The Anarchist’s Dilemma

John Kennedy’s got a few
things going for him. He can write, he can argue, he has a catchy website (updated
semiannually), and let’s face it: he’s
one handsome man.

But in his latest two articles, Mr. Kennedy has outdone himself. First, he coins
the excellent term market anarchism.* Like Jeremy Sapienza, I defy intellectual
property rights when convenient, and so will henceforth use this term instead of the
awkward and geeky anarcho-capitalism. (The term never even made sense: a capitalist
isn’t one who studies or endorses capitalism.)

More important, however, is the milestone
Kennedy has reached: His are the first articles ever, devoted entirely to the ideas of me,
Bob Murphy. Whatever the flaws in his reasoning (and there are many—see below),
history will look kindly upon John Kennedy.

(In contrast, Jonah Goldberg—who
referred to me in e-print as a "no-talent ass clown," in a move comparable to
his estimation of Al Qaeda strength on September 10—will be dealt a much harsher

* * *

Kennedy’s articles are a response to In Search of the Antimarx, in
which I argued that "the only hope for a stateless society is a population committed
to true voluntarism." I think people may have misunderstood me, so let me elaborate.

Let’s say we’re in a stateless
society. If the vast majority of people saw nothing wrong in (re)establishing a democratic
government, then it would happen. This is almost a tautology, under present circumstances.
(If the vast majority of people see nothing wrong with abortion, then it will occur,
regardless of whatever incentive mechanisms may be in place.) In fact, if a terrorist
attack were to plunge society into an anarchic Mad Max world, I have little doubt that a
government would be one of the first things the survivors would build. (Look how
naturally Stephen King drifted into it in The Stand. It didn’t even occur to
him that a laissez-faire system might work.)

Few people realize how crucial widespread, voluntary
respect of others’ property is for social order. No amount of police would save
society if most people didn’t believe theft and murder were unacceptable. Now, what
we as evangelical market anarchists need to do is convince
people that their intuitive opinion of theft and murder is still valid when it is
government officials doing the stealing and killing. If we are successful, we will then
have our "only hope" for a stable stateless society: a population committed to
true voluntarism.

John Kennedy (melodramatically) objects to
this analysis: "Frankly I would despair if I thought this were true. And anyway, if
such a population were so committed to freedom there wouldn’t be much reason to worry
about limited government because it would work."

Ironically, it is exactly this mindset that
the rational evangelist will have to overcome if he is to succeed in proselytizing
potential market anarchists. If a limited government were in place, then the population
couldn’t be very committed to freedom, now could they? This is precisely our mission:
We have to shake people free of the notion that a minimal state wouldn’t be so bad.
It’s suicidal to rely on government monopolies to provide food, and it’s almost
as foolhardy to allow government police and military to monopolize our security.

(To the extent that Kennedy just means that
a noble population would at least keep their government to a tolerable size, he’s
simply wrong. Look at what happened to the United States. The Founding Fathers were some
amazing and honorable individuals. But since they allowed for an institution of official
violence, their scheme was bound to degenerate as it historically did.)

My original remarks apparently misled
Kennedy to believe that I rested my hopes on a new Anarchist Man, far more virtuous than
man in his present nature. This isn’t correct. As I have written elsewhere
(in response to a Charley Reese caricature), "Libertarianism simply says: Given any
level of morality, a society will function less smoothly if shackled by government.
The more moral the populace, the better, but this is a different matter altogether."

In order to drive home the point that
anarchy doesn’t require perfect people, Kennedy quotes extensively from David
Friedman, who writes:

An ideal objectivist society with a limited
government is superior to an anarcho-capitalist [What a geek! –BM] society in
precisely the same sense that an ideal socialist society is superior to a capitalist
society. Socialism does better with perfect people than capitalism does with imperfect
people; limited government does better with perfect people than anarcho-capitalism with
imperfect. And it is better to wear a bikini with the sun shining than a raincoat when it
is raining. That is no argument against carrying an umbrella.

Even putting aside his apparent endorsement
of cross-dressing, we see that Friedman commits a serious error in this analysis. Like
many mainstream economists, he assumes that the only problem with socialism (or government
in general) is that it provides the wrong incentives for people.

Friedman overlooks the much more
fundamental problem, articulated by Ludwig von Mises and later Friedrich Hayek, that
without private ownership of capital goods, socialist planners would lack the market
prices needed to calculate the profitability of possible production plans. Even if they
were angels, the socialist rulers would not know the "optimal"
goods and services to produce. This general problem is true in the specific case of police
and military defense, and so a limited government wouldn’t be "perfect"
even with perfectly virtuous citizens.

* * *

Unfortunately, Kennedy shares David
Friedman’s fascination with incentives, and devotes much of his time explaining the
mechanics of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which rational individuals acting in their
self-interest reach an undesirable (and avoidable) outcome. Kennedy applies the
Prisoner’s Dilemma framework to our current situation:’

Go back to the original Prisoner’s
Dilemma to understand why rational evangelism [for market anarchism] 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….But you haven’t changed the
situation a bit, you’re both still individually better off defecting….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….’

At this point, let us pause to point out a
certain irony in Kennedy’s position. In his articles, he chides my admiration of Karl
Marx’s rhetorical brilliance, since Kennedy would never stoop to cheap parlor tricks
in the great debate over government. Yet here he apparently uses one of Marx’s most
celebrated ploys. According to Marx, the bourgeoisie would resist the communist paradise,
even though it was in everyone’s interest, because their class membership prevented
them from seeing the truth as only the proletariat could. Yet Marx, himself bourgeois, was
mysteriously exempt from this "law" of history.

In a similar manner, Kennedy argues that it
is rational for everyone to endorse government. Yet Kennedy exempts himself from the
implications of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. But unlike Marx, who implicitly condemned the
bourgeois logic as faulty, Kennedy is not claiming that widespread stupidity enables
government; he is claiming that people correctly choose government (in the present
system). What implications this has for Kennedy’s opinion of his own rationality we
leave to the reader.

* * *

Is all hope lost? No. Kennedy writes,
"So how can we win this game? We can’t. We need to change the rules, we need
another game."

This seems to contradict his analysis from
the previous section. If we can’t convince people to stop using government, how can
we convince them to abolish it? It’s true, if everyone agreed to "change
the rules," we’d all be better off, but any individual agreement won’t bind
anyone else. Kennedy’s own logic would therefore dictate that the overwhelming
majority will rationally choose to keep the rules just as they are.

Of course, we all know what Kennedy is
driving at. Rather than argue with people on a principled, abstract level about the sins
of government action, he wants us to encourage people to opt out of the system. Show them
the techniques of successful tax evasion and encryption, not the natural law view of

But this is entirely compatible with my
philosophy, and contradicts nothing in my articles praising evangelism. I certainly
encourage people to commit acts of (nonviolent) civil disobedience; I don’t think the
transition to anarchy needs to be "lawful."

However, Kennedy fails to realize that
people won’t let the State wither away out of sheer selfishness. Even the
typical tax cheat thinks taxes "need" to be paid. Until we can be sure our
neighbors won’t report us to "the authorities," market anarchists have to
be completely above-board.

In conclusion, we must change people’s
minds, just as Kennedy’s has been changed. The dry, intellectual case for market
anarchism has been made; it has convinced people like Kennedy and me. Now it remains for
other, more creative individuals—and above all a genius whom I have dubbed the
Antimarx—to spread the truth to the masses.

Now, to communicate this truth, we
mustn’t shy away from "packaging." Kennedy acknowledges this strategy when
he uses funny appellations for me, or quotes David Friedman on bikinis. There is nothing
wrong with entertainment, and evangelists of market anarchism could take pointers from
their enemies.

* However, Kennedy admits that he may have
been influenced by this punchy piece.
(Rothbard fans, you are forewarned.)

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