Objectivism, Bidinotto, and Anarchy

by Stephan Kinsella on September 17, 2009

in LewRockwell.com Blog Posts

Extracts below from a debate I had with Bidinotto about anarchy vs. minarchy.

See also Rand, Objectivism, and One-World Government. And, from LRC blog, see Objectivism v. Anarchy:

Email from Bob Bidinotto:

For decades, arguments have raged between advocates of limited government and of anarchism, AKA “anarcho-capitalism,” AKA “market anarchism,” AKA “private legal systems,” etc.

In 1994, I weighed into this debate with a long piece, during an online discussion. Recently that commentary came under critical scrutiny by Roderick Long in several pieces he also published online. I have thus far issued two subsequent replies.

If you are interested in this topic, you are invited to check out the following essays posted on my blog. Within them, you’ll also find hyperlinks to Prof. Long’s essays.

“The Contradiction in Anarchism”: http://bidinotto.journalspace.com/?entryid=57

“Contra Anarchism, Part I”: http://bidinotto.journalspace.com/?entryid=55

“Contra Anarchism, Part II”: http://bidinotto.journalspace.com/?entryid=56

[SK: note: These links are bad now; but much of this can be seen on Roderick Long's old blog discussion.]

Discussion from Reason blog:

Anarchy Reigns

Posted by Stephan Kinsella on January 21, 2004 11:18 AM

… on the Reason blog discussing anarcho-capitalism, in response to Butler Shaffer’s What Is Anarchy. Reproduced below is my most recent entry, in reply to Robert Bidinotto’s latest post (Bidinotto’s remarks indented) [note: the Reason entry now for some reason has my and others' comments mangled and incomplete]:

In light of the comments following my previous post, let’s recall that the core moral argument by anarchists was not that anarchism is “not as bad” as government; it was that government is inherently aggressive, while anarchism is not.

Isn’t it fascinating, then, that when challenged on an inherent moral contradiction within their theory, anarchists suddenly switch their argument to: “Oh, but government is far worse!” (Says one: “What I find striking is almost every criticism minarchists hurl against anarchy, applies also to minarchy.”

That was me–and it was meant to point out the criticisms of the minarchists are flawed criticisms, since the criticisms apply equally to minarchy. It was not switching ground.

Now, now, folks: let’s stick with your original moral contention. Your moral rationale for anarchism is that it does not inherently entail aggression (initiation of force), while government inherently does.

Specifically, the moral claims of anarchists are that (1) government must compel involuntary taxation to sustain its activities, (2) government initiates force and coercion to outlaw “competing” protection agencies and legal systems, and (3) anarcho-capitalism avoids both moral problems.

Here are my summary replies:

(1) There is no inherent reason why a government that’s limited only to bare-bones justice functions will require taxation to exist. The necessary services of government–police, laws, courts–could be funded voluntarily, on a fee-for-service basis, along with such supplemental mechanisms as lotteries.

No “inherent” reason? Okay. Fine. If you only advocate a government that does not have the power to tax, maybe we anarchists would have no problem with it.

If someone advocates a state that can tax, anarchists are against it. If they advocate something called a state, but that can’t tax, it is less problematic, maybe not problematic at all.

However, it is not unfair here to point out that no limited state — certainly not a tax-free one (other than the Vatican, which depends on voluntary donations, but which I suspect Objectivists do not want to hold up as an exemplary government) — has ever existed. This is indeed relevant — because it makes it clear that if someone advocates a state, they cannot avoid advocating taxation, since all states as at least a practical matter do tax.

(2) Governments do not need to outlaw “private protection agencies”–and in actuality, they don’t. We already have an abundance of private detectives, security police, mediators, arbitrators, bodyguards, prisons, etc., all operating legally and in parallel to the governmental system.

However, government does require that all such individuals and agencies conform to, and operate within, a single, overarching framework of law.

It is the recurring assumption of Objectivists that there has to be a “single” or “final” or “authoritative” (read: government or state issued) “source” of law. Why? Why is a “single” source more likely to lead to just results? Why is it axiomatic that this be the case? Why is it not at least possible that equally good, or better, justice, might be obtained in some kind of plural system than one having a “single” or “final” decision-maker? Isn’t justice more important than finality? Isn’t substance more important than form?

Further, what in the world makes people think that a “final” (read: one-world state) decision maker will, or even can, have a reliable system for generating just results? Every “monopoly” system we know of does not do this.

Why? Because you can’t allow “market competition” over the very definitions and meanings of such basic legal principles as “justice,” “rights,” “aggression,” “self-defense,” etc.

Here is where it is relevant, to point out that the criticisms minarchists hurl against anarchists apply to them too. When a given society-state per minarchists’ dreams is developing, it must have some way of arriving at the “correct” “meanings” of basic legal principles. Various people have input into this. There is “competition”. What makes any minarchist think the state would happen to stumble upon the right set of principles to enforce uniformly and finally upon all within its domain? Why is it more likely that a state would happen to develop just principles, than those that would be adopted by private justice agencies? This just makes no sense to me. I suppose the minarchist would reply, “because that’s what we are advocating–that a state be formed with X,Y, and Z libertarian principles.” Well the anarchist could equally well say, “but we are in favor of private agencies that also abide by X, Y, Z libertarian principles.”

You can’t have a viable, peaceful society with each competing individual, demographic group, street gang, religious faction, et al., deciding, unilaterally and subjectively, who is a “victim” and who a “criminal”–then claiming the “sovereign right” to ignore the contrary legal claims, rules, definitions, principles, and verdicts of everyone else.

I do not understand the proof for this claim. Evidently the minarchist believes justice is somehow possible, in a state system, even though it is subject to the same “problems”–e.g., in a given state, or when it is developing, there are competing factions; there are individuals trying to decide things “unilaterally and subjectively”, and someone could claim the “sovereign right” to ignore the contrary legal claims, rules, definitions, principles, and verdicts of everyone else.” If states are immune from this criticism, why are private justice agencies subject to it?

Most of the saner anarchist theorists concede that a “just” agency or even an “innocent victim” has the right to forcibly respond to an “aggressor.” But in the marketplace, which is governed solely by profit incentives who will define who is the “aggressor” and who the “victim”?

But what is the government motivated by? The profit motive? or something else? altruism? benefvolence? some divinely inspired rulers who we can trust completely?

If human nature is such that we would support and indeed insist upon government officials who abide by libertarian principles when setting up the government–why do we assume that the same individuals, when evaluating the standards of justice of their justice agencies, would be radically different? If they won’t stand for government tyranny, why would they stand for private agency tyranny?? It just makes no sense.

Which “private defense agency” has the final authority to enforce its definitions against those used by other competing agencies–or against individual “hold outs” who disagree–or against all those who proclaim a “sovereign right” to “secede” from that agency’s determination?

Again, why must there be a “final” authority? The libertarian is interested in justice, not in finality for finality’s sake.

If the standard is that anarchy is not perfect, agreed, it is not. Nothing is. States certainly are not–even minarchist states would not be. Minarchist states’ justice functions could make mistakes. They could even apply the wrong standards. They could fail to prevent some criems. They could fail to punish some crimes. I.e., in any society, some crime will occur–it will not be prevented. It might not even be caught later. I.e., sometimes, there will be travesties of justice. Sometimes, criminals will get away with it.

If there are two justice agencies involved in a given crime situation, one would think they could work out some kind of solution or compromise. If not, justice just won’t be done in that case. So what? Why does any system, to be just, have to be 100% infallible and efficacious? This is an impossible standard, and ignores the reality that humans have volition and can and will sometimes commit crime.

So if a criminal, or criminal gang, or criminal agency, somehow escapes punishment from some justice agency (e.g., it “secedes”), this is just a case where the criminal got away with it. This will happen in any justice system, of necessity. I fail to see the relevance re anarchy’s moral standing.

When “push comes to shove,” the “private defense agency” faces a basic choice. Either (a) it uses coercion to enforce its verdict upon the “hold out” (or upon the opposing “competitor agency”), or (b) it fails to enforce its verdicts.

Holdouts are different from competing agencies. Suppose a criminal is loose, and has robbed customers of agency A and B. A catches and imprisons him. B wants him to execute him. A might refuse to release him. That does not mean A is a criminal; it just means there is only one criminal to go between them and A got him first. A and B might fight, true, but it is unlikely (for various fairly obvious reasons).

If B’s customer attacks A’s customer, and agency B refuses to punish its own customer and refuses to turn him over to A’s agency for punishment–yes, B would start to be seen as a rogue agency. But at worst, this is, again, only a case where justice was not done; but justice is never guaranteed to be done (if it were, there would never be crime, period). Moreover, similar things are possible even in today’s multi-state world; so the only way to avoid this, if it is really the serious problem minarchists say it is, is to have a one-world state (a serious charge which Bidinotto does not address).

But in my view such a result is unlikely in anarhcy anyway: A and B would have agreements with each other about extradition, nepotism, etc.–it would make for good business sense and justice; and it would help attract customers. Etc.

(Keep in mind too even in today’s society: we have a multilayer government, both vertical and horizontal/geographically; sometimes the feds, or states, all want a criminal; sometimes they work it out with extradition, sometimes they don’t. This is not some flaw of the justice system, but rather, one of the consequences of the fact that someone committed multiple crimes.)

If (a), then the “private defense agency” is coercively “eliminating the competition”–that is, it’s behaving as a “legal monopoly on force,” in exactly the same way that anarchists find morally intolerable when a government is doing it.

Not necessarily true. If agency A subdues B with force, because B is harboring criminals, in principle, this is not unlibertarian. This is different from a state outlawing on principle any competing defense agency. For example, no state would ever allow a private agency to arrest a state official on grounds that he is helping to promulgate/enforce unlibertarian laws.

If (b), however, then the agency’s pronouncements are toothless and impotent. In that case, all that anyone need do to evade the private agency’s criminal laws, verdicts, and sentences is simply to ignore them.

But this is such am empirical judgment it is not so easy to just pronounce upon.

Let’s think. The minarchist society will not be achieved unless most individuals improve their understanding of liberty, rights, economics, etc. Minarchy presupposes most people are more libertarian. Otherwise we could not get there.

So while we’re presupposing away–consider: in today’s society, most people are pretty decent; they would not steal their neighbor’s car even if they could get away with it. They voluntarily respect each others’ rights. If people were several levels more moral–say, if they were moral enough to support the kind of minarchist government Bidinotto et al. favor–is it really such a leap of imagination to think that maybe, just maybe, that in anarchy they would not patronize “bad” agencies? Or that the problem of crime would be so low (most poeple would not voluntarily commit one, after all), so marginal, that the PDAs that exist would really have a pretty minor function. Say 999 out of 1000 people are law-abiding; and 1 is a bad guy. If he is spotted, or caught, why is it inconceivable that the 999 good guys–and their agencies–would not find some reasonable way to deal with him? (Yes, by force.) Why do minarchists think it’s possible to transform human nature enough to achieve minarchy, but not possible to go one small step further, to a situation where very little crime-prevention is needed anyway? Galt’s Gulch in Atlas Shrugged, if you read it closely, is virtually anarchistic.

To repeat, it’s really either/or. Either “private defense agencies” enforce their laws, or they don’t. If they do, then they’re coercively imposing their private legal systems on their competitors–and there goes their claim to morality.

I find this wording ambiguous. If they impose justice on criminals, no problem. If there is a rogue agency–one applying non-libertarian principles–then it’s just a criminal, basically. If there are multiple “libertarian” agencies–all applying “just” rules–then why do we automatically assume they would have to attack each other if there is a dispute? Why wouldn’t justice-agencies, which arise in a society where almost everyone already agrees upon libertarian principles, and applying primarily libertarian principles themselves, — why wouldn’t they try to have a peaceful way to solve a dispute? If A and B disagree about how to handle a given criminal case or defendant–why wouldn’t they submit the case to some neutral third party, like agency C? That would help them retain their reputation for being “peacelike” and civilized, for example. In fact A, B, C, and others would probably tend to have inter-agency agreements that establish ways of dealing with such cases. Why is there an assumption that multiple agencies must go to war? I know Rand opined that this must be the case, but I never found her reasoning on this very careful or sincere, or sound.

But if they don’t enforce their laws, then criminals will remain free to prey with impunity upon innocent individuals–and there goes the neighborhood.

Imagine 5 agencies in a city the size of Houston. If between them a given criminal gets away scot-free, that is not a fault of anarchy, but a fault of the fact that crime is possible. Even in a state system, crime happens, and sometiems criminals get away.

So I suppose you are talking about a problem where 2 or more agencies disagree about how to handle a given criminal-? or case? Assuming the agencies themselves are not criminal and not fighting one another, seems like the most likelyl worst case is that a more lenient (or more unjust–looser evidence standards, etc.) agency is the one who catches and convicts a given defendant. But even in this case–why is it automatically the case that the agency that does do the punishing is going to have an “unjust” verdict? Why can’t it be that all the agencies have different systems, yes, but all within an acceptable range? And even if the “worst” (most inept; most unfair, whatever) agency is the one who gets to hold the trial– why is this any worse than what happens in a state system–namely, a given court system with given rules hears the case! Why do we assume that the typical private agency’s substnative rules and procedures will be less-just than those that a state would have? If anything, it’s the other way around.

Again, the moral case for anarchism is not that it is less bad than government, or that governments historically have not acted properly. The basic anarchist claim is that anarchism is inherently non-aggressive, while government is inherently aggressive.

No, that is my argument. I think it is also a good argument that all government has been terrible, and that there is no reason to expect any state ever to be limited. Given this, one could argue that a state-less society might be better than the only other eal alternative–a large state society.

There is nothing “immoral” or “aggressive” about an institution having the final authority to render and enforce just verdicts, according to objective procedures and rules of evidence.

Yes, there is, because “final” implies it can just rules/objective procedures. In fact, it seems that the only way you can justify this outlawing is to insist there there be one agency with final decision making authority. But this begs the question, no?–since this means a state.

Experience tells us that criminals do not respond to suggestions.

Agreed. That is why people would employ force-wielding agencies to protect them.

And experience also tells us–or most of us–that to protect individual rights, society needs a single agency that retains the ultimate power to enforce justice for all.

This desire for “a single agency” in “society” implies only a one-world state will do.

Moreover, how in the world can “experience” teach us we need a “single” agency, when we have never had one, we have always had a plurality of states. And experience does not even teach us that “a single agency” within a given geographic region is needed to “enforce justice for all”–since states never do, never have, never will enforce justice for all. This is what experience teaches.

I will say this. If Bidinotto is right that the case for anarchy is flawed–and he may be–all this means is that justice is impossible to achieve. We will never achieve it, because anarchy won’t do it (according to Bidinotto), and states won’t do it either (according to experience and reason), since states will never stop exceeding the bounds they should stay within.


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

steven September 18, 2009 at 12:37 pm

Stephan, I have the feeling that objectivists’ views on anarchism have a lot to do with their belief that their philosophy is built on objectively true principles (which, of course, is rubbish). I love what Butler Shaffer has to say about this in his article “The Libertarians’ Albatross.” Hence their belief that they have a right to use force to establish and maintain an objectivist government.


ragnar_rahl October 2, 2009 at 12:56 pm

The reason agencies operating by different laws oughtn’t compete should be obvious– when they do it’s called civil war. This may be superior in the short term to some especially bad states, but a war without end is a very bad thing.


Jeremy December 11, 2010 at 9:56 pm

Hi Stephan,

You may find this interview with Dr. Benjamin Powell about the provision of tribal law in Somalia very interesting. http://radiofreemarket.com/archives/dr-benjamin-powell-stateless-and-more-peaceful-somalia-102310-rfm He addresses the final arbiter “problem” so vexing to Mr. Bidinotto and shows that systems of “competing” justice providers has actually been the norm through most of human history. The single standard/final arbiter approach that Objectivists insist is necessary is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Anyway, it is the Objectivist belief in “minarchism” that is inherently contradictory. They desire a”minarchist” government that is strictly limited by law. But, they also insist that this government possess a legal monopoly on judging its own actions relative to the law. It should be obvious that such a thing cannot be limited be law because it is, by definition, outside of the law.



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