Over the past few decades, constitutional rights have eroded in the United States due to the rise of welfare statism and media-supported presidential dictatorship. The slow collapse of U.S. liberty into tyranny of the majority has produced an intellectual opposition called anarcho-capitalism. The “an-cap” movement believes with Thoreau: “That government is best which governs least. … That government is best which governs not at all.” But how can a state-free society deal with crime? An-cap thinkers offer two solutions. This essay disputes both.
Tyranny of the Majority
The ancient Greeks called it ochlocracy. Romans called it mobile vulgus. John Adams, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Lord Acton, and Nietzsche called it tyranny of the majority or simply, “mob rule”. All agreed that it is the inevitable destiny of every democracy. Throughout all of history, whenever the masses gain power, they soon decide that individuals cannot be trusted with their own welfare. And so, with loving kindness and best intentions, the collective strips everyone but the elite of the right to make their own decisions, to control their own lives. Such collapse of individual liberty has happened countless times in history. As predicted by Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson (who agreed on little else), it is finally happening in the United States.
Anarcho-capitalism (for an overview, visit Anarcho-capitalist FAQ or simply google “anarcho-capitalism”) argues that: (1) the State is an unnecessary evil and should be abolished, and (2) a free-market private property economic system is morally permissible. A corollary of the latter is that private firms can perform government functions more effectively, at less cost, and without corruption or oppression. For some functions (banking, say, or e-mail) it is clear how they would work without government interference. But other functions are less obvious.
The Two An-Cap Arguments
The government function that is most contentious among an-caps is crime-fighting. How can private firms under a voluntary contract system possibly deter crime? The anarcho-capitalist view of crime hinges on two premises: (1) lethal force is costly and (2) ostracism deters violent crime.
The “lethal force is costly” argument is exemplified in chapter 29 of Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom. Person A steals something from person B but denies wrongdoing when accused. Person A hires Tannahelp company to retrieve his property. Person B hires Dawn Defense to protect him. Here is what Friedman writes:
The stage seems set for a nice little war between Tannahelp and Dawn Defense. It is precisely such a possibility that has led some libertarians who are not anarchists, most notably Ayn Rand, to reject the possibility of competing freemarket protection agencies.
But wars are very expensive, and Tannahelp and Dawn Defense are both profit-making corporations, more interested in saving money than face. I think the rest of the story would be less violent than Miss Rand supposed.
The Tannahelp agent calls up his opposite number at Dawn Defense. ‘We’ve got a problem. . . .’ After explaining the situation, he points out that if Tannahelp sends six men and Dawn eight, there will be a fight. Someone might even get hurt. Whoever wins, by the time the conflict is over it will be expensive for both sides. They might even have to start paying their employees higher wages to make up for the risk. Then both firms will be forced to raise their rates. If they do, Murbard Ltd., an aggressive new firm which has been trying to get established in the area, will undercut their prices and steal their customers. There must be a better solution.
The “ostracism deters violent crime” argument is made in chapter 12 of Rothbard’s For a New Liberty where, in essence, he suggests that anyone who rejects arbitration, routinely breaks contracts, or commits violent crimes will be ostracized or blacklisted from society. None will befriend him. Few will even allow him on their property.
Failure of the An-Cap Arguments
Both arguments fail when tested with emprical observation. You need not imagine what anarchy might look like. You can see it and study it first-hand in failed states around the world, places like Somalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Chad. Zimbabwe, Haiti, or Yemen. You can even inspect anarchy in the United States, in the gangland sections of Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore, Detroit, or St. Louis. In such places the state is powerless to enforce its will or to control the people. In essence, there is no government. Those are dog-eat-dog societies where survival of the fittest is the only rule, where civilization is impotent and the law is nothing but a joke.
Observation of such societies reveals that lethal force is not costly at all. It is cheap. Although an actual firefight might be costly, the mere threat of killing usually suffices to impose will. For example, if you forcibly take someones property and shoot him through the head when he complains, and then publicly shoot through the head the first bystander who objects, you will never have to kill anyone again. If Tannahelp (or Dawn Defense) commands lethal force and has a reputation for killing at the least provocation, the threat need never be consumated. A firefight will never happen. The cost of battle will be avoided. Barring some unlikely miscalculation (which at worst can happen only once), the side with lesser firepower will always back down and retreat to their own territory. This is precisely how warlords emerge and operate in government-free societies. The notion of spending money on arbitrators would be laughed at. Credible threats are cheaper.
As to the notion that violent thugs are ostracized in a stateless society, precisely the opposite is the case. Observation of such societies (see list above) reveals that those who are most violent in taking others’ property, or in reneging on their own promises, are the most admired and fawned over. Nubile women cluster around them. Adolescent boys emulate them. Thugs who also protect their followers (as well as slaking their own desires) rise in the unwritten gang hierarchy. In short, as long as they protect their followers, the most ruthless criminals are precisely the ones who rise to leadership. Come to think of it, that has been the origin of all government since the Middle Ages–lethal violence by thugs who attract a following by offering protection from other violent thugs.
What is the solution? Have we no choice but to watch repeating historical cycles of a well-meaning welfare state becoming oppressive, to be taken over by dictators, then overthrown by mobs, who install a democracy, which then becomes a well-meaning welfare state?
I do not know. This essay offers no solution. It merely suggests that the an-cap arguments: (1) lethal force is costly and (2) ostracism deters violent crime, are not observed in real anarchies. Furthermore, it suggests that any attempt to establish a state-less society will fail in the face of lethal violence by ruthless warlords. Replicable observation shows that the only thing that deters violence is the threat of overwhelming violence in return.
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Frank W. Sweet is an NRA-certified firearms instructor who teaches the safe and effective use of handguns for self-defense. He was awarded an M.A. in Civil War Studies in military history from American Military University in 2001. He is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), Six Gems of Forgotten Civil War History (ISBN 9780939479023), and of numerous published historical essays. To receive a schedule of his firearms training courses, email to email@example.com. The information above should not be construed as legal advice.
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