SFL Staff

Over at Liberal Currents, Paul Crider has a thoughtful piece arguing that market-anarchism, which I take to mean either forms of anarcho-capitalism or forms of left market anarchism, is fundamentally a threat to liberal values and a liberal political order. Crider maintains that we anarchists i) obsess over moral issues which they should not by making the enemy of the good, ii) advocate for political positions which for which we cannot epistemically support, iii) as a consequence of we fall into illiberal habits, and iv) we wish to promote political decay. However, it is my contention that Crider confuses several aspects of this debate, namely the empirical question of whether anarchism can support liberal values from the normative question of whether anarchism is fundamentally consistent with these liberal values. Further, Crider often seems to be refuting naive arguments which some naïve anarchists give, particularly anarcho-capitalists who are laypersons, and then wrongly assumes that the arguments he gives against these naïve anarchists apply with equal vigor to anarchists who he admits are much more nuanced and have radically different arguments.

First, let me be clear what I am arguing for against Crider. I do not wish to claim that any and all instantiation of statelessness is preferable to liberal democracies, I further do not wish to claim that democratic institutions are fundamentally inconsistent with liberal values. Instead, I wish to argue that Paul has failed to refute the following claim: If liberal cultural values are already prevalent in a society, it is likely that political anarchism can empirically maintain liberal values better than democratic institutions.

It is outside of the scope of this series to prove that this claim is true. Instead I want to show two things: A) while the claim is in principle falsifiable, we do not possess the evidence to falsify it and thus can only bounce theoretical reasons why we think it might or might not be more likely to be true and B) Crider has failed to disprove it (although proving it is clearly outside the scope of this essay) and has failed to give us any real reason to disbelieve in it. In other words, even if a liberal accepts with Crider, as she should, that we are in a state of ignorant of what market anarchism will look like in a modern context and democracies are relatively more liberal than other political arrangements, she should be, at worst, agnostic between political market anarchism and status quo liberal democracies.

This series will be divided into four parts. One addressing Crider’s claims about legitimacy and coercion, two addressing Crider’s claims about anarchists’ alleged illiberal “fog of war” episteme, third about his claims about political decay, and finally about his notion of “critical anarchism.”

Is Seeking Legitimate Political Authority a Chimera?

After rightly pointing out how market anarchists cannot eliminate coercion from society, something which few market anarchist thinkers outside of maybe adolescent popularizers on You Tube think, Crider claims that seeking a legitimized political authority is a chimera because a perfectly legitimized authority does not exist, instead authority exists on a spectrum with some states being more legitimate than others.

However, this claim seems to be missing the point as it a conceptual confusion between “authoritative legitimacy” and “degree of just action.” Someone can be in a position of moral illegitimacy and act more justly than someone else who is illegitimate. For example, a woman who kidnaps a child because she’s infertile and wants her own clearly has illegitimate custody over a child; but if she tries to raise the child like her own she’s acting more justly than say a kidnapper who takes a child to sell them into prostitution. With states, liberal democracies would be like the woman, states which are illegitimate but act relatively justly, and authoritarian dictatorships would be like the child trafficker, states which are still illegitimate but act more unjustly.

The philosophical anarchist point is that, commonsensically, a necessary condition for any authority to be considered legitimate to any degree is explicit consent from all participants, something which no state ever has (or possible could) attain. We could talk about degrees of legitimacy as the extent to which the authority then acts within the confines of what was consented too, or the degree to which the consent was informed, but to even be on the spectrum explicit consent is a prerequisite. For example, it’s interesting to ask to what degree of legitimacy Crider’s example of a localized monopoly defense insurance firm which everyone consented to contract with because the extent to which they really chose to consent with the authority is questionable. But if the firm told everyone in the territory to buy their services or potentially be killed, as a state does, it is useless to ask of its legitimacy.

Further, we have a moral presumption in favor of legitimate authorities. Even if the woman kidnapped a child from a home in which the parents were very neglectful and abusive of the children and proceeded to treat the child better, it very wrong to say that wanting the child to have “legitimate parents” is a “chimera.”

If it were the case that legitimately authorized anarchistic defense insurance firms are always more likely to act significantly more unjustly (as in not conforming to liberal values) than illegitimate states, than it would be true that chasing political legitimacy would be a chimera. Crider does provide an interesting argument for why we might think this:

It’s also worth asking how anarchy might cement current socioeconomic hierarchies into place. Let’s assume anarchy takes the form of a regime of Nozickian just transfers, where property rights among individuals are absolute, and justly acquired property can be freely transferred assuming no attendant rights violations. As Nozick himself acknowledged, the justice of such a regime would depend on the justice of the starting arrangement of property titles. Unless racial, gender, class, and other forms of injustice inherited from the past are dismantled at the same time, moving from statism to anarchy risks effectively legitimizing such social hierarchies. The rhetorical promise of anarchy would be equal freedom for all, and no future forced interactions or state-backed oppression would be permitted. Any inequalities that persisted in anarchy could easily grow in time to be seen as just the natural outcome of the market. Defense agencies, being private entities — perhaps explicitly chartered to maximize shareholder value — might feel justified in offering tiered levels of service according to actuarial data on the need for their services. Marginalized communities that are disproportionately impacted by crime and poverty might thus suffer further economic consequences for the very fact of their marginalization.

But of course, the same could all be said of democracies. What policies get majority favor in democracies is only a function of the cultural values which the society has. Consider that we’re back in the seventeenth century, and I’m a liberal advocating for democracy arguing with an sympathetic interlocular who favors monarchism.  The monarchist could’ve easily said this:

Unless racial, gender, class, and other forms of injustice inherited from the past are dismantled at the same time, moving to democracy risks legitimizing such social hierarchies. The rhetorical promise of democracy would be equal freedom for all, and no future interactions driven by the monarchy and his feudal courts would be permitted. Any inequalities that persisted in democracy could easily grow in time and be seen as just the ‘will of the people.’ Democratic statesmen aimed at maximizing their prospects to the polls might feel justified in treating minorities unequally before the law according to the polls of the demands of their constituents. Marginalized communities that are disproportionately impacted by crime and poverty might thus suffer further political consequences for the very fact of their marginalization.

And, of course, a lot of those predictions would’ve come into fruition; America maintained slavery for nearly a century after the start of the revolution, the American South maintained segregation for a century more which was often justified with reference to how whites in the south legitimately voted for segregationist policies, the criminalization of gay sex and banning of gay marriage were often justified with reference to the majority will of conservative states, and to this day unjust treatment of immigrants is justified because the voters voted for it.

Markets reflect the cultural framework in which they are embedded just as much as democracies do. To object to the idea that market anarchy could result in social inequality is not to object to market anarchy per se but the socio-cultural framework in which it would be embedded. The difference is that freed markets have a liberalizing tendency and so can help change the cultural values themselves, whereas democracy must lag behind the norms and values held by voters. Further, often times the coercive power of the state perpetuates these equalities and prevents minorities from fighting for equality (such as the behavior of cops towards African-American communities today, and the repression Civil Rights activists faced in the fifties and sixties).

Crider does implicitly recognize something along these lines when he writes this about how he doesn’t want to overstate his case; however my point is he needs to make a strong empirical claim he doesn’t want to make in order to show that “legitimacy is a chimera,” and hence has not shown that it is. Anarchists do not “pay outsized attention to the asymptotic realm of perfect legitimacy,” they are simply commonsensically treating state agents the same way we treat any other moral agents.