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O P I N I O N
Building a Regime 
From a Kit 
Eve Tushnet • Kids, don’t try this at home 
October 2000

Anarcho-capitalism sounds exotic, trippy, even weirder than voting for Harry Browne for President. But some of the worst principles on which it is based flourish in your poli sci classes and in the everyday conversation of your friends. To refute anarcho-capitalism from stem to stern would take more than an article in the YFP, so this article will simply suggest three reasons to be leery of both the extreme theory and the commonplace underlying principles. 

The Phantom Menace 
First off, anarcho-capitalism is science fiction. It posits a world that has never been, for men who have never lived. The theorists sit in their university offices or dorm rooms and come up with the grooviest regime they can imagine, with no reference to existing political conditions. 

If men had no patriotism and only a fairly minimal amount of viciousness—and if we were making our polity from scratch—this might work. But the “build a society from materials you find at home” approach is unconvincing. It echoes the basic rationalist error: the idea that smart people don’t need to look to history for more than cursory guidance. This speculative, subjunctive-tense approach to political philosophy tends to assume that the law of unintended consequences will not warp the actions of the anarcho-capitalist’s protection agencies to the same degree that it warps the actions of the State. The law of unintended consequences operates with more force the farther into the future we try to theorize; since anarcho-capitalists must speak of what will happen centuries from now, they can tell us virtually nothing of what their society might look like. 

Anarcho-capitalists share this tendency with almost every political philosopher since the Enlightenment—Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and the gang. The worst modern offender is probably campus hero John Rawls, who asked us to imagine a world “behind the veil of ignorance” where men judged without reference to their loves, their ethics, or the understanding they had gained through experience. Robert Nozick’s Just-So Story of how the State might have been created justly (but wasn’t) is another prominent example of sci-fi political theory. All these thinkers take their own utopias first and attempt to force the existing polities into those molds, rather than asking, “Is my country so terribly broken that the disruption caused by radical reform has become necessary?” It’s always easier to answer “yes”; it’s a lot harder to offer a reliable promise of something better. Anarchists may show that a better world under their system is imaginable, but not that likely. 

Style Over Substance 
Thoughtful anarcho-capitalists, like David Barnes and Katherine Mangu-Ward agree that anarcho-capitalists can’t tell us what their world would look like. They claim that a government-free world would necessarily be richer, kinder, happier, and safer than our own, because government turns everything it touches into garbage. But in some areas, when the government gets out, things get better — welfare and postal services come to mind. In other areas — say, prostitution or child abuse — deregulation has not promoted right action. The anarchist asserts that the content of a regime will be good because the form is good, the content bad because all governments are bad. There can be no legitimate governments – none that the anarchist is willing to let alone, on the theory that his guesses about the future may turn out to be unjustified. The anarchist behaves like many moder political thinkers, who can imagine no legitimate government without the forms of democracy. 

They make their best case for democracy as the best form of government (or even, in Churchill’s more acute phrasing, “The worst form of government, except for all the others”), and from then on we must judge all democracies (no matter how vicious) preferable to all non-democracies (no matter how just). As Leo Strauss pointed out in Natural Right and History, this way of thinking cannot distinguish between kingship and tyranny, aristocracy and oligarchy, democracy and mob rule. 

Throw Mama from the Train 
Some anarcho-capitalists come to their conclusion because they believe that coercion is the ultimate injustice, that force necessarily deforms human relations. But this claim runs into trouble when it tries to encompass our first experiences of coercion—our relation to our parents. In the family, coercion and loyalty intertwine. We understand that if children are left entirely to their own devices, they are pretty unlikely to lead good or fulfilling lives. So we coerce them into acting right. 

The knee-jerk response to this fact is to ask, “So you think the government should be our parent?” No... sigh... I don’t. But there are only a few ways of distinguishing children from adults for the purposes of political theory, and all present problems for the anarcho-capitalist. (It should also disturb any theorists—liberals and statists as well as anarcho-capitalists—if their theory requires them to regard the family as a necessary evil.) 

It could be that we can coerce children because they are not yet rational. This option bases political freedom on one of the most difficult questions of philosophy: What is rational? There really isn’t space here to discuss that little problem. But at least we can say that political freedom should extend to non-rational decisions and decision makers, so this distinction is insufficient. 

Or maybe we can coerce children because the familial relation is natural. This option is not available to most modern political theorists, since they have ditched the notion of natural law. Moreover, it’s not the easiest task in the world to prove that coercion by non-relatives is unnatural. 

This doesn’t mean that every virtue must be legislated. Most simply can’t be. (Honesty, integrity, chastity, kindness...) Others can’t be legislated without destroying our privacy and tempting government agents into tyranny. Libertarians’ emphasis on freedom and privacy is a great deterrent to government overreaching. But the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend; the enemy of the managerial state and the dictatorship of virtue is not necessarily the friend of justice, mercy or loyalty. 

One for the Road 
The final point is practical. It seems evident that an anarcho-capitalist world would offer enormous incentives for competing protection agencies to cater to the strongest and richest. Anarcho-capitalists typically shrug and change the subject when asked how those who can’t make contracts (children, the mentally retarded, the insane, people who have violated the rights of others and been snatched and imprisoned by their protection agencies) or who would be easily tricked (folks who aren’t as bright as most Yale undergrads) would be protected. 

Again, these points are not intended as a complete refutation. They are more of a challenge, not just to anarcho-capitalists, but to the majority of Yale students and political science professors who hold views that entangle them in similar problems. 

Eve Tushnet, MC ‘00, is a former Editor-in-Chief of the YFP.
 

 

   
The Yale Free Press is published by students ofYale University. 
Yale University is not responsible for its 
contents. By the same
token, The Yale Free Press is not responsible for the contents of Yale
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