Friday, February 3, 2012

Sparring with a minarchist

Had a sparring match on Facebook recently with a minarchist, that seemed worth capturing here.  Names have been sanitized (as have a couple of amusing interjections late in the sequence, from the wife and brother-in-law of the minarchist), but otherwise the text is unaltered.

The whole thing started with this comment the minarchist had said (in a completely different context I had no awareness of):
"anarchists starve the goose, while progressives eat it"
I jumped in,
I have to call BS on the "anarchists starve the goose" clause. A proper nonarchist (or non-aggressor, or voluntaryist, or anarchist, or whatever fungible term is most pejorative-free with you) would do no such thing, but rather simply stay completely out of the goose's way. "Starve the goose" implies an active voice, and that would most positively suggest aggression.

Such people (and yes, I do count myself as one) would instead knock on the goose's door and attempt to negotiate a fair price for one or more eggs--except that there is no such thing as a goose that lays golden eggs. TANSTAAFL, and all. :-)

It took me a lot of years to get here (I'm nothing if not stubborn), but as the old saying goes: I used to be a minarchist--but eventually ran out of excuses.
and we were off.  He:
Anarchists starve the goose because they fail to give it what they should. The goose, here, is the engine of prosperity. A rule of law makes human cooperation much more effective.

There are legitimate uses of collective force -- they are just much more rare than nearly everyone thinks.

Don't you believe in property rights, Kevin? Do you think that the only way that property should be defended is on an individual basis? What about those who cannot defend their property? There's a lot to be said for a sheriff. I am aware that there is often a lot to be said against a sheriff, but it is worse not to have one at all. Things in Somalia aren't too peachy.
S. (and J., whose thread this really is): please forgive my tone. I get bristly sometimes, but I do think these conversations need to happen.

"A rule of law makes human cooperation much more effective."

I do not in any way get this from history. Rather, human cooperation proceeds (spontaneously, anarchichally) in spite of the affliction of the state and its arbitrary law. Believe me, I was a "rule of law" guy for many years, but eventually had to admit that only one defense of it was in any way persuasive: the equal protection defense. There, at least, was something to say that it does for us. Arguments that law has been an effective solver of social problems are simply laughable--they always, always, always migrate from "best intentions" to the enablement of the worst evils that sapient minds can imagine.

In short, law is unnecessary for the decent, and ineffective for the indecent. Its only purpose (at which it is exceptionally good) is to legitimize the concept of monopoly of force...which is the universal constant in all human-caused suffering--and which is the customary *definition* of a nation-state.

Oh, and about that "equal protection" thing: anyone actually believe that any more? Really? On what rational basis, regarding any item of actual importance to human beings, can this be defended?

If the goose is a proper engine of prosperity, it does not need to be actively fed; that creates a dependency relationship which lays the groundwork for and eventually guarantees corruption. (For the American Exceptionalists: are we not where we are, now, almost one hundred and fifty years since Spooner's completely ignored warning?) The best we can do--for the goose, ourselves, and our neighbors--is to get out of the way. (Keep in mind, too, that prosperity as I define it happens even when every nation on earth pulls out its every stop to prevent it. Gray and black markets thrive most where repression is worst. That goose needs nothing but the liberty to do what it does.)

In re "collective force", why does everyone insist that "collective force" implies a top-down control structure? I submit it's because we have been taught that for so long that we simply don't question it any more. At any rate,"force" does not need any qualifiers, and it is not even the word we should use. Force in response to aggression is legitimate--personally and collectively. What people usually mean when they use the words you did, is "collective aggression", and no, there is no legitimate defense of that.

The right of private property is the only effective restraint against the monopoly of force, which is why the very first thing that any monopoly of force does is to try and whittle away at it. I would say that property should be defended as necessary, limited only by the simultaneous inviolability of others' property rights. If someone can't defend his property, well, he just might lose it. Sure, that sucks, but a growing number of people are finding out that the state is neither incented nor (self-) compelled to defend anything on their behalf either, so what's the difference, really? Outsourcing protection is a Faustian pact.

Somalia? Seriously? A bunch of warring factions competing to be the next government, supplied from without by other governments seeking to advance their own interests? This talking point is little different than the complaint that "capitalism" is destroying the US.

Politics will not solve our problem. Politics IS our problem, masquerading as the solution*. Questions of the size and composition of the armed mob that will "protect" us all, are irrelevant.

Nobody has to believe me--and most don't. But watch what happens as time goes by, and be sure to shoot me a note proving when any of this is wrong.

* With apologies to the late Robert LeFevre for paraphrasing.
Sorry, Kevin, but capital formation doesn't tend to work without law. And capital formation has alleviated more human suffering than anything else.

We agree, I think, on the concept of spontaneous order. I am not suggesting that top-down planning works in any complex system. I am suggesting that a rational framework for human action is a necessary and proper role of collective force, i.e., government. At about 10% of GDP, focusing only on infrastructure and public order, we'd be all set.
"capital formation doesn't tend to work without law"

Huh? How, exactly, is it that you know this? Everything I see seems to suggest quite the opposite. Insofar as "the law" does anything constructive to promote the creation of private capital, it does at least as much more to retard, restrict, or otherwise discourage it. And in every political system of which I am aware--no exceptions--"the law" is co-opted by the owners of the monopoly on force, to become not a protection for people or their liberty, but rather a tool, a weapon to use against the disfavored--which eventually includes everyone. As but one example, Butler Shaffer wrote a work called "In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918-1938" which is entirely about how corporate interests figured out how to use the power of the state--the law--to protect themselves at the expense of the public. And Solzhenitsyn was quite clear on his extended illustration of how "the law" gets extended, expanded and used by the monopoly of force until we all become "podkulachniks".

See, the problem with that whole "framework for human action" idea is that someone still retains that "absolute power" that Lord Acton guy was on about. "Public order" from the state's point of view is meaningless without the authority to enforce it, and that is the door to the Pandora's box that contains the Khmer Rouge, Maoist China, Lenin's and Stalin's Russia, Nazi Germany, et al. We're on our way, here, even now; just read the first couple of chapters of Solzhenitsyn and try to keep your lunch at how many contemporary newspaper headlines you see in his words.

The nonarchist's argument is not statistical anyway, it is moral. No human has the right to bring aggression to any other, nor has he the right to delegate another to do it for him. The numbers do not matter. If every other American voted to murder my daughter as ritual sacrifice, it would not legitimize murder. Forcible compulsion of people who have harmed no one is wrong, no matter how noble its (stated) intent, and yet every state in existence claims the right to forcibly compel those who, even by accident of geography, happen to live within its borders. The system is marvelous and beneficial, we are told in the most saccharine of terms, but somehow only if we force everyone to participate by threatening them with an armed mob? WTF?

It does not surprise me that the state would do any of the things it does--right down to mass murder, imperial marauding and puppeteering, denial of privacy, you name it. The incentives behind the absolute power inherent in a monopoly on force make these actions not only explicable but probably inevitable.

What I don't get, any longer, is where people's continued faith comes from. (What's weird about that is that I used to have it myself: that soulful surety that America is exceptional; that flipping the dipswitches of personnel and policy in just the right manner would somehow, surely, cause the ugly trends to reverse; that somehow, the concept of "a little government" was inherently different than being "a little pregnant".) What, exactly, is it that makes anyone think that "limited government" is possible? Again: is it anything more substantial than having been taught this mythology, quite deliberately, since we were born? Why is doing something that is actually DIFFERENT, somehow more scary than the proven, unmistakably escalating, everyday evils that we endure now?

If the great American experiment, in constituting a government specifically tasked with preserving and protecting the liberty of the people and not a damn thing else, has come to the state it is in today, can anyone say with a straight face that it's actually succeeded? (No, I don't find the "well, we held it off for longer than anyone else" defense to be persuasive.) Or was Spooner right when he observed almost 150 years ago that the Constitution "has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it"?

I'm often chided for being way too macabre, a party pooper at election time, focusing only on the death, destruction, theft, fraud, and dishonesty that comes with that whole "absolute power" thing. It's true--I can't get over that, done in my name, with my money and that stolen from my neighbor. I don't care if the roads are nice and the trains do run on time, that's not okay with me and I'll defy it any way I can that's not going to...ah, get me murdered.

*** (breathe, Kevin, breathe.) ***

I once again apologize for my tone. I'm being sharp, and I know it.

It seems that we do share some things in common, S., and I won't for a moment suggest that I wouldn't prefer a proper minarchy to the Leviathan that afflicts us now. A Ron Paul presidency, local sheriffs in the vein of Stewart Rhodes, immediate return to the USC/BoR as written...this would make life almost unrecognizably better.*

But even that, with a monopoly on force still intact...we'd start right down the same road, and eventually wind up right here, again. I can't participate in, nor condone, any system that would ensure that result. I won't do that to myself, nor to you--I just won't.

(With that, many people advance what I call the fait accompli argument--that yeah, government's murderous and corrupt and all, but it's inevitable, so you should work for the best one you can get. I don't accept that. Nobody can prove that the state is inevitable--certainly no moreso than they can prove that "working within the system" gets any sort of meaningful results-- and at any rate if my belief is based on principle I can hardly accept defeatism as a viable argument, right?)

What I do regret about my "point-out-the-dystopia" persona is that it often effectively clouds the solution from being noticed. It's easy to conclude that I figure we're all doomed, and that is actually quite false. Many "nonarchists" see the downfall of the state as inevitable through loss of legitimacy and withdrawal of consent, and see no point in either participation or revolt. "Voluntaryists" and "agorists" simply try to ignore the state and live without it as much as possible, in-line, right here, right now, and you see that increasingly in the form of voluntary cooperatives, face-to-face deals, and other spontaneous transactions. We get a delightful lot of that here, and I love that about Alaskans. (There's lots of problems with Alaska as a state, but Alaskans are great.) Even plenty of people who would consider me a heretic for my beliefs, still yet understand that they can benefit, personally, here, now, by bypassing the state and dealing with their neighbors directly--and I see them doing many of the same things that I do.

Perhaps this could be called "feeding the goose" as you define the goose, and in that context I might accept it. :-)

* That's more of them rainbow-sh!ttin' unicorns again.
I applaud the kinds of voluntary transactions you mention. I do believe that the vast majority of human transactions should be voluntary (a truly free market, like the one you envision).

But when the Russians are coming, you're going to need guns. If you don't have an army, they're going to take over, and then you're just a slave again.

I like the fact that you are making a moral argument. No policy can be justified morally merely by the fact that lots of people voted for it. But it would be nice for you to make an historical argument. Can you give any examples of successful societies that work along the lines you propose?

Remember that movie, Mosquito Coast?
"when the Russians are coming, you're going to need guns"

Not contesting that, but why would they necessarily have to be collectively organized into a formal military? I seem to recall the Founders (well...the ones worth listening to) thought that a standing army was a *bad* idea. And it's not like spontaneous order is going to work in other parts of life but then somehow break down just because marauders threaten. Why are people's imaginations so engaged when finding ways to shoot arrows at the concept of a stateless society, but dry up so dramatically when considering what might work just as well or better than what we have now? Why is it, exactly, that private interests can best decide matters of (say) economics, social custom, and so many other parts of life, but not defense, arbitration or "the roads"? I wasn't aware that human nature had such a firn line that would indicate such diametrically opposed approaches once it is crossed. (Consider this recent example:

"If you don't have an army, they're going to take over"

This would be alarming news to 20th century Afghanis, Vietnamese, Koreans, and various other practitioners of guerilla warfare (on nearly every continent) who repelled (and in some cases are still repelling) vastly "superior" numbers and materiel in spite of, not because of, their organization. This variation of the state-as-fait-accompli argument seems especially ironic coming from any American, since our own revolution was a classic example of the spontaneous formation of an appropriate defense. And whenever I hear the "some other government will just come in and take over" catechism, I offer the reminder that every protection racket in the history of the world has operated on just precisely, exactly this basis.

"Can you give any examples of successful societies that work along the lines you propose?"

Before you proceed, a question: is all you have a hammer? Be honest with yourself about this. I am well accustomed to this question, and in my experience those who ask it usually expect any such answer to be a recognizable the form of a nation-state, which is all they know. If I do not reply with something that fits in the box they're expecting, my response is usually dismissed out of hand, but this is as tautological as concluding that capitalism has ruined the US because some people make a lot of money. (At one point, my response to the basic question--albeit asked far less politely--was this:

The most recognizable example in the sense of a quasi-separable society might be the Amish. (That I do not share many of their beliefs or preferences is of no consequence.) Participation is voluntary, and enforcement (legitimizable because participation is voluntary) seems to properly incent decent behavior among one another. Shunning and simple social custom/taboo (whether or not you agree with the details of what the Amish will shun or consider taboo) seem to me to be a whole lot more effective than the rule of law--most people I have met in my life would far rather admit openly to breaking the law than to being a social outcast--and even if the law were more effective, it carries the Faustian monopoly-of-force and "everybody must play" condition that instantly nullifies the deal for me. Anyway, the Amish seem to get along quite well and peacefully, and they live among us now. They do the best they can just to ignore the state around them, and take care of themselves.

I've also heard it argued that the 19th century American West was a de facto nonarchy, and actually I find that logic persuasive. Sure, there was a controlling state, but that was usually many miles distant and on an everyday basis, people went about their business in complete ignorance of it. And, despite Hollywood and the insistence of those who have specific political axes to grind, it sounds like it was a remarkably peaceful and prosperous place.

But the big example is actually "all of them, everywhere, all the time". Human beings are really the same everywhere you go, and voluntary markets spring up spontaneously, without any direction, in every society on the planet. They serve the needs that people have, and they are exactly as open and available as they need to be. In repressive societies, these are the thriving gray and black markets, which exist and thrive despite the most draconian attempts of "the rule of law" to destroy them. People voluntarily participate even under the knowledge that if they are caught they may be imprisoned or killed--which tells you everything you need to know about the effectiveness of the rule of law.

That is: people can and do live free everywhere, despite whatever nation-state claims and afflicts them. Recent history (certainly 20th century and beyond) has certainly been depressingly "progressive" with no square inch of the world that I'm aware of unclaimed by at least one state...and yet people all over the world find ways to interact peaceably with their neighbors, completely outside the realm of politics. That they have decided to simply ignore the state, rather than try to replace it, may be a mark of ingenuity rather than of weakness. I've met a lot of people who don't like that answer, but that doesn't invalidate it.

For anyone who wants the complete worldview writ larger, I can recommend Butler Shaffer's collection "The Wizards of Ozymandias" ( highly. For anyone who is interested in the spontaneous order concept, I'd consider it required reading.
There are just a host of examples, particularly regarding intellectual property, where a rule of law allows the market to flourish. It is true that some people will write books or create medicines just for the joy of doing it. But a great deal more books are written, and medicines produced, than would be without a rule of law (patent and copyright) that allows people to profit not merely on the physical production of such things, but on the intellectual creation of them.
"But a great deal more books are written, and medicines produced, than would be without a rule of law (patent and copyright) that allows people to profit not merely on the physical production of such things, but on the intellectual creation of them."

How, precisely, is it that you know this? Even if you can prove that the market can flourish under a rule of law, how can you know that it would not do even better under purely spontaneous order? How is it "because of" the rule of law, and not "despite"?

It may even be true that the majority of historic scholarship, books, art and other human culture that we have today, had its origins in some sort of state incentive or subsidy. Is this proof of anything other than "to the victor go the spoils"? Certainly states are fond of employing their own historians and promulgating their own work. But it seems a pretty facile argument to presume that any absence of "evidence" otherwise, is evidence of absence. Why if that were true, then any monopoly of force could simply rewrite history, completely, by annihilating whatever culture(s) it conquers, and pretending they never existed. (Um.)

Once again, I am not suggesting that a rule of law cannot be made to be a relative improvement upon the sorry mess that we're in now. But I do question, increasingly, all those political catechisms I was taught, because they're a lot flimsier than I'd ever have guessed.

And ultimately, here's the rub: in order for any sort of minarchy to be sustainable, liberty must be jealously guarded by everyone, all the time, whether it's convenient or not, with severe consequences for any transgression by the minarchy itself. Without that...well, we end up here, don't we? And if it IS done effectively, and vigorously, then the state doesn't seem to serve any function conspicuously better than an open market and spontaneous order might provide.

Implicit to that observation is the *real* limitation to anarchy: insufficient public commitment to liberty. Even the most serious proponents of the stateless society that I know, fully acknowledge that problem, and I've heard it said more than once that the existence of the state is proof of our failure to simply live free.
Yes, it's a cultural problem, to be sure.

I think the basic problem with your position is that it sees human nature in a utopian light. (I don't use the word "Utopian," because that gets too complicated to explain.)

Politics is the art of the possible. Force is required to prevent plunder. Yes, some of us can gather together and try to defend our property absent a state, but unless there is a state then we will always have to expend more energy on the problem of dealing with those who want to plunder from us. The Chinese, for example, have, as a matter of public policy, decided that it is more efficient to steal intellectual property from us than it is to create that property themselves. That problem will always exist, in one form or another; institutions that compel folks to respect property rights are good, because they allow us to spend less time protecting our rights, and more time exercising our creativity.

I still think you have an historical problem. Men have been knocking about this globe for a good, long time, and human nature hasn't changed any. You should be able to point to SOME culture that has managed to live the way you'd like us to live, or at least that has come close to it. Last I checked, there weren't any Amish in Somalia (not enough government) or North Korea (too much government). The examples of spontaneous order you mention seem to be occurring within the structure of a basic rule of law. You may be "ignoring" the government, but it is providing you a reasonable measure of security. In the absence of that security, surely there would be a great many more bad guys in search of your property.
Now there may be a new simplified definition of politics: the belief that human nature is so inherently incompetent at self-governance within a society that it needs, at some level, to be controlled for its own good. (Unlike any other species in the history of the planet, as far as I am aware.) This is the shared view of all political systems from minarchy to totalitarianism, and it consequently defines the heretic as one who would shift the ultimate object of faith from the state to something else. That observation also explains, in full, why the state always, given enough time, devolves into tyranny and repression: the ultimate governing principle is in no meaningful way different; it's just a matter of when the boxcars arrive.

So you've re-packaged the "fait accompli" argument there. Again, I simply reject that as no more provable than the obverse. You can explain using the usual logic as much as you like--I was taught all that too--but I'm talking about a fundamentally different way of looking at the world, a fundamental willingness to trade the increasingly-evil evil that we know, for an actual alternative which will certainly have its own problems, but which just might be much better.

"institutions that compel folks to respect property rights are good, because they allow us to spend less time protecting our rights, and more time exercising our creativity"


Also: I've studied "bad guys" for a long time. Personally, given the choice, I'd take my chances with the privateers over the public-funded variety any time.
Your references to Faust make me think that you are actually saying that in spite of the fact that the rule of law fosters greater prosperity, anarchy is inherently more moral, more noble, and so we should suck it up and do it anyway.

Kant. But Just because Immanuel Kant doesn't mean we can't.
Cute volley there, S. I'm not that familiar with Kant, myself, and so may have missed an entendre or two. (I admit that pure philosophers leave me a little cold; I tried to like 'em for years, but gave up. :-)

Regarding the deal-with-the-devil reference: it would seem obvious from what I've said already that my response to the devil's offer would be "Really? That all U got?" No, I don't for a second think human ingenuity is limited to what the state has "provided".

I would quite seriously be interested to hear your take on all this after working through the aforementioned "Wizards of Ozymandias". That work, dry though it can be (and with an occasional total miss on working up an effective image), is nonetheless the most effective articulation of a complete worldview that I know of, outside of fiction. (I've never been a sci-fi fan per se, but I did find the libertarian worldviews of L. Neil Smith's "The Probability Broach" and "Forge of the Elders" to be much worth reading--especially the latter's treatment of what private arbitration--i.e., replacement of "rule of law"--might look like in practice.) The truth of the matter is that you are far more polite in your grilling than most, and are much better spoken, and I'd be curious if your opinion doesn't at least get influenced by Shaffer's work.

I'm not persuaded, here--that's probably obvious--but it seems healthy to speak plainly and directly, and I appreciate that.

For what it's worth, since practical realities certainly seem to suggest that Americans will not soon improve their political station to a degree that either you OR I would be happy with, I do actually hope that the defenders of the system can convince those who must vote, to at least do so as sanely as possible. At least slow down the march of all that eugenic (hock, spit) "progress".

There is nothing else about which I would more love to be wrong.
And, concluding, he:
Kant and his odd bedfellow, Jean-Jaques, I Rue-him-so, are the source of a great deal of modern and post-modern misunderstanding and misery.

I hope to get to Shaffer one day (though I'm afraid it won't be soon).

I appreciate the conversation, if for no other reason that now I can claim to know a thoughtful anarchist.

This has helped me understand why I have always been uneasy with the term "spontaneous order," even though I am deeply convinced of the economic and social reality that it purports to describe. It's the name I don't like -- it smacks of "spontaneous generation," a famously discredited concept, and it sounds too much as if it were describing a random event. But the reality of what economists CALL "spontaneous order" is that it only occurs in certain kinds of circumstances. Spontaneous order is rational -- it is just not directed by any one actor. The spontaneous order that, say, Hayek describes is certainly one that occurs within, and is fostered and bounded by, a rule of law.

Nits and postmortem commentary not necessary, but certainly welcome.  I sure didn't feel like I was getting anywhere, took my out when I could get it, and sought a little refuge in Nock afterwards.  :-)


Arctic Patriot said...

"But even that, with a monopoly on force still intact...we'd start right down the same road, and eventually wind up right here, again."

End of mission, target destroyed, over.

Nicely put, Kevin.


Kent McManigal said...

Very well done. The only thing that jumped out at me was that I would have added, in response to his "The Russians will take over" claim, is what would there be for them to take over? Without a central government to defeat and get to surrender, and the "infrastructure of Rule" to co-opt, they would need to get 300 million separate "governments" to surrender and disarm- otherwise...

Anonymous said...

fk u, ppl need govamint, u anarchists is crazy

Kent McManigal said...

Lol! I think the point has just been made that stupid people tend to believe they need government...

General P. Malaise said...

very interesting debate. I see some of my failings in the discussion.

Thomas Sowell has a good book "A Conflict of Visions" which discusses the two prevalent minds on this topic.


Anonymous said...

Live in the NOW! Accept it as it is or kill yourself with bitterness and anger over what is reality. OR do something to change it so you don't waste your time on this computer while life passes you by. I wasted too much time reading this garbage. At least Anonymous got to the point.