Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Why Anarchy is Most Conductive to Natural Rights part 1

On the issue of natural rights, I am not in good company. Most anarchists take quite a pragmatic stance, and deny that rights exist, or claim that rights contradict the absolute freedom of anarchy, or require a state in order to be effected (which is patent nonsense said by people who should know better). And minarchists claim that we need a state in order to protect such rights.

The latter position is taken by Nikhil Rao, of the Liberty Papers blog, in "Why Any Rights At All?". This entry was presented at the last Carnival of Liberty and was supposed to knock down market anarchy. The objectives of his entry are three-fold: first, to explain what negative rights are, second, to shed some light on self-order in other species, and third, to discuss the issue of human social organization and why anarchy is insufficient. I wouldn’t dare to touch him in ecology or biology, and since his discussion on the topic promotes self-order, I thankfully don’t have to object to it either. As a libertarian, I also do not object to his analysis of rights. I do, however, have some important points to raise about how he interprets anarchy.

For those of you who don't know me, I am coming from a market anarchist position, but I consider the term a tautology only needed because sadly most anarchists are quite contradictory in their positions. Anarchy implies a return to the natural state of man, which is, as history I think has well demonstrated, that of producer and trader, not of oppressor. I’m fairly certain Nikhil agrees with me that oppression necessarily involves inequality, in light of his entry. So this will be the basis for our discussion.

First, let me give the positive case by explaining why anarchy is the mode of social organization most conductive to the sustainment of natural rights. First of all, I must preface by saying that I see natural rights as a purely theoretical concept- everyone tries to fulfill his values, not a concept of rights. Nevertheless, rights give us a guideline by which we can evaluate how progressive a society is.

The most important difference between statism and market anarchy is this: in statism, a singular value system is imposed on the entirety of a society, but in a market anarchy, people are free to choose the value system they live under. What does the latter imply in terms of rights?

Suppose you are a customer under a market anarchic system. You don't want to be subject to any rules, so you decide to first purchase a service from an agency which offers a completely permissive code- murder is permitted, theft is permitted, fraud is permitted, no action is ever stopped by this agency, and all is left to the individual to cope with. People could still live, work and trade, but they would have considerable overhead in protecting themselves (as they have refused the possibility of an agency doing that for them). You don't want to have to do all this hard work!

But why do you perform this work, instead of letting everything stand as it is? Because of your value system. You value your life, your property and your ability to have relationships, hobbies, and all that sort of thing. You do not value getting assassinated, robbed, kidnapped. This is perfectly natural, and most people, uninfluenced by statism (which states that the individual must submit to threats of attacks against his person for the "common good"), would agree.

So our value system is a natural counter-balance to the desire to not be subject to rules. There is a point of equilibrium which should be attained by this process. Where is it? Well, it is definitely lower than the exploitation of statism, and definitely higher than a total lack of organized order (which I think is what Nikhil thinks of when he says "anarchy"). Does it fit perfectly in the peg hole of natural rights? I doubt it, but I assume it must be pretty close. The fact that systems of laws which arise from non-coercive, private systems of justice- such as Roman law and English common law- tend towards natural rights much more than our current laws should be encouraging, although they reflect the statist concepts existing at the time (immigration, the privileges of kings, and so on).

On the other hand, what does statism offer us? Democratic states only grow- for that is what their incentive system dictates. A democratic state is ensured to deviate farther and farther from natural rights. Monarchies grow at a much slower pace, because of the private ownership of government inherent in the monarchic system, and the subsequent desire in the king to keep his rule from interfering in his citizens' lives, in order to maximize his profit. Nevertheless, monarchies also offer us no tendancy towards natural rights.

Nikhil is a minarchist, and so would probably like me to believe that some form of minarchy can exhibit such a tendancy (not the US Constitution, I hope). I will let him express his position on that issue, but he would have to make his proposed concrete mode of organization clear so that we can examine its incentive system. I can guarantee you that it's not going to work in the long run, simply because all states expand in the long run. This is the simple inevitable consequence of monopolizing force.

Nikhil believes that "the market has limitations". What limitations would that be? So-called "market failures"? Even if I forget about my market anarchist position for a second, I still can't see how the market has limitations that the state can overcome. The state is merely an agency of redistribution of resources by force. In and of itself, it does no productive work. If something is possible under statism, then it is automatically possible under a market, through consumer demand. It may be less probable, sure- for example, I doubt very much that free individuals would surrender 50% of their wages to a vast bureaucratic monster, but that's a good thing- but it is still possible.

My general evaluation of his entry is that Nikhil apparently sees anarchy as nihilistic in nature. On the contrary, I would argue that the concept of an anarchic society is impregnated with value and meaning. This kind of discussion is rather similar to that of a religious believer arguing that the atheist can derive no value or meaning from life- while it seems to me that the truth is rather inverted here. Once the mind is freed from the bridle of sterile religious thought, it is then that value and meaning can really flourish. Statism is equally sterile in moral terms, as it is fundamentally an ideology geared towards a singular goal, the enforcement of the ruling class value system, and its means merely “might makes right” dressed up in a pretty costume.

To illustrate this point, he says:

Although the incidences of all of these would decrease relative to other animals in a human anarchistic society due to an increased fear (and cost) of retaliation, they would still exist. So what the anarchist asserts is that a basal level of murder, coercion, and theft is somehow ok. The depredations against others in an anarchy represent the background noise that proponents clearly ignore as mere stochastic effect.

This is, once again, to say that people do not have values, and that they need values to be enforced by the state. Yet this is contradictory in three different ways. First, if people do not have values, then how can the ruling class have values to enforce? Second, why would the ruling class care at all to enforce values which would suit its population? And third, even if it wanted to, how could it?

To address the point, it is simply not true that "the anarchist asserts (...) that a basal level of murder, coercion, and theft is somehow ok". I have met no real anarchist (by which I understand someone who actually wishes to eliminate all states, not simply replace them with syndicalist mini-states or communist utopias) who asserts such a thing, explicitly or implicitly. Let me state this clearly: a basal level of murder, coercion and theft is not okay. It is more conductive to my values to live in a society without any murder, coercion and theft, than it is to live in a society with any level of murder, coercion and theft. So I desire to live in such a society. This has nothing to do with rights per se, but rather with morality, two topics which are distinct but related.

I like the analogy of roads in this case. He thinks we have only two alternatives: a road system without any lights or signs (crime is permitted), or a road system where lights and signs are placed by divine fiat (state "protection"). Market anarchy says lights and signs are a private matter, and should be determined and coordinated by road owners, acting under consumer demand (market protection).

This single mistake nullifies any point Nikhil may have desired to make about anarchy and its relation to rights. An anarchy tends towards rights better than statist systems, not because the system is engineered to do so a priori, by divine fiat, but because humans are engineered to seek their self-interest. And we are self-interested in living in a prosperous and coercion-free society, giving us the incentive necessary to seek out what we see as an optimal balance between freedom and security, so to speak.

Nikhil then veers towards equality as a crucial concept:

But more importantly, the anarchist imputes too much to statement that ‘All men are created equal.’ (...) Should one strip away all of the material (environmental) differences, the genetic differences would still leave vasts gulfs between the most capable and the least. The anarchist’s basic argument of self order is dependent upon not only a level playing field but teams consisting of cloned players. (...) In such a system, where some are capable of greater acts of coercion than others, and where the threat of retaliation varies widely from almost none to almost infinite, a few will inevitably come to control the many.


The anarchist turns a blind eye to the difference between the perfect world of their assumptions and the real world. The classical liberal merely acknowledges them. He sees that for society to remain free from tyranny, individuals must treat each other as if they were equal.

He's got it all wrong- it is the statists who believe that all men are the same. How else could it possibly be reasonable to enforce a singular value system on an entire population? Statism is inherently utopian (i.e. a system that goes against human nature) because everyone necessarily has a different value system, just as everyone has different natural hair colour, height or intelligence (although of course the value system is open to a lot more volitional decisions than any of those properties). As an anarchist, I would be foolish to turn a blind eye to that fact- it is one of my main arguments!

We must treat each other as if we were equals, because that is the only way to neutralize the potentially oppressive effects of natural and social inequality. Very good! But statism, which creates a ruling class with considerably more power than the rest of society, cannot possibly be the implementation of this principle, even in a minarchic way. Only some form of anarchy can implement it.

I realize that this entry is running quite long, especially as I usually keep things short on this blog, so I'm going to stop here for now and let Nikhil give his side of the story. Of course he is free to answer in any way he wants, but I would like him to give us his ideal minarchic system, its incentives, and how it tends towards natural rights, so we can examine it and check his claims.

Check my other entries in this debate:
Why Anarchy is Most Conductive to Natural Rights part 2
Why Anarchy is Most Conductive to Natural Rights part 3
Why Market Anarchy is Most Conductive to Natural Rights, finis

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