New Zealand libertarian duo, Eric Crampton and Brad Taylor, have written a paper exploring the concept of “illiberal anarchy”. They look at the consequences of “meddlesome” preferences in both anarchy and democracy, and conclude that strong meddlesome preferences will cause anarchy to be illiberal.
Crampton & Taylor (C&T) suggest that with strong meddlesome preferences democracy may work better, while with widely shared weak meddlesome preferences, anarchy will be better. They go on to suggest that the nature of anarchy will lead to strong meddlesome preferences (undermining the system) while the nature of democracy will lead to widely shared weak meddlesome preferences (once again undermining the system). Bugger.
I think they make a few mistakes regarding the anarchist situation.
C&T point out that in anarchy a sufficiently rich person can screw with other people’s lives. The example they give is that a group of sufficiently rich anti-drug prudes could offer strong enough financial incentives to encourage people not to associate with drug communities… and this will impoverish and isolate those drug communities.
That is all true enough, and there are plenty of other scare stories you could make. Expanding on the above theme, a rich group could simply pay everybody not to be your friend unless you got a haircut. My favourite is that a rich person could buy all the land around your house and then forbid you to trespass. There are a thousand and one other examples of how a group of sufficiently rich bastards could mess with your life, so C&T certainly haven’t stumbled across anything new here.
Their first mistake is to assume that the above examples violate libertarian “freedom”.
Here, I take freedom to have the deontological meaning of voluntary actions. The above examples end badly, but there is no involuntary actions, so there is no violation of “freedom”. It seems that C&T are defining “freedom” as “something that ends well”, which is a consequentialist definition that is in conflict with the deontological definition.
It is not problem with people using a different nomenclature, but unless we are clear about meanings it is easy to talk staight past each other. The libertarian concept of “freedom” is generally the deontological meaning. That is not to say that the consequences don’t matter… but for sake of clarity it is better to use different words for different concepts. For outcomes, we generally use the language of “utility”.
Their second mistake is to assume their anti-drug example has ended badly. As readers may know, I’m a big fan of illegal drugs… but that doesn’t mean that the easy and open supply of drugs is necessarily a utility-maximising outcome.
In a free society, people must be allowed to use influence on each other… and that includes paying people to do things that they otherwise might not want to do. Indeed, we do this all the time. The whole concept of a job is one person (the employer) using money to influence the actions of another person (employee) to do what they otherwise don’t want to do. Nothing wrong with that.
If, instead of paying you to work, a rich person pays you not to use drugs, or pays you not to associate with certain people, or pays you to cut your hair, then that is all consistent with a free world… and the outcome from free exchanges between people are generally utility-enhancing (otherwise you wouldn’t have agreed).
Worse than the worst case scenario
The third issue is that C&T appear to drastically over-estimate the liklihood of their life-boat example. The costs involved in trying to influence an entire city, let alone a country or world, to not associate with certain people would be astronomical (unless everybody already hated you).
Indeed, even in the most pessimistic of thought-experiments, there would likely be a significant minority (at least) who would rebel against the super-rich prudes. The truely massive costs of maintaining mass manipulation would likely be larger than the “benefit” from being a prude… even for the most prudish of prudes. And the possibility that there would be a non-prude with some money is effectively 100% (unless you assume the prudes have all the resources, in which case a more scary thought-experiment is that they will not share their food & starve you to death).
I know C&T wanted to consider a “worst case” scenario, but if we’re going to consider the effectively impossible then we may as well just assume that humans will refuse to deal with each other, or that aliens invade and eat our brains. It is best to stick to scenarios that are vaguely possible.
But their life-boat example doesn’t need to come true to support their generalised point. It is almost certainly true that people will end up in communities with rules that they don’t like. However, contrary to C&T, this outcome is perfectly libertarian and is no cause for concern. Human interaction usually involves trade-offs and compromises, and this truth of life doesn’t change for anarchists. The only difference is that under anarchy nobody can impose a compromise without your consent.
The next problem with the C&T story is that they assume that anarchy will trend towards a strong meddlesome tendency. Actually… that part isn’t the problem. I agree an anarchist society would certainly allow meddlesome peolpe to come together and form meddlesome communities and groups, including groups that would likely be banned in a democracy.
However, there is no reason to believe that these groups would ever get together to coordinate a massive (and massively expensive) campaign of trying to influence everybody to be like them. Indeed, the diversity of these groups (white racists, black racists, asian racists, strict catholics, strict muslims, strict buddhists, etc) would make coordination effectively impossible. Further, it is unlikely that many groups would actually want to convert the world. We have seen many such groups through history, and most simply want the right to practice their own weird ways.
C&T correctly recognise that anarchy allows more meddlesome groups to form, and then incorrectly jump to the conclusion that they will have the desire and ability to impose these meddlesome preferences on non-members. Just because somebody joins an Armish community, that does not mean they want to pay an absurdly high price in an ultimately futile attempt to convert the world to Armish life.
Indeed, while anarchy would allow people to join highly controlled societies, the internal dynamic of a voluntary existence is to encourage relatively more tolerance. Ironically, this point was recently made in a great little article by Brad Taylor.
It’s good to see people seriously discussing anarchy, and Crampton & Taylor have highlighted an important point — anarchy will involve influence (good & bad), compromises, crazy old nutters with money and strange agendas, weird little groups of xenophobes and cooks, and the potential for bad outcomes.
But ultimately these are not critical problems with anarchy. Influence (good & bad) and compromises will always exist and are best dealt with in a free world, while bad outcomes are possible in every political system. And contrary to the C&T story, rich crazy old nutters and xenophobes aren’t a big risk in a free world.