Waylaid Dialectic

December 22, 2012

Un-anarchist Chris

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 5:39 pm

Chris Blattman wonders why, when he finds both anarchist and libertarian ideas so appealing, he’s still a centrist.

I suspect it has something to do with reality. And him being at least remotely connected to it.

It’s easy to see the appeal of libertarian socialism (anarchism) and right wing libertarianism as *theories*. They have suitably flawed villains (the state: boo hiss) and equally charming heroes: individuals who are either naturally cooperative or rational decision makers. And, as stories that merely require a villain, the state, to be vanquished (or severely diminished) before a better natural order arises they don’t necessitate long tedious discussions about alternate structures.

Right wing libertarianism has an additional appeal if you’re a wealthy adherent: a pleasant little fairy tale which sees the same process through which you become wealthier (lower taxes! less government!) save the world. Splendid.

Better still, they’ve neither anarchism nor libertarianism has been fully put into practice on a large scale anywhere for long periods of time, so their opponents can’t point to dismal failures in arguments.

Like I said, it’s easy to see the appeal, yet  both ideologies face a simple problem: they almost certainly wouldn’t produce welfare enhancing changes in the real world.

In the case of anarchism (no state; consensual collective decision making, no private property) the problem is as such: trade over large geographical areas and specialisation play a massive role in enhancing the quality of life we experience (if you don’t believe me try making a fridge or a radio or antibiotics, or try finding someone in your suburb who can do this). We are all considerably wealthier and better off for being able to focus our labours on specific tasks and trading with others to obtain the other items we need. Why’s this a problem for anarchist? Because trade works better with rules; it requires contracts to be enforced and defaulters punished; and for that you need a state – something that structures and facilitates collective action on a large scale. It’s not just trade either: the transmission of knowledge, the operation of social services, all of these work better across scales larger than could be governed by some sort of consensus based collective. It’s true that states bring with them the inevitability of quite large scale injustices and the potential for tyranny. And it’s also true that not all states afford better lives than those that could be lived in small very egalitarian consensual communities; and that for much of history, including up until the point when early modern anarchists started writing, one could have plausibly make the case that states did more harm than good. But this clearly isn’t true now. We need better states and there are quite possibly lessons from anarchism in how we might best dehierarchialise power but I don’t think it can plausibly be claimed that anarchism as an ideology brings with it much development potential.

Libertarianism – an ideology that espouses a minimal state which enforces property rights and contracts and not much else – has similar fundamental flaws. Flaws that leap out of any first year economics textbook: rational participants, operating with perfect information, in a world free of externalities and coercion, amidst perfect competition, and in possession of sufficient resources to see their revealed preferences equalling their actual preferences might be able to aggregate their choices into socially optimal outcomes, but seeing as none of these conditions exist on Earth, what we’re talking about here is,  as a prescription for how society should be run, mumbo jumbo.

More sophisticated libertarians might argue that while the conditions for their utopia don’t exist, what they have to offer is, owing to collective action being so fraught, better than any other alternative. The trouble is you only have to look to Sweden to see that this is unlikely to be the truth. It turns out that well-functioning states, in practice, do a lot of good, and it is very hard to see how, given the problems of externalities and market failures to name just two, their near elimination would lead to an improvement. It’s true that Sweden isn’t everywhere and in very low capacity states we should be wary of asking the state to do too much. But given that markets are only about as good as the institutions they are amongst we should also be wary of those who claim, hand wave, hand wave, that there’s a market based solution just waiting to solve the problem of X in country Y.

I’m not a centrist. I’m a left-liberal: I believe that we hairless apes need to be engaging in more collective action to aid the least well off in our societies and to tackle problems such as climate change. And although I’ve got no time for libertarianism I do appreciate that the problems of collective action, information and efficient allocation mean that we do need to leave quite a lot to markets. And likewise, although I’m no big fan of anarchism, given the obscenities of global inequality and the fact that my own proposed solutions are only least worst ones, I am interested in ideas coming from the radical left because I hope somewhere amongst their thinking there’s a blueprint for a better world than any I could dream up. But I’m also very doubtful that our complicated world can be made better by simple solutions or simple ideologies no matter how tidy they might seem on paper.

Have a nice Christmas.


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