Posts Tagged ‘Anarcho-Capitalism’

Libertarians believe in limited government for both moral reasons (government coercion is bad) and utilitarian reasons (nations with small government enjoy much higher levels of prosperity than countries with bigger governments).

But if small government is good, would no government be even better? That’s the core argument of so-called anarcho-capitalists or voluntaryists.

To understand this approach, let’s start with the video from Learn Liberty, featuring Professor Bryan Caplan of George Mason University.

And here’s a video from Reason featuring David Friedman.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I was very happy to hear him embrace jurisdictional competition toward the end of the interview (and I also agree with him that this is a reason to be skeptical about the European Union’s pro-centralization mindset).

But let’s stick with the main topic. Is anarcho-capitalism a good idea?

Defenders of the idea frequently make the point that it’s got to be better than what we have now.

Which is the message of this sarcastic meme.

But let’s take a more serious look at the topic.

At the risk of oversimplifying, there are three big questions that always get asked about how a society could exist with no government:

  • What to do about pollution?
  • What to do about crime?
  • And what to do about national defense?

David Friedman’s Machinery of Freedom is the classic tome on anarcho-capitalism.

First published in 1973, here’s what he says about pollution.

The pollution problem exists because certain things, such as the air or the ocean, are not property. Anyone who wishes to use them as garbage dumps is free to do so. If the pollution were done to something that belonged to someone, the owner would permit it only if the pollutor were willing to pay him more than the damage done. …The ideal solution is to convert unowned resources into property. One could, for instance, adopt the principle that people living along a river have a property right in the river itself and that anyone who lowers the value of the river to them by polluting it, without first getting their consent, is liable to suit. …Some things, such as air, are extraordinarily difficult to deal with in this way. …The simplest solution to such a paradox is to permit parties injured by air pollution to sue for damages—presumably in class actions, by many victims against many pollutors. I would not be able to shut down your blast furnace merely by proving that a sufficiently sensitive instrument could occasionally detect sulfur dioxide in my air. But, if the concentration were high enough to be offensive, I could sue you for the damage done. At present, pollution is ‘controlled’ by governments. … Who gets away with it depends not on real costs but on politics. If pollutors must pay for their pollution, however avoidable or unavoidable, we will rapidly find out which ones can or cannot stop polluting.

Here’s how Friedman argues that crime would be handled (by the way, there’s a 2015 book by Ed Stringham, Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life, that takes a very rigorous look at the history and prevalence of private law).

Protection from coercion is an economic good. It is presently sold in a variety of forms—Brinks guards, locks, burglar alarms. As the effectiveness of government police declines, these market substitutes for the police, like market substitutes for the courts, become more popular. Suppose, then, that at some future time there are no government police, but instead private protection agencies. These agencies sell the service of protecting their clients against crime. Perhaps they also guarantee performance by insuring their clients against losses resulting from criminal acts. …In practice, once anarcho-capitalist institutions were well established, protection agencies would anticipate such difficulties and arrange contracts in advance. …In such a society law is produced on the market. A court supports itself by charging for the service of arbitrating disputes. Its success depends on its reputation for honesty, reliability, and promptness and on the desirability to potential customers of the particular set of laws it judges by. The immediate customers are protection agencies. But the protection agency is itself selling a product to its customers. …The most serious objection to free-market law is that plaintiff and defendant may not be able to agree on a common court. Obviously, a murderer would prefer a lenient judge. If the court were actually chosen by the disputants after the crime occurred, this might be an insuperable difficulty. Under the arrangements I have described, the court is chosen in advance by the protection agencies. There would hardly be enough murderers at any one time to support their own protective agency, one with a policy of patronizing courts that did not regard murder as a crime.

Though even Friedman is uncertain how national defense could be privatized.

National defense has traditionally been regarded, even by believers in a severely limited state, as a fundamental function of government. … the usual solution is to use government force— taxation—to make those benefited (and others) pay… national defense—defense against nations—must defend areas of national size, whether or not they contain nations. It is thus a public good, and one with a very large public. …The cost of a minimal national defense is only about $20 billion to $40 billion a year. The value to those protected is several hundred billion dollars a year. National defense is thus a public good worth about ten times what it costs; this may make it easier, although not easy, to devise some noncoercive way of financing it. … a national defense agency might raise enough money to finance national defense without taxation. Obviously, a system that depends on local agencies evolved for a different purpose or a ramshackle system financed by charity, passport sales, and threats to Hawaiian insurance companies is economically very imperfect. So is a system financed by coercion and run by government. …What will I do if, when all other functions of our government have been abolished, I conclude that there is no effective way to defend against aggressive foreign governments save by national defense financed by taxes—financed, in other words, by money taken by force from the taxpayers? In such a situation I would not try to abolish that last vestige of government. I do not like paying taxes, but I would rather pay them to Washington than to Moscow—the rates are lower. I would still regard the government as a criminal organization, but one which was, by a freak of fate, temporarily useful.

For what it’s worth, anarcho-capitalism may be moving from theory to reality.

At least in small doses.

I’ve previously written about Liberland, a tiny would-be independent entity on some unclaimed land between Serbia and Croatia.

There’s also the idea of libertarian-themed floating communities that would be independent of any government.

The U.K.-based Daily Mail wrote about the idea back in 2017.

Stunning concept images for the world’s first first floating nation have been released as part of a project bankrolled by PayPal founder Peter Thiel. The plans will see the seabound city-state, complete with a handful of hotels, homes, offices, restaurants and more, built in the Pacific Ocean off the island of Tahiti… The scheme is the creation of the nonprofit Seasteading Institute, which hopes to ‘liberate humanity from politicians’. The radical plans could see the creation of an independent nation that will float in international waters and operate within its own laws. …the fantasy looks to be coming closer to reality with companies, academics and architects from the Seasteading Institute working on a prototype… Joe Quirk, president of the Seasteading Institute, said he wants to see ‘thousands’ of rogue floating cities by 2050, each of them ‘offering different ways of governance’. …’We can create a huge diversity of governments for a huge diversity of people.’ …The Institute claims it will ‘give people the freedom to choose the government they want instead of being stuck with the government they get’. If inhabitants disagree with the city’s government, they could paddle their colony to another city, forcing governments to work to attract citizens.

It’s worth noting, though, that a seasteading community was supposed to start this year, and that deadline apparently won’t be met.

Doesn’t mean it can’t happen, or that it won’t happen, but we’re still waiting to see if it actually happens and how well it will work.

There’s also the idea of anarcho-capitalism in small pieces.

Such as private police, as happened in Sharpstown, Texas.

One thing that holds many Libertarians back from converting to free-market anarchism is the idea of the police force. Many libertarians believe that one of the few functions that the government should have is the provision of police within society. …One town, though, did privatize the police… Sharpstown, Texas, is not an actual town, but rather a community. They purchase services from S.E.A.L. Security Services, LLC, a completely private firm that provides policing services. The results have been quite astounding. Their director of operations, James Alexander, gave a rundown of the success of the firm… In the 20 months leading up to February of 2015, S.E.A.L. successfully brought crime down 61%. Alexander’s numbers have been disputed, though, by Jim Bingham, president of the Sharpstown civic association. He claims that Alexander’s numbers are unbacked, and says instead that crime (particularly burglaries) went down about 32% over two years. …The people who work for the firm are private individuals being privately funded. They are subject to the same rules and regulation that go for regular people, meaning that they cannot murder or steal. Public police, on the other hand, are able to cite “stress” as an excuse for murdering unarmed black men and steal astronomical amounts of money from citizens in DUI checkpoints and through civil asset forfeiture.

This is a very appealing idea, especially given the serious problems we’re seeing with government-operated police departments.

Let’s close with some anarcho-capitalist humor (yes, that is a genre). We’ll start with a Hitler parody about seasteading.

Here’s an example of anarcho-capitalist humor from Reddit’s libertarian page.

Here’s a related example from Reddit.

Last but not least, we have an explanation of taxation and consent.

In the interests of balance, here’s a meme making fun of anarcho-capitalists.

And I’ll close with a takeoff on the old song, There’s no business like show business.

A couple of the above memes are based on the notion that taxation is based on coercion, or even theft.

To be fair, recognizing that taxation is coercive doesn’t make someone an anarcho-capitalist.

My two cents is that taxation is coercive, but I’m nonetheless a traditional limited-government libertarian. I’d like to believe that that the anarcho-capitalists are correct, but I haven’t been convinced.

That being said, I believe in a big tent. As far as I’m concerned, let’s all agree to get rid of the 90 percent of government that we all recognize is counterproductive. Once we get to that stage, then we can squabble over how much of the rest to eliminate.

P.S. Though the said reality is that we’ll almost surely instead spend the rest of our lives fighting to keep government from grabbing ever-more control over the economy and its output.

P.P.S. If you want to see where you rank, there are several online tests and quizzes.

For what it’s worth, the Political Sextant Quiz says I am close to being an anarcho-capitalist, though my closest match is minarchism.

And if you’re willing to answer 64 questions, I very much recommend Bryan Caplan’s Libertarian Purity Test. The good news is that I got a 94. The bad news is that the top score (which definitely would qualify someone as an anarcho-capitalist) is 160.

P.P.P.S. If you enjoyed the Hitler parody above (and it’s always a good idea to mock genocidal socialists), here are other examples.

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Whenever someone accuses me of being too dogmatically opposed to government, I tell them that I only got 94 out of 160 possible points when I took Professor Bryan Caplan’s Libertarian Purity Quiz.

That’s barely 70 percent, which makes it seem like I’m some sort of squishy moderate even though I have a nice list of government departments and agencies I want to abolish.

And whenever someone accuses me of being insufficiently opposed to government, I point out that my score on Professor Caplan’s quiz is good enough – albeit just barely – for me to be categorized as a hard-core libertarian.

So does this mean I’m a principled moderate, if such a creature even exists?

Actually, it simply means that I’m not an “anarcho-capitalist,” which is the term for people who think all government can be abolished (sort of like the “more libertarian than thou” character in this amusing list of the 24 types of libertarians). If you want to get a perfect score on the Libertarian Purity Quiz, you have to favor abolishing the Department of Defense, the court system, and every other vestige of government.

That being said, I like that there are people pushing the envelope for more liberty. And I tell my anarcho-capitalist friends that we should all work together to get rid of 90 percent of government and then we can quibble over the rest.

Moreover, when I spoke earlier this year at the conference celebrating the 2nd-anniversary of Liberland, I pointed out that there are plenty of examples of how the private sector successfully carries out functions that most people think can only be handled by government.

Which leads me to the focus of today’s column. The U.K.-based Guardian has a fascinating story about a very successful Nigerian church.

The Redeemed Christian Church of God’s international headquarters in Ogun state has been transformed from a mere megachurch to an entire neighbourhood, with departments anticipating its members’ every practical as well as spiritual need. A 25-megawatt power plant with gas piped in from the Nigerian capital serves the 5,000 private homes on site, 500 of them built by the church’s construction company. New housing estates are springing up every few months where thick palm forests grew just a few years ago.

To most people, this story is probably interesting because of what it says about Nigeria and religion.

But since I’m a wonky libertarian, what grabbed my attention was the fact that the church – for all intents and purposes – was building an anarcho-capitalist society.

Education is provided, from creche to university level. The Redemption Camp health centre has an emergency unit and a maternity ward. …“If you wait for the government, it won’t get done,” says Olubiyi. So the camp relies on the government for very little – it builds its own roads, collects its own rubbish, and organises its own sewerage systems. And being well out of Lagos, like the other megachurches’ camps, means that it has little to do with municipal authorities. …according to the head of the power plant, the government sends the technicians running its own stations to learn from them. …the camp’s security is mostly provided by its small army of private guards in blue uniforms.

To be sure, it’s not a purely anarcho-capitalist society. The Nigerian government still has ultimate power to enforce laws.

But from a practical, day-to-day perspective, the church has set up a private city governed by private contract and voluntary cooperation. Sort of a Nigerian version of Galt’s Gulch.

And it’s definitely worth pointing out that it is far more successful than traditional Nigerian cities (and it sounds like it works better than many American cities!).

P.S. Anarcho-capitalism is susceptible to satire, as you can see from this clever video about Somalia and this ad for libertarian breakfast cereal.

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Back in 2011, I shared a video that mocked libertarians by claiming that Somalia was their ideal no-government paradise.

I pointed out, of course, that the argument was silly. Sort of like claiming that North Korea is the left’s version of policy paradise.

But the video was very clever, and I’m more than willing to disseminate anti-libertarian humor if it’s clever and well done.

Some folks on the left, however, confuse satire with serious argument.

Consider the recent New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof. He wants his readers to think that advocates of small government somehow should be saddled with the blame for the dysfunctional nightmare of South Sudan. Seriously.

After hearing Republican presidential candidates denounce big government and burdensome regulation, I’d like to invite them to spend the night here in the midst of the civil war in South Sudan. You hear gunfire, competing with yowls of hyenas, and you don’t curse taxes. Rather, you yearn for a government that might install telephones, hire a 911 operator and dispatch the police. …Ted Cruz…is clamoring for: weaker government, less regulation… In some sense, you find the ultimate extension of all that right here.

Gee, isn’t Kristof clever. If you don’t support a bankrupt entitlement state and inane over-regulation, then you must want chaos and civil war.

Just in case you think I’m taking him out of context to make his argument look foolish, here are more excerpts.

No regulation! No long lines at the D.M.V., because there is no D.M.V. in the conflict areas. In practice, no taxes or gun restrictions. No Obamacare. No minimum wage. No welfare state to breed dependency. …In a place that might seem an anti-government fantasy taken to an extreme, people desperately yearn for all the burdens of government…that Americans gripe about. …One lesson of South Sudan is that government and regulations are like oxygen: You don’t appreciate them until they’re not there.

Notice how he wants to make it seem like the choice is South Sudan on one hand versus “all the burdens of government” on the other.

To be fair, Kristof does attempt a serious argument later in his column.

Two political scientists, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, argue that America’s achievements rest on a foundation of government services… “We are told that the United States got rich in spite of government, when the truth is closer to the opposite,” they write. Every country that journeyed from mass illiteracy and poverty to modernity and wealth did so, they note, because of government instruments that are now often scorned. …What we Americans excel at are our institutions. We have schools, laws, courts, police, regulators, bureaucracies, safety nets — arms of a government that is often frustrating but always indispensable. These institutions are the pillars of our standard of living. …Government, laws and taxes are a burden, indeed, but they are also the basis for civilization.

I haven’t read the work of Hacker and Pierson, but there’s been extensive research about the factors that produce economic growth. So if Hacker and Pierson are merely claiming that certain things traditionally provided by governments – such as rule of law, protection of property rights, enforcement of contracts, courts and police, and national defense – are associated with economic growth, then we’re on the same page.

But that’s an argument for a small state. Indeed, I’ve pointed that the United States (and other nations in the western world) became rich in the 1800s when there was a limited government providing these core “public goods.”

And at the time, there was virtually no redistribution. Not only in the United States, but in other developed nations as well.

The problem is that Kristof and other statists want large welfare states with lots of redistribution. And those are the policies that lead to less prosperity. And perhaps even fiscal chaos.

Indeed, that’s the argument behind the Rahn Curve. A small amount of (properly focused) government is associated with growth. But once the public sector gets too large, then government spending saps a nation’s economy.

To conclude, perhaps there is common ground. If Kristof is willing to admit that a bloated welfare states is misguided, then I’ll be willing to say that no government can lead to South Sudan.

P.S. There are serious scholars who argue “public goods” can be provided privately. Click here for a good introduction to the issue.

P.P.S. Leftists like to share the quote from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes about “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” This statement is even etched in stone at the headquarters of the internal revenue service.

What folks conveniently forget, though, is that Holmes reportedly made that statement in 1904, nine years before there was an income tax, and then again in 1927, when federal taxes amounted to only $4 billion and the federal government consumed only about 5 percent of economic output.

As I wrote in 2013, “I’ll gladly pay for that amount of civilization.”

P.P.P.S. In his column, Kristof uses Trump as a foil even more than Cruz. Since I’m unconvinced that Trump believes in smaller government, I didn’t include those excerpts (while Cruz, even while he has some views I don’t like, seems to be a sincere and principled advocate of economic liberty).

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