Can Anarcho-Capitalism Work? by Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr., Ludwig von Mises Institute
The term “anarcho-capitalism” has, we might say, rather an arresting quality. But while the term itself may jolt the newcomer, the ideas it embodies are compelling and attractive, and represent the culmination of a long development of thought.
If I had to boil it down to a handful of insights, they would be these: (1) each human being, to use John Locke’s formulation, “has a property in his own person”; (2) there ought to be a single moral code binding all people, whether they are employed by the State or not; and (3) society can run itself without central direction.
From the original property one enjoys in his own person we can derive individual rights, including property rights. When taken to its proper Rothbardian conclusion, this insight actually invalidates the State, since the State functions and survives on the basis of systematic violation of individual rights. Were it not to do so, it would cease to be the State.
In violating individual rights, the State tries to claim exemption from the moral laws we take for granted in all other areas of life. What would be called theft if carried out by a private individual is taxation for the State. What would be called kidnapping is the military draft for the State. What would be called mass murder for anyone else is war for the State. In each case, the State gets away with moral enormities because the public has been conditioned to believe that the State is a law unto itself, and can’t be held to the same moral standards we apply to ourselves.
But it’s the third of these ideas I’d like to develop at greater length. In those passages of their moral treatises dealing with economics, the Late Scholastics, particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had been groping toward the idea of laws that govern the social order. They discovered necessary cause-and-effect relationships. There was a clear connection, for example, between the flow of precious metals entering Spain from the New World on the one hand, and the phenomenon of price inflation on the other. They began to understand that these social regularities were brute facts that could not be defied by the political authority.
This insight developed into fuller maturity with the classical liberals of the eighteenth century, and the gradual emergence of economics as a full-fledged, independent discipline. This, said Ludwig von Mises, is why dictators hate the economists. True economists tell the ruler that there are limits to what he can accomplish by his sheer force of will, and that he cannot override economic law.
In the nineteenth century, Frédéric Bastiat placed great emphasis on this insight. If these laws exist, then we must study them and understand them, but certainly not be so foolish as to defy them. Conversely, he said, if there are no such laws, then men are merely inert matter upon which the State will be all too glad to impose its imprint. He wrote:
For if there are general laws that act independently of written laws, and whose action needs merely to be regularized by the latter, we must study these general laws; they can be the object of scientific investigation, and therefore there is such a thing as the science of political economy. If, on the contrary, society is a human invention, if men are only inert matter to which a great genius, as Rousseau says, must impart feeling and will, movement and life, then there is no such science as political economy: there is only an indefinite number of possible and contingent arrangements, and the fate of nations depends on the founding father to whom chance has entrusted their destiny.
The next step in the development of what would later become anarcho-capitalism was the radical one taken by Gustave de Molinari, in his essay “The Private Production of Security.” Molinari asked if the production of defense services, which even the classical liberals took for granted had to be carried out by the State, might be accomplished by private firms under market competition. Molinari made express reference to the insight we have been developing thus far, that society operates according to fixed, intelligible laws. If this is so, he said, then the provision of this service ought to be subject to the same laws of free competition that govern the production of all other goods. Wouldn’t the problems of monopoly exist with any monopoly, even the State’s that we have been conditioned to believe is unavoidable and benign?
It offends reason to believe that a well-established natural law can admit of exceptions. A natural law must hold everywhere and always, or be invalid. I cannot believe, for example, that the universal law of gravitation, which governs the physical world, is ever suspended in any instance or at any point of the universe. Now I consider economic laws comparable to natural laws, and I have just as much faith in the principle of the division of labor as I have in the universal law of gravitation. I believe that while these principles can be disturbed, they admit of no exceptions.
But, if this is the case, the production of security should not be removed from the jurisdiction of free competition; and if it is removed, society as a whole suffers a loss.
It was Murray N. Rothbard who developed the coherent, consistent, and rigorous system of thought — out of classical liberalism, American individualist anarchism, and Austrian economics — that he called anarcho-capitalism. In a career of dozens of books and thousands of articles, Rothbard subjected the State to an incisive, withering analysis, unlike anything seen before. I dedicated Against the State to this great pioneer, and dear friend.
But can it work? It is all very well to raise moral and philosophical objections to the State, but we are going to need a plausible scenario by which society regulates itself in the absence of the State, even in the areas of law and defense. These are serious and difficult questions, and glib answers will naturally be inadequate, but I want to propose at least a few suggestive ideas.
The conventional wisdom, of course, is that without a monopoly provider of these services, we will revert to the Hobbesian state of nature, in which everyone is at war with everyone else and life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” A ceaseless series of assaults of one person against another ensues, and society sinks ever deeper into barbarism.
For one thing, it’s not even clear that the logic behind Thomas Hobbes’s fears really makes any sense. As Michael Huemer points out, Hobbes posits a rough equality among human beings in that none of us is totally invulnerable. We are all potential murder victims at the hands of anyone else, he says. He likewise insists that human beings are motivated by, and indeed altogether obsessed with, self-interest.
Now suppose that were true: all we care about is our own self-interest, our own well-being, our own security. Would it make sense for us to rush out and attack other