Re: Hey An-Caps

As relayed by Bonnie in her compelling “debate” post, Dan McCarthy has offered some tough criticisms of anarcho-capitalism. Anarcho-capitalists typically oppose the state because they believe it is an unjustified monopoly of aggressive violence and an illegitimate concentration of power. However, Dan asks:

[W]hat good will it do to abolish the state if one proceeds to sell what would otherwise be called power on the open market? That is, if it’s the case now that wealthy interests manipulate to their advantage a system that supposedly is not subservient to the highest bidder, how will matters be different under a system whose whole point is serve whoever pays the piper?

Anarcho-capitalists typically dismiss to this problem by saying that combining market forces with certainty of (good) rules will minimize any such collusion, and uphold equal treatment under the law for everyone. But, Dan asks, isn’t this premise of “equality,” in the legal market, or “market for justice,” ripe with egalitarian assumptions? 

Are modern an-cap libertarians displaying atavistic marks of distributist liberalism? Or an even deeper republican heritage? (Republics, after all, require a balance, if not equality, in citizen wealth, power, and status.)


It’s an interesting argument. If we are to say legal services are a market “commodity,” isn’t it necessarily egalitarian, and thus, heretical to libertarianism, for one to assume that they will be distributed “equally?”


To respond to all this, I’ll begin a bit modestly by defining anarcho-capitalism for some of our unfamiliar readers.  I see anarcho-capitalism, at its most basic level, as the logical conclusion of a belief that property rights should be consistently upheld. The state is unjustified because it aggresses against innocent people. Its “taxation” is theft. Its “drug war” is kidnapping. And its “collateral damage” is mass murder.

Contra the “cosmo libertarians,” being an anarchist doesn’t require that one denounce “manarchism,” help shift society into “The Age of Aquarius,” or embrace a lifestyle of “hook-ups.” They simply adhere to the “anti-state, anti-war, pro-market,” conclusion resultant from their unshakable respect for all persons, the individuated life choices of others, and everyone’s natural right to person and property.

Natural law is, in fact, the basis of non-utilitarian conceptions of anarcho-capitalism. Respecting each person’s right to life, liberty, and property is a matter of moral necessity, not a matter of maximizing social or economic “utility.” Thus, many ancaps are rightfully concerned with providing restitution for past aggression. For example, Murray Rothbard radically proposed that lands stolen from Mexican people in the Mexican-American War be returned to their rightful heirs.

But we must note that there are many difficulties with this. “Income redistribution,” of course, is coercion.  There may be legitimate cases of income redistribution, such as making a thief give up his loot, but it is coercion nonetheless. We must tread lightly when considering the prospect of massive income redistribution to right past wrongs, especially considering: 1) People who hold an illegitimate property title from an ancestors’ past theft are not, themselves, thieves and 2) It would be excruciatingly expensive and difficult to identify the ancestors who were aggressed against, much less resolve disputes between their rightful heir(s) or assign(s). On this vein Dan argues,

these considerations have always seemed to me to be a glaring weakness in theoretical anarcho-capitalism. Redistributing property generations removed from its legitimate owners is a recipe for strife, regardless of how perfectly just you imagine your tribunal (and the rights theory behind it) might be.

However accurate this analysis is, I don’t see it as an argument against anarcho-capitalism.   Enforcing the law can cause strife in many situations, but that’s no reason to let an individual robber, rapist, or murderer skate. Failing to enforce the law also causes strife, because it causes the victim to endure suffering, both psychological and mental, that he or she wouldn’t have if just restitution were paid.  

I must also note that while “strife” would indeed result from any credible effort to justly redistribute property, a “libertarian Nuremburg”  may not be as problematic as Dan thinks. This is because a truly “libertarian” tribunal would tolerate no aggression against the innocent, and no use of violence beyond reasonable doubt. After all, a private insurance company that prosecuted the innocent would not only lose business, but be subject to criminal prosecution themselves.

Dan’s criticism seems to relate to this problem of just restitution for theft of the past. Specifically, he points out that individuals who have become wealthy from money stolen by the state would wield immense social power in a stateless society:

If the ghost of Murray Rothbard pressed a magic button and made the state disappear tomorrow, the result would not look like a Lockean state of nature….. All the social power and leverage built up by groups that have benefited from or manipulated the state would still exist, and the reservoirs of wealth in these groups could readily be applied to creating a new justice system that would serve the same de facto ruling class as exists now.

In the “button pushing scenario,” Dan is correct. For courts obligated to a libertarian legal system of non-aggression, it would simply be too difficult to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, who stole what, and to whom this stolen money should be transferred. We can reasonably infer, then, that if the Ghost of Murray Rothbard pushed the “anarchy button,” the “state” would in a sense, still reign over us, because the beneficiaries of a criminal gang’s illicit and socially destructive actions would wield immense social power.

However, there is a serious problems with Dan’s argument: There is no anarchy button.  It’s true that government depends on the consetn of the governed. The agents of Uncle Sam, for all of their regal palaces and bazillion dollar weapons of mass murder, could one day disappear as quickly as leaves in the Autumn wind. But , this is contigent to anarcho-capitalists persuading the large majority of people of its moral necessity and practical workability. Since this  key condition of an anarcho-capitalist society would undoubtedly be a gradual process, the “button-pushing” scenario is not a tenable possibility.*

Therein lies the key to debunking Dan’s concern about the “reservoirs of wealth”: Since the vast majority of people in an anarcho-capitalist society would oppose aggression, there would be vast intrinsic benefits for those who enforced the non-aggression axiom. A private insurance company blatantly refusing to enforce violations of the libertarian law because they are being paid off by a wealthy statist would be loathed. Those who perpetuate aggression would be as out-of-place in an anarcho-capitalist society as Jane Fonda at a VFW conference.

As a methodological individualist, I have to concede that a few companies (i.e. the individuals who form it) may be willing to be seen as scum in exchange for a big payoff. But most wouldn’t. And massive profit opportunities, as well as the vain but common desire to be seen as a “hero,” would motivate many big firms, as well as average Joes, to enforce the non-aggression axiom against some rotten, rich, robber-baron statist.

Society’s presumed desire to see equal justice, for everyone, under the law, brings us to Dan’s main point, the “egalitarian assumptions” of anarcho-capitalism.  To respond, let’s look at a common definition of egalitarianism as ” Affirming, promoting, or characterized by belief in equal political, economic, social, and civil rights for all people.”

Anarcho-capitalism is perfectly and necessarily compatible with that definition. By “equality”, of course, individual egalitarians usually mean income redistribution, but income redistribution is incompatible with “equality.”

So-called state “welfare” programs deny the folks the state steals from to finance them an “equal opportunity” to compete with those who get “welfare” for doing nothing. Ironically, an anarcho-capitalist legal system designed to enforce natural rights would be the only truly egalitarian option; unlike an unjust status quo, it would uphold natural rights people “equally” share. 

This equality of natural rights, and its corollary, equality of opportunity, is interestingly, the basis of inequality:

 If we grant that Michael Jordan and Joe Schmo have an “equal” opportunity to do what they want in life, and they both choose to play basketball, only by a system of “inequality” — that is, denying him the equal opportunity to succeed by stealing money from him to give Joe better equipment, banning him from practicing more than 1 hour a week, or — to ensure equality of outcome, chopping off his legs — will Joe be able to achieve an equal outcome to him in basketball ability.

The same could apply to Brad Pitt and Joe both trying to pick up girls in a bar, or Jane Schmo and Svitlana Azarova both trying to compose music. Upholding an ethic of equal opportunity will result in inequality. Thus, enforcing justice in an “egalitarian”** manner, with no individual being allowed to violate anyone’s natural rights, is the only way to ensure that capitalism, growth, and inequality flourish. In this sense of the term, Dan is right that anarcho-capitalism is based on an egalitarian assumption, but he is wrong to imply that this represents a problem for the theory.

* Violent revolution could also overthrow the state. But bereft of majority rule, we would not have anarcho-capitalism because ancap, by definition, requires a certainty of rules, in that aggression would be illegal and natural rights would be protected. The mere absence of a state does not imply a system of anarcho-capitalism.

 **To be sure, no one has the “right” to get someone else to enforce their rights. Thus, while the legal system would be “egalitarian” in that everyone would be held to an equal standard,  justice would almost certainly be more expeditiously and efficiently obtained for those with more money. I.E. Bill Gates couldn’t get away with beating you up but he would be more likely to get quick and thorough restitution if someone beat him up than Joe Schmo.

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