But Wouldn’t Warlords Take Over?

That’s the title of a piece by Robert Murphy at the Mises Economics Blog. Murphy says:

On two separate occasions in the last couple of weeks, people have asked me a familiar question: In a system of anarcho-capitalism or the free-market order, wouldn’t society degenerate into constant battles between private warlords?”…

For the warlord objection to work, the statist [or minarchist: ED] would need to argue that a given community would remain lawful under a government, but that the same community would break down into continuous warfare if all legal and military services were privatized….

Now that we’’ve focused the issue, I think there are strong reasons to suppose that civil war would be much less likely in a region dominated by private defense and judicial agencies, rather than by a monopoly [s]tate. Private agencies own the assets at their disposal, whereas politicians (especially in democracies) merely exercise temporary control over the [s]tate’’s military equipment. Bill Clinton was perfectly willing to fire off dozens of cruise missiles when the Lewinsky scandal was picking up steam. Now regardless of one’s beliefs about Clinton’’s motivations, clearly Slick Willie would have been less likely to launch such an attack if he had been the CEO of a private defense agency that could have sold the missiles on the open market for $569,000 each.

Aside from this brief excursion into Clinton’s use or misuse of national defense assets, Murphy’s argument is focused in the issue of intra-societal violence; viz: “civil war would be much less likely in a region dominated by private defense and judicial agencies, rather than by a monopoly [s]tate. ” Let’s return to Murphy:

We can see this principle [of the profligate use of force] in the case of the United States. In the 1860s, would large scale combat have broken out on anywhere near the same scale if, instead of the two factions controlling hundreds of thousands of conscripts, all military commanders had to hire voluntary mercenaries and pay them a market wage for their services?

Murphy concedes that there might have been combat. He’s merely quibbling about its scale. He continues:

I can imagine a reader generally endorsing the above analysis, yet still resisting my conclusion. He or she might say something like this: “In a state of nature, people initially have different views of justice. Under market anarchy, different consumers would patronize dozens of defense agencies, each of which attempts to use its forces to implement incompatible codes of law. Now it’’s true that these professional gangs might generally avoid conflict out of prudence, but the equilibrium would still be precarious.

To avoid this outcome,” my critic could elaborate, “citizens put aside their petty differences and agree to support a single, monopoly agency, which then has the power to crush all challengers to its authority. This admittedly raises the new problem of controlling the Leviathan, but at least it solves the problem of ceaseless domestic warfare.

There are several problems with this possible approach. First, it assumes that the danger of private warlords is worse than the threat posed by a tyrannical central government. Second, there is the inconvenient fact that no such voluntary formation of a [s]tate ever occurred. Even those citizens who, say, supported the ratification of the U.S. Constitution were never given the option of living in market anarchy; instead they had to choose between government under the Articles of Confederation or government under the Constitution.

Murphy sets up a quasi-straw man — the voluntary formation of a state — then proceeds to blow it down. Big deal. That doesn’t prove that the danger of warlords is less than the threat posed by a central government, which is what Murphy implies. Non sequitur. Moreover, many citizens did support the ratification of the Constitution, and those who didn’t had the option of going to Canada or over the Blue Ridge. Back to Murphy:

But for our purposes, the most interesting problem with this objection is that, were it an accurate description, it would be unnecessary for such a people to form a government. If, by hypothesis, the vast majority of people — —although they have different conceptions of justice — can all agree that it is wrong to use violence to settle their honest disputes, then market forces would lead to peace among the private police agencies.

Murphy’s hypothesis is his undoing. He assumes that if the vast majority of people agree that it’s wrong to use violence to settle disputes, then that won’t happen. Do the vast majority of people believe that it’s wrong to use violence to settle disputes? Perhaps, but it doesn’t take a vast majority to inject violence into a society; it takes only a relatively small number of renegades, who may be then be able to coerce others into condoning or supporting their criminal activities. There’s more:

Yes, it is perfectly true that people have vastly different opinions concerning particular legal issues. Some people favor capital punishment, some consider abortion to be murder, and there would be no consensus on how many guilty people should go free to avoid the false conviction of one innocent defendant. Nonetheless, if the contract theory of government is correct, the vast majority of individuals can agree that they should settle these issues not through force, but rather through an orderly procedure (such as is provided by periodic elections).

Well, Murphy now admits that there’s something to the voluntary formation of a state. But, like most anarcho-capitalists, he doesn’t want to admit to the legitimacy of an institution that he didn’t contract for. Tough. But that still doesn’t have anything to do with the superiority of private defense agencies over state-controlled police forces and courts. Nevertheless, Murphy plows on:

But if this does indeed describe a particular population, why would we expect such virtuous people, as consumers, to patronize defense agencies that routinely used force against weak opponents? Why wouldn’’t the vast bulk of reasonable customers patronize defense agencies that had interlocking arbitration agreements, and submitted their legitimate disputes to reputable, disinterested arbitrators? Why wouldn’t the private, voluntary legal framework function as an orderly mechanism to settle matters of “public policy””?

There sure are a lot of hypotheticals piled on top of one another. What Murphy doesn’t entertain is the possibility that a small but very rich cabal could create a dominant defense agency that simply refuses to recognize other defense agencies, except as enemies. In other words, there’s nothing in Murphy’s loose logic to prove that warlords wouldn’t arise. In fact, he soon gives away the game:

Imagine a bustling city, such as New York, that is initially a free market paradise. Is it really plausible that over time rival gangs would constantly grow, and eventually terrorize the general public? Remember, these would be admittedly criminal organizations; unlike the city government of New York, there would be no ideological support for these gangs.

We must consider that in such an environment, the law-abiding majority would have all sorts of mechanisms at their [sic] disposal, beyond physical confrontation. Once private judges had ruled against a particular rogue agency, the private banks could freeze its assets (up to the amount of fines levied by the arbitrators). In addition, the private utility companies could shut down electricity and water to the agency’’s headquarters, in accordance with standard provisions in their contracts.

Pardon me while I laugh at the notion that lack of “ideological support” for the gangs of New York would make it impossible for gangs to grow and terrorize the general public. That’s precisely what has happened at various times during the history of New York, even though the “law-abiding majority [had] all sorts of mechanisms at [its] disposal.” Murphy insists on hewing to the assumption that the existence of a law-abiding majority somehow prevents the rise a powerful, law-breaking minorities, capable of terrorizing the general public. Wait a minute; now he admits the converse:

Of course, it is theoretically possible that a rogue agency could overcome these obstacles, either through intimidation or division of the spoils, and take over enough banks, power companies, grocery stores, etc. that only full-scale military assault would conquer it. But the point is, from an initial position of market anarchy, these would-be rulers would have to start from scratch. In contrast, under even a limited government, the machinery of mass subjugation is ready and waiting to be seized.

Huh? It’s certainly more than theoretically possible for a “rogue agency” to wreak havoc. A “rogue agency” is nothing more than a fancy term for a street gang, the Mafia, or al Qaeda cells operating in the U.S. A “rogue agency” run by and on behalf of rich and powerful criminals — for their own purposes — would somehow be preferable to police forces and courts operated by a limited government that is accountable to the general public, rich and poor alike? I don’t think so. However much the American state engages in “mass subjugation” — and it does, to a degree — it is also held in check by its accountability to the general public under American law and tradition. A “rogue agency,” by definition, would be unbound by law and tradition.

Murphy’s analysis takes place in a land called “Erewhon.” He chooses to ignore the fact that he lives in the United States because he wasn’t a party to the Constitution. Yet that Constitution provides for a limited government, which in more than 200 years has yet to engage in systematic, mass subjugation of the kind practiced in the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, except in the case of slavery. And guess what? The American state ended slavery. How’s that for mass subjugation?

Anyone can conjure a Utopia, as Murphy has. But no one can guarantee that it will work. Murphy certainly hasn’t made the case that his Utopia would work.

In any event, by focusing on intra-societal violence Murphy ignores completely two crucial questions: (1) Can an anarchistic society effectively defend itself against an outside force? (2) Can it do so better than a society in which the state has a monopoly on the use of force with respect to outside entities? Murphy implies that the answer to both questions is “yes,” though he fails to explore those questions. Here is my brief answer: The cost of mounting a credible defense of the United States from foreign enemies probably would support only one supplier; that is, national defense is a natural monopoly. It is better for the American state — given its accountability to the general public — to be that supplier.

To revert to Murphy’s example of Clinton’s profligate use of expensive missiles, the CEO of a private defense agency might well have an incentive to fire missiles at a bogus target. He might want to demonstrate his apparent “resolve” iprovocation of putative provaction in order to quell unrest among his shareholders or to attract new clients. Murphy’s example suggests only that the state may be wasteful in its expenditure of conscripted dollars. Murphy’s example does not show that the state is necessarily any less effective than would be a private defense agency or defense agencies. In matters of life and death, a wasteful state is preferable to an efficient private defense agency (if there could be such a thing).

A wasteful, accountable, American state is certainly preferable to an efficient, private, defense agency in possession of the same military might. Hitler and Stalin, in effect, ran private defense agencies, and look where that landed the Germans and Russians. Talk about subjugation.

Related posts:

Defense, Anarcho-Capitalist Style (09/26/04)
Fundamentalist Libertarians, Anarcho-Capitalists, and Self-Defense (04/22/05)
The Legitimacy of the Constitution (05/09/05)
Another Thought about Anarchy (05/10/05)
Anarcho-Capitalism vs. the State (05/26/05)
Rights and the State (06/13/05)

Technorati tag: