January 5, 2007 at 3:57 am | Posted in Anarchism, Decentralism, Political theory | 8 Comments

[Founding thoughts of the blog: subject to continuous revision.]

I became an anarcho-capitalist almost the instant I read the concept in 1995. Shortly before that I became a libertarian, and this seemed the natural and unescapable conclusion of consistent libertarianism.

Now, I think that anarcho-capitalism (as the an-caps understand it) is necessary but insufficient to preserve liberty alone. Unfortunately, we made the same mistake for which we accused the anarcho-socialists.

We claimed that the collectivization demanded by anarcho-socialism creates a central authority that would not restrain itself from abusing the power once placed in its hands. Similarly, governments make written constitutions. They agree to certain principles to limit power. But in the end, states by design provide themselves the temptation and power to break self-imposed limitations of power.

All this is true enough, but anarcho-capitalism allows any distribution of property, state of affairs, power structure, etc. that derives only from voluntary transactions to be a legitimate and acceptable state of affairs. But what if everyone decided to give all the guns to Mr. Ancap the Hero’s Protection Service, and voluntarily contract to no longer bear arms individually?

Because this is a voluntary change, An-Caps say, “Well it would be legitimate, but no one in their right mind would do that!” Unfortunately, history is filled with people voluntarily making such dumb choices. It must be seriously considered, and occasionally expected. Mr. Hero, or his successors would eventually become Mr. Villain.

Businesses can become very powerful. Power creates temptation. A disproportionately large amount of power in one place weakens the ethical self-imposed barrier between economic power (voluntary interaction) and political power. Radically successful businesses therefore create exactly the same temptation for political action that collectivization does to socialists because power is in the hands of the few.

So what is the solution? Those who want to maintain liberty must seek the limitation of power as an additional goal in itself. This cannot be put above respect for legitimate contracts and property, but beside it. It is further impossible to place it above contracts and property as the attempt requires a direct contradiction.

To limit power, it must be decentralized. In the defense of some anarcho-socialists, particularly those following Kropotkin, decentralism was a tenant from the beginning. Ludwig von Mises called this syndicalism and said it wasn’t even socialism at all. True enough as Mises defined socialism. So when consistent, criticisms of socialism while defined as “centralization of the means of production” don’t apply to any type of decentralist. Or if taken to the extreme, was Mises attacking the “centralization” inherit in a nuclear family structure? No, he was addressing socialism on a national or international scope. His argument gets relatively less true for increasingly smaller scopes, till at some point disappears, perhaps at only slightly bigger than the nuclear family.

What does limiting even voluntary power then mean in practice? If some legitimate business appears to be gaining monopoly-like power, that is enough to be concerned. Support the underdog. Instead of patronizing Microsoft, Intel, and Walmart, use products from Linux, AMD, and local stores.

That’s not the only problem I now have with anarcho-capitalism. “Finders Keepers” for first owner of land regardless of scarcity just doesn’t necessarily work. If Friday shipwrecks on Crusoe’s tiny island, does Crusoe really have the right to make Friday get off and drown unless Friday agrees to any contract Crusoe demands, just because Crusoe has “mixed his labor” with the “whole” tiny island first?

Rothbard rejected the Coase theorem which argued that the original owner isn’t important (assuming no transaction costs) because the market would allocate efficiently. But doesn’t Rothbard’s argument against Henry George boil down to arguing that the original owner of land isn’t important because the market would allocate efficiently? That’s not properly detailed enough to really be accurate, but I’m intending to start an essay on this to straighten my own thoughts out.

I’m not a Georgist, and not sure if I should consider myself a Mutualist. I still prefer the term free market anarchist, but won’t call myself an anarcho-capitalist proper. I would guess that any leadership structure of a sovereign society too big to know all the people, whether corporatist, feudalist, or democratic, is too big to control its temptation for political power. When it ceases to be personal, it becomes impersonal. Is that not a dangerous step towards the political? A fundamental characteristic of politics is the claim to represent someone’s best interests contrary to their stated interests. This is much harder to rationalize if everyone you so claim to represent knows you personally and can regularly complain to your face.

What am I? A decentralist.



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  1. I’m glad to see that you finally have your own blog!

    I generally agree with your points in this post. (By the way, Robert Nef, president of the Swiss classical liberal “Liberales Institut”, calls himself a non-centralist. That’s also a neat term.)

    I too think that an anarchist society would require some active resistance against centralization. Of course, the standard objection would be that a large company would collapse anyway if it grew too far and abused its power. While I don’t think this argument is the final word on the subject, I still think that it deserves consideration.

    As to your obejction to “finders keepers”-property rights (which I advocate), I think it is pretty valid. I’ve read one response to it, which, applied to your metaphor, would go the following: Crusoe wouldn’t have the right to kick Friday off his island because the threat Friday poses to Crusoe by being on his island is much smaller than the threat Friday would face if Crusoe kicked him off the island. I think this sounds intuitively valid as far as it goes, but I’m afraid it doesn’t allow us to draw a line. If we accept this response, wouldn’t we also have to grant a starving person the “right” to steal form a better off person? And if we accept this, wouldn’t we also allow for at least some government distribution of income?

    Anyway, these are just my $0.02 which turned out to be a little more. I’m looking forwart to your next post!

  2. Ouch! That should read “forward” in my last sentence…

  3. Matt,

    Thanks for comments. On the Crusoe example, I strongly recommend the J.C. Lester book “Escape from Leviathan.” But in short… liberty requires minimizing the *imposition* of cost to others. Crusoe would be imposing cost by making Friday drown, but if he failed to render aid to a dying Friday, that is a lack of positive externality, not an imposed cost. I have to agree with George in part that land as a natural resource must be considered separately from capital goods and man-made property. But George tried to address land with a national approach that would be subject to the same power temptations of other centralized systems.

  4. Unfortunately, I haven’t read Lester’s book.

    “But in short… liberty requires minimizing the *imposition* of cost to others.”

    But aren’t “costs” in this sense subjective since they stem from each individual’s subjective system of preferences? Thus, is there an objective way to decide whether the costs imposed to Friday by Crusoe, who lets him drown, are larger than the costs imposed to Crusoe by Friday, who violates his private property rights?

  5. Yes, costs are subject to interpersonal liberty comparisons, but this is a challenge for any system of rights, even Rothbardian, although Rothbard tried to avoid it by saying that a crime would be punished by paying back exactly double. That’s an oversimplification, but still, any concept of equitable and just restitution requires interpersonal subjectivity to be considered, because you have to consider the value of the object to the owner.

    Crusoe did not create the island, and having his liberty over the whole of it reduced by some fraction so that Friday can have liberty to continue to exist is real and an attempt to minimize imposed costs. We should be objective enough to eliminate “utility monster” arguments. We should admit that a much higher imposed cost would be placed on Friday if he was bound to accept any condition of Crusoe or drown. And Crusoe isn’t having as much imposed on him by letting Friday have a share of land. This is not the same as saying Friday should have a share of Crusoe’s capital or labor… things which Crusoe produces. Keeping exclusive rights to one’s labor and the product of it is the absence of imposed costs. To another person who would like to have your labor cheaper than you want to sell it, such is the lack of a positive benefit, not an imposed cost. However, with land, less than equal access and ownership rights is an imposed cost.

    I probably made that sound a little more Georgist than I intended. I’m not as good as Lester. I’d say, contrary to Rothbard, Locke’s Proviso (leaving enough and just as good for others when taking a share of land from the commons) is absolutely essential to liberty.

  6. I deprecate “anarcho”-capitalism based on my generally negative experiences with what is colloquially called capitalism. I don’t have the patience to explain to everyday people why all the commonly understood definitions of words are wrong. I deprecate contracts, although I would consider changing my mind if I had reason to believe there’s such a thing as a “non-boilerplate contract.” I deprecate the market mechanism because the market value of my labor these days has been really quite insufficient for the simple dignity of being self-supporting. Why should my opinion of the market be any higher than its opinion of me? One could argue that in the statist quo the prevailing prices and wages are not determined by the market, but that I personally would be able to make it under laissez faire feels to me like a leap of faith. Add to that the fact that marketing and haggling are not my strong suits, and also the fact that most proponents of market ideology (or theory if you insist) also seem to be social darwinists of some kind. These are people who probably don’t give a rat’s ass whether there’s a place for me in their vision of utopia. If the “anarcho”-capitalist cause seems to have public relations problems, it shouldn’t be any big mystery as to why.

    I reject the notion that individualism=capitalism because it draws the battle lines between the private sector and the public sector. I draw the battle lines between individuals and institutions, with business entities very definitely classed as institutions. Even a one-person business, with no plurality of ownership or staffing, looks to me like the project of someone with above-average abilities in negotiation, salescrittership or some other seemingly dark (and hardly “productive”) art. Self-employment is at best self-enslavement. Debt financing is to indentured servitude as equity financing is to chattel slavery, and of course self-financing is largely a privilege of those who have the luxury of business ownership as a hobby; persons going into it from a position well in the black. The only hope for individual freedom is the abolition of economics, perhaps by the achievement of “post-scarcity.” Perhaps a cheap substitute or transitional phase can be experienced with the achievement of a radical increase in non-asymmetric market transparency. I have dubbed my crude attempt at a strategy “pubwan.” Then again, perhaps the so-called post-autistic school of economics will come up with a viable alternative to the market model, but I’m not counting on it.

    I embrace anarcho-“socialism” not for their alleged demands for collectivization, but for their preference for cooperation over competition. Why should someone with a mostly losing track record at competitive pursuits (especially those with economic outcomes at stake) contribute effort to the cause of social darwinism? Where’s the “self-interest” in that? I don’t consider “collective” a dirty word, although I don’t consider it a clean one either. I think collective bargaining is definitely a defensible method for individuals (understood to mean flesh-and-blood humyn beings) dealing with public or private institutions (which always seem to bargain from a position of relative strength), but I suppose the ultimate abolition of institutions (anarchy, as I understand it) really should properly imply the abolition of collective pursuits. If transparency without asymmetry can be accomplished, coordination of effort without institution-building should be quite possible.

    I hold that, centrally speaking, “individualism” is the opposite of “institutionalism” (not “collectivism”) and “anarchism” is the opposite of “authoritarianism” (not “statism”). The way I express my values is by treating everyone I meet as an equal; with very deliberate effort to suppress my admittedly unextinguished instincts or reflexes to exhibit dominant or (more often) submissive behavior. My spectacular failures to live up to my stated values fall into two categories; dealing with cops and dealing with private sector employers, with easily 99% of instances being in the latter category in these precarious times when one is always “for sale.”

    For someone who is both working-class and law-abiding, private sector institutions such as employers, landlords, insurers and creditors will be seen to be a much more frequent source than the state of authority in one’s life, and of constraints and restraints on individual choices. So will, of course, be the market, which is to say the “going rate” for labor, housing, access to capital, etc. The hackneyed clichés about nobody holding a gun to your head are insulting. People don’t voluntarily choose their private affiliations, as the range of available choices is constrained by market conditions. Those with more market leverage have more freedom, and inequality of freedom implies de-facto authority. At best, the market economy is a meritocracy of salesmenschip, assertiveness and poker-facedness. The market, like the state, is an entity whose authority must be questioned and challenged.

  7. Lori,

    Check out Kevin Carson’s website. It is an excellent site arguing for “free-market anti-capitalism” and would answer your problems better than I could.

  8. Lori,
    If you can’t support yourself, why should anyone pay any attention to anything you might say. The **minimum** that can be expected of any adult is that they be self supporting.

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