American University September 7

“Can Capitalism Save Poor Countries?”

4 Responses to “American University September 7”

  1. Hi Tom,

    I have a couple of general questions for you which I’ve not received a satisfactory answer to regarding anarcho-capitalism. Fyi, I’m a libertarian ‘min-stater’, and think of myself as a classic liberal.

    1. Given that a “stateless” society relies solely on emergent order, it seems to me that anarchy cannot make a certain claim that liberty in the way we think of it as liberals will emerge. I think the best thing you can say, given my understanding of emergent orders, is that it might occur, and even if it did, it would be unlikely to emerge in a universal way for all people. This seems to me to be in conflict with my, and it would seem your, liberal values. Does this coincide with your understanding of emergent order? Fyi, I don’t subscribe the magical idea of natural rights, I think I’m aligned with Hayek on this.

    2. Most anarchists I’ve listened to characterize the state as inexorably encroaching on our liberties and that our attempts to limit it cannot work. However, I see for example in China and the former Soviet states that the state has been rolled back in real ways (and not so in many ways). I’m no historian and will certainly and gladly defer to your much greater grasp of history, but I assume there are other examples as well. Is it possible, in your view, to limit government to protecting negative rights and a few, well defined public goods (national defense, law enforcement, public health)? It seems to me that in the west, our government’s growth has come on the heels of political philosophies such as Progressivism or Socialism, rather than some unseen force that drives govt to grow beyond the limits we try to put on them.

    Let me close by saying that I terribly appreciate your vast and well formed intellect, and your work ‘on the ground’ to promote liberty. I’m just some guy out here trying to figure out a philosophical approach that makes sense to me, and I would greatly appreciate any feedback you might have on my questions.



  2. Tom Palmer

    I apologize for not having gotten to this!

    Here are some thoughts:

    1. It is hardly inevitable that liberty will emerge from statelessness, but it is also hardly inevitable that liberty will emerge from state-governed societies. There is no magic in the world.

    2. I also do not believe that it is inevitable that states expand. Sometimes they do and sometimes they contract. It depends on a multitude of factors, including the work of liberals to restrain state power.

    I addressed some of those issues here:

    I hope that that helps! Drop me a note if you’d like to discuss it further.

  3. Tom,

    Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply. In response to the first part, your answer is a bit of a straw man. In a society in which law exists that entitles one to own property it is possible to seek restitution if that right is violated, whereas in a stateless society there may never be an enforceable right in the first place. In other words I’m comparing the morality of intentionally creating societies that one can’t reasonably say will protect rights at all to the creation of one that has been designed to do so. In fact anarchy could just as readily give rise to a world in which none of our liberties even exist. A classical liberal state will never be able to do that.

    You collapse a critique of the state in that part of your answer, as you do in much of the link you directed me to. This is mostly what I hear from anarchists and intellectually, it’s quite unsatisfying. The observation on all the other “laws” you follow voluntarily also strikes me as quite weak as in fact, the examples you cite aren’t laws. Just because we have many traditional and tacit moral/ethical/trading arrangements with each other that are not codified, that doesn’t mean basic, inalienable rights that are always and everywhere enforceable would yield to the same arrangement. It’s entirely possible that voluntary and non-codified “laws” work very well in some settings and that state enforced work in others. The fact that the voluntary ones work well doesn’t diminish the others. Also, I think that many “voluntary” arrangements between people often are based within the rights and laws already existing, at times building or counting on them so they aren’t mutually exclusive either.

    The substantive argument against the state in what you attached seems to be the monopoly argument. But even that I see as a bit of an anarchic tautology as I in no way insist that only voluntary or free market mechanisms are suitable to all circumstances. In fact, it’s my knowledge of free markets and voluntary relations that makes me certain that it is not a viable way to deliver inalienable rights in the first place. Your critique seems to assume that, a priori, a monopoly is something I should object to, but that would only obtain if I agreed to the anarchic idea of non-initiation of force, and the attendant ‘free market’ of everything that I don’t subscribe to in the first place.

    None of the above should suggest that I don’t find the criticisms of the state emanating from your writings compelling, I just think they are much better taken as warnings to limit govt via the ideas and actions of classical liberals versus justification for destroying that which gave us rights in the first place.

    Again, thanks for responding and I remain your dedicated admirer.


    Glenn Donovan

  4. Tom Palmer

    Dear Glenn,

    Thoughtful comments. Here are some responses.

    1. “Classical liberal states” have, in fact, been corrupted and turned into non-classical liberal states. (I’m speaking in relative terms, of course, but if one argues that only a “purely liberal state” is in question, and one has never existed, then one can’t really say anything about it, either.) Republics decay. Institutions fail. There is no guarantee that a limited government will remain limited. We can do our best, but there are no guarantees that one will succeed. There are no guarantees that states of any sort will always be just; one can’t define the problem away by saying that one is addressing only just states and, by definition, they are just.

    I’m not sure what an “intentionally created society” is. We form lots of societies intentionally, but social order as such is a different matter.

    I suspect that you have an overly narrow understanding of law. It’s not merely what the state enforces, nor even what is just. (Justice and law are connected, but they aren’t always the same thing, under any sophisticated understanding. I recommend reading Heinrich von Kleist’s short novel, “Michael Kohlhaas,” brilliantly put into film form as “The Jack Bull.” Lon Fuller’s definition of law as “the enterprise of subjecting human conduct to the governance of rules” is, I think, a far more useful conception of law. Law need not be codified, as you note. I’m not saying that all stateless societies are superior to all societies governed by states; far from it. What I’m saying is that, statelessness is possible and it is possible for a stateless system that is compatible with social order and liberty; other things being equal (having a system of property and law), statelessness is likely to be better, as one could expect better service where there is no monopoly provider of legal services because of the right of exit. (We already have a substantial degree of generation of law, legal order, and even enforcement by non-state actors.)

    I’m not sure why you invoke inalienable rights, rather than rights generally. I defend my rights, both alienable and inalienable, in a variety of ways. I’m armed, I know how to defend myself, and I am alive because of it. I didn’t wait for the state to come and take photos of my dead body. In fact, we defend our rights all the time without resorting to the state, sometimes through threats of retaliation, but far more often by using locks, keys, and other techniques to secure what is our own. Moreover, I don’t require others to agree to my behavior before I defend myself. There is no need to invoke “agreement to be punished or acted against” in order for retaliatory force to be justified. That said, there are legal rules governing retaliatory force; most of them emerged from legal traditions deriving from common sense, and not from conscious legislative deliberations.

    Your conclusion is, I think, very wise. I prefer limited to unlimited states. I think that it’s possible to live without the state, but it doesn’t follow that living without the state by itself makes good outcomes more likely. What we need is law and liberty, and I think that the evidence is very strong that one can enjoy law without the state. As Adam of Bremen said after visiting the Icelanders, “In Iceland there is no King but the Law.”

    Since you’re very interested in these issues, I highly recommend some books of legal history. The topic is great fun and it helps to understand legal processes and the search for justice as something other than a procedure that people engage in around a philosophy lounge or in a political/deliberative body. One of the best books I’ve ever read is Harold Berman’s “Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition.” It’s wide ranging, insightful, serious minded, and enormously entertaining.

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