Up from Anarchy

Ironically, after spending many years as a libertarian who flirted with “anarcho-capitalism,” I was recently criticized in a letter to the Rocky Mountain News by a libertarian anarchist. I’ll take that as a sign of my progress. John Chamberlain of Longmont writes for a letter dated February 14:

It’s a shame when someone gets so close the truth without quite reaching it.

Ari Armstrong (“Loading the dice against responsibility,” Speakout, Jan. 18) scores many good points against Rocky Mountain News columnist Paul Campos, especially in explaining how government activism actually hurts the poor.

But he also writes, “Government can be effective when it sticks to protecting people’s rights – that is, preventing crime and protecting people and their property from violence.” The problem is that governments, in their current form, depend on taking people’s property by violence for their very existence. They are self-contradictory. Their acts of theft (which are euphemized as “taxation”) are considered crimes if anyone else does them.

Furthermore, modern governments prevent anyone else from competing against them within the same geographic area.

Governments performs many useful services, but they shouldn’t be monopolies. Why would anyone support monopoly? Government should be a voluntary subscription service. Let’s take “government by the consent of the governed” seriously!

I am quite familiar with the notion of competing defense agencies, having read the works of Murray Rothbard, David Friedman, and others. (I’ve also written about Randy Barnett’s “polycentric” legal system.)

I essentially agree with Ayn Rand (who, by the way, does not conflate the issues of taxation and geographic monopoly), that competing defense agencies would devolve into violence. Rand writes:

[S]uppose Mr. Smith, a customer of Government A, suspects that his next-door neighbor, Mr. Jones, a customer of Government B, has robbed him; a squad of Police A proceeds to Mr. Jones’ house and is met at the door by a squad of Police B, who declare that they do not accept the validity of Mr. Smith’s complaint and do not recognize the authority of Government A. What happens then? You take it from there.

The typical response is that the two defense agencies will seek arbitration and reach a peaceable solution. But there are two problems with such a reply. First, it manifest a typical libertarian failing of assuming universal rationality in motives. (This is the same failing that leads many libertarians to conclude that Islamic terrorists would become peaceable if only the United States did not antagonize them.) Yet, as world history demonstrates, people do not always reach peaceable solutions that would be in their “rational self-interests;” quite the opposite.

Second, if the competing defense agencies all agree to binding arbitration, then they have formed the very sort of “monopoly” that motivated the criticism in the first place. (I think this is basically along the lines of what Robert Nozick had to say on the matter.) To make such cooperation work, defense agencies would necessarily have to subject themselves to a monopoly power. And if a “competing” agency tried to defy those rules, its members would be arrested and thrown into jail. Sort of like what happens today. As “anarcho-capitalists” are fond of pointing out, today most peace officers are privately hired. Yet they are subject — and quite properly so — to the government’s rules. Once “competing” agents of force agree to create and obey a central authority, they are no longer “competing” in the relevant sense. And, once they make this move, they must consider the optimal structure of government — for which no better alternative has been found than a constitutional republic.