Can Anarchy Save Us from Leviathan?


These days, it seems that anarchy is everywhere. Its fans range from Yale law professors (Ellickson 1991) to pulp novelists (Ferrigno 1996; Mosley 1998). Last fall, it even showed up in the New Yorker, where it was touted it as "the next big thing" in law enforcement (Rosen 1997).

At first glance, it is hard to understand this fascination. Most of us equate anarchy--literally, "the absence of the state"--with chaos and mayhem. Following Hobbes, we reason that without the state to enforce rights, venality would reign and society would lapse into the war of all against all, making our lives "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Who, except the most depraved sociopath, would want such a condition?

The advocates of anarchy would answer "not us." The theme of their work is that Hobbes, Locke, and almost everyone else are wrong about anarchy. The advocates point to the growing body of theory and evidence that life in anarchy isn't at all as most people imagine it. Whether we look at businessmen in Wisconsin, diamond merchants in New York, or farmers in Sri Lanka, we find that "order without law" is not just a slogan but a way of life (Macaulay 1963; Bernstein 1992; Ostrom 1990). Those anarchies work because, contra Hobbes, they do not lack an enforcer of rights.(1) Or rather, instead of a single enforcer--the centralized monopolist we call the state--anarchies have a variety of decentralized enforcers, such as markets, firms, and communities. Thus, anarchies avoid chaos by providing lots of folks with an incentive to pitch in and punish deviants.

For a small but growing group of anarchists, rehabilitating anarchy is only the first step toward reconstructing liberal political theory. For them, liberal theory errs by treating the state as a necessary evil, rather than an unnecessary one. The anarchists argue that the state is evil because it invariably abuses its power, violating the rights of some for the benefit of others, and that it is unnecessary because even without it we would still have social order and respect for each other's rights. From their perspective, "limited government" is a contradiction in terms, a project that simply cannot succeed. Thus, for them, the job of the political economist is not to tame the state but to teach us how to do without it.

In the essays in Against Politics, one of our leading anarcho-liberals, Anthony de Jasay, argues the case against the state with flair and insight. He claims that the only consistent liberal is an anarcho-liberal. He takes his inspiration from Edmund Burke, who wrote, "In vain you tell me that Artificial Government is good, but that I fall out only with the abuse. The Thing, the Thing itself is the Abuse" (p. vii). In explaining why government "itself is the Abuse," de Jasay ranges widely, giving us essays on topics from contractarian theories of the state to multiculturalism and rights. He arranges the essays into two broad sections. In the first, called "Excuses," he examines carefully a variety of arguments for government. Whether we think of the state as necessary (the third party that is essential to keep us from each other's throats) or merely convenient (a better way to keep us from each other's throats) or fixable (a basically good idea that has been corrupted by bad people or rules), de Jasay wants us to see that we are wrong. For him, the analyses that underlie such accounts, whether set in the state of nature, behind the veil of ignorance, or in the shadow of the prisoners' dilemma, are just happy fictions designed to hide an unhappy truth: "States are an imposition, sometimes useful, sometimes a millstone, always costly, never legitimate, and never a necessity for binding agreements" (p. 36). In the second part of the book, called "Emergent Solutions," he expands on the claim that a successful liberal society--one in which people's rights are secured against all aggressors--doesn't need a state. Against the orthodox view of anarchy as chaos and mayhem, he argues that anarchy need not be so bad, and usually is much better. We find that argument novel only because we've heard Hobbesian jeremiads against anarchy so often that we treat them as established fact.

De Jasay makes serious charges. If they are true, then much of what we think we know about good government is wrong. Unfortunately, even sympathetic readers may find it hard to go all the way with him. Such readers will almost certainly agree with his critiques of existing theories of the state, whether descriptive or prescriptive. They are also likely to agree that anarchy has gotten short shrift in the modern world, that far too many of us unthinkingly toe the party line on the benefits of the state. But before accepting the claim that anarchy is always superior to the state, they will want more. They will want an explicit comparison, so they can see for themselves that anarchy actually is better. Without such a comparison, readers must worry that the), are making the very mistake of which de Jasay accuses his statist foes: simply asserting that their favorite would win the Hobbesian horse race, rather than proving it would. Although de Jasay's accusation may be an understandable response to three hundred years of statist mendacity, it isn't good political economy.

At this point, readers may be tempted to conclude that my argument with de Jasay amounts to arid pedantry, a sectarian tempest in a libertarian teapot. That would be a mistake. As noted earlier, anarchy is all the rage among those who find contemporary interest-group politics sordid and ineffective. Because de Jasay has thought longer and harder about anarchy and the state than most other anarcho-liberals, taking him seriously allows us to better understand their arguments as well.

But close examination shows that anarchy needn't be as happy as de Jasay implies. If we treat his defense of anarchy the way he treats liberal analyses of the state, asking what incentive people have to comply with its rules, we will not necessarily reach his conclusions. The reason is simple: even in anarchy, some have power over others. And they can abuse that power, using it to benefit themselves at the expense of others. Thus, to show that some anarchic arrangement would be superior to the state, we need to show that it wouldn't be the sort of anarchy in which people abuse their power. De Jasay doesn't consider this issue directly, but examples ranging from Bosnia to the mafia suggest that he should, that anarchy is not automatically liberal.

Despite this lacuna in his argument, serious liberals ignore de Jasay at their own risk. Even the reader who agrees with everything I say here would benefit from reading de Jasay for himself. Obviously, I can touch on only a few of the themes of his book. But, more important, my own essay is fundamentally de Jasian, asking of him the same question he asks of traditional liberals: "This sounds nice, but how will it really work?" Thus, even skeptical readers will learn much from him. They may even find themselves persuaded.

The Liberal Case for the State: Anarchy Is Intolerable

When asked for their political creed, most liberals would say that they want a government that protects the rights of its citizens against predators. If pressed further, most of them would identify that government with a state, an institution with a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. They would base their argument for the state on a comparative institutional analysis, one that examines the extent of social order provided by various governance institutions.

Most such comparisons are fairly abstract, based on stick-figure renderings of life under the available alternatives. Since Hobbes, the comparisons have usually begun by considering a society of people living in the state of nature, that is, without a state. Nowadays, that society is modeled as some sort of social dilemma, such as the well-known prisoners' dilemma.(2) The dilemmas arise whenever people are more productive working with others than working alone, but individually best off shirking rather than working, no matter what others do. In such...

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