Rational Evangelism Won’t Work

Anarcho-capitalists are faced with the problem of how to get from our current society to a stateless society. A common assumption many share is that large segments of the population must persuaded of the moral superiority of anarcho-capitalism or of it’s practical advantages. Bob Murphy takes this view in his article In Search of The AntiMarx:

"I think the only hope for a stateless society is a population committed to true voluntarism, that is, to absolute and total freedom."

In this view the primary task of anarcho-capitalists now is to convert the masses, to persuade them to adopt certain moral or philosophical foundations of anarcho-capitalism.

Short of force, there are two primary ways by which one might seek to persuade people. Many people can often be persuaded by rhetoric regardless of the validity of the proposition under consideration. Murphy expresses a certain admiration for Karl Marx’s ability to persuade, even though he recognizes Marx’s arguments as invalid. Murphy is enthusiastic about packaging an a anarcho-capitalist message using rhetorical techniques and methods similar to those employed by Marx. He’s also enthusiastic about the prospect of a charismatic anarcho-capitalist leader.

Can people be persuaded by such methods? Sure. But in Marketing Market Anarchism I explain why I think this kind of persuasion is of no real value to anarcho-capitalists.

The other way to persuade people is by valid rational argument. With some individuals we see this work wonderfully well. If anarcho-capitalism has a valid basis then valid arguments for it can be made. So all that needs to be done is to get all of these valid arguments into the marketplace of ideas and hammer away with them until the masses see the light of reason?

Would it were so.

I call this second approach rational evangelism. It won’t work either. The very fact that large masses of people have routinely accepted invalid arguments on the basis of clever rhetoric or the attraction of charismatic leaders ought to make one extremely skeptical about the efficacy of rational evangelism. Part of the problem is that most people are not sufficiently competent at reasoning to fully apprehend a valid argument of significant complexity. But all men by nature have a rational faculty and a very large part of the problem stems from the fact that they are to a large degree responding quite rationally to the simple choices before them.

How can rational choices lead to undesirable results like the continued expansion of government? The Prisoner’s Dilemma illustrates how this can happen. Principia Cybernetic Web explains the Prisoner’s Dilemma:

"The game got its name from the following hypothetical situation: imagine two criminals arrested under the suspicion of having committed a crime together. However, the police does not have sufficient proof in order to have them convicted. The two prisoners are isolated from each other, and the police visit each of them and offer a deal: the one who offers evidence against the other one will be freed. If none of them accepts the offer, they are in fact cooperating against the police, and both of them will get only a small punishment because of lack of proof. They both gain. However, if one of them betrays the other one, by confessing to the police, the defector will gain more, since he is freed; the one who remained silent, on the other hand, will receive the full punishment, since he did not help the police, and there is sufficient proof. If both betray, both will be punished, but less severely than if they had refused to talk. The dilemma resides in the fact that each prisoner has a choice between only two options, but cannot make a good decision without knowing what the other one will do."

It turns out that because of the incentive structure it’s in neither prisoner’s self interest to cooperate with the other prisoner against the police. Prisoner A considers what prisoner B will do. If B chooses to cooperate with A and not implicate him then A is better off if he implicates B, since A will go free. If B chooses to defect and implicate A then A is better off implicating B since then A will avoid the harshest punishment. So whatever B does it is in A’s interest to defect and implicate B. When prisoner B consider’s what A will do he’s faced with exactly the same situation, whatever A does it’s in B’s self interest to defect and implicate A. So if both A and B act out of rational self interest with respect to the incentives in place each will defect and implicate the other. And they’ll both receive a moderate sentence.

But anyone can see that A and B would both do better if they cooperated and refused to implicate each other because they would both get off with a lighter sentence. If you got to choose the action for both of them the best thing to do would be to have them cooperate with each other but each individual only gets to choose his own action.

In a sense we are all prisoners of government. Individually we can choose to cooperate with each other to dissolve government, or we can choose to defect and wield government against others. We’d be best off if everyone cooperated but we each only get to choose for ourselves. The incentive structure government provides is such that defectors can enrich themselves at the expense of those around them by wielding government. Or they can seek to protect themselves from other defectors by wielding government. Those who cooperate against government and decline to wield it are effectively at the mercy of those who do choose to wield it. This is why individuals overwhelmingly choose to defect and wield government.

Go back to the original Prisoner’s Dilemma to understand why rational evangelism won’t work. If you’re prisoner A and you understand the situation you can easily explain to B why it’s in your common interest to cooperate. You can even convince him because your argument is entirely valid – you’ll both do better if you cooperate. But you haven’t changed the situation a bit, you’re both still individually better off defecting regardless of what the other prisoner does. In the game where we’re all prisoners of government the overwhelming majority will consistently choose to defect, out of rational self interest, regardless of valid arguments for voluntary cooperation against government because the individual doesn’t get to choose for everyone, he only gets to choose for himself.

So how can we win this game?

We can’t.

We need to change the rules, we need another game.

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