[This article is the 4th article in a series of articles for the purposes of anarchists reaching out to limited government libertarians. For full context I welcome readers to read the prior pieces which can be done so here, here, and here. ]

If you are an anarchist, one of the roadblocks you will encounter is being asked “How will X work in a free society?”* Likewise, if you are for limited government, before you become an anarchist or even consider it, answers to those questions are necessary, rightfully so. I am of the belief that before one begins to find out how things could be accomplished in a stateless society that one needs to see the state as illegitimate (which is where economics and philosophy come into play). That is, if you still adamantly believe the state is necessary then you may not care how law would be provided. However, I would argue that another obstruction anarchists encounter is one with terminology. In a conversation at the bar your definition of, say, “money” doesn’t matter, isn’t likely to be controversial, doesn’t need to be precise, isn’t going to cause problems. You can either bicker about misconceptions or get precise about your definitions, about what you’re opposed to and what you’re not.


Some examples of this I will be addressing here are basic objections that anarchists encounter from limited government libertarians. Also, if you are for limited government, these are concerns that you may have mulled over or asked as well. They are as follows:

  1. That anarchists are against the use of force, and individuals will always use force, thus a stateless society is utopian or untenable.
  2. In a stateless society, competing firms are just another form of government and anarchists are just replacing one state for another, thus a stateless society would be the same or is untenable.
  3. That even in a stateless society people will still have leaders such as chiefs, bosses, etc. (which anarchists supposedly are against), thus anarchy is untenable.


The Use of Force

The first objection is probably the easiest. It is asserted that anarchists are against the use of force or that anarchists believe there would be no force, typically the latter. However, this is a rather big misconception. To elaborate, I turn to Rothbard:

“I define anarchist society as one where there is no legal possibility for coercive aggression against the person or property of an individual.”


If he’d said anarchy is an absence of coercive aggression, that would be a useful definition for an economist to describe how things would be under those circumstances, whether or not it’s an impractical thought experiment. But that’s not what he said. Without describing the legal system, he implies that one must exist to prohibit, to whatever degree it’s successful in this goal, coercive aggression. He didn’t (nor do other anarchists) believe it would successfully prohibit all aggression and anarchists are making no such claim here or trying to use that unlikelihood as a definition of anarchy. Under anarchy, according to his definition, coercive aggression is illegal, not necessarily successfully abolished, by all actors, including those employed by whatever legal system prevails. And his definition is sound.


Rothbard spoke of “coercive aggression,” not mere coercion. If I use violence to stop you from killing me, that’s a violent act of defense, not of aggression. Many anarchists distinguish between aggressive and defensive force. Individuals will always be “capable of coercive aggression.” In an anarchist society (by definition) this is illegal, which implies that it’s risky and expensive, no matter who does it. And, again, by Rothbard’s definition, the use of force to protect property is defensive, not aggressive. We postulate a market legal system that a) doesn’t commit aggression and b) prohibits aggression.


No anarchist thinks violence is going to be eradicated by abolishing the state. But it will de-institutionalize it, get rid of legal immunity afforded to state actors for it, and more effectively penalize it in the private sphere.


The State vs. Government

A question that is asked by many who advocate limited government is what is the difference between a stateless society where law and other services are provided by competing firms and what we have now, the implication being that after abolishing the state we are then replacing it with many other states. At face value this seems correct. In a way, yes, a polycentric legal system is a form of “government” but only by a definition according to which anarchists don’t object to government.


I haven’t generally characterized the State as owners of their claimed territory, and neither have anarchist thinkers such as Hoppe or Rothbard, but I do think there’s something to this, so let’s explore the idea.


Rothbard has defined the state as a monopoly of force (within a given geographical area), as the state is now necessarily in charge of deciding what constitutes defensive versus aggressive force, and will of course consider all of its own violence to be defensive in nature, and that deployed by any would-be competitors (“vigilantes”) as aggressive and intolerable — a justification for “defensive” force to be used against them.


Hoppe has defined the State as a monopoly of “ultimate decision-making power” over a given area. This works too, because once you have a monopoly on defense, and on the definition thereof, you have exactly what Hoppe is describing here. The State will put itself in charge of resolving all disputes, including disputes arising between itself and its subjects. It will of course resolve those disputes in favor of itself, and it will find that it has incentives to provoke conflicts in order to resolve them in its own favor.


But let’s say we define the state as an entity which claims ownership of its ostensible territory. By virtue of its (inevitable, if not by-definition) assertion of final decision-making authority within the confines of its “property,” it acts as owner, claims the same rights as an owner, treats anyone found disobeying as a trespasser, and so on. So this definition works as well, I think, provided we note the distinction between claiming ownership and justifying it via homesteading and trade.


Competing firms, even ones that would handle courts and police in a competitive manner, to be clear, do not fit the definition of “government” anarchists generally use, or are opposed to, but technically what we’re opposed to is more properly “the State,” and not “government,” per se. We’re opposed to aggression, so we’re obviously opposed to institutionalized aggression as well, but what we’re opposed to by definition is the State as defined above. The ambiguity of what it means to be “governed” is why I usually say I’m opposed to “the State” rather than “government” (although from here on out, we will be using them interchangeably). In other words, if it’s voluntary (really voluntary all the time, not pseudo-voluntary according to social contract theory or because you agreed to something in the past) what could I object to?


So these firms that would be providing law to those who want it or hired to defend property are not states or even de facto states since there are multiple providers to choose from and no artificial barriers to entry, and quite likely even overlapping “jurisdictions,” just as with any other market-provided service. Further, even if one could argue that one business will turn into a monopoly (which is extremely difficult to achieve without the state), they would lack the fawning consent of their victims if they succeeded and have no monopoly on the service of protecting people if they failed — in either case, their prospects are pretty grim.


A usual concern from the Constitutionalist is that government is the action or manner of controlling or regulating a nation, organization, or people. So, for instance, if you have these competing firms who have rules then you are still being governed. Or, since some people do and will steal (for example), they will disagree with the rules. As a result of this, supposedly, you will either govern them by forcing punishment on them, or you will ignore their infractions, which are themselves government of the victims. Either way, according to the minarchist — this isn’t anarchy. This objection is a good one, and although it is not as incorrect as other concerns raised, it is still incorrect. This is because it conflates “governance” (the enforcement of rules) with “government”, as most frequently used, or the State (a body that claims the exclusive authority on governance over some territory). One can have “governance” without “government.” It is not “government” if I expel a thief from my property.


“Government” is not the action or manner of controlling or regulating a nation, organization, or people, no. “Governance” and “government” are different terms. “Government”, in the context of a state, refers to the specific, monopoly body, while “governance” refers to the act of setting and enforcing rules. “Governance” refers to “all processes of governing, whether undertaken by a government, market or network, whether over a family, tribe, formal or informal organization or territory and whether through laws, norms, power or language.”


“Government”, note here, is simply a single form of providing governance. On top of that, the dictionary definition of government is, “The governing body of a nation, state, or community”. As in one. Single. Monopoly. The State.

Market anarchy does not have a governing body, but it does have governance. These are not the same things.


Rulers and Leaders

Like the previous examples above, where two or more terms have been conflated, that of “rulers” and “leaders” is no different. A skeptic will usually point to bosses, tribal chiefs, or even in some cases coaches as rulers which will still exist in a stateless society (obviously) and that anarchy therefore isn’t conceivable.


Like the “State” and “government,” or “government” and “governance” there is a difference between a “leader” and a “ruler,” or at least there has to be in order to have a meaningful conversation. Maybe if you consider slave-masters leaders of their slaves, you can also attribute this characteristic to the state, but that’s a rather silly semantic argument. If I don’t like whoever is coordinating the activities of those he leads, such as a boss or a coach or a forum admin, I simply sever ties with. If I don’t like Obama, I’m supposed to abandon my property (since it’s actually rightfully his anyway) and move to Somalia. A “leader” is on that long list of words where people making typically invalid points constantly exploit its rather ambiguous meaning. I can follow a leader, or not, or choose from among available leaders or none at all. I can do what he says when I think he’s right and feel up to it, and toss his advice otherwise without consequence to what I already own. These things aren’t true with rulers, who can have me punished for failing to obey.


A “leader” is anyone whose instructions or example is followed voluntarily for some reason — pursuit of a shared goal, admiration, realizing that they are more knowledgeable or capable than you, whatever it might be. If I had a boss, he’d be my leader on the grounds that the nature of our relationship is that he coordinates the efforts of others toward the realization of a shared goal. So, to put it this way, if you are contracted to do work, you could consider your clients as leaders — You’d follow their instructions because their role is to define the goal you are both working toward. For them, you’re also a leader as you’d be more competent to make certain kinds of decisions than they are, so they listen to your advice. This is why they have hired you.


A “ruler” is someone who is able to arrange or execute physical punishment for anyone who disobeys, and the term implies a broad scope — not a mugger, for example. And since we’re talking about States, it’s probably helpful to narrow the definition a bit further to say that a ruler enjoys a monopoly or cartel status as such — it’s only occasionally and briefly, as part of a transition, that we see rulers not part of the same “regime” both establishing their own contradictory rules for the region over which they’ve established their authority — regions don’t generally overlap.


One conflict that will arise when discussing “rulers,” “leaders,” the State and so on is if anarchy is preferable then why do we have rulers or why aren’t there any stateless societies? Well, I don’t think it is necessary to explain the flaws of democracy or the majority over the minority to make a libertarian, but this is like asking in 1825, “Well, if every human being has a right to live freely and hired labor is preferable to slavery then why do we have slaves and everything that slavery entails?” Yes, some individuals created the government and then imposed it upon other individuals, just like some individuals decided upon slavery and then forced others into it.


Humans subjectively choose their ends, and then employ reason — an error-prone process — to select the means most suitable for the attainment of those ends. In this pursuit, humans err in supporting government as something they erroneously believe serves this purpose for them. All they need to do is learn otherwise. There’s no puzzle at all here — humans “perceive,” or rather have incorrectly surmised, that they are better off with the state than without it. I suspect I speak for many individuals (and all anarchists) when I suggest that most people have erred in their selection of the state as a suitable means to such ends as protection of person and property, caring for the poor and weak, etc.


Turning to Rothbard again he speaks of the legitimacy of the state:

“One of the crucial factors that permits governments to do the monstrous things they habitually do is the sense of legitimacy on the part of the stupefied public. The average citizen may not like — may even strongly object to — the policies and exactions of his government. But he has been imbued with the idea — carefully indoctrinated by centuries of governmental propaganda — that the government is his legitimate sovereign, and that it would be wicked or mad to refuse to obey its dictates. It is this sense of legitimacy that the State’s intellectuals have fostered over the ages, aided and abetted by all the trappings of legitimacy: flags, rituals, ceremonies, awards, constitutions, etc. A bandit gang — even if all the police forces conspired together into one vast gang — could never command such legitimacy. The public would consider them purely bandits; their extortions and tributes would never be considered legitimate though onerous “taxes,” to be paid automatically. The public would quickly resist these illegitimate demands and the bandits would be resisted and overthrown. Once the public had tasted the joys, prosperity, freedom, and efficiency of a libertarian, Stateless society, it would be almost impossible for a State to fasten itself upon them once again. Once freedom has been fully enjoyed, it is no easy task to force people to give it up.


Why people follow leaders seems elementary to me, hardly worth discussing. Why they obey rulers, when they do, is maybe a little more complex. If I keep my eye on the speedometer, it’s only to avoid punishment — otherwise I know from my non-speedometer surroundings whether or not I’m driving at a safe speed. And I think this is the case for most people — there are rules they object to, which they follow only to avoid punishment, and rules they don’t, which they would (mostly) follow even without the threat of punishment.


I think the really important distinction, however, is that most people believe there absolutely must be rulers, because [erroneous logic here] without them there could not be rules, without which a Hobbesian dystopia seems like the inevitable result. That is, they “want” to obey rulers, but not because they want to be ruled. Rather, they just see them as the necessary and acceptable price they pay to ensure that all others have to live by rules that make themselves feel safe. Or in other words, Joe Statist doesn’t want to be ruled, he’s just scared shitless of what will happen if you aren’t ruled, and being ruled himself is the inevitable price of that security.


This will inevitably lead to other questions such as if there are no rulers, how are rules to be enforced? Unfortunately that will need to be addressed another time as my primary goal here is to help communication between the two philosophies (anarchism and minarchism) to be more fluid and succinct; to bridge the gap.


Ultimately the point, then, is that these people are factually mistaken about the necessity of rulers for the maintenance of order, and that as long as most people suffer from this delusion, rulers are inevitable (their erroneous beliefs constitute a demand for which there will always be a supply); and that if this error were to be mass-corrected, the demand would evaporate and there would be no possibility of rulers. This is not surprising, especially given the ubiquity of the state and the general state of mainstream economics, but (speaking for myself now) it’s my aim to contribute to the correction of those errors in people’s minds.



Further suggeted reading:


For a New Liberty by Murray Rothbard

Anatomy of the State by Murray Rothbard

Our Enemy the State by Albert Jay Nock

The State by Franz Oppenheimer

*Interested in “How will X be handled in a free society?” in terms of police, courts, etc? See here for other further reading.