I want to offer a response to Randy’s last post. It really follows on an earlier post where he stated “many of our fellow citizens favor further state expansion. But, if Leeson and Benson want anarchy, how can they get there?” Starting with this question, Randy ends up concluding that “regardless of whether the anarchists are right, their ideas are irrelevant from a policy perspective.”
Frankly, Randy is starting with the wrong question (in fact, the same initial question/implied-criticism about how do we get there applies to limited-government libertarians like Randy seems to be, as Tullock has discussed the problem of the transitional gap in explaining how it is very difficult to get rid of all sorts of inefficient government programs). I would contend that even though we cannot lay out a road map to anarchy, there is a very real and valuable policy-analysis role for anarchists. By knowing where you would like to end up, you are likely to be able to make better marginal decisions along the road, even if the destination is never reached.
For instance, consider the issue of contracting out for prison services. Many libertarians are likely to support this idea, assuming, probably correctly, that private contractors will produce higher “quality” services at lower costs than a public bureaucracy. I wrote a paper called “Do We Want the Production of Prison Services to be More “Efficient”?”, however, pointing out that prisons are used to do a lot of things that most libertarians do not like. For instance, over half the federal prison population and close to a quarter of state prison populations are being held for drug offenses (a major use of contract prisons by the federal government is to house illegal immigrants, another anti-libertarian policy). If the cost of imprisoning drug offenders falls through contracting out, the inclination of police, prosecutors, and legislators will be to imprison more of them. They will have less incentive to consider decriminalization or legalization. While achieving decriminalization or legalization are not immediately feasible, I do believe that there is growing recognition of the high cost of the drug war, and that a lot of policy experiments are moving some states in that direction. Therefore, perhaps libertarians should not support contracting out of prisons! If one only thinks at the margin, some things (e.g., contracting out) might appear attractive to a libertarian, but when one also has a destination in mind, even if unobtainable, it may become apparent that a different policy path is desirable.
Beyond that, Randy recognizes that a “benefit of the libertarian-anarchist literature is that it knocks down the arguments that, in theory, government is necessary for an orderly society.” But this point has direct implications for all policy analysis, not just the one policy question Randy demands that we address (how do we establish anarchy?). If we do not attack the basic premise that government is the only solution, and if we cannot point out that there are theoretical and empirical reasons to expect an alternative to arise spontaneously, policy analysis becomes “what should the government do?” instead of “should the government even be involved?” If we recognize that there are alternative sources of order, then whenever a government policy is proposed to “solve a problem” people like Randy can say, “but there is a non-government alternative to consider, and it may be better!”
The point is that the policy analyst’s question changes depending on the distant goal that the person is striving for and the marginal alternatives the person perceives. John Kennedy is famous for saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” I prefer, “Ask not what your country can do for you or what you can do for your country; ask what you can do for each other.” Anarchical policy analysts know where they want to go (even if they do not know how to get all the way), and look for non-government alternatives that are more likely to move us along the desired path.