Whether the realization of anarcho-capitalism would create just a different kind of State: a brief reply

More than occasionally, an objection is raised against anarcho-capitalism that goes something like this:  Since the private courts, private security, etc. envisaged by anarcho-capitalists would employ coercion against people, then anarcho-capitalism would just be a different kind of State, but a State nonetheless.

At first blush, this may seem to be true, but upon the tiniest examination it falls apart.  First, we must keep in mind the true scope of the non-aggression principle:  it is far more circumscribed than opponents of anarcho-capitalism would have it.  It states, briefly, an ethic of not initiating violence against another person or his property.  If, however, some clown breaks into your house and steals your best pair of shoes, then, in the anarcho-capitalist system you can take him to court to mete out some kind of justice for this theft.  The thief, in this case, is not  a victim of coercion; he is an aggressor.  (That being said, this doesn’t mean that I support much of what our modern criminal justice system does, even in cases of real crimes such as theft, as distinguished from the non-crimes dreamed up by positive law, such as the requirement to have your car inspected every year, or the ban on certain drugs deemed “illicit.”)

The system of private courts, etc, is far different than that which obtains under a State, however; for in a State, very often the violence is initiated by the government itself.  The citizen has done nothing wrong, is just trying to live his life, make it through his day, feed his children and buy his wife something nice for her birthday.  Then the tax man comes and says, “Give us half your money or else…”  Let’s say he makes a mistake on his tax return.  He could be fined, to say the very least.  This is aggression; it is even violence, since taxes are collected, ultimately, at the point of a gun.  Or there’s a lazy ass teenager sitting in his mother’s basement, smoking pot and playing video games, wasting his life and embarrassing everyone who loves him.  Then one day a judge warehouses him for smoking the bud.

But what have these citizens done?  They have neither inflicted violence on anyone, nor have they stolen from anyone.  Why, then, should the law be concerned with them?  Yet the State concerns itself with non-violent “criminals” all the time.  Since these non-criminals have violated no one’s rights, but only the Utopian schemes of the authors of positive law, then they are the ones who are the victims of aggression when the State puts them in shackles.

Murray Rothbard cleared new land by combining the tradition of natural rights with the system of capitalism.  For more on this subject, his book The Ethics of Liberty is strongly recommended.  In this work he outlines how the anarcho-capitalist system will work, not through violence and coercion as the State operates, but through mutual exchange based on private property rights.    The work of Rothbard needs to be advanced as much as possible, so that one day the inalienable rights of mankind will rule our law, not by force of positive diktat, but by the triumph of the non-aggression principle, enshrined as the starting point for the ethical system on which our society is based.


14 Responses

  1. As I’ve said before, I reject anarcho-capitalism because I reject the philosophical assertions that it’s based on, but I am open to learning more about how that type of society would work out the non-agression principle in practice. More specifically, I am interested in what the thinking is in terms of how the theorists would manage second and third generation members who rejected the non-agression principle or anarcho-capitalism generally, and under what conditions it would be justified to employ force against such persons. Rothbard, to the best of my knowledge, doesn’t deal with this. His treatment of the subject assumes a working anarcho-capitalist society, in which all persons are committed to the principles of anarcho-capitalism. Which is an interesting exercise in mental gymnastics, but without much utility in terms of practical application, in my opinion.

  2. Hi Paul,

    “More specifically, I am interested in what the thinking is in terms of how the theorists would manage second and third generation members who rejected the non-agression principle or anarcho-capitalism generally, and under what conditions it would be justified to employ force against such persons.”

    I’m hesitant to respond to this until I’m sure that I’ve understood you correctly. Are you asking about people who are born into an anarcho-capitalist system after it has been established? If not, can you elaborate on what you mean by second and third generation members?


  3. Michael,

    Yes, that’s exactly what I’m referring to. Some time ago we were discussing the morality of taxation, and whether–even if all persons in a society had agreed to it initially–such covenants should bind those who later were born into that social group. I recall that you took the contrary position. Thus my question of whether this would also apply to the ethical principles (specifically non-agression) of some hypothetical anarcho-capitalist society.

    It’s all very much castles in the air, of course, but a political philosophy generally needs to provide for a succession of generations, and describe how they should relate to each other.


  4. If, however, some clown breaks into your house and steals your best pair of shoes, then, in the anarcho-capitalist system you can take him to court to mete out some kind of justice for this theft.

    Would not the court, then, have some sort of coercion at its disposal in order to force the miscreant to pay for his thieving? Clearly in an anarcho-capitalist society people can have stores of private arms, so any coercion available to the courts would have to be superior to that, otherwise our hypothetical miscreant could not be forced to pay for his theft. Now once the coercive force available to the court becomes superior to any force mustered by private citizens, what is to prevent the court or, more likely, the “private” security force that it employs from gaining a monopoly on coercion and thus, in essence, becoming the State?

    • This is a good question. I need to think about this before I respond fully.

    • I hate to hand out “assigned reading,” but given that I’m an amateur theorist, it’s sometimes better to consult the visionary of anarcho-capitalism, Murray Rothbard. This entire article is worth reading: http://www.lewrockwell.com/rothbard/rothbard133.html

      Note well a few important things.

      1. Rothbard’s definition of a State as being an entity which derives it’s income from taxation and/or exerts a monopoly on defense over a given territorial area.

      2. His definition of an anarchistic society as one in which there is no legal allowance for aggression against one’s person or property.

      3. His discussion of how private merchant courts have worked in the past. This is peripheral to what you were saying but it’s interesting nonetheless.

      The basic answer to your question seems to be that a private court could not be defined as a State, since they are approached voluntarily by the various parties who have a dispute. Their judgements are respected because a loser who fails to respect the judgement of the court will soon find himself without parties willing to engage in exchange with him. The history on this from the Middle Ages is fascinating. I hope this answers your question.

      Rothbard admits that these kinds of conversation can descend into all sorts of semantic rabbit holes, but in any case I think one can at least allow him the credit that his definitions are not arbitrary.

      • I should also add that in this discussion one must keep in mind the profit motive. The courts, being private, are not going to want to do anything outrageous lest they lose customers. If one particular court gets a bad reputation, it will be difficult to get concerned parties to agree to use that court as the resolver of their disputes, which will put the court out of business. Remember that these courts will rely upon the idea of mutual exchange; there will be no court enshrined as a god as we have now; it will be more like the merchant courts of the Middle Ages.

  5. Paul,

    Perhaps one way to go about your question is to ask how one would reject the ethical principles of anarcho-capitalism. Mere lip service is not really a problem, of course, since this does not violate the non-aggression principle. So Mr. Jones, who opposes anarcho-capitalism, can stand on the street corner and speak against it all he wants.

    The real problem, of course, would be in terms of actions that Jones might take to rid his community of voluntaryism (another term for anarcho-capitalism). He has two choices, both of which are essentially the same:

    1. He can commit acts of theft and violence against others to achieve his ends. But this would be a crime, and he would be justly punished, and there would be no reason to feel sorry for him.

    2. He could try, in some way, to form a State. But his “State” would only work insofar as he could get every last person on board with him. Keep in mind that anarcho-capitalism is not a democratic system, and so a majority rules mentality does not obtain. Moreover, there would be no mandate for this given the non-aggression principle.

    Now, let’s say that Mr. Jones, for instance, doesn’t agree with capitalism. He could freely associate with others of his ilk, and they could go out into the woods and form a hippie commune, build little straw huts and live happily ever after. As long as they’re on their property and working mutually, without aggression, there is nothing wrong with this.

    Or let’s also suppose that there’s a citizen in an anarcho-capitalist community who’s opposed to the freedom to choose one’s own religion. Let’s call him…..oh, I don’t know……Pope Pius IX. Pius wants everyone to join….let’s say the SSPX. He is going to be S.O.L., since anarcho-capitalism strictly rejects initiating coercion to force anyone to do anything. Those religions which propose that they offer a basis for moral order (a necessary “good” in the “economy,” for sure) are going to have to compete for the loyalty of the “customers,” just like everyone else.

    If hope this has answered your question; but if not, let’s keep going.

    • I should also add that if Mr. Jones wants some sort of collective defense system, he can also freely associate with others who do. One of the key aspects of anarcho-capitalism is the freedom of association, and the freedom not to associate. It does not force every man to be an island; it only allows him to keep the company he wants and reject the company he doesn’t want.

    • As far as #1 is concerned, he would only be punished insofar as the people against whom he initiates theft and violence are willing and able to bring him before a court, and the court itself is able to punish him.

      With #2, he could form a “State” without bringing everybody on board, he would only need enough people who collectively have enough force at their disposal to gain a monopoly on coercion.

  6. dcs,

    Regarding #2: But what would Mr. Jones be taking over? Remember that there will be no public land. Other private property owners will be able to band together to repel Mr. Jones and his quest to become a bandit writ large, i.e. a government leader. Just as much as he can try to gain enough force to have a “monopoly” on violence, others can unite against him to repel him. Remember, monopolies are not really possible without the backing of a State.

    Oh but what if Mr. Jones is like Dick Cheney, with more money than God? Well, this isn’t likely under the anarcho-capitalist system, since the fascistic (and I’m trying to be literal here, not pejorative) economic system that we have is what makes it possible for big businesses to get in bed with government and get far richer than they otherwise would.

    It seems to me that mutuality and the freedom of association can be used to repel such evildoers as Mr. Jones, and that if it doesn’t work, perhaps then we would only have ourselves to blame. In any case, who’s defending us under our current system against the banks, the military-industrial complex, and other large corporations that are burning and pillaging our society, and other societies? It may be a more subtle form of takeover and all-out marauding, but it’s there nonetheless, and I think we do ourselves no favors by assuming that the State is keeping things in tolerable condition.

    Remember, too, that social ostracism can accomplish a lot, even as regards your concerns re: #1.

  7. Mike,

    Your response did answer my questions, or, more accurately, caused me to reconsider my questions.

    Your answers to me and to Mr Smith seem logical and self-consistent. My issue with them is that they appear to presuppose an existing anarcho-capitalist society, in which the vast majority of people are dedicated to the principles of anarcho-capitalism. My question then becomes one of how some part of today’s world gets to that point. I don’t expect you to have an answer to that, but I would be interested in whether you’re aware of anyone who’s written on that topic.

    • Paul,

      I’ll have to see what I can find. I’m reading a book right now that might actually answer it down the line; but I don’t know yet. In any case I’ll have to place a phone call to my friend “Mr. Bibliography.”

    • Paul,

      I’m reading a book right now that actually touches upon the issues you raise. It’s Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s _Democracy: The God That Failed. Hoppe seems to be a “tory anarchist” in the tradition of Nock and Mencken, and I think you’d find a great deal of sympathy with his thesis, although you will not be entirely in agreement. He posits, for instance, that monarchies are a lesser evil to the free market and to liberty than are democracies.

      Hoppe cites a few other sources that are not presently at my fingertips. In any case, you can borrow my copy if you want.

      At any rate, his proposal for installing anarcho-capitalism (he calls it the “natural order”….let’s no quibble over that;)) is centered upon the delegitimization of government authority through the discourse of ideas. He explains why this is the only possible approach, let alone the only desirable one.

      Of course, two obstacles with this stick out in my mind, presently, however much I would be inclined to offer the same prescription.

      1) Ideas, particularly abstract ideas, are not fashionable right now, not only because they “have consequences,” as it is so cliched to say, but also because, in order to have an idea, one must stake a claim to something, and in the relativistic (not to be confused with the subjectivism of, e.g., Mises) climate we live in, this is something so many people are loathe to do. There is a kind of pathological skepticism. Of all the people in the world to call this out, the one I heard bring this up was none other than Stefan Molyneux, an anarcho-capitalist atheist. But you won’t hear most clergy these days talking about such absolute philosophical values.

      2) The problems with ideas also bring to mind another issue, one with the “mode of transportation” of ideas: language. Modern trends have done much to try to strip it of its meaningfulness, so that even if one wants to communicate about ideas, one must deal with all manner of confusion and functional illiteracy. Maybe this problem is exaggerated but I think there’s probably at least a little something to it. This is such a crucial issue that Richard Weaver, the literature professor who famously penned “Ideas Have Consequences,” devoted an entire chapter to “The Power of the Word,” one of three things which he named–along with Piety and Justice (basically tradition) and Property Rights–as being essential to the rebirth of liberty and society. (Weaver, lest anyone wonder, was a conservative-libertarian, not an anarchist.)

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