“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.
“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.
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:
- Established in a region otherwise dominated by liberal democracies
- The society itself embraced liberal values
- Strong social and economic relations with its neighbors
- No large internal ethnic or religious tensions
- Not established in a region with a long-standing territorial dispute
- Established through an indigenous movement rather than being imposed by a foreign power
- 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.
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.
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:
- The Enterprise of Law by Bruce Benson
- Power & Market by Murray Rothbard
- The Structure of Liberty by Randy Barnett
- The Market For Liberty by Morris and Linda Tannehill
- The Machinery of Freedom by David Friedman
- The Law of the Somalis by Michael van Notten
- The Art of Not Being Governed by James Scott
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.”