Anarchy as a Policy Goal

Bruce supports the academic study of anarchy by saying, “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.” Then he presents a policy example that, as I see it, does not support that statement.

He talks about the efficiency gains from contracting out for prison services, but notes that if it’s cheaper to incarcerate people, we’re likely to put more people in prison — an anti-libertarian result from a seemingly libertarian policy of shifting production from the public to the private sector. This particular step toward anarchy (substituting private sector production for public sector production) actually results in a move away from the libertarian society Bruce would like.

It was unclear — especially in light of the sentence of Bruce’s I quoted above — whether Bruce was supporting the contracting out of prison services because it’s a move toward “where you would like to end up,” or whether he was against it because its immediate effect was anti-libertarian. But, Bruce’s office is right upstairs from mine, so I ran up the stairs and asked him! He’s against contracting out of prison services because of the anti-libertarian consequences.

In anarchy any prison services would be privately provided, so Bruce’s opposition to contracting them out appears to contradict what I quoted above. In fairness to Bruce, he made the clear distinction to me in conversation between privatizing prisons and government’s contracting out for prison services, but even with this distinction, purely private prisons in the current state-run legal system would still end up increasing incarceration rates. In addition to the cost argument Bruce made, private prison firms already lobby legislatures to increase prison sentences and require that a greater percentage of sentences are served. It increases the demand for their services.

So, Bruce’s example seems to contradict his point. If you’ll never reach your ultimate destination of anarchy, it’s really not that relevant to know what things would be like in that unreachable state of affairs. Academic research on anarchy is of limited policy relevance. Bruce and I both agree that a major benefit of the libertarian-anarchist literature is that it knocks down the argument that, in theory, government is necessary for an orderly society. Beyond that, advocates of smaller government can be more productive by examining programs and policies one at a time and suggesting concrete reforms, just as Bruce does with prisons.

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.