This post is part 4 of my series on why I am no longer an anarcho-capitalist (ancap).
Property is a more complicated issue than most ancaps give it credit. This post only outlines my rather simple views on the matter and why they differ from what I used to believe as an ancap.
First, we should probably distinguish between property and possessions. There is more than one definition for these words, but for our purposes we might call property the exclusive ownership of the means of production, including land, factories and machines. Exclusivity is the key factor. Ancaps often want to know if their hammers, laptops and 3-D printers are included in this definition, and I would say no: they are possessions, intended only for personal use. If people were monopolizing the hammers and laptops and 3-D printers, that might be a different story. However, these things are widely available.
Infoshop’s FAQ summarizes the anarchist argument against property thus:
The statement “property is theft” is one of anarchism’s most famous sayings. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that anyone who rejects this statement is not an anarchist. This maxim works in two related ways. Firstly, it recognises the fact that the earth and its resources, the common inheritance of all, have been monopolised by a few. Secondly, it argues that, as a consequence of this, those who own property exploit those who do not. This is because those who do not own have to pay or sell their labour to those who do own in order to get access to the resources they need to live and work (such as workplaces, machinery, land, credit, housing, products under patents, and such like).
Many ancaps ridicule the idea of positive rights (such as the right to food and shelter, as distinct from the right to be left alone), and yet assume we have a fundamental right to property, as if property were an unalienable extension of one’s right to the ownership of one’s body. Hey, I like privacy too, but surely my preference alone is not enough to justify forcing someone off land I live on. What if there are refugees, or people evicted from their homes by thoughtless landlords, and I have land and room where they can stay? A communist would surely open his or her home at some point to these people, but even if you fall short of communism, what is the justification for saying they are not allowed to, say, put up a tent on your lawn or shelter in your garage? Ancaps are supposed to be opposed to all initiation of force but disregard the force involved in kicking someone off one’s property. I myself took several discussions to realize this form of force was part of the problem.
Hans Hermann Hoppe tried to put it this way.
Is it not simply absurd to claim that a person should not be the proper owner of his body and the places and goods that he originally, i.e., prior to anyone else, appropriates, uses and/or produces by means of his body? For who else, if not he, should be their owner? And is it not also obvious that the overwhelming majority of people—including children and primitives—in fact act according to these rules, and do so as a matter of course?
Moral intuition, as important as it is, is not proof. However, there also exists proof of the veracity of our moral intuition.
The proof is two-fold. On the one hand, the consequences that follow if one were to deny the validity of the institution of original appropriation and private property are spelled out: If person A were not the owner of his own body and the places and goods originally appropriated and/or produced with this body as well as of the goods voluntarily (contractually) acquired from another previous owner, then only two alternatives would exist. Either another person, B, must be recognized as the owner of A’s body as well as the places and goods appropriated, produced or acquired by A, or both persons, A and B, must be considered equal co-owners of all bodies, places and goods.
Unfortunately, Hoppe’s argument begs the question. He assumes things must be owned. Yet, exclusive ownership of property is a very new institution, invented in most places by the same people who came up with and benefited from the state. Who says this stance is “moral intuition”? Who says “natural rights” are so natural and right? Why does ownership of one’s body necessitate ownership of the product of one’s labor? Why is it so hard for Hoppe to understand we could share things? “Primitives” certainly do NOT make these same assumptions, as any anthropologist can tell you. They do not own things. They do not even understand the concept. They share. If one hunter kills an animal and the other does not, everyone eats. In fact, in some cultures, the successful hunter downplays his or her role in the killing out of a sense of solidarity. If said hunter bragged, even though he or she was the one who brought home the food, the rest of the group would shame him or her. So perhaps Hoppe should learn a bit more about humanity before claiming to speak for all of it.
Murray Rothbard, on the other hand, in Confiscation and the Homesteading Principle, takes an almost syndicalist view of ownership. He looks at Yugoslavia and how state-owned factories became co-ops owned by the people who worked there. He looks at the USSR, where all means of production were in the hands of the state, and says the workers have already homesteaded them and therefore should own them. (It would certainly have been better than the disastrous way things ended up transitioning to capitalism.) “The principle in the Communist countries should be: land to the peasants and the factories to the workers”. He makes no distinction for “stolen property”, by which he means property owned by the state or slaveowners–those who have worked in these corporations or the slaves who worked the land have already homesteaded it. He even made the case for reparations, as slave-plantation-owners’ descendants were still alive, and thus reparations can be quite specific.
His article also says the following.
Alan Milchman, in the days when he was a brilliant young libertarian activist, first pointed out that libertarians had misled themselves by making their main dichotomy “government” vs. “private” with the former bad and the latter good. Government, he pointed out, is after all not a mystical entity but a group of individuals, “private” individuals if you will, acting in the manner of an organized criminal gang. But this means that there may also be “private” criminals as well as people directly affiliated with the government. What we libertarians object to, then, is not government per se but crime, what we object to is unjust or criminal property titles; what we are for is not “private” property per se but just, innocent, non-criminal private property.
Does it not follow if business owners have acquired their wealth through some kind of violence, even if the violence occurred generations ago, that wealth is a reasonable target for confiscation?
A house is a possession. If you are living in your house, it is not sitting idle, and if you do not want to let others in, I do not think it would be right to force you. However, if you have a house sitting unused, can you not see why an anarchist would say you should open it up to others to stay there?
But perhaps you do not have a large income and need to rent out your house to live. A bigger fish to fry is corporate ownership of property. Look how many houses banks in the US own. Preventing people from squatting there is the same kind of violence as protecting a nation state’s borders.
Some ancaps envision gated communities and yet assume the borders of the nation state are illegitimate. What is an independent, gated community but a small nation with closed borders? What if all the decent land and water in the area are claimed already? Where do “immigrants” go? Who asked you to build your house there and put a fence around it? Why does nature belong to you?
The ideal is not to wall off what is mine and yours in the name of scarcity but to share in the name of ending suffering. Sharing does not require permission from everyone else in the world before planting a tree, as Hoppe states later in the same essay. It merely means if a man comes along who is hungry, “it’s my tree because I planted and tended it” is not a moral basis to deny him food from it. If you are afraid of free riders, join with people in your community to shame able-bodied scroungers into contributing something. But please do not wrap your fear of scarcity up in a moral basis for private property.
“Anarchy is no guarantee that some people won’t kill, injure, kidnap, defraud or steal from others. Government is a guarantee that some will.” – Gustave de Molinari
The warning that, after the removal of government, gangs and warlords would take is not an argument for government; it is an argument against government. Government is not different from warlords. It is the result of the institutionalization of warlords as the formal rulers of a given territory. This argument might confuse some people, so allow me to explain.
Max Weber defined the state as that organisation with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given (national) territory. “Legitimate” here merely means legal, as actual legitimacy is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. That is why Albert Jay Nock countered Weber by saying the state “claims and exercises a monopoly of crime” over its territory. (Statism is the belief that this monopoly of crime is good or necessary.) David S. D’Amato explains its effect: “the state’s principal manner of acting is to make peaceful interactions crimes while protecting the institutional crime of ruling class elites.”
After all, what does the state do? It steals, but it calls its theft taxation. It kidnaps, but calls kidnapping arrest. It counterfeits, but refers to state counterfeiting as monetary policy. It commits murder on a wide scale, but prefers terms such as war and execution. The state claims to act to protect person and property, but paradoxically aggresses against person and property. It claims to protect freedom while taking it away. It claims to aid the less fortunate when in fact it benefits the powerful at the expense of everyone else. If I go to another country to kill people I do not know, I am a murderer. When the military does it, it is fighting terrorism and promoting democracy. This sleight of hand and clouding of truth is how the state manufactures legitimacy. From a historical perspective, the purpose of the state is and has always been the same. Franz Oppenheimer explains.
The State, completely in its genesis, essentially and almost completely during the first stages of its existence, is a social institution, forced by a victorious group of men on a defeated group, with the sole purpose of regulating the dominion of the victorious group over the vanquished, and securing itself against revolt from within and attacks from abroad. Teleologically, this dominion had no other purpose than the economic exploitation of the vanquished by the victors. No primitive state known to history originated in any other manner.
The warlords have already taken over. That is the problem.
At this point, those with some understanding of history point out such is the way of the world: states and empires constantly expand their power and attempt to conquer us all. But again, this claim is not an argument in favour of government. It is an admission that a monopoly on crime is wrong. Vocal opposition on moral grounds to states and empires can lead to resistance and revolution. If people understand why the state, the concentration of power and the monopoly on crime, are unnecessary and wrong, they can fight it. They can find ways to avoid paying taxes, avoid conscription and arrest, set up systems of mutual aid to become independent, and counteract the lies of the schools and the media.
Countries can still be invaded if the states do not comply with the empire of their time. A military is no guarantee of security. However, the difference between a state society and a free society is resistance is considered legitimate and necessary in the latter. Those who believe in freedom believe in the right to defend oneself against all oppressors by any means necessary without having to put on a uniform. Freedom must be defended by decentralised forces. People will need to fight the power or they will neither achieve nor maintain their freedom for long. But it is possible, and it is worth it.
Finally, we often run up against the claim that domination, hierarchy and elitism are part of our nature, which is why formalizing them is accepting the inevitable. It is unsurprising that we should hear this claim so often. Everyone in our society with a few years of schooling claims to understand human nature, and invokes it whenever defending the status quo. However, in my experience, most such claims reflect the thinking of the immediate world around the speaker. In other words, we believe what we have experienced reflects the whole range of human possibility. Looking more carefully through history, psychology and anthropology, however, we can find innumerable counter-examples. One need look no further than the history of the highland people of Southeast Asia (Zomia) for people who have consciously avoided domination and hierarchy for centuries. My question to those who cite human nature as an excuse for domination is, should we not be allowed to resist and defend ourselves? Should we give up and submit to those who desire power over us? Yes, we would need numbers. Yes, we would need time. But if you recognise that warlordism and violence are wrong, why would you not support us? We should unite to fight all forms of warlords and replace them with freedom.
Wouldn’t it be great if we did not have to follow every law the state passes over us? But then, how would we enforce contracts? How would we enforce property rights? What if someone attacked us? If these concerns could be answered, if we could still have contracts and property and security without following the laws of the state, would you be interested?
Advocates of a minimal state (minarchists) spend considerable time debating which government functions can or should be handed over to the private sector. They may say the state should contract out utilities, social security or the military. However, under such an arrangement, the state would retain ultimate control of all those things, because it would have the prerogative of the law. The law is, in fact, the source of the state’s power.
But as I keep asking, why would we want to give the power to make and enforce laws to a small group of people? Is it that we can trust these people because “we” “elected” them, or threaten not to do so? Or that we do not trust others? Anarchists are not against all rules, contrary to the straw man thrust upon them, just against state laws. My post on state law can be found here; it is the why not of state law. Law that is determined not by one institution but by many is called polycentric, customary or privately-produced law. This post is about the why and how of polycentric law.
In The Market for Liberty, Morris and Linda Tannehill dismiss the idea that we need monopolistic law and force to solve disputes.
It is interesting to note that the advocates of government see initiated force ( the legal force of government ) as the only solution to social disputes. According to them, if everyone in society were not forced to use the same court system, and particularly the same final court of appeal, disputes would be insoluble. Apparently it doesn’t occur to them that disputing parties are capable of freely choosing their own arbiters, including the final arbiter, and that this final arbiter wouldn’t need to be the same agency for all disputes which occur in the society. They have not realized that disputants would, in fact, be far better off if they could choose among competing arbitration agencies so that they could reap the benefits of competition and specialization.
It should be obvious that a court system which has a monopoly guaranteed by the force of statutory law will not give as good quality service as will free-market arbitration agencies which must compete for their customers. Also, a multiplicity of agencies facilitates specialization, so that people with a dispute in some specialized field can hire arbitration by experts in that field . . . instead of being compelled to submit to the judgment of men who have little or no background in the matter.
As we will see, a better system is preferable and possible.
A simple rule is, the easier it is for normal people to do what they want without harming others, to do business and trade, to create and innovate, the better off the people around them. There are, in fact, things a government can do to aid an economy. One of the most important, as seen from the studies in The Mystery of Capital by Hernando de Soto, is upholding contracts and property rights. If there are ways to do these things in a free market, while lowering or eliminating the risks of abuse associated with state intervention, they are worth considering.
Law around the world
In his paper Privately-Produced Law, Tom W. Bell explains that people around the world and throughout history have used more equitable legal systems than the centralised model. Some legal systems that many would write off as “primitive” are in fact very effective at protecting individual freedom and property, resolving complex conflicts, avoiding violence and can legislate changes in the law. They do all these things without the inefficient, unsatisfying elite control of the system most civilised people are used to.
In such systems, people make reciprocal agreements and victims enforce them. Such agreements are necessary to belong to the community in the first place; and since they are mutually beneficial (unless one knows he or she is going to break the law), people believe in them. Economic restitution, proportionate to the severity of the crime, is the main form of punishment for torts. The guilty yield to the punishment largely due to the threat of ostracism.
Old Anglo-Saxon law made courts out of public assemblies. Interpreting the law was not a problem, as custom took care of it. The outcome of the dispute was about the facts of the case. There were no crimes against the state, or against society. There were only crimes against individuals.
Various other groups have come up with laws regarding the conduct of their members, including immigrant communities, merchants and guilds and communes. It is related to arbitration. Commercial arbitration has become a popular, fast and efficient form of resolving disputes for the insurance, construction and textile industries. (Find more on arbitration below.)
Contracts and reputation
In advanced capitalist countries, where legal contracts have a long history and a solid place in the culture, enforcing contracts is one the state does reasonably well. How could contracts work in a stateless society? Well, how did they work before the state began enforcing them? How do they work where there is no state? Generally, the answer is the same: reputation. If you are known for enforcing your contracts, you win new ones, and you make money. If you break a contract, you lose big time. You lose future contracts but you also lose face from all your peers. Nowadays, that could mean being smeared on the internet as well. Shame, and in more extreme cases, ostracism, is a common punishment throughout the world for anyone who breaks with his or her expected obligations.
Reputation is very important. In a small enough community, we would probably not need any kind of court system because if Johnny cheats Holly, everyone will find out, and will shame, attempt to rehabilitate or, at the extreme, ostracise Johnny. We could formalise this process for a larger society with some kind of reputation database, possibly along the lines of what eBay and Amazon use, or possibly more sophisticated, using arbitrators. Arbitrators would be judged on their reputation. They would likely specialise in a field. They could create permissions to add entries and create permissions to read the database, but cannot alter or remove entries.
When Johnny and Holly agree to enter into a contract, they take it to an arbitrator, Justine, who gets a fee. Justine makes an entry in the database. If Justine makes a ruling against Johnny the cheat, and Johnny does not comply with it, the arbitrator puts all of it in the database, showing that Johnny is not someone you would want to do business with. There could be a number of online and offline backup databases to ensure no one tampers with them.
A credit rating is a kind of reputation. Debts that are so small they are not worth taking to court or even arbitrators are still regularly paid off because of one’s credit rating. Stefan Molyneux explains (here and here) that we already operate under such a system, and that expanding it with dispute-resolution organisations, or DROs, could be advantageous to all.
Picture for a moment the infinite complexity of modern economic life. Most individuals bind themselves to dozens of contracts, from car loans and mortgages to cell phone contracts, gym membership, condo agreements and so on. To flourish in a free market, a man must honour his contracts. A reputation for honest dealing is the foundation of a successful economic life. Now, few DROs will want to represent a man who regularly breaks contracts, or associates with difficult and litigious people. (For instance, this writer once refrained from entering into a business partnership because the potential partner revealed that he had sued two previous partners.)
People will need to be represented by DROs because their being accepted into mainstream society will demand it. Without a contract with a DRO, one would have no credibility as an honest broker and thus no chance of entering into contracts—at least, contracts without very high fees and penalties for breaking them.
A DRO would be liable for crimes their clients commit. If a man murdered his wife, he would lose his contract (which would prohibit murder) and have to pay some penalty to the next of kin. That might mean forced labour under some kind of imprisonment. DROs “are as ancient as civilization itself, but have been shouldered aside by the constant escalation of State power over the last century or so…. [They make] all the information formerly known by the local community available to the world as whole, just as credit reports do.” And insurance can be created for just about anything.
Arbitration has made courts superfluous in many areas, with tens of thousands of arbitrations conducted every year. Arbitration is a kind of privately-produced law, as it involves two people voluntarily coming together, choosing their own terms and accepting someone else’s ruling. Arbitrators have been around since the Middle Ages, and developed the whole body of merchant law. None of them could violently enforce their rulings.
In a society of polycentric law, arbitrators would be chosen for their expertise, efficiency and integrity as impartial judges, as they are now. Arbitration has even gone online. Judge.me is a company that resolves international disputes in a matter of days based on common principles of justice. It is an efficient and very promising service.
Choosing the law
Private law means we can choose which laws to abide by, instead of hoping to impose them on others. Sure, people in polycentric legal societies will get things wrong; but they will get them less wrong, with less drastic, society-wide consequences, than state law. David Friedman’s argument is that, since the government does not do anything efficiently or better than the free market, why would we expect it to make laws right? A monopoly is rarely necessarily or preferable; why would a monopoly on the production of law be different?
In a free market for law, a large number of security firms would exist that, for a fee, would enforce the basic rights, including contracts, of their customers. Imagine my television goes missing. The camera my security agency has installed in my home saw the person who did it. The thief the agency identified denies the crime. I have a rights-enforcement agency, but so do you. The two agencies might go to war over my claim to get my TV back, right?
But wars are very expensive and private firms want to minimise costs. War only profits those who wage it when they steal the money used to pay for it from someone else through taxation. Instead, the agencies could decide on a netural arbitrator who will decide to whom the TV belongs. Since such disputes are likely to recur, policies will stipulate when the firms will approach an arbitrator.
Since such firms will deal with each other for a long time, they will be able to agree on rules and industry standards. Instead of fighting, they will have rules and mechanisms in place to enforce rulings of the arbitrators. If firms attempt to collude, it is likely that customers will desert them, as existing and potential customers find that legitimate claims are not redressed.
In order for a rights-enforcement agency, an arbitration agency or a private court to make money, people need to choose to use it. So who would their customers be? A polycentric legal order would resolve the debates over, say, the implementation of Islamic sharia, because Muslims who want sharia (which is not all Muslims, just so you know) can abide by it, and would not force others to follow it. Strict, Orthodox Jews would shop at a different agency. Libertarians who do not want too many rules would have their own. Pacifists might choose arbitration without enforcement.
Dealing with aggression
Contracts are a very useful way to solve disputes. Perhaps I sign a contract when I move somewhere that I am not going to let my grass grow too high or scatter car parts on the lawn, and if I break it, there is recourse to kick me out. But what about torts or crimes of aggression where there has been no contract? Murray Rothbard has some ideas. The free market offers endless possibilities—whatever people can offer that customers want. Insurance companies would pay the victims of crime, the breaking of contracts, the winners of arbitration, then pursue the aggressors in court to recoup their losses. Competing defense agencies would exist to protect people, and they would likely work closely with the insurance companies: the less crime there is, the less the insurance companies need to pay out. Insurance companies would probably lower the cost of burglary insurance to those with alarm systems, or trained gun owners. Thus, the incentives for swift, efficient restitution with a minimum of violence are built in to the system.
Holly accuses Johnny of a crime. Johnny gives her the finger and does not show up in court or send a representative. As a result, his side of the case is not heard. If he is found guilty, he might nonetheless accept the verdict. If not, he could go to another court, he could appeal, and so on. If courts and appeals continue to find Johnny guilty, they will have found him guilty of aggression. In a society based on the non-aggression principle, this is, in effect, a crime. Private defense agencies thus have the moral authority to demand restitution and employ violence if it is not forthcoming.
In a free society, people would be free not to press charges, or not to employ violence if other parties did not accept rulings against them. Nonetheless, in the eyes of anyone with access to a reputation or contract-rating database (which would be everyone), those who violate the NAP would have all manner of sanction against them. They would find it difficult to buy a car, for instance, because they would not be trusted to pay for it. Finally, crimes against “society” would not exist (and arguably do not exist at the moment).
I am sure that, like with everything an anarchist proposes, statists will be able to find holes in the theory and “what if” their ideas to death. A few holes in the presentation of a theory does not invalidate it, especially when it is something everyone will have the chance to influence, unlike the current way of dispensing law. They are free to continue to believe they are best represented by the “justice” system as it is now. All we ask is that they respect others’ opinions enough to let them try their own way of doing things. They could be attempted on a micro level, with a few hundred or a few thousand people.
A system of polycentric law would eliminate victimless crimes, because people could choose their own laws. It would be fairer, instead of today’s system of treating rich people’s crimes as misdemeanors and minorities or the poor’s crimes as murder. It would simplify laws, meaning far less need for expensive lawyers. It would lower costs, meaning everyone could afford it; or at least, it would be easy to raise money for those who could not. And we would not have every law and verdict handed down by a self-interested elite.
Freedom, including the freedom to build and trade and innovate, is the natural state of humanity (as agorists will tell you: see the principles underpinning agorist theory here). If the state is meant to protect us from the bad people (it is not, but that is its perpetual justification), it follows that, if we are peaceful people who do good things for ourselves and others, we have the right to ignore the state. If one must ask permission, one is not free. Agorism is voluntary exchange without asking permission; taking one’s freedom back and using it to make people better off.
Monopolies enable and encourage abuse. In Markets Not Capitalism (pp68-74), Charles W. Johnson explains that the state has a monopoly on huge swathes of the economy. It has a monopoly on security, and trillions of dollars’ worth of security apparatus to use as it likes. It owns land and natural resources, fabricating land titles, instituting complex land-use and construction codes, and the capture of others’ property by use of eminent domain. It controls the money supply, enriching bankers and criminalising alternative forms of currency that people could use to avoid inflation. It grants monopoly privilege to patent and copyright holders. It has a monopoly on the building of infrastructure, artificially lowering fees of transportation at the taxpayers’ expense, instead of turning it over to the private sector where it can save money and save lives (see here). It has a monopoly on regulation, which largely protects big business at the expense of small, creating new monopolies. Finally, it decides everything that crosses its borders, from the amount of goods and the fees for them to the movement of people. This blog has outlined the problems with most of these monopolies already. The question at hand is, how do we challenge them?
In the New Libertarian Manifesto, Samuel Edward Konkin glances at how libertarians have tried to end the state, from violence to collaboration to spreading the word. He concludes from their overall failure that the answer is to stop feeding the state, and outlines his vision for an agorist society, and the counter-economic method of getting there. Counter-establishment economics, or counter-economics, is simply peaceful action that the state forbids. It exposes the unnecessary and damaging role of the state in the enforcement of its monopolies.
Agorism has much to do with self sufficiency, shaking off dependence on the state and doing things for oneself and one’s community. In addition, while it means avoiding taxes, it is at least as much about starving the state of funds. If a person, or much better, community, opposes the state, he or it can set up businesses or co-ops that are unlicensed, unregistered, unregulated and illegal. They can provide goods and services cheaply and without needing to feed the beast.
Agorism means that one by one, people will stop supporting the state and start supporting each other instead. Agorists will be at the forefront of the building of a new society, and they provide an example for those who are interested. (More on the logic of agorism here.)
To make clear, drug barons are not agorists (as they do not believe the state is immoral) or counter-economists (as they use violence). It is unfortunate that it is necessary to use violence in drug markets, but that is a natural consequence of the criminalisation of something so many people want. But not all black markets are violent.
As the Movement of the Libertarian Left shows, counter-economists come in all shapes and sizes. They could be
–Tax evaders (how-to);
–Smugglers (of humans looking for opportunities, drugs to people who need or want them, banned books, cigarettes subject to high taxes, and so on);
–Midwives whose positions have been eliminated by state health care systems;
–Doctors working without belonging to government-approved national medical associations;
–Gun owners who disobey firearm restrictions;
–Gamblers who gamble with friends instead of in registered casinos;
–Unregistered taxi drivers;
–Publishers and consumers of illicit art, literature and newspapers;
–Pirate radio operators (how-to);
–Farmers who grow and sell things the state prohibits, from hemp to raw milk;
–Cooks who make and sell food, perhaps to friends and neighbours, by mail order (like Stateless Sweets) or by the side of the road;
–Unlicensed contractors (how-to);
–Employers who pay under the table and employees who are paid under the table;
–People who pirate drugs or entertainment subject to intellectual property laws;
–People selling things at garage sales, roadside stands or on Craigslist;
–People who give sanctuary to others on the run, such as whistleblowers and runaway slaves;
–People feeding the homeless despite prohibitions on it;
–And anyone competing with a government monopoly, like Lysander Spooner did. Looking at all these illegal (but victimless) activities, are you a counter-economist?
In the twilight years of the Soviet Union, just about everyone was. The state had proven itself utterly incapable of providing more than the bare minimum of all manner of goods that were, in fact, available on the black market: food, repairs, electronics, exit papers and favours from the powerful.
Occupiers, you are counter-economists. Occupy movements were entirely voluntary, working on consensus, anticapitalism, mutual aid, equality and solving their own problems. They established clinics, schools, libraries, kitchens and security teams. They showed everyone that we can have a voluntary society, that we can build a new society, based on compassion and helping each other, out of the shell of the old. It is called prefigurative politics. These values also inform the philosophy of the sovereign community, meaning new communities outside the reach of the state. Voluntary institutions show not only the morality of non-aggression, but also that we can solve the world’s problems without force.
A common fear statists have of a free society is that a corporation, or some other large entity, would one day take up arms and attack and control people. In effect, this fear is the same as the fear of a government: that a small group will get together to take money and power away from a larger population. I agree that we must remain vigilant about such things, which is why free communities have many options for dealing with such a scenario.
As I explain in my post on human nature, humans have a sense of reciprocity: you help me and I will help you. The good guys, and good businesses that provide value to their customers, are the ones that succeed over time. That is why the image of the free market as the “law of the jungle” is erroneous. The law of the jungle is where the powerful come to dominate others, which is what a state enables. A free market means businesses would need to provide value, or they would not make money.
There are some psychopaths out there. We do not want to give psychopaths the means of violence, which is the main reason we should deny them access to the levers of the state. But they may also have access to large amounts of money through a corporation on the free market. They will lose from any customers who consider their actions illegitimate, but it is possible those customers will not know. That is why we have the media.
The huge variety of media in our society, from Democracy Now to Fox News to our friends and family, are one way to tackle organisations that act immorally, because consumers will withhold their dollars if they are deeply opposed to a business’s actions. Many consumers make choices based on their impressions of the companies they buy from. There have been a number of successful boycotts, which give more credence to the fact that businesses a) are beholden to the market and b) can be pressured by small numbers of ordinary people into changing for the better. Business groups such as the Better Business Bureau ensure that ethical businesses get certain benefits of belonging to clubs and the unethical ones get shunned.
All manner of organisation can use boycotts, along with public shaming of people involved, if their rules for ethical behaviour are broken. Shaming can actually be a powerful weapon, as we see when we see a man’s bad cheque on the side of a cash register. It can be used against those who violate the non-aggression principle, as has been suggested regarding police who use pepper spray on unarmed protesters. We need good reputations in life to be able to sign contracts, and we sign many of them in our lives. (Two people who have thought and spelled out the problem well are Stefan Molyneux on dispute resolution and David Friedman on private law.)
Since the people who own and run corporations would no longer have limited liability or other legal protections, the same rules apply to them as to corporations themselves, and anything I say about corporations must apply to the people who make them up. Through private law, people would be able to sue individuals working in the businesses who perform acts of aggression, rather than just suing the corporation. No corporate personhood, no bailouts and other transfers from taxpayers to corporate executives, no regulations preventing small businesses from entering the market: corporations would be far weaker without the state.
They would also have no legal mandate to make a profit, though it is more accurate to say that at the moment they must do what their shareholders want. As not all shareholders of all corporations are purely interested in making money, and others believe ethical behaviour is a way to make money, some of them have taken to shareholder activism, and have made positive changes in the corporations they own that way. Here we have yet another check on corporate power, and I see no reason to believe it would disappear without a government.
The idea that we should worry about private armies is misplaced. Whom does the national military serve? The elite control the state. The state and all its institutions serve the elite. A national military is the private army of the elite. It is paid for by the taxpayers, rather than the elite. In fact, the elite would probably not make money if they needed to pay for their wars themselves.
Some businesses benefit when a state goes to war, but not many. It is usually only the select businesses whose executives and shareholders belligerent governments are beholden to. But the question people who fear a corporation might go to war fail to ask is, who pays for modern war? Taxpayers gain nothing from war; they only lose. Businesses only profit when they get someone else (ie. taxpayers) to pay for it. If Halliburton had armed itself and gone into Iraq for oil, the costs would have far outweighed the benefits. It could have just traded with free people for it and saved millions on weapons. (See my take on the case of Iraq here.)
At the moment, some big corporations, usually oil companies, do attack people indirectly. They move into an area of people with no means to defend their land and the local government defends them against possible peasant unrest. It is possible to blame the corporations that bribe the state to use violence against these innocent people. However, if the state did not exist, the means of violence would not be paid for by the taxpayer. It would be paid for by customers, who would pay higher prices, and employees, whose wages would be lower. In effect, the tax would shift from individuals who do not benefit to those who do, and the prices might be exorbitant.
Moreover, bad PR costs a lot. People of conscience who find out that corporations are employing violence can boycott the corporations. All these things hurt sales. But we cannot force the people in the state who use violence to pay for it themselves, nor can we boycott the state. If a corporation stops caring about making money in the marketplace and only extracts it by force, it has become a state. Thus, the argument that if the state no longer existed, corporations would be just as able to commit violence does not follow. One way or another, anarchists oppose the initiation of force when done by anyone, be it a government, corporation, gang or otherwise.
But even with all this evidence corporations would not have unchecked and indominable power, it is still possible that corporations would commit overt violence, as if they were a government or a mafia, because they would probably still be disproportionately commanded by psychopaths, have lots of money and struggle for dominance. That is why the problem is not government per se, but the initiation of force. I do not care if it was a government or a corporation or just one person who killed 100 peaceful people; the problem is that they were killed. It could be hard to check corporations, like it is hard to check them and governments and other groups today. Not all information would reach everyone affected; not everyone would join in every boycott; not everyone would change due to public disgrace. So we need more ideas.
A stateless society would not be a completely peaceful utopia. How could it? When will we end aggressive behaviour? Few anarchists I know would even try. A lot of them believe that communities should separate from the state and become autonomous. Suffice to say, communities of free people would defend themselves against an aggressive corporation in the same way that they would defend themselves from any state or empire. That is something they have been doing for thousands of years. They or any anarchic society would need to have some kind of protection. That protection could come from the free market, as corporations competing for business would provide their customers with the protection they need. I understand the worry that those corporations could just turn on their customers and steal from them. However, businesses in a free market will provide enough customers with what they want that their owners will not want executives to start killing people. As Robert Murphy explains in detail, there is a market for security, and it could work very well against a corporation or any other organisation that wishes to harm people.
If a security company (or any other company that depends on repeat customers and good reputations, which is all successful ones not receiving state protection) kills or steals from or even enslaves a bunch of people, there are two problems. First, they will have less profit. I don’t think greed is necessarily bad: it depends how it is channeled. If you want to maximise profit, the rational solution might be to be a highly ethical corporation. In theory, and usually in practice, wherever free markets have existed (today’s markets are not very free), people are far wealthier, partly because they can pursue their self interest, partly because their motivation and creativity are higher, partly because they are forced to compete with others if they wish to remain profitable. If corporations want money, they are better off being good businesses and providing what the customers want, and if they do, the customers will come back.
Likewise, most corporations find that being good to their employees pays dividends in employee loyalty and motivation. If they start killing employees, or even just thwarting their attempts to unionise, employees must make a decision: stay here and risk getting bullied or murdered by this corporation, or quit and find another way to make a living. That is their decision. But as competition for workers grows, corporations need to provide better wages and working conditions. A major reason the vast majority of businesses do not regularly cheat customers and shoot employees is that it is not in the interest of their owners to do so.
Communities would still have rules, just like all societies have rules, and they could decide one of those rules would be no Walmart. That could mean no Walmart stores, no Walmart goods, and even no Walmart employees if they felt that strongly, would be allowed in the town. Every community that shunned Walmart in this fashion would mean that much less money, and thus power, for Walmart. Of course, we might not be able to get every community to push away our hypothetical violent or otherwise unethical corporation, but surely we should not force them to believe what we believe. If we are right, people might see it in time; and if they do not, they probably cannot be saved anyway.
The second solution to the problem of protection against a violent corporation is for people to defend themselves. Attempting violence against free people would probably lead to anyone sympathetic’s helping them out in the name of ending injustice, just as abolitionists used to attack slave owners in attempts to free slaves. People should really be able defend themselves anyway, at all times, whether there is a government or not, because violence can be committed whether there are 1000 police on the street or none. History shows that people band together in times of crisis, which include villages or cities allying to repel aggressors. And if they did so and had any chance of winning, where would this leave the business? It would need to reconsider any kind of violent campaign, and if a business is supposed to make money, waging its own war is clearly not the answer.
People could defend themselves, of course, but they could also have competing private defense agencies. If there is no central authority with a monopoly on the means of violence, a variety of organisations would have those means. They already exist to provide security guards, cameras, and so on. If one of them tried to attack people, the people could hire one or more of the many other organisations to defend themselves. If for some reason one turned belligerent, people could call another, or several others. And if worst came to worst, they could take up arms themselves.
In sum, it does not follow that corporations would make things much worse without a coercive state. Corporations would have far fewer unearned benefits without the state. Oversight is provided by journalists and consumers, and is spread by the innumerable media we have at our disposal and by word of mouth. There are already rules of ethics that would continue to govern the actions of consumers and executives, and when the people make rules for themselves and their communities, they can back them up by defending themselves from greedy outsiders with force if they need to.
One interesting feature of Canadian culture is its love-hate relationship with the US. Much of what Canadians do is a reaction to what they see in the US as distasteful. They prefer a foreign policy based on peace, for example. They stayed aloof from Operation Iraqi Freedom because like the rest of the world, Canadians knew it was bogus. They are still persuaded to go to war, but only if they can be persuaded the war is about helping people, such as in Afghanistan and Libya. But something is changing. Society is going one way and the state is going the other. The country in which I lived most of my life is following the US trend downward into dictatorship.
First, consider that Canada is experiencing its lowest crime rate since 1973. Crimes that are down include homicide, attempted murder, assault, break-ins, auto theft and drunk driving. Crimes whose numbers are up include drug and firearm offences, which in themselves are victimless. The ruling Conservative Party, which, because it has a majority government, can do anything it wants, has passed a tough-on-crime bill (Bill C-10) that mandates more jail time to potgrowers than to people who sexually assault children. In fact, it includes mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, meaning the judge is no longer a judge but merely a sentencer, and the courts are a waystation on the road to prison. It means more of the War on Drugs, with its concomitant rise in organised crime and violence. The “justice” system will uphold these laws, of course, because it is not about justice but the law. The bill to incarcerate harmless criminals will cost $19b.
The Canadian government is cracking down harder on internet freedom. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews warned Canadians to support a new law to enable the government to spy on its citizens online with the Bushesque “either stand with us or with the child pornographers.” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Terry Milewski explains, “his bill would, in fact, dramatically change the law to allow the government much, much more access to our online lives and identities.” All Canadians’ basic information can be handed over to the government if it so demands, without a warrant, and thus without suspicion. Bill C-30 allows government “inspectors” to look at any private information on the internet now. Why do they want this information? What are they going to do with it?
Third, in this time of financial belt tightening, the police are getting raises. They already make far more than the average Canadian, but then they are a section of the bureaucracy. But most Canadian bureaucrats are not getting raises. Why do the cops need more money? Is evicting protesters getting more perilous? But perhaps they need it. The inevitable rise in violent crime due to the increased suppression of the drug trade will indeed make their jobs harder. But is it all necessary? Is there nothing better we can spend that money on?
When I say “we”, of course, I only mean we would have decided on that money if it had not been stolen from us in the first place. We have no recourse, because when the government makes up its mind, we can do little. We could protest, but we would need hundreds of thousands of people at least in the streets to repeal any one of these laws; and in true government fashion, similar laws would be sneaked by us later anyway. Moreover, if we protested and the police hit back as hard as they did at the last G-8 summit in Toronto when some 1000 protesters were arrested for disagreeing with the elites, we would simply feed the prison system. The government could use it as evidence that we need more prisons and more repressive laws to make things safer.
Canada will not become safer, only more repressive. Most Canadians will not benefit from these laws. Canada’s government is dancing on the fine line between democracy and dictatorship, and like all those who desire power, it favours an expansion of the power of the state toward the latter. Canadians should not remain complacent.