Libertarians have always emphasized the importance of private governance: In a world with radically less public or state-supplied governance, how will individuals gain assurance that products and services are honest? How will they be able to trust one another? How are promises to be kept? If the state ever were to retreat from its currently prominent role in society, these questions would still need answers.
Happily, private governance is already more common than many people suspect, and it seems likely that it’s able to take on a still greater role. Private security firms frequently perform duties virtually identical to those of police forces. Stock exchanges are in many respects self-governing institutions, and, at one time in their history, they were entirely responsible for their own governance. (If you didn’t like it, you could always set up a rival.) And there are many methods - some new, some ancient - by which the public good of governance can be bundled with other goods and effectively priced.
As a result, private governance is here to stay. But just how much can it do? Can governance ever be entirely private? Or can the structures of private governance only grow up in the shadow of public governance? That’s a hard question to answer, in part because we have no ordered anarchies to experiment with. Critics would suggest, with some justification, that these societies are rare because they are impossible. Proponents would point out, again with some justification, that states are like gases; they expand to fill every vacuum.
Our lead essayist this month is Edward Peter Stringham, author of Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life (Oxford, 2015). Joining him will be Cato’s own Aaron Ross Powell, editor of libertarianism.org; Professor James E. Hanley of Adrian College; and Mark Lutter, a graduate student at George Mason University who is researching private cities.