Crimea has a right to join Russia, Ron Paul recently told US News through his new think tank, the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity. As the Ukrainian crisis unfolds, deep social divisions in Crimea have left significant populations in the region stranded in what they consider foreign territory. The crisis has revitalised the debate on sovereignty, the meaning of a mandate, and especially the right to secession. While this debate is mostly an armchair-discussion in the west, highlighting the infighting between populists and radical anarchic elements, but for the Ukrainians, the question is a functional matter many would rather not even be on the table.
For many libertarians, this right is central on every systemic level to the realization of autonomy and liberty. The implications of our personal freedom, it’s argued, can extend the perspective of individual rights to a geographic body, and thus the ability to secede becomes the signature on the social contract. However, the issue lies in the mechanism of secession. Specifically, given that modern states and geography are inseparable, how do we preserve the rights of individuals to secede and develop their own system on the one hand without hindering the access of those opposed to secession to the benefits of their own?
As this debate plays out in libertarian publications and on the internet, the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity has been hinting at Ukraine’s ‘Fractured Future’, with the former Congressman himself suggesting Ukrainians might decide to abandon centralisation altogether, pushing power downward and breaking apart into a ‘loose confederation’; a first step to the Paulist libertarian ideal. While this and other proposals should be considered on their merits, there is certainly a tendency among libertarians – and an absolute consistency among anarcho-capitalists – to see centralisation as an evil in all cases, and a scourge to be fought wherever it is found.
It is here that the split between libertarians and their anarchist counterparts becomes obvious. The first faction debates this issue and its real-world implications to varied ends and conclusions, while the latter insists on rejecting the framework of that reality in favour of their own. The debate is masked as a discussion of whatever issue happens to be at hand, but is more often than not a change in topic altogether.
For Ron Paul and his troublesome Austrian School colleagues at the Mises Institute, the idea of anarchy has never been far from the surface. Paul may tone his rhetoric for the cable news audiences that keep him relevant, but he has never shied from the fact that he sees the ideal government to be no government at all. He actually believes the marketplace is its own ideal regulator; not just in low-risk industries, but in all areas of life, including healthcare, policing, and foreign defence. Ron Paul may be only suggesting Ukraine break into a series of smaller states, but what he has always wanted, as an endgame, is for some industrialised nation to eliminate the state altogether.
The Anarcho-Capitalist System
The anarcho-capitalist system looks something like this: the state is an abstraction and a parasite. It serves the functions of the market without its voluntary nature. Instead of services like defence, insurance, policing, and arbitration being provided governmentally, the market could do so more efficiently in the form of private firms without compulsory geographic membership. In this way, services provided would better reflect the temperance of a natural system and the demands of individuals – as opposed to a democratic collective – while being held financially accountable for poor services, and improved to maximum efficiency by the power of competition and the so-called ‘invisible hand’. Instead of using the government to achieve the goals of society, they would be pursued exclusively through cooperation and social organisation.
Intellectually it goes by ‘agorism’. In other circles it goes by anarcho-capitalism, but it always argues that the inherent violence in the system is an unfit alternative to the inherent abuse that would be present without it. Today we have to give up our liberties with no sovereignty, argues the anarcho-capitalist. Wouldn’t it be better to exist as pure equals with a respect for rights?
But this system has never been fully tested in the modern world. This is the anarcho-capitalist’s most frustrating rebuttal, and perhaps a saving grace for those who have the luxury of debating a pool of pure theory. The response is that socialism and communism have also yet to be fully tested to perfection. In fact, anarcho-capitalists enjoy comparing themselves to Marx and other successful revolutionary theories. Indeed it is an immense irony that both of these theories, perhaps the two most radical and opposite ends of the authoritarianism-to-freedom spectrum, share the elimination of the state as the ultimate goal of their economic and social reconstruction.
But even though the system has not been tested by a state, there are many examples of anarchy in play. Here the irony is the most ripe because anarcho-capitalists fail to see that the existence of states, the system their whole identity is designed to oppose, is developed out of a worse system, the international system, which is nothing if not in a state of capitalist anarchy.
The strict definition of sovereignty, the complete control of policy, and the struggle for resources all position international actors as the perfect individuals. If anarcho-capitalists are looking for a test of their system, they need look no further than Crimea and Ukraine, or Qatar, or China, or the US. All are examples of the failures of anarchy and the shortcomings of radical individualism.
On the other hand, the international community, with its rapidly developing trend toward organisation, shows some positive aspects of anarchy as well. Very often it profits a state to cooperate peacefully rather than to turn to war. Because states measure their success by their individual successes before relative gains, they have a tendency to cooperate, even with enemies, where the results are positive compared to outright aggression. States are held accountable for maximising this success both to their populations but also to the community and their future relationships that would be jeopardized by rampant misbehavior.
This is perfectly in tune with the modern liberal position. Instead of democracy, which inherently oppresses the minority, we have diplomacy. Here, anarchy is not an impediment because behavior is driven by a desire for gains where they are cooperative. In this way cooperation actually increases and it does so, yes, on a voluntary basis. We see this with trade pacts and in organisations like the WTO that require unanimity, where voluntarist state actions strengthen prosperity and extremist bad ideas are kept at bay by the community. A WTO official put it perfectly to me once: “diplomacy is when everybody is angry, but everybody is signing.” Surely such compromise is a proud sign of success in a rapidly progressing world that is still, undeniably, anarchic.
This anarchy has even managed to develop important aspects of a rudimentary society. Colloquial ‘soft’ norms to interactions in international law are widely accepted without force and have been for centuries. The United Nations, for all the complaints libertarians might have (which normally have more to do with their own governments acting undemocratically in international treaties), is an unprecedentedly inclusive liberal community that has convinced all 195 recognized countries that exist (with changes by the month) to voluntarily agree on a basic declaration of rights. The Security Council, though still dominated by the elite, has no personal ability to deploy troops and the whole UN system has essentially no way to enforce its decisions. They simply facilitate, and hope that the society can regulate itself appropriately through the spirit of capitalism.
The value of the international system as a model, however, is in its flaws more than its successes. The right of the individual is paramount, and no state argues that fact, but the system we have is so far from ideal. Furthermore, the idea that states act in their own most rational interest is a flawed defence, that the market holds misbehaviour accountable is inconsistent, and that the monopoly on power is unnecessary or more abusive is simply false.
The Rational State
The anarcho-capitalist libertarian system has the fundamental belief that individual actors should have complete autonomy and freedom because central authorities can never truly understand and act in the best interests of each individual, but this assumption is dangerous and flawed for a few reasons.
The first is because individuals, whether people or firms or organizations or states, are not rational. They react to fear and insecurity and egoism. We saw this exactly in Ukraine, as analysts and politicians scratched their heads to find how Putin could possibly interpret an invasion of Crimea as a long-term gain, considering not only the huge geopolitical but also economic downsides to aggressive intervention. Surely cooperation with the west and strengthened interdependence was the best answer for everyone involved.
We see it as well with the behavior of isolationist states like North Korea as well as with otherwise civilized democratic states in the West when they respond to constituent pressures. Protectionist border restrictions and limits to free trade are still entirely common despite the economic benefits they can have. States often lash out and overreact to miniscule strategic threats. Shame, compensation, and fear all come into play when the groupthink psychology of democracy holds the reigns of government. Because people are base the international anarchy is dangerous and unstable. On an interpersonal level, these instabilities are warded off under a state, and would be just as extreme if they were not tempered by an institution.
Still, we also see that rational action is not necessarily peaceful either. In fact, the very mechanisms anarchists expect to pacify the powers of the system, self-interest and competition, turn a very ugly head when their extremes come into play.
Let’s look at China; a simple example of why capitalism alone is not enough to develop a peaceful system based on respect of personal rights. China is an exceptionally capitalist individual. Its foreign policy is defined, more than that of any other major power, by economic gains and losses alone. While it may contribute to a larger, more abstract global prosperity in the process, leading development projects where it specifically requires and otherwise, it has also made the message clear time and time again that it doesn’t matter what country you are, where you are from, or how many thousands your regime might oppress torture and murder, it won’t make judgements as long as it can do business.
The fact is that there are individuals in every system like China, who justify or ignore any atrocity if they can excuse their relationship with it as abstract. Considering we westerners each support about twenty-five slaves personally, we all share part of the guilt of the cause. But there are those whose willingness to associate with evils is immediate. Business is the goal. The moral obligation is toward domestic prosperity alone, and rights be damned. Capitalism as an ideology may forbid these violations, but capitalism as a practise cannot.
This doesn’t end just at tacit approval, but extends to states that actively seek to oppress other states to reach rational, economic means. War is not inherently irrational. Sometimes initiating violent action and the suppression of rights is much more efficient for a state than prolonged diplomatic processes and voluntary contracts. Pure, rational self-interest is no thing to base a system on.
The Myth of Market Accountability
These dangers should be accepted, according to the anarcho-capitalist, because the market would be able to some extent to hold the hooligans accountable. China is politically estranged from the west in part because of its shady approach to human rights and relationship with North Korea and other rogue states. As international social psychology progresses, the community develops stronger.
While this may be minutely true, it hardly compensates for the damage to individual rights which anarchy allows. No amount of international pressure can really force a state to a decision, and aggression still occurs. Iran was sanctioned for years, but only a change in regime brought a change in policy, and cooperation still was forced through a vicarious and impartial (see: irrelevant) third party in Sultan Qaboos’s formidable expertise. Obama publicly expected the market to reprimand Russia for Crimea, and while the markets did fall, they fully compensated within less than 48 hours.
Instead of moderating the Kremlin with interdependency, competition petrified European energy policy because of its dependence on Asian trade, and forbade American efforts pre-emptively.
In Qatar, international trade hasn’t stopped the civilised monarchy from supporting extremists or GCC states from sending it to diplomatic exile. Organisation failed. Society meant nothing.
Why We Need the Monopoly
So anarchy isn’t perfect and it guarantees no respect for rights, but state systems have many of these major issues as well, and anarchy doesn’t *require* initiation of force, so it must be preferable because pure morality is not impossible. This point brings us to the ultimate shortcoming of anarcho-capitalism: the realization that we don’t just tolerate the monopoly, we require it.
Here we make the distinction “libertarian”. A libertarian supports the existence of the state and sees it as inherently necessary in a variety of areas depending on the libertarian, but especially security. A feature of modern states is preventing conflict in constituent areas.
With UDHR Art. 15, anyone should be able to change their nationality. States really are just firms in the anarchy that compete for taxes and have a geographic, but ultimately non-mandatory membership. Because of international anarchy, their immense power allows them to organize an abusive system anarchists hate. If this feudal-anarchy were instituted in our society, it could still develop that system. It would be funny if not infuriatingly obvious.
But still, lets just keep our eyes international and look at why the monopoly is best. In feudal times and internationally, when security providers compete there is instability. A state monopoly on power maximises safety; trite Jefferson quotes aside.
When any firms compete it involves not only providing the best product, but wielding it against each other and by attacking the sources of another’s product (like admen propaganda or inter-law firm suits). Competition between armed bodies tends not to play out in the peaceful free market; It tends to play out in conflict. Firms would still have to war to defend their interests and prove their power, but the more effective the state, the less violence. The two western powers in North America have eradicated war from the continent; a miracle not likely if it were a ‘loose confederation’, with separate state armies. Police and armies both project state power, but armies and built to fight.
In Mexico, cartels can wage war against each other, the state, and civilians because the state monopoly is not powerful enough. Recently legalised Autodefensas only exist because Mexico can’t deliver its product effectively. The mandate from the people, given through the involuntary nature of the relationship, is not being filled.
It is an extremely rare case that the state does not concern itself with this mandate actively. It is extremely rare that a state disregards regional insecurity, and that tends to be a product of underdeveloped socio-political culture and/or an ill-equipped, corrupt state.
And while it is true that there are many, all-too-frequent scenarios of state’s hurting populations with sloppiness, active abuse, police-states, and genocide, these are flaws of the institution, not its mere existence.
In Harvard’s Steven Pilkner’s recent expansive study on the long-term human trend away from violence he looked at the progression of social institutions and their role in improving stability. He found that after the transition from tribal societies to settled states, the chances of dying a violent death decreased from about 15% in tribal societies to about 3% in the first states.
This is not because of human psychology progressing individually but because of the progress of institutions, which in turn nurture a community psychology less prone to outright aggression. In the international sphere, the establishment of institutions is one of the most powerful mechanisms of soft power that can influence not only the practical behaviours but the culture of its beneficiaries. It is the monopoly that prohibits internal conflicts that play out in violent, dare I say ‘anarchic’ ways.
Lastly, anarchy is a power vacuum. Anarchists must leave theory and face reality, the reality that power fills in gaps. When there is not a single monopoly, there is intense competition and there are individuals trying to establish a monopoly. This is constant and consistent. Whether the threat comes from outside the system or within, all that is needed is to be the most powerful. With a state monopoly we have a guarantee. Its totality and its mandate enhances stability and happiness. We have an accountable institution now that does not fight on the large-scale within our borders. Security forms (aka: armies) in competition need only to fight each other; they do not answer to the people.
Towards Better Institutions
It may be true in theory that anarchy is peace and chaos is just lack of cooperation. But cooperation means ceding sovereignty. Systems develop out of anarchy and the global state system exists within the global anarchy. Systems suppress, but rarely to a net negative.
Lets make no bones: The market fails. It is not ideal and it is not magic. If you want a libertarian world, a capitalist one with a defence of natural rights, the market cannot create it alone. To some extent it will always require government.
I am not advocating the creation of world government. The psychology of the international community is far from developing an authority that could manage global personalities safely and effectively. But you only need to look above to see how destructive and frustrating and dangerous and petty anarchy is. The mechanisms of capitalism run rampant and rarely challenge abuse of power.
Anarchy is interesting and utopian, but hypothetical. Like Marxism, it requires the restructuring of human nature to reconcile its expectations. Libertarianism and an improved defense of rights can only take hold in society by addressing real-world problems in the real-world. It would behove us all to get up out of the armchair and put these ideas back on the shelf.