prove in this article: the existence of political obligations does not automatically entail counterintuitive results such as “supporting the Nazis was morally correct for Germans.” What it would mean is that there was a good reason to support the Nazis (or any government), but it was (heavily) outweighed by other moral considerations.

With that out of the way, let’s define obligations with more precision. An obligation is a moral requirement satisfying the following conditions:

  1. An obligation is a requirement generated by the performance of some voluntary act or omission. This is contrasted with duties, which can exist without performing some special action.
  2. An obligation is owed by a specific person to a specific person or persons. Duties, by contrast, are owed by all people to everyone else. That’s why you can “fulfill” your obligations, but cannot ever discharge of a moral duty.
  3. Every obligation that is generated establishes a corresponding right that is generated at the same time. If person A has an obligation to do X for person B, then person B has a right to the performance of X by A.
  4. It is not the nature of the required act that generates the obligation, but rather the nature of the relationship between the obligor and the obligee. Just because an act is moral or praiseworthy does not make the act obligatory.

These conditions help separate the concept of “obligations” from the very similar concept of “duties”. Most of this post will focus on obligations, but John Rawls proposed a “natural duty of justice” which will also be discussed in a later section.

An important concept is that of a “positional duty” – a duty that arises due to the nature of a position itself. For instance, a part of a soldier’s positional duties would be to shoot at an advancing enemy when the commander says so. Positional duties of this sort do not have moral weight. To say that someone has a positional duty is to say that, because of some position that the agent is in, the agent is required to do something specified by that position. But this says nothing about the nature of that position, which could be a Nazi guard who has a positional duty to aid in the extermination of Jews. If a positional duty is in fact morally binding, it is because of some other grounds for morality that is not related to the position. Therefore, we do not have a duty to obey the government simply in virtue of the fact that we are citizens of that government; something else must explain this duty. What most people would call “legal obligations” are thus morally neutral. Just because the legal obligation of a Nazi guard is to help exterminate Jews, this does not make murdering Jews morally justified.

slavery and government

Similarly, just because a particular institution exists and its rules apply to someone does not mean that they are morally bound to that institution. Tyrannical governments are not morally entitled to the support of those who live under them.

In this essay, I will not assume any particular moral theories are correct. But before moving on, let’s consider utilitarianism, which offers a different approach to generating obligations than that outlined in this article. Utilitarianism, very roughly, is the doctrine that the morally correct action is always the one that maximizes “utility” or “happiness”. Utilitarian deliberations can at times lead us to conclude that we are obligated to obey the government, but just as easily in other cases that we are not obligated to obey. As such, there is no utilitarian approach to creating a moral requirement to support or comply with a given political institution. Since utilitarianism bases the moral rightness of something on a single condition, it doesn’t seem that it is capable of leading to a theory of obligation in general. Any potential obligation is immediately superseded by concerns about utility. Any obligations generated from utilitarian calculations is due to the amount of utility that results from one’s actions, not due to the nature of political institutions themselves.

A common concern that many people have with this result can be phrased as the question: what if everyone disobeyed the law? This brings us to rule-utilitarianism, which stipulates that we ought to act in accordance with rules that, if generally adopted, would lead to the greatest utility. But our decisions are somewhat independent of each other. For instance, if I decide to become a math teacher, this seems fine. But what if everyone became a math teacher? Everyone would starve. That doesn’t make becoming a math teacher morally wrong. To phrase it all as a rule: “I can break the law when the content of the law isn’t independently morally required (don’t murder, for example), provided that there are not too many people breaking the law.” Therefore, rule-utilitarianism, like act-utilitarianism, is unable to generate an account of political obligation.

Furthermore, as Huemer points out,

“Presumably, if individuals are obligated to maintain social order, the state is similarly obligated. If disobedience to any law risks causing a collapse of social order, then the state, in making laws that are not necessary to maintaining social order and that are likely to be widely disobeyed, is itself threatening social order far more than a single individual who disobeys one of these laws. Furthermore, asking the state to renounce its desire to make such unnecessary laws is more reasonable and less onerous than asking an individual to renounce his personal liberties.”

So, what would a successful account of political obligations look like? According to Huemer, it must satisfy the following five conditions:

  1. The state’s authority applies to citizens generally. The great majority of individuals should have political obligations, and the state must be justified in using coercion against the majority of its citizens.
  2. The state’s authority is limited to those citizens and residents within its territory.
  3. The state’s authority is not tied to the content of its laws or other commands. Even if a law is “bad”, citizens must have obligations to obey. An account of political obligation should explain why citizens ought not to jaywalk because the state says so. Of course, as discussed earlier, citizens might be morally required not to act in accordance with this law, if other moral considerations outweigh it.
  4. The state is entitled to regulate a broad range of human activities, and individuals must obey the state’s directives within this range.
  5. Within the sphere of action that the state is entitled to regulate, it is the final and highest human authority.

Let’s explore condition (2) for a moment. This is what Simmons dubbed the “particularity requirement”. We are only interested in moral requirements that make an individual bound to a particular political community or institution in order to create obligations based upon citizenship. Let’s say we had an obligation to support just governments (however defined). While living under a just government, I would be obliged to support it. I would be equally obliged to support every other just government to the same degree. But political authority is supposed to explain why we are bound to “our” particular government, not governments in general.

With this in mind, let’s tackle the most important theories of political obligation.


Consent Theories And The Social Contract

Consent theories of political obligation are those that argue that no man is obligated to support or comply with any political power unless he has personally consented to its authority over him. In other words, political obligations are grounded in the citizen performing some voluntary act in order to deliberately undertake the obligation.

This is a very popular theory, and is supported by philosophical heavyweights such as John Locke. Consent theory is attractive because it prevents man from being bound to a government which he does not choose. It respects our belief that men should determine the course of their own life as much as possible. It protects an individual’s freedom to determine which particular institution will get his political allegiance.

The major assumptions behind consent theories are:

  1. Man is naturally free. The “state of nature”, therefore, is discussing men during a time prior to them having voluntarily acted in a way that morally binds them.
  2. Man gives up his natural freedom only by voluntarily providing a clear sign that he intends to do so.
  3. The method of consent protects man from injury by the state. Only a government which has been “chosen” by the individual has any legitimate power over them.
  4. The state is an instrument for serving the interests of its citizens. Neither the state nor another individual can determine what is in the interests of another; one must provide consent that would indicate that the individual considers his interests served by the government.

Prior to the existence of governments, man lives in the state of nature, where he can do whatever he wants. But then he performs some kind of act which binds him to a government by signaling his consent. If he does not consent to the government, than that government does not have legitimate authority over him. However, he may choose to become bound to a state if he believes it would serve his interests.

A consent theory would hold that only unanimous consent by the citizens would make that government a legitimate political authority. This is clearly implausible. The solution to this problem that many political philosophers have provided is “tacit consent”, primarily via residence. This seems problematic as well, since it would suggest that all governments are legitimate. Consent theorists need to find some kind of “sign of consent” that we can reasonably assume most men have undertaken.

This sign of consent must be given knowingly, intentionally, and voluntarily. If “consent” is given because of a direct threat or while under duress, it isn’t really consent now, is it? Nor is it consent if the actor didn’t know that he was providing “consent”. The fact is, most of us have never been in a position to express consent to a government authority, let alone actually performed such an act. Here’s where the importance of tacit consent comes into play, where the consent is signaled by remaining silent or inactive.

Under what conditions can silence be taken as a sign of consent, and thus justify political obligations for the consent theorist?

  1. It must be clear in the situation that consenting is appropriate and the individual is aware of this.
  2. There must be a definite period of reasonable duration where objecting is appropriate, and the methods to object must be known to a potential dissenter. The method to object must pertain to goods that people have rights over.
  3. The point at which dissent is no longer possible must be made obvious.
  4. The means acceptable for signaling dissent must be reasonable.
  5. The consequences to a potential dissenter mustn’t be extremely detrimental to the dissenter.

Consider a board meeting, where the chairman says that he will change the time of the meeting unless anyone has any objection. If the meeting attendees remain silent, then they have tacitly consented to the time change. If the chairman does not make clear that he is seeking consent, then this violates condition (1); since the attendees don’t realize that this is a situation where they can provide consent (or not), then they have not even had the opportunity to tacitly consent. Clearly, there is no deliberate and voluntary aspect to this “consent”.

By changing the example slightly, we can show why the above conditions are necessary. Let’s say the chairman says “If you do not support the time change, you can let us know by paying $5.” Because the chairman does not have a preexisting right to this money, then failing to pay cannot signal genuine tacit consent, because it violates condition (2).

Condition (3) guarantees that the attendees’ silence is not simply a reflection of a misunderstanding regarding how much time they have to dissent. The chairman cannot consider the attendees to have consented by claiming that whatever dissent that has occurred past the deadline doesn’t count, when no explicit deadline was provided.

Now, let’s say that the chairman says “If you don’t accept the time change, you can let me know by playing a round of Russian roulette.” This violates condition (4) – clearly, one cannot be considered to have provided tacit consent when the means to do would be so unreasonable. The vagueness in the term “unreasonable” should not impact the strength of the arguments in this section.

Finally, the chairman might say “If you do not accept the time change, I will lock you in a cage in my office.” This violates condition (5). “Consent” that is given due to coercion isn’t really consent, and cannot generate obligations.

Huemer adds several other conditions that must be satisfied for an agreement, or contract, to be considered valid. Explicitly dissenting from an agreement trumps any implicit acceptance. If I go into a restaurant and tell the waitress that I will not pay for my meal but want it anyways (and then she brings it to me), I am not obligated to pay. Normally, ordering at a restaurant would make you obligated to pay, but by explicitly stating that you will not, the waitress could (and should) have simply not served you. Additionally, an action can only be taken to signal consent if the actor can assume that, without performing that act, the scheme would not be forced upon them anyways. If the chairman says “I want to switch the meeting time, and will do so regardless of whether you disagree or not,” then it is not a valid agreement. Finally, a contractual obligation is mutual and conditional; if one side fails to live up to the agreement, then the obligations stemming from it are considered void.

Any possible “social contract” must fulfill these conditions, but it appears to fail on all of them. Explicit dissent doesn’t seem to trump implicit consent, as every anarchist knows. As Huemer puts it:

“…the state’s well-known refusal to recognize explicit dissent calls into question the validity of any tacit consent allegedly given by even those who have not explicitly expressed dissent. Even for those who would not in fact wish to dissent, it remains true that they were not given the option of explicitly turning down the social contract.”

The state will apply the same laws and taxes to you even if you object to government, use its roads, vote, etc. Therefore, failing to object, or agreeing to take part in the political process or accept benefits from government cannot be said to signal consent.

Social contract

A social contract would imply that the state has some obligations toward its citizens (or else the contract isn’t mutual). Presumably, one of these is that the state protects citizens from crime. Suppose you are the victim of a crime that the state could have prevented had it made a reasonable effort to do so. In this case, isn’t the state failing in its mutual obligation? This is exactly the situation we have in the US, where police have no obligation to protect citizens from crime.

Clearly, the social contract would violate our common sense intuitions about contracts and agreements in general.

But let’s return to the idea of tacit consent. Can we even say that most individuals have tacitly consented to their government’s rule? For Locke and many others, tacit consent can be signaled by voting, residing in a state, using public roads, etc. But this means that living within a tyrannical society would still result in individuals being bound to that government. North Koreans perform these actions just as readily as Americans do, but we don’t consider North Koreans to be morally bound to their government.

Here it is important to draw a distinction between an act being a “sign of consent” and an act “implying consent.” When an act “implies consent” it does not necessarily mean that the actor intended to consent or that the act would normally be taken as an attempt to signal consent. Here are ways to imply consent:

  1. An act can lead us to conclude that the actor would consent if the right conditions arose. If he had been asked to, he would have consented.
  2. An act might commit an actor to consenting. Spending hours going on a rant about how anyone who doesn’t consent to their government is an idiot would under normal conditions imply that this individual consents to be governed.
  3. An act might morally bind the actor to the same performance to which he would be bound if he in fact did consent. Joining a baseball game would imply consent to abide by the rules and dictates of the umpires.

These kinds of acts were not necessarily performed as deliberate or intentional acts of consent, and thus we cannot merely assume that they were intended as acts of consent. Remember: an act of consent must be a deliberate undertaking, otherwise any benefits that consent theory has for political obligations no longer exist.

People like Locke would argue that things like using public roads or voting, which imply consent, can be grounds for political obligations. But these instances of implied consent are not typically deliberate undertakings. Although participating in the political process might imply consent, under current arrangements, it is not a sign of consent. The average man votes with minimal awareness and no intention of having it be an act of consent to anything. If these types of actions could ground political obligations, then this would be within the realm of some other theory, not consent theory.

Let’s also note that an attitude of approval does not signal consent and is irrelevant to political obligations. Merely approving or having a positive attitude towards government is not a sign of consent; again, a sign of consent must be a deliberate undertaking. When a man consents to something, he is morally bound, regardless of his attitudes.

It is clear that very few individuals today have signaled (tacit) consent to governmental authority (even if that is only because most people have not had the opportunity to do so), which makes it unsuitable as a general grounds for political obligations. It would show that in most modern states, a trivial fraction of the citizens of any state would be morally bound.

Finally, let’s turn our attention to the argument that continued residence within a specific territory qualifies as providing consent. “Love it or leave it,” as they say. For continued residence to qualify as consent, there would need to be some kind of choice presented which allowed people to voice their dissent, otherwise conditions (1)-(3) above would be violated. For instance, at a particular age, every citizen can be asked whether they agree to be bound by political obligations, and would be allowed to leave without punishment if they do not. In general, residence as a potential signal of consent violates condition (5), that the consequences of dissent must not be too extreme. Man’s most valuable possessions, such as family and friends, would need to be left behind to leave a state, placing a very significant weight in favor of continued residence. As Simmons asks:

“Does a man choose freely to remain in prison because he has a knife with which he can wound himself seriously enough to be removed to a hospital?”

Surely not! The choice procedure specified in order to make continued residence a signal of consent may never be able to overcome condition (5), though theoretically there is room for it to do so. But the onus is on the consent theorist to propose a choice procedure that can be designed to fulfill the above conditions. In addition, the “love it or leave it” argument presupposes that the government has a valid property right over the property within its borders, or else the request to leave involves demanding of someone to sacrifice something they have rights over (like the chairman who insists people pay $5 to dissent).

At this point, we can see that consent theories ultimately come up short.


Hypothetical Social Contracts

Another strand of justifications for political obligation would be appealing to a hypothetical social contract. Proponents of these theories argue that people would consent to the state’s authority under certain hypothetical conditions.

In order for this line of argument to succeed, these theorists must show that not only would people consent, but that the hypothetical consent has moral significance that generates obligations. For instance, an unconscious patient is rushed to the hospital and cannot give explicit consent to treatment, but it is reasonable to believe that the patient would consent if he were conscious. Is our consenting to be bound to our governments analogous to this situation?

For hypothetical consent to apply, obtaining actual consent must be infeasible (for reasons other than peoples’ unwillingness to consent in the first place). If a patient is conscious, then the doctors must get their actual (not assumed) consent. Also, the parties’ hypothetical consent must be consistent with their relevant pre-existing values and beliefs. If an unconscious patient had a religious objection to some kind of surgery (that the doctor knew about), we cannot say they have hypothetically consented to surgery just because they are unconscious and cannot make it explicit.

It is possible for the state to get explicit consent to its rule, since (most) of the people that it rules over are not unconscious or otherwise incapable. In addition, there are individuals who have values that are against certain types of government (or government in general), so hypothetical consent cannot be assumed for these individuals. For instance, some people might only consent to a government that is a direct democracy, but if living in a representative democracy, they would not.

One might argue that a hypothetical social contract is valid if all “reasonable” people would consent to it. This consent need not apply to every detail of the state, but it should at least include consent to the basic forms and structures of that government. But there is no reason to think that all reasonable people will reach agreement on the basic principles of government any more than all reasonable people agreeing to the same religion or ethical theory.

The hypothetical social contract theorist must hold that one may coercively impose an arrangement on individuals when they would be “unreasonable” to reject the arrangement. If someone offered you a job that was better in every way than your current job, you might be “unreasonable” to reject it; nevertheless, most people wouldn’t say that this gives the employer the right to coerce you into accepting the job. The unreasonableness of rejecting an offer in the private sphere clearly does not generate a license to coerce, and yet the unreasonableness of rejecting the social contract is enough for many theorists to (inconsistently and incorrectly) claim that the terms of a social contract can be forced on its citizens.

Rawls’s Natural Duty of Justice

John Rawls is without question the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century, so it is worth investigating his arguments more explicitly.

Rawls imagines a hypothetical “original position,” where individuals select the basic social structure that they would like to live under. They do this from behind the “veil of ignorance” – nobody in the original position is aware of their characteristics in the real world. The parties negotiating the principles are unaware of their race, sex, religion, social status, talents, and so on. Rawls says that all reasonable people behind the veil of ignorance would agree to certain principles of government. The cause of disagreements, according to Rawls, are the influence of irrationality, personal biases, and ignorance – all factors that disappear under the veil of ignorance.

anarchy frightens people

But given that reasonable people disagree over many philosophical issues for intellectual reasons, why should we assume that disagreements would be explained away in political philosophy? There is no reason to think that (reasonable and rational) anarchists disagree with Rawls’s principles because of their knowledge of their position in society. While Rawls may have identified certain necessary conditions (people should be rational, free from personal biases, etc.), it is not clear that these conditions are sufficient. But even if one could identify all of the conditions necessary for persuasive moral reasoning, it is possible that the conclusions that Rawls draws are not accurate. For that to be the case, it would be necessary for everyone in the original position to have the complete and correct values – but the correct moral values are highly contentious in philosophy. Therefore, it becomes difficult or impossible for Rawls or any other theorist to determine what principles people would actually agree to.

That is enough to render Rawls’s theory inadequate, but let’s assume away those problems for a moment. Rawls claims that the natural duty of justice binds each member “irrespective of his voluntary acts, performative or otherwise.” (Note that it is this factor that makes it a duty rather than an obligation, but I digress).This duty of justice has two parts:

“First, we are to comply with and do our share in just institutions when they exist and apply to us; and second, we are to assist in the establishment of just arrangements when they do not exist, at least when this can be done at little cost to ourselves.”

But what does it mean for an institution to “apply to us”? We shouldn’t be required to go along with just any institution that forces itself upon us, or which applies to us because of descriptions that we happen to meet. The NAACP doesn’t “apply to” all black people. The Writer’s Guild doesn’t “apply to” me merely because I am a writer. Birth is not an act that I perform or am responsible for, so being born in an area shouldn’t make that institution “apply to” me in a morally significant way.

One must consent or accept benefits or something along those lines in order for the institution to “apply to” me in a morally significant way. The acts that a citizen must perform in order to have the institution “apply” to him in this stronger sense are ones which would generate obligations anyways (under consent or fair play theories, coming up next). What if we tried to get rid of the “application” clause in Rawls’s natural duty of justice? Then we would be obligated to comply with and support every just institution, wherever it exists – an implausible demand, to be sure, and one which violates the particularity principle.


The Principle of Fair Play

The principle of fair play suggests that the beneficiary of some kind of scheme has a moral obligation to do his “fair share” to shoulder the burden of the scheme. Others who have cooperated in this scheme have a right to the beneficiary’s submission to the rules.

Obligations stemming from this principle can arise when the following conditions hold (Simmons):

  1. There must be an active scheme of social cooperation.
  2. Cooperation under the scheme involves at least a restriction of one’s liberty.
  3. The benefits yielded from the scheme can be, at least in some cases, enjoyed by someone who does not cooperate (related to public goods/free rider problem).

Under this conception of obligations, citizens are considered to stand in a cooperative relationship with their fellow citizens rather than in an adversarial relationship with their government (as consent theories seem to suggest). This sentiment might be reflected in some common statements that people will make, such as “we are the government.”

In order to assess this argument, we must draw a distinction between merely receiving benefits and accepting benefits. To accept a benefit, one must have wanted it when it was received, or have made an effort to get the benefit, or at least not have actively attempted to avoid getting it. This is the difference between you sneaking onto my lawn while I’m away and mowing it (I receive a benefit), or asking me if you could come by to mow my lawn (I accept a benefit). It would be silly to claim that I “accept” the benefit of you mowing my lawn if you did it while I was completely unaware. And it would also fly against our intuitions to say that we owe this phantom lawn-mower for their services provided. What if I were growing it out for some reason?

With this distinction in mind, we have the choice of saying that the principle of fair play applies to either all beneficiaries of a scheme, or merely all of those who have accepted the benefits of that scheme. Is it enough for someone to have merely received the benefit? Robert Nozick, in “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” provides a thought experiment that convincingly demonstrates that receiving a benefit is not sufficient to bind someone under considerations of fair play.

“Suppose some of the people in your neighborhood (there are 364 other adults) have found a public address system and decide to institute a system of public entertainment. They post a list of names, one for each day, yours among them. On his assigned day (one can easily switch days) a person is to run the public address system, play records over it, give news bulletins, tell amusing stories he has heard, and so on. After 138 days on which each person has done his part, your day arrives. Are you obligated to take your turn? You have benefited from it, occasionally opening your window to listen, enjoying some music or chuckling at someone’s funny story. The other people have put themselves out. But must you answer the call when it is your turn to do so? As it stands, surely not. Though you benefit from the arrangement, you may know all along that 364 days of entertainment supplied by others will not be worth your giving up one day. You would rather not have any of it and not give up a day than have it all and spend one of your days at it. Given these preferences, how can it be that you are required to participate when your scheduled time comes? It would be nice to have philosophy readings on the radio to which one could tune in at any time, perhaps late at night when tired. But it may not be nice enough for you to want to give up one whole day of your own as a reader on the program. Whatever you want, can others create an obligation for you to do so by going ahead and starting the program themselves? In this case you can choose to forgo the benefit by not turning on the radio; in other cases the benefits may be unavoidable. If each day a different person on your street sweeps the entire street, must you do so when your time comes? Even if you don’t care that much about a clean street? Must you imagine dirt as you traverse the street, so as not to benefit as a free rider? Must you refrain from turning on the radio to hear the philosophy readings? Must you mow your front lawn as often as your neighbors mow theirs?”

We conclude that in order to have obligations derived from fair play, one must accept the benefits of the scheme, and not merely receive the benefits. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

It also appears that considerations of fair play would only arise if the beneficiary is also a participant in the cooperative scheme (for instance, Canadians benefit from the rule of law that the American government provides, but they are not obligated to pay US taxes). To be a participant, one must a) pledge support or tacitly agree to be governed by the scheme’s rules, or b) play an active role in the scheme after it is instituted.

In other words, fair play would only bind “insiders” of the scheme. This means that it would only bind those who have already become bound to do their part as “insiders,” leading the principle of fair play to collapse into a theory of consent. But this critique no longer holds once we define a participant as someone who has agreed to accept benefits. One can accept benefits from a scheme without signaling consent, and this would still make that person a participant (“Yes, I’m accepting the benefits of government, but I will NOT pay for it! It is a terrible idea!”). Thus, the theory no longer collapses into consent theory. Bummer.

Let’s return to the idea of accepting benefits. Benefits that we actively resist getting, we get unknowingly, or in ways in which we had no control, appear to be benefits that we did not accept. To accept the benefit, we must have tried (and succeeded) to get the benefit or taken the benefit willingly and knowingly. We cannot regard the benefits as having been forced upon us against our will or think that they were not worth the price we must pay for them. Let us define an “open” benefit as one that cannot be avoided without a change in lifestyle, such as the PA system example that Nozick provides (we can contrast this with “readily available” benefits that can be obtained easily, but require some kind of action to benefit from). In the case of open benefits in a cooperative scheme, in order to be considered to have “accepted” the benefits, one must have understood that the benefits were provided by the scheme itself (as opposed to just being free for the taking, entitlements, etc.).

Most benefits of government are “open,” and thus it is difficult to see how anyone has really accepted them. Many citizens likely don’t believe that the benefits that they receive are worth the price they must pay. Most people don’t think it is worth it to buy loads of bombs and get involved in wars, to pay for police to fight the “drug war,” or otherwise spend money interfering in peoples’ personal lives. And most people regard these benefits not as something arising from the cooperative effort of their fellow citizens, but rather as something that they have “purchased” from the government with their taxes. As Simmons says,

“Even among the thoughtful and “morally aware”, it must be a rare individual who regards himself as engaged in an ongoing cooperative venture, obeying the law because fair play demands it, and with all of the citizens of his state as fellow participants.”

As such, the principle of fair play cannot generate political obligations for the majority of individuals, and is thus not a sufficiently general principle of political obligation. But before moving on to the next theory, we should take a moment to reflect on our intuitions regarding fair play.

As a thought experiment (Simmons provides this example), imagine that homeowners in a given area create a scheme to have everyone maintain their own yards during the week and do some yard work in the communal areas on weekends. Two individuals, Oscar and Willie, refuse to partake in this scheme. Oscar hates clean yards, so he isn’t really benefiting from the scheme. The residents in that area don’t feel like he is freeloading (though they would prefer he leave the community), because he is not benefitting from the arrangement at all.

Willie, on the other hand, does like well-kept yards. But he would prefer to live in an ugly neighborhood than to spend his weekend cleaning. The rest of the residents feel that Willie is obligated to help and that he is not fulfilling these obligations.

scared of those who believe in authority

But then there is Sam, a businessman who comes into the neighborhood for much of the week and benefits just as much from the scheme as Willie does, but also does not contribute. Anyone who would accuse Sam of avoiding obligations would be laughed at. But neither Willie nor Sam has accepted the benefits or made any sort of commitment to the yard-cleaning scheme – they appear to be in largely the same position relative to the scheme. So why is Willie accused of failing to discharge his obligations while Sam is not?

The answer is that peoples’ intuitions about Willie are wrong. Sorry guys. We are born into our political communities (or schemes, as I’ve been calling them), which seems qualitatively the same as having the scheme built up around you, as in the examples of Willie and the PA system.


The Principle of Gratitude

Perhaps political obligations are generated from the receipt (and not necessarily acceptance) of benefits of government due to the principle of gratitude, which stipulates that we repay our benefactors. This principle might apply, for instance, to say that we owe our parents because of the benefits they have provided us.

For starters, it is an open question whether or not considerations of gratitude are relevant to moral theory at all. The triviality of most potential debts of gratitude makes it seem as though it would fall under etiquette rather than morality. Nevertheless, let us consider the possibility that debts of gratitude could be morally significant.

There are at least five necessary conditions for an obligation of gratitude to be generated. These conditions are necessary, but likely not sufficient.

  1. The benefit must be granted by means of some effort or sacrifice. If someone benefits us by merely going about their business-as-usual, it is difficult to see how any kind of special debt would be generated.
  2. The benefit must not be given unintentionally, involuntarily, or for any other disqualifying reasons (selfishness, for instance).
  3. The benefit must not be forced (unjustifiably) against the beneficiary’s will.
  4. The beneficiary must want the benefit, or the beneficiary would want the benefit if certain impairing conditions were corrected (for instance, if the person were not drunk).
  5. The beneficiary must not want the benefit not to be provided by the benefactor (they would want the benefits to come from someone else), or the beneficiary wouldn’t feel this way if impairing conditions were corrected.

Let’s say that all of these conditions (and any other necessary conditions) were satisfied with respect to the benefits we receive from government. Even in the case where we are bound by a debt of gratitude to our government, this would not imply that we ought to obey the government, since other countervailing considerations could predominate in that moral deliberation.

Darth Vader not guilty

But political obligation requires a very specific kind of “payment” to the government. Namely, it requires obedience. But while obedience to the law and support for government institutions are one way of discharging a debt of gratitude, they are not the only way. And even if a debt of gratitude required fulfilling a particular need of the benefactor (obedience is something the state needs to exist), this does not mean we must do everything in our power to fulfill this need. Obeying the law most of the time would fulfill this need, so we don’t need to obey the law all the time. But it also isn’t clear why a benefactor having a particular need implies that the beneficiary must fulfill this need in the first place. Therefore, the best that the principle of gratitude can do is to require that citizens do something for their governments, but that something is not the same as a political obligation. It could just mean that we are morally required to say “thank you” to politicians.

But it is also clear that the necessary conditions above are not met by our relationship with our government. For starters, a citizen who honestly claims that he did not want the benefits that government provided, or that he didn’t want to receive them from his government, would have no political obligations under the gratitude account.

Furthermore, condition (1) fails because the government is hardly making any sacrifice or effort on my behalf. The marginal cost of providing me benefits must be negligible. And the state’s money comes from tax revenue (other citizens), so it is not really sacrificing at all. Additionally, condition (2) fails because government rarely if ever has the proper motivations that a debt of gratitude would require. Even in the best states, so much of the benefit that is received is about vote-buying, dispensing political favors, and so on.

We are forced to conclude that the principle of gratitude is unable to generate political obligations.



The arguments presented in this essay demonstrate that the most significant accounts of political obligations ultimately fail to accomplish what their proponents want. How can we reconcile this with the clear empirical fact that the majority of people seem to believe that political obligations do in fact exist? Popular opinion would seem to provide at least prima facie evidence that political obligations exist. For the majority of people to be wrong, a cognitive malfunction with the same end result must occur in a large percentage of people. Can we identify a systemic bias that would lead to the vast majority of individuals to draw the wrong conclusions about political obligations?

It seems to me that we can. Numerous psychological principles would tend to steer many individuals in this direction. For instance, the Milgram experiment showed that people are far more likely to obey perceived authority figures than they would have thought, and certainly more than could be thought justified. Obedient subjects rationalized their behavior as “just following orders.” In this experiment, psychologically healthy individuals administered fake electric shocks to someone, despite that person complaining of a heart condition, crying out in pain, and eventually becoming nonresponsive. All it took was for someone in a lab coat to tell them that they should continue administering shocks. Despite showing signs of anxiety and resistance, a full 65% of subjects completed the experiment, thinking they were sending 450 volts of electricity through a presumably lifeless or unconscious body.

People also tend to adjust their beliefs and values in order to make their own choices appear better and deal with the “cognitive dissonance” that arises from acting in ways that are inconsistent with their beliefs. And since we generally obey governments, pay taxes, etc., we may rationalize this action by appealing to political authority. It is nicer to imagine that we are caring and conscientious people who are just doing our duty in society than it is to imagine we are authorizing coercion on our behalf.

There is also the “status quo bias”, where individuals tend to consider any change from a baseline state (the status quo) to be a loss. This creates a tendency to imagine that what our society practices must be true and good.

Finally, a citizen’s relationship with his state fulfills the conditions that psychologists have shown to cause Stockholm Syndrome, where captives develop an attachment or even love for their captors. This is a defensive mechanism that may have survival value in extreme situations, and it might partly explain our acceptance of state power or even generate a certain love and attachment to the state. This issue deserves further exploration, but as I have written about it before, I will leave it at that for now.

Your confidence in your beliefs is too damn high!

Together, these systemic biases can explain the popular support for the idea of political authority, and this support does not provide additional evidence that political authority exists. Even if all governments are illegitimate and political obligations don’t exist, it is quite likely that we would still feel as though they were and do.

A lack of political authority means that we are not obligated to obey the law merely because it is the law (we have other moral reasons not to murder or steal, though), and that agents of the state are not morally entitled to coerce citizens in ways that private citizens are morally prohibited from doing. I’ll close with a great summary from Huemer:

“For any coercive act by the state, we should first ask what reason the state has for exercising coercion in this way. We should then consider whether a private individual or organization would be justified in exercising a similar kind and degree of coercion, with similar effects on the victims, for similar reasons. If the answer is no, then coercion by the state is not justified either.”

Japanese Internment: The Constitution Will Not Protect Americans From Their Government

Japanese Internment

The term “concentration camp” is generally associated with Nazi Germany, but it was actually popularized during the Second Boer War at the turn of the 20th century. While this was not the first time civilians were interned during war (for instance, the United States had an extensive system of concentration camps during the war with the Philippines), it was the first time that the entirety of a nation was systematically targeted and depopulated.

A concentration camp is a compound for noncombatants in a war zone. Auschwitz and the other infamous sites under Nazi control would more accurately be called death camps.

Whatever the term, rounding up innocent civilians and forcing them from their homes is clearly a heinous crime. It is the kind of thing that tyrants do. It is certainly not the kind of thing that happens in America, land of the free and home of the brave.

Of course, this isn’t true. By Executive Order 9066 on February 19th, 1942 (just 74 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor), more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans, primarily US citizens, were sent to concentration camps, where they were forced to live for an average of 3 years. And yes, concentration camp is the correct term here; even FDR and other government officials called them concentration camps.

It is of the utmost importance that we remember what happened to the Japanese living in America during World War 2, because many naïve Americans either forget that it happened or refuse to believe that something similar could happen again. People place entirely too much faith in their government, and the constitution that is supposed to constrain it.

In this post, I will discuss some of the history of Japanese internment, the constitutional issues and failures surrounding it, and how these issues have only grown stronger in the post-9/11 world.


Japanese Internment

The vast majority of the 130,000 Japanese in the US during the early 1940s were living on the west coast in California, Oregon, and Washington. Nearly all of them were incarcerated. The majority of those incarcerated were US citizens who had committed no crime whatsoever. According to history professor Roger Daniels,

More than two-thirds of them were native-born American citizens. Their parents, most of whom had immigrated to the United States between 1890 and 1924 (when Congress barred further immigration of Japanese), were “aliens ineligible to citizenship” because of their race. Like all persons of color in the United States, both generations of Japanese Americans experienced systematic discrimination. The immigrant Issei generation, in addition to being barred from citizenship, were legally forbidden to enter a number of professions and trades and, even more importantly for a farming people, were forbidden to own agricultural land in the states where most of them lived. The second or Nisei generation, although legally citizens, were not accorded equal rights. In California, for example, they were segregated in theaters, barred from swimming pools, and limited in employment.”

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, a smaller subset of the Japanese were rounded up based on prior suspicion. Reasonable people could debate whether or not this was justified, but at least it was legal (though regular readers of this blog should understand that “legal” does not equal “moral”).

“The outbreak of war put the Issei generation at peril—they were “alien enemies” and, as such, some eight thousand, mostly men, were interned beginning on the night of 7-8 December 1941…While it is clear that some of those interned did not receive “justice,” their confinement did conform to the law of the land, which had provided for wartime internment since the War of 1812.What happened to the rest of the West Coast Japanese Americans was without precedent in American law…”

We will go over the legal aspects of setting up concentration camps for US citizens later. For now, I’d like to point out a truism about government action and its perceived authority: it’s quite common for people to accept highly questionable directives without resistance. Large segments of the population will even support such measures, be it out of fear or ignorance. There’s no reason to think that, if America begins going down the road towards concentration camps again, it won’t be a popular decision and that there won’t be similar collaborators. Even the victims themselves are likely to go along with it.

“The reaction of the Japanese American people to all of this was remarkable. The vast majority accepted the various government decisions with what appeared to be patient resignation. The leading national organization of the citizen generation, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), advocated a policy of acquiescence and even collaboration with the government’s plans hoping by such behavior to “earn” a better place for Japanese Americans in the postwar world. This kind of accommodation is not unknown among other American minority groups.”

A little known fact is that the American government also kidnapped and interned Japanese in Latin America. As described by Natsu Taylor Saito,

“The plaintiffs lost homes and possessions; some were forced to clear jungle in the Canal Zone; and men, women and children were transported under armed guard to prison camps in the Texas desert where they were incarcerated indefinitely without charge or hearing. Families were torn apart and scattered across the globe. Held as hostages, some Japanese Latin Americans were exchanged for U.S. citizens, and others were imprisoned past the end of the war, when the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (“INS”) declared them to be “illegal aliens” and deported them, against their will, to Japan.”

While some of the Japanese were deported at the end of the war, others refused to leave the camps.

“Ironically, in 1945, as the war was ending, the WRA [War Relocation Authority] had great difficulty in getting some Japanese Americans—mostly older members of the Issei generation—to leave the camps. Many had lost their means of livelihood and even though they had once been willing to take the great risk of emigration to a strange land, they were now afraid to return to the places where they had lived for decades.”

This is despite the deplorable living conditions in the camps. Summarized by Brian Masaru Hayashi,

“…they endured four years of cramped living quarters, inadequate facilities, low wages, and a general lack of freedom and privacy. The majority–approximately five out of every six–pledged their allegiance to the United States or promised obedience to its laws over Japan’s when confronted with questions regarding which country the aliens would support and concerning the U.S. citizens’ willingness to serve in the American armed forces during the infamous Loyalty Registration of 1943.

What is this about a “loyalty registration”? The WRA attempted to divide the prisoners into “loyal” and “disloyal” groups and separate them, based on a simple questionnaire. How American! Again, remember that these are US citizens who were not charged with any crimes.

While being rounded up, the Japanese exiles weren’t told where they were going or how long they’d be gone for. They were given a very short period of time to sell their possessions before being interned, so property was usually sold for significantly below market value. In addition, having been forced out of the labor market for several years, Japanese had significantly reduced earnings upon leaving the camps, according to research by Aimee Chin.

“Using individual-level data from the 1970 Census, I find that the labor market withdrawal induced by the internment reduced the annual earnings of males by as much as nine to thirteen percent twenty-five years afterwards. Additionally, internment increased the probability of self-employment, and reduced the probability of holding high-status professional and technical occupations. These findings are consistent with the predictions of an economic model that equates the labor market withdrawal induced by the internment with a loss of civilian labor market experience or a loss of advantageous job matches.”

This study used the youngest birth cohort whose labor would have been affected by internment.

“Older cohorts were probably even more adversely impacted, since they were more likely to be foreign-born, to have held an agricultural occupation prior to internment, and to have owned a farm or small business prior to internment (and therefore possessing more firm-specific human capital).”

All in all, the internment resulted in considerable losses in both property and income for Japanese-Americans.

The experience of life in the camps didn’t help. Families were often split up, and then people were forced to live communally with strangers, including communal latrines without partitions, and communal showers in open areas. There were partitions dividing the rooms most of the time, but they did not extend from the floor to the ceiling. You can easily imagine the privacy issues this would create. Some were housed in animal stables with the stench of manure, and many had no roof. Attempted escape or disobeying orders were punishable by death – and Roger Daniels claims that in at least three separate camps, armed soldiers shot and killed unarmed, incarcerated American citizens.

In the rush to incarcerate such a large number of people, the camps were hastily and shoddily built. Most camps were located in areas with wild temperature changes from day to night and winter to summer. They were located in barren, desolate locations, hardly suitable for the people who were forced to inhabit them.

“In May officials tried to put the best face on the construction of housing and other buildings at the camps. One description called the initial housing “basic”: “That is, the structures are soundly constructed and provide minimum essentials for decent living. As evacuees move in, they will have an opportunity to improve their quarters by their own work.” But feeling pressure from the WRA, civilian construction contractors built the centers very quickly during the spring and summer of 1942. Camp designs were based on military barracks, making them ill suited for family living. And along with the speed came shoddy construction and other deficiencies. A 1943 WRA report described “tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind.” While the spartan buildings may have satisfied international laws, they left much to be desired.

The less than ideal design and construction quality of the housing was magnified by the desert location of the camps. The heat was blistering in the summer and generally came with dust. One internee recalled: “Inside of our houses, in the laundry, in the latrines, in the mess halls, dust and more dust, dust everywhere.” Winters could be equally difficult. For example, at Heart Mountain in northern Wyoming, internees endured temperatures of 30 degrees below zero in the winter. Residents there resorted to banking the earth against their barracks to block the icy winds. The situation was made worse by the hasty evacuation process to the assembly center. Evacuees leaving the milder coastal climate had not been told of their ultimate destinations, and as a result, many failed to pack clothing that would have been appropriate for the bitter desert winters.”

An independent report by someone working in the camps presents a gloomy picture of camp conditions.

“Ralph Smeltzer, a member of the Brethren Church, worked within the camps and produced his own reports documenting the condition of the internees.  His reports present a group of people confined to almost unbearable situations.  Within the April 21, 1942 report, Smeltzer describes how “bathing facilities were quite inadequate, running water was late in being made available and two weeks elapsed before hot water was available.”  In the second report, dated May 5, 1942, a lack of plumbing supplies creates a “serious lack of sanitary facilities” leading to widespread dysentery.  In a third report, dated June 8, 1942, Smeltzer describes a story wherein “some Caucasians set up tables outside the barb-wire fences and handed their Japanese friends additional food over and through the fence.”  None of these conditions are to be found in any War Relocation Authority reports.

In his sixth report, dated November 6, 1942, a full seven and a half months after the camps had opened, Smeltzer describes what continues to provide the internees with low morale and high discontent.  He details how “The rooms are too small.  Two or more families live in many rooms.  An average room is 20 feet by 24 feet” allowing each person in the room a personal space of “4 feet by 20 feet;” the living facilities have “poorly fitting windows and gaping barn-like doors;” “the poorest lumbar is used throughout,” and the “rooms are nearly always cold.”  In essence, living conditions are abhorrent.”

Naturally, this was all done for the sake of “national security.” America was at war, and Japan was the enemy. Of course the Japanese-Americans would be spies, attempting to subvert the war effort! But according to Roger Daniels,

There was not one case of espionage or sabotage by a Japanese person in the United States during the entire war. One West Coast law enforcement officer, California Attorney General Earl Warren, admitted to a congressional committee on 21 February 1942 that there had been no such acts in California, but found that fact “most ominous.” It convinced him that “we are just being lulled into a false sense of security and that the only reason we haven’t had a disaster in California is because it is timed for a different date.” “Our day of reckoning is bound to come,” he testified in arguing for incarceration. Of course, if there had been sabotage by Japanese Americans in California, Warren would have used that to argue for the same thing. As far as Japanese Americans were concerned, it was a no-win situation.”


Was It Constitutional?

Those Americans who have a special faith in government because the precious constitution will keep the government honest should study the Japanese internment. It should be obvious to even the most dimwitted American boob that the constitution provided no protection to a huge group of individuals who needed it the most.

Eugene Rostow, an influential legal scholar and former Dean of Yale Law School, wrote a scathing critique of the Supreme Court cases relevant to the Japanese internment. I will draw on his argument heavily here, and I would encourage you to read it yourself if you are into that kind of thing. The emphasis in any quotations included here is mine.

Of fundamental importance to the legal structure of a supposedly democratic society is the relationship between civil and military authority.

“What the Supreme Court has done in these cases, and especially in Korematsu v. United States, is to increase the strength of the military in relation to civil government. It has upheld an act of military power without a factual record in which the justification for the act was analyzed. Thus it has created doubt as to the standards of responsibility to which the military power will be held. For the first time in American legal history, the Court has seriously weakened the protection of our basic civil right, the writ of habeas corpus. It has established a precedent which may well be used to encourage attacks on the civil rights of citizens and aliens, and may make it possible for some of those attacks to succeed. It will give aid to reactionary political programs which use social division and racial prejudice as tools for conquering power.”

As mentioned previously, the internment of the Japanese was justified as a matter of military necessity. Allegedly, spies and saboteurs would be common among the Japanese population. But there was no evidence of Japanese sabotage, and certainly not enough to justify the suspension of habeas corpus, the right to challenge unlawful imprisonment before a court.

“Apart from the members of the group known to be under suspicion, there was no evidence beyond the vaguest fear to connect the Japanese on the West Coast with the unfavorable military events of 1941 and 1942. Both at Pearl Harbor and in sporadic attacks on the West Coast the enemy had shown that he had knowledge of our dispositions. There was some signaling to enemy ships at sea, both by radio and by lights, along the West Coast. It was said to be difficult to trace such signals because of limitations on the power of search without warrant. There had been several episodes of shelling the coast by submarine, although two of the three such episodes mentioned by General DeWitt as tending to create suspicion of the Japanese Americans had taken place after their removal from the Coast. These were the only such items in the Final Report which were not identified by date.” And it was positively known that no suspicions attached to the Japanese residents for sabotage at Pearl Harbor before, during or after the raid. Those subsequently arrested as Japanese agents were all white men. “To focus attention on local residents of Japanese descent, actually diverted attention from those who were busily engaged in espionage activity.””

Even in Hawaii, a far more militarily significant location than the west coast of the mainland US, and even under the martial law that was imposed there, those Japanese who were arrested or interned were done so on an individual basis rather than as a part of a group defined by race. The same was true in France and Great Britain (with respect to their German populations), despite being much closer to the action than America was.

“During the period of three and a half years after Pearl Harbor, military power was installed in Hawaii, constitutionally or not, and the normal controls against arrest on suspicion were not available. The population of Hawaii is 500,000, of whom some 160,000, or 32%, were of Japanese descent. Despite the confusions of the moment in Hawaii, only 700 to 800 Japanese aliens were arrested and sent to the mainland for internment. In addition, fewer than 1,100 persons of Japanese ancestry were transferred to the mainland to relocation centers. These Japanese were arrested on the basis of individual suspicion, resting on previous examination or observed behavior, or they were families of interned aliens, transferred voluntarily. Of those transferred from Hawaii to the mainland, 912 were citizens, the rest aliens. Even under a regime of martial law, men were arrested as individuals, and safety was assured without mass arrests.

In the period immediately after Pearl Harbor there was no special security program on the West Coast for persons of Japanese extraction, and no general conviction that a special program was needed. Known enemy sympathizers among the Japanese, like white traitors and enemy agents, were arrested. There was no sabotage on the part of persons of Japanese ancestry, either in Hawaii or on the West Coast. There was no reason to suppose that the 112,000 persons of Japanese descent on the West Coast, 1.2% of the population, constituted a greater menace to safety than such persons in Hawaii, 32% of the Territory’s population. Their access to military installations was not substantially different in the two areas; their status in society was quite similar; their proved record of loyalty in the war has been the same. Although many white persons were arrested, and convicted, as Japanese agents, no resident Japanese American has so far been convicted of sabotage or espionage as an agent of Japan.

But the courts alleged that it was impossible to investigate individual loyalty in the case of the Japanese – a claim that is clearly wrong. In fact, a major reason the Japanese were targeted was because they were a small enough group to target, unlike the Germans or Italians. You know, the other major Axis powers.

“The second part of the Court’s basic premise of fact was that it was impossible to investigate the question of loyalty individually. As to the validity of this proposition there was neither evidence in the record nor even discussion by the Court to indicate a basis for the conclusion which might appeal to a reasonable man, or even to a choleric and harassed general, faced with the danger of invasion and the specter of his own court martial. The issue was dismissed in a sentence. “We cannot say that the war-making branches of the Government did not have ground for believing that in a critical hour such persons could not readily be isolated and separately dealt with, and constituted a menace to the national defense and safety, which demanded that prompt and adequate measures be taken to guard against it.” In view of the history of security measures during the war, it would not have been easy to establish strong grounds for such a belief. There were about 110,000 persons subject to the exclusion orders, 43% of them being over 50 or under 15. At the time of the exclusion orders, they had lived in California without committing sabotage for five months after Pearl Harbor. The number of persons to be examined was not beyond the capacities of individual examination processes, in the light of experience with such security measures, both in the United States and abroad…Actually, the exclusion program was undertaken not because the Japanese were too numerous to be examined individually, but because they were a small enough group to be punished by confinement. It would have- been physically impossible to confine the Japanese and Japanese Americans in Hawaii, and it would have been both physically and politically impossible to undertake comparable measures against the 690,000 Italians or the 314,000 Germans living in the United States. The Japanese were being attacked because for some they provided the only possible outlet and expression for sentiments of group hostility.

By the time any cases actually made it to the Supreme Court, the tide of battle had changed and the Allies were winning against the Japanese. The military reality did not justify paranoia against the Japanese. The Supreme Court was tasked not just with seeing whether the concentration camps were allowed when they were made, but also whether they continued to be justified. This makes the failure to strike indefinite detention as unconstitutional all the more bewildering and, dare I say, evil. Instead, the courts basically just abdicated their authority to rule on these kinds of issues.

“In a bewildering and unimpressive series of opinions, relieved only by the dissents of Mr. Justice Roberts and of Mr. Justice ‘Murphy in Korematsu v. United States,”‘ the Court chose to assume that the main issue of the cases – the scope and method of judicial review of military decisions – did not exist. In the political process of American life, these decisions were a negative and reactionary act. The Court avoided the risks of overruling the Government on an issue of war policy. But it weakened society’s control over military authority-one of the polarizing forces on which the organization of our society depends. And it solemnly accepted and gave the prestige of its support to dangerous racial myths about a minority group, in arguments which can be applied easily to any other minority in our society.”

It should be clear that Justice Murphy’s dissent makes far more sense than this. Here it is, so you can judge for yourself:

Being an obvious racial discrimination, the order deprives all those within its scope of’ the equal protection of the laws as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. It further deprives these individuals of their constitutional rights to live and work where they will, to establish a home where they choose and to move about freely. In excommunicating, them without benefit of hearings, this order also deprives them of all their constitutional rights to procedural due process. Yet no reasonable relation to an ‘immediate, imminent, and impending’ public danger is evident to support this racial restriction which is one of the most sweeping and complete deprivations of constitutional rights in the history of this nation in the absence of martial law.”

Instead, it was held that people with the same race as the enemy constituted a more significant threat than other people (although as discussed before, this was applied inconsistently).

“The “facts” which were thus held to “afford a rational basis for decision” were that in time of war “residents having ethnic affiliations with an invading enemy may be a greater source of danger than those of different ancestry,” and that in time of war such persons could not readily be isolated and dealt with individually…Imagine applying an ethnic presumption of disloyalty in the circumstances of the Revolution or the Civil War! In the World War and in the present war, soldiers who had ethnic affiliations with the enemy-German, Austrian, Hungarian, Finnish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Japanese and Italian-fought uniformly as Americans in our armed forces, without any suggestion of group disloyalty.”

The justification for Japanese internment is all the more awkward considering the precedent set in the Ex parte Milligan case, which determined that the military did not have the constitutional authority to arrest or try civilians when civil courts were available – as they most certainly were in 1942.

“In Ex parte Milligan the Court said that the military could not constitutionally arrest, nor could a military tribunal constitutionally try, civilians charged with treason and conspiracy to destroy the state by force, at a time when the civil courts were open and functioning. Under the plan considered in the Japanese American cases, people not charged with crime are imprisoned for several years without even a military trial, on the ground that they have the taint of Japanese blood. Why doesn’t the Milligan case apply a fortiori? If it is illegal to arrest and confine people after an unwarranted military trial, it is surely even more illegal to arrest and confine them without any trial at all. The Supreme Court says that the issues of the Milligan case are not involved because the evacuees were committed to camps by military orders, not by military tribunals, and because their jailers did not wear uniforms. It is hard to see any sequence in the sentences. The Japanese Americans were ordered detained by a general, purporting to act on military grounds. The military order was enforceable, on pain of imprisonment. While a United States marshal, rather than a military policeman, assured obedience to the order, the ultimate sanction behind the marshal’s writ is the same as that of the military police: the bayonets of United States troops. It is hardly a ground for distinction that the general’s command was backed by the penalty of civil imprisonment, or that he obtained civilian aid in running the relocation camps.

There are then two basic constitutional problems concealed in the Court’s easy dismissal of Ex parte Milligan: the arrest, removal and confinement of persons without trial, pending examination of their loyalty; and the indefinite confinement of persons found to be disloyal. On both counts, at least as to citizens, the moral of Ex parte Milligan is plain. The Milligan case says little about the propriety of a curfew, or perhaps even of the exclusion orders as such. The military necessity of such steps are to be tested independently in the light of all the relevant circumstances. The Milligan case does say, however, that arrest and confinement are forms of action which cannot be taken as military necessities while courts are open. For such punitive measures it proposes a clear and forceful rule of thumb: the protection of the individual by normal trial does not under such circumstances interfere with the conduct of war.

The various Supreme Court cases (Hirabayashi, Korematsu, and Endo, if you’d like to look up these cases on your own) consider military officials as immune from the normal rules of public responsibility. If a General says something was militarily necessary, even though there is no obvious justification – that’s totally cool! The Justices will simply take their word for it, rather than burdening themselves with such silly things as the factual record.

Rostow summarizes fantastically what the Supreme Court decided in these cases. Take a moment to think about the precedent that was set, and how safe it makes you feel.

“The Japanese exclusion program thus rests on five propositions of the utmost potential menace: (1) protective custody, extending over three or four years, is a permitted form of imprisonment in the United States; (2) political opinions, not criminal acts, may contain enough clear and present danger to justify such imprisonment; (3) men, women and children of a given ethnic group, both Americans and resident aliens, can be presumed to possess the kind of dangerous ideas which require their imprisonment; (4) in time of war or emergency the military, perhaps without even the concurrence of the legislature, can decide what political opinions require imprisonment, and which ethnic groups are infected with them; and (5) the decision of the military can be carried out without indictment, trial, examination, jury, the confrontation of witnesses, counsel for the defense, the privilege against self-incrimination, or any of the other safeguards of the Bill of Rights.

We believe that the German people bear a common political responsibility for outrages secretly committed by the Gestapo and the SS. What are we to think of our own part in a program which violates every democratic social value, yet has been approved by the Congress, the President and the Supreme Court?”

The constitution means nothing.


Legal Changes Since 9/11

After September 11th, the US government gained broad new powers, such as mass surveillance of American citizens, in order to wage the so-called Global War on Terror. There is some irony to this, of course, with America being the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. But what about the power to detain American citizens?

There have been a handful of Supreme Court cases regarding this issue. In a lengthy but fascinating paper from 2006, Aya Gruber provided some analysis into these cases and how they are tied to those made during the Japanese internment (again, the emphasis in quotations is mine).

First of all, there is the issue of race. It is quite clear that Arabs have been singled out in post-9/11 America. And there has been popular support for race-based measures, even by other minorities.

“After 9/11, the government embraced an overt and extensive policy of racial decision making. The government began to use its broad immigration powers to selectively detain immigrants of Arab nationality and ethnicity. In addition, ethnic Arabs were systematically singled out for police investigation and detention…after 9/11, the public generally accepted the propriety of race-based measures in the name of terrorism prevention. Even African Americans and Latinas tended to favor ethnic and racial profiling so long as directed against “terrorists.”

I mention this not to say it is unjustified (one could make an argument that profiling works, but I am not attempting to investigate the accuracy or moral significance of that claim), but to point out that, yet again, the American public is not particularly concerned about peoples’ legal (and moral) rights when they are scared – and fear is a pretty easy emotion to cultivate. It is quite convenient to blame “outsiders” for problems; this has been the case time and again throughout history.

In any case, since 9/11, Arabs have been subject to incarceration without due process and without any compelling reasons to deny them due process.

“Scholars draw upon similar arguments to criticize the detentions of citizen Yaser Hamdi, citizen Jose Padilla, and the Guantanamo prisoners. Experts maintain that, like the Japanese, these individuals have been subject to incarceration with little or no process, without compelling reasons for denying process. Critics reject the government’s contentions that civilian criminal courts are ill equipped to handle terrorism cases and that detainees are not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Convention. Furthermore, scholars are highly critical of the process afforded to individuals who wish to challenge the detention. Although the Supreme Court ruled that Yaser Hamdi was entitled to a low-level evidentiary hearing to contest his status as an unlawful combatant, that process falls far short of even a pretrial detention hearing in criminal court. In addition, while Supreme Court has stated that U.S. courts have jurisdiction over Guantanamo detainees’ habeas corpus claims, the government continues to urge district courts to abstain from hearing such petitions. Moreover, the D.C. Circuit recently ruled that President Bush’s treatment of the Guantanamo detainees was perfectly legal. Internment invocations are accordingly used to emphasize grave harm of process-less incarceration in the name of national security. Critics warn that “some in government are seeking to resurrect . . . Korematsu to justify the Bush Administration’s present day national security curtailment of civil liberties.””

In the case of the Japanese during WW2, military necessity at least seems like a far more reasonable excuse for the curtailment of civil liberties than modern terrorism, though as discussed earlier, it still was not justified then. But at the very least, it is clear that WW2 was a significantly more dire situation, militarily speaking, than we currently face from terrorism.

“Even assuming that current deprivations are not as bad as in World War II, which is not necessarily true, the current security situation is also not as dire as in World War II, which involved an imminent invasion during a world war. The Roosevelt Administration thus set racist and extremely harmful policy in the face of a massive threat. The Bush Administration set racist and harmful, albeit less sweeping, policy in the face of a much less severe threat. In the wake of 9/11, a single attack carried out by a terrorist group, not a nation, the Bush Administration has initiated two wars and detained thousands of individuals.

With that context, let’s turn our attention to what the more recent Supreme Court rulings mean for civil liberties and detention in America. Hamdi vs. Rumsfeld gives the military the latitude to do anything in the name of terrorism that they could if there were a congressionally declared war. And given the extreme ambiguities in the word terrorism, this basically gives the military war authority from here on out. The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) issued the week after 9/11 basically counts as a general declaration of war until “the terrorists” are defeated.

“…even interpreting the case in the most restrictive manner as requiring both the AUMF (or a legislative equivalent) and factual war-like conditions to trigger war powers, those requirements still fall well short of a formal declaration of war, as contemplated in Hirabayashi, Korematsu, and Quirin. A formal declaration of war requires specificity on the part of Congress, such that congressional intent to engage in combat with a particular country is easily established. The AUMF, by contrast, generally authorizes “necessary” action against those parties responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Construing the AUMF as the functional equivalent of a declaration of war allows the President to exercise war power pursuant to a vague approval of military force against parties yet unknown. Under this approach, any military action in the name of terrorism prevention triggers the same powers as a declared war.

Moreover, a declaration of war contemplates a finite length of conflict, such that when a peace treaty is executed with the particular enemy country, the war power authority generally ends. In contrast, the AUMF is incredibly broad, allowing for the existence of war powers in perpetuity so long as the executive engages in military actions directed against Al Qaeda or related terrorist groups. As a result, the executive can assert, as the Fourth Circuit did, that any military detention in the name of terrorism prevention is an exercise of a war power…The problem is that in the absence of a formal declaration of war, the issue of the conditions triggering war power becomes more open to interpretation and expansion. Hamdi leaves open the possibility that the AUMF allows for military detention power, even when there is little indication of war-like conditions, for example, during continued military occupation, engagement in isolated skirmishes, ongoing police actions, or deployment as peacekeepers…In the end, the Hamdi case leaves open the possibility that war powers can be invoked absent a declaration of war, or even any congressional approval of military action, and/or in the absence of paradigmatic war-like conditions. This is a far more broad construction of “wartime” than in Hirabayashi, Korematsu, and Quirin…By elevating the current terrorism risk to the level of exigency facing the nation during The Prize Cases, the court endorsed the notion that the government may freely ignore the Constitution in any prosecution of alleged terrorists.

The Hamdi case also allows for the detention of US citizens by the military, even if there are civilian courts that are functioning.

“Unlike the internment cases, Hamdi answered the question of whether war power includes the power to detain U.S. citizens militarily in the affirmative, announcing concretely that the government can detain citizens as enemy combatants. The Court unequivocally stated, “There is no bar to this Nation’s holding one of its own citizens as an enemy combatant.” The Court reasoned that a U.S. citizen, just like a foreign soldier, could be detained during hostilities because “such a citizen, if released, would pose the same threat of returning to the front during the ongoing conflict.” This reasoning, however, completely ignores the contention, accepted in Milligan, that alternate detention procedures exist for citizens who consort with the enemy. The situation of a U.S. citizen combatant is extremely different from that of a foreign combatant who has not otherwise violated U.S. law and cannot be held except militarily… Consequently, the Supreme Court implicitly sanctioned the view that war powers include the ability to detain citizens for aiding the enemy domestically or abroad. This is a far more direct empowerment of the government, and hence a greater restriction of civil liberties, than the position represented in the internment cases.

So long as the vaguely defined “war on terror” continues, the US military has the authority to detain citizens as enemy combatants so long as they accuse that citizen of being a terrorist. It is very easy to be considered a terrorist in America – disliking the government can be enough. I’ll get into this more later.

The Supreme Court’s decision that the AUMF was sufficient congressional authority for the President to act and for war powers to be invoked is absurd.

“Turning to the language of the AUMF, the legislation is silent on military detention. The legislative history also fails to indicate that by passing the AUMF, Congress intended to authorize any military detention, much less the detention of U.S. civilians. In fact, some legislative history suggests that Congress was keenly aware of the differences between the AUMF and a declaration of war, which triggers presidential war powers. House Representative Conyers, for example, stated, “By not declaring war, the resolution preserves our precious civil liberties. This is important because declarations of war trigger broad statutes that not only criminalize interference with troops and recruitment but also authorize the President to apprehend ‘alien enemies.’”…As a result, the Supreme Court was forced to engage in an incredible feat of interpretive grasping to find that the AUMF authorized Hamdi’s detention. Bypassing both plain language and history, the Court asserted that given the background of the law of war, any authorization of military force must necessarily include endorsement of military detention, even citizen detention.

Thus, like the internment cases, Hamdi did not grant unilateral authority to the President to detain citizens militarily. Unlike the internment cases, however, it expanded the President’s ability to act without specific congressional approval. In the internment cases, the Court was careful to make sure that Congress did actually consent, not just to the war in general, but to the specific policies at issue in the cases. The Court in Hamdi did nearly the opposite. Rather than trying to ascertain the true intent of Congress, the Court was determined to find congressional assent by hook or crook so as to avoid addressing the problematic issue of executive unilateralism. In attempting to avoid the issue, however, the Court generously bolstered the executive’s power. The Court set up a precedent whereby the President may unilaterally initiate a program of citizen detention, which is constitutional so long as there has at some point been congressional authorization of military force against those with whom the citizen is alleged to be a sympathizer.

On the bright side, the process by which detained citizens can challenge their status has arguably improved, at least on the basis of race. But practically speaking, it is still nearly impossible to challenge the status of “enemy combatant.”

“If the government were to use the enemy combatant category to sweep thousands of Arab Americans into military detention asserting that they aided Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, insurgents in Iraq, or other disfavored groups, at least those detainees would have some ability to challenge their statuses as enemy combatants. Remember, however, that internment policies technically allowed the Japanese to demonstrate their loyalty and apply for release. For the Japanese, this was an option, but largely an unexercisable option. Likewise, for potential terrorism detainees, it is a near impossible hurdle for a military detainee (especially if there are thousands) to overcome a presumption of enemy status and disprove conclusory hearsay statements, particularly if such statements involve purportedly sensitive terrorism intelligence.

And, notably, the conditions of detainees in the War on Terror are vastly worse than those of the Japanese who were interned, as deplorable as those conditions may have been. For instance, rectal feeding, waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other torture tactics you’d expect to see in North Korean prisons. Of course, the extent of the torture wasn’t known when this legal argument was written, but the detention conditions were still clearly terrible.

“Hamdi and Padilla, perhaps as a product of the nonparadigmatic nature of their capture, were separated from members of the forces with whom they were alleged to have associated, stripped of their customs, and held in jail. While such incarceration might be justified if Hamdi and Padilla were dangerous criminal defendants who posed a risk of flight, the government has insisted that the nature of the detentions is not criminal, and the Court expressly ruled that Hamdi’s detention was justified solely by military necessity. The Court, however, did not state that Hamdi’s military detention must accord with the dictates of the Geneva Convention. Obviously, the Court was not unaware that Hamdi had been detained in a jail, in lockdown condition, without any access to family. By endorsing such detention, without qualification, the Court implicitly adopted the more conservative view that military detention could be as, or more, severe than criminal incarceration.

Not only that, but the terrorism cases also allow for much lengthier duration of detention. At least during the Japanese internment, the war was clearly defined and the internment could not continue after the cessation of hostilities.

“Consequently, to avoid sanctioning indefinite detention, it was imperative for the Court to set up a viable proxy for a peace treaty that would signify the termination of war for the purpose of ending the war power. A logical route might have been to deem the regime change as the triggering factor, given that the enemy fighter could not rejoin an army that no longer existed. The Court, however, instead used the presence of troops engaged in fighting to deny that hostilities had ended sufficiently to release military prisoners. Although the Court formally justified Hamdi’s detention by the need to prevent him from rejoining the enemy army, by the time the Court reviewed Hamdi’s case the enemy army had already fallen to U.S. forces. Thus, upon closer examination, the logic of detaining Hamdi was not the stated reason of preventing him from rejoining an enemy army, but rather preventing him from acting on any decision he might make in the future to participate in insurgent activity…The concept that wartime detentions may continue after the fall of the enemy government and installation of a U.S.-friendly government goes beyond the scope of even the Ludecke opinion and certainly beyond the time frame contemplated in the internment cases. The Ludecke opinion approved of limited exercise of war-related police powers in the months following termination of the shooting war. The Hamdi case greatly expands this principle to full detention years after the enemy government has fallen. This broad definition of the length of military detention has precedent neither in domestic law nor customary international law….Had the Court adopted a similar approach after World War II, the United States could have detained “security threats”—for example, unhappy Japanese internees—for many years after the shooting war, so long as the United States continued to maintain troops in Japan. As a result, the Hamdi decision greatly extended the duration of wartime and allowed for the possibility of prolonged, if not indefinite, detention, even if the military to which the detainee belonged had been dismantled.”

To summarize,

“The Court made it much easier for the political branches to exercise war power and detain individuals outside normal criminal processes. It definitively approved of military detention of U.S. citizens, resolving the conflict between Quirin and Milligan in the least progressive way, and cementing the precedential value of the oft-criticized Quirin opinion. While not going so far as granting the executive unilateral authority to exercise wartime detention powers, the Court greatly reduced the role of Congress in authorizing detentions. Relying on the sparse AUMF and the “clear” law of war, the Court required neither explicit nor implicit congressional approval for citizen detention. The Court moreover approved of military detention that was carried out, not according to the dictates of the Geneva Convention, but rather in jails, solitary confinement, and criminal conditions. Finally, the Court’s “troops on the ground” analysis allowed military detention to be prolonged beyond what was contemplated in the World War II cases and possibly indefinitely.”


The Constitution: Basically Worthless

People might look back at the internment of the Japanese in concentration camps and write it off as a piece of history that could never be repeated in a Free CountryTM such as America, certainly not in days like these, where the public is more progressive and enlightened. But the legal situation today is actually far worse than it was during WW2, and it would be trivially easy for a return of concentration camps – or worse, under the right conditions.

Now, I’m not the kind of person who is going to claim that there will be FEMA death camps in America in the next few years or anything like that. But those who do believe this are hardly the crackpot conspiracy theorists that your average American makes them out to be. The fact is, mass indefinite detention of American citizens without charge by the military is something that would be completely legal for the US government to do. The National Defense Authorization Act has made it clear that the US government has the “right” to indefinitely detain American citizens without charge.

Woodrow Wilson imprisoned Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs simply because Debs had been making speeches against the war. Abraham Lincoln imprisoned Confederate sympathizers without trial. Those Presidents who have done this are some of the most celebrated ones in US history! Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist, in his 1998 book, stated that “There is no reason to think that future wartime presidents will act differently from Lincoln, Wilson, or Roosevelt, or that future Justices of the Supreme Court will decide questions differently than their predecessors.” And current Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia remarked that you are “kidding yourself” if you don’t believe that internment camps will one day return to America.

This shouldn’t be all that surprising to anyone at this point. Obama, a scholar on constitutional law from Harvard University, has ordered the murder of multiple American citizens without trial. And other than a handful of anti-drone activists, Americans have accepted this uncritically and even supported it. And why wouldn’t they? Anything to stop The Terrorists!

Of course, it’s pretty easy to be considered suspicious of being a terrorist these days. I’ll quote myself here:

“…it is very easy to be considered an “extremist” or a “suspicious” person by the US government. For instance, the FBI considers people who care about online privacy to be potentially suspicious of terrorist activity, and even likened pro-privacy supporters of Edward Snowden to a “digital al-Qaeda.” And here is a list of 72 ways the government can consider you an “extremist” in America, including talking about individual liberties, wanting to make the world a better place, being a returning veteran, and believing in a right to bear arms.”

Remember the precedent that the internment cases set: political opinions, not just overt criminal acts, are enough to justify a citizen being detained during wartime – which, nowadays, is all the time. Given the powers of mass surveillance that the government has now that were completely unavailable in the 1940s, this should be a terrifying prospect for every American. And consider this: the Department of Defense Law of War manual states that journalists can be considered “unprivileged belligerents,” giving them even fewer protections than enemy combatants!

In 2012, there was a leaked military document called “Army Field Manual 3-39.40: Internment and Resettlement Operations” which provides specific guidance for interning Americans on US soil – including how to silence political activists.

Clearly, the constitution of the United States does not offer the protection that so many people assume. No constitution can. For a constitution to work, there would need to be an adequate mechanism in place to ensure compliance with it, but this is not and cannot be the case. No other organization has the power to coerce the government itself, so the government is responsible for enforcing its own compliance with the words on a piece of paper. The Supreme Court cases regarding Japanese internment and detaining “terrorists” have clearly demonstrated that this simply isn’t going to happen.

Democracy in general is a utopian myth, but that is particularly evident in the United States.

Environmental Issues: An Anarchist Perspective, Part 2 – Global Warming

This piece is continued from part 1, which argued that the environment would be better protected in an anarchist society due to respect for private property rights. Read that post here.


global warming did it

By far, the most talked about environmental issue of our time is climate change, or global warming. It is critically important to separate the political and the scientific elements of the global warming hypothesis. Unfortunately, almost nobody does this. Instead, the typical narrative is something along the lines of:

  1. Anthropogenic (man-made) global warming (AGW) is happening due to carbon emissions, and the science is settled.
  2. Therefore, the government must act to curb carbon emissions, thereby saving humanity.

That’s roughly what the majority of leftists think. Here’s what most conservatives would say:

  1. AGW is false.
  2. Therefore, government need not do anything.

In other words, the political debate is mostly about the science – is the AGW hypothesis true or not? Consider that none of the politicians who actually have some sway over environmental policy are experts in climate science. Consider that very few of the random people who claim that “the science is settled” know even the basics of how science works. On what basis are these people determining that AGW is true or false?

The answer, of course, is that there is no basis. Conservatives think the science has a different conclusion than liberals do. This is a huge red flag; science ought to be non-partisan.

But here’s the rub: for both sides of the debate, if AGW is true, this automatically implies that government action is necessary to mitigate its effects. This is logically fallacious. There are many reasons why government action would not be appropriate in this situation, which I will detail in the remainder of this post.

I am not a climate science expert myself. However, I am a nerd, and have done significant amounts of research on the subject. I will remain agnostic on the science of AGW – it’s certainly possible and plausible, but it is not certain. My argument for anarchy being superior for the environment does not hinge on any scientific arguments. However, since the majority of people who I would be attempting to persuade with this post are most likely those who believe AGW to be true, I will present some of the arguments for why scientists do not believe humans are causing catastrophic global warming.

The climate narrative presented above is very far from complete. Liberals say AGW is true, so government must act. But here are a few things that must be demonstrated in order to complete this narrative, most of which have yet to be shown conclusively:

  • It must be proven that global warming is occurring.
  • This global warming must be caused by human action.
  • If AGW is true, it must still be shown that this will definitively lead to particular changes in climate over the next 100 years or so.
  • These changes must be drastic rather than “lukewarm.” In other words, the climate must change to a degree that matters in a practical rather than just academic sense.
  • It must be shown that global warming is a bad thing. In other words, the effects of global warming must on the whole be destructive rather than helpful. The economic costs of this harm would then need to be estimated with some precision.
  • It must be shown that it is not too late to stop the destructive global warming; human action must be capable of slowing or stopping it. The cost of stopping/slowing global warming must be estimated with some precision.
  • It must be shown that the costs of attempting to stop or slow global warming are less than that of trying to adapt to it.
  • It must be shown that the (cost-effective) method used to attempt to stop or slow global warming is feasible and politically workable. In other words, it must be possible to actually implement whatever reforms would be necessary.

As you can see, the mainstream narrative is sorely lacking. Each of the above points needs to be studied and verified before drawing the conclusion that government action is necessary. For the remainder of this article, I will attempt to pick these points apart in order to demonstrate that AGW is not a sufficient reason to justify government action.


The Alleged “Consensus”

The first thing that nearly any layperson will say about anthropogenic global warming is that “the science is settled.” It boggles my mind that even scientists who ostensibly are familiar with the scientific method can say this. What matters in science isn’t how many people believe a theory, but rather how successful that theory is in predicting real life events. If that weren’t the relevant metric, then the Earth would still be flat and the sun would still be revolving around us.

The idea of a scientific theory being “settled” is anathema to the scientific process itself. In any empirical science, climate science included, our knowledge is always just a theory subject to being disproven. Some theories are far more established than others; for instance, the theory of gravitation is pretty damn well-established. But even gravity has its challengers (see this and this). AGW is a theory that is only a few decades old, and runs counter to climate science’s global cooling orthodoxy during the 1970s. To claim that the science is “settled” is to have incredible hubris, particularly given the numerous scientists who would argue otherwise.

I have no doubt that many climate scientists today support the idea that humans are causing global warming. A commonly cited study claims that 97% of scientists agree that humans are causing global warming, but the study says no such thing. However, peer-reviewed research has shown that the majority of geoscientists and meteorologists do not think that there is catastrophic, man-made global warming. The Petition Project also has the signatures of nearly 32,000 scientists in relevant disciplines who disagree with the hypothesis. You can find here over 1300 peer-reviewed papers that are skeptical of AGW. Even the founder of Greenpeace, the radical environmental organization, thinks that carbon dioxide emissions are more likely to save humanity than to doom it!

Richard Lindzen, former MIT professor and contributor to IPCC reports on climate change, is one of the more prominent climate skeptics. He questions the odd attempts to characterize climate scientists as universally agreeing on AGW.

“Why, one might wonder, is there such insistence on scientific unanimity on the warming issue? After all, unanimity in science is virtually nonexistent on far less complex matters. Unanimity on an issue as uncertain as “global warming” would be surprising and suspicious. Moreover, why are the opinions of scientists sought regardless of their field of expertise? Biologists and physicians are rarely asked to endorse some theory in high energy physics. Apparently, when one comes to “global warming,” any scientist’s agreement will do.

…The answer almost certainly lies in politics. For example, at the Earth Summit in Rio, attempts were made to negotiate international carbon emission agreements. The potential costs and implications of such agreements are likely to be profound for both industrial and developing countries. Under the circumstances, it would be very risky for politicians to undertake such agreements unless scientists “insisted.””

It is political realities that make the supposed “consensus” so critically important. Few things would give the government such power and supposed “legitimacy” as saving the world from destruction by controlling nearly all human behavior. And then there is the big money involved.

“U.S. companies and interest groups involved with climate change hired 2,430 lobbyists just last year, up 300% from five years ago. Fifty of the biggest U.S. electric utilities…spent $51 million on lobbyists in just six months.”

Climate skeptics are routinely vilified for not disclosing their funding sources, but climate alarmists seem to be held to a different standard. The reality is that there is a lot of money on both sides corrupting the narrative, making it difficult to know what to believe.

But for most people, it does seem that the choice of what to believe is primarily partisan and has nothing to do with science. That might be why people seem to care so much about this issue (some even advocate that climate skeptics be thrown in jail). As Lindzen said, “Rarely has such meager science provoked such an outpouring of popularization by individuals who do not understand the subject in the first place.”

The supposed consensus is purely a political concept, not a reality.


There’s Reason To Be Skeptical

Despite what many ignorant people will tell you, there are many reasons why one might be skeptical of the idea of man-made global warming. Unfortunately, I cannot speak to the climate science itself, but there are enough questions about the theory to at least make it worth, well, questioning. More importantly, there are theoretical reasons why one ought to be skeptical of the claims made by AGW supporters.

Scientists generally agree that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere directly increases the temperature. Most of the climate models’ predicted increase in temperature is due to feedback mechanisms. Those who believe in AGW think that there is a positive feedback loop that will exacerbate that temperature increase. But there are also some reasons to believe that there would be negative feedback that might dampen the effects of global warming. There are thousands of feedback mechanisms, most that are not well-understood or even known, each with its own positive or negative effects. The only way to check is through gathering data and testing the hypothesis – and climate change models have almost universally overstated the effects of global warming thus far.

For a more thorough defense of global warming skepticism, I suggest reading this paper by William Irwin and Brian Williams. Among other arguments, they bring up the fact that

  • The increase in global temperature from 1980 to 2010 is similar to that of the increase in 1910-1940, which is typically not attributed to human activity. And from 1940-1980, temperatures did not increase the way AGW climate models would predict.
  • Recent changes in global temperature are insignificant compared to historical changes that were not caused by humans, such as the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age. In fact, we’re just coming out of the Little Ice Age now, which could explain the warming.

They also call attention to what appears to be a flaw in climate alarmists’ reasoning.

“Everyone acknowledges that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Skeptics, however, believe that human contributions will likely not result in catastrophic warming, since combinations of other forces play a larger role in heating and cooling the planet. When proponents of AGW theory assert that the warming may be occurring beneath the cooling, this amounts to admitting the skeptic‘s position that there are other, more powerful factors that affect temperature and control the climate. It is inconsistent to say that anthropogenic infusions of CO2 will control the climate and cause catastrophic warming one minute and the next minute to say that the influence of this same CO2 is masked beneath larger factors.”

Despite far lower CO2 levels, it was significantly hotter during the Middle Ages than it is today. And there are historical periods with vastly higher CO2 levels where the Earth was covered in glaciers.

temperature fluctuations

For those of you interested in an overview of the scientific arguments, I suggest spending some time reading this article, written by David Siegel, an environmentalist who formerly believed in AGW but has since then done his research and changed his mind. I particularly suggest you read this if you are a liberal or consider yourself an environmentalist, because this is the perspective that he is coming from.

It’s certainly possible that supporters of AGW have answers to each of these. Again, I’m not a scientist and I don’t want to debate the merits of the specific scientific positions of each side. My point here is to show that there are reasons why the claims of AGW supporters shouldn’t be accepted uncritically. More importantly, there are structural and institutional reasons to question the climate orthodoxy, which will be covered in the next sections.

Chaos Theory, Or Why We Can’t Trust Climate Models

“In climate research and modelling, we should recognize that we are dealing with a coupled non-linear chaotic system, and therefore that the long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible.” – IPCC 2007

What makes a scientific theory a theory? There are three conditions, and AGW fails them:

Is the theory testable? Can we formulate hypotheses grounded in the theory, then figure out a way to test the hypotheses?

Is the theory falsifiable? Is there evidence that could call the theory into question? What evidence would exclude the theory?

Does the theory unify? Does the theory unify seemingly unrelated phenomena under a single explanatory framework?”

Many natural phenomena are not testable, so I will not consider this as a strike against AGW. However, AGW is not falsifiable; when the evidence doesn’t match the conclusion, climate alarmists can simply say that the time scale of the investigation is not wide enough. This is telling, because the predictions of AGW supporters and their climate models are routinely wrong and overstate the observed warming effects. AGW purportedly explains all sorts of environmental phenomena in a unifying way – except that again, most of these phenomena (ocean acidification, melting ice) either have not occurred as predicted, or there are alternative explanations that are also plausible.

The primary reason why these models are failing at prediction and should be dismissed is due to the nonlinear dynamics of climate systems. Nonlinear dynamics, or “complex” or “chaotic” systems show sensitive dependence on initial conditions. This means that the data used as inputs in any model, if even trivially different from the “real” values, could potentially lead to huge changes in the behavior that would be predicted by the model. Given the issues with data collection in climate science (placement of temperature sensors, changes in the microenvironment near the sensors, deliberate fudging of data), this is a huge limitation.

But that assumes that we know the appropriate model for the climate in the first place. If we did know the complete model, then in order to accurately predict future climate, we would need to be able to measure present conditions of every variable precisely. Rounding off a single piece of data could result in wildly different predictions. We don’t have the means to precisely measure our environment, and we most likely never will.

The reality is that we don’t know the correct model of the climate. These models are developed by looking at real-world (imprecise) data, and don’t reflect all determinants of the climate. In other words, we are using imprecise data to formulate imprecise models to feed that imprecise data back into. Mathematical modeling is certainly valuable as a tool for comprehending the climate, but it is simply unsuitable for making predictions, which is exactly what the debate over what to do about climate change is about!

Policy makers and the more wonky among us routinely misuse mathematics this way when dealing with chaotic systems, as Ralph Abraham documents in a fascinating paper. Even qualitative predictions are unreliable, making climate forecasts practically useless.

“The interpretation of nearly all dynamical models has to be carried out cautiously due to the likelihood of structural instability. This means that the behavior of the model might change drastically due to a small change in the model. It would be nice if a given model could be simply tested for structural stability, but there is no such test. Thus, the goal of modeling is pedagogic, not predictive in the long term. For example, global climate models cannot tell us how much sea level will rise, nor how long a given rise will take, and not even, if the current rise will be followed by an ice age, or a permanent interglacial climate.

“In summary, we have this conundrum: yes, climate is warming, as it periodically does. Even if this warming tops all prior warmings due to human-produced greenhouse gas emissions, we still cannot predict, on the basis of a mathematical model, whether the climate will stay warm, or rather, cool down again in a new ice age, as it has eight times in the past 650,000 years.”

I don’t doubt that the models that climate scientists have come up with have valuable lessons to teach us. These models can help clarify our understanding of how the climate works and to formulate more hypotheses about it. But there are very real uncertainties regarding these models, which the more honest among AGW supporters will acknowledge. For a look at some of these uncertainties from someone sympathetic to AGW, see this paper. An even better paper written by an AGW supporter describing sources of uncertainty concludes:

“The severity of model inadequacy suggests a more qualitative interpretation than one might wish. In particular, it is not at all clear that weighted combinations of results from today’s complex climate models based on their ability to reproduce a set of observations can provide decision-relevant probabilities. Furthermore, they are liable to be misleading because the conclusions, usually in the form of PDFs [probability density functions], imply much greater confidence than the underlying assumptions justify; we know our current models are inadequate and we know many of the reasons why they are so.”

Even if the weight of the evidence from modeling the climate suggests that AGW is true, this doesn’t imply anything about our ability to predict how much warming we will see or what its effects will be. This means that it is impossible for governments to rationally determine how to respond to climate change.

Politics And Science Don’t Mix

An additional reason to be skeptical of AGW is the institutional framework that much of the relevant research is being conducted in and influenced by. This is largely due to the influence of government funding, but the structure of our scientific institutions is also a factor. The most notorious example (dubbed “Climategate”) can be read about here and here, where pro-AGW insiders at the IPCC were caught manipulating the scientific process to suit their agenda.

Richard Lindzen discusses numerous reasons why climate science today is ill-suited to answer scientific questions. Here are a few:

  • Prominent members of the environmentalist movement hold important positions within scientific administration organizations, despite oftentimes not being scientists themselves.
  • Small executive councils speak on behalf of thousands of scientists who don’t necessarily agree. These councils control access to funding and can sanction those who don’t get in line behind the official opinion.
  • Global warming has become a core issue of political correctness. Questioning the orthodoxy often leads to ostracism.
  • Data is regularly manipulated in order to more adequately fit with models that support the AGW hypothesis. For examples, see this and this.
  • To get published or supported in peer review, many papers are adding irrelevant comments in support of AGW, despite being unrelated to the point of the paper.
  • Climate skeptics are being depicted as having retracted their beliefs on their deathbeds in obituaries, which is a disturbing development.

Environmentalists will manipulate the public into thinking that their information is scientific, even though they are just activist organizations (I wouldn’t be surprised if this is true for some skeptical organizations as well).

“For example, the environmental movement often cloaks its propaganda in scientific garb without the aid of any existing scientific body. One technique is simply to give a name to an environmental advocacy group that will suggest to the public, that the group is a scientific rather than an environmental group. Two obvious examples are the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Woods Hole Research Center. The former conducted an intensive advertising campaign about ten years ago in which they urged people to look to them for authoritative information on global warming.”

Papers that are skeptical of AGW are routinely attacked in unfair ways, creating a double-standard for scientists studying climate change.

“Even in the present unhealthy state of science, papers that are overtly contradictory to the catastrophic warming scenario do get published (though not without generally being substantially watered down during the review process). They are then often subject to the remarkable process of ‘discreditation.’ This process consists in immediately soliciting attack papers that are published quickly as independent articles rather than comments. The importance of this procedure is as follows. Normally such criticisms are published as comments, and the original authors are able to respond immediately following the comment. Both the comment and reply are published together. By publishing the criticism as an article, the reply is published as a correspondence, which is usually delayed by several months, and the critics are permitted an immediate reply. As a rule, the reply of the original authors is ignored in subsequent references.”

In addition, the most highly respected organizations discussing climate change are political bodies rather than scientific ones. These political organizations have their own agendas.

“The charge to the IPCC is not simply to summarize, but rather to provide the science with which to support the negotiating process whose aim is to control greenhouse gas levels. This is a political rather than a scientific charge. That said, the participating scientists have some leeway in which to reasonably describe matters, since the primary document that the public associates with the IPCC is not the extensive report prepared by the scientists, but rather the Summary for Policymakers which is written by an assemblage of representative from governments and NGO’s, with only a small scientific representation.”

Another way in which the scientific deck is stacked in favor of AGW is the influence of government funding. State-funded scientific research tends to corrupt the conclusions. A working paper by David Wojick and Patrick Michaels describes ways in which this corruption might occur. Government funding introduces biases (commercial funding does as well, of course) which can alter results, even without any dishonesty being involved. These biases are then amplified when, for instance, the hype present in a press release is then further exaggerated in the media, often without including the qualifications that the researchers included.

“1) An agency receives biased funding for research from Congress. 2) They issue multiple biased Requests for Proposals (RFPs), and 3) multiple biased projects are selected for each RFP. 4) Many projects produce multiple biased articles, press releases, etc, 5) many of these articles and releases generate multiple biased news stories, and 6) the resulting amplified bias is communicated to the public on a large scale.”

But what are these biases in the first place? Funding for scientific projects is often directed towards research related to an existing policy or developing a specific new policy. In other words, the mission of the funding agency may result in asking the wrong questions.

“In the climate debate an example of this sort of bias might be the heavy funding of carbon cycle research compared to sun-climate research in the USGCRP budget. The government’s policy on climate change is based on the hypothesis that carbon dioxide emissions are the principal driver. That climate change is driven by solar activity is a competing hypothesis.”

Biased peer review of research proposals may lead to rejecting research that doesn’t fit with the reigning paradigm. Similarly, there could be biases in the actual peer review of the articles themselves. Funding agencies may choose reviewers who will be more inclined to favor the government’s interest.

There may be biased preferences for models that support the reigning paradigm or have biased assumptions. Meta-analyses can be biased. For instance, the selection of articles used by the IPCC in their meta-analyses is based on political goals rather than scientific objectivity. Bias can also be introduced from the failure to report negative results.

“Journals are not normally federally funded, but they may well be involved in or sensitive to Federal policies. This is likely to be especially true in the applied fields. An example might be renewable energy research. There is also the case of open access or hybrid journals where author publication charges are paid out of Federal grants.”

Data can be manipulated to bias results (and as mentioned earlier, it often has been). Climate data is routinely adjusted, and seems to be regularly adjusted in ways that support the AGW hypothesis. Similarly, there can be a tendency to refuse to share data with potential critics.

“There are several prominent examples of researchers refusing to share important climate data with skeptics. One of the best known involves the University of East Anglia.”

Federal funding can lead to false confidence in tentative findings.

“A more recent example might be the numerous studies (or reports thereof) which claim to have explained why there has been no statistically significant warming for over two decades. This is sometimes called the problem of the pause, or the hiatus in global warming. Various inconsistent explanations have been offered, so it is likely that most are incorrect, yet each is often presented as though it solved the problem.”

Finally, the importance of findings by researchers and funding agencies is often exaggerated.

“Researcher and agency press releases sometimes claim that results are very important when they merely suggest an important possibility, which may actually turn out to be a dead end. Such claims may tend to bias the science in question, including future funding decisions.”

None of this is to disprove AGW – however, it should be clear by now that there is reason to be critical of the hypothesis. At the very least, we should not just assume that AGW is the case and that “the science is settled.” Some degree of skepticism is warranted.


Would Proposed Policies Even Work?

Let’s assume AGW is completely true, and that there will be a significant temperature rise in the next century or so. Most people at this point would say that clearly the government must “do something” to stop global warming. But why should this be the case?

Some scientists think that no matter what we do, it’s too late to stop global warming. Oddly enough, some of them continue to advocate for governments to act; clearly, these people are not economists. If it is too late to stop global warming, then why would we want to destroy industrial civilization? If we’re all going to die fiery deaths anyways, I think I can speak for most people when I say that it would be preferable to do so with the amenities that western civilization has provided.

But let’s say we could stop global warming. Would we even want to? Perhaps rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere might even be beneficial. In fact, global warming has thus far been beneficial to mankind, and it likely will continue to be. Research by Richard Tol, reported on by respected science writer Matt Ridley, suggests that the benefits of global warming thus far have amounted to about 1.4% of global economic output, and that this reflects the scientific consensus of today.

“There are many likely effects of climate change: positive and negative, economic and ecological, humanitarian and financial. And if you aggregate them all, the overall effect is positive today — and likely to stay positive until around 2080. That was the conclusion of Professor Richard Tol of Sussex University after he reviewed 14 different studies of the effects of future climate trends.

To be precise, Prof Tol calculated that climate change would be beneficial up to 2.2˚C of warming from 2009 (when he wrote his paper). This means approximately 3˚C from pre-industrial levels, since about 0.8˚C of warming has happened in the last 150 years. The latest estimates of climate sensitivity suggest that such temperatures may not be reached till the end of the century — if at all. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose reports define the consensis [sic], is sticking to older assumptions, however, which would mean net benefits till about 2080. Either way, it’s a long way off.“

The benefits of global warming include lower energy costs, better agricultural yields, increased biodiversity, fewer droughts, and fewer winter deaths. Research by Indur Goklany corroborates this (it’s a very interesting paper, and I strongly recommend reading it if you are so inclined).

“Carbon dioxide levels have risen inexorably since the 1700s. Yet despite this, climate sensitive indicators of human and environmental wellbeing that carbon dioxide affects directly, such as crop yields, food production, prevalence of hunger, access to cleaner water and biological productivity, and those that it affects indirectly, such as living standards and life expectancies, have improved virtually everywhere. In most areas they have never been higher, nor do they show any sustained signs of reversing.”

To summarize his perspective,

“…the benefits of increasing carbon dioxide have been underestimated, that the risks from increasing carbon dioxide have been overestimated, and that carbon dioxide emission reduction policies will start to reduce the benefits of higher carbon dioxide concentrations immediately, without reducing climate change and its associated costs until much later, if at all.”

If anything, global warming ought to be welcomed, according to the bulk of the research out there.

But let’s say even that is wrong, and that the alarmist position is correct. Let’s assume that AGW is real, it will have negative consequences, and it is theoretically possible to stop it. Shouldn’t government act to stop global warming under these conditions?

Not necessarily. For that to make sense, the benefits of government action must outweigh the costs, and this is an analysis that most environmentalists completely ignore.

William Nordhaus, a leading researcher on the carbon tax, has calculated that the benefits of implementing this tax would outweigh the costs…under certain assumed conditions which are very unlikely to hold. There are reasons to believe that future greenhouse gas concentrations may be overstated, climate sensitivity to GHGs are overstated, and economic damages from a given temperature increase may be overstated. But even Nordhaus calculated that certain climate plans, like that proposed by Al Gore, would have a net loss of over $20 trillion. Yeah, let’s not do that.

Robert Murphy, Patrick Michaels, and Paul Knappenberger make a definitive case against a carbon tax from an economic perspective. Carbon taxes that have been implemented in Australia and British Columbia have not been nearly as successful as proponents claim, both in terms of emission reductions and economic harms.

“Ironically, the latest U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report indicated that a popular climate target cannot be justified in cost/benefit terms. Specifically, in the middle‐of‐the‐road scenarios, the economic compliance costs of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius would likely be higher than the climate change damages that such a cap would avoid. In other words, the U.N.’s own report shows that aggressive emission cutbacks—even if achieved through an “efficient” carbon tax—would probably cause more harm than good.”

Again, the reason the carbon tax doesn’t work out economically is because of many of the assumptions built into the climate models. For instance, choice of parameter values in these models has a huge impact on the results. Reasonable people can disagree on what these parameters should be. For instance, and perhaps most importantly, the discount rate is an economic variable that changes the social cost of carbon (SCC) dramatically.

“To see just how significant some of the apparently innocuous assumptions can be, consider the latest estimates of the SCC put out by the Obama Administration’s Working Group. For an additional ton of emissions in the year 2015, using a 3% discount rate the SCC is $36. However, if we use a 2.5% discount rate, the SCC rises to $56/ton, while a 5% discount rate yields a SCC of only $11/ton. Note that this huge swing in the estimated “social cost” of carbon relies on the same underlying models of climate change and economic growth; the only change is in adjustments of the discount rate which are quite plausible. Indeed, the Administration’s Working Group came under harsh criticism because it ignored explicit OMB guidance to include a 7 percent discount rate in all federal cost/benefit analyses, presumably because the SCC at such a discount rate would be close to $0/ton or even negative.”

And, as argued by Graham Dawson,

“…a carbon tax will be effective only if it is internationally harmonised. Otherwise, firms in high-tax countries will be placed at a competitive disadvantage and might relocate to low-tax countries. This would reduce the effectiveness of the tax, which is intended to reduce carbon intensive activities rather than redistribute them across countries. Unfortunately, the four Scandinavian countries that introduced carbon taxes in the early 1990s ‘have not been able to harmonise their approaches— demonstrating the difficulty of co-ordinating tax policy internationally, even among a relatively small group of countries’. The US policy stance is not sympathetic to taxes, while the developing countries are unwilling to take action because they see climate change as the product of carbon emitted by industrial countries in the past. Harmonising a carbon tax on a global scale is achievable only in the very long term, if at all.”

In other words, not only is a carbon tax ineffective and destructive, but it is politically unfeasible as well. To see just how useless a carbon tax would be, use this calculator to see how minuscule an effect that a massive cut in carbon dioxide output would have on global temperature.

An alternative to a carbon tax is the so-called “cap and trade” scheme, where an emissions target is chosen and then a market in tradeable “pollution rights” is created. But this scheme would be highly regressive, harming the poor for the benefits of special interests.

“The combination of baseline and credit approach and free distribution of permits can have unwelcome effects on the distribution of income. For example, firms such as electricity generators may increase prices in anticipation of receiving insufficient permits and having to purchase extra permits at the predicted market price. If the quota is sufficient to cover actual emissions for most firms, the carbon price (the price of permits) will collapse and the funds raised for purchasing will become windfall profits. The distributive effects on society as a whole are likely to be regressive, with money being redistributed from electricity customers, many of whom will be on low incomes, to shareholders who may be expected on average to be more affluent.”

And, as with the carbon tax, this kind of scheme would require global collaboration on a scale that is inconceivable.

Finally, neither of these proposed policies mean much if the wrong climate “goal” is chosen by policy makers. There can be enormous net costs if policies reduce emissions by too much or too little. If the goal is too drastic, the world will be made massively poorer unnecessarily. If the goal isn’t drastic enough, the economy will be weakened and we might still see runaway global warming and the alleged catastrophes that would result.

There’s got to be a better solution.


The Solution To Global Warming

“Although climate change can lead to a deterioration of many human health and environmental metrics, that does not tell us what we really want to know. What we want to know is this: Will human health and environmental quality be better under richer but warmer scenarios than under poorer but cooler scenarios? That’s primarily because wealth creation, human capital, and new or improved technologies often reduce the extent of the human health and environmental “bads” associated with climate change more than temperature increases exacerbate them.” – Indur Goklany

The best way to deal with global warming is to allow economic growth to help humanity adapt. Once again, anarchism and free markets are a viable solution to this environmental problem. Having governments attempt to mitigate global warming, as we have already seen, would be fraught with difficulty, the benefits wouldn’t be noticeable until decades in the future, the costs would be immediate and enormous, and there’s no guarantees that it would even be effective. In fact, mitigation would prevent humanity from reaping the benefits of global warming and increased CO2, whereas adapting will allow us to experience those benefits and selectively reduce the harms.

A fantastic paper written by Indur Goklany in 2008 compares the costs and benefits of mitigation vs adaptation to climate change under assumptions generous to the global warming alarmists. He brings up a crucial point: climate change is hardly the most significant environmental issue of today.

“Data from the WHO…indicates that climate change doesn’t even make the top 10 global health risk factors related to food, nutrition, and environmental and occupational exposure. Specifically, the WHO attributes

  • 1.12 million deaths in 2001 to malaria;
  • 3.24 million deaths to malnutrition;
  • 1.73 million deaths to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, and hygiene;
  • 1.62 million deaths to indoor air pollution from indoor heating and cooking with wood, coal, and dung; • 0.8 million deaths to urban air pollution; and
  • 0.23 million deaths to lead exposure.

Climate change is clearly not the most important environmental, let alone public health, problem facing the world today.”

Would it not make more sense to address these immediate environmental issues with significant human costs than to address the speculative issues caused by climate change? But even this is too generous to those who would suggest destroying industrial civilization to attempt to save humanity, since addressing environmental problems that are unrelated to climate change would subsequently resolve those same issues when caused by climate change. For example, developing a malaria vaccine would help reduce malaria cases in general, whether they would have been caused by global warming or something else.

In addition, adapting to climate change does not require knowledge of the impact of climate change. This is important considering the massive uncertainties with regards to whatever effects climate change might have.

“Significantly, work on focused adaptation measures can commence, and in some areas has already begun, without detailed knowledge of the impacts of climate change. Cases in point are the development of malaria vaccines, transferable property rights for water resources, development of early warning systems for climate-sensitive events ranging from storms to potential epidemics of various kinds, and elucidation of mechanisms that confer resistance in crops to drought, water logging, or saline soils. To the extent that such measures do not rely on the location-specific details of impacts analyses, focused adaptation reduces the risk of having wasted resources by pouring them into problems that may or may not occur at specific locations.”

As our understanding of global warming improves, we can then work on adapting to the specific threats that we uncover. But in the meantime, there are many ways that we can adapt to the risks that most global warming alarmists expect, all at a drastically lower cost than mitigation.

“…at a cost of less than $34 billion per year (for 2010–2015), focused adaptation would deliver far greater benefits than would even halting climate change. Moreover, it would do so at one fifth the cost of the ineffectual Kyoto Protocol.”

Not bad, huh? Let’s dive into the specifics, including rough costs and the kinds of adaptations that can be developed over the coming years and decades. Malaria:

“The UN Millennium project reports that the global death toll from malaria could be reduced by 75 percent at a cost of $3 billion per year. Adaptations focused on reducing current vulnerabilities to malaria include measures targeted specifically at malaria as well as measures that would generally enhance the capacity to respond to public health problems and deliver public health services more effectively and efficiently. Malaria-specific measures include indoor residual (home) spraying with insecticides, insecticide-treated bed nets, improved case management, more comprehensive antenatal care, and development of safe, effective, and cheap vaccines and therapies.”

Focusing on economic growth and adaptation would also be the appropriate strategy to counter world hunger:

“An additional $5 billion annual investment in agricultural R&D—approximately 15 percent of global funding of agricultural research and development during the 1990s—should raise productivity sufficiently to more than compensate for the estimated 0.02 percent annual shortfall in productivity caused by climate change…Current agricultural problems that could be exacerbated by warming and should be the focus of vulnerability-reduction measures include growing crops in poor climatic or soil conditions (e.g., low-soil moisture in some areas, too much water in others, or soils with high salinity, alkalinity, or acidity). Because of warming, such conditions could become more prevalent and agriculture might have to expand into areas with poorer soils, or both. Actions focused on increasing agricultural productivity under current marginal conditions would alleviate hunger in the future whether or not the climate changes.”

Another common fear is that global warming will cause the sea level to rise and threaten coastal communities with flooding.

“According to estimates in the latest IPCC (2007) report, the annual cost of protecting against a sea level rise of about 0.66 meters in 2100—equivalent to about 0.52 meters in 2085 compared with 0.34 meters under the warmest (A1FI) scenario—would vary from $2.6 to $10 billion during the 21st century. I will assume $10 billion for the purposes of this paper. Governments could, moreover, discourage maladaptation by refusing to subsidize insurance and/or protective measures that allow individuals to offload private risks to the broader public.”

Finally, proponents of AGW fear that global warming will lead to stress on water resources. Yet again, there are free-market ways to adapt to this threat.

“…there are many measures that would help societies cope with present and future water stress regardless of their cause. Among them are institutional reforms to treat water as an economic commodity by allowing market pricing and transferable property rights to water. Such reforms should stimulate widespread adoption of existing but underused conservation technologies and lead to more private-sector investment in R&D, which would reduce the demand for water by all sectors. For example, new or improved crops and techniques for more efficient use of water in agriculture could enhance agricultural productivity. That would provide numerous ancillary benefits, including reductions in the risk of hunger and pressures on freshwater biodiversity while also enhancing the opportunity for other in-stream uses (e.g., recreation). Notably, diversion of water to agricultural uses might be the largest current threat to freshwater biodiversity.”

Goklany’s research found that, even under assumptions very generous to AGW alarmists, humanity would be better off in warmer-but-wealthier scenarios than ones in which we attempt to mitigate global warming.

“If future well-being is measured by per capita income adjusted for welfare losses due to climate change, the surprising conclusion using the Stern Review’s own estimates is that future generations will be better off in the richest but warmest world (A1FI). This suggests that, if protecting future well-being is the objective of public policy, governmental intervention to address climate change ought to be aimed at maximizing wealth creation, not minimizing CO2 emissions.”

And the best way to maximize wealth creation is to let the market do its thing, rather than having significant government intervention. Let’s discuss a few of the ways that market anarchism would address the potential threat of climate change in a far superior way to that of government efforts.

For starters, the government has historically supported and continues to subsidize fossil fuel usage. Gene Callahan writes:

“The U.S. government has subsidized many activities that burn carbon: it has seized land through eminent domain to build highways, funded rural electrification projects, and fought wars to ensure Americans’ access to oil. After World War II it played a key role in the mass exodus of the middle class from urban centers to the suburbs, chiefly through encouraging mortgage lending.”

In addition, the government has gotten in the way of preventing emissions.

“While myriad government policies have thus encouraged carbon emissions, at the same time the government has restricted activities that would have reduced them. For example, there would probably be far more reliance on nuclear power were it not for the overblown regulations of this energy source. For a different example, imagine the reduction in emissions if the government would merely allow market-clearing pricing for the nation’s major roads, thereby eliminating traffic jams! The pollution from vehicles in major urban areas could be drastically cut overnight if the government set tolls to whatever the market could bear—or better yet, sold bridges and highways to private owners.”

In other words, without government, we could have had far fewer emissions than we have thus far, and would likely have fewer in the future as well. Under an anarchist system with private roadways, driving cars that cause pollution would no longer be subsidized.

The anarchist system would also address the issues relating to coastal flooding more directly than government action. Insurers would have to take the threat of global warming into account when setting prices for policies. If the threat of flooding is legitimate, then the areas most threatened would also be the most costly to live, naturally reducing the issue of mass migration that global warming might cause. And since global warming would also make some locations more hospitable, people will naturally migrate from the least hospitable to most hospitable areas.

“Private insurers have a strong incentive to assess the potential effects of global warming without bias in order to price their policies optimally—if they overestimate the risk, they will lose business to lower-priced rivals; if they are too sanguine about the dangers, they will lose money once the claims start rolling in. Individuals finding their homes or businesses threatened by rising sea levels will find it easier to relocate to the extent that unfettered markets have made them wealthier.”

In fact, markets would generally allow a superior way of aggregating information about global warming and how to respond to it through the development of various financial products.

“For example, the financial industry, by creating new securities and derivative markets, could crystallize the “dispersed knowledge” that many different experts held in order to coordinate and mobilize mankind’s total response to global warming. For instance, weather futures can serve to spread the risk of bad weather beyond the local area affected. Perhaps there could arise a market betting on the areas most likely to be permanently flooded. That may seem ghoulish, but by betting on their own area, inhabitants could offset the cost of relocating should the flooding occur.”

This would provide a vastly more fair response to the costs of global warming.

Let’s say that, despite the many reasons to suspect that things will be fine, the global warming alarmists are correct. Then we can use the extra wealth that humanity has accumulated in the next several decades to come up with exotic “geoengineering” solutions to climate change. Maybe we’ll place mirrors in space, fill the atmosphere with aerosols that reflect sunlight, develop technologies to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, or even colonize outer space!

None of this requires government involvement in any way. If AGW is true, then insurance companies in an anarchist system will have a strong incentive to mitigate it or adapt to it – just as described earlier in the “mass collective pollution” section above. In addition, social pressures can effectively address the negative externalities of global warming without resorting to coercion by the state. Large companies and wealthy individuals are rather sensitive to these types of campaigns, as evidenced by the PR successes of the global warming alarmists and the “green” movement today.

What do you think would be better: destroying civilization in the name of what is only an uncertain threat, or continuing to lift billions out of poverty while addressing that threat anyways?

“The alternative offered by the proponents of global warming regulation – pushing much of the developing world back into abject poverty – would be sure to bring something far worse, such as endless civil wars among populations where had a middle-class lifestyle within sight, but was then ripped away by the global elites in the name of saving the world. So, if global warming is indeed on our horizon, it would appear that perfecting technologies like water desalinization, aqueducts, improved agricultural practices, and lowering the costs of basic staples such as housing and labor-saving appliances would be essential. Much of the world has already been working on these problems, and global warming has had nothing to do with it. The Israelis have been developing better and better water and agriculture systems for decades. Many desert countries (including the western United States) have been working on better water filtration and delivery systems. Many societies, such as The Netherlands and Singapore already deal with various issues related to dense populations.”



The modern environmentalist movement is almost universally made up of collectivists who support central planning. However, as we have seen, it need not be this way. In fact, people who truly want to protect the environment ought to be supporters of private property, free markets, and anarchy.

Environmental Issues: An Anarchist Perspective, Part 1

We humans live on planet Earth (for the time being), and utilize resources that have existed long before we came around. Many of these resources are scarce – due to their finite supply and importance to our well-being, the way these resources are managed is of highly related to our ability to survive and thrive.

As such, there is a very strong prima facie case for protecting the environment. The modern environmentalist movement considers itself the vanguard attempting to save the environment from greedy, ruthless capitalists, who are more than happy to destroy the environment in the pursuit of profit. To do so, they suggest assorted government policies, ranging from simple regulations to the intentional extermination of billions of humans.

No doubt, the institutional structure that we live under today, with giant corporations protected by big government, has led to significant environmental distress. Nevertheless, the effect of capitalism and market-based economies has been among the greatest boons for environmental protection.

This may at first seem like a contradiction, but in this article, I intend to argue that it is in fact private property rights that, as an institutional structure, are necessary for the protection of our environment. The political system that fully embodies a respect for private property is called “anarchy,” “anarcho-capitalism,” or “voluntaryism.”

As an anarchist, I often hear people object to my beliefs on the basis that pollution would run rampant and the environment would be destroyed if anarchy were put into practice. This is the most common concern people have, second only to how security and law would work in an anarchist society. For some reason, it is very difficult for most people to envision how the environment might survive without the protection of the government. In reality, however, the government is the greatest enemy of the environment, and markets are the most effective way of preventing environmental devastation largely caused by the state and its crony-capitalist cronies.

Since this is an extremely long post (over 22,000 words), I will present a brief outline of the content to follow, which is divided into two separate posts. First, I describe the modern environmentalist movement and the fallacies underlying their dogma, particularly the idea that nature has some kind of “intrinsic value.” Next, I document how governments are far and away the worst polluters on the planet. I then walk through multiple cases in the US where government policies have led to environmental catastrophe, and thoroughly document the extreme environmental destruction that socialism has caused in the world. Then I will present an alternative paradigm: respect for private property rights. I provide some historical background on how the legal climate for environmental issues has changed, and then describe the way that issues surrounding environmental damage ought to be handled. Using this private property paradigm, I discuss numerous environmental issues that could be more easily resolved under anarchy as opposed to resorting to state coercion. In the second post, I describe what is generally considered the biggest and most challenging environmental issue of our time: global warming. I discuss why the narrative surrounding global warming is heavily warped and politicized, why it is valid to be skeptical of the mainstream position, and how global warming could be addressed far more adequately under anarchy than via government.


Environmentalism: How Much Does “The Environment” Really Matter?

remember to shower

As alluded to before, environmentalists differ in terms of how extreme their proposals and intentions are. The majority of people who consider themselves environmentalists are moderate – they are outdoorsy-types who want to ensure that there are still green spaces for their children, for instance. But then there are environmental extremists, who think that humanity is a great scourge on this world, and that the planet would be better off without us. They go as far as to recommend the intentional extinction of humanity. In fact, Australian government-funded environmentalist propaganda is telling children that they should die at the age of 9 so that they don’t use more than their “fair share” of resources!

Surely, most of the people reading this are not in the latter category. That being said, both rely on the same fallacy to arrive at their policy conclusions – it’s just that the more extreme take this fallacy further. Modern environmentalists all believe that nature has intrinsic value, a notion that I will soon demonstrate is absurd.

But the alleged intrinsic value of nature is just one tenet of the environmentalist religion. Consider the narrative of environmentalism, which claims that there was an initial Eden, a sacred environment that was pure until humanity destroyed it in a fall from grace. Supposedly, native people lived happy lives in perfect peace with the environment before capitalism came along. Of course, this ignores the terrible record of indigenous people as stewards of the environment, and the horrid conditions in which most of them lived. As the late author Michael Crichton said:

“In short, the romantic view of the natural world as a blissful Eden is only held by people who have no actual experience of nature. People who live in nature are not romantic about it at all. They may hold spiritual beliefs about the world around them, they may have a sense of the unity of nature or the aliveness of all things, but they still kill the animals and uproot the plants in order to eat, to live. If they don’t, they will die.”

And then there are the doomsday predictions that are repeatedly proven wrong. This happens time and again, but like a religious cultist whose doomsday date passed without incident, the environmentalist will just pick a new date and push their prediction further down the line. Consider the mass starvation that was predicted due to population pressures, the resource depletion that always seems right around the corner, and global cooling in the 1970s which has now morphed into global warming. Another example:

“Near the end of the 19th Century…city planners warned of the impending danger of the streets being covered with dozens of feet of horse manure as the population of humans and animals would surely grow in those imperiled cities. The reviled automobile, it turns out, saved us from that horrible fate.”

Ironic, right? But the most important of the tenets of environmentalism is the sacredness of nature, the value that nature possesses in and of itself. But if nature has intrinsic value, what does this imply? It isn’t only humans who act in some way to “harm” nature or the environment, yet it seems only humans are held responsible. As George Reisman argues (emphasis mine):

“The doctrine of intrinsic value is itself only a rationalization for a preexisting hatred of man. It is invoked not because one attaches any actual value to what is alleged to have intrinsic value, but simply to serve as a pretext for denying values to man. For example, caribou feed upon vegetation, wolves eat caribou, and microbes attack wolves. Each of these, the vegetation, the caribou, the wolves, and the microbes, is alleged by the environmentalists to possess intrinsic value. Yet absolutely no course of action is indicated for man. Should man act to protect the intrinsic value of the vegetation from destruction by the caribou? Should he act to protect the intrinsic value of the caribou from destruction by the wolves? Should he act to protect the intrinsic value of the wolves from destruction by the microbes? Even though each of these alleged intrinsic values is at stake, man is not called upon to do anything. When does the doctrine of intrinsic value serve as a guide to what man should do? Only when man comes to attach value to something. Then it is invoked to deny him the value he seeks. For example, the intrinsic value of the vegetation et al. is invoked as a guide to man’s action only when there is something man wants, such as oil, and then, as in the case of Northern Alaska, its invocation serves to stop him from having it. In other words, the doctrine of intrinsic value is nothing but a doctrine of the negation of human values. It is pure nihilism.”

It is often held that man is an agent of destruction of nature, but isn’t man a part of nature? If a beaver is allowed to chop down trees, why should I not be allowed to?

Beyond the nonsense inherent in this doctrine, considering nature to have intrinsic value makes it impossible to rationally guide ourselves with respect to how to treat the environment. How are we supposed to behave if we cannot use nature for our own ends? And if we are allowed to use nature to further goals of man, then – if nature has intrinsic value and we can’t discriminate between various elements of nature – how are we to determine which environment-altering behaviors are kosher and which are not? We live in a world of scarcity, so some means of determining priorities is necessary.

Nature does not have intrinsic value. This doesn’t imply that the natural world doesn’t have value, of course, but rather that its value is related to the ends that nature can be used to achieve. I don’t intend to belabor this point philosophically; I just mean to point out that there is nothing immoral about man manipulating his natural environment to achieve his goals.

In fact, it seems that this is an inevitable result of existing. Humans act in order to achieve desired aims, and we use existing means, including that of the surrounding environment, in order to do so.

Despite this, an environmentalist might argue, it is still in man’s best interest to preserve the natural environment and avoid depleting the resources that we need in order to improve our lives. It’s certainly true that wasting resources is, well, wasteful. At any given moment, it is no doubt the case that there are only so many resources available for human use. But this static view ignores the fact that as human knowledge of the physical world increases (and as capital accumulates, allowing us to take advantage of this knowledge), the amount of resources available for our use increases….arguably, without a practical limit. George Reisman spells this out explicitly:

“And this brings me to what I consider to be the revolutionary view of natural resources that is implied in Menger’s theory of goods. Namely, not only does man create the goods-character of natural resources—by obtaining knowledge of their useful properties and then creating their useability and accessibility by virtue of establishing the necessary command over them—but he also has the ability to go on indefinitely increasing the supply of natural resources possessing goods-character. He enlarges the supply of useable, accessible natural resources—that is, natural resources possessing goods-character—as he expands his knowledge of and physical power over nature.

The prevailing view, that dominates the thinking of the environmentalists and the conservationists, that there is a scarce, precious stock of natural resources that man’s productive activity serves merely to deplete is wrong. Seen in its full context, man’s productive activity serves to enlarge the supply of useable, accessible natural resources by converting a larger, though still tiny, fraction of nature into natural resources possessing goods-character. The essential question concerning natural resources is what fraction of the virtual infinity that is nature does man possess sufficient knowledge concerning and sufficient physical command over to be able to direct it to the satisfaction of his needs. This fraction will always be very small indeed and will always be capable of vastly greater further enlargement.

“Nature presents the earth as an immense solidly packed ball of chemical elements. It has also provided comparably incredible amounts of energy in connection with this mass of chemical elements. If, over and against this massive contribution from nature stands motivated human intelligence—the kind of motivated human intelligence that a free, capitalist society so greatly encourages, with its prospect of earning a substantial personal fortune as the result of almost every significant advance, there can be little doubt as to the outcome: Man will succeed in progressively enlarging the fraction of nature’s contribution that constitutes goods; that is, he will succeed in progressively enlarging the supply of useable, accessible natural resources.”

Consider the many resources we use today that wouldn’t have necessarily been considered resources many years ago. Petroleum wasn’t a natural resource until humanity made it one. The same is true of iron, aluminum, copper, bronze, zinc, gold, silver, and uranium. But even after discovering the goods-character of these resources, advances in technology have allowed us to mine with less effort or at greater depth, find more of the resource where it wasn’t previously visible, access the resource from previously inaccessible locations (offshore oil drilling, for instance), and so on.

The solution to the “problem” of limited resources is to increase the amount of resources, by improving the state of human knowledge and through capital accumulation to allow us to take advantage of this knowledge. Contrast this with the “solution” presented by environmentalists: use less stuff. How about instead of impoverishing us all, we invent ways to adapt to environmental change and the use of resources?

“If we destroy the energy base needed to produce and operate the construction equipment required to build strong, well-made, comfortable houses for hundreds of millions of people, we shall be safer from the wind and rain, the environmental movement alleges, than if we retain and enlarge that energy base. If we destroy our capacity to produce and operate refrigerators and air conditioners, we shall be better protected from hot weather than if we retain and enlarge that capacity, the environmental movement claims. If we destroy our capacity to produce and operate tractors and harvesters, to can and freeze food, to build and operate hospitals and produce medicines, we shall secure our food supply and our health better than if we retain and enlarge that capacity, the environmental movement asserts.”

If global warming is happening, we should develop more and better air conditioners. Instead, the environmentalists would have us destroying industrial civilization, condemning millions or billions to starvation and death.

As alluded to earlier, environmentalists have a habit of catastrophizing the impact of environmental issues, and of ignoring the consequences of their proposed policy fixes.

“Consider, for example, the recent case of Alar, a chemical spray used for many years on apples in order to preserve their color and freshness. Here, it turned out that even if the environmentalists’ claims had actually been true, and the use of Alar would result in 4.2 deaths per million over a seventy-year lifetime, all that would have been signified was that eating apples sprayed with Alar would then have been less dangerous than driving to the supermarket to buy the apples! (Consider: 4.2 deaths per million over a seventy year period means that in any one year in the United States, with its population of roughly two hundred and fifty million people, approximately fifteen deaths would be attributable to Alar! This is the result obtained by multiplying 4.2 per million times 250 million and then dividing by 70. In the same one-year period of time, approximately fifty thousand deaths occur in motor vehicle accidents in the United States, most of them within a few miles of the victims’ homes, and undoubtedly far more than fifteen of them on trips to or from supermarkets.) Nevertheless, a panic ensued, followed by a plunge in the sale of apples, the financial ruin of an untold number of apple growers, and the virtual disappearance of Alar.”

Contrast this with the miracle of the market.

“Famine has been ended, because the industrial civilization so hated by the environmentalists has produced the greatest abundance and variety of food in the history of the world, and created the transportation system required to bring it to everyone. This same hated civilization has produced the iron and steel pipe, and the chemical purification and pumping systems that enable everyone to have instant access to safe drinking water, hot or cold, every minute of the day. It has produced the sewage systems and the automobiles that have removed the filth of human and animal waste from the streets of cities and towns.”


Governments Are The Largest Polluters

One of the great ironies of environmentalism is that its proponents’ solutions always seem to involve government action. And yet they routinely ignore the god-awful record that governments have as stewards of the environment.

In fact, the US federal government is the largest polluter on the planet, but state governments are pretty bad too. The US Department of Defense is the largest contributor to this pollution. Military bases, of which there are a gazillion, pollute their locations heavily, which causes serious health issues among soldiers and their families. During wars, the government has leveled forests using chemicals and big machines. The US government is also the 4th largest greenhouse gas emitter in America, trailing only behind energy companies. But the environmental impact of the government goes beyond directly polluting:

“The federal government provides subsidies to many activities through direct transfers as well as through the provision of free or below-cost access. For example, recreational activities in the national forests and parks are heavily subsidized; most users pay low (or no) fees. Such subsidies encourage people to “consume” more of those public resources than they would be likely to in a market system. In addition, subsidies for favored providers of environmental amenities tend to squeeze out private alternatives. Other well-known subsidies that can unintentionally degrade the environment include agricultural subsidies, grazing subsidies, and water and hydropower project subsidies, among others. Unfortunately, the political process finds it almost impossible to deal honestly with the issue of subsidies. Only free markets are able to assess the full costs of resource use. Until property rights-based policies are instituted, environmental issues – from waste disposal to wetlands protection – will be poorly managed.”

There are also massive subsidies to Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), which leads to environmental issues with excess manure. The government botches the management of forest fires by letting deadwood accumulate, leading to massive blazes.

Just recently, the EPA, which is supposed to be protecting the environment, dumped millions of gallons of toxic waste into the Animus River in Colorado, which may have been done intentionally for money! Predictably, leading environmentalist groups have been covering for the EPA on this one, even though they vehemently attack private companies for far less.

Some additional examples would be instructive. Take Seattle’s Ravenna Park. It was once privately owned and well-preserved. But the local government was afraid that it wouldn’t continue to be preserved, so they took over and then proceeded to let it fall into disrepair.

“At the turn of the twentieth century it [Ravenna Park] was a privately owned park that contained magnificent Douglas firs. A husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Beck, had developed it into a family recreation area that, in good weather, brought in thousands of people a day. Concern that a future owner might not take proper care of it, however, caused the local government to “preserve” this beautiful place. The owners did not want to part with it, but the city initiated condemnation proceedings and bought the park.

But since they had no personal property or income at stake, local officials allowed the park to deteriorate. In fact, the tall trees began to disappear soon after the city bought it in 1911. A group of concerned citizens brought the theft of the trees to officials’ attention, but the logging continued. Gradually, the park became unattractive. By 1972 it was an ugly, dangerous hangout for drug users. The Becks, operating privately at no cost to taxpayers, but supported instead by user fees, had done a far better job of managing the park they had created.”

The BP Gulf Oil Spill

In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico began gushing oil into the ocean, and wasn’t successfully capped for 87 days, with about 5 million barrels of oil discharged in total. The company that owned this rig, BP, was trashed by environmentalists and the media in the aftermath of this tragedy. What they ignore is the crucial role of government regulations that made this spill so much more likely. Of course, much of this legislation was likely the result of oil industry lobbying, so the corporate-state nexus is really the blameworthy institution here, not merely the government.

How did regulation help lead to the worst accidental oil spill in history? The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 established a measly $75 million liability cap on oil spills, which created an immense moral hazard by reducing the risk to oil companies while drilling, and reducing their incentive to ensure the safety of their actions. Without a cap like this, oil companies would be responsible for the full cost of the damages that they cause, which would make them far more cautious and safety-prone.

It gets worse. Why was BP drilling in such a deep area to begin with? Wouldn’t it be far safer to drill closer to the surface? Unfortunately, oil companies are often barred from exploring less risky oil-rich areas.

“Because most private lands have been explored, public lands offer the most potential for oil and gas development. However, the NIMBY [“not in my back yard”] principle has significantly restricted development on those lands. According to 2008 Energy Department figures, nearly 80% of potentially oil-rich offshore lands are off limits to oil and gas development, and 60% of onshore lands are.”

You see, politicians don’t like those unsightly oil rigs near their territory, so they explicitly disallow it.

“I’ve seen the total number of platforms estimated at around 4,000, with up to 100 drilling rigs operating at a time. One of the interesting things to me about this map is that it shows no rigs in the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico. It turns out this is due to a moratorium on drilling first put in place by President Bush in 1990. In 1998, President Clinton extended the moratorium until 2012. So, one government intervention has resulted in a situation in which drilling operations are constrained west of the border between Alabama and Mississippi, with a concentration of drilling off the coast of Louisiana.”

And then there are the federal subsidies (“royalty relief”) for drilling in deep waters rather than water closer to shore. These subsidies result in a five-fold increase in the incentive for companies to drill in deep water rather than shallow water.

It’s not just in America where mismanagement of land and regulation causes issues with oil spills. In Nigeria, for instance, state ownership of oil assets has led to repeated spills.

Love Canal

My favorite example that demonstrates the ineptitude of governments with respect to the environment is the infamous Love Canal fiasco. Investigative reporter Eric Zuesse documented the whole story here, but I’ll provide a summary.

The Love Canal was a site in upstate New York that was owned by Hooker Chemical Co., which they used as a dumping site for toxic chemicals (the Army was also dumping toxic waste at Love Canal, but for some reason people only blame Hooker). The Niagara Falls Board of Education desperately wanted to own this land to build a school on, but Hooker did not want to sell it. Nevertheless, the BoE used their power of eminent domain to threaten Hooker with seizing the land, so it was ultimately sold to the government for one dollar. The sell was done specifically so that there would be a contractual record where Hooker could spell out the dangers of building on this land for all future owners (if the land were seized by eminent domain, Hooker would have been free of liability for the chemicals anyways, so it was with the public good in mind that they sold instead). Hooker made it very clear to the BoE that there were chemicals underground and that no building should take place on that site beyond mere surface construction (like a park). When the BoE tried to sell the site to real estate developers in 1957, Hooker came to those meetings and forcefully advised against it. Ultimately, Niagara Falls ended up building a school on this land anyways, disturbing the chemicals and letting the seep into the community that was soon built there.

“Practically every level of government has been involved over the years in violating either the Canal’s walls or the protective clay cover that Hooker says it had laid four feet thick on top of its wastes. Even the New York State Department of Transportation, which now shares major responsibility for remedial work on the Canal with New York’s Department of Health and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, ripped into the Canal in 1968, at the southern end where Hooker had done most of its dumping. In the construction of an expressway and the moving of Frontier Boulevard northward, chemicals were contacted, and Hooker was requested to, and did, cart away 40 truckloads of chemical wastes. Just as Hooker had worried in 1957, as time passed the possible hazards of construction on the property had been put totally out of mind.”

Such ineptitude! But the narrative about what occurred at Love Canal was that a greedy corporation took advantage of and poisoned a community.

“Despite the popular myth that Love Canal is the result of a single corporation’s greed and heartlessness, the actual explanation is far more complex. It’s clear to anyone who digs into this matter that Hooker may well have been the only party to the affair to behave responsibly. Hooker chose an exceptionally fine chemical dumpsite; it ceded the dump to the School Board under circumstances in which the threat of condemnation was real and the reality of condemnation was already under way for adjoining properties; it warned the School Board that the chemicals could kill and insisted that the Board pass this warning on to any subsequent owner of the property; it urged the Board not to construct the school or any other buildings directly over the Canal; it protested the prospect of any subsurface construction on the Canal.

These warnings were repeatedly ignored, however, by the governmental bodies involved in desecrating this chemical tomb: the School Board itself, the City Planning Board, the city engineer, and the state Department of Transportation. In addition, other governmental agencies have been busy spreading misinformation about the Canal: the Niagara County Health Department, the state Department of Health, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the US Department of Justice.”

And the icing on the cake is that the EPA has since then positioned private industry as blameworthy and the government as the savior. They need to justify their existence somehow.

Socialism And The Environment

Environmentalists, as I said before, always seem to think that environmental protection requires an expansion of government. If this were true, one might expect that socialist countries would have a sterling record of environmental stewardship, right? Luckily, since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have plenty of case studies to verify that this is not the case.

Before diving into these examples, let’s reflect for a moment on why socialism might prove to be a poor economic system from an environmental perspective. In the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, there were explicit protections for the environment both at the legal and ideological level. However, without a profit motive operating, industrial managers were not sensitive to economic incentives to protect the environment. Ed Dolan describes several ways in which the socialist system leads to economic harm:

“Where there are property rights, there is always an owner to resist trespass, whether by people on foot or noxious chemicals wafting through the air. True, the legal system doesn’t work perfectly. Sometimes owners can’t adequately protect their rights, but the rights are there. Furthermore, where there is widespread ownership of at least small scraps of property, respect for the property rights of others also becomes widespread, although, alas, not universal.”

Private property is central to the reason why markets protect the environment better than government, but there are also political realities that make socialist countries ignore environmental concerns.

“In a socialist system, producers have a stronger grip on the levers of political power. After all, as state enterprises, they are not mere lobbyists—they are themselves a part of the government structure. For example…there were protests in the Soviet Union when paper mills first started dumping waste into Lake Baikal. However, the protesters themselves were always one government institution, say, the Limnological Institute of the Academy of Sciences, working against another, in that case the Ministry of Timber, Paper, and Woodworking. Sometimes the protesters were able to exploit personal rivalries within the government in order to plant articles in government newspapers, but in the end, they always lost. The whole incentive system of the Soviet economy, from the Politburo down to the local plant manager, was focused on just one thing: meeting the impossibly demanding production targets of the Five Year Plan. The environment always lost.”

For a thorough account of why socialism tends to destroy the environment, I recommend reading this paper by Peter Hill (1992). Under socialism, there is no incentive to prevent waste, which leads to excess consumption of resources.

“The general inefficiency of production under socialism is another indicator of the lack of incentives to prevent waste. Czechoslovakia consumes about three times the energy of the average western nation per unit of output. In the former Soviet Republics manufacturing uses four times as much energy per unit of GNP as in the United States. Chemical plants in the Soviet Union for many years emitted large amounts of a potent pollutant, fluorine, into the atmosphere. Despite numerous studies by engineers that showed that the fluorine could be recovered at a profit and sold to other enterprises, the plant managers found it easier to continue to pollute. There was no effective system in place whereby a manager was rewarded for taking such cost reducing and environment improving actions.”

While free markets certainly would not have a perfect record with respect to preventing waste and protecting the environment, they would be far superior to socialist incentives. If the theoretical account of socialism’s environment failings is damning, the real life experience is catastrophic. Thomas DiLorenzo (1992) has done research on this, which I will now draw upon.

Soviet Union

In the Soviet Union (which, again, had extensive legal protections for the environment), central planning proved devastating for the natural world. The Aral and Caspian seas were destroyed, as Soviet authorities diverted water away from them for other projects, and hundreds of factories dumped untreated chemical wastes into them. This sort of industrial prioritization was common.

“A typical example of the environmental damage caused by the Soviet economic system is the exploitation of the Black Sea. To comply with five-year plans for housing and building construction, gravel, sand, and trees around the beaches were used for decades as construction materials. Because there is no private property, “no value is attached to the gravel along the seashore. Since, in effect, it is free, the contractors haul it away. This practice caused massive beach erosion which reduced the Black Sea coast by 50 percent between 1920 and 1960. Eventually, hotels, hospitals, and of all things, a military sanitarium collapsed into the sea as the shoreline gave way. Frequent landslides–as many as 300 per year–have been reported.”

Toxic waste was dumped into rivers and destroyed these ecosystems because there was no private property.

“Effluent from a chemical plant killed almost all the fish in the Oka River in 1965, and similar fish kills have occurred in the Volga, Ob, Yenesei, Ural, and Northern Dvina rivers. Most Russian factories discharge their waste without cleaning it at all. Mines, oil wells, and ships freely dump waste and ballast into any available body of water, since it is all one big (and tragic) “commons.”

“Islands of alkaline sewage have been observed floating on the lake, including one that was 18 miles long and three miles wide. These “islands” have polluted the air around the lake as well as the water in it. Thousands of acres of forest surrounding the lake have been denuded, causing such erosion that dust storms have been reported. So much forest land in the Lake Baikal region has been destroyed that some observers reported shifting sands that link up with the Gobi Desert; there are fears that the desert may sweep into Siberia and destroy the lake.”

Arguably the worst of these cases was the Volga River. So much oil was dumped into this river that smoking had to be banned for sailors on ships traversing it – not for paternalistic health reasons, as in the West, but because throwing spent cigarette butts overboard would cause raging fires.

Of course, let’s not forget the Chernobyl disaster.

“The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the world’s worst, caused not just by operating errors but by a reckless design that provided no containment vessel in case of accident. The nuclear accident that had been considered the world’s worst up to that time also occurred in the Soviet Union, the 1957 explosion of a waste storage pond at the Mayak nuclear weapons complex.”

The Soviets also killed at least 45,000 humpback whales between 1946 and 1986. Why? To satisfy obscure line items in five year plans. Barely 30% of these whales were actually used, and the remainder were left to rot.


Chinese cities are well-known to have a thick layer of smog covering them.

“The Chinese state’s arrogation of all pollution litigation to its own courts is a clear collectivization of environmental property rights — most notably rights to air and property surfaces, most of which are covered in soot after a few years of operation.

The state’s subsequent, systematic refusal to enforce property owners’ claims against pollution damages to the serviceability of their air and the appearances of their structures’ outward surfaces, then, constitutes a redistribution of these collectivized rights to “dirty” industries and other heavy polluters.”

Massive industrial projects initiated by the socialist government in China also led to serious environmental issues.

“China’s current Three Gorges Dam has displaced over a million people and flooded 13 cities, 140 towns and 1,350 villages. There’s no way the capitalists of Wall Street could compete with that flooding.”

Water pollution is another serious issue:

“An official report showed that 90% of all environmental protests in 2012 were linked to water pollution. It found that 57.3% of the groundwater in 198 cities in 2012 was ‘bad’ or ‘extremely bad’. One third of rivers and 75% of lakes are seriously polluted, and around 1,000 lakes have disappeared. Unsafe drinking water is being used by 320 million people, and 190 million are sick every year due to water pollution.”

Central planning has led to massive environmental destruction of forests and waterways in China.

“According to the Worldwatch Institute, more than 90 percent of the trees in the pine forests in China’s Sichuan province have died because of air pollution. In Chungking, the biggest city in southwest China, a 4, 500-acre forest has been reduced by half. Acid rain has reportedly caused massive crop losses.

There also have been reports of waterworks and landfill projects severely hampering fish migration. Fish breeding was so seriously neglected that fish has largely vanished from the national diet. Depletion of government-owned forests has turned them into deserts, and millions of acres of grazing and farm land in the northern Chinese plains were made alkaline and unproductive during the “Great Leap Forward.””


The Polish people under communism did not fare much better.

“According to the Polish Academy of Sciences, “a third of the nation’s 38 million people live in areas of ecological disaster.” In the heavily industrialized Katowice region of Poland, the people suffer 15 percent more circulatory disease, 30 percent more tumors, and 47 percent more respiratory disease than other Poles. Physicians and scientists believe pollution is a major contributor to these health problems.

“Half of Poland’s cities, including Warsaw, don’t even treat their wastes, and 41 animal species have reportedly become extinct in Poland in recent years. While health statistics are spotty — they were not a priority of the Communist government–available data are alarming. A recent study of the Katowice region found that 21 percent of the children up to 4 years old are sick almost constantly, while 41 percent of the children under 6 have serious health problems.”

Coal mining caused major issues because property rights were not respected, and the health of the land did not need to be taken into account by the socialist planners.

“Continuous pumping of water from coal mines has caused so much land to subside that over 300,000 apartments were destroyed as buildings collapsed. The mine sludge has been pumped into rivers and streams along with untreated sewage which has made 95 percent of the water unfit for human consumption. More than 65 percent of the nation’s water is even unfit for industrial use because it is so toxic that it would destroy heavy metals used by industry.”


Here’s a summary of the environmental devastation that occurred in communist Czechoslovakia:

“Because of the overuse of fertilizers, farmland in some areas of Czechoslovakia is toxic to more than one foot in depth. In Bohemia, in northwestern Czechoslovakia, hills stand bare because their vegetation has died in air so foul it can be tasted. One report describes the Czech countryside as a place where “barren plateaus stretch for miles, studded with the stumps and skeletons of pine trees. Under the snow lie thousands of acres of poisoned ground, where for centuries thick forests had grown.” There is a stretch of over 350 miles where more than 300,000 acres of forest have disappeared and the remaining trees are dying. A thick, brown haze hangs over much of northern Czechoslovakia for about eight months of the year. Sometimes it takes on the sting of tear gas, according to local officials. There are environmental laws, but they aren’t enforced. Sulfur in the air has been reported at 20 times the permissible level. Soil in some regions is so acidic that aluminum trapped in the clay is released. Scientists discovered that the aluminum has poisoned groundwater, killing tree and plant roots and filtering into the drinking water.”

East Germany

East Germany is a classic case of socialism, and particularly, the issues that socialism has wrought for the environment. Note that West Germany did not have nearly so egregious exploitation of the environment.

“Much of the East German landscape has been devastated. Fifteen to 20 percent of its forests are dead, and another 40 percent are said to be dying. Between 1960 and 1980 at least 70 villages were destroyed and their inhabitants uprooted by the government, which wanted to mine high-sulfur brown coal. The countryside is now “pitted with moon-like craters” and “laced with the remains of what were once spruce and pine trees, nestled amid clouds of rancid smog.” The air in some cities is so polluted that residents use their car headlights during the day, and visitors have been known to vomit from breathing the air.

Nearly identical problems exist in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia.

Visiting scientists have concluded that pollution in Central and Eastern Europe “is more dangerous and widespread than anything they have seen in the Western industrial nations.””

Colin Grabow adds:

“An estimated 44 percent of East German forests were damaged by acid rain — little surprise given that the country produced proportionally more sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and coal dust than any other in the world. In some areas of East Germany the level of air pollution was between eight and twelve times greater than that found in West Germany, and 40 percent of East Germany’s population lived in conditions that would have justified a smog warning across the border. Only one power station in East Germany had the necessary equipment to clean sulphur from emissions.”

Even the greatest excesses of the Western world and capitalism can’t compare with the extreme environmental devastation brought on by socialism. So why do environmentalists continue to promote big government policies? And why are so many environmentalists also socialists?


Private Property As A Solution

“[Those] who wonder what all the fuss is about when environmentalists raise alarms about the effects of acid rain on the forests react with outrage when the neighbour’s dog performs squatus smellibus on their own front lawns. It may be said that this is different—after all, the front lawn is private property— but this is precisely the point.

If the same dog-owning neighbour happens to own an industrial plant that dumps a chemical effluent on some remote forest land, we have little reaction, even if we know about it. After all, the forest land isn’t our private property. It’s government land. The question is, how do we ensure that the protective reactions of private property ownership will leap to the aid of the forest in the same way that they protect front lawns? The answer is that as long as we persist in the myth of public ownership, it will be very difficult.” – Walter Block

The United States doesn’t have a great record as an environmental steward, and many environmentalists will seize upon this to argue that privatization and free markets are to blame. Environmental costs of business are externalities – companies that pollute are not required to pay the cost of their pollution, so the pollution is subsidized.

Without a doubt, this is true today. However, it was not always like this in America. There used to be legal ways to internalize those externalities and to make polluters responsible for the damage they caused. This was the case when private property rights were more respected and legally protected in America, a reality that changed in the mid-1800s. Walter Block discusses the old system:

“Up to the 1820s and 1830s, the legal jurisprudence in Great Britain and the U.S. was more or less predicated upon the libertarian vision of non-invasiveness. Typically, a farmer would complain that a railroad engine had emitted sparks which set ablaze his haystacks or other crops. Or a woman would accuse a factory of sending airborne pollutants to her property, which would dirty her clean laundry hanging on a clothesline. Or someone would object to the foreign matter imposed in one’s lungs without permission. Almost invariably, the courts would take cognizance of this violation of plaintiff’s rights. The usual result during this epoch was injunctive relief, plus an award of damages.”

This respect for private property had positive effects from an environmental standpoint. In fact, these positive effects are essentially the flip-side of the negative impact of socialism.

“First of all, there was an incentive to use clean burning, but slightly more expensive anthracite coal rather than the cheaper but dirtier high sulfur content variety; less risk of lawsuits. Second, it paid to install scrubbers, and other techniques for reducing pollution output. Third there was an impetus to engage in research and development of new and better methods for the internalization of externalities: keeping one’s pollutants to oneself. Fourth, there was a movement toward the use better chimneys and other smoke prevention devices. Fifth, an incipient forensic pollution industry was in the process of being developed. Sixth, the locational decisions of manufacturing firms was intimately effected. The law implied that it would be more profitable to establish a plant in an area with very few people, or none at all; setting up shop in a residential area, for example, would subject the firm to debilitating lawsuits.”

Clearly, these incentives would lead to far superior environmental outcomes. Unfortunately, the legal climate in America soon changed.

“But then in the 1840s and 1850s a new legal philosophy took hold. No longer were private property rights upheld. Now, there was an even more important consideration: the public good. And of what did the public good consist in this new dispensation? The growth and progress of the U.S. economy. Toward this end it was decided that the jurisprudence of the 1820s and 1830s was a needless indulgence. Accordingly, when an environmental plaintiff came to court under this new system, he was given short shrift. He was told, in effect, that of course his private property rights were being violated; but that this was entirely proper, since there is something even more important than selfish, individualistic property rights. And this was the “public good” of encouraging manufacturing.”

Since then, America has never turned back. Legal protections for victims of pollution have not been reinstated, and unfortunately, it doesn’t look like they will be anytime soon. Nevertheless, a regime of private property rights that includes consistent enforcement is the solution to the environmental problem. Environmentalists, unfortunately, do not have a good understanding of how private property rights work, as evidenced by their rhetoric surrounding environmental issues:

“Even when the term “rights” is employed by ecologists in what is seemingly its more traditional, negative sense, as, for example, when environmentalists write of “the right to live free from pollutants” it is often so used without any regard to the context in which these rights are situated. When one refers to “the right to a smoke-free environment,” as numerous spokesmen of the anti-smoking campaign often do, surely it makes sense to ask “of just whose environment are we speaking?” While I might indeed have such a right to demand of others that they not smoke on my property, have I the same right when it comes to the property of others? But even put in such bald form, the majority of environmentalists would argue that, in most cases, I would indeed have such a right. Such rights obtain, they argue (and in this they are by no means alone), because most private property is not, in reality, private at all, since members of the public (either all members of the public, as is the case with, say, a department store, or certain specific members of the public, as is the case with a business office) are invited onto the property. By virtue of this fact, nominal private property is transmuted into commonly owned property, the disposal of which can justifiably be determined by political means. Indeed, most environmentalists have extended this notion of public ownership to the whole of the natural world. They write of the “common heritage of all humanity” and of “sharing the world’s resources equitably.” It is as if each of us, when born, inherits our pro rata share of all the wealth of the world, the land and the oceans of the earth, and all that is on, above, or below it, without regard to the prevailing ownership of these resources.”

Because today’s system is so far removed from a system of private property rights, thinking about environmental issues this way requires a paradigm shift. Instead of thinking about pollution as a crime against “the environment,” we need to think of it as a conflict between human beings.

“Pollution is…not about harming the environment but about human conflict over the use of physical resources. Generally formulated, a pollution or environmental problem arises when individual or group A and individual or group B are simultaneously attempting or planning to use resource X for conflicting purposes. Unless emissions into the air, discharge into a river, or the extraction of fish from the ocean give rise to such a conflict then there is no economic, i.e., efficiency problem. Humans cannot harm the environment. Instead, they can change the environment in such a way that it harms others who might be planning to use it for conflicting purposes.”

Conflict, in this sense, is essentially a dispute over the rights to use a given resource. The conflict arises when peoples’ plans regarding the use of resources differ. This requires well-defined property rights in order to determine the proper solution.

“In a setting where rights are clearly defined and strictly enforced, plans may conflict but the resolution to that conflict is embedded in the exchange process. In other words, conflict may arise at the planning stages but is resolved before the actors proceed with implementation of those plans. For example, persons A and B may have conflicting plans with respect to resource X, but if ownership to X is clearly defined as being in the hands of A, B, or a third party C, then there will not be a conflict over the actual use of X. It will be understood by A or B that before proceeding with their plan they must gain rights to X.”

In this paradigm, pollution issues take on a very different character than they do in today’s system. Ray Cordato describes a hypothetical conflict and resolution in this way:

“There is a conflict over the use of a resource. The source of that conflict is the generation of a production byproduct that crosses from property that is owned and controlled by the generator of the byproduct to property that is owned and therefore should be controlled by a nonconsenting party. The responsibility for ending the conflict lies with the polluter who should be responsible for truly internalizing the costs of the conflict generating activity. In this case, internalizing the costs of the pollution does not simply mean facing a new supply curve that has shifted to the left by the right amount. For the polluter it instead means eliminating the costs of his polluting activities to those whose property usage is being curtailed. This might be done by eliminating the emissions, confining them to his own property, or by compensating the victims of the polluting activity by an amount that fully addresses the grievance.”

Obviously, this new paradigm requires some kind of legal system. By far, the best explication of libertarian legal theory with respect to environmental issues comes from Murray Rothbard’s brilliant paper “Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution.” If you are interested in this, I suggest reading that essay in full, but I will provide the most important insights here. The most fundamental aspect of this legal system is a commitment to nonviolent interaction.

“No action should be considered illicit or illegal unless it invades, or aggresses against, the person or just property of another. Only invasive actions should be declared illegal, and combated with the full power of the law. The invasion must be concrete and physical. There are degrees of seriousness of such invasion, and hence, different proper degrees of restitution or punishment.”

Note that the key thing here is not whether or not someone is “harmed” by a given action, but rather that a physical invasion happened. In other words, I have no legal claim against you if you call me names or offend me, but I would have a claim if you, say, punched me in the face.

“Legal and political theory have committed much mischief by failing to pinpoint physical invasion as the only human action that should be illegal and that justifies the use of physical violence to combat it. The vague concept of “harm” is substituted for the precise one of physical violence…Jim is courting Susan and is just about to win her hand in marriage, when suddenly Bob appears on the scene and wins her away. Surely Bob has done great “harm” to Jim. Once a nonphysical-invasion sense of harm is adopted, almost any outlaw act might be justified. Should Jim be able to “enjoin” Bob’s very existence?”

An obvious prerequisite for determining whether a physical invasion has occurred is to establish who owns what. Rothbard’s solution is the application of Lockean homesteading principles to determine ownership, and the homesteader can establish an easement of pollution rights for the surrounding area. This is best demonstrated through an example.

“Suppose…that an airport is established with a great deal of empty land around it. The airport exudes a noise level of, say, X decibels, with the sound waves traveling over the empty land. A housing development then buys land near the airport. Some time later, the homeowners sue the airport for excessive noise interfering with the use and quiet enjoyment of the houses.

Excessive noise can be considered a form of aggression but in this case the airport has already homesteaded X decibels worth of noise. By its prior claim, the airport now “owns the right” to emit X decibels of noise in the surrounding area. In legal terms, we can then say that the airport, through homesteading, has earned an easement right to creating X decibels of noise. This homesteaded easement is an example of the ancient legal concept of “prescription,” in which a certain activity earns a prescriptive property right to the person engaging in the action.

On the other hand, if the airport starts to increase noise levels, then the homeowners could sue or enjoin the airport from its noise aggression for the extra decibels, which had not been homesteaded. Of course if a new airport is built and begins to send out noise of X decibels onto the existing surrounding homes, the airport becomes fully liable for the noise invasion.”

The next question this leads to is how much of a resource becomes owned when someone is the first user. How would this be determined?

“If A uses a certain amount of a resource, how much of that resource is to accrue to his ownership? Our answer is that he owns the technological unit of the resource. The size of that unit depends on the type of good or resource in question, and must be determined by judges, juries, or arbitrators who are expert in the particular resource or industry in question. If resource X is owned by A, then A must own enough of it so as to include necessary appurtenances. For example, in the courts’ determination of radio frequency ownership in the 1920s, the extent of ownership depended on the technological unit of the radio wave — its width on the electromagnetic spectrum so that another wave would not interfere with the signal, and its length over space. The ownership of the frequency then was determined by width, length, and location.”

In other words, there is no cut and dry answer. This is the kind of thing that needs to be determined by relevant case law and by experts. Expectations set by custom will play an important role here. For specifics regarding the establishment of a legal order under anarchy, see my earlier post on the subject. With or without government, disputes will arise and can be settled via arbitration, and pollution lawsuits (and other environmental damage issues) would be considered torts.

“Air pollution is a private nuisance generated from one person’s landed property onto another and is an invasion of the airspace appurtenant to land and, often, of the person of the landowner. Basic to libertarian theory of property rights is the concept of homesteading, in which the first occupier and user of a resource thereby makes it his property. Therefore, where a “polluter” has come first to the pollution and has preceded the landowner in emitting air pollution or excessive noise onto empty land, he has thereby homesteaded a pollution or excessive noise easement. Such an easement becomes his legitimate property right rather than that of the later, adjacent landowner. Air pollution, then, is not a tort but only the ineluctable right of the polluter if he is simply acting on a homestead easement. But where there is no easement and air pollution is evident to the senses, pollution is a tort per se because it interferes with the possession and use of another’s air. Boundary crossing — say by radio waves or low-level radiation — cannot be considered aggression because it does not interfere with the owner’s use or enjoyment of his person or property. Only if such a boundary crossing commits provable harm — according to principles of strict causality and beyond a reasonable doubt — can it be considered a tort and subject to liability and injunction.”

Rothbard summarizes the conditions necessary for a pollution-related claim to be considered a violation of property rights:

“We have established that everyone may do as he wishes provided he does not initiate an overt act of aggression against the person or property of anyone else. Anyone who initiates such aggression must be strictly liable for damages against the victim, even if the action is “reasonable” or accidental. Finally, such aggression may take the form of pollution of someone else’s air, including his owned effective airspace, injury against his person, or a nuisance interfering with his possession or use of his land.

This is the case, provided that:

  1. the polluter has not previously established a homestead easement;

  2. while visible pollutants or noxious odors are per se aggression, in the case of invisible and insensible pollutants the plaintiff must prove actual harm;

  3. the burden of proof of such aggression rests upon the plaintiff;

  4. the plaintiff must prove strict causality from the actions of the defendant to the victimization of the plaintiff;

  5. the plaintiff must prove such causality and aggression beyond a reasonable doubt; and

  6. there is no vicarious liability, but only liability for those who actually commit the deed.”


Environmental Problems and Private Property Solutions

plastic bags are beautiful

This is all actually quite simple and obvious, but is not the way pollution claims work in court today. Polluters are unfairly given legal sanction to harm others. When the law no longer considers private property rights sacrosanct, even public-spirited factory owners have a difficult time protecting the environment. By implementing expensive technologies or processes that would reduce pollution, they create a more expensive product that has a harder time competing on the market.

Consider the issue of waste management. Because the government controls waste management, for instance, it is unclear how to act in the most environmentally friendly way. As Walter Block argues in his essay “Environmental Problems, Private Property Rights Solutions”,

“We cannot calculate the economic cost to society of disposing of a non-biodegradable diaper because government has perverted market signals through its programme of ownership and management of waste disposal. Nor can we calculate the ecological cost of washing dirty cloth diapers or recycling plastic ones. Given the absence of the relevant markets, we certainly cannot compare these costs, whether financial or ecological, but no less is required to determine which of these items, cloth or disposable diapers, is the least harmful to the environment.”

Mark Pennington elaborates on and generalizes this concept.

“Suppose that an individual is altruistically motivated as a concerned citizen to reduce his water consumption to a “socially responsible” amount. In the absence of property rights and market prices for water, the individual has no way to ascertain how much to adjust his consumption to take the interests of others properly into account….even the most altruistically inclined person faced with this situation is likely to consume as much water as he personally requires because at least he knows what that amount is, whereas the “socially responsible” amount of consumption is shrouded in a fog of ignorance. Such problems will be multiplied many times over, of course, when the choice is between the vast array of production and consumption possibilities that make up an advanced economy and the complex environmental consequences of these possibilities. In short, without the information provided by market-generated relative prices, citizens will find it impossible to communicate their values to one another and to adjust their behavior accordingly.”

In order to make sound judgments regarding the use of resources, we need a market-generated price system. With the government controlling environmental policy in a centralized way, solutions to environmental problems are less likely to be found. A decentralized, dispersed system with private property rights and which provides freedom to go against the majority opinion will find solutions that a government simply cannot.

“As Michael Polanyi has shown, the spread of knowledge in markets, the arts, and academia does not proceed by collective deliberation, but rather advances best when individuals and groups have a private sphere that secures the freedom to experiment with projects that do not conform to majority opinions. Then, as a result, the prevailing wisdom changes incrementally over time. With regard to “green” consumption, for example, it is doubtful whether the massive growth in the organic food market that has occurred in recent years would ever have developed if production decisions in the agricultural sector had been subject to collectivist procedures. For years, organic food was viewed as the concern of hapless eccentrics. Precisely because private property affords minorities the space to try out experimental ideas (the merits of which may be indiscernible) rather than simply talking about them, more and more people are now able to emulate such role models as the benefits become more visible.”

The market system may be imperfect, but it provides the best opportunity to resolve those imperfections. Governments suffer from the same kinds of issues with externalities and transaction costs as markets do with respect to environmental protection, but at least the market provides clear-cut incentives to fix or reduce those problems.

“Although proponents of free-market environmentalism recognize that environmental markets have limits owing to the prevalence of transaction costs, they contend that these problems are more likely to be overcome within an institutional framework supportive of private contractual arrangements. In this perspective, all environmental externalities represent potential profit opportunities for entrepreneurs who can devise ways of defining private-property rights and arranging contracts (via technological innovations, for example) so that those currently free riding on collective goods or imposing negative external effects (for example, water pollution) on their neighbors are required to bear the full costs of their actions. A land owner, for example, may introduce fences and install entrance points to the grounds of a park in order to exclude nonpayers from the park’s aesthetic benefits. Likewise, if technologies develop in the future that enable the “fencing” of the atmosphere, then entrepreneurs will have incentives to define property rights to the air and to charge those who are currently polluting without compensating those injured by their action. In the market economy, therefore, if people are imposing costs on others or are benefiting from the provision of certain goods without payment, entrepreneurs have incentives to find ways of eliminating such involuntary transfers over time.”

Let’s consider another example, oil spills, which I briefly discussed in an earlier section on the state’s failure to protect the environment. Changing the regulatory structure (reducing subsidies for deep sea drilling, ending limited liability for oil companies, etc.) would go a long way towards reducing the risk of oil spills. Additionally, privatizing the oceans would create an incentive for owners to use their ocean property responsibly, unlike the unowned state of oceans today. Walter Block explains:

“If people owned various patches of the ocean, they would have an economic incentive to protect their holdings. For example, they might well insist that any ship passing through their property with a cargo of oil be double-hulled. Additionally, they would have more of a selfish interest not only in demanding that inebriated sailors be prohibited access to their property but in actually ensuring that this policy is enforced.”

Of course, there are some difficulties with privatizing the oceans. The technology to implement this effectively might not exist yet. But that’s the thing: until the ocean is privatized, there will be no incentive for entrepreneurs to tackle these problems. Perhaps someone can implement some sort of EZ Pass buoy system to delineate property lines and charge ships passing through.

Now, let’s talk about how pollution might be handled in an anarchist society. Stefan Molyneux has a good discussion of this problem here. In his account, there are companies (“Dispute Resolution Organizations” or DROs) that play the role of crime insurance. I heavily elaborate on the concept here.

Let’s say Sally owns land that she wants to convert into a factory, and there are a group of homeowners downwind, including Ahmed. Naturally, any concerned homeowners will purchase pollution insurance from their DRO. Ahmed takes out a policy that will pay him $2 million if a certain predefined type of and amount of pollution is found on his property.

When Sally begins preparations to build her factory, Ahmed’s DRO takes notice – if this factory is going to cause pollution, they might be on the hook for $2 million in claims! The DRO can spend some amount less than $2 million to either buy up Sally’s land and sell it to a non-polluter or get legal assurances from Sally that she will not pollute. If the DRO succeeds, great! If not, they have a $2 million budget to encourage Sally to install chemical scrubbers or other technologies that may reduce the pollution to a low enough level. Now, if this isn’t good enough to solve the issue, the DRO will pay Ahmed his $2 million, which he can use to move to a less polluted neighborhood if he so chooses. And it likely won’t just be Ahmed; we could be talking about vastly higher sums of money as hundreds or thousands of individuals get pollution insurance.

Similarly, Sally, fearing potential pollution claims against her, will need a DRO to represent her and reduce her risk. Her DRO won’t like her polluting activities, since that opens them up to significant claims payouts from pollution damages downwind. Chances are good that she won’t even be able to contract for services with a reputable DRO unless she can prove that pollution activities will be below a certain threshold. And without a DRO backing her, it is highly doubtful that she’ll be able to get the capital to build and maintain her factory anyways!

What about a situation where the pollution is more complicated?

“Imagine that Sally’s smokestacks are so high that her air pollution sails over Achmed’s house and lands on Reginald’s house, a hundred miles away. Reginald then complains to his DRO that his property is being damaged. His DRO will examine the air contents and wind currents, then trace the pollution back to its source and resolve the dispute with Sally’s DRO. If the air pollution is particularly complicated, then Reginald’s DRO will place non-volatile compounds into Sally’s smokestacks and follow them to where they land. This can be used in a situation where a number of different factories may be contributing pollutants.”

And again, as private property rights are reestablished, the incentive to develop these kinds of compounds and other solutions to problems of this nature increases.

Before moving on to a couple of the larger applications of the private property solution to environmental issues, I’d like to again contrast market solutions with that of government. Consider certain massive government (or government sponsored) projects, including the interstate highways, airports, stadiums, railways, etc. Under a regime of private property and anarchy, then each of these environmentally destructive projects would have required the consent of all landowners in order to be built, making them far less likely. But the state can simply use eminent domain to seize the land, and then subsidize its development. Can you imagine how much less pollution there would be today if the interstate highway system didn’t exist (at least not in its current form)?

Conservation And The Tragedy of The Commons

When governments attempt to solve environmental issues, the solutions are at best temporary. The government can always change its mind, and is particularly likely to do so in the face of moneyed interests. Any pro-conservation bill is liable to be overturned. What the government provides, it can also take away. Private property provides a solution to this problem.

“The environment in the United States does not stand a chance for long term preservation in its current direction. If a group of people can democratically decide what to do with the land you are trying to save, then the land is not protected. The reality is that the land “preserved” is actually just a lease from the government. The earth is “secure” until the whims of rulers find a better use than appeasing a few disgruntled environmentalist voters.

“A simple question for environmentalists using political action: “If the price of gas goes up to $5/gallon, what are you going to do in order to convince a voter making $8/hour at Wal-Mart to vote in favor of preserving caribou over drilling for oil?”

“Environmentalism is based entirely on thinking about the future of the planet. In the present, supporters do the exact opposite. Their policies are temporary patch jobs at best without consideration that the same country that voted for preservation this time can change its mind. Political action conservationists showing the benefits of their lobbying are exercising a performative contradiction. They are attempting to solve the problems of the long term by only considering the short term.”

Political realities are likely to preclude any environmental policy from being truly successful over longer time scales. But private property rights can resolve conservation related issues for the long term. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club can buy up tracts of land that they believe require some kind of protection, and then can own and administer that land forever. The Land Trust Alliance, for instance, has already been doing this. If you want land (or some endangered species on that land) protected, who would you trust more: a fickle government or a group of dedicated environmentalists?

There is a well-known issue related to land and resource conservation dubbed “the tragedy of the commons.” When a resource is collectively owned, it tends to be depleted much more quickly because there is no incentive to preserve the resource if someone else will simply take advantage of what you fail to harvest. If a forest is collectively owned, everyone has an incentive to log as quickly as possible before everyone else does the same. Quickly, the forest ends up destroyed. If the forest were privately owned, however, the owner would have every incentive to maximize the present value of his property by logging in a sustainable way, which would leave him a source of income for years to come.

Robert Smith studied this issue, and provides examples of the tragedy of the commons. Consider the wild eider, the bird that produces the most valuable down in the world.

“Iceland’s management of the wild eider as a private property resource has been a great success. The private eider farms have benefited both the property owners and the eider population. The farmers have protected the birds from overexploitation, from poachers, and from natural predators. They have also created artificial nesting sites in which the female will nest. The combined provision of protected nesting areas and artificial nesting sites has served to maintain a thriving population.

“If the eider had been treated as a common property resource, the only way the Icelanders could have captured any economic value from the resource would have been to take all they could before other users did the same. It would not have been profitable to wait for the eider to line their nests with down; someone else might have collected it first. The rational course of action for each user would have been to kill the eider and immediately appropriate all of the down. It also would not have been in anyone’s self-interest to invest in conservation programs, such as nest site construction or predator control. All of the other down collectors would have benefited from the actions of the conservationist.”

This principle seems obvious, yet in America, there are a huge number of national parks that continue to fall victim to the tragedy of the commons.

“Many of the most beautiful national parks are suffering from severe overuse and a near destruction of their recreational values, but most private parks are maintained in far better condition. The National Audubon Society does a better job of preserving its wildlife refuges and protecting wildlife than do many federal wildlife refuges. The public grazing lands have been repeatedly over-grazed, while lush private grazing lands are maintained by private ranchers. National forests are carelessly logged and overharvested, but private forests are carefully managed and cut on a sustained-yield basis, and costly nursery tree farms have been developed. In addition, the basic concept of self-interest explains why people don’t litter their own yards but do litter public parks and streets, and why people don’t dump old refrigerators and tires in their own farm ponds or swimming pools, but repeatedly dump them in the unowned streams, rivers, and swamps.” (emphasis mine)

To protect and preserve wildlife would be as easy as privatizing the land that this wildlife lives on. In some cases, environmental groups can purchase the land and leave it exactly as it is, but they can also charge fees for people to go into these parks and view the scenery. Some might do this ideologically as a form of charity, but others may protect the environment because it is good business.

One highly controversial example of conservation-based businesses would be game ranches or hunting preserves. Environmentalists don’t like them because….well, I’m not sure exactly. Something about profits being evil. Nevertheless, they work.

“Another example of how private ownership can successfully preserve wildlife is found on game ranches, hunting preserves, safari parks, and animal and bird farms…Many of the animals they stock are rapidly disappearing in their native countries because of pressures resulting from a rapidly expanding human population. Native habitats are disappearing through the encroachment of agriculture, cattle grazing, timber harvesting, and desertification arising from overexploitation of common property water resources, overgrazing of grasslands, and overutilization of brush, scrub, and trees for firewood and shelter. So serious are these problems and so insoluble under a common property system that there is little hope of saving many species of wildlife in the developing countries. Indeed, some of the more spectacular and most sought-after big-game mammals may now have healthier and more stable populations on some of the game ranches than in their native countries.

“If the profits gained by giving hunters access to exotic game can provide the economic incentive for these landowners to manage the animals on a sustained-yield basis, some species will be saved. The same holds for the profits to be derived from visitors to game parks and preserves. In fact, the protection provided at some of the parks, preserves, and gardens has actually produced a glut of some animals. There have been well-publicized efforts by some preserves to return their surplus animals to Africa, Lions from America have even been taken to Africa to appear in movies that were filmed there. While we read of zoological parks attempting to discover reversible birth control techniques in order to control their tiger populations, we continue to read about the never-ending difficulties of preserving the remaining tigers in the wild.”

In some cases, species were discovered living only on private land and have been rescued because of this. In addition, privately owned animals in captive breeding programs can reduce potential pressures on wild populations.

“The familiar budgerigar, or budgie, is commonly kept as a pet in the United States and is bred in enormous numbers by thousands of breeders. Practically the entire trade is supplied by captive-bred birds. This demonstrates another conservation aspect of extending private property rights to wildlife, as captive breeding can supply the market demand for the birds and reduce or eliminate the demand on wild populations.”

As much as limousine liberals and environmentalists bloviate about the environmental horrors of private property and their moral outrage (outrage!) that animals can be hunted for profit, the system obviously works better than anything they’ve come up with. And it’s not as though private conservation needs to be done out of a desire for profit – surely, in an anarchist society, environmental protection organizations could work together to preserve wildlife for its own sake.

“Under private property ownership, others were prevented from exploiting the resource, and there were incentives for the owners to preserve them. Furthermore, these incentives were not solely motivated by the possibility of economic gain. With the exception of game ranches, economic gain has seldom been the primary motivation behind most captive breeding projects. Many of these examples were fostered for the pleasure of owning and breeding attractive or rare wildlife, as well as for more “altruistic” reasons, such as a deep commitment to the preservation of vanishing wildlife. Private ownership includes not only hunting preserves, commercial bird breeders, parrot jungles, and safari parks, it also includes wildlife sanctuaries, Audubon Society refuges, World Wildlife Fund preserves, and a multitude of private, nonprofit conservation and preservation projects.”

But what is important here is that private conservation efforts could be done without appealing to any particular environmental values – it would just be good business. Surely, people would be willing to pay to go on a safari and watch three lions and a leopard compete over a dead impala. Commercializing trade in certain animals or animal parts (or hunting them) will lead to an increase in animal farms which will breed more and more of these endangered species. And of course, private game reserves do everything they can to stop poachers. Having rare and difficult to replace animals killed does not serve their business interests. Contrast this with national parks, where this incentive no longer exists. In fact, there is a stronger incentive for park rangers to get involved with poaching themselves for personal gain!

Consider the recent uproar over the hunting and killing of the beloved Cecil the Lion. Cecil was a huge attraction to the park he lived in, and was not supposed to be killed – it was an illegal poaching group that set up the hunt. But the outrage over this hunt has led to various airlines disallowing hunting trophies to be flown back to the US or EU, and activists working to ban or restrict hunting. This approach is completely backwards – and can be contrasted with a legitimate hunt.

“American Corey Knowlton paid $350,000 for a permit to hunt a black rhino in Namibia under the auspices of the Dallas Safari Club back in January 2014. Black rhinos are critically endangered, and Knowlton received death threats after the permit auction, but the details of his hunt are likely to win over all but the most ardent hunting opponents.

For starters, the money will go to fight poaching. (That’s right: this pay-to-play hunt will help fund efforts to prevent exactly the kind of crappy practices used by Palmer’s team) The permit from the Namibian government authorized only the killing of one of 18 elderly male black rhinos, which are actually considered a net negative for overall species survival, since they are past their breeding years but remain territorial and are therefore a threat to the younger males. Knowlton and his well-vetted team whittled that list to just four animals and were obsessively carefully about finding the right rhino to kill.”

Clearly, this type of hunt could be a huge boon to conservation efforts. A great example of private property protecting endangered species where government action failed is with the American bison. Originally, the bison lived on territory that white people had not ventured into yet, and the population of Native Americans was too small to reduce their numbers significantly. But as white people started closing in on this land, the bison was subject to the tragedy of the commons, as the property was considered unowned. The US government forced Native Americans off of this land and into “reservations”, slaughtering the bison in the process of waging scorched-earth warfare. Eventually, the government tried to save the species, did a crappy job, and private individuals had to save the bison from extinction with their “greed”.

“Although Idaho, Texas, New Mexico and other states passed laws similar to the Endangered Species Act, they often failed to do so before it was too late and the buffalo were already gone. In 1872 Yellowstone National Park was opened as a safe haven, but poaching still remained a substantial problem. Henry Yount, remembered for his time at Yellowstone as the first national park ranger, resigned after only 14 months on the job because he knew his efforts alone were hopeless.

Thankfully for the bison, Charles Goodnight, James McKay, William and Charles Alloway, as well as a host of other private ranchers began to scoop up wild buffalo throughout the 1860s and 70’s. From 1884 to 1902, the bison population in Yellowstone actually decreased from 25 to 23, but also by 1902, an estimated 700 were privately owned. This trend has continued for more than a century, as by the 1990s the ratio was 25,000 publicly-owned to 250,000 privately-owned bison.”

The principle of private property as a solution to the tragedy of the commons and environmental issues affects not just animals but other kinds of resources as well. Private ownership is why there is no shortage of trees in the American south, and yet there are tree shortages in the west, where the forests are publicly owned. Similarly, a functioning free market in water would solve the shortage that has recently plagued Californians.

Mass Collective Pollution

A slightly trickier problem is that of mass pollution. A classic example of this would be climate change, which will be addressed in the next section. More generally, I define mass pollution as the kind where an individual contributor does not have any appreciable impact on the pollution that is occurring, but there are negative externalities created by the collective pollution of each contributor. For instance, each car driver contributes a negligible amount to the smog in an urban area, but that smog still exists and has a negative effect. How can free market anarchism address this kind of issue?

Let’s start by noting that the most obvious example of this kind of pollution, that which comes from cars, is heavily subsidized by government (publicly owned/built roads, etc.). The government can reduce this kind of pollution via regulation, but markets can provide this kind of regulation in an even more responsive way, which I will demonstrate in a moment.

Legally speaking, collective pollution like this is a different problem from the torts described in other pollution cases. With mass pollution, it is impossible to prove that a specific defendant directly aggressed against a particular plaintiff. This means that a simple appeal to respecting private property does not as clearly resolve this issue.

But that doesn’t mean there are no free market solutions to the problem of mass collective pollution! Mass pollution can lead to specific real risks – risks which can be insured against. For instance, the pollution from cars may increase the risk of asthma. People can insure themselves against the risk of developing asthma, and then insurance companies will have to pay out claims when this occurs. This gives the insurers an incentive to reduce the pollution that increases their liabilities.

Let’s say that insurers that are giving policies to people in a given geographic area expect to pay out $100 million in claims for asthma cases due to pollution (they have the incentive to study issues like this and come to that conclusion). These insurance companies then collectively have an interest in reducing pollution and could spend up to $99 million on these efforts while still coming out ahead. That money can go towards research on exhaust filters, alternative energy sources, etc. They can pay local car dealerships to implement these pollution reducing technologies. They can implement technologies that reduce pollution in an area – maybe there are ways to suck the smog out of the air. And if not, there is certainly a strong incentive to develop them; insurers could invest in companies hoping to solve this problem. Where there are problems to be solved, there is money to be made.

In addition, insurers would be able to charge those directly responsible for pollution – say, car manufacturers, drivers, road owners, etc. – in order to help internalize the externality.

On top of this, there are always social pressures. Stefan Molyneux provides an example of how this could work:

“Let’s say that for some reason DROs didn’t care about the rising costs of air pollution. The first thing I would do is start a Clean Air Company, which would, for a fee, guarantee air quality in certain neighborhoods. How would I achieve this lofty end? Simple: emotional advertising and social pressure. First, I would start running ads showing kids and grandmothers keeling over from asthma. Then I would offer bright yellow “clean air” stickers to anyone who signed up for my program – and for cars which met certain low-pollution guidelines. That way, anyone in a neighborhood who didn’t sign up for my clean air program would be highly visible – all their neighbors would know, and social pressure would do the rest.”

The combination of these incentives would help an anarchist society reach an optimal level of collective pollution. Make no mistake – zero pollution is not optimal, as it would completely destroy industrial civilization. But pollution can be reduced significantly this way, because the incentives in an anarchist system would be properly aligned.


For a discussion of global warming, continue on to part 2.

Bitcoin: The Ultimate Guerrilla Guide


Bitcoin symbol


There’s a good chance you’ve heard of it by now. Maybe one of your friends has been calling it “the most revolutionary technology since the Internet.” Or “buttcoin.” Or just a fad. Or a horrible thing used to do illegal stuff.

I’d like to clarify what Bitcoin is, why people believe it is a big friggin deal, and how to get started using it.

In this post you’ll learn:

  • How Bitcoin works
  • Why Bitcoin is the coolest thing since the Internet
  • Bitcoin myths
  • How to get your first bitcoin

Before diving into the meat of this post, it will be helpful to have an understanding of what Bitcoin is and how it works.


What Is Bitcoin?

Put simply, Bitcoin is a payment system, or a means of transferring value. The technology was proposed by an individual or group of developers under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008 (read the white paper that originally described Bitcoin here), and implemented in 2009

Question: We already have payment systems – credit card processors, PayPal, the ACH system, the SWIFT system, and newcomers like Apple Pay, Venmo, and so on. Why and how is bitcoin special??

To answer this question, it helps to know how Bitcoin works. The Bitcoin protocol is a peer-to-peer network of nodes where transactions are verified by “miners” and then recorded in a distributed ledger called the “blockchain”. Yes, I know this sounds complicated, but in practice it’s simple.

As a peer to peer network, Bitcoin does not rely on a central authority to work properly. If I want to pay you with a credit card, there must be an entity that will actually process that transaction. With Bitcoin, there is no one corporation, government, bank, or server that must process it. That means there is no entity or “gatekeeper” that can cheat you or screw up when you are trying to hold or transfer value.

If there is no central authority that processes transactions on the Bitcoin network, then who or what does? This is where the miners come in. The non-technical explanation is that these miners compete with each other to solve very difficult math problems. The solution to these math problems supplies the “proof-of-work” necessary to say that a transaction has been verified. This adds a new “block” of transactions to the blockchain. For supplying this computing power, the miner is rewarded with newly created bitcoins. This is the cryptographic equivalent of mining gold or any other resource. Instead of using machines to dig into the ground, separate the resource from the useless stuff around it, and bring it to surface, bitcoin miners use machines to solve these math problems.

The blockchain is a ledger of all transactions that have ever happened on the Bitcoin network. Transaction details are stored in a block, and each block connected to the previous one in a chain that stretches back to the creation of the first bitcoin. But unlike your average ledger, the blockchain is distributed over, copied to, and maintained by thousands of nodes (instances of the software that are downloaded and running) that are operated independently. If you destroy my copy of it, the blockchain will continue to exist. If you try to change it, you will need to muster more computer power than the rest of the network, which is not easy.

Because of the way Bitcoin works, it has many unique advantages as a currency and payment system. Here are four main ones::

  • Low fees. Credit cards charge 2-3% per transaction, and remittance services like Western Union often charge 10% or more to move money around. Many Bitcoin transactions are free, and nearly all of them cost under 40 cents.
  • Irreversible transactions. Once you send bitcoin to somebody else, the transaction cannot be undone. This eliminates a lot of fraud and chargeback risks, which cost merchants almost $200 billion in 2009.
  • Limited supply. There will only ever be 21 million bitcoin, and they are being created on a set schedule known in advance. This means that the value of bitcoin compared to fiat (government created, unbacked) currencies is inclined to increase over time. It also means that you need not worry about inflation, which is endemic to fiat currencies.
  • Pseudonymity. Bitcoin is the most transparent payment system in existence. All relevant information is stored on the blockchain and can’t be tampered with, so it is easier to create more accountable systems off of it. But because it is pseudonymous, it also offers privacy benefits that legacy payment systems don’t have. If you use a credit card to pay for something, you surrender information that can easily be used to identify you (and possibly steal your identity or money). If you send bitcoin, you do not run this risk.


Why Bitcoin Technology Will Change Everything

what people think about bitcoin

Many people will compare Bitcoin to the Internet in the early 1990s. Early adopters considered the internet revolutionary, but most people didn’t have an adequate answer to that most important question: so what?

My dad recently told me that in the early days of computers the most vocal defenders of the technology predicted they would be used to store recipes and manage checkbooks. Perhaps the applications of Bitcoin may far surpass even what its proponents claim.

And as with the Internet, there is a ridiculous amount of venture capital being thrown into Bitcoin and blockchain startups. A whopping $314.7 million was invested in Bitcoin startups in 2014, which is three times more than the previous year. In 2015, we’ve already seen Coinbase rake in $75 million, and 21 Inc get $116 million (see this for a list of VC funding rounds).

This money is going towards building a maturer Bitcoin ecosystem. These companies are creating services that make Bitcoin easier to use, more secure, and more awesome. They are creating some of the applications that will enable us to do spectacular things on top of the blockchain.

Note: Not everything described in this section is happening specifically with Bitcoin, but all of this was made possible by technological advances initiated by Bitcoin.

The Underbanked and the Overbanked

Before getting into the revolutionary applications of this new technology, I’d like to give another reason why you should fully expect (and root for!) Bitcoin to keep growing.

Over half of the world’s adult population, or 2.5 billion people, do not have a bank account. These are primarily poor people in poor countries. Mobile phones, however, are far more widespread. This is how the innovative payment system, M-Pesa, has taken off in Kenya in just a couple years: it basically turns your phone into a wallet. Bitcoin should appeal to the same underbanked demographic, but is both cheaper and not dependent on a single entity that must be trusted. It also isn’t liable to the delays, fraud, and chargeback risks that M-Pesa is subject to.

While people in the third world may benefit the most from Bitcoin, millennials are another large group that seems poised to adopt and use it. According to a recent survey by Goldman Sachs, 33% of millennials don’t expect to need a bank in five years, and only half said they expect to use cash on a weekly basis by 2020. Another GS survey had 22% of millennials saying they already use bitcoin and would use it again, plus an additional 22% that hasn’t used it but intends to. There is a deep distrust of traditional banking and financial institutions, and using bitcoin lets people “be their own bank.” It is transparent, with no hidden fees, doesn’t require giving up tons of personal info, and doesn’t come with the limitations and capital controls of standard banking.

Remittances And International Payments

Probably the most obvious sector that Bitcoin is poised to disrupt is remittances, or migrant workers sending money back to people in their home country. According to the World Bank, global remittances topped $580 billion in 2014, so this is big money.

The average remittance fee paid is over 8%, and can be as high as 20%! Contrast this with the cost of sending bitcoin, which is generally somewhere between free or practically free. In fact, someone moved $150 million in bitcoin, and didn’t pay a transaction fee at all!

As a related benefit, the ease of sending money across state borders makes bitcoin ideal for charity aid work in emergencies, such as the recent earthquake in Nepal.

Identity Management and Trust

The blockchain is effectively immutable. As a result, it completely changes the dynamic of trust in society. Instead of trusting governments, corporations, and other third party entities, we can trust the mathematics that powers the blockchain. Distributed ledgers like the Bitcoin blockchain allow us to record things and know for sure that they are correct.

You can already have your identity verified on the blockchain and use it to gain access to websites, and soon enough you’ll be able to use that identity to unlock the doors of your house. You can think of this as essentially an impossible to forge key to the things you want to keep secured. Username and password combinations can be hacked or stolen, and keys can be spoofed and copied, but a blockchain ID cannot be faked.

This might not sound super exciting, but things change when you consider how many of the things we do that rely on trusting others, and how the blockchain can make that friction disappear. All the websites you log into, all the traveling you do, all the property you own, all the domain names you register or visit, all the bars you enter – all of these things could be handled instantaneously, cheaply, and with no risk of identity theft.

Honduras, a nation plagued with costly land disputes, is already beginning to experiment with managing their land registry on the Bitcoin blockchain. This could have massive ramifications for reducing corruption (officials could easily change the land registry and give themselves some prime beachfront property) and its effects on the poor by giving them recourse in land disputes.

There are all sorts of other services that the blockchain’s enhanced identity management can provide, including better medical record management for increased privacy and transparency on product supply chains.


What I find most exciting about bitcoin is that it allows for micropayments. Because bitcoin transactions involve trivial fees (and because a bitcoin is divided into 10 million units, called “Satoshis”), it is suddenly possible to transfer tiny amounts of money efficiently.

This may not sound all that impressive, but the implications are enormous. What if social networks and email systems wouldn’t accept incoming messages unless a tiny amount of bitcoin was included with it? The price would be trivial to the sender, but would deter spammers who can send a gazillion messages today for free.

Something that is already catching on is tipping. If you thought someone made a brilliant post on Reddit, you could send them $5, or $1, or a few cents’ worth of bitcoin. Or you can tip a particularly nice customer service rep, the guy who let you turn at that tough intersection, or anyone else you’d like to thank.

Micropayments could also change the way content monetization works, making it much easier for content producers to make money without relying on large advertisers. Marc Andreessen, a major figure in the Bitcoin community, writes:

One reason media businesses such as newspapers struggle to charge for content is because they need to charge either all (pay the entire subscription fee for all the content) or nothing (which then results in all those terrible banner ads everywhere on the web). All of a sudden, with Bitcoin, there is an economically viable way to charge arbitrarily small amounts of money per article, or per section, or per hour, or per video play, or per archive access, or per news alert.

This may help make the media more objective by reducing the influence of large advertisers.

Another  area where bitcoin micropayments could be revolutionary is in integrating with the Internet of Things, or the trend where all sorts of electronics and appliances are being connected to the Internet. What if you could use a smart meter that gave you real-time access to the sensor that measures energy usage and allowed you to only pay for exactly what you use? What if you could connect to a Wi-Fi network for just the few minutes you need and pay for that miniscule amount?

Startup 21 Inc is working on making that a reality. They have developed a bitcoin mining chip that can be included in most devices, which will turn spare power from wall sockets into bitcoin, which can then be spent on things like extra bandwidth and ad-free access to things.

Smart Contracts

Things start getting really wild once you consider the ramifications of smart contracts: programmable contracts that automatically execute when their conditions are met. In other words, smart contracts are like any other computer program – except that they can interact with real-world assets.

How might this look? Let me borrow an example from Jay Cassano’s great article on smart contracts:

Imagine if allocating your assets after your death was as simple as moving an adjustable slider that determines who gets how much…once the smart contract can verify the triggering condition—in this case, your death—the contract goes into effect and your assets are divvied up.

When combined with the Internet of Things, smart contracts look even more interesting.

Let’s say all the locks are Internet-enabled and they’ve all got network connections. When you make a bitcoin transaction for the rent, the smart contract you and I agreed to automatically unlocks the house for you. You just go in using keys stored on your smartphone.

In this way, smart contracts could help poor people get better access to legal services. For those who cannot afford lawyers, smart contracts could be a great boon.

There are an infinite number of applications for this. Almost anything where a lawyer or accountant would be necessary can be done automatically on the blockchain.

Smart contracts can also allow you to “be your own Kickstarter” and run a decentralized crowdfunding campaign. Backers can send their bitcoin into escrow, and they will be released to you when you hit your goal, or returned if you do not. This practically nullifies the idea of public goods – goods where nonpayers cannot be excluded from its benefits – via technology!

Finally, the blockchain allows for decentralized governance and voting. This could allow for provably fair democratic elections (political or otherwise). Different rules could be written in a fully transparent way (certain people get a higher stake, for instance), and the result of the election can be automatically enforced via smart contract.

Polling and surveys can easily be done and the data won’t get fudged. Corporate governance can be done transparently (shareholders electing the board of directors, for instance). Stakeholders in any given decision can vote on how to proceed, with the decision executing automatically with no funny business. An example of this is the Dash cryptocurrency, where large stakeholders get to vote on what new features should be developed, and funding is automatically released to the developers to work on them.

The political, social, and economic ramifications are enormous.

The Libertarian/Political Angle

There is a perception that bitcoin is a toy for white male libertarians. There are strong reasons why a libertarian would support bitcoin, but some on the left also favor bitcoin for its political implications.

Before diving into how bitcoin may radically alter political relations, I’d like to emphasize that there is nothing inherently political about bitcoin.

Nevertheless, bitcoin is a cypherpunk or crypto-anarchist’s wet dream. It has the potential to disrupt modern power structures in ways that are difficult for most to even comprehend.

The most obvious thing Bitcoin does is take power away from the elite central bankers by returning control of the money supply to the people. The Federal Reserve and other central banks have monopoly powers that grant them the privilege of debasing currencies at will, which is done to promote warfare and militarism, leading to inflation. Bitcoin can destroy this most important lever of control.

Similarly, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are resistant to capital controls, a feature that has been giving bitcoin some attention recently because of events in Greece, where the government is defaulting on its loans. The Greek government’s heavy-handed response included closing the banks for several weeks, making it illegal to move money out of the country, and imposing a 60 euro daily limit on ATM withdrawals. Bitcoin makes it harder for law enforcement and the tax man to steal people’s money, prevent transactions (think Silk Road), or apply sanctions against other states or individuals.

It also creates new and immutable ways of preventing censorship. Decentralized, peer-to-peer communication technologies are already being built on the blockchain. For instance, there is Twister, which is basically Twitter – except that third parties can’t access the data, you can communicate in a private and encrypted way, and it cannot be shut down by governments or other malicious actors. A similar project worth following is Synereo, which provides vastly more privacy than Facebook. These are just two of several applications making communication “NSA-proof”. Bitcoin may even enable efficient “homomorphic encryption,” which would let people share data on the cloud without it ever being unencrypted and vulnerable.

The blockchain can benefit free speech in other ways; it can be used to create a historical record that cannot be manipulated by the powers that be. And it can be used to fund dissident organizations – it was bitcoin donations that kept WikiLeaks alive when all other payment processors boycotted them.

By now, it should be obvious that Bitcoin is an incredible boon for women, minorities, the poor, and the persecuted, and yet it is still popular to view bitcoin as a plaything for white patriarchy. This view is dangerously misguided. Bitcoin has yet to catch on with much of the black community, but it would help marginalized African-Americans secure easier access to loans, microloans, and financial services in general, allowing black neighborhoods to better support themselves. Bitcoin has already empowered tens of thousands of women in the developing world, where women are often excluded from the financial system entirely. And soon enough, smart contracts will improve legal access for those who wouldn’t normally have much recourse to the justice system. Without central control, everyone has equal access, so people won’t be able to be excluded due to racism, sexism, ageism, or any other –ism.

The best part is that this process is nearly unstoppable. Soon there will be trusted, decentralized cryptocurrency exchanges built on the blockchain, which will make it impossible to prevent people from buying into bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. A small example of this already exists with Multigateway.

Banning Bitcoin

There will also be decentralized markets, where individuals can meet in a secure, peer-to-peer environment to buy and sell whatever they wish – and unlike the Silk Road, the infamous online drug market taken down by the FBI in 2013, a decentralized market can’t be shut down. Well known projects in this space include OpenBazaar and the NXT FreeMarket, but there are several others.

Once decentralized exchanges and markets begin to take off, it will be literally impossible to stop the spread of crypto-anarchy short of a nuclear war or worldwide EMP blast.

As these technologies expand, it will become increasingly obvious to a growing segment of the population that there is no need for governments or traditional nation-states; society can be organized in a more voluntary, peaceful manner. In my opinion, this could lead to a rapid decline in the state as an institution, leaving behind a decentralized, voluntaryist world. As Nozomi Hayase wrote:

Bitcoin is the world’s first stateless currency that transcends borders in a similar way as the Internet. Its unmediated flow delivers more power to the periphery. As a result it could dissolve the hegemony of U.S. empire and end the monarchy of the petrodollar that controls flows of oil, finance and global geopolitics. This could potentially shrink the wealth gap between the Global South and the North. For the first time in history, humanity has the option to really heal the wound of long history of brutal colonization; to end major wars, transform poverty and inequality and move toward a more humane world. Humanity has a chance to embark on a new path, where technology of Western society is used to serve for the wisdom of indigenous cultures and together create a new civilization.


Doesn’t Bitcoin Get Hacked All The Time?

A common concern when dealing with bitcoin is that of security. If I had a Satoshi for every time I’ve heard that “Bitcoin has been hacked!!!1!1!” I would probably have a bit by now (sorry, bitcoin humor).

This is understandable, given the high-profile thefts from places like Mt. Gox and Bitstamp. But what is important is that these are third party services that have been hacked, NOT Bitcoin itself. In fact, in the six years that Bitcoin has existed, it has never been hacked. For anyone who works with software at all, this is ridiculously impressive. With each passing day, it becomes less and less likely that there is some “fatal flaw” in the Bitcoin protocol. By comparison, at least 527 banks have failed since 2008.

And when exchanges and other services become more decentralized, much of the issue of security becomes moot – without a centralized exchange, there is no target for hackers.

That said,, there are potential weaknesses in the Bitcoin protocol. Most are not serious, but one in particular, the 51% attack, deserves mention. If an attacker controls the majority of the network’s computing power, he will gain the ability to potentially double-spend transactions and deny other transactions from being confirmed by the network. While technically possible, this attack is highly unlikely, and does not give the attacker that much power. It would be a bad thing, but it is not an existential threat to Bitcoin.

Another empty critique of note is that, Bitcoin is bad for the environment and unsustainable. On the contrary, emissions from Bitcoin network are a miniscule fraction of current payment systems.

And finally, there are hundreds of other cryptocurrencies (“altcoins”) that work in different ways or rely on different codebases to Bitcoin. If there does happen to be some kind of “fatal flaw” with Bitcoin, one or many of these altcoins could be used instead.

In a nutshell: cryptocurrency is secure and here to stay.

Securing Your Bitcoin: Best Practices

All Bitcoin users should be conscious of how to keep their own bitcoin secure. If your bitcoin are stolen, I don’t think you’ll feel any better knowing that it was due to your ignorance rather than the Bitcoin protocol itself.

The bitcoin you own is stored in what is called a wallet, and is defined by a secret number called the private key. Whoever controls this key controls your bitcoin. The aim of securing your bitcoin is to make it as difficult as possible for a malicious actor to access to this private key.

There are different wallets you can have, each with unique security ramifications. In a moment, I will recommend an online wallet, but the bulk of your bitcoin should be stored offline. Numerous exchanges have been hacked, so leaving your bitcoin there is risky. Online wallets are convenient, but leave the control of your private key in a third party’s hands – that means a hacker, malicious employee, or government subpoena could get access to it. If you use an online wallet, make sure you use a strong password (ideally 20+ randomly generated characters) and 2-factor authentication.

For privacy and security, you’ll also want a local wallet on your phone or computer. If they are stolen, your house burns down, or your hard drive crashes, you’ll want to have backups of your local wallets. Have extra backups on USB keys, CDs, or hard drives. You should encrypt your wallet with a strong passphrase, and keep all your software up to date.

Here are a few more ways to keep your bitcoin secure:

  • Keep your coins in cold storage. You can keep your “savings account” that you don’t plan to use offline, away from the malware and hackers of the Internet. See guides on how to do this here and here.
  • Hardware wallets will cost you some money ($30-$200), but they turn your wallets into bitcoin fortresses. Malware can’t be installed on them, and some have their own keypads for you to enter your passphrases in case there are keyloggers or screen reading malware on your computer.
  • A “brainwallet” essentially lets you secure your bitcoin in your mind. You have to memorize a (strong!) passphrase, and this passphrase can generate your public and private keys via strong cryptographic protocols. Use a method such as Diceware to create your passphrase – DO NOT come up with it yourself. Seriously, I can’t emphasize this enough: if you create your passphrase yourself, it will be terrible, and your bitcoin WILL be stolen. If you set up your brainwallet properly, the only attack vector that could succeed is if someone put a gun to your head and forced you to reveal the passphrase. To counter this, create a decoy brainwallet with a smaller bitcoin balance that you are willing to give up in this situation. Instructions on how to create a brainwallet are here. This method is only recommended for advanced users.
  • A paper wallet stores bitcoin offline as a physical document, safe from hackers. It’s like a brainwallet, but instead of protecting a passphrase, you protect a document. Here are instructions on how to create a secure a paper wallet, and this page contains more paper wallet security tips and offers a way to do so.
  • Multi-signature transactions are a more “advanced” security feature. These can require more than one person to sign off on a transaction before it begins. For instance, you could specify that both the husband and wife must sign off on the transaction, but neither party can disburse funds individually. A little more technical info on multi-signature can be found in this article.


Bitcoin and Anonymity

Bitcoin is NOT anonymous. It is pseudonymous – the activity of a particular Bitcoin address can be tracked precisely on the blockchain, but finding the real identity corresponding to that address is complex but can be done fairly easily if you know how.

For general identity protection, I strongly suggest you use a different bitcoin address for every transaction (your wallet should let you do this). In addition, it’s a good idea to use different wallets for different purposes. You can have a more anonymous wallet to hide from your soon-to-be-ex-wife’s divorce lawyer, and then a less anonymous one for everyday transactions.

If you want to anonymize some bitcoin, you can use a service called a “mixer” which will hold deposits from you and others, and then send you different coins than the ones you put in. It’s basically cryptographic money laundering. Even better, by avoiding exchanges and using certain other services, you can acquire bitcoin anonymously in the first place, usually for a premium. If you really want to remain anonymous while using bitcoin, read through this guide.


Getting Started With Bitcoin

There are so many ways to get started with Bitcoin, and I think this leads to “analysis paralysis” for potential new bitcoiners. There are dozens of different wallets out there with different features, and numerous exchanges off of which you can buy bitcoin.

It is worth your time to educate yourself on these matters. My recommendation is to get started using the easiest method possible, and then begin incorporating other wallets, exchanges, and even other cryptocurrencies into your portfolio. The quickest way to get bitcoin securely is via a web wallet, such as Coinbase.

(Disclaimer: I am a former Coinbase employee.)

You should think of your Coinbase account as your “on ramp” to the Bitcoin universe. You can use them both as a wallet (send, receive, and store bitcoin) as well as an exchange (buy and sell bitcoin). Here’s how:

  1. To get started, go here. As of the date of publication of this post, Coinbase is running a referral program such that if you sign up for an account from the link I provided and then convert $100 into bitcoin, we each receive a $10 bonus in bitcoin.
  2. You will need to verify an email address, a phone number, and link a bank account before you can buy or sell bitcoin. If you have difficulty verifying your bank account, check out this guide.
  3. Once your bank account is verified, you’ll be able to place your first purchase at this page. It normally takes 4 business days for the buy order to complete, but you can verify a credit card to enable instant purchases.

If you have any troubles with this process, check the support page to see if your question has been answered.

It really is that simple to get started. At this point, you should start exploring the more “advanced” things you can do. For instance, if you are particularly security conscious, Coinbase offers a multisig vault so that you don’t need to trust anyone else to control your bitcoin. If Coinbase is ever offline or goes out of business, you can use this open-source tool to recover your bitcoin from the multisig vault. In addition, ALL users should have 2-factor authentication enabled to secure their account further.

I’ve focused on Coinbase, but there are plenty of other wallet providers and exchange services. You should learn about these alternatives as well, and ultimately split your bitcoin balance up into multiple wallets. I suggest reading this guide for more basic information on getting started with Bitcoin, and bitcoin.org has many trusted resources.

Not sure what to do with your new bitcoin? Go create an account with Purse, and then get 20% discounts on anything you buy off of Amazon when you use bitcoin. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars this way.


Where Can You Learn More?

The world of Bitcoin is massive and growing. Although this post was long, it was only just an introduction.

If this article has intrigued you, I recommend you do some research on your own. Besides the mountains of information on the Internet, there are a few books I would recommend for learning more:

Given the likelihood of Bitcoin radically changing the world as we know it, you would be doing yourself a favor by educating yourself about it and by getting involved.

How Anarchy Works: Security Without The State

Anarcho-capitalist flag

“It is all the more curious, incidentally, that while laissez-faireists should by the logic of their position, be ardent believers in a single, unified world government, so that no one will live in a state of “anarchy” in relation to anyone else, they almost never are. And once one concedes that a single world government is not necessary, then where does one logically stop at the permissibility of separate states? If Canada and the United States can be separate nations without being denounced as being in a state of impermissible “anarchy,” why may not the South secede from the United States? New York State from the Union? New York City from the state? Why may not Manhattan secede? Each neighborhood? Each block? Each house? Each person? But, of course, if each person may secede from government, we have virtually arrived at the purely free society, where defense is supplied along with all other services by the free market and where the invasive State has ceased to exist.” – Murray Rothbard, Power and Market

Whenever someone is exposed to the ideas of market anarchy, their first thought is “but what about the roads?” Soon after this, more interesting questions arise, mostly relating to security issues. How would the law work? How would an anarchist society repel armed invaders? Who stops the bad guys? What’s to stop a powerful gang from looting everyone else (as though that isn’t precisely the situation we have with governments)? And so on.

Unfortunately, there is no way to answer these questions in a way that would completely satisfy the skeptic. Society is composed of humans, which implies a degree of uncertainty. This is unavoidable, whether we are discussing how anarchy works or how democratic government works. People feel comfortable with the system they know, so to most people, government “works.” But many innocent people go to jail (or are executed), many crimes go unpunished, and for every “winner” of a war, there is at least one loser. If you are a skeptic, I understand – nearly all of us crazy anarchists were once statists too.

This post is intended to be a comprehensive resource (for libertarians and skeptics alike) on some of the basic questions of how security might work in an anarchist society. The key word here is “might”; anarchist (and quasi-anarchist) societies have existed, and they have handled security issues in different ways. As such, nothing here is guaranteed.

But guarantees aren’t the point. Rather, I want the reader to come away with the understanding that security issues can be handled adequately under anarchy. Furthermore, it is highly likely that security would be considerably better under anarchy than under any statist conditions.


Human Nature – Are Anarchists Too Optimistic?

A common complaint levied against anarchists is that we must believe that humans are inherently good; how else would we trust everyone to behave under anarchy? I can understand the appeal of this objection on the surface. The state is the primary institution that supposedly fights crime, so without the state, criminals will run rampant and take advantage of those with a heightened sense of morality.

But upon closer examination, this objection doesn’t hold up. First of all, the state is not the only institution that aims to prevent crime or immorality. Consider, for instance, private security companies. There are neighborhood watch groups. There are companies that sell home defense systems. There are guns, locks, and guard dogs. In other words, there are already plenty of market mechanisms in place to prevent bad behavior. I will go into much more detail later on, but for now, the point is that the state is not the only thing that gets in the way of bad people doing nefarious things.

On a more theoretical level, the objection breaks down even further. Let me quote Stefan Molyneaux:

“The first and most obvious problem with this position is that if evil people exist in society, they will also exist within the State and be far more dangerous thereby. Citizens are able to protect themselves against evil individuals, but stand no chance against an aggressive State armed to the teeth with police and military might. Thus the argument that we need the State because evil people exist is false. If evil people exist, the State must be dismantled, since evil people will be drawn to use its power for their own ends and, unlike private thugs, evil people in government have the police and military to inflict their whims on a helpless (and usually disarmed!) population.”

In other words, the existence of immoral individuals provides a stronger argument against the state than against anarchy. One could make the argument that a state can provide checks and balances to prevent these kinds of abuses of power, but taking a quick look around at the world (and perhaps reading the next section) should make it obvious that this is no solution at all.

A more rational system can evolve to handle the evildoers without any change in human nature.


How Do States Fare In Defense/Justice?

Status quo bias causes people to support the current system. But it doesn’t take much analysis to conclude that the current system is horribly broken.

States And “National Defense”

People often wonder how a stateless society could defend itself. But realistically, how effective are states at protecting their citizens from foreign governments? To anyone who is honest about the facts, the answer is “not very.”

Any system of collective defense can only be considered good or successful if it is used primarily defensively (not for aggressive purposes or invasions), is applied consistently and effectively, and is done for a reasonable cost. State-based national defense fails on each of these grounds.

States have a natural tendency towards aggressive war, certainly as compared to organizations that exist under anarchy. States acquire their funding via taxation (aka theft), so those who make the decisions regarding war and peace are NOT the same people who are paying for it. In economic terms, the costs of aggression have been externalized – which implies a strong tendency towards aggressive war. Companies operating under freed markets do not have this issue – if a private company wants to invade another country, they need to pay the costs of this themselves (note that this is true with freed markets, but not the current “crony-capitalist” system we live under today). In addition, wars tend to help politicians accumulate power and silence critics, providing a built-in incentive to create enemies.

Some Americans may respond that their government isn’t aggressive. Given the propaganda we are constantly subject to, it is understandable that some people might think this. Allow me to quote myself from a recent article about the evils of war:

“In fact, most Americans are likely unaware of how militarily aggressive their government truly is. Since America’s founding, there have been hundreds of instances of military use in foreign lands. There are only a handful of years throughout American history where America has not been at war abroad.

In addition, William Blum counts at least 55 instances since World War 2 where the United States has attempted to overthrow a foreign government (often a democratically elected one), many times successfully.”

This aggressive foreign policy is also inconsistent. Why else would the US government be vociferously backing neo-Nazis in Ukraine? Or arming al-Qaeda terrorists in Syria, Libya, and across the globe? States can do these things, but the incentives to behave in such ridiculous ways simply does not exist under anarchy.

And this destructive behavior doesn’t come cheaply, either. The Pentagon has spent $8.5 trillion since 1996, but nobody has a clue what this money has been spent on. They’ve illegally avoided an audit for that entire time, at least in part because they’ve been cooking the books and due to repeated boondoggles:

“In one example, the DLA had stockpiled 15,000 Humvee front suspensions as of 2008, which is the equivalent of a 14-year supply. Yet somehow between 2010-2012, defying both logic and prudence entirely, the agency purchased 7,437 more of those same parts—at significantly higher cost than those already gathering dust on warehouse shelves—at a time when demand had been cut in half.

As of September 2012, the DLA and military had already ordered $733 million in duplicates of existing supernumerary supplies, which was a 21% increase from the $609 million it spent on the same asinine duplication the previous year. All this stuff makes a comprehensive inventory impossible, and a worker in the DLA’s largest warehouse explained there is no system for verifying that items are stored correctly or even to track or estimate how much is lost to employee theft.”

The Department of Defense’s budget in 2014 was $581 billion, more than the next ten military spenders combined, and a full one-third of the amount spent on defense worldwide. And many war hawks claim that “budget cuts” are gutting the military, which is simply absurd.

The reality is that in a state-based system of “defense,” the citizens will always lose. The only things being defended under the current monopoly-defense system are politicians lustful for power and the war profiteers.

States And “Justice”

It would be a cruel joke to claim that the justice system in America “works.”

Unfortunately, it would be impossible for me to document here all the ways in which justice is sorely lacking under our current system, so I will have to be satisfied with merely painting a brief picture of the issues. To anyone who has been paying any attention at all, this section should be unnecessary. Nevertheless, many of the same people who point out the flaws of our current justice system object to anarchy because they think justice will be distributed “unfairly.”

Naturally, any decent and functioning justice system should catch as many bad guys as possible, while leaving the innocent spared. But in America, 86% of those in the Federal prison population are incarcerated for victimless crimes. These millions of individuals are victims themselves, not criminals, and so the justice system is clearly a failure so long as victimless crimes are being prosecuted. Here are some more statistics from that article (emphasis in original):

“In 2008, according to the Department of Justice, there were 7,308,200 persons in the US corrections system, of whom 4,270,917 were on probation, 828,169 were on parole, 785,556 were in jails, and 1,518,559 were in state and federal prisons.  This means that the U.S. alone is responsible for holding roughly 15% of all the prisoners in the world.

In other words, 1 in 42 Americans is under correctional supervision.  This constitutes over 2% of the entire U.S. population.  That percentage jumps up drastically if we limit the comparison to working aged adult males, of which there are around 100 million.  Over 5% of the adult male population is under some form of correctional supervision, alternatively stated, 1 in 20 adult males are under correctional supervision in the U.S.”

No reasonable person can believe that a full 5% of the adult male population of the US are violent criminals or deserve to be under correctional supervision.

But even ignoring victimless crimes (and the actual violent crimes that the government commits by prosecuting them), there are many innocent people currently locked up. According to the Innocence Project, between 2.3% and 5% of the prison population is innocent (or up to 100,000 individuals). Many of these people are executed, and many more will be. And according to some of the boobs in the Supreme Court, innocence is not a sufficient precondition for being exonerated!

This should be terrifying to everyone, particularly in light of the many ways that the justice system is stacked against the defendant. For instance, the FBI recently was forced to admit that all their forensic experts falsified hair evidence in every trial for over 20 years for the benefit of prosecutors. This led to 32 individuals being sentenced to death, 14 of whom have already been executed. In fact, many state crime labs are incentivized to produce results that would lead to a guilty verdict – an absolute perversion of justice. There are many reasons why the justice system is heavily stacked in favor of prosecutors, and malicious prosecutors are almost never held accountable (prosecutors win 95% of cases, 90% of those without ever going to trial).

And what about the police? Turns out they like to abuse their power too, from faking 911 calls in order to conduct illegal warrantless searches on homes to disappearing individuals and then torturing them into making false confessions at illegal black sites. The law has provided these same police with “qualified immunity” – in effect, a license to kill. And they’ve taken advantage of it, slaughtering literally thousands of individuals without consequence; only 54 police officers have been charged since 2005, most of whom were cleared or acquitted.

And police aren’t even required to help civilians, a fact they take full advantage of. For instance, Seattle police have been allowing car break-ins to occur, even when a citizen found the culprit himself. And as we saw in Ferguson, Baltimore, and surely soon to be more locations, the police aggressively work against peaceful protesters while letting violent rioters go unmolested as they destroy innocent peoples’ property. Hell, police dogs have a higher status than civilians in America.

So, how much has this top-notch protection been costing Americans? That depends on whether you count civil asset forfeiture, the practice by which cops and prosecutors can legally seize a person’s assets without even being charged with a crime. Apparently, your cash and your car are guilty of dealing drugs, even when you aren’t. According to the Institute for Justice, these state-sanctioned armed robberies are costing Americans hundreds of millions of dollars per year, and 80 percent of those who are victimized aren’t even charged with a crime. Some of this money is going towards paying off police officers’ student loans, and buying others drugs and prostitutes. And naturally, this creates a strong incentive for police departments to go after innocent drug users rather than legitimate criminals.

But what if you don’t count these highway robberies, but only the normal costs of policing and “justice”? The states and the Federal government spent $80 billion on incarceration in 2010, and it costs $30,000 per year to house an inmate. As a point of comparison, the median household income in 2013 was just $52,250.

If we are comparing the existing system to a possible anarchist system, the bar is being set quite low. As skeptical as you may be about justice under anarchy, it really doesn’t need to do much to improve upon the current system.


Transitioning To A Stateless Society

When it comes to discussions regarding how security will be provided in a stateless society, a highly relevant but often overlooked factor is how exactly anarchy comes about. This has serious implications for the feasibility of the new system.

Most of those who are not anarchists are stuck in a mental framework of living in a world dominated by states, and this makes stateless security seem far-fetched. As with most of the other reasons why people are skeptical of anarchy, this is completely understandable.

But if anarchy is to come about, an ideological and cultural change will most likely be necessary. While there may be some that I’m unfamiliar with, I know of no anarchist who would claim otherwise. A critical mass of anarchists would need to exist – in this writer’s opinion, that would be somewhere between 1% and 5% of the population of a given area. And a large segment of the population will need to stop looking to the state to solve all their problems, even if they are not anarchists per se.

When a statist imagines an anarchic system, they are usually imagining what would happen if, right now, the state simply evaporated. Of course, this is nonsensical. People are still clamoring for political rulers, so if a particular government collapsed, the state as an institution would continue to exist. If anarchy is to occur, it is likely to be a more gradual development, developing over months or years as opposed to days. Technological advances will continue to make the state more and more obviously superfluous, so that ultimately it will just wither away. Institutions will arise parallel to the state, not just after the state ends.

I will not argue here for why I am optimistic that anarchy will ultimately win out. But our discussion of how anarchy could work is not predicated on any kind of optimism. One can think that the likelihood of anarchy ultimately winning out in human society is highly improbable yet still understand that if it did arise, it would work. This is crucial – no matter how implausible you may think it is that anarchy will actually become the way of the world, it has no bearing on any of the arguments presented in this article.

Ideology and culture are important factors in the ultimate success of a stateless society. And anarchists realize that for statelessness to be successful, anarchist ideals will need to become more prevalent. Statists will reason that if anarchy were truly a superior system, then it would already exist (in a certain sense, it already does exist, in that there is still political anarchy, but I digress). But this ignores the role of ideology – and the numerous historical cases of anarchy or quasi-anarchy that have existed, which will be discussed later.

The Will To Be Free

How exactly does ideology fit into the picture? The most obvious way is that anarchists will refuse to support individuals that comprise potential ruling classes that desire to form a new state. In other words, there will be far more individuals who are not clamoring to invite a new ruling class into power and surrender their rights. States can never maintain their power through brute force alone; to a large extent, the subjects themselves will need to accept the state’s legitimacy for it to be able to rule.

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel summarizes well the argument I’ve provided thus far:

“The territory constituting the United States is in a very real sense already conquered—by the United States government. Only when Americans have liberated themselves from that conqueror will they have effectively denationalized defense. In other words, the policy question—Can private alternatives provide more effective protection from foreign aggressors?—and the strategic question—Can any people mobilize the ideological muscle to smash the state?—are intimately intertwined.

…although it makes good sense to try to imagine what society would look like if minimum wages were repealed without any other change, it makes far less sense to imagine what society would look like if government were abolished—and especially to ask how such a stateless society might protect itself—without any other change. By the very act of overthrowing the domestic government, whether peacefully or forcibly, the former subjects will have forged powerful tools for protecting themselves from foreign governments. The same social consensus, the same institutions, and the same ideological imperatives that had gained them liberation from their own state would be automatically in place to defend against any other states that tried to fill the vacuum.”

Consider that military conquerors routinely use existing local government structures in order to maintain control of the subject population. These structures are already viewed as legitimate, unlike the far-away conquerors. Hummel writes:

“The effective dominance of would-be conquerors who possess military superiority but face the implacable hostility of an ideologically united population is more problematic. The English hold on Ireland was, owing to this factor, always tenuous, and one can find similar instances into the modern era. Cultural coherence is another advantage that hunter gatherers and primitive agriculturists sometimes possessed in their struggles with more centralized societies. Contrast Spain’s fairly rapid conquest of the Indians of Central and South America, already habituated to indigenous state rule, with the much more drawn out European campaigns against the North American Indians, who were slowly expropriated, expelled, and exterminated over several centuries but never really fully subjugated until the twentieth.”

In other words, a people who have an ideological appreciation for statelessness are going to be far more difficult for an existing state to subdue than is common in more modern warfare (consider how quickly the Nazis took over and subdued multiple European countries).

Hummel mentions another advantage that stateless societies would possess while defending themselves:

“Posing no threat of conquest themselves, they could tap into the sympathies of a foreign ruler’s subjects better than any other opponent such rulers might take on. Would-be conquerors could find their own legitimization seriously compromised. Just as the American Revolution sent forth sparks that helped to ignite revolutionary conflagrations in many other countries, a vibrant economy free from all government would arouse such admiration and emulation that it would surely tend to expand. In short, a future stateless society would have the best prospects of enjoying beneficial ideological dynamics, both internally and externally.”

To sum up, any feasible stateless society would be far more difficult to conquer than what people imagine today.


Anarchy – An Unknown Ideal?

Before diving into the mechanics of how an anarchic society can provide security and legal order, I want to emphasize the fact that anarchistic and quasi-anarchistic societies have in fact existed and thrived. If you think that without government, it would be impossible to settle interpersonal disputes and survive in a world of states, consider the many historical instances to the contrary.

Statelessness seems to have been a feature of many primitive societies, where

“…the costs of violence and the benefits of order in primitive societies were enough to induce the establishment of recognized rules of conduct with emphasis on individual rights and private property-that is, the type of laws necessary for maintenance of a free market system in more complex societies. Furthermore, voluntary participatory mechanisms to enforce those rules, to adjudicate disputes, and…to allow for further legal growth, also developed.”

Furthermore, according to a scholar of primitive societies, E. Adamson Hoebel:

“The community group, although it may be ethnologically a segment of a tribe is autonomous and independent. There is no tribal state. Leadership resides in family or local group headmen who have little coercive authority and are hence lacking both means to exploit and the means to judge…They are not explicitly elected to office; rather, they lead by the tacit consent of their followers, and they lose their leadership when their people begin no longer to accept their suggestions. . . . As it is, their leadership is confined to action in routine matters. The patriarchal tyrant of the primitive horde is nothing but a figment of nineteenth century speculation. The simplest primitive societies are democratic to the point of near-anarchy. But primitive anarchy does not mean disorder. Anarchv as synonymous with disorder occurs only temporarily in complex societies when in a social cataclysm the regulating restraints of government and law are suddenly and disastrously removed.’”

None of the following cases are a perfect description of what I would consider a modern-day anarchy to be. Most are fairly old, and it can be difficult to extrapolate legal insights from societies that existed hundreds of years ago. My intent in this section isn’t to say “look at these successful anarchist societies that we should emulate,” but rather that other societies have dealt with the problems of security without resorting to the state, so it should be plausible that contemporary or future societies can as well.

Anarchy In America

The continent of North America has seen a number of historical instances of anarchic legal institutions, where justice is provided without government.

Many of the Native American tribes in North America relied on a customary legal system rather than law defined by states. Notable examples are the Yurok and Comanche tribes, whose legal systems were described by Bruce Benson:

“Few Indian groups had any sort of strong central legal authority before Europeans began to exert various types of influence on the evolution of Indian law. This does not mean that there was no law, however. Evolving unwritten social contracts among Indian groups had produced well-developed legal systems based on customary rules of conduct which emphasized individual rights and private property. Adjudication procedures were in place to solve disputes without violence. No state-like centralized authority applied sanctions, but sanctions were applied, primarily in the form of economic restitution. These sanctions were enforceable because of reciprocal arrangements between individuals for recognition of law, support of judgments, and community wide ostracism.

These features [of Native American legal systems] are: (1) rules of conduct which emphasized a predominant concern for individual rights and private property; (2) the responsibility of law enforcement falling to the victim backed by reciprocal arrangements for protection and support when a dispute arose; (3) standard adjudicative procedures established in order to avoid violent forms of dispute resolution; (4) offenses treated as torts punishable by economic payments in restitution; (5) strong incentives to yield to prescribed punishment when guilty of an offense due to the reciprocally established threat of social ostracism which led to physical retribution; and (6) legal change arising through an evolutionary process of developing customs and norms.”

The colony of Pennsylvania had a brief stint of anarchy between 1684 and 1688. During this period, there was technically a government; it just never did anything. The governing council didn’t meet and taxes weren’t collected. Murray Rothbard explains:

“If for most of 1684-88 there was no colonywide government in existence, what of the local officials? Were they not around to provide that evidence of the state’s continued existence, which so many people through the ages have deemed vital to man’s very survival? The answer is no. The lower courts met only a few days a year, and the county officials were, again, private citizens who devoted very little time to upholding the law. No, the reality must be faced that the new, but rather large, colony of Pennsylvania lived for the greater part of four years in a de facto condition of individual anarchism, and seemed none the worse for the experience. Furthermore, the Assembly passed no laws after 1686, as it was involved in a continual wrangle over attempts to increase its powers and to amend, rather than just reject, legislation.”

Another example of a legal order arising without a central government is that of the so-called “wild, wild West,” which was nowhere near as chaotic as popular culture makes it out to be. Terry Anderson and PJ Hill studied this period and concluded:

“The West during this time often is perceived as a place of great chaos, with little respect for property or life. Our research indicates that this was not the case; property rights were protected and civil order prevailed. Private agencies provided the necessary basis for an orderly society in which property was protected and conflicts were resolved. These agencies often did not qualify as governments because they did not have a legal monopoly on “keeping order.” They soon discovered that “warfare” was a costly way of resolving disputes and lower cost methods of settlement (arbitration, courts, etc.) resulted.”

Numerous kinds of organizations arose to deal with disputes among individuals. Land clubs allowed property rights to be established in areas that the federal government had yet to survey; cattlemen’s associations enforced property rights in areas with large amounts of cattle but lacking in government police; mining camps helped establish the rules for adjudicating mining claims without lawyers; and wagon trains provided means of enforcement for those who were traveling West and had left the federal government’s jurisdiction.

These associations were all voluntary, allowed a variety of legal systems to flourish in parallel to each other, and resolved disputes in ways that minimized the risk of violence (the West seemed to have far lower homicide rates under these arrangements than when government police were present). Individuals who wanted to leave an existing group and start a new one could do so at will – unlike with governments.

Anarchy In Asia

In Western New Guinea, the Kapauku people maintained a form of legal order without government or a central coercive power. The legal system involved establishing reciprocal relationships with a tonowi, who was a respected person within the community. Bruce Benson describes the arrangement:

“Each individual in the society could choose to contract with any available tonowi (availability generally involved kinship). Typically, followers became debtors to a tonowi in exchange for agreeing to perform certain duties in support of the tonowi. The followers got much more than a loan, however: “The expectation of future favors and advantages is probably the most potent motivation for most of the headman’s followers…. Even individuals from neighboring confederations may yield to the wishes of a tonowi in case his help may be needed in the future.” Thus, tonowi leadership was given, not taken, and reflected to a great extent an ability to “persuade the unit to support a man in a dispute or to fight for his cause.” Thus, this position of leadership was achieved through reciprocal exchange of support between a tonowi and his followers, support that could be freely withdrawn by either party (e.g., upon payment of debt or demand for repayment). The informality and contractual characteristics of Kapauku leadership led many Western observers to conclude that Kapauku society lacked law, but there is clear evidence that law was recognized, and that processes for adjudication and change existed in the Kapauku’s legal system.”

From this basis, a complex legal system allowed the Kapauku to maintain peace with each other, and allowed for changes in the law as needed.

In addition, the people living in the highlands of Southeast Asia (called Zomia) had a stateless society that survived for an extended period of time. Parts of India, Burma, China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia chose to remain out of reach of state control for thousands of years. Today, many in this region have been absorbed into existing states, but there are still many who remain outside of state control (an estimated 80-100 million people live in this region).

The people of Zomia engaged in intentional behaviors to avoid becoming subject to states, as Edward Stringham and Caleb Miles show.

“The Zomia have chosen to live and conduct economic activity in places that have been difficult for states to control or tax. Zomian peoples have organized their agriculture so that their crops cannot easily be confiscated or measured. They have also adopted religions and ideologies that make them resistant to control by external or internally grown states.”

Perhaps we can learn from them!

Anarchy In Europe

Europe has also seen numerous experiments in anarchy.

Let’s take medieval Iceland for starters. Between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, Iceland had a system of private law that is quite interesting. David Friedman explains:

“Killing was a civil offense resulting in a fine paid to the survivors of the victim. Laws were made by a “parliament,” seats in which were a marketable commodity. Enforcement of law was entirely a private affair. And yet these extraordinary institutions survived for over three hundred years, and the society in which they survived appears to have been in many ways an attractive one. Its citizens were, by medieval standards, free; differences in status based on rank or sex were relatively small; and its literary output in relation to its size has been compared, with some justice, to that of Athens.”

The Icelandic system managed to solve some of the common problems that statists instinctively think of when they try to picture what anarchy would look like. For instance:

“One obvious objection to a system of private enforcement is that the poor (or weak) would be defenseless. The Icelandic system dealt with this problem by giving the victim a property right – the right to be reimbursed by the criminal and making that right transferable. The victim could turn over his case to someone else, either gratis or in return for a consideration. A man who did not have sufficient resources to prosecute a case or enforce a verdict could sell it to another who did and who expected to make a profit in both money and reputation by winning the case and collecting the fine. This meant that an attack on even the poorest victim could lead to eventual punishment.”

On the other hand, some complain that those who lose in court would simply refuse to pay up. But that can be addressed as well:

“A man who refused to pay his fines was outlawed and would probably not be supported by as many of his friends as the plaintiff seeking to enforce judgment, since in case of violent conflict his defenders would find themselves legally in the wrong. If the lawbreaker defended himself by force, every injury inflicted on the partisans of the other side would result in another suit, and every refusal to pay another fine would pull more people into the coalition against him.”

In a later section sketching out possible ways anarchist law could work, the insights from the Icelandic system will come in handy.

Another anarchic justice system was that which prevailed in medieval Celtic Ireland for nearly 1000 years. Joseph Peden studied this system and concluded:

“My survey of the literature indicates that (1) private ownership of property played a crucial and essential role in the legal and social’ institutions of ancient Irish society; (2) that the Irish law as developed by the professional jurists – the brehons – outside the institutions of the State, was able to evolve an extremely sophisticated and flexible legal response to changing social and cultural conditions while preserving principles of equity and the protection of property rights; (3) that this flexibility and development can be best seen in the development of the legal capacity and rights of women and in the role of the Church in assimilating to native Irish institutions and law; (4) that the English invasion, conquest and colonization in Ireland resulted in the gradual imposition of English feudal concepts and common law which were incompatible with the principles of Irish law, and resulted in the wholesale destruction of the property rights of the Irish Church and the Irish people.”

The legal status of women was particularly noteworthy; they were centuries ahead of the English in this respect. Women could own property, initiate divorces, and make contracts. Many types of sexual relationships were legally permitted and protected – and in some cases, men were entirely responsible for the support of children.

Other European areas have also experienced anarchy, including the region called Moresnet between Prussia and The Netherlands, which was a disputed territory after the Napoleonic Wars. The people of this small town lived in peace and prosperity, unmolested by nearby states, and with a market for legal recourse, from 1816 until World War 1, when it was absorbed into Belgium.

The final example I will mention here is the tiny Republic of Cospaia, which survived for nearly 400 years as an enclave in central Italy that was free from government. The denizens of Cospaia prospered, largely because there were no taxes. Despite having no government, there is no indication that the people of Cospaia had to contend with violence or a breakdown of society.

Modern Somalia

“Why don’t you move to Somalia?” is one of the most common things I hear when I tell people that I am an anarchist. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about this region, but I have already written an extensive article on what anarchists can learn from Somalia.

I’ll let you read that post if you want all the details, but here’s the short version. Many people are surprised (or refuse to believe) that Somalia has actually seen dramatic improvements since the loss of central government in 1991 in a large number of development indicators, even relative to its neighbors that do have states. This is largely because of the Xeer, the traditional clan-based legal system that has existed in Somalia since the 7th century, and doesn’t involve the state at all:

“The Xeer outlaws homicide, assault, torture, battery, rape, accidental wounding, kidnapping, abduction, robbery, burglary, theft, arson, extortion, fraud, and property damage (Van Notten 2005:49). The legal system focuses on the restitution of victims, not the punishment of criminals. For violations of the law, maximum payments to compensate victims are specified in camels (payment can be made in equivalent monetary value). Typical compensation to the family of a murder victim is 100 camels for a man and 50 for a woman; an animal thief usually must return two animals for every one he stole.”

There’s a lot more to it, of course. For those of you who are interested in exploring the subject of Somalia in more detail, I strongly suggest you read the article linked above.


Security Against Crime: Law In An Anarchist Society

We have already dealt with many of the objections that you may have with regards to the provision of law in a free society, but most people still will have a difficult time visualizing how anarchy would work when dealing with criminals.

Certainly, we anarchists are not utopians, and we acknowledge that there will still be criminals, whether the state exists or not. The question then becomes: how does society deal with them?

I intend to answer that question in this section. As mentioned before, this is just a sketch of ways that criminality can be addressed under anarchy. I’m sure that legal entrepreneurs will come up with far more innovative solutions than I am including here, but I hope to help you recognize that the problems of justice in a free society are solvable.

Polycentric Law – How Does Law Evolve?

Most people think of “the” law as specifically the rules created by the state that they live under, and that law is created because the government says so. The law is legislated, or in other words, the law is “made.”

But we can also think of law as being something that is “found” – and in fact, this is far superior to the reigning paradigm. Law should be thought of as principles to be discovered by judges, not just whatever legislators want. The law is decentralized, since no single body determines all the rules of conduct. Because of this decentralization, multiple types of law can coexist in what we’d call a polycentric legal order.

In a sense, we already live under polycentric law. Consider the competition among governments and their respective legal systems, and the rules of homeowners’ associations, clubs, religions, and employment. Consider the rules you must abide by to live in a residential co-op, to buy or sell goods in a mall, and even the cultural norms that we abide by.

Norms are discovered, and written and unwritten rules are developed as a consequence, because of the natural process of human action. But when the law is monopolized by the state, the natural process of the discovery of law is destroyed. True law is formed in a bottom-up process rather than the top-down way of our current system.

There are quite a few arguments for a more decentralized evolution of law than the centralized method of legislation. Most fundamentally, polycentric law provides far more certainty than a legislative system, although that may seem paradoxical at first. But since the legislature has the ability to change the law from day to day, the system creates uncertainty with regards to what rules will apply tomorrow. Stephan Kinsella explains:

“First, judges can only make decisions when asked to do so by the parties concerned. Second, the judge’s decision is less far-reaching than legislation because it primarily affects the parties to the dispute, and only occasionally affects third parties or others with no connection to the parties involved…Third, a judge’s discretion is further limited by the necessity of referring to similar precedents.”

Legislation can override agreements that have already been voluntarily accepted, which, in the long run, makes it difficult to rely on any existing conventions or to keep the agreements that have already been made. If the rules are likely to change, then it makes it more difficult to trust the rules.

When rules are less trustworthy, the future becomes more unpredictable than it otherwise would be. Future goods, actions, and expectations become less likely to occur due to this unpredictability. The result is that people further shift their preferences away from future goods and more towards present goods. This makes everyone poorer, since it is saving (delaying gratification) that builds wealth. Not only that, it increases the amount of crime.

“As a person becomes more present-oriented, immediate (criminal) gratifications become relatively more attractive, and future, uncertain punishment becomes less of a disincentive. Thus many people on the margin — those who are just deterred from committing crimes by the threat of possible future punishment under normal time-preference conditions in a free society — will not be deterred from committing crimes in a society with legislation and its concomitant increase in time preference. In other words, there are individuals today who are committing violent crimes solely because of the increased uncertainty in society caused by the existence of legislation. Further, when the increased uncertainty tends to impoverish us by shortening the structure of production, more people are poor and impoverished, which also tends to increase the amount of crime in society.”

Legislation also suffers from a knowledge problem, similar to all forms of central planning.

“A crucial reason for the systematic ignorance of central planners and legislators alike is “the decentralized, fragmentary character of knowledge.” This makes central planners and central law-makers systematically unable to ever have enough knowledge to make informed decisions that affect entire economic or legal systems. Moreover, not only is a central planner “unable” to gather information only present in a dynamic price structure, but the attempt to plan actually destroys the price structure because the private property system at the base of a price structure is outlawed. Similarly, not only does a legislator face a severe ignorance problem — he could never hope to have a comprehensive and continually updated view of all the interactions, rules, relationships, and customs that exist among the people — he also subverts the very spontaneous legal order that would form in the absence of legislative interference.”

The end result is law that is simply worse.

“…legislators, even if they wanted to enact rules that truly take into account the actual situation, customs, expectations, and practices of individuals, simply can never collect enough information about the near-infinite variety of human interactions. The legislator, like a communist central planner, can only grope in the dark. And unlike a blind man who literally has to grope in the dark but at least knows when he has finally run into a wall or found the door, the legislator (or central planner) have no reliable guide for knowing whether they have constructed the “right” law (or economic allocation) or not. Further, not only can legislators not know the actual situation of the individuals they intend to cast their legislative net over, but they cannot predict the often far-reaching effects of legislation. Legislation routinely has unintended consequences, a fact that cannot be gotten around since it is necessitated by the systematic ignorance that legislators face.”

Decentralized, polycentric law gets around this problem. Cases can and will be reviewed by peers, and market actors can determine whether they agree or not. It’s a natural form of checks and balances.

It also reduces the impact of special interests on the legislative process. When law is discovered by judges, the scope of a decision is far smaller, and special interests have vastly less to gain from manipulating the process.

This is not to say that there won’t be any mistakes made in rulings by judges under a polycentric legal order. Of course there will. But if all the courts are private and competing, there is at least a real incentive to have the rules improved. Legislators have no such incentive, and don’t really provide a solution to the possibility of judges making mistakes.

“Another problem with urging legislation as a solution to common law gone astray, is that this assumes that the legislature can be convinced to make the correct legal reform. First, this is a very dubious assumption, especially given the special interest lobbying that legislators face, and also given the fact that legislators tend to be people who are interested in power rather than philosopher-kings who want to do the right thing. Second, if a proponent of legislation assumes that reasonable and humane legislators can see the light of reason and correctly reform the law, why is it not at least as likely that judges can be persuaded as well?”

Clearly, polycentric law is far superior to what governments have to offer.

Okay, But What Would Law Actually Look Like Under Anarchy?

Hopefully I’ve convinced you of the merits of polycentric law, but it can still be difficult to picture how this would play out in real life. By its very nature, I couldn’t tell you how it would look with certainty, but I can at least sketch out some possibilities.

Needless to say, there will need to be some kind of organization tasked with resolving disputes. A natural candidate for this kind of organization would be an insurance company – in this case, you are insuring yourself and your property from crime.

Not everything can be insured; if you have partial or total control over that risk, then insurance is not a viable business model. For instance, I cannot insure myself against committing suicide, or not wanting to get up in the morning. As such, insurance companies would only insure you against unprovoked crime, and would therefore regulate certain behaviors that would provoke others in order to contract with them. This implies that known aggressors would be unable to procure insurance, and those who wanted more insurance would need to conform to certain non-aggressive norms (for instance, the policy would stipulate that you cannot steal from others). They would likely also subsidize any means of increasing their clients’ security, either by lowering premiums or just supplying them outright. For instance, insurers may want to subsidize alarm systems, more advanced locks or access systems, fences, guard dogs, armored vehicles, mace, rape whistles, self-defense training and education, and handguns. Perhaps they would aid in the creation of neighborhood watch groups. It is in the insurers’ interest to make clients as secure as possible in order to reduce the number of claims they will need to pay out.

You can also think about crime insurers under anarchy as “cosigners” for one’s agreements. In other words, they act as a guarantor of their clientele’s contracts, with the premium charged being a reflection of the risk that a particular client may get into costly disputes with others.

Because different insurance companies would be competing, different sets of norms would be available. In other words, people would get to choose the type of rules they submit themselves to. There could be all kinds of firms with different types of laws: religious laws, hippy laws, or bro codes. This should drastically reduce conflict in and of itself, since people aren’t forced to live under rules that were imposed upon them, and they are fully aware of the rules at the outset. Compare this with government law, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe wittily does (emphasis mine):

“The state, as ultimate decision-maker and judge, operates in a contract-less legal vacuum. There exists no contract between the state and its citizens. It is not contractually fixed, what is actually owned by whom, and what, accordingly, is to be protected. It is not fixed, what service the state is to provide, what is to happen if the state fails in its duty, nor what the price is that the “customer” of such “service” must pay. Rather, the state unilaterally fixes the rules of the game and can change them, per legislation, during the game. Obviously, such behavior is inconceivable for freely financed security providers. Just imagine a security provider, whether police, insurer or arbitrator, whose offer consisted in something like this: I will not contractually guarantee you anything. I will not tell you what specific things I will regard as your to-be-protected property, nor will I tell you what I oblige myself to do if, according to your opinion, I do not fulfill my service to you but in any case, I reserve the right to unilaterally determine the price that you must pay me for such undefined service. Any such security provider would immediately disappear from the market due to a complete lack of customers.”

Things get only slightly more complicated when you consider conflicts that occur between people living under different legal codes. Insurance companies will establish certain procedures for how they handle this kind of situation, quite likely involving arbitration from a third party. These procedures will tend toward standardization, since it makes it so that insurers can interact with each other as efficiently as possible, just as different banks, credit cards, and merchants have standardized themselves to become highly interoperable. And of course, these procedures would be specified in advance in any insurance policy.

Arbiters would be chosen largely based on their reputation for fairness. The whole point of arbitration is to find a peaceful resolution to interpersonal disputes, and this requires a point of agreement regarding the procedure for resolving the conflict. For each party to the dispute, proposing an arbiter biased in their favor does nothing to reach this point of agreement; if they weren’t interested in a peaceful resolution, they could simply fight, rather than try hiring a biased or corrupt arbiter. In other words, both parties have an interest in using an arbiter that is generally seen by society as fair and impartial.

This perception of fairness is the most important asset of any arbitration agency – if they develop a reputation as unfair or corrupt, they will quickly lose business. Nevertheless, it’s certainly plausible that one or more parties in a dispute will find the judge’s verdict unfair. But the arbiter can at least aim to render a verdict (and explain their reasoning) in a way that seems fair to as many third parties as possible. This is imperfect, for sure, but compare it to law under government, where even highly corrupt/unfair/inefficient judges are shielded from market competition.

If you are a party to a dispute and refuse arbitration, your protection agency, as well as most others, will likely perceive this as evidence that you are in the wrong. Those who refuse, therefore, are unlikely to continue receiving protection. Similarly, if you accept arbitration but then refuse to abide by the ruling, you will be left to fend for yourself. You may be added to blacklists or have your “crime score” (analogous to a credit score) raised, and people will refuse to do business with you, or at least charge a high premium for it.

Catching And Punishing Criminals

This is all well and good for contract disputes and other instances where both the plaintiff and the defendant are known ahead of time. But what about instances of crime where the criminal has escaped? Someone will need to investigate the crime and catch the bad guy, but without government police, who will be responsible?

The insurer/protection agencies can fulfill this function as well. Perhaps the insurer has their own detective division, or perhaps they contract out with a private police agency to conduct the forensic work necessary – the exact setup will of course depend on how entrepreneurs and consumers act. On the subject of policing in a stateless society, Edward Stringham writes:

“There are many cases of private law enforcement, one of the most common can be seen at institutions of higher learning. Although private security officers and dean’s offices differ greatly from their bureaucratic counterparts, they nevertheless perform the job supposedly only government police and courts are capable. Many other entities also produce a safe atmosphere in a similar manner: shopping malls, amusement parks, resorts, and private housing developments are cases in point. Just because they are not as ostentatious as the state does not mean that they are not providing protection. These institutions show that not only is the notion of private security possible, but that it is widespread.”

(Look how elegantly the market can solve the “market failure” of so-called “public goods.” Take the example of homeowners’ associations (HOA), which I predict would be common under anarchy. They are quite capable of providing security without the need for a government; in fact, they have several significant advantages. For one thing, HOAs are non-coercive institutions where all of the members have agreed to abide by their terms, in distinct contrast to government. Members of an HOA are almost certain to have more influence over its policies than they would over their government’s policies, particularly due to their smaller size and the shared community. Finally, competition between HOAs is far more significant than that of governments, even local ones.)

Let’s say someone robs you of $10,000. Your crime insurance policy stipulates that in the case of theft, you will be reimbursed for, say, 1.25 times the value of what was stolen (a little something extra for mental anguish, perhaps). You, the victim, are immediately reimbursed and made whole again, and in exchange, your insurer now has the rights to pursue the criminal and recover damages from them. Today, victims of crime don’t get their money back or any kind of compensation.

If the insurer catches the alleged criminal, then there can be a trial to determine whether they are guilty. If the arbitrator finds them guilty, what happens then?

Most likely, the guilty party will be required to pay the protection agency a fine, which could be based off the insurance payout, plus the cost of pursuing and apprehending the criminal. (As an aside, this would create an incentive for criminals to immediately turn themselves in, since the cost of apprehending them, and thus the cost of being found guilty, will increase otherwise.) In other words, the criminal would owe the insurer $X.

As mentioned in the previous section, the guilty party has very strong incentives to accept the terms of the arbiter peacefully. To not do so would result in social ostracism that is likely at least as damaging as the fine. An obvious issue at this point is: what if the criminal can’t pay up?

An institution analogous to a prison can fulfill this role under anarchy. I describe in detail how private prisons could work under anarchy as well as major issues with our current prison system here, but I’ll let Robert Murphy explain:

“But where would these ne’er-do-wells be taken, once they were brought into “custody”? Specialized firms would develop, offering high-security analogs to the current jailhouse. However, the “jails” in market anarchy would compete with each other to attract criminals.

Consider: No insurance company would vouch for a serial killer if he applied for a job at the local library, but they would deal with him if he agreed to live in a secure building under close scrutiny. The insurance company would make sure that the “jail” that held him was well-run. After all, if the person escaped and killed again, the insurance company would be held liable, since it pledges to make good on any damages its clients commit.

On the other hand, there would be no undue cruelty for the prisoners in such a system. Although they would have no chance of escape (unlike government prisons), they wouldn’t be beaten by sadistic guards. If they were, they’d simply switch to a different jail, just as travelers can switch hotels if they view the staff as discourteous. Again, the insurance company (which vouches for a violent person) doesn’t care which jail its client chooses, so long as its inspectors have determined that the jail will not let its client escape into the general population.”

This is worlds apart from our current system, where victims have the double-whammy of paying for the incarceration of criminals via taxation in addition to the loss from the crime itself. These “prisons” would still keep dangerous people “off the streets,” but unlike our current system, would actually have a shot at rehabilitating criminals by having them take responsibility for their actions. And the conditions would be vastly superior to the incredible abuse that you see in prisons today.

Some Common Objections And Responses

The above was just a rough sketch of how an anarchist society could provide law and order. But if you are reading this and not an anarchist, chances are you have some questions or issues regarding how this system would work. In this section, I’d like to address some of the most common ones. If you can think of one that isn’t included here, please leave a comment.

Won’t protection agencies go to war with each other?

By far the most common practical objection to anarchy is that there would be chaos, as marauding protection agencies battled it out with each other. The argument goes something like this: I am insured by protection agency A, and you are insured by protection agency B. We get into a dispute, and then our protection agencies go to war with each other. Multiply this by all of the disputes at any given time, and you have absolute chaos. A Hobbesian jungle.

Upon closer reflection, this objection has no legs. First of all, even if the above account were true, it is significant that populations living under states fall into civil war constantly. To use this as a justification for government, one would need to show that this kind of civil strife would be more common under anarchy than it is with states – no easy task.

After all, there are good reasons why we wouldn’t expect chaos and civil war between protection agencies. Most importantly, these protection agencies would own their own assets, whereas decision-makers in government do not. If two agencies were to go to war, both would suffer severe costs in money and manpower. Even the “winner” would lose quite a bit, and both would lose market share to any other protection agencies that are operating nearby. This is true regardless of the relative size and strength of the protection agencies. Robert Murphy elucidates this principle by asking a question about the American Civil War:

“In the 1860s, would large scale combat have broken out on anywhere near the same scale if, instead of the two factions controlling hundreds of thousands of conscripts, all military commanders had to hire voluntary mercenaries and pay them a market wage for their services?”

To ask the question is to answer it. When people are responsible for paying the cost of their actions, highly destructive behavior such as war becomes far less likely.

But there’s another reason why war breaking out between protection agencies is unlikely. The employees of security agencies can make their own decisions, and I suspect there are very few who would be willing to risk their lives in order to (potentially) increase their bosses’ profits. Most people are strongly opposed to and disgusted by the idea of murdering other members of society, and would agree that they want to settle their disputes peacefully and without resorting to violence. Were this not so, the point would be moot, as governments are hardly a solution to the problem of people wanting to murder each other.

Since people generally do not want to resort to violence,

“…why would we expect such virtuous people, as consumers, to patronize defense agencies that routinely used force against weak opponents?  Why wouldn’t the vast bulk of reasonable customers patronize defense agencies that had interlocking arbitration agreements, and submitted their legitimate disputes to reputable, disinterested arbitrators?”

Finally, if there were rogue protection agencies that decided to go to war, it would be in nearly everyone’s best interest to stop them. Banks could start freezing their assets. Utility companies could shut off their water and electricity. There would be market mechanisms to prevent the rogue agency from warring.

So long as arbitration is viewed as a cheaper way to resolve disputes than violence (and this will be true under almost all conditions), war between rival protection agencies is highly unlikely.

Wouldn’t these insurance agencies become states? Wouldn’t they collude and form a cartel?

Many people will read the above description of justice in a stateless society and dismiss it, claiming that the insurance or protection agencies would just be states. Often, this comes from the fallacious association people have in their minds between government and criminal justice – whatever organization that is mediating disputes is the government, in this view.

And if you would like to call it a government, or “competing governments,” or whatever you want, that’s fine. The semantics don’t really matter. That being said, there is one fundamental difference between government and the system described above: the role of coercion.

The key feature of states is that they have a monopoly on “legitimate” coercive authority within a given territory. In contrast, individuals can withdraw their support for their protection agency (which they voluntarily chose in the first place) and take their business elsewhere.

But what if an individual’s protection agency decided that they wanted to subjugate their current, paying clients? This is the kind of problem that would be very easy to anticipate, so individuals shopping around for crime insurance will only become clients if their contract has a stipulation regarding how disputes between the insurer and the insured are resolved that is favorable to them. Perhaps a particular arbiter is specified at the outset, or perhaps the arbiter will be of the client’s choosing. If the protection agency doesn’t heed this procedure, then they – just like the criminals discussed above – would become pariahs, and lose all their business and all their power.

Of course, this assumes that the protection agencies don’t form a cartel, backed by coercive violence, and thus bring the state in through the back door. But protection agencies forming a cartel is unlikely for the same reasons that they are unlikely to go to war against each other. Presumably, the reason to join a cartel is economic self-interest, so it is logically inconsistent to suggest that an agency will join a cartel but then engage in self-destructive behavior. The cartelized agencies are essentially in a prisoner’s dilemma with each other; the payoff to a given agency of reneging on an agreement to punish “outsider” agencies is higher than going along with it.

How would the poor get access to the legal system? What about the uninsured?

This problem should be negligible, since those who have less property also have less to insure, and thus would have lower premiums. And in the most extreme of edge cases, surely charity and pro bono work could help. It’s easy to envision arbiters doing some pro bono work for the poor in order to improve their reputation, which will help them get more paying clients. Contrast this with our governmental system, where legal fees price even middle-class people out of legal representation.

In any system, government or not, there will be a small segment that slips between the cracks, and doesn’t receive justice. Unfortunately, the only solution to this is for criminals to agree to stop committing crimes, and everyone else agreeing to stop getting into disputes.

A related objection is that some people don’t believe that justice is something people should need to pay for. But whether there is a government or not, justice has a cost, and it must be paid. I will dismiss this with a clever quote from Michael Huemer:

“If we decide that it is wrong to charge money for a vital service such as rights protection, whereas one can charge whatever one likes for inessential goods such as Twinkies and cell phones, then we will build a society with plenty of Twinkies, cell phones, and rights violations.”

Does this let people get whatever weapons they want, like nukes and assault weapons?

Some people think that we need government so that there aren’t random people building nuclear weapons in their basements. How would anarchy deal with things like weapons proliferation and gun control? A stateless society could handle this issue peacefully, and in a way that ought to satisfy both those in favor of gun rights and those who lean toward gun control.

Consider weapons from the standpoint of a crime insurance agency, which will need to pay a large sum to the estate of anyone whom their clients kill. One of the first things you’d want to know is what kind of heat they are packing, right?

Different insurers will handle the situation differently, and I’m sure a variety of policies will be available. But my bet is that someone who keeps assault rifles and sawed off shotguns in their house is more likely to hurt others, so insurance companies will either charge a significantly higher premium, or refuse to insure them entirely. Similarly, I think you’d be hard pressed to find an insurer who is willing to underwrite a policy for someone who is tinkering with biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons.

This presents a beautiful solution to the gun control problem. Actuaries could determine the relative risk of people carrying certain types of weapons, and a rational, market-based approach would result. I cannot predict what the end result of this would be, but here’s my guess: most insurers would probably reduce a client’s premium if they own a handgun and verify that they have taken a gun safety course, since this will allow the client to defend themselves and reduce claims. Other weapons are likely to increase premiums, perhaps drastically. For those individuals who really want to own an assault rifle, no coercive force will be used to stop them – but the full force of society’s values will be used to discourage it.

What happens when the arbiters make incorrect judgments?

In any given case, there are two main ways that judges could make errors: letting a criminal go free, or proclaiming an innocent person guilty. Unfortunately, no one has yet devised a social system that can prevent these kinds of issues from occurring, but anarchy can help mitigate the effects of these errors.

Let’s say that an obvious murderer has been judged innocent. Today, it is completely feasible that someone widely viewed as guilty can be acquitted (think OJ Simpson). When this happens, the murderer gets away with it – no further punishment is meted out. Under anarchy, however, you can be quite sure that the murderer’s insurer will hike up their premiums for continued service, or refuse to do business with them entirely. Remember: the insurer is concerned about the likelihood that their client will be convicted of a crime in the future (and then need to pay damages), and someone who is generally recognized as a murderer would be considered a liability.

What about the wrongfully convicted? For starters, it defies imagination that a stateless society could wrongfully convict more people than America’s current “justice” system, particularly if you include all of the victimless “crimes” that innocent people are sent away to prison to rot for. No doubt, people will continue to be wrongfully convicted under anarchy. The difference is that someone will actually be responsible for it, and can be held accountable. If John is wrongfully convicted of murder, the protection agency that caught and prosecuted him could be brought to court for the damages they’ve done to him. This means that any insurer will want a high-confidence that they found the right guy, otherwise they may be on the hook for a lot of money. In addition, John has a legally enforceable right to this money, so he can offer to pay anyone who can find evidence proving his innocence (or his insurance agency can look for evidence as well). Under government, once a conviction happens, nobody has any reason to look for evidence of John’s innocence.

Clearly, this system is imperfect, as are all social systems. But it is equally clear that anarchy would handle mistakes of justice far better than government.


Security Against States: “National Defense” Under Anarchy

Having discussed how a stateless society could handle conflicts internally, we now come to another issue: how would a stateless society defend itself from attacks from foreign governments? After all, it is highly unlikely that all governments will disappear at once, so what is to stop a government from invading and taking over a region under anarchy?

It is critical to anarchist theory that this question be answered. After all, “national defense” is the prototypical “public good” – one in which non-payers cannot be excluded from enjoying its benefits, and use by one individual does not make it less available to others. According to this theory, a free market would be unable to provide for common security because of free riders – individuals who will not pay for protection because they know they can get it for free so long as others pay for it. It would be difficult for an army to say “we will protect house A from foreign aggression, but we will not protect house B.” Since everyone has the incentive to be a free rider, defense from foreign aggression will be under-produced on the market.

This view is fallacious. For one thing, all goods that tend to be considered public goods have been adequately provided by the market (lighthouses are a classic example). Things like software and radio or television broadcasting would fit the definition of public goods, but do not require government intervention to produce in sufficient quantities. In my mind, it is likely that the idea of public goods have been deliberately promoted in order to provide an aura of legitimacy to government – but I digress.

What it comes down to is that public goods theorists simply aren’t creative enough. They ignore the many ways in which humans overcome the free rider problem, and refuse to consider that these means could be possible. I’m pleased to say that as cryptographic technology improves, the public goods justification for the state will completely fade. The Lighthouse app (still in beta), a peer-to-peer crowdfunding app relying on smart contracts, has officially and mathematically solved the problem of how to provide public goods in general. That’s how human progress works – entrepreneurs come up with solutions to problems.

As for collective security in particular, it is crucial to remember that the state is distinct from its subjects, and the state is designed to protect itself, not the people residing within its borders. Those who make up the state have strong incentives to provide defense that will secure the state itself – but the incentive to protect the people living under that state is minimal. After all, the state (or those who make up the state) is just another special interest group. But defense of the public remains a public good, so it is very unlikely to be adequately supplied by a government.

The free rider problem can be overcome and collective security can be produced efficiently, but seeing this may require some imagination as well as remembering that the ideological milieu would be different under anarchy. Psychological factors can help to overcome the free rider problem, as described by Keith Preston:

“But there are many other reasons why individuals would choose to fight an enemy invader or contribute voluntarily towards such an effort [besides economic reasons]. Psychological attachments of the “blood and soil” variety, loyalty to one’s family, community, religion or culture might be a motivating factor for many people. For example, gays might be eager fight against a potential conqueror known for its persecution of homosexuals. Racists might fight an invader out of base racial hatred for the dominant ethnic group among the enemy. Believers in virtues such as honor and courage or adherents to particular ideals (“justice”, “freedom”, “humanity”) would have their own reasons for fighting beyond the mere economic. Some may choose to fight for the sheer adventure of it all or out of a simple taste for violence and bloodshed.”

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel writes:

“…national defense, in the sense of protecting the people from a foreign State, is a subset of the general problem of protecting them from any State, domestic or foreign. Consequently, the factors that already provide protection from the domestic State are the very factors which on the market would provide protection from foreign States. To put it concretely, the same social consensus that has voluntarily overcome the free-rider obstacle to protect the United States, one of the most free, if not the most free, nation in the world would voluntarily overcome the free-rider obstacle to protect American freedom from foreign States.”

If we can expect the state to provide for collective defense, then we can even more strongly expect an anarchist society to do so.

Avoiding Conflict

Without a doubt, the best strategy for collective defense of a society is to avoid armed conflict in the first place. Anarchist societies can do a far better job of avoiding conflict than states can.

While certainly not the only factor in decisions regarding whether or not to go to war, the most important one is a cost/benefit analysis. It can generally be said that if a potential war will provide little utility to those who decide to embark on it, but will be costly, it most likely will not happen.

This of course implies that states are likely to be highly aggressive – the costs of war are not borne by the politicians, but them and their military-industrial complex cronies can certainly get significant benefits from it! Stateless societies, where those who choose to make war must fund it fully themselves, are far less likely to be aggressive. And luckily, what is needed for effective defense is far less expensive than what is required for military aggression.

A stateless society can drastically reduce the chance of conflict by making it costly to invade, and with as little benefit as possible. Without an already existing state in place, there will be no command center for the foreign aggressor to take over. Rather than simply taking over the capitol and using the already existing and “legitimized” state apparatus to extract taxes from the populace, the invader will need to win the war neighborhood by neighborhood. And if they succeed, they’ll need to create all the infrastructure needed to govern the hostile territory before being able to take from it. For example,

“…during the American Revolution the British focused their energies on conquering Philadelphia, at that time the nominal capital of the United States, on the assumption that once the capital had fallen the rest of the country would be theirs as well. What the British failed to realize was that the United States was a loose-knit confederation, not a centralized nation-state, and the government in Philadelphia had almost no authority. When Philadelphia fell, the rest of the country went about its business as usual; Americans were not accustomed to living their lives according to directives from Philadelphia, and so the British troops ended up simply sitting uselessly in the occupied capital, achieving nothing. Hence Benjamin Franklin, when he heard that the British army had captured Philadelphia, is said to have replied, ‘Nay, I think Philadelphia has captured the British army.’”

In short, there would likely be very little to gain from attacking a stateless territory, at least financially. Contrast this with the possibility of invading a small state with a weak military. There is already an apparatus for control and administration in place, and likely only government defense institutions rather than a decentralized network of private ones. Given that there are many governments today with weak militaries, they would be superior targets for invasion than a stateless region. And since these weaker states aren’t being constantly invaded in today’s world, that provides some evidence that large states may not be all that aggressive against a stateless society. In fact, today there are more than 20 nations without a standing army, including noteworthy examples like Costa Rica and Liechtenstein, which hasn’t had a military since 1868 (and wasn’t taken over by the Nazis!).

As time progresses and technology advances, the benefits of warring also become lower. If wealth is mobile, then the potential gain from an aggressive attack is decreased substantially. With more and more economic activity taking place on the internet, physical invasion becomes less profitable. Consider this example from Bruce Benson:

“While land certainly remains an important source of wealth in much of the world, it is increasingly less important. Wealth is increasingly tied to capital, which is increasingly mobile. If the defenders can escape and take much of their wealth with them, the expected gains from invasion are reduced. Note what has been happening to Hong Kong as the date for China’s take-over of the city approaches, for instance. Much of the city’s wealth has been relocated to Vancouver, San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney, and elsewhere, as entrepreneurs and capital owners seek relatively free societies where their property rights will be more secure.”

Along the same lines, Mark Lutter makes a convincing argument that war is becoming less and less likely as trade becomes easier.

“I propose history to be interpreted as a gradual reduction in transaction costs. Institutional evolution is leading to a world where anonymous exchange is possible with any actor. It is the lowering of transaction costs that has led to the highest standard of living mankind has ever enjoyed, as well as the most peaceful time in human history. It is now more profitable than ever to cooperate.”

Since it is quite likely that the stateless society will be engaging in some form of trade with the people of any potential aggressor nation, the price of going to war drastically increases for an aggressor.

This is all well and good in terms of the economic motivations for war, but war is sometimes about more than that. There can be ideological or geopolitical motivations as well. In a stateless society, there would be no government to engage in significant disputes with foreign governments, and thus eliminate many of the potential causes for war. There may be individuals in the ungoverned area that are hostile to a particular state, but that foreign government will feel far less threatened by some hostile individuals than a hostile government. In addition, stateless societies would not be players in the power games and competition for domination in an area. There would be no standing army, and the society would not act as a single agent, so foreign governments will feel less threatened by the “power” of a stateless society. It would be clear to the subjects of a state that is aggressing against a stateless society that it is their government that is in the wrong, which will decrease the state’s legitimacy in their eyes. With legitimacy being the source of the state’s power, this would be a dangerous game for them to play.

Nevertheless, it would be naïve to argue that a stateless society will never be invaded. But there are some easy ways that the anarchists could make it as costly as possible. For instance, protection agencies (being those who are most threatened by a potential foreign invasion) can put bounties on the heads of state officials to encourage insurrection and privateering. They can also assassinate those public officials, or create the credible threat that they could do so. Since protection agencies will be practiced at capturing/apprehending people, assassination or kidnap might be something they’re good at. Government decision makers are far less likely to go to war if they know that it is their heads which are on the line.

Protection agencies should ensure that the threat of retaliation is squarely on the political/military leaders, and not the soldiers and civilians of the foreign country. In fact, they can offer sanctuary or perhaps money to foreign soldiers in exchange for their desertion. If deserters bring some weapons with them, surely protection agencies would be willing to pay for those as well.

Couldn’t states just nuke the stateless regions? Technically yes, but remember that states can also nuke other states, and would have more reason to do so. Nuking a stateless region would offer no gain, would have long-lasting environmental impacts that could damage the aggressor state, and there would almost certainly be a loss of legitimacy internally.

To sum up, there are many reasons to believe that a stateless society would have drastically lower needs for defense than a state would, and is unlikely to be attacked. This is truer under some conditions than others. Philosopher Michael Huemer provides seven conditions of an anarchist society that make it very likely that it could avoid warfare:

  1. Established in a region otherwise dominated by liberal democracies
  2. The society itself embraced liberal values
  3. Strong social and economic relations with its neighbors
  4. No large internal ethnic or religious tensions
  5. Not established in a region with a long-standing territorial dispute
  6. Established through an indigenous movement rather than being imposed by a foreign power
  7. Established with the consent of the state previously controlling the territory.

All but #7 seem highly likely, but even that would be quite plausible as ideology evolves and becomes more anarchist-friendly. And if not – well, they can still assassinate the generals.

Guerrilla Warfare

Even if the risk of a stateless society going to war is lower, it still exists; the people must be able to defend themselves when this happens.

History has shown time and again that a small group can beat even a great empire via guerrilla warfare. And a stateless society could handle guerrilla warfare quite well, including an advanced division of labor, as Keith Preston describes:

“The anarcho-military forces would likely differentiate between ordinary infantry and militia fighters on one hand and more professionalized specialists on the other. The militia itself would include ordinary people of all ages and backgrounds. The responsibility of these groups would be to secure supply centers, transportation systems and medical facilities along with ordinary community institutions, businesses and homes. They would likely be armed with weapons that are easy to maintain, transport, supply and use such as high-powered rifles with a good scope, semi-automatic handguns and regular shotguns sawed off as low as possible. An invading army would have to fight on a community-to-community, street-to-street, house-to-house basis. Enemy troops attempting conquest would face an endless barrage of sniper fire, Molotov cocktails, ambushes, sabotage, bombings and assassinations. Guerrilla attacks would be launched from forest areas adjacent to highways where enemy military units were traveling. Anti-aircraft artillery would be placed atop mountains and skyscrapers. Those charged with the use of more powerful or sophisticated weaponry – tanks, laser technology, rocket launchers, land mines, machine guns, grenades, fighter planes, missiles – would likely be drawn from the ranks of mercenaries and other military professionals specifically trained for certain functions.”

How would a stateless society secure the manpower for these militias?

“Organizations that sponsor immigrants might make membership in a defensive militia a condition of a grant of assistance. The same might be true of homeless organizations, proprietary communities or professional guilds. Mercenary groups might sell their services to businesses or communities during a time of invasion. These groups might support themselves during peacetime through contracting out for other types of labor including street patrol, private security or bodyguard services, fire and rescue services, construction work, park maintenance, environmental cleanup or disaster relief. Militia recruits might come from some unusual sources. Gangs and outlaw motorcycle clubs might serve as mercenaries during a time of war. (The Hell’s Angels volunteered for service in Vietnam but were refused.) Criminals might work off their restitution debts through service in a militia.”

And in the event of invasion, protection agencies could arm their clients or lift restrictions on their weapons. There could even be a “draft” clause within the policy that mandates the signatory to become part of a militia in times of need, perhaps in exchange for a reduced premium. It’s also quite likely that protections agencies would stockpile some good guerrilla weaponry during peacetime, including roadside explosives, antitank weapons, sniper rifles, and so on.

Instead of having a government Navy, shipping-related industries could supply protection for their own vessels and could maintain a fleet of warships, or pay mercenaries/privateers to do so. Aviation related industries could supply air defense by having a few fighter jets or attack helicopters. It’s easy to imagine industry groups doing this collectively – not every small shipper needs its own battleships.

And in today’s world, cyber-warfare is becoming more and more important, and this helps distribute power away from states as well. Stateless hackers could be very effective in gathering intelligence, messing with the aggressor’s communications and supply lines, or even damaging infrastructure directly.

Along with all of this war-making ability, a civil defense system could coexist.

“…a non-statist military defense would likely include an elaborate civil defense system. This might involve a large network of radar monitor services, scout ships and planes, sirens and broadcast systems that could be used to notify the public of an eminent invasion, vaccines, antidotes, gas masks, decontamination centers, bomb shelters, underground tunnels, radiation suits, body armor, emergency food and medical supplies, emergency evacuation plans, intelligence services, arsenals and emergency communications centers. These programs, organized and funded by Red Cross or March of Dimes-like organizations, could co-exist along with the private, voluntary militias of the type already described.”

Finally, the stateless society is likely to receive aid from other foreign governments who are enemies of the invading government. This could include air defense, intelligence, small arms…you name it.

Through guerrilla warfare, the stateless society could fight back against aggressive states, and become incredibly difficult to pacify.

Nonviolent Resistance

The most important component of collective security without a state (in my opinion) is nonviolent resistance, such as hunger strikes, marches and demonstrations, sit-ins, boycotts, labor strikes, refusal to pay taxes, and ostracism of collaborators. Bertrand Russell once pondered:

“Let us imagine that England were to disband its army, after a generation of instruction in the principles of passive resistance as a better defense than war. Let us suppose that England at the same time publicly announced that no armed opposition would be offered to any invader, that all might come freely, but that no obedience would be yielded to any commands that a foreign authority might issue. What would happen in this case?”

Any potential invader who actually followed through on it would have their brutality immediately revealed, which is likely to garner sympathy for the stateless side, lead to additional foreign aid, and potentially foster insurrection against the invading government.

When governments resort to violence against nonviolent protesters, previously uninvolved individuals will become partisans, expanding the resistance. As the aggressive government’s authority becomes delegitimized, the source of its power dwindles as citizens refuse to cooperate.

This may sound outlandish to some, but it is actually quite common. The historical success rate of nonviolent action seems to be at least comparable if not better than violence. We all know about Gandhi and the British, the civil rights movement, and the fall of communism, for instance. There are numerous advantages to nonviolent action, a few of which are described by Bryan Caplan:

“Because it seems less dangerous and radical than violence, it more easily…wins broad public support. The costs of participation are lower, so more people are likely to participate. Traditional noncombatants like children, women, and the old can effectively participate in nonviolent struggle. It is more likely to convert opponents and produce internal disagreement within the ruling class. It generally leads to far fewer casualties and material losses than violence. And since it is more decentralized than violent action, it is less likely to give rise to an even more oppressive state if it succeeds.”

Another benefit is that there is no such thing as final defeat so long as there exist individuals whose spirit has not yet been bent to the invaders’ will. It can also be done with less planning, strategy, or organization than violent methods such as military conflict.

Historically, most nonviolent resistance movements have been sporadic and fairly disorganized. But it can be significantly more effective if people are trained in civil disobedience and nonviolent protest tactics. This could be a good area for a charity/volunteer organization, and could lead to a sort of “National Civil Disobedience Reserve Army.”

Nonviolent resistance, done properly, is incredibly difficult to defeat.



If you have spent little time contemplating anarchy in the past, chances are you have a ton of questions or concerns about how it would work. I attempted to address many of the most common ones in the body of this article, but surely I’ve missed some. If you have any thoughts about this, please leave a comment and I will do my best to address it.

There are also numerous books out there which cover this subject matter in far more detail than I have. Here are a handful that I would recommend:

I’d like to end with a quote from Murray Rothbard:

“Suppose…that we were all suddenly dropped down on the earth de novo and that we were all then confronted with the question of what societal arrangements to adopt. And suppose then that someone suggested: “We are all bound to suffer from those of us who wish to aggress against their fellow men. Let us then solve this problem of crime by handing all of our weapons to the Jones family, over there, by giving all of our ultimate power to settle disputes to that family. In that way, with their monopoly of coercion and of ultimate decision making, the Jones family will be able to protect each of us from each other.” I submit that this proposal would get very short shrift, except perhaps from the Jones family themselves. And yet this is precisely the common argument for the existence of the state.”

A Modest Proposal To End Dating Anarchy And Regulate The Dating Market

Dating is cool

Dating and sex, as the means to procreate, are our biological imperative. How can we leave something so critically important to the very future of humanity up to the free market? How can we stand by while so many people are unhappy with the quality and quantity of romance in their lives? How can we justify the veritable anarchy that is the dating world when we accept government regulation in so many other areas of our lives that are deeply personal and important?

We all recognize the importance of, for example, occupational safety regulations, food safety regulations, and regulation over the substances that people choose to put in their bodies. And we all acknowledge that without these regulations, suffering would be far more widespread.

That’s why government regulation of the dating market is long overdue. Few “industries” have been as responsible for such a massive scale of suffering as the anarchy that is the dating world. Chances are, you’ve experienced some of it yourself.

It would be impossible to calculate the full cost of dating anarchy, because the damages that come from it are often long-standing and can have wide-ranging social effects. Let’s look at just a few of the problems that are a direct consequence of this unconscionable lack of regulation.

Emotional pain. No one reading this can say with a straight face that dating hasn’t caused them significant emotional pain at some point in their lives, and often several times. Nasty breakups, unrequited love, shyness and anxiety, lovesickness, embarrassment, and self-esteem issues are all common features of the current dating anarchy.

Poor matches. Between 40% and 50% of married couples end up getting divorced in America. This does not include the countless unhappy couples who choose not to get divorced for whatever reason (kids, religion, etc.). And this is just marriages – think about how many more unmarried couples are also not right for each other! This isn’t just bad for the couple; oftentimes, children can be the victims. Consider all the kids growing up with single parents or who witness discord and even nasty divorces in their home lives. The negative psychological impact of this can affect the child well into adulthood or even for their entire life – and potentially get passed on down to their own children one day.

Compare this with arranged marriages, which have only a 4% divorce rate; the divorce rate in India, where most marriages are arranged, is the world’s lowest at 1.1%. If this isn’t proof that central planning works, I don’t know what is.

Ugly man or pretty girl

False advertising. There is a lot of lying, misrepresentation, and general attempts to mislead others under dating anarchy. It is nearly a universal phenomenon that people will attempt to portray themselves in as positive a light as they can when dating, and to hide their negative qualities. This is true for both men and women. Consider men who will claim they are making significantly more money than they actually are, and women who wear makeup and dress in such ways to cover up their faults while accentuating their positive qualities.

And now, with the advent of online dating, things have gotten a whole lot worse. According to the Huffington Post, a full 54% of online daters found someone who “seriously misrepresented themselves.” The numbers may be even worse than that. According to an article in the New York Times citing various studies of online dating,

  • 81% of people misrepresent their height, weight, or age in their profiles
  • Women described themselves as 8.5 pounds thinner in their profile than they really are, while men were generous to themselves by about 2 pounds
  • Men rounded up their height by half an inch
  • Women’s profile pictures were on average a year and a half old, while men’s were six months old.

With all of this lying going on, people cannot make informed decisions about whom they should date. This results in immense amounts of wasted time and heartache, and surely contributes to the problem of poor matchups. And it could largely be prevented with a suitable regulatory regime.

Because we have laws that prevent it, it is far less frequent for people to lie about, say, what ingredients are contained in foods (and those who do lie can be prosecuted). It’s time we extend this into the realm of dating.

Inequality. This is another big one. Some people have lots of sexual partners, yet others remain virgins. Some people, due to factors beyond their control, are simply at an unfair disadvantage under dating anarchy. You can think of this as just like a problem of unequal market power – the same way that large corporations have their pick of job candidates and can enforce their will on those they employ, extremely rich or good looking people command an unfair advantage over their poor and ugly counterparts.

Unsurprisingly, research has shown that attractive men and women have a serious advantage in choice of sexual partner – they get their pick of the litter far more easily than less attractive people. Men have a strong preference for dating beautiful women, and women have a strong preference for dating wealthy men. This just further exacerbates other forms of inequality; men who are already wealthy get the most dating success – the rich get richer.

Physically unsafe. Perhaps the most serious issue with modern anarchic dating is that it is physically unsafe. The dangers are manifold, well-known, and have caused irreparable damage to millions of people. A national survey found that 57% of rapes happened on dates. Similarly, domestic abuse is incredibly common. One out of every three female homicide victims every year are killed by their current or former partner. This is clear, irrefutable evidence that people cannot be left to their own devices in choosing a partner.

Besides violence, there are other dramatically life-altering consequences of an unfettered dating “market.” The CDC reports that 20 million new sexually transmitted infections occur every year, half of which occur in the 15-24 age group. On top of that, half of all pregnancies in this country are unintended. How long will we allow this to go on?


A Modest Proposal For Dating Regulations

Based on the above arguments, it is clear that regulations regarding dating are well past due. This is fairly new territory for the government, and legal minds better than mine will be far more capable of hammering out the details and plugging the loopholes. Nevertheless, I would like to propose a framework for some of the regulations that can go a long way towards remedying the ills of anarchic dating.

For starters, there will need to be a new office created under the Department of Health and Human Services tasked with writing and enforcing the relevant rules. This office (let’s call it the National Dating Bureau, or NDB) will be responsible for maintaining a database of all those Americans who are registered to date in this country.

All Americans who wish to date must register with the NDB and receive a permit before they can do so. I recognize that there is some ambiguity in what constitutes a “date”, but most of us have a fairly intuitive grasp of what this means (and legal scholars, in tandem with relationship experts, will come up with a suitable definition).

Of course, the process of obtaining a dating permit must remain as frictionless as possible, while still ensuring improved safety and quality of dates, as well as a more equitable dating system. I propose that we borrow from the already successful Drivers’ Education model for teaching teenagers how to drive. For one quarter of all students’ freshman year of high school, pupils will complete the Dating Education program in lieu of Phys. Ed. For parents who do not want their children dating so early for religious reasons, there will be an exemption.

Experts will design the curriculum, of course, but I have a few suggestions for topics that should be covered. Courses about the qualities of successful relationships, what to look for in a partner, sexual health, tolerance, compromise and conflict resolution, honesty and transparency, and self-respect. With this background, youngsters will be far more prepared for the challenges of dating. Upon the successful completion of an exam on these materials, students will be granted their dating permits, which will be issued by the individual states.

That works for the next generation, but what about those of us who are already out of school? I acknowledge how busy most adult Americans are, and the government will respect this with a lighter touch of regulations. Rather than a full course of study, centers will be set up in each state where adults can sign up to take an abridged version of the class with only twenty hours of class time (this can be done over a single intensive weekend). In addition to passing the exam, adults will also need an STD screening and a background check before permits are issued.

Just like the many other areas in which occupational licensure and safety regulations help deal with market failure, dating permits will ensure that those in the dating pool are qualified to be there.

Additional regulations will be necessary to ensure that those authorized to date have equal access to quality dates, regardless of their privilege. There are numerous ways that this could be implemented, and policymakers should consider the pros and cons of each before deciding which is ultimately best. Two specific ideas come to mind:

  • Strict dating quotas
  • A “cap and trade”-like system for dates, analogous to the proposed carbon emissions scheme.

In the first case, anyone with a dating permit is free to go on two dates per week, and perhaps after an advanced dating class, a third. This is the ideal way to prevent the 1% from rigging the dating market and exploiting everyone else.

Under a cap and trade scheme, dates become a commodity with dollar value. This is a more flexible system than the first case, because it allows people to sell off dates on weeks where they don’t feel like dating as much, and gives people leeway to date more if they are feeling particularly amorous. As a side benefit, by taxing trade in dates, the government will have a huge new revenue source. Based on the most recent models, this could lead to an incredible $200 billion per year in tax revenue, making the NDB arguably the most efficient government agency to date. The problem with cap and trade is that it still allows those with greater means to potentially exploit the system and go on more than their fair share of dates.

Cat dating profile

In an effort to improve transparency in dating while simultaneously making it more equitable, the government will support efforts to facilitate information sharing among prospective daters. The NDB will work with states to set up their own dating sites (match.gov), so that everyone has access to an online dating profile. Naturally, it won’t be mandatory that people use the state’s site; other approved online dating sites will be available as well. In order to obtain a license to operate a private dating site, site administrators will be required to observe relevant “know your customer” laws, so that people cannot date anonymously in order to hide their faults and commit fraud. In addition, new information sharing laws will need to be implemented in order to prevent the hacking and theft of peoples’ private information that is so prevalent these days. It is a priority of this new legislation that as much information be made available to daters in order to prevent wasted time on dates that never would have worked out, and to generally make the process more honest. It is also a safety measure, so that bad apples can be more easily removed from the dating system.

In order to make this process as equitable as possible, we must recognize that many individuals have more limited means than others. To combat the effects of this inequality, the government will provide date stipends to be used only at approved venues (specific restaurants, movie theaters, and so on, after they have applied and been approved by the NDB). This Supplemental Courtship Assistance Program (SCAP) will issue its payouts discretely, so as not to subconsciously influence partners’ perceptions of each other.

Once an aspiring couple has gone on sufficient dates and gotten to know each other well enough, they must apply to the NDB and receive approval before being considered in an official relationship. Since the vast majority of relationships end in failure, this is a critical step to help minimize the consequences of the poor decisions that we all so often make! The application will include providing the NDB access to the prospective partners’ medical records to ensure genetic compatibility as well as a full psychiatric evaluation in order to determine that both partners are truly ready for a relationship. A writing sample, answering the question “For what reasons would ___ and I make a great couple?” will also be required. The NDB will work with Facebook to make sure that nobody changes their relationship status without prior approval. Finally, the relationship will undergo an annual review process involving an STD screening and personal interviews with the NDB’s licensed relationship experts. If the NDB determines that a relationship is unhealthy, it has the authority to nullify an existing relationship, subject to an appeals process for these couples.

I don't have ex's

Possibly the biggest emotional minefield under dating anarchy is the issue of breakups. Too often, the reasons one person breaks up with another are simply unjust. This isn’t merely a waste of time and resources; it is inherently unfair. As such, a panel of experts will determine which reasons for breakup are appropriate. Breaking up with someone for reasons related to race, gender, or sexual orientation is unethical and should already be considered illegal discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. Approved breakup reasons will center on issues of gross incompetence or neglect. A party to an official relationship can upload a Termination of Relationship form through a secure portal on the match.gov site, including sufficient documentary evidence to demonstrate that their breakup is for an approved reason. If a breakup is approved, there will of course be an appeals process for breakup victims in order to further protect their rights.

In order to implement these proposals, the cooperation of law enforcement at the local and national level will be paramount. Expanded surveillance will be necessary in order to catch those who are dating without a permit. In addition, there is a very real possibility that unlicensed daters will callously forego their social responsibility and attempt to avoid this regulatory system by bringing dates into international waters via cruise ships or across the border into Mexico or Canada. To prevent this, undercover agents will be placed on every cruise ship, and will make arrests when the ship is back in American territory. A Fugitive American Dating Control Act (FADCA) will require all foreign hotels to report to the NDB pertinent data on Americans who lodge with them. Failure to satisfactorily report this information will result in sanctions.

While I anticipate some controversy over these proposals from the more conservative and reactionary segments of America, their fears and complaints are ungrounded. There is precedent for every aspect of these proposals. To quote directly from the United States Constitution:

“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States” [emphasis mine]

The very same Constitution that conservatives so often use to justify their hate-spewing and exploitation-loving policies clearly grants Congress the power to legislate on behalf of the general welfare of the United States. Tell me: in what way does fixing one of the greatest problems known to man not serve the general welfare?

In the same way that no one would ever want to go back to the days of the robber barons in terms of how society regulates employment relations, 100 years from now people will think the same thing about romantic relationships.


Just Kidding – Propaganda Techniques I’ve Used In This Proposal

In case you have not figured it out by now, the preceding was purely satire. Unfortunately, I cannot assume that everyone reading this would recognize it as such. I suspect that there may even be a few people out there who would read this and conclude that I’ve had a brilliant idea. Sometimes, real life imitates the absurd and can be indistinguishable from parody. Oh well.

In any case, other than the handful of jabs that I couldn’t resist throwing into the above, I tried to write it as though this were a legitimate proposal. In doing so, I employed a handful of misleading and propagandistic techniques and logical fallacies to “bolster” my argument. Going through these would be instructive, because I have found that similar methods of argument are often used when discussing other existing and proposed regulations. Discerning readers can likely find many more, but I want to draw attention to at least a handful of them here.

  • All of the problems with dating were ascribed to anarchy, with the implicit assumption that regulation would cure these ills – even though no evidence was cited to back that up. This is easy to get away with, because the proposed solutions have the intent of fixing the problems. So long as the intent is positive and the proposal seems like it could plausibly work, most people will be convinced.
  • In describing the current dating anarchy, only the negative aspects were mentioned, and positives were completely ignored. There is simply no acknowledgement that, for the most part, dating “anarchy” works great.
  • The biological importance of dating and reproduction was cited as a reason for regulation. But the importance of any given industry or issue is irrelevant to whether regulation is good policy or not. The effects of the proposed policy are what matters.
  • I argued that arranged marriages were equivalent to central planning. It is incredibly common for statists to argue that because libertarians don’t think something should be regulated by the government, it must therefore not be regulated at all. It is beyond the scope of this article to delve deeply into this; nevertheless, it should be clear that there is a huge difference between having your parents decide who you marry and having a bureaucrat make the decision. Government central planning is backed up by force; presumably, arranged marriage is a cultural phenomenon enforced by social norms rather than violence.
  • I have employed the “won’t somebody PLEASE think of the children!” argument. You can justify nearly anything by even attempting to show that it is “good for our children.”

  • I’ve created “bad guys” or enemies whom a large percentage of the population are naturally envious of. People who, for whatever reason, get the most dates…well, this must be either because of some unwarranted “privilege” that they have (wealth, status, good looks), or because they cheated the system by lying and misrepresenting themselves.
  • A lot more was made of the fact that people misrepresent themselves while dating than is deserved. Sometimes the misrepresentations people make are truly bad (think catfishing), or are bad idea because communicating your values honestly is important in a relationship. But girls wearing makeup or certain kinds of clothing, for instance, is something that men appreciate. And saying that you are an inch taller than you are is hardly consequential; if it means anything to someone, they can figure that out on the first date and not go on a second one. But here, I have turned the whole thing into an issue of asymmetric information causing power imbalances and other problems. Then I mention that you don’t see as much lying in the food industry because of relevant food labeling laws – but this is not an empirical fact, and it is unsubstantiated.
  • I’ve taken completely natural subjective preferences (women prefer wealth and men prefer beauty) and used them to argue about inequality. Completely ignored is the fact that regulations can’t possibly change these preferences, even if they could force people to act outside their preferences. Also ignored is the evolutionary and/or rational basis for these preferences.
  • Statistics were used misleadingly (big surprise!). First, I said that 57% of rapes occurred on dates, and then I claimed that this is clear evidence that people choose partners poorly. But the two have no connection whatsoever. An appropriate statistic would be what percentage of people are raped on dates, not how often rapes occur on dates. The STD/pregnancy statistics were just fear-mongering. For that to be evidence that regulation is warranted, we need to assume that regulation would solve those problems, precisely what the proposal is trying to show. Circular logic.
  • I mention that information sharing agreements are necessary for dating sites to operate legally in order to prevent hackers from stealing private information. Completely ignored is how this is simply giving the government access to this information, and it is assumed that it won’t be used maliciously by actors from within the government. It also assumes that the government has some kind of right to this personal information that others do not. Finally, it assumes that this kind of information sharing somehow increases information security, which is most certainly not the case.
  • I mention that transparency and honesty is critical between partners, but then the SCAP program (subsidized dates) involves hiding peoples’ wealth from each other. Similarly, requiring pre-approved reasons to break up fosters dishonesty – both between partners and certainly toward the government. These kinds of ironies and unintended consequences are rather common components of regulations.
  • Approval is required to start a relationship because people so often make mistakes. But then it follows that bureaucrats are equally liable to make mistakes, and arguably more liable because they are not intimately familiar with our individual thoughts and feelings. This type of faulty reasoning is so prevalent in arguments for regulation, it makes me sick. How often do you hear that “people need to be protected from themselves.”?
  • Precedent is used to justify the entire thing. These regulations are morally acceptable because comparable regulations have been implemented in the past. But what if the rationale for those precedents is equally as mistaken as it is for arguments to regulate dating?

It’s very easy to write a convincing argument for just about anything.


The Moral Absurdity Of Regulation

While I’m certain there are some people who would read the above proposal and nod approvingly, I believe (or at least I hope) that most people would reject it as absurd. Unfortunately, most people don’t seem to recognize that ALL regulation is absurd, and for the same reasons.

What is it specifically that makes regulating the dating market so repulsive and unjust? Before answering that question myself, I’d like to consider what answers a statist might give.

Many would likely argue that dating regulations would never work. This is certainly correct. But that would imply that regulations are only just if they do work (also correct, but in my opinion, an insufficient condition). Given that other existing health and safety regulations (and all regulations, really) don’t achieve their desired social benefits (more on this later), then these other regulations ought to also be abandoned on consequentialist grounds. I suspect that most liberals would be quite unhappy with this result.

A related argument is that personal relationships are too complex to regulate, as opposed to far more straightforward work and commercial relationships. But this isn’t true at all. Consider how nobody wants to work with someone who has a “bad attitude,” however difficult that is to define. How can you possibly regulate around that type of consideration? Is a “bad attitude” a “just” cause to fire someone? What if the person with a “bad attitude” was black or disabled?

Perhaps it is the personal and private nature of romantic relationships that make them immoral to regulate. But again, this does not stand up to scrutiny. What makes a romantic relationship more private than any other kind? It is completely subjective and arbitrary to make this claim. Many people are downright vocal about their sex lives (sometimes to the chagrin of those near them), and many people are quite reserved about telling others how much money they make.

alderaan places

I submit that the reason why these proposed dating regulations are repulsive is that they involve the use of unprovoked coercion in order to prevent people from interacting in a way that would be voluntary for all involved parties. In other words, a regulation is a threat of violence against innocent people. Behind every law there is a gun – if you do not comply, state goons will resort to violence against you. Sometimes, that means murdering innocent people because they were selling loose cigarettes. Sometimes, that means molesting someone for walking the streets of New York while black, or because they needed to fly somewhere. Sometimes, that means shutting down a little girl’s lemonade stand because they didn’t have a permit. But at least that helped keep us healthy and safe, right?


Regulations Don’t Work

As stated in the previous section, a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for a regulation to be morally just would be for it to actually succeed in whatever its positive intentions are. Generally, this means improving safety and quality.

In fact, it must not only be shown that the regulations would work, but also that the benefits outweigh the costs. And given that, according to a report from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, regulations have cost the US economy $1.806 trillion per year (more than half of the federal budget, and more than 10% of total US GDP!), a very substantial safety benefit would need to be demonstrated. Keep in mind, also, that the brunt of this cost is borne by the poor, who are forced to pay higher prices and are excluded from competing in markets with higher regulatory barriers.

The costs are not merely financial, however; regulations have negative implications in other domains. For instance, were we to allow the government to regulate dating, there could be substantial repercussions in terms of individual freedom. In fact, the government already does this to some extent – that’s why gay marriage is still, ridiculously enough, illegal in some places. But it’s easy to envision other costs of further dating regulations – any sexual taboo could be regulated. Not only that, but well-connected individuals might get access to the most attractive people or otherwise flaunt the rules. This is exactly the way regulation already works in other areas.

The total costs of regulation are impossible to measure. Without going into too much detail, this is because our valuations of things are subjective. How can you possibly quantify the cost of lost liberty? You can’t, of course, and this has implications in all regulations, not just the romantic kind:

““There’s no accounting for taste” isn’t just something one can say to shrug off his buddy’s dating someone he finds unattractive. It’s an explanation of our individuality. In dating, there are millions of unique tastes and subjective valuations. This range of valuations makes regulation inherently unjust, because the perceived value of another person as a romantic partner cannot be quantified.

But the same may be said of most any government regulation. What government agent should have the authority to say that a certain job pays “too little” or is “too dangerous” to be legal? Such decisions must be left up to the people applying for those jobs, who are more familiar with their own situations than a bureaucrat in Washington could ever be. If Cathy badly needs work experience, that job that pays $5 per hour may be perfect for her, even though it would be a poor fit for someone else who is looking to pay his mortgage.”

But even though we can’t do a fully accurate cost-benefit analysis on regulations, we can try to look at the effects that regulations have had in terms of their stated goal: improving quality and safety. I do not have space to go into great detail here, but will provide links for further study if you are interested.

Occupational licensure, ostensibly aimed at making sure practitioners (any job, but health care is specifically what comes to mind) are qualified, has substantially increased costs for services without a substantial improvement in quality. This is because licensing requirements decrease the quantity of practitioners available, leading people to use lower quality substitutes and generally decreasing their access. The link above shows that this has led to reduced quality in electrical work, dentistry, plumbing, real estate, and animal care, though it should be generally true as well.

Then there was the 1906 Meat Inspection Act, which was supposed to protect consumers from the evils of the unregulated meat packing industry (and everyone knows that Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” proved this was necessary, right?). Government inspectors would go to the meat packing plant, poke meat with a rod, smell it, and deem the meat safe if the rod smelled fine. Then they’d repeat the process over and over with the same rod. The (predictable) result? Pathogens would be spread from bad meat to good meat, potentially infecting entire plants. Here’s the best part: this ridiculous method was continued through the late 1990s! The FDA can be very slow in approving new food safety processes for commercial use, the implications of which are difficult to measure. Not to be outdone, the Agriculture Department has prevented small meat packers from testing their own animals for Mad Cow Disease at the behest of larger companies that are afraid that market forces will force them to do their own expensive testing as well.

Worst of all is the FDA regulating the entire drug safety process. Dr. Mary Ruwart estimates that 4.7 million people have died needlessly over a 40 year period because they were denied access to potentially lifesaving drugs that the FDA had not yet deemed safe. Aspirin and penicillin would likely flunk the FDA approval process today.

Feeling safer yet?

Here’s a few more. Houses built under FEMA guidelines suffer more damage than houses that weren’t. The Federal Railroad Administration makes us less safe by mandating antiquated safety standards from the 1910s. Air bags were known to kill children, but were mandated for many years anyways. Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards led to smaller, less safe cars, resulting in 2500 needless deaths per year. In general, regulatory overload makes Americans less safe.

What about labor regulations and workplace safety? Free markets didn’t create child labor; they ended it. Had children not worked prior to the Industrial Revolution, they would have starved to death. If ending child labor was as easy as pushing a button/writing a law, every legislator would have done so, and far sooner. Similarly, improvements in occupational safety and shorter workweeks are a consequence of capital accumulation under market competition, not unions. For a good explanation of how markets improve workplace safety, see this.

And that brings us to our next subject: if the government is not enforcing safety regulations, then who would? How can we be kept safe? The answer, in short, is that the market process itself fosters safety improvements.

Let’s use dating as an example. Julian Adorney, whose insightful articles inspired this post in the first place, writes:

“No doubt there’s potential for abuse in the dating market. Sleazy men can treat women poorly; dishonest women can cheat on men. Some people get too drunk and do things they regret. Break-ups can cause immense emotional distress. We as a society recognize this, but we do not believe that this danger calls for government intervention. Instead, individuals take action to mitigate the damages above. A girl who dates a sleazy man will tell her friends about him, essentially giving him a negative review to steer others clear. People who drink too much and engage in behavior they later regret will learn from their mistakes and avoid similar behavior in the future. They make the similar mistakes again, but on the whole, the dating market contains a variety of complex mechanisms through which social pressure is applied to discriminate against those who break the rules of dating while favoring those who function within the established rules.”

online dating fail

An example of suggested self-regulation.

Markets are self-regulating. If safety is what consumers want, then that is what the market provides. I will not go into too much detail here, but things like Consumer Reports, the Better Business Bureau, product reviews, feedback mechanisms such as that of eBay, escrow services, insurance, and so on, can all be used to make life safer and products of higher quality. And they do this without resorting to violence, unlike government regulation.

Consider the Jewish practice of eating kosher. An entire industry of kosher certifications has evolved in a purely bottom-up process. There are several competing organizations that provide food labeling services and certify that the product is kosher. Read more about how kosher labeling is a model of private regulation here.

My previous job was at a healthcare IT firm. A private company, KLAS, did research and analytics on healthcare technology, and my company (and surely our competitors) was constantly striving to improve how we scored with them. The result was better information for hospitals deciding what type of medical record software to use – and ultimately, a better experience for hospital patients.

And you’ve probably never heard of Underwriters Laboratories (UL), but they do safety and quality tests on tens of thousands of products every year, likely including several in your home right now. They largely solve the problem of how you can trust that products which are purchased infrequently (and thus it is harder to “vote with your dollars” in future purchases) are safe and effective. It is truly a remarkable organization, and you can and should read more about it here. More:

“The Lab was the first to set standards for certifying the safety of pilots and planes before the government intervened. It set the standards for building materials, fire-fighting equipment, air conditioners, and household chemicals. It employs safecrackers and pyrotechnicians to test safes, and a variety of unique machines and devices to test thousands of other products each year. It has been testing multicolored Christmas lights since 1905, and entered the building-code business right after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.”

Voluntary organizations can be (and have been) established in many other fields in order to promote consumer safety. For an interesting discussion of self-regulation, particularly in the context of privacy, see this.

Ultimately, we must conclude that regulations in general are equally as absurd as my ridiculous proposal about regulating dating.



To finish off this article, I can do no better than to quote Mr. Adorney at length:

“This dating market is almost pure anarchy. No government bureaucrat tells you who to date. Straight white women aren’t legally obligated to only date straight white men. While sexual conduct with minors is forbidden, anyone over age eighteen can date anyone else over age eighteen.

And once you begin dating someone, no government agent steps in to tell you how the relationship must progress. There are no laws around what restaurants are “appropriate” for a first date; no burdensome rules around how many hours a date can last or how many drinks one party can imbibe.

And in the absence of government rules, unofficial codes of behavior spring up. Social norms emerge, crowd-sourced and shaped by society as a whole. It’s appropriate for a guy to buy the girl dinner. Getting drunk on a first date is frowned upon. Dating someone else on the side — cheating — is immoral and is generally cause for break-up.

No government official made these rules. No Department of Safe and Responsible Dating set these codes down in law. Instead, they form organically. Culture, from television shows like Friends to love songs, shape our social mores. How our friends behave when they date impacts how we behave. If your friends say that it’s wrong to cheat on a boy you’re seeing, you’ll probably absorb that as a rule of romance.

The result is anarchy: not an absence of rules, but an absence of rulers dictating how we behave and throwing those in jail who do not comply.”

Are Private Prisons Compatible With Libertarianism?


Three decades after the war on crime began, the United States has developed a prison-industrial complex—a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need. The prison-industrial complex is not a conspiracy, guiding the nation’s criminal-justice policy behind closed doors. It is a confluence of special interests that has given prison construction in the United States a seemingly unstoppable momentum. It is composed of politicians, both liberal and conservative, who have used the fear of crime to gain votes; impoverished rural areas where prisons have become a cornerstone of economic development; private companies that regard the roughly $35 billion spent each year on corrections not as a burden on American taxpayers but as a lucrative market; and government officials whose fiefdoms have expanded along with the inmate population. Since 1991 the rate of violent crime in the United States has fallen by about 20 percent, while the number of people in prison or jail has risen by 50 percent. The prison boom has its own inexorable logic. Steven R. Donziger, a young attorney who headed the National Criminal Justice Commission in 1996, explains the thinking: “If crime is going up, then we need to build more prisons; and if crime is going down, it’s because we built more prisons—and building even more prisons will therefore drive crime down even lower.” – Eric Schlosser, The Atlantic

The United States has, bar none, the largest prison population in the world. According to the ACLU:

  • With only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prison population – that makes us the world’s largest jailer.
  • Since 1970, our prison population has risen 700%.
  • One in 99 adults are living behind bars in the U.S. This marks the highest rate of imprisonment in American history.
  • One in 31 adults are under some form of correctional control, counting prison, jail, parole and probation populations.

On top of these horrid statistics, 86% of all Federal inmates are being incarcerated for victimless crimes, such as drug use or administrative crimes (not filling out paperwork in time, etc.). And imprisoning all of these people isn’t cheap: According to the national Prisons Bureau:

The fee to cover the average cost of incarceration for Federal inmates in Fiscal Year 2011 was $28,893.40. The average annual cost to confine an inmate in a Community Corrections Center for Fiscal Year 2011 was $26,163.

According to a report from the Vera Institute for Justice, in the 40 states that participated in their study, the total cost of incarceration to taxpayers was $39 billion! And all of that money is fueling an industry of great import: the prison-industrial complex. This includes, among others, construction firms, prison managers, wardens, food service providers, security personnel and technology, counselors, and so on. This complex is becoming increasingly private rather than public, as described in a 2012 report from the Sentencing Project:

In 2010, private prisons held 128,195 of the 1.6 million state and federal prisoners in the United States, representing eight percent of the total population. For the period 1999-2010, the number of individuals held in private prisons grew by 80 percent, compared to 18 percent for the overall prison population. While both federal and state governments increasingly relied on privatization, the federal prison system’s commitment to privatization grew much more dramatically. The number of federal prisoners held in private prisons rose from 3,828 to 33,830, an increase of 784 percent, while the number of state prisoners incarcerated privately grew by 40 percent, from 67,380 to 94,365. Today, 30 states maintain some level of privatization, with seven states housing more than a quarter of their prison populations privately.

Libertarians advocate for the privatization of all government “services,” and this includes the prison system. Whenever I mention that “public” utilities and “public” works ought to be done privately, a common retort is to “look at how that has worked in the prison industry.” But how libertarian are private prisons anyways?

The answer to this question is quite nuanced, with many subtleties that are difficult for statists to grasp. Hell, they are pretty difficult for many libertarians to grasp too! In this post, I’d like to set the record straight (while acknowledging that there are differences of opinion among libertarians on this issue).


The Problem With Private Prisons

If you assume that a society based on market anarchist ideals would have a similar system of justice as our current world (an assumption which, as I will argue later, is unlikely), then everything, including prisons, would be privatized.

But the very existence of a state changes the dynamic in very important ways. In a post slamming libertarianism because of the abuses of the private prison industry, Gus DiZeriga writes:

Privatization of prisons creates corporations with a vested interest in maintaining current crimes as illegal even when there is no just reason for doing so, because it guarantees keeping their cells filled and their profits high. They also have a vested interest in criminalizing additional behavior. They demonstrably use some of their profits to support friendly legislators and lobby for legislation they desire. And their political favors are returned.

All libertarians will agree on this point. And this makes things complicated, because in the purely voluntary society envisioned by libertarians, there would be no state influence, which essentially nullifies this problem. To bribe the whole slew of private defense firms and insurance companies in order to maintain these unjust arrangements would be prohibitively expensive (though technically not impossible).

In any case, the state does currently exist. And as such, we are seeing an incredible amount of “public-private partnerships” and corrupt lobbying, with all the perverse incentives that this entails.

According to Think Progress, the lobbying budgets of these private prison companies are significant:

In the past decade, three major private prison companies spent $45 million on campaign donations and lobbyists to push legislation at the state and federal level. At times, this money has gone to truly nefarious legislation. A 2011 report found that the private prison industry spent millions seeking to increase sentences and incarcerate more people in order to increase the industry’s profits. 30 of the 36 legislators who co-sponsored Arizona’s now mostly invalidated immigration law — which would have landed many more people in detention — received campaign contributions from private prison lobbyists or companies, including CCA and GEO. According to a report released last year, CCA spent over $900,000 on federal lobbying and GEO spent between $120,000 to $199,992 in Florida alone during a short three-month span in 2011. $450,000 went to the Republican national and congressional committees, while Democrats received less than half that number. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Sen. John McCain(R-AZ) were also among the private prison lobby’s top benefactors.

Some more specifics regarding the two biggest players in the for-profit prison industry, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO group:

And this lobbying is for decidedly un-libertarian aims. For instance, CCA proposed to buy prisons from 48 states, with the stipulation that the states agree to maintain a 90% prison bed occupancy rate for at least 20 years! And they lobby for harsh mandatory minimum sentences, “three strikes” laws, and so on.

On the surface, this presents a real problem for libertarians, at least from the perspective of those with an incomplete understanding of the philosophy. After all, isn’t the move toward privatization of prisons exactly what libertarians have been suggesting?

Not quite. The “prison” system envisioned by anarchist libertarians is radically different, and a brief sketch of it will be outlined in the next section. In the meantime, it is important to note that the current prison system, whether administered privately or publically, possesses the same perverse incentives.

Liberals routinely argue that the profit motive creates perverse incentives in the prison industry. This is certainly true. But liberals do not understand what “profit” really means (any individual can profit, not just massive corporations), and ignore the fact that a purely state-run prison system has a similar incentive structure, perhaps to a slightly smaller degree.

cage prison

There is no reason to believe that a state-run prison would behave differently than any other government bureaucracy. As with all government agencies, administrators will continue to seek larger budgets. And both success and failure, however awkwardly they would be defined for a prison system, would provide justification for increased budgets, hiring more employees, and greater benefits.

Corrections guard unions and police unions are interest groups that, so long as the state apparatus exists, would directly benefit from and lobby for increased criminalization of assorted activities in order to expand the prison population. This is the same kind of rent-seeking behavior that you would see in the private sector.

In addition, public employees face additional perverse incentives related to protecting their members from accountability. We see this all the time with “qualified immunity” for police officers, making it nearly impossible to prosecute them for abuses, but it also happens with corrections officers. One example would be how the guards’ union in Maryland successfully lobbied to pass the Correctional Officers Bill of Rights. This is a law “which made it much harder to discipline bad correctional officers — thus reducing C.O.s’ accountability and facilitating brutality and corruption scandals,” as legal scholar Sasha Volokh explains.

To sum up, Nathan Goodman argues:

Thus, public choice theory suggests that those who benefit have more incentive and ability to influence policy than those who bear the costs, so we see a rise in incarceration, regardless of whether it’s good policy for the general public. The perverse incentives are easy to illustrate when ruthless corporate profiteers are the beneficiaries and rent seekers, but local populations that want jobs as prison guards have the same types of incentive problems. This is why we need to push not just against for-profit prisons, but against all prisons. The economic logic of state financed prisons encourages a growing prison state.


Restitution, Justice, And Anarchist “Prisons”

Under the current state capitalist system, a private prison may be owned privately, but it is still paid by the state using money that is stolen directly from taxpayers. Fundamentally, this makes the private/public distinction a less relevant one from the libertarian standpoint – either way, the system is unjust.

Philosophically, there is a huge difference between the ideals of an anarchist system of incarceration and that which exists under our current state capitalist system. As of right now, justice is about punishment. If you are convicted of a crime, you are expected to be punished with a prison sentence. But does putting criminals in prison do anything to help the original victim of the crime?

Of course not! A more appropriate system would focus on restitution rather than punishment. This means, broadly, attempting to make the victim “whole” again. It is fairly easy to see how this would work in a case of theft. Let’s say I steal $10,000 from you. You are entitled now to those $10,000 plus interest, and perhaps even more than that (but I’ll leave it to the legal scholars and legal entrepreneurs to determine the appropriate amounts). This is covered under your “theft insurance,” so the insurance company pays for the damages right away, and now owns the claim to restitution from the criminal. An investigation is conducted, a criminal is found, and they are tried and convicted. That’s where the anarchist “prisons” come into play, but I will get to that in just a moment.

You may find this plausible in cases of theft, but what about crimes that can’t be compensated for, such as murder or rape? A similar “murder insurance” could be put in place. I can take out a policy stipulating that my next of kin gets $200,000 in case I am murdered. The rest proceeds accordingly, with the murderer needing to pay up.

If you are not an anarchist, you probably are quite skeptical of this explanation, because it is so far removed from our modern system. You likely have many questions. It is not my intent to go into detail on the ins and outs of a completely anarchist legal system, but there is no shortage of explanations out there on the internet, so I suggest you read through a couple of these before blithely assuming it can’t work. Here are a few to help get you started:

Okay, so what about the actual prisons?

For starters, I must get the obligatory disclaimer out of the way: there is no single way that an anarchist society will work. When we talk about free markets, we must admit the fact that due to entrepreneurial alertness, new technologies, and new business models, systems can and will evolve. In addition, the differences between the current system and an anarchist system are so pronounced, it may be hard for some to comprehend. As Brad Spangler notes:

Perhaps no other thing the state does offers so much potential for privatization nightmare stories as prisons do. There’s a reason for this. Prisons themselves, as we understand the term today, are inherently abusive and criminal enterprises — whether managed directly by a state or a state-affiliated monopoly contractor.

Does that mean there will be nothing like prisons in a market anarchist society? Yes and no. Context matters. We’re really talking about two different things — “privatization” under statism is not the same thing as what will likely result in the marketplace if we were to abolish the state and make “law” a free market for consensual dispute resolution with justice understood as restitution rather than punishment.

But amidst the extreme contrast between these systems, it is easy to discern a critical difference: because the system is based on restitution, the criminal will be liable for some specified amount of damages for whatever crime they commit. Chances are, they will owe the money to their own insurance company or “Dispute Resolution Organization,” who will act as a kind of cosigning agent for an individual’s interactions (not unlike insurance companies do today). If they are not insured this way, they will owe the money directly to the victim or their agent.

Either way, the criminal would be held responsible in some way. If insured, their insurance company may simply increase their premium, particularly in cases of less extreme crime. A form of house arrest is another less invasive option. But in more extreme cases (theft of large sums, murder, rape, etc.), or if uninsured, the criminal may then end up in “prison.”

Here, another major difference between anarchist “prisons” and modern prisons comes up. Today, if you are sent to prison, you have no choice in the matter. You become a captive, entirely subject to the will of your captors. If they send you to a horribly abusive prison, too bad. Or you might get lucky. But either way, you have no choice.

Under anarchy, you would get to choose which “prison” you went to. Or, you’re insurance company would choose (or give you options. There are an infinite variety of models here) for you. Of course, insurance companies won’t want to be associated with “prisons” known to have horrid, abusive conditions, and criminals certainly won’t choose to go to them, so these “prisons” have an incentive to have reasonable living conditions. Robert Murphy elaborates:

Consider: No insurance company would vouch for a serial killer if he applied for a job at the local library, but they would deal with him if he agreed to live in a secure building under close scrutiny. The insurance company would make sure that the “jail” that held him was well-run. After all, if the person escaped and killed again, the insurance company would be held liable, since it pledges to make good on any damages its clients commit.

On the other hand, there would be no undue cruelty for the prisoners in such a system. Although they would have no chance of escape (unlike government prisons), they wouldn’t be beaten by sadistic guards. If they were, they’d simply switch to a different jail, just as travelers can switch hotels if they view the staff as discourteous. Again, the insurance company (which vouches for a violent person) doesn’t care which jail its client chooses, so long as its inspectors have determined that the jail will not let its client escape into the general population.

Under anarchy, the criminal becomes the “customer” for detention facilities, rather than the state. This creates a whole different incentive structure. These facilities would resemble something more akin to a high-security hotel than to a modern prison – they would cater to criminals who need a place to stay while working off their debts in order to pay restitution.

proactiv prison breakout

In our current, state capitalist system, private prisons have an incentive to cut costs – perhaps by hiring fewer guards, paying less for healthcare and food, and through generally crappier conditions. Under anarchy, prisoner choice provides a countervailing force. And insurance companies may pay for prison upkeep, so there need not be forced labor by prisoners to pay for their expenses.

I certainly haven’t covered all possible contingencies here. But it should be clear from the sketch above that an anarchist prison system need not suffer the same kinds of intolerable abuses that are so prevalent today in both private and state-run prisons.


Prison Labor And The Prison-Industrial Complex

Since 1980 spending on corrections at the local, state, and federal levels has increased about fivefold. What was once a niche business for a handful of companies has become a multibillion-dollar industry with its own trade shows and conventions, its own Web sites, mail-order catalogues, and direct-marketing campaigns. The prison-industrial complex now includes some of the nation’s largest architecture and construction firms, Wall Street investment banks that handle prison bond issues and invest in private prisons, plumbing-supply companies, food-service companies, health-care companies, companies that sell everything from bullet-resistant security cameras to padded cells available in a “vast color selection.” A directory called the Corrections Yellow Pages lists more than a thousand vendors. Among the items now being advertised for sale: a “violent prisoner chair,” a sadomasochist’s fantasy of belts and shackles attached to a metal frame, with special accessories for juveniles; B.O.S.S., a “body-orifice security scanner,” essentially a metal detector that an inmate must sit on; and a diverse line of razor wire, with trade names such as Maze, Supermaze, Detainer Hook Barb, and Silent Swordsman Barbed Tape. – Eric Schlosser

Contrast the humane system above with the thoroughly exploitative system of prison labor that exists now. Currently, prison labor is abused in all the typical ways that crony capitalism is known for.

Big companies will use cheap prison labor to gain a competitive advantage by cutting labor costs significantly. Think about it: there’s no need to worry about the workers going on strike; there’s no need to pay for unemployment insurance, vacation time, or any other benefits; the workers are full-time and never show up late; and if they don’t like how much they are getting paid, too bad! They can just get locked up in isolation.

And compare this with the savings that would be generated from outsourcing. While cheap labor abroad is still quite cheap, there are additional costs associated with transporting goods around the world, which is far less of a concern while using local prison labor. Note that state-run prisons also contract out their prisoners for labor, not just private ones. A prison laborer typically makes between 93 cents and $4.73 per day, often working with toxic substances and without the protections that a normal worker would have.

So, not only do the private prisons make a bunch of money from getting guaranteed payments per prisoner regardless of cost, but other large corporations get to take advantage of what basically amounts to slave labor. What is this exploitation creating, and who benefits? Two informative articles from Global Research help answer these questions (see here and here).

Predictably, the potential profit of the prison labor boom has encouraged the foundations of US corporate society to move their production forces into American prisons. Conglomerates such as IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Victoria’s Secret, and Target have all begun mounting production operations in US prisons.

That should give you some idea of the kinds of things these prisoners are making, but here’s some more detail:

According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armor; 36% of home appliances; 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture. Airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more: prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people.

Should it really be at all of a surprise that the prison-industrial complex is another cog in the military-industrial complex? Of course the captive labor in prison is being used to make military supplies on the cheap (but don’t worry, the Pentagon will still pay top dollar for crappy weapons projects like the F-35).

The whole system ties together quite nicely. If you take a look at this list of companies that own more than 1 million shares of CCA and GEO Group, you’ll notice many of the big players in the international crony capitalist elite. When you consider the interconnections that tie the whole international system of crony capitalism and American foreign policy together, it starts to make a lot of sense.

Many of these Fortune 500 conglomerates are corporate members of civil society groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). These think tanks are critical toward influencing American foreign policy. Under the guise of democracy promotion, these civil societies fund opposition movements and train dissent groups in countries around the world in the interest of pro-US regime change. With naked insincerity, the same companies that outsource the production of their products to American prisons simultaneously sponsor civil societies that demanded the release of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest – an overly political effort in the on-going attempts to install a compliant regime in that country.

And finally, it should come as no surprise that all the same regulatory problems inherent in a crony capitalist system should be present with respect to the prison-industrial complex as well. Take this example of a state agency being in cahoots with GEO Group, a textbook example of regulatory capture:

The concept of privatizing prisons to reduce expenses comes at great cost to the inmates detained, who are subjected to living in increasingly squalid conditions in jail cells across America. In 2007, the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) was sent to a West Texas juvenile prison run by GEO Group for the purpose of monitoring its quality standards. The monitors sent by the TYC were subsequently fired for failing to report the sordid conditions they witnessed in the facility while they awarded the GEO Group with an overall compliance score of nearly 100%. Independent auditors later visited the facility and discovered that inmates were forced to urinate or defecate in small containers due to a lack of toilets in some of the cells. The independent commission also noted in their list of reported findings that the facility racially segregated prisoners and disciplined Hispanics for speaking Spanish by denying their access to lawyers and medical treatment. It was later discovered that the TYC monitors were employed by the GEO Group.

Let’s take a moment to remember that this horrible system of exploitation is not a product of the free market, but rather a consequence of having a state exist in general. A system of justice based on polycentric law and administered in a non-coercive fashion could never support abuse on such a wide scale.


Solutions/Moving Forward

As a libertarian, I believe there must be real free market solutions to the problems caused by the prison-industrial complex. While many people will no doubt be taken in by the idea of prison reform, we have seen that these problems are inherent in a statist system of justice, and no amount of reform can address those underlying problems.

prison download music

Nevertheless, while I have doubts about its ability to cause real change in this area, the mantra “voting with your dollars” can apply here. The Prison Divestment Campaign may help curb some of the excesses of the prison profiteers. It may be worthwhile to support this cause, but changing the fundamental problems will require a different kind of solution.

Short of seeing the realization of a fully anarcho-capitalist society, we can look to some new technologies to help cause a fundamental shift in the system, perhaps even within the next decade or so. Some of the functionality of Bitcoin and the blockchain could revolutionize legal practice, and thus indirectly have a powerful effect on the prison system.

As these technologies evolve and become more widely adopted, a parallel legal system will begin to emerge in competition with our current state monopoly system. Basically, a new Common Law. Here’s an example:

The plain, ordinary Common Law developed as the result of competing courts that issued opinions basically as advertisements of how fair and impartial they were. We could see something similar with Bitcoin arbitration. If arbitrators sign their transactions with links to and a cryptographic hash of a PDF that explains why they ruled as they did, we could see real competition in the articulation of rules. Over time, some of these articulations could come to be widely accepted and form a body of Bitcoin precedent.

This kind of arbitration is perfectly doable using a currently existing Bitcoin feature: multi-signature transactions. This is a feature that doesn’t allow a transaction to be fully processed unless m-of-n people have agreed. Most simply, this could mean that two out of three people involved in a transaction must agree to it for it to become valid. That could mean you and me in a business dealing, with a third party arbitrator if one of us is unhappy with the deal as executed.

Over time and once more widely used, these technologies could practically eliminate the need for lawyers and government courts for dealing with the administration of many types of contracts and disputes. For instance, Blockchain Apparatus just released new software that will take care of the administration of estates and wills in a completely decentralized, trustless, cheap, and quick way. And an ex-Rugby player is working on a smart contracts tool to manage third-party endorsement contracts and take a lot of the headache over contract disputes in sports.

For more details on multi-signature transactions and their legal applications, see this.

For more information on smart contracts in general, see this.

By creating a new legal framework outside of the state system, technology may help us get to a stateless system of justice sooner than many people think. And we will not be able to eliminate the statist (in)justice system until this happens.



While libertarians ostensibly support the privatization of government functions, it is more complicated than it sounds in practice. Particularly with regard to prison administration, contracting out these “services” are not what a principled libertarian has in mind. As Bruce Benson explains:

If Hitler had contracted out some of his law enforcement services, the rounding up and extermination of Jews might have been accomplished at a lower per-unit cost and more Jews could have been exterminated, but the fact that more of these politically defined “criminals” could have been exterminated more “efficiently” in a technological sense does not mean that the contracting out of this process would have been desirable. Indeed, if contracting out enhances technological efficiency, as its advocates argue it will, then it may encourage even more intensive law enforcement efforts against victimless crimes, thereby reducing both allocative efficiency and liberty.

Ultimately, the only just system is one based on restitution rather than punishment, and in the context of a purely voluntary society.

photo by:

Case Study In Media Deception: Dietary Supplement Regulation

Dietary supplements

One of my pet interests is in nutrition, health, personal development, and the like (I’ve actually been blogging about this stuff for three years now over here). A subsection of that interest is in nutritional supplements, which I know far too much about. Some of my friends consider me like a pharmacist of sorts.

My dad, familiar with my interests, sent me this article on Yahoo about how GNC will be making changes to their quality control procedures. Here’s the gist of it:

Earlier this year, the New York State attorney general’s office accused GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreens of selling fraudulent herbal supplements, devoid of the ingredients touted on the label and containing potentially harmful contaminants. Now, at least one of the retailers is responding by tightening up their quality control.

Today, GNC will announce that it will be implementing major new testing procedures to make sure its supplements far exceed the standards currently set by the federal government.

“This should be a standard across the entire industry,” Dr. Pieter Cohen, a professor who studies supplements at Harvard Medical School, tells the New York Times. “Today we finally have one first step taken by one retailer, and only after the very aggressive intervention by the New York attorney general’s office.”

In the past, I’ve discussed how the media is used to promote memes that the elite want spread, and this is a perfect demonstration of the principle. Supplements are regulated more like the way food is regulated in America, as opposed to the far more heavily regulated pharmaceutical industry. As such, dietary supplements are vastly cheaper – and Americans are using them in huge numbers. In 2012, the industry took home $32 billion in revenue, and this is projected to increase to $60 billion by 2021.

It is quite clear that the intention of this article is to promote the idea of further regulation of dietary supplements. Feel free to read the article yourself, but the excerpt above is obviously an attempt to make a connection between supplements being unsafe and the government needing to step in to address this. A casual reader of the article will immediately make that connection in their mind: “Uh oh, I take dietary supplements [nearly 70% of Americans do]. I don’t want them to be unsafe – there ought to be a law!”

But the connection is entirely spurious, as one heavily propagandistic statement in the middle of the article should make clear:

Supplements are required to state the name and amount of each and every ingredient they contain — but this practice is more of an “honor code,”and not always abided by.

Supplements are currently regulated under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). Under this law, supplements are in fact required to state the name of every ingredient they contain and the total quantity of ingredients. This is the law. The only reason why the article would say it is “more of an honor code” is to mislead; technically, all laws go by the “honor code” in the sense mentioned here – that they are sometimes broken. Nobody would claim that laws against murder go by the “honor code.” If you murder someone and are caught, the force of the law comes down upon you. Just like for every law.

The article is arguing that because supplement companies have committed fraud, they need tighter regulations. But fraud is already illegal, and there is already a procedure in place for this. From the FDA website linked to above:

FDA is responsible for taking action against any adulterated or misbranded dietary supplement product after it reaches the market.

In other words, current regulations already prohibit fraud. The current regulations have failed to protect consumers, despite their intent.

I am not trying to dispute here that there are problems within the supplement industry. Fraud may very well be rampant, as the article claims. In that case, the fraudsters ought to be punished, and those who were victimized ought to be made whole again.

In addition to fraud, many supplements make bold claims about their potential health benefits, even if there isn’t much credible science to back it up. But it is the responsibility of consumers to separate the good from the bad. No one is coerced into purchasing these supplements. It is easy to do research on these things. Personally, I suggest checking examine.com to find quality scientific research on supplements for free. And by and large, dietary supplements are quite safe (but you should ALWAYS do your own research beforehand).

But I digress. The main point I want to get across in this post is that the media is used as a means of establishing trends on behalf of the elite. Who is it that stands to benefit most from promoting the meme that dietary supplements require stronger regulations? Answer: the pharmaceutical companies, of course!

Dietary supplements are viewed by many Americans as a cheaper alternative to expensive pharmaceuticals. But if they were more heavily regulated, the cost of supplements would skyrocket, and people would no longer have access to cheap substitutes. So that is the first point: eliminating competition. Complying with regulations is expensive, and this makes it vastly more difficult for upstart companies to get a foothold in the industry.

Perhaps even more important is the fact that much of the supplement industry is already owned by the big pharmaceutical companies! In an article on Al Jazeera arguing in favor of supplement regulation, this is confirmed:

Supplement promoters sell themselves as an alternative to big pharma, but giant pharmaceutical firms actually own the bulk of the industry. Pfizer owns Centrum, Bayer owns One a Day, and Procter & Gamble owns supplement maker New Chapter. Even Wall Street is getting in on the action. The Carlyle Group, a private-equity giant, owns NBTY (formerly Nature’s Bounty), and hedge funds are trading on industry players like the Vitamin Shoppe, betting that health-conscious baby boomers and other promising demographics will keep buying.

A 2009 article on Fox News corroborates this:

There are hundreds of small firms, including niche players with only a few products. But they account for a slim slice of total sales, industry experts say.

The Pharma giant Wyeth, for example, makes Centrum and other supplements, and Bayer HealthCare of aspirin fame makes the One A Day line. Unilever, Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline and other big pharmaceutical firms also make or sell supplements.

Not only will dietary supplement regulation squeeze out the smaller players in the market, but it will allow the pharmaceutical companies to sell their own supplements for oligopoly prices. And since these giant companies already have the majority share in these sales, you can expect that they will be by far the biggest winners if any new supplement regulations are signed into law.

This whole idea is most surely a promotion by the pharmaceutical industry, which has a massive lobby. In the 2014 election cycle, the industry spent nearly $14.8 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And in the combined election cycles between 1990 and 2014, they spent over $163 million. Contrast this with the lobbying for the nutritional supplement industry. In 2014, they spent just over $1 million. And since 1990, they have spent a paltry $15.3 million.

And pharmaceutical companies are known to be aggressive marketers. In particular, they are shifting to a more heavy online advertising presence, as you can see in the graph.


If my powers of deduction and knowledge of how the world works are correct, you can expect to see many more articles published in major online news sources calling for increased regulation of the dietary supplement industry.

Crony capitalism at its finest!


photo by:

Private Cities: Does Honduras Prove That Libertarianism Doesn’t Work?

Private cities

I recently came across this article on Salon, which argues that a libertarian experiment that is going on in Honduras proves that libertarianism does not work. Frankly, I was only vaguely familiar with whatever is going on in Honduras, but the line of reasoning sounded to me a lot like the “well why don’t you go live in Somalia, then?” kind of argument.

Typically, arguments like this are just absurd straw men, like when liberals will point to the problems in the US health care system and say “See? Look how terrible the free market is!” So I began to do some research on the situation on Honduras to see if this is just another case of completely misunderstanding what libertarianism is or what free markets are.

So, what is actually going on in Honduras? In July 2011, the Honduran government amended their constitution to allow for the establishment of ZEDEs (Zones for Employment and Economic Development) with the intention of tackling poverty and improving the economy. There has been all sorts of legal drama with getting the project rolling, including an October 18, 2012 decision by the Honduran Supreme Court that the prior amendment was unconstitutional (on May 26, 2014, the new Supreme Court gave the ZEDE project their blessing). I’m sure there was some corruption and shady dealings involved in making this all happen, but here we are. It is not my intention to go through a complete history of how this idea is playing out in Honduras, but Brian Doherty at Reason has done a good job covering this here. As stated in an editorial in Honduras Weekly:

“It’s very important for all of us to understand, especially libertarians, that the new Honduran jurisdictions haven’t been designed to please the libertarian taste. The ZEDEs (or LEAP zones) are an experiment that aims to solve an [sic] social and economic crisis, to help Honduras overcome underdevelopment and fast-track the path to prosperity. If everything goes well, they will also serve as an example for the rest of the world, making Honduras a pioneer and reference point for an idea with huge development potential.”

It is critically important to note that these ZEDEs are semi-autonomous zones, sort of like Hong Kong is to China. They will still be considered a part of Honduras, but will have differing legal and economic systems. Basically, Honduras sells land to some investors, and then that land is no longer subject to the laws of Honduras or “protected” by Honduran police. The investors must establish their own government, contract out for their own police forces, and decide on whatever other laws the area will have. Note that other than the decentralized nature of the scheme, there is nothing inherently libertarian about it; some wealthy communists would be more than welcome to buy up land and set up their own communist utopia there. In addition, none of these ZEDEs have actually been implemented yet.

Enter Edwin Lyngar, author of the Salon article in question. If you actually read through his piece (and it is fairly short), you’ll see that he is speaking as though Honduras (all of it) is some kind of libertarian dream world. Never mind the fact that the actual ZEDEs have yet to exist, and never mind the fact that Honduras is one of the less economically free countries on the planet, as evidenced by their ranking 116th out of 178 nations in Heritage’s Index of Economic Freedom.

In other words, the entire basis of his critique rests on a complete lie.

Nevertheless, I think it is worth delving into Honduras a bit more deeply and to respond to a few of Mr. Lyngar’s specific points.


Critique Of The Critique: A Comedy Of Errors

Mr. Lyngar’s article is full of ridiculous inconsistencies and a clear lack of understanding of what libertarianism actually means. Consider his description of libertarianism, which he claims to have been an adherent of not long ago:

“In America, libertarian ideas are attractive to mostly young, white men with high ideals and no life experience that live off of the previous generation’s investments and sacrifice.  I know this because as a young, white idiot, I subscribed to this system of discredited ideas:  Selfishness is good, government is bad. Take what you want, when you want and however you can.  Poor people deserve what they get, and the smartest, hardworking people always win.  So get yours before someone else does.”

Most libertarians wouldn’t claim that “selfishness is good”, except in the context of the invisible hand. In that case, peoples’ selfishness does in fact lead to better outcomes. Even most liberals will agree with this to some extent.

The number of libertarians who would tell you to “take what you want, when you want and however you can” is zero. Not a one. If a “libertarian” were to say this, then by definition they would not be a libertarian. You see, stealing stuff is one of those little things that libertarians are in fact against. Gasp!

Unfortunately, some libertarians may say that “poor people deserve what they get,” but they are misguided. In my experience, it tends to be conservatives who would say things like this, and some of the more libertarian-leaning Republicans, but rarely libertarians. In the case of libertarians who say this, they usually would retract it within a couple months, when they become an anarchist and better understand the idea of crony capitalism.

No libertarian would say that the smartest or hardest working people (or most other adjectives) will always win. Those are certainly advantages, but it tends to be those who are most “alert” in the Kirznerian sense who we would say are most likely to “win” in business.

And libertarians don’t believe that the economy is a zero-sum game. You need not “get yours before someone else does.” Those who are most successful in a free market are those who create the most value for others, so “getting yours” means helping as many other people as possible.

Despite claiming to have been a libertarian, it is clear that Mr. Lyngar hasn’t the slightest clue what he’s talking about. Either that, or he is being deliberately misleading, which is far worse. Moving on…

“In Honduras, the police ride around in pickup trucks with machine guns, but they aren’t there to protect most people.  They are scary to locals and travelers alike.  For individual protection there’s an army of private, armed security guards who are found in front of not only banks, but also restaurants, ATM machines, grocery stores and at any building that holds anything of value whatsoever.  Some guards have uniforms and long guns but just as many are dressed in street clothes with cheap pistols thrust into waistbands.”

Let me get this straight: people find the government police scary and useless in protecting people, but private security is taking up the role of protecting things of value…and somehow, this is supposed to reflect poorly on libertarian ideas?

“The country has a handful of really rich people, a small group of middle-class, some security guards who seem to be getting by and a massive group of people who are starving to death and living in slums.  You can see the evidence of previous decades of infrastructure investment in roads and bridges, but it’s all in slow-motion decay.”

Bob Wenzel did a good job tearing this down. What are some major causes of income inequality? High minimum wages and oppressive regulations.

“Honduras has the most complex minimum wage laws I have ever seen. Take a look for yourself. As far as starting a business, the World Bank lists it as extremely difficult to do so in Honduras, with a rank of 138 out of 189 countries. Which is to say nothing about its ranking for Enforcing Contracts  (166).”

And Mark Lutter says:

“The basic problem is that Honduras, along with many other third-world countries, does not have functioning courts or police. Nor do they have basic rights to engage in commerce with others. If a Honduran wants to start a business, he must pay 39 percent of his per capita income, and he must wait 82 days to get the requisite construction permits. Economic growth is not possible without the creative destruction that comes with new businesses.”

And I’d like to add that the decaying infrastructure reflects the weaknesses of government, not of private industry. While on the subject of infrastructure, Mr. Lyngar effectively brings up the question that every libertarian knows all too well: but wut about muh roads?!?! Here he is describing his drive along some Honduran roads:

“The word “treacherous” is inadequate—a better description is “post-apocalyptic.”  We did not see one speed limit sign in hundreds of kilometers.  Not one.  People drive around each other on the right and left and in every manner possible.  The road was clogged with horses, scooters and bicycles.  People traveled in every conceivable manner along the crumbling arterial.  Few cars have license plates, and one taxi driver told me that the private company responsible for making them went bankrupt.  Instead of traffic stops, there are military check points every so often.  The roads seemed more dangerous to me than the gang violence.”

Yet again, as is so often the case in anti-libertarian polemics, Mr. Lyngar conflates government failure with market failure. This “post-apocalyptic” picture of the roads in Honduras is yet another demonstration of the failure of government to maintain adequate infrastructure. He continues:

“The greatest examples of libertarianism in action are the hundreds of men, women and children standing alongside the roads all over Honduras.  The government won’t fix the roads, so these desperate entrepreneurs fill in potholes with shovels of dirt or debris.  They then stand next to the filled-in pothole soliciting tips from grateful motorists.  That is the wet dream of libertarian private sector innovation.”

When the government fails, the private sector needs to pick up the pieces. While I’ve personally never had a wet dream about entrepreneurs filling in pot holes (although I’m sure there would be some great Freudian dream analysis of this), I do respect these instances where people who are clearly victims of government go out and try to make the best of a bad situation.

“A member of the small, dwindling middle class, Alberto objects to his city being labeled the most dangerous in the Western Hemisphere.  He showed me a few places in the city that could have been almost anywhere, a hipster bar, a great seafood place (all guarded by armed men, of course).  Alberto took me on a small hike to a spot overlooking the city and pointed out new construction and nice buildings.  There are new buildings and construction but it is funded exclusively by private industry.  He pointed out a place for a new airport that could be the biggest in Central America, he said, if only it could get built, but there is no private sector upside.” [emphasis mine]

Are you noticing a theme here? Time and again, the author is lambasting libertarians and their free market beliefs, yet pointing to evidence of how the government has been an utter failure and that the private sector is the only bright spot in the country. With regards to the airport, he seems to be ignoring the reasons why one might choose to undergo or withhold a huge investment project. Why is there no upside? Perhaps it would be too dangerous, and gangs would shoot down planes or destroy the infrastructure. If that is the case, then building an airport is clearly an idiotic idea, whether done by the private sector or through government investment.

Later on in the post, Mr. Lyngar begins to get more abstract and attempt to find some fatal flaw in libertarianism.

“One can dismiss the core of near-sociopathic libertarian ideas with one simple question: What kind of society maximizes freedom while providing the best outcomes for the greatest number of human beings?  You cannot start with the assumption that a Russian novel writer from the ’50s is a genius, so therefore all ideas about government and society must fit between the pages of “Atlas Shrugged.”  That concept is stupid, and sends you on the opposite course of “good outcomes for human beings.”  The closer you get to totally untamed, uncontrolled privatization, the nearer you approach “Lord of the Flies.””

There is very little substance here outside of the question he brings up. That being said, his question about how to devise an ideal yet practical society is seriously flawed. For starters, libertarians believe that a more libertarian society would be the answer to his question, so it is unconvincing. But more fundamentally, he is appealing both to maximizing freedom AND a utilitarian goal, and it is not clear that the two are compatible. What criteria is used to determine which of those two values wins out when they conflict? By definition, there must be an appeal to some third value which goes unmentioned. If not, then it would appear that he is just saying that utilitarianism wins (or maximizing freedom wins, but clearly this is not his point). And if that is the case, then we must dispense with the idea that maximizing freedom is relevant at all to his analysis. By the way, the “third value” I refer to above is in almost all cases “what I think is best” for any non-libertarian.

“Society should not exist to make a few people fabulously wealthy while others starve.  Almost all humanity used to live this way, and we called it feudalism.  Many people want to go back to that sort of system, this time under the label of libertarian or “the untrammeled free market.”  The name is irrelevant because the results are the same.  In Honduras, I did not meet one person who had nice things to say about the government or how the country is run.  My takeaway from the trip is that living in a libertarian paradise satisfies only a few of the wealthiest citizens, while everyone else thinks it sucks.”

Actually, Mr. Lyngar, the name is highly relevant, because feudalism and “the untrammeled free market” are entirely different things. Feudalism is one of those terms that doesn’t have a precise definition, not unlike “terrorism“. Here is one of the most popular definitions of the term, according to Wikipedia:

“The classic François-Louis Ganshof version of feudalism describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs. A lord was in broad terms a noble who held land, a vassal was a person who was granted possession of the land by the lord, and the land was known as a fief. In exchange for the use of the fief and the protection of the lord, the vassal would provide some sort of service to the lord. There were many varieties of feudal land tenure, consisting of military and non-military service. The obligations and corresponding rights between lord and vassal concerning the fief form the basis of the feudal relationship.”

The vassal performs military service in exchange for a piece of land, and the peasant/serf worked the land in exchange for protection. In what way does this have any relation to the free market? The free market is just the absence of restrictions upon trade and production. Mr. Lyngar is comparing apples and oranges.

He also claims that no one had positive things to say about the government, as if this somehow is an argument against libertarianism. Typical. In the final paragraph of an otherwise incoherent mess of an article, Mr. Lyngar says something that is on the money:

“There can be no such thing as freedom, safety or progress of any kind, when an entire society is run for the benefit of a handful of rich assholes and global conglomerates.”

Maybe the author is a libertarian after all!


Can Private Cities (ZEDEs) Save Honduras?

Now that I’ve thoroughly rebutted Mr. Lyngar’s childish critique of libertarianism, it is time to turn to the actual (and far more interesting!) political changes that Honduras is in the process of implementing. Before demonstrating why the idea of private cities would be incredibly beneficial, let us first set the scene of modern Honduras. According to Brian Doherty:

“The small Central American nation, wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean, is the murder capital of the world, with the U.N. reporting over 80 homicides per 100,000 people in 2011, compared to slightly over 30 in Colombia and under 10 in the United States. Its average annual income of $4,300 per capita is below that of the Congo. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, 65 percent of its people are living in poverty. The World Bank ranks Honduras 125 out of 185 on its “ease of doing business” list, below Uganda.”

This data is from a couple years ago, but not much has changed. According to the CIA World Factbook, Honduras:

  • is the 2nd poorest country in Central America
  • had a per capita GDP (purchasing power parity) of only $4800 in 2013
  • under-employs about one third of the population
  • has a poverty rate of 65%
  • has a life-expectancy at birth ranked 147th in the world

Furthermore, Honduras has been ravaged by the US government’s War on Drugs, which is largely responsible for the absurdly high murder rate and drug cartel power. It has also been a major factor in the endemic corruption within the Honduran government.

In other words, modern Honduras is not a pretty picture (other than the beautiful landscapes, of course). This is the environment that the ZEDE experiment is entering. There is no guarantee that the experiment will be a success; it is not unreasonable to think that, considering the rampant corruption, it is possible that the ZEDEs will be used to enrich the already wealthy politicians and their friends. Only time will tell if the ZEDEs will actually help lift the masses of Hondurans out of poverty; a poor implementation of this experiment is likely to fail.

But if the ZEDE experiment is implemented properly, we have every reason to believe that it could be just as successful as Hong Kong was at lifting huge numbers of people out of grinding poverty, even in a fairly short period of time. And considering how Honduras is already so poor and in such bad shape, there really is very little to lose by trying.

The Advantages Of Private Cities

I have already described the moral reasons why the freedom of association that private cities can bring would be massively beneficial (see: Do You Have Opinions About Things? Then You Should Be An Anarchist). If you want a more theoretical justification for the morality of this type of arrangement, that article is the place to be. For our purposes here, I will be focusing on the more utilitarian, material benefits of private cities.

There are three primary advantages that private cities have over government owned cities:

  1. Privatizing cities will help “internalize” externalities and provide “public goods” in a superior fashion,
  2. Private cities are less at the whim of interest groups, and
  3. Private cities are more likely to serve the poor

Most non-libertarians would find each of these advantages surprising, so I will explain each of them in turn.

Internalize Externalities And Superior Provision Of “Public Goods”

Externalities are one example of something that many consider a “market failure“. They occur when the total social cost of some action is not contained within the monetary cost of the action. The most common example would be pollution; when a factory pollutes, they do not bear the cost of the pollution – it is disbursed over the people who are harmed by the pollution. As such, as the theory goes, the factory will end up producing more than the socially optimal level, because the cost of pollution isn’t factored into their production process.

Without going into too much detail about this theory, I claim that this externality is the result of a lack of private property. The pollution is actually a violation of the property rights of the victims of the pollution. If these people could make a legal claim that the factory has infringed on their property rights, the externality would be internalized. A more thorough discussion of this will need to be saved for another time; for now, let us restrict this discussion to the benefit of private cities in this regard.

Similarly, a “public good” is one that, as the theory goes, would not be produced in optimal levels by the free market. These include things like utilities, national defense, police, and so on. When you get down to it, both so-called public goods and externalities are very similar “problems”. In both cases, private property is the solution.

Consider a mall, which is typically owned by a someone who rents out space as their source of income. The mall owner has a very strong incentive to increase the value of the space in this mall and thus collect a larger income. How can they do this? By providing “public goods” such as security, parking, and nice open spaces within the mall. Each individual store owner may not have much of an incentive on their own to provide security, but the owner of the mall may find it necessary in order to get people to rent out space.

Private cities can do something very similar. If a private company is tasked with developing a profitable private city, they have an incentive to provide quality schooling, security, parks, roads, waste disposal, etc. All of these services will increase the value of the land that this company owns, and will thus increase its own revenue.

But publicly owned cities have no comparable incentive. Yes, a government that does a poor job could potentially get voted out of office, but this is still far less responsive than that of competing private cities. This is why roads tend to be shitty almost everywhere (not just in Honduras!), and why police can get away with murder and abuse fairly easily.

It’s hard for people to imagine what private cities would look like, which is understandable. Probably the closest examples of this kind of arrangement are Letchworth and Welwyn, which were small cities founded on Georgist principles. They were nationalized after World War 2. You can also kind of consider Disney World in the same vein. Another approximation of a private city would be that of Sandy Springs, Georgia, which outsourced most of its public services to private companies after going bankrupt, which improved these services at a lower cost. Note that this is still a far cry from actual private cities, which would provide public services even better than mere outsourcing would.

Less Influence From Interest Groups

Public cities are basically tools of interest groups.

There is a huge incentive to lobby the local government to enact rules that would help certain businesses at the expense of others, and of the common welfare in general. It is also far more likely to lead to policies that are simply dumb and self-destructive.

Rent control is a perfect example of a horrible policy that nearly all economists agree will basically destroy a local economy, but many cities will implement rent control laws because they sound nice. Zoning laws can be used by certain businesses in order to harm their competition by making their rent more expensive, forcing them to move, and preventing them from existing in the first place.

The most obvious case of interest group domination is the current battle between Uber and various local taxi cartels all over the world. Many cities are banning Uber, which generally provides superior service at much lower cost, in order to appease the powerful local taxi services.

In private cities, while anything is possible, there is a strong incentive not to implement stupid policies. If there are two competing cities, one with rent control and one without, the city without rent control will almost certainly be more successful (i.e. profitable). Similarly, zoning laws could be implemented, but the city owner will need to pay for whatever cost this imposes upon him, unlike the public city, which can rob the taxpayers to pay for it. So if one private city implements zoning laws that ban strip clubs, for instance, the owner will pay the cost of this decision (residents who like strip clubs won’t want to live there, etc.) as well as reap the benefits (more socially conservative people will want to live there, etc.).

Private Cities Help Serve The Poor

This is surely the one that would most surprise readers. Most people imagine that private cities will become tyrannical little enclaves of the rich trying to escape or take advantage of the poor. And most certainly, some would in fact be like this.

But when you consider how terribly American cities are treating their homeless people, it amazes me how this idea persists. Capitalism is about mass production; while there is certainly a market for serving the wealthy, there is a much larger market and plenty of profit to be made serving the middle and lower classes.

Wealthy communities tend to already have high property values and quality provision of public goods. But the potential for profit from serving lower income communities is drastically higher. Land value is cheap in poor communities, and has much more room for growth.

How could private cities better serve the poor? For one thing, a regime of several competing private cities will drive the cost of living down as the cities compete for residents and investment. This benefit cannot be overstated, because the amount of fraud, waste, and abuse in many cities is extraordinary, particularly in the third world.

It’s also highly unlikely that private cities would “exploit” the poor, considering the fact that in most proposals, the land that forms the city is largely uninhabited. Poor people aren’t going to be forced to move there and be exploited (unless, of course, the government forces them). On the contrary, a major benefit of private cities is that they will have better rule of law than the more corrupt areas of the country, which gives poor people a more safe and stable place to migrate to.

And private cities need not be run by “evil corporations”. They can experiment with social and legal rules. Some of them could mimic the Israeli kibbutzim, if socialism is more your cup of tea.



In short, the experience of Honduras in no way proves that libertarianism doesn’t work. The proper lessons to be learned from the Honduran experience are primarily about the incredible failure of some governments to provide good institutions that create a healthy economy and social system.

Honduras is in the process of implementing a project that is akin to the formation of competing private cities, and if implemented well, should lift many poor Hondurans out of poverty. Hopefully corruption and cronyism doesn’t ruin the experiment. Ultimately, only time will tell.