Home > A Theory of the State > The Trouble with Anarchy

The Trouble with Anarchy

I’ve been working on a more complicated monetary model that I thought I could turn around pretty quick but is ending up being trickier than I expected.  Hopefully that will be ready sometime in the near future.  But in order to keep this site from becoming a complete ghost-town in the meantime, I figured I would take on a decidedly different topic: anarcho-capitalism.

In short, anarcho-capitalism is a bad idea.  I recently came across this Robert (or is it Bob?) Murphy post in which he relates this sentiment  from some economics student.

When I first read about Murphy’s idea of a private defense system, I was a little skeptical because I did not understand it. But now that I do understand it, I could advocate (for) it. The idea of having a privatized defense system is really interesting. The fact that it would be through firms and not the government is interesting.

This made my heart cry.  So just in case there are any such students within the sound of my voice who are into things like individual liberty and non-aggression but are still on the fence between limited government and anarchy, allow me to take apart Murphy’s two posts on the subject piece-by-piece in an attempt to show that anarchy does not lead to liberty.  I will go about this in two stages (this is going to be a bit lengthy).  First I will point out the specific flaws in Murphy’s thinking.  Then I will try to explain how it all fits together and why limited government is the only answer.

Starting with But Wouldn’t Warlords Take Over.

Apples and Oranges

Right off the bat he goes astray.

When dealing with the warlord objection, we need to keep our comparisons fair. It won’t do to compare society A, which is filled with evil, ignorant savages who live under anarchy, with society B, which is populated by enlightened, law-abiding citizens who live under limited government.  The anarchist doesn’t deny that life might be better in society B.  What the anarchist does claim is that, for any given population, the imposition of a coercive government will make things worse.  The absence of a State is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to achieve the free society.

Yes, we should compare apples to apples.  But I don’t know who is assuming that citizens living under governments are inherently more enlightened and “law abiding” than those who live under anarchy.  In fact, if I may represent the other side of this debate, what we imagine is that people who live under a government are more “law abiding,” not because of a difference in demeanor or attitude but because of a difference in constraints.  Specifically, because the state will punish them if they don’t abide by the law.  In fact, this is the defining function of the state.  Without a state, there can be no law which means there can be no such thing as “law abiding.”

But most importantly, Murphy makes no attempt going forward to address the type of population he is dealing with.  His analysis does not apply to “any given population.”  In fact, what he seems to be assuming is that you have a population which is a priori, and uniformly, willing to follow some set of behavioral “laws” (call them rules or norms or whatever you wish) without any government to enforce them.  What these rules are is not clearly identified and indeed seems to be whatever is necessary in any particular case for “anarchy” to work out better than government.

But this is a nonsensical method of argument.  It essentially amounts to “I demonstrate that there are no laws which require government enforcement as long as whatever laws must be followed are assumed to be followed without any government enforcement.”  Let us denote this type of argument “argument #1.”  To the extent that these assumptions are clear, I will point them out going forward so that you can see what I mean.

Turning to the next paragraph.

To put the matter differently:  It is not enough to demonstrate that a state of private-property anarchy could degenerate into ceaseless war, where no single group is strong enough to subjugate all challengers, and hence no one can establish “order.”  After all, communities living under a State degenerate into civil war all the time.  We should remember that the frequently cited cases of Colombia and now Iraq are not demonstrations of anarchy-turned-into-chaos, but rather examples of government-turned-into-chaos.

Here we have what I will call “argument #2.”  Argument 2 amounts to “some people say that anarchy wouldn’t work because of X but instead of refuting that argument in any way, let me point out that governments also have problems.”  So let’s get one thing clear.  Governments are certainly dangerous and can lead to all sorts of problems.  But this does not imply that we would be better off without governments.  We need to construct them very carefully to try to avoid these problems as best we can.  Even so, we cannot be assured that nothing bad will ever come from governments.  But just saying that governments do bad things is not a sufficient argument for anarchy.

Second, and most important of all, the notion of a “private-property anarchy” is a complete fantasy.  The whole point of a government is to establish property rights (if you are a libertarian then it is to establish private property rights).  If there is no government, what secures your property rights?  Only your ability to protect whatever you consider your property from everyone else who may happen to think it is their property.  Of course if you believe that everyone happens to agree about who owns what and that they should all respect each other’s property rights without any compelling reason to do so (argument #1), then this works fine.  But if you don’t assume that, then you find yourself in a state of perpetual civil war.

Addressing the civil war comment, it must be remarked that communities living under a State do not “degenerate into civil war all the time.”  They degenerate into civil war occasionally.  On the other hand, a state of anarchy is in a state of perpetual civil war.  I will explain this further later on but to get a flavor for the issue all we need to do is turn to the next paragraph.

For the warlord objection to work, the statist would need to argue that a given community would remain lawful under a government, but that the same community would break down into continuous warfare if all legal and military services were privatized.  The popular case of Somalia, therefore, helps neither side.[i]  It is true that Rothbardians should be somewhat disturbed that the respect for non-aggression is apparently too rare in Somalia to foster the spontaneous emergence of a totally free market community.  But by the same token, the respect for “the law” was also too weak to allow the original Somali government to maintain order.

In response to the first sentence I say “yes, and that is exactly what I am arguing.”  Murphy seems to think that the only thing preserving the peace in both scenarios is a general “respect for non-aggression” (or lack thereof).  But while that is the case in the anarchic scenario, it is not the case in the government scenario.  In the latter, if a particular individual does not exhibit sufficient respect for non-aggression, the government can force him to respect that principle against his will.  That is the whole point!  To brush that issue aside by treating the general “respect for non-aggression” of a society as some independent, exogenous variable is only to engage in argument #1.

Turning to Somalia, we have another example of argument #2.  “Sure anarchy didn’t really work out well there but the government didn’t either!  And if I were arguing that every attempt at government turned out great, then this would be relevant but that is far from being my opinion so what have we proven here?  If we want to take an empirical (by which I mean anecdotal) approach to this, it gets us nowhere to point to a country that failed at both.  We have to compare the best attempts at both.

Historically speaking, I would put America up as the best example of government protecting individual liberty.  It’s never been perfect for sure, and lately, I think it has strayed a long way from the ideal but where are the success stories for anarchy?  You can’t just point to all the cases where anarchy broke out and it was a disaster and then say “well government didn’t work there either.”  If it had, it wouldn’t have descended into anarchy.  And if you don’t like America, pick whatever country you think is best; Singapore, New Zealand, Great Britain, Switzerland, Belize, whatever.  I’ll take any of these over Somalia, and probably any other example of anarchy you can think of.

Furthermore, you can’t even make the argument that anarchy has never been tried, since anarchy is the lowest order of social organization.  So whatever more complex organizations we have must have ultimately grown out of anarchy.  For some reason, it always seems to lead to some kind of government (usually highly oppressive, occasionally not too bad).  I wonder why that is…. Oh right, I know why!  I’ll tell you later, first we have to deal with some more misdirection.

Let’s skip the part about Clinton and cruise missiles because I think it is beside the point (though one should spend some thinking on exactly what it means to “own” something in an anarchy anyway).  We then come to this nugget.

 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?

Once again, we have to ask: what is it that makes them have to hire voluntary mercenaries and pay them a market wage?  If you’re a guy in this anarchy and there is supposedly no state, just a private “security” force, what is keeping that “security force” from coming and conscripting you?  Do you have to hire another security force to protect you from the first one and then the first one simultaneously protects you from the second one?  Or is it just the “respect for non-aggression” (argument #1) that we assume that security force adheres to?

Contract Theory of Government

Will start picking up the pace here.  The first two paragraphs of this section summarize the argument against anarchy pretty well.  Murphy’s argument then proceeds along the established lines, starting with argument #2: “First, it assumes that the danger of private warlords is worse than the threat posed by a tyrannical central government.” (The idea of a “private warlord” makes no sense, a warlord is a tyrannical government, the issue is not whether we want a “private” tyranny or a regular one, it is how do we avoid tyrannical warlords in general?) And then proceeding to this:  “Second, there is the inconvenient fact that no such voluntary formation of a State ever occurred.”

However, that is not right.  There was a voluntary formation of a state.  What he mans is that the voluntary formation of the state was not unanimous.  In other words, some people might have preferred not to have a state (which is not really an option) or a different state or whatever.  But nonetheless, some people purposely (voluntarily) created one and imposed it on everyone else.  Of course, libertarians tend to be bothered by stuff like that but in the case of the state, it is impossible to avoid which I will explain shortlyFirst, we have a couple more points to deal with, starting with this one.

But for our purposes, the most interesting problem with this objection is that, were it an accurate description, it would be unnecessary for such a people to form a government.  If, by hypothesis, the vast majority of people—although they have different conceptions of justice—can all agree that it is wrong to use violence to settle their honest disputes, then market forces would lead to peace among the private police agencies.

This is such rhetorical wizardry that it actually almost brings a smile to my face.  He has created a straw man whose argument is based on the assumption that everyone can agree that it is wrong to use violence to settle their disputes and then points out that if this were the case, it would not be necessary to form a government anyway.  Funny how that’s what I’ve been saying all along isn’t it (argument #1)?  Because that is not the argument for having a government!  He is the one who is assuming that everyone can agree to avoid violence.  And, as I have been saying, that is the whole reason this anarchy thing works out in his mind.  And yet he is treating it as the basis for the other side of the argument.  Truly extraordinary!

On the other hand, it is the lack of unanimity in this nonviolent principle (and also the fact that when property rights are in dispute, what constitutes “violence” is not always clear) that necessitates the creation of a government by those who do believe in that principle.  Which brings us to this:

Yes, it is perfectly true that people have vastly different opinions concerning particular legal issues.  Some people favor capital punishment, some consider abortion to be murder, and there would be no consensus on how many guilty people should go free to avoid the false conviction of one innocent defendant.  Nonetheless, if the contract theory of government is correct, the vast majority of individuals can agree that they should settle these issues not through force, but rather through an orderly procedure (such as is provided by periodic elections).

So in this government-free society we now have a “vast majority” “agreeing” to have an “orderly procedure” (like voting) to make collective decisions about things like capital punishment and abortion which will then be imposed on everyone?  That sounds a lot like…what was that thing called again….?  Oh yeah, a GOVERNMENT!  Who is potentially carrying out capital punishment in this society?  And who is potentially preventing you from having an abortion?  Private, non-violent, voluntary security forces?  I honestly don’t understand this remark.

Free Riders

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this issue because I think it is not very important.  In short, the free rider problem is a legitimate problem but might not be as bad as some say and it is conceivable that a government could be funded by voluntary means.  But this is a separate (though related) issue from whether it makes sense to have no government at all.

Now I will turn briefly to The Possibility of Private Law

Most of this piece deals with the minutia of how a private law system might function which I don’t want to spend a lot of time on because my arguments are much more fundamental but I will touch on a few points.  This is the heart of the matter.

Whether society is in anarchy or under the domination of a State apparatus, individuals will always have disputes. Although most arguments are settled between the parties themselves, some disagreements are too serious for such resolution. In such cases, the disputants (in anarchy) can turn to a judge, who is simply a person who agrees to render an opinion on their dispute.  Although many anarchist theorists link private judges with enforcement agencies in their expositions, we should keep in mind that the two are conceptually distinct.  In its essence, a private judicial ruling is just that—one person’s opinion as to who is right, and what he or she is owed, in a given dispute.

One major difference between private and State judges is that the former only entertain cases when both parties submit to the “jurisdiction” of the judge.  (In contrast, one or both parties in a State court case may strongly object to the judge and/or jury who will decide the issue.)  Cynics of private law may consider this proposal as ridiculous—the very idea that a rapist or bank robber would agree to plead his case before a third party, ha!

However, this glib dismissal overlooks the fact that most disputes in modern commercial society are not between an “obvious” innocent and an “obvious” malefactor.  Rather, it is often the case that both parties to a dispute genuinely believe themselves to be in the right, and would be happy to make their cases in front of a disinterested third party.

I agree that there is a distinction between a judge who gives opinions and an enforcement mechanism which enforces them but the enforcement mechanism is the part of the state which is necessary.  It’s true that if there were no state and two parties wanted to hire a judge, they would be able to find somebody to carry out that function.  It is another straw man to imagine that the argument is about whether or not it is possible for some kind of mechanism to develop for solving disputes between two voluntary parties if we assume the absence of a state.  The argument is about whether this type of mechanism alone could produce the degree of peace and security of property and individual liberty that we find desirable.

And this question hinges on the issue of how to deal with people who do not happen to submit voluntarily to the authority of a private judge.  But that issue is glibly dismissed by Murphy citing the fact that most disputes in modern commercial society don’t fit into that category.  But there are two huge problems with this.  First, even if it’s true that “most” disputes could be settled by private courts, this does not give us license to ignore the implication in the minority of cases.  And second, it is likely (I would almost argue obvious) that the reason we have fewer disputes of the criminal variety is that we have a state which establishes and enforces a set of laws and punishes you if you break them.  If there were no state and you were not subject to any court or enforcement mechanism without your consent, I think it is pretty reasonable to imagine that robberies would be considerably more common–unless of course, you believe in argument #1.

Which brings us to the conclusion.

In closing, let me point out two real world examples of “private law” in action.  First, there is the burgeoning arbitration industry.  Just as millions of people opt for market-produced bottled water, despite the “free” government alternative, so too do millions of people resolve their disputes through private arbitration.

For another obvious example, consider the umpires and referees in professional sports.  Despite the clichés, these “judges” have to be generally unbiased, because the owners of teams know that customers would stop watching games if they were rigged.  Although die hard sports fans may still bitterly lament the horrible call back in 1978 (say) that cost their team victory, that’s just the point—you have to go back decades for most teams to remember such a travesty!  And if anyone claimed that his football team had a losing record last season because of bad refs, everyone would know the guy was being absurd.  Especially when it’s not their own team at stake, sports fans know and trust the integrity of their “judicial system.”

To argue for a private legal system is really just to argue against a government-imposed monopoly.  In every other sector, the coercive approach fails, and there is nothing unique about law to change that conclusion.

Once again, just because voluntary arbitration exists in some cases, does not imply that it can handle all disputes.  But it is the last sentence which betrays the real confusion at the heart of all of this.  I agree that in every other sector the “coercive approach” fails.  So I can see how people who think like me in this regard are drawn to the notion that this principle can be extended to all functions of government but it can’t.  There absolutely is something unique about law which makes it only possible to get it from a government.  Let me see if I can explain why.

Why Government is Necessary

So far, I have tried to point out why Murphy’s arguments for anarchy don’t make sense.  Now let me try to put it all together into an argument in favor of a limited government.  For the record, I am coming at this from a libertarian perspective.  I think the best government possible is one which does only what must be done by a government and nothing more and I fully agree that creating such a thing is difficult and governments, when not properly contained, are quite dangerous.  But this does not mean that the only alternative to anarchy is tyranny.

Finally, returning to Murphy’s apples-to-apples issue, let me be clear about what type of people I am dealing with.  In spite of his claim that anarchy is better than government “for any given population,” I believe his reasoning, as I have tried to point out, applies only to one kind of population–the “enlightened, law-abiding citizens” with a “respect for non-violence” that he claims we “apologists for the state” are only assuming in our pro-state examples.  On the other hand, let us assume that some people in the society have a healthy respect for non-violence and some don’t.  So if Murphy is comparing apples to apples, let us compare oranges to oranges.

In addition to being necessary to validate Murphy’s “any given population” claim, this also happens to be a much more accurate description of populations.  The population where everyone agrees on what violence is and that it must never be used, to the best of my knowledge at least, has yet to be discovered.

So here is my version of the State.  The people who agree on libertarian non-violent principles get together and say “okay we want to protect our persons and property from violence, you know, just in case anyone turns out to be not entirely non-violent.  So in order to do this we need to pool some resources and create an entity which will define what each of us owns and protect us and our property from each other and from outsiders.”  This entity is a government.  It is defined, for our purposes, by this function of defining and protecting property rights.

In order to carry out this function, it must have the ability to bring overwhelming force against any individual or small group of individuals in the society.  In order to keep it under control, it must be prevented from bringing overwhelming force against a significant majority of the people in the society, but that is not the issue under consideration so let’s focus on the first condition.  The formalization of property rights and the prescriptions for enforcing them and punishing those who violate them is the law.  But the law is meaningless without the ability to enforce it on people who would rather not comply with it.  Or to put it another way, you can’t have laws without a state to enforce them.  If you want to, you can imagine that there is some set of rules that everyone follows out of the goodness of their heart and not out of fear of any punishment but that is not a law, it is just a convenient coincidence.  You can also imagine a pink unicorn.

So what if there is no state and no law?  Essentially, that means that your property rights only extend to that which you can defend against the next guy.  Naturally, this will force you into a crude state of existence.  But since the economic (mutual) gains from being able to protect property rights are enormous compared to a state of anarchy, people will try to combine their efforts through various forms of self-enforcing agreements in order to establish and protect those rights.  Or to put it a different way, they will try to form governments.

Now there are two issues in play if you want to object to governments.  One is to say that there should be no entity whatsoever with the ability to coerce individuals.  If this is your view, not only can you not have regular civil laws like no murder, rape, theft, vandalism, etc. but you can’t even have contracts except for those which may be self-enforcing.  This is because the point of a contract is to submit to being coerced into complying with the contract in case you may lose your desire to do so at some point in the future.

For instance, if I want to borrow some cash, this requires me to sign a contract which says I will repay it at some point in the future.  The bank knows that when that time comes, I will prefer to not pay if I have the choice but because I signed the contract and the state is there to force me to pay even though I may not feel like it, the arrangement is possible and we both benefit from this.  Many mutually beneficial arrangements require this type of enforcement.  So if there is no entity capable of forcing an individual to do something they would otherwise not want to do, there are no such contracts.

Now, at this point, the anarchist might point of that it would be okay if two individuals both agreed to future coercion in the form of a contract enforced by some third party.  Okay great, we just created a little mini State.  And that means that we are allowed to voluntarily commit to not murdering, raping, robbing, vandalizing etc. other persons and their property and submit to being thus compelled right?  Fantastic!  So if we are allowed to submit voluntary to coercion, then we are allowed to form little States as long as everyone agrees.

So if this is the kind of anarchy you have in mind it is really just voluntary states.  But you still have a problem.  What are you going to do about the people who don’t want to be part of your State?  For instance, let’s say that you live in a neighborhood and half of the people in your neighborhood want to form this type of State but half do not.  And let’s assume that the two types of people are sprinkled throughout the neighborhood.  So you and a bunch of other people agree voluntarily not to assault each other and take each other’s stuff and you form an entity which is capable of enforcing this agreement as well as determining exactly what stuff is yours and what is someone else’s.

But what if the guy across the street didn’t voluntarily submit to this authority and he happens to think that some of the stuff you think belongs to you rightfully belongs to him and so he breaks into your house one day while you’re at work and takes it?  If your answer is something like “well he assaulted me so my ‘private’ security company then has the ‘right’ to hunt him down, punish him and return my property” then congratulations again, you have created a state which has enacted certain laws and imposed them on people against their will.  Or in other words, you’ve done exactly what we “apologists for the State” say must be done.

If, on the other hand, you say “well, he didn’t agree to be bound by the agreement, so we have no right to do anything about it, then you probably also say something like “but my ‘private security company’ will be charged with protecting me against stuff like that,” then basically what you are saying is that instead of imposing these laws on people who do not agree to them by punishing them after the fact, you are going to impose them preemptively by physically preventing them from violating them in the first place.  So for one, you are nonetheless imposing these laws on them and for another, you will need armed guards guarding all property at all times from your neighbors which will require a lot more resources, and essentially amount to a police state–or one might even say: a state of perpetual civil war…

So no matter how you slice it, you are going to be imposing some set of laws/rules on people who do not consent to them.  This is, of course, unless you assume that all people automatically consent to and follow some set of rules without them being enforced, in which case you have just assumed away the necessity of a government but you haven’t proven that it isn’t necessary.

And then there is the issue of a tyrannical government.  The argument on the anarchist side essentially amounts to: governments can (and often do) turn tyrannical and become destructive to the wellbeing of the people, so in order to avoid this we should avoid creating them in the first place.  But since their notion of “private” security and dispute resolution amounts to forming governments anyway, this is no less of a problem for them than it is for us.

For instance, let’s imagine that you and some of your neighbors agree, as described above, to bind yourself to some arbiter of disputes which you have empowered to enforce some set of agreements.  In order to be able to enforce those agreements, this entity must be able to overpower any individual or small group of individuals within the network of people who are subject to the agreement.  This means that they must still be kept in check by some sort of collective-action mechanism, just like a regular government, or else there will be a risk of them becoming a threat to the liberty of those people.

For that matter, let’s say that you don’t empower such an entity to enforce anything but you do hire “private” security to protect your property from marauders.  Well you have the same problem.  That security force will be specialized in the use of force and you will not and they will have the ability to break any agreement you make with them, violate your supposed property rights and generally become destructive to your liberty unless you and some other people set about carefully constructing a mechanism to make the contracts between each of you and that defense force self-enforcing, in which case, congratulations again, you are forming a government.

And you will probably need to “hire” such a force because you can bet that other people in this anarchy will figure out that if they combine their efforts and specialize in the use of force, they will be able to overpower you if you don’t have some such protection.  That is of course, again, unless you assume that everybody is determined to play nice regardless of the (lack of) consequences.

The unique characteristic of a government is its ability to define and enforce property rights.  This includes the enforcement of civil law and contract law.  This requires it to be able to impose things on individuals.  This enhancement of property rights allows for such enormous economic (mutual) benefits that it is nearly impossible to prevent some form of government from arising out of a state of anarchy.  This makes it different from every other sector of the economy because it provides the foundation which allows all other sectors to exist and operate in what we would consider a free market.  Without laws, property rights do not exist in the way we naturally think of them and without that type of property rights, markets cannot function in the way we imagine either.

The mistake (make that one of the mistakes) that anarcho-capitalists make is to assume that legal property rights exist independently of any legal system and that you can just make contracts without any kind of State to enforce them.  This is true of some types of contract but not most.  The state is essentially an attempt to construct an entity, through self-enforcing contracts, which is capable of enforcing all other contracts.  This is tricky to be sure, but to deny the necessity of the State is to fail to recognize the necessity of such arrangements for stable property rights and peaceful coexistence to persist in a society.  The anarcho-capitalist is essentially arguing that all contracts can be carried out this way.  That is not the case.  It is true that starting from a state of anarchy, it is possible to create entities through this type of self-enforcing contract which allow all other contracts to be made but this amounts to forming a government.

People who are interested in this sort of thing should really check out this book.  And this one is related as well.  They have really aided my understanding of the nature of the State and property rights and are, in my opinion, under appreciated.  Libertarians would do well to incorporate this method of thinking.





  1. Nathanael
    June 29, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    ” It’s never been perfect for sure, and lately, I think it has strayed a long way from the ideal but where are the success stories for anarchy?”


    Perhaps tiny isolated homesteaders with tiny families surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness… and I’m not so sure about them!

    Jaguars! They kill any other jaguar who enters their gigantic territory, unless they’re mating. But because there are so few of them, they don’t actually fight very much!

    Yeah. Basically I think you can only have peaceful anarchy if you barely have any social organization at all. This also requires having very, very low populations. I’m pretty sure most chimpanzee social groups are too big, so they effectively have governments.

    • Free Radical
      June 29, 2014 at 8:41 pm

      Yeah, no doubt if we reverted to a state of anarchy one of two things would have to happen. 1: we form some form of government, or 2: we kill each other down to the point where anarchy “works” (in the sense that we would keep killing each other but the rate at which we did this would match the fertility rate) which would be a lot fewer people than we have now….

  1. June 10, 2014 at 5:43 am

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