Friday, March 18, 2011

Why Anarchism fails

A recent guest post On the [US] Constitution as a “Counter-Revolutionary” Act by John Venlet (who blogs at improved clinch), and the subsequent discussion, has helped crystallize my objection to anarchism.

This can be summarized as: you cannot get there from here and, even if you could, you could not stay there. When states and rulerships collapse, we do not see anything resembling the stable anarchic orders of anarchist (including anarcho-capitalist) theory. Instead, we see highly chaotic situations marked by rulerships of varying size and stability where economic activity (and thus social possibilities) drop to a much lower level. (This drop often including serious population collapses.)

When we look a periods of sustained economic growth, one of their basic features is stable legal orders. Not necessarily a single legal order but, nevertheless, stable legal orders enforced by one or more effective states or rulerships.

To understand why this is so, and where anarchist theory goes wrong, one of the comments on the above post responding to an “how would it work?” query is an excellent starting point:
An anarchist working from moral principles might say: I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. If the individual is sovereign, then he is sovereign. He isn’t merely sovereign-except-when-it-comes-to-stuff-like-strips-of-asphalt. He has the right to live free from coercion, full stop. Everything else is superfluous detail.
Anarchism is generally based on some sort of natural law concept, since it is based on a notion of rights and liberties that do not require a state to create or enforce them. The above comment makes the classic mistake of natural law theory: it reads a particular set of values into the universe by the process of definition.

Rights do not exist in themselves: they are the creations of human thought and action. The key aspect of a right is some sort of acknowledgment of that right by others. The point of a right, after all, is to restrain the actions of others so as to give the right-holder a specific realm of action. To simplify somewhat: you have the rights that are acknowledged by others.

This acknowledgment can come from a shared system of belief that translates into restraints on behaviour. Or it can come from some system of enforcement. Or both. Given that people vary in both their beliefs and adherence to moral norms, then an effective system of rights needs belief (accepted constraints on behaviour), signalling (telling what rights exist and what their boundaries are) and enforcement (including dispute resolution). An effective legal order provides all of these things. An anarchic order reliably provides none of them—hence the massive levels of rights infringement, or simple non-acknowledgment of rights, that occur when states or rulerships collapse.

How things started off for homo sapiens
Something is a living thing if it has (or is capable of) revealed preference. This what distinguishes living things from non-living things: that they have actions with intent. Both the actions and the intent might be extremely rudimentary, but even a virus acts in a way a rock does not because the virus seeks things while a rock does not.
(Read the rest at Critical Thinking Applied)


  1. This doesn't seem historically accurate; see, e.g., Bruce Benson's work.

    1. Bruce Benson's book is worthy and enlightening, but law merchant was not actually a response to law-less-ness as such. It was a way of merchants having common rules across lots of jurisdictions. It operated in places that definitely had rulers, that were polities, but covered cases that either the local law did not extend to or would involve dealing with a myriad of different systems. So it is not actually a contradicting example.