Anarchical Policy Analysis

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.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Everybody seems to know we need government … But pirates didn’t! How did they manage without the state? In this issue’s thought-provoking lead essay, Peter T. Leeson, the BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism at George Mason University, explores what pirate “constitutions,” credit institutions among 19th century African bandit traders, and the well-being of Somalians after the collapse of the Somalian state have to tell us about the possibility of practical anarchy. It works better than you think, Leeson concludes. “As long as there are unrealized gains to realize, people will find ways to realize them” — state or no state.

Response Essays

  • Bruce L. Benson, author of The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the State, argues Peter Leeson’s defense of anarchy is too moderate. Governments in developed nations, Benson maintains, are not better than ordered anarchy. Drawing on Franz Oppenheimer’s classic account of the state as a protection racket, Benson argues that the state only seems necessary because it offers “solutions” to problems the state itself creates. Benson claims that even well-constrained states are essentially parasitic, leading him to conclude that “even when a relatively ‘good’ government exists, there still is way too much government and not nearly enough anarchy.”

  • Harvard economist Dani Rodrik is willing to accept a number of steps in Peter Leeson’s argument for anarchy, “but [Leeson’s] bottom line … represents a huge leap of faith.” Citing the work of several important thinkers, Rodrik argues that “the problem with self-enforcing agreements is that they do not scale up.” Both theory and data show that complex, well-functioning social and economic systems require the enforcement of rules by government. “Those societies in which markets work best are the ones where the reach of the state is longer, not shorter.”

  • Florida State University economist Randall Holcombe argues that even if Leeson is right about anarchy, it doesn’t much matter. “Regardless of its merits,” Holcombe writes, “anarchy has no prospect as an actual policy option.” The bottom line is that government is popular in developed nations. Furthermore, anarchy may not be a “stable equilibrium,” in which case it might “coalesce into governments … potentially more oppressive and more destructive than those we see in prosperous areas today.” According to Holcombe, if we’re going to get a government anyway, the best approach to policy is to “make it smaller, less intrusive, and more libertarian,” not to make it go away.