Thursday, November 15, 2012

Free-Market Anarchism is a Prescription; Not a Solution

It's been long-said that giving time and consideration to opposing ideologies is a good sign that your mind hasn't managed to seal itself shut. But the more I read Gene's blog, the more I think that maybe I'm just subconsciously punishing myself for past discretions. Yesterday he briefly illustrated how/why anarchism does not solve the problem of "coercion." Or, at least, that was his aim.

There are a couple of responses here, so I'll pull it apart in layers.

The first issue is a semantic one. Libertarians use terms like "coercion", "aggression", and sometimes even "violence" in a somewhat idiosyncratic way (although I'd advise most libertarians to stay clear of using the latter). They often use such terms to explicitly refer to violations of property rights. Now, whether you believe this to be a "proper" usage of such terms or not is another argument - the fact is that such words are used by libertarians in this manner to mean something specific, and Gene knows this.

So my first problem with his post is the way the reference-point of that term, "coercion", changes (or is ambiguous) at different points in his post. For instance, it would seem that in the title he is rebutting a claim - hypothetically the claim by (libertarian?) anarchists that anarchism will remove/solve the "coercion" problem. But, of course, that implicit claim contains a specific meaning or case of the term "coercion." He rounds out his rebuttal with the claim that of the two characters within his hypothetical, one of them is going to "believe he was coerced" no matter what the outcome and that "it takes two to tango". Well now it seems like we're using a meaning of the term that is a half-step between the libertarian usage (in the implied claim) and the more general meaning - something closer to just plain violence or force.

Well, of course if you have two people with opposing views of justice on any particular matter one of them is likely to be forced to meet the other's obligations in some manner. Enforcing obligations is not what anarcho-libertarians are talking about when they reference coercion. After all, their whole political philosophy is about enforceable obligations. So if that is the sense in which he means to invoke "coercion" towards the end of his hypothetical, then he's misinterpreting the claim he's trying to rebut  If he's invoking it in the proper sense then his claim is nonsensical, as what either of them happen to believe about whether he was or wasn't coerced has no bearing on whether he actually was.

The more interesting point that I believe he was trying to make here though is that people (even libertarian anarchists) have a wide variety of "beliefs" about the normative conception of justice. So, in essence  someone is always going to feel like or claim that they are being aggressed against. Now, that claim, if it's the thrust of his commentary, is true as far as it goes. But I'm not exactly sure what it's meant to prove.

There are plenty of snarky, self-righteous libertarians who, perhaps on occasion  offer over-extended claims about the panacea of market-anarchism. I'll certainly grant you that much. But I don't know any serious supporters of such a system who believe that it would magically conform perfectly to their conception of justice if it ever somehow became a reality.

To make my following point really hit home here with the non-anarchist types (is "Hobbesians" a pejorative term?), let's move that hypothetical world back a few pegs away from anarchist ideals. Under free-market anarchy you could absolutely still maintain a lattice of institutions which effectively prohibits drug-use. It could be even worse than prohibitions under the current system. There's nothing about anarchism that tells you that this would be an impossibility.

However, what anarchists will tell you (particularly the free-market variety) is that there are particular market mechanisms that would, again hypothetically, make it much more difficult to push various costs and externalities of such political institutions onto third parties. So, unless you have a very large number of people who are dead-set on finding and locking up drug-users...and they are willing to financially bear that's not likely to become a dominant policy. It doesn't mean it's impossible. It simply means that the cost mechanisms for such "laws" will be more accurate and that therefore the scope or existence of the most pervasive, ineffective, and far-reaching laws we currently have would be drastically limited.

Now, there are plenty discussions that could be had over the efficacy of such arguments. But that is generally the (consequentialist) thrust of the radical libertarian lean towards anarchism - that the economics of such a system are such that it provides the best incentives to make institutions reflect the most libertarian policies possible. They could be wrong. But that is the claim. It's important to separate the prescriptive claim from the normative one. And, too often, anarcho-libertarians are bad about doing just that. If you happen to meet such a libertarian who really believes that an ideal political structure will somehow result in a perfect societal cohesion or will resolve all disputes or end all oppression then you are just arguing with a fool.

The current "tried and true" political system that we live under doesn't offer such protections (outside of the lofty promises of its politicians) either. That alone doesn't make it less ideally libertarian, and I wouldn't make a monolithic argument against it on such a basis. The political argument on the systemic (not philosophical) level is a relative one. As a libertarian, which system will be most likely to garner a more libertarian outcome? For some of us the answer is "anarchy". And the knowledge that people might disagree on any number of political issues or that arguments about the proper conception(s) of justice will continue to ensue; neither revelation will tautologically point such libertarians back in the direction of Leviathan. And there's no reason, based on the arguments as provided, that they should.

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