Can anarchy “work”?

As an anarchist I have been told countless times that anarchy just can’t work. It is a pipe dream and you would come closer to catching unicorns than finding any anarchy working in the “real world”. I have been told that I am just a Utopian dreamer. I have even been told by progressives that market anarchy would be a tyranny worse than Stalin!

Can anarchy work?

One of my favorite writers is Butler Shaffer. I have read every article he ever posted at LRC as far as I know. I have read many of them over again, and one that I have read many times is called, “What Is Anarchy?” Professor Shaffer writes with such a gentle and warm style while nailing the truth that he is utterly amazing. He must be a wonderful father and husband. To me; he is a source of inspiration when I get angry at the situation I see around me caused by the irrational faith in government that the majority seem to be unable to drop.

In his article he wrote:

… Nor can we ignore the history of the state in visiting upon humanity the very death and destruction that its defenders insist upon as a rationale for political power. Those who condemn anarchy should engage in some quantitative analysis. In the twentieth century alone, governments managed to kill — through wars, genocides, and other deadly practices — some 200,000,000 men, women, and children. How many people were killed by anarchists during this period? Governments, not anarchists, have been the deadly “bomb-throwers” of human history!

Because of the disingenuous manner in which this word has been employed, I endeavor to be as precise in my use of the term as possible. I employ the word “anarchy” not as a noun, but as a verb. I envision no utopian community, no “Galt’s Gulch” to which free men and women can repair. I prefer to think of anarchy as a way in which people deal with one another in a peaceful, cooperative manner; respectful of the inviolability of each other’s lives and property interests; resorting to contract and voluntary transactions rather than coercion and expropriation as a way of functioning in society.

I am often asked if anarchy has ever existed in our world, to which I answer: almost all of your daily behavior is an anarchistic expression. How you deal with your neighbors, coworkers, fellow customers in shopping malls or grocery stores, is often determined by subtle processes of negotiation and cooperation. Social pressures, unrelated to statutory enactments, influence our behavior on crowded freeways or grocery checkout lines. If we dealt with our colleagues at work in the same coercive and threatening manner by which the state insists on dealing with us, our employment would be immediately terminated. We would soon be without friends were we to demand that they adhere to specific behavioral standards that we had mandated for their lives.

Should you come over to our home for a visit, you will not be taxed, searched, required to show a passport or driver’s license, fined, jailed, threatened, handcuffed, or prohibited from leaving. I suspect that your relationships with your friends are conducted on the same basis of mutual respect. In short, virtually all of our dealings with friends and strangers alike are grounded in practices that are peaceful, voluntary, and devoid of coercion.

I would normally answer the question “has anarchy ever existed in our world” with reference to the Anarchy in the Aachen or the anarchy of ancient Ireland (here or here) but Butler Shaffer has an excellent point about everyday anarchy. One should read his entire post and I encourage everyone to do so. (link to it is here)

Stephan Kinsella wrote that the Butler Shaffer article referenced above set off a long discussion on Reason Magazine’s Blog and I remember that but unfortunately I don’t have a link to that discussion thread anymore and the link in Kinsella’s article is broken. But the discussion prompted Dr. Kinsella to pen a wonderful post on objections to anarchy called “What It Means To Be an Anarcho-Capitalist”.

I really liked this part of Stephan Kinsella’s post:

Libertarian opponents of anarchy are attacking a straw man. Their arguments are usually utilitarian in nature and amount to “but anarchy won’t work” or “we need the (things provided by the) state.” But these attacks are confused at best, if not disingenuous. To be an anarchist does not mean you think anarchy will “work” (whatever that means); nor that you predict it will or “can” be achieved. It is possible to be a pessimistic anarchist, after all. To be an anarchist only means that you believe that aggression is not justified, and that states necessarily employ aggression. And, therefore, that states, and the aggression they necessarily employ, are unjustified. It’s quite simple, really. It’s an ethical view, so no surprise it confuses utilitarians.

Accordingly, anyone who is not an anarchist must maintain either: (a) aggression is justified; or (b) states (in particular, minimal states) do not necessarily employ aggression.

Proposition (b) is plainly false. States always tax their citizens, which is a form of aggression. They always outlaw competing defense agencies, which also amounts to aggression. (Not to mention the countless victimless crime laws that they inevitably, and without a single exception in history, enforce on the populace. Why minarchists think minarchy is even possible boggles the mind.)

As for (a), well, socialists and criminals also feel aggression is justified. This does not make it so. Criminals, socialists, and anti-anarchists have yet to show how aggression — the initiation of force against innocent victims — is justified. No surprise; it is not possible to show this. But criminals don’t feel compelled to justify aggression; why should advocates of the state feel compelled to do so?

Criticism of my position as an anarchist on the grounds that it won’t “work” is something I hear all the time. I read people who claim that only a world full of angels could live without the iron fist of government pounding the people every time they did anything that the government deemed “illegal”. This argument is ridiculous on its face of course. The record of the nation-State is so horrific that no one could seriously claim that the foul and odious States are better than mankind cooperating voluntarily with one another. If some competitive private defense agency went over the line at some point in an anarchy — how in the world could they equal the foul record of the abuses of power that our own State police forces have committed over the decades? How could private defense agencies possibly equal the horrors that the nation Stated poured out on their own citizens in the 20th century when States murdered over 200 million of their own citizens? (see Democide)

When someone tells me that anarchy as a goal is just not practical he usually means that I will not live to see a state-less society so I should just give up. But I don’t have to believe that I will live to see a stateless society to preach the fact that the State is evil incarnate. I don’t have to come up with all the answers that the market will provide in the future in an anarchy to know that it will beat hell out of what we have now. Just knowledge of the results of the Austrian School of Economics tells me that the closer we get to anarchy the better for the masses.

States can not be justified unless you believe that raw aggression against the innocent can be justified. Do you believe that aggression is justified or don’t you? I reject aggression.

6 thoughts on “Can anarchy “work”?

  1. 1. The statement “states are unjustified” has undeniable logical implications. One of them is that none of the functions of states are justified. Since one of the functions of the state is to provide objective justice, he is saying that justice, as we know it, is not justified. I disagree. In fact, without objective justice, there is no civilization. In other words there is no moral society. The very claim that he is arguing for morality, while others are arguing for utility, is proven absurd. 2. He defines aggression as initiation of force against innocent victims, and he claims that any state would necessarily employ such force, even minimalist states. He’s clearly unfamiliar with Ayn Rand’s definition of individual rights, and her description of a state which is limited to protecting them. Such a state, by definition, would not initiate force. 3. He doesn’t offer any solutions, he freely admits to not believing anarchy is possible, yet he rejects the institution of government on moral grounds. That has a logical implication as well, it means that his idea of morality, whatever it is, is necessarily impossible to practice. An impossible morality is absolutely useless, and any man who would waste his life promoting it is devoid of purpose.

    • To say that only the State may provide justice to just plain wrong. We saw justice in Ireland (and many other places) for century after century without the State creating law or justice. I doubt the author (me) is unfamiliar with Rand’s objectivism; and I doubt he cares what she thought — I was never a cultist.

      In an anarchy there would be no monopoly on the legitimate use of force and force could only be used legitimately in defense — never first; never as aggression. The State is raw force; raw aggression. Mao pointed out that all government flows from the barrel of a gun.

    • 1. “The statement “states are unjustified” has undeniable logical implications. One of them is that none of the functions of states are justified.”

      No. Saying that states are unjust does not mean that all functions that states perform are unjust. Rather, when we–or rather, I (I’ll speak for myself)–say that states are unjust I mean that all states necessarily commit injustices.

      If it is unjust to impose taxes on people and if it is unjust to outlaw competing defence agencies (as Kinsella and I believe, since both necessarily require employing aggression and since we both believe that aggression is unjust) and if states necessarily impose taxes and outlaw competing defence agencies (meaning that any “state” that does not do these things is not actually a state at all, by definition), then all states are unjust. There is no implication of this view that says that *all* things that states do are unjust.

      2. Ayn Rand’s definition of individual rights / description of the state is incoherent, as Roy A. Child’s clearly articulated over 40 years ago in his “Open Letter to Ayn Rand”:

      3. I only briefly skimmed the article so I am not sure who the “he” is that you are referring to. I know that Stephan Kinsella calls himself a “pessimistic anarchist” meaning that he doesn’t believe that we will ever be able to achieve an anarchist society. If Kinsella is the “he” you are referring to, allow me to point out that his saying that he doesn’t think we will achieve it is not the same as saying that it wouldn’t “work” or isn’t logically possible/coherent. It definitely is logically possible: As Kinsella said in his article “What It Means to Be an Anarcho-Capitalist”:

      “Conservative and minarchist-libertarian criticism of anarchy on the grounds that it won’t “work” or is not “practical” is just confused. Anarchists don’t (necessarily) predict anarchy will be achieved — I for one don’t think it will. But that does not mean states are justified.

      “Consider an analogy. Conservatives and libertarians all agree that private crime (murder, robbery, rape) is unjustified, and “should” not occur. Yet no matter how good most men become, there will always be at least some small element who will resort to crime. Crime will always be with us. Yet we still condemn crime and work to reduce it.

      “Is it logically possible that there could be no crime? Sure. Everyone could voluntarily choose to respect others’ rights. Then there would be no crime. It’s easy to imagine. But given our experience with human nature and interaction, it is safe to say that there will always be crime. Nevertheless, we still proclaim crime to be evil and unjustified, in the face of the inevitability of its recurrence. So to my claim that crime is immoral, it would just be stupid and/or insincere to reply, “but that’s an impractical view” or “but that won’t work,” “since there will always be crime.” The fact that there will always be crime — that not everyone will voluntarily respect others’ rights — does not mean that it’s “impractical” to oppose it; nor does it mean that crime is justified. It does not mean there is some “flaw” in the proposition that crime is wrong.”

      So your claim that his (presumably Kinsella’s) “idea of morality [justice], whatever it is, is necessarily impossible to practice” is wrong. It’s definitely logically and practically possible to practice. He just doubts that we will ever live in a world where everybody behaves justly: there will always be criminals. Additionally, he believes that will always be a certain kind of criminal organization (states). But this does not mean that it would be impossible in practice for people to not form criminal gangs (states) as you said.


  2. Pingback: WeebulTree Blog » Critics Of Anarchy Are Missing The Point

  3. Go to a disaster hit country to see an anarchy in action. The strong and harsh folk always rise up to the top. Why because natural selection is freed from the artificial constraints society puts on it. Homo Sapiens have evolved from day one with the system that fits our hard wiring. Strong brutality is our default option to get what we want. Capitalism and democracy with a rule of common law is the best way to harness man’s natural setting with the necessary checks. Anarchy would never survive because a strong clan would rise and control it’s serfs. Back to square one.

    • You are describing a failed state. That leads to chaos which you don’t seem to understand is difference from the society freed from state rule or anarchy. The 9,000 years of Irish anarchy proves that anarchy is not the same as a failed state just as the anarchy of the American old west does.

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