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Every State is in Anarchy
One of the most frequent objections to positing a world without states is that a free society will be devoid of any kind of law and order. Wouldn’t we all descend into lawless chaos? Isn’t it part of human nature that we will all up fighting each other? Can a free society actually work, or is it just a utopian dream?
Most likely, the libertarian will reply to this searching question with an explanation of how private security and justice firms will work to keep the peace. In addressing the further allegation that such entities could themselves end up fighting each other to the bitter death (until one of them emerges victorious as a new “state”), he might explain how any wanton use of violence will simply lead to a loss of customers and revenue, well before much damage can be done.
While these answers may be cogent, they are still unlikely to proceed beyond the point of mere speculation that never quite does enough to dispel every last shred of doubt. (This is, indeed, a general difficulty with any practical argument in favour of freedom; whereas socialists and statists can lay out impressive blueprints for the production of everything, our aim is to set people free so they can fulfil their own plans. As such, we have no precise idea how any particular industry will be run in a free society.) This is exacerbated by the fact that “anarchy” – which, technically, a world without states would be – is, indeed, always associated with chaos, disruption and disorder. Thus, we always seem to be on the back foot.
Fortunately, a solution is at hand; the best way to dispel the question “how will a free society work?” when it comes to the matter of law and order is, in fact, to redirect it by asking: how does the state work? Just why does the state structure apparently create order yet any alternative is unlikely to do so? What is so special about the state?
The typical answer to this is that the state acts as some kind of extra-societal “umpire” or “final arbiter” that would simply be lacking in a free society. Without the consolidated authority of the umpire in a cricket match, or the referee in a football game, the calling of sixes, outs, goals or whatever would be a free for all.
But this raises the question: why does anyone listen to the umpire? An umpire in, say, a cricket match is obeyed only because the combined weight of players, spectators and cricket associations serves to cement his authority on the field. If all of these, or just a significant number of them, were to withdraw that endorsement then the umpire could shout “Six!” and “Out!” until he was blue in the face, but it would have no effect on the game.
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Similarly, therefore, why is it that, in Great Britain, the relatively insignificant number of 650 MPs (and, in practice, just a few dozen government ministers) can declare a rule to be a “law” which is then implemented, enforced and adhered to by a population of 65 million? Why is it that all of the different components of the state – Parliament, the judiciary, the police, the civil service, etc. – together with the general public work towards enforcing and obeying what a bare handful of them has written down on a piece of paper? Why don’t the state agencies just feel free to ignore each other and do their own thing, and why don’t the public – which outnumbers them heavily – just ignore all of them? If all of this was to happen, who would step in as the “umpire” to resolve the situation, and how would he enforce what he says? When framed in this manner, does not the prospect of the state “working” seem to be the absurd proposition?
These, and similar questions, have been addressed by anarchist philosopher Roderick Long:
Who […] is the “final arbiter” in the U.S. system? The president? He can be impeached. The Congress? Its laws can be declared unconstitutional. The Supreme Court? Its rulings can be ignored (as Andrew Jackson did), or it can be bullied into acquiescence (as Franklin Roosevelt did). The voters? They can be disenfranchised by state law. The state governments themselves? Ask Jefferson Davis. Sovereignty does not reside at any single point in the governmental structure; any ruling by one part can in principle be appealed, or overruled, or simply ignored, by another — just as under anarchy. If most of the time the various components of government achieve relatively harmonious coordination, what enables them to do so is not a “final arbiter.”
[G]overnments are composed of people, not impersonal robots; and being part of a government doesn’t make people any less likely to have disagreements […] What happens, then, if, say, a legislature makes a determination […] and a court strikes it down as unconstitutional? Well, sometimes such disagreements lead to violent conflict — civil wars, coups d’état, and the like — but usually they don’t, because the existing incentive structures tend toward cooperation. Economic theory and historical evidence alike indicate that the answer is much the same under anarchist legal systems.
A government is not an individual; it is a large number of different people, with different interests, interacting. And no one member of that group, unless he or she is a Kryptonian, can by his or her own personal might secure compliance from the others. Moreover, all the members of government combined possess insufficient might of themselves to subdue all those they rule, as well. Thus no government can achieve anything unless there exists a substantial degree of cooperation, both within the government on the one hand, and between the government and the governed on the other. If such cooperation were impossible without some higher agency to direct and enforce it, then the higher agency itself would be impossible for the same reason. There is never a “final arbiter.” There is no such thing, actual or possible, on God’s green earth.
What is possible, and often actual, is that an existing pattern of institutions and practices proves stable and self-reinforcing — that people act in ways that give one another an incentive to keep cooperating, for the most part. Certainly no legal system can function unless most disputes end up getting practically resolved one way or another. But in real-world legal systems (whether state-based or stateless), most disputes do not go unresolved forever — not because there is a “final arbiter,” but because the patterns of activity in which most of the participants engage or acquiesce don’t allow the indefinite continuation of disputes.
Thus, if there is no final arbiter holding the state together in harmony, then there is no reason for it to be necessary for non-state social structures to operate either. Or, to put it another way, the kinds of “stable and self-reinforcing” “incentive structures” that cause people to co-operate in making the state “work” are precisely the same kinds of mechanism which will enable voluntary social structures to work too. The cricket umpire and the football referee never “conquered” their respective sports and enforced their authority as a “final arbiter”. Rather, it was in the interests of all the people who enjoy the game to provide a mechanism that prevented “the indefinite continuation of disputes”.
The real difficulty that libertarians face, therefore, is not the “practicality” of keeping peace in a free society; it is dissolving the network of incentives that have wedded people to the state structure. If people were to reject the state while recognising alternative, more liberating social structures to be good and beneficial, then the power of the state will wither, and liberty would prevail. It is not impossible, utopian or contrary to “human nature” – it is solely a product of people being motivated to choose more peaceful social structures over more violent ones. In the words of Étienne de la Boétie:
From all these indignities, such as the very beasts of the field would not endure, you can deliver yourselves if you try, not by taking action, but merely by willing to be free. Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces.
But the further upshot of this is that, next time someone tells you an “anarchist” society could never work, you have a ready reply: we are already in one!
Roderick Long, Anarchy Defended: Reply to Schneider, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 21, No. 1 (Spring 2007), 111-21 at 114-5 [emphasis in the original].
Étienne de la Boétie, The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, Black Rose Books [c .1550] (1997), 53.