In eighteenth-century France the saying laissez faire [let people do or make what they choose] and laissez passer [let pass or go] was the formula into which some of the champions of the cause of liberty compressed their program.
Laissez faire does not mean: Let soulless mechanical forces operate. It means: Let each individual choose how he wants to cooperate in the social division of labor; let the consumers determine what the entrepreneurs should produce.
Planning means: Let the government alone choose and enforce its rulings by the apparatus of coercion and compulsion.
The alternative is not between a dead mechanism or a rigid automatism on one hand and conscious planning on the other hand. The question is whose planning?
~ Ludwig von Mises
As I interact with fellow believers in the logic of radical libertarianism and the societal condition to which it leads — market anarchy — I find that many of the same debates come up over and over. All of us who believe strongly in a voluntary society are well aware that statists and even those sitting "on the fence" with regard to anarcho-capitalism tend to ask the same questions, particularly in their initial contacts with radical libertarian theory. I admit, however, that I was surprised at how often the same debates come up even among those who might already be termed "true believers."
Ironically, not only are these objections typical between proponents of market anarchy, but many of the debates within which they are raised are just as sharp as one might expect between staunch libertarians and the most statist champions of neocon-dom, if not more violent. Why do people raise the same objections to anarchy over and over? Why can't someone answer these incessant points once and for all and have them go away? Why does it seem so difficult to "get to" anarchy? As Mises so eloquently states, the only question is "whose planning?"
From my perch, anarchy appears to be a nebulous, desperately out-of-reach ideal because even among anarchists there are a couple of basic misunderstandings that are both pervasive, subtle, and apparently damned-near immortal as well.
One: We occasionally, and far too often, speak of an anarchic society as if it was some hallowed final destination, inherently very far away, or some mysterious state of being that will require incredible changes — in the most basic qualities of mankind — to be realized.
Two: We sometimes forget, and more importantly, we allow those with whom we interact to forget, that almost every service currently provided by the State — with the possible exception of a standing army — was provided successfully, efficiently, effectively and without heavy-handed coercion, via private means before the state subsumed it.
Anarchy: Far Away?
Aside from the fact that anarchy is not a place, despite our tendency to refer to "places" such as Ancapistan or Libertopia, it might still seem that a just, peaceful, thriving society based upon the premises of market anarchy is far away. The reasons for this are several-fold. First and foremost, even the supposed believers often speak of it in these terms. Sometimes, when one examines the challenges presented by the current statist society, they seem insurmountable.
Additionally, we often speak of previous societies as if they were composed of people who somehow understood freedom more deeply and practiced liberty more completely. While this may be arguable, it is still overly pessimistic. Why?
It is pessimistic because of one unassailable fact: Anarchy is all around us all the time. This fact can be discovered via two rather pedestrian methods of investigation: 1 — being awake; and, 2 — looking around. The overwhelming majority of all our interactions with each other are anarchic. As I mentioned in my "Attack of the 50-Foot Minarchist" essay:
Even if one completely ignores the example of Iceland, where an anarchic society existed for something like 300 years (yes, three hundred years), he doesn't have to look all that far [to find anarchy]. If one wants other examples of stable anarchy, he only has to look in one place — everywhere! …
- All government hierarchies eventuate with people “at the top” who answer to no one but themselves.
- All societies are composed of people who interact based upon unwritten laws that almost everyone, with a few notable exceptions, seems to follow without enforcement.
I went on:
What rules govern how you treat the many people with whom you interact daily? Do police and other “law givers” follow you around to make sure you act in a way that supports an orderly society? Of course the answer is no! Each of us has hundreds, if not thousands, of interactions with other people daily and seldom do we need any final arbiter to keep the peace.
As one would expect, I am not the first person to make this observation. Shaffer makes a similar observation in "What Is Anarchy?" when he says:
I am often asked if anarchy has ever existed in our world, to which I answer: almost all of your daily behavior is an anarchistic expression. How you deal with your neighbors, coworkers, fellow customers in shopping malls or grocery stores, is often determined by subtle processes of negotiation and cooperation. Social pressures, unrelated to statutory enactments, influence our behavior on crowded freeways or grocery checkout lines. If we dealt with our colleagues at work in the same coercive and threatening manner by which the state insists on dealing with us, our employment would be immediately terminated. We would soon be without friends were we to demand that they adhere to specific behavioral standards that we had mandated for their lives.
We can only confuse people when we allow the concept of a truly voluntary society to be treated as a far-away fantasy. This is particularly true since it's already here.
Services: Who Will Provide Them?
People learn to accept the State as it is, seldom questioning what it should be or what it used to be. Lora and I touched upon this issue in our "Socialism Leads to Stupidity" essay when we said:
Richard Hammer speaks to this process in “Gateway to an Altered Landscape” when he describes this process of the state becoming a state of mind. He uses four stages to illustrate:
- Before the state takes over a function, most people in a society will be comfortable with the existing institutions in which the function is performed privately. For example, most Americans are now comfortable with the ideas that parents can decide for themselves how many children to bear, and that people can decide for themselves what qualities are necessary in a spouse.
- Shortly after the state takes over a function, most people in the society will probably agree with state control of that function, but almost all of them will remember that there had been a debate, and some will acknowledge that there had been plausible arguments against state takeover. For example, the regulation of what tobacco companies say in their advertisements.
- A few generations after state takeover of a function, probably 80% or more of the population will assume that the state must perform that function, and only libertarians will be aware that there had ever been a debate. For examples, compulsory schooling and zoning of land in cities.
- Hundreds of years after state takeover of a function, virtually everyone in the society will assume without question that the state must perform that function. Even the history of private performance of the function will be forgotten by all but a few academics. Examples of functions in this category are: streets, criminal law, and defense from external attack.
Many a libertarian theorist — from Hoppe, in "The Private Production of Defense" to Sennholz, in "Why Is Medical Care So Expensive?" — has outlined how and why services are not only cheaper when supplied by private enterprise but better as well. Hypothesizing about how private industry might meet the needs of society is one of the most fertile areas of thought among libertarians. Some might argue, quite effectively, as does Lora in, "Libertarians Are Not … Omniscient or Specialists in Everything" that it's a little too fertile! To wit:
Thus, I am puzzled when I hear questions, even by fellow libertarians, that take the following form: “In a libertarian society, how would X work? How would problem Y be solved? What guarantees would there be that Z would/would not happen?” … The problem starts when the “viability” of freedom becomes contingent upon the “answer” to those questions. That is, if the “right” and fully satisfactory answer is not achieved (ignoring that no such answer could ever be 100% correct), then somehow the desire for liberty is lessened and statism creeps back in.
As Lora conveys, the fact of the matter is this. No one really knows exactly how the market would supply every service currently supplied by the State. So what? For example, as a commuter, one might ask how his life would change if all the roads he used to get to his place of employment were suddenly <Gasp> privately-owned and operated? Certainly this makes for interesting debate fodder. But let me posit another alternative. What if the whole paradigm surrounding one's work life was different under market anarchism?
What if the fact that we have — in the US anyway — long stretches of relatively pristine paved roadways joining the suburbs and the city is a direct result of the existence of a coercive state? Who is to say that without a government central planning we'd have ended up with the current set-up for our working lives? What if, instead of driving great distances, which requires roads and cars, our society had kept the paradigm wherein those who worked someplace also lived near that location, close enough to walk or ride a bike?
I work in transportation, so I have often pondered the differences in travel paradigm in Europe and the US. Simply put, there are trains in Europe and lots of them. In the US, not so much, except in densely populated areas such as the Northeast Corridor, the stretch of land between New York City and the Washington, DC, inclusive. Why is airline travel so ubiquitous relative to train travel in the US? Certainly population density and travel distance plays a part, but my colleagues and I also have a truism: Whatever the government subsidizes always looks better to the consumer. (Too bad the consumer pays for it either way!)
The State is a primary reason air travel "works" in the States. Take away all that tax money for airports and all that tax money bailing out virtually one airline every week and the commercial transportation landscape would look very different. For all I know, there wouldn't be any "major" airlines, just a bunch of smaller outfits servicing geographic regions. I do know this: If people wanted to fly there would be companies offering it. The people who didn't want to fly just wouldn't also be paying. A similar effect would probably happen in every industry, including automobiles. But I'm still just guessing.
Fortunately we don't have to know all those answers, no matter how interesting the debate upon them might be. It is sufficient to know but one thing. If theft is immoral when conducted by an individual for his purposes, then theft by a government — known as taxation — is also immoral, even if supposedly conducted on behalf of those deemed worthy. As such, the fact that one cannot a priori determine exactly how private enterprise would supply such items as airport construction or highway maintenance is irrelevant, if interesting.
One of my de facto mentors in the concept of anarchy recently said, in an e-mail exchange in which I was fortunate enough to be part, that anarchy is "a process" and not "a place." Wise words indeed! That process has been underway for about as long as there have been people. With every successive generation we further ingrain the logic of voluntary interaction among the citizenry. Unfortunately, we also ingrain the expectation that an over-arching body can, while supposedly lubricating that interaction, provide necessary — required for the "public good" — services for everyone.
Call me crazy, but I'll take my chances with the market. If you don't want to do so, I'm okay with that too, but please don't require me to help assuage your fearfulness with my life, my liberty, and my property.
Wilt Alston [send him mail] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.