A Critique of Anarchism

Written on November 9, 2010. Written by .

Many people dismiss anarchism as a terrible idea without giving it a fair chance. I think this is because there is some misunderstanding about the meaning of “anarchy”. Anarchy does not automatically entail chaos as the popular connotation suggests. It also does not mean that there is no law enforcement. An anarchy is a political system in which many smaller governing agencies take the place of a monolithic government. These government agencies compete for customers who pay them fees for the service of protection. The idea is that this competition will drive the agencies towards optimization just as competition in the marketplace promotes efficiency in business. In this article I will discuss why my analysis suggests that anarchy is nevertheless undesirable.

A good place to begin this discussion is with real world examples. Of course there are brief instances of anarchy after the abrupt overthrow of a regime, but we will ignore these because such transient states can be avoided with more careful implementation. There are also nations that look like anarchies because there governments are doing such a bad job, but these are not true anarchies because the government is suppressing the growth of new governing agencies. Perhaps the best long-term examples of anarchy in recent history are feudal systems. Feudal lords essentially ran local governments that protected the people in a region. Of course, feudal systems have a rather negative image because the citizens were usually oppressed to the point of serfdom. But modern anarchy would probably not closely resemble these feudal systems. Feudal lords were able to abuse their subjects because they held an effective monopoly on the service of government, despite the fact that an anarchy has many governing service providers by definition. The reason is that in the past, it was more difficult to move and protection depended on fixed resources like city walls. So citizens could not easily switch to a new service provider and competing providers could not easily get started. Thus, feudalism might better be thought of as a bunch of non-anarchic monolithic governments inside an anarchic territory.

In modern times, transportation is much easier and protection can be implemented with guns, which means that two or more agencies can easily service the same location. So feudalism is not necessarily a good example of what we might expect of a modern anarchy. Since we are out of real-world examples, we need to start thinking and developing arguments from thought experiments.

First, we need to be sure that the target is well-defined or there won’t be a well-defined answer to the question of what system is best. Here is the scenario: you get to be dictator for 10 years and during this time you can mold government and society in any way that a dictator realistically could. For example, you can run a propaganda campaign, but you can’t make everyone buy into it. At the end of the 10 years, your power will be permanently and totally removed. Given this situation, in what state should you leave the country in order to maximize the average expected subjective life quality of its citizens over the next 1000 years. We will define that state to be “the ideal government system”, and our objective is to identify that system.

For the purposes of this article, we will limit ourselves to comparing anarchy with the current democratic republic of the United States. However, the comparison will be done in the context of seeking the above-defined ideal government system. Below is a list of arguments sorted by which side they favor and how strongly they favor it.

Strongly Pro-Anarchy


Moderately Anti-Anarchy

Strongly Anti-Anarchy

In conclusion, I have acknowledged certain benefits of anarchy, but the negatives are the overwhelmingly overriding factors. Therefore, I don’t think anarchy can qualify as the ideal government system as defined above since it cannot beat the system currently implemented in the US.

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2 Comments so far
  1. aspice January 10, 2011 4:12 am
  2. cspice January 10, 2011 7:12 pm

    Congratulations on the completion of your response! I can tell you’ve put a lot of work into it and I’m excited to proceed with the debate.

    First of all, we need to take a look at the scoreboard to put things in perspective. I presented 4 arguments against anarchism, two of which I deemed severe, and your response addresses just one of these four. The three concerns labeled “indecisive” were also unaddressed, leaving the possibility that those concerns are problematic for anarchism. So even if your argument were to successfully defuse the one concern addressed, the argument for anarchism would still be losing. Even defusing both severe concerns would be insufficient justification for anarchism as the moderately pro-anarachy arguments do not necessarily balance the moderately anti-anarchy arguments. Now let’s examine your argument. I’ve added bracketed numbers for reference.

    “[1] A voluntarist government that achieves natural monopoly would not be a legal monopoly and so would not stop anyone from forming a non-criminal agency, whether or not the founding principles are the same its own. [2] With such a government in existence, people all over the world who share these principles would have an option to move to that region. So instability towards monopolization is okay so long as some region is monopolized naturally with the right principles.”

    In point [1], there are two assumptions that do not cohere with reality. The first is that the government which achieves a monopoly will be voluntarist. In all historical examples in the history of this world, this has never been the case–and there are thousands of examples of governments forming regional monopolies. The second assumption is that a voluntarist government would remain voluntarist after achieving a monopoly. The incentives are against it, unless a highly sophisticated system of checks and balances is in play, which is improbable in a free-market crap-shoot. If either one of these two assumptions fails, then point [1] is lost.

    As for point [2], while it may be true in a theoretical sandbox, I think it neglects the practical considerations of reality. To illustrate, consider the fact that Antarctica has no government, so we are already in your ideal world and you have no cause to complain according to your own standards. But the fact that you are still unsatisfied betrays the fact that the option of moving to Antarctica confers little solace. In reality, people are tied to societies and lands through interpersonal relationships, jobs, mortgages, infrastructure, and access to goods, services, and natural resources. So even if we grant the dubious assumption that there will be a voluntarist region when the dust settles from anarchism, it will be of little practical value to those who don’t live nearby and can’t reasonably move, which may be the majority.

    About the second severe issue of defense you said: “I’m still learning about potential resolutions to the defense issue and other issues (see links below), but I’m optimistic about finding solutions.” In the context of this debate, your stance seems to translates to “I have faith that anarchism can handle the defense issue”, where “faith” refers to religious faith. You are (implicity) taking a stance against a straightforward logical argument without any logical counter-arguments. It appears that a rational judgement would contradict your stance. If so, this constitutes belief against reason, which is my definition of faith.

    Finally, I’d like to address the issue of the proposed scenario. I did not explain the intention before, which caused your interpretation to differ from my own. The intention of the dictatorship clause is to give maximal flexibility within the realm of possibility so as to exclude unrealistic options while including anything that is potentially realistic. It does not mean that you have to be a dictator. You can create any government system that a dictator could create and implement it without anyone known you were pulling the strings. The point is that being a dictator is in no way a constraint; reality is the only constraint. The reason we need such a clause is to prevent proposals like “first, convince everyone to voluntarily abstain from crime”, which is unrealistic.

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