Why I Am Not An Anarchist

Anarchy, that is the absence of rulers (not rules!), is a very attractive institutional arrangement. It would be the ultimate state of freedom for humanity.  I have many friends and there are many intellectuals I respect who are anarchists, and I am highly sympathetic to their cause.  However, I am not an anarchist for the simple reason of property rights.  Property rights, which are the key to exchange and prosperity, cannot exist in anarchy.

A property right is an enforceable claim.  This means the claim must be 1) legitimate and 2) enforceable.  If, for example, I claim I am the rightful heir to the throne of the Roman Empire (in other words, the throne and all its rights are my property), and I can prove it somehow, the claim is not a valid property right.  It is unenforceable since the Roman Empire doesn’t exist any more.

In anarchy, how would rights be legitimized and enforced?  A standard answer is through agreements: I build my home on a plot of land, you build your home on a neighboring plot, and we both agree where our boundaries will lie.  An outside arbitrator can resolve any disputes (provided both parties accept the legitimacy of the arbitrator).

That’s all well and good, but what about competing claims?  Let’s go back to our earlier example.  You and I have our separate agreements.  Unbeknownst to us, another neighbor is concluding an agreement with a person which gives him a title to land which encapsulates elements of our lands.  Naturally, this would lead to some kind of conflict, which will revolve around the answer to the question: whose claim is legitimate?  Is our claim legitimate because we concluded our agreement first?  Is our neighbor’s claim legitimate because her family has hunted on that land for generations?  It’s a tricky question with no right answer.  The situation may be able to be resolved with an agreement (like before) but it provides us no clear answer on what a legitimate claim is.  In fact, since any two claims would need to go to some kind of arbitration, a person could easily game the system: with no clear delineation of what makes a title legitimate, a person could claim rights for all kinds of things and, when challenged, leave with some kind of payment, whether or not he had a reasonable claim in the first place.  I strongly suspect such a system would lead to anarchy without rules.

Without some kind of uniform understanding of property titles (what makes a claim legitimate), property rights aren’t worth anything.  There needs to be some uniform standard, agreed upon by all*, that determines who owns what and documents such claims (to prevent fraud and make it easy for newcomers to see ownership).  Furthermore, to prevent defection or gaming, this standard would need to be enforced.  Whatever body develops and enforces these titles is, in a literal sense of the word, a government; they govern property rights.

At this point, I want to be perfectly clear: I am not arguing property rights originate with a government.  In our above example, we see the rights originate from natural use (hunting) or from contract between two people.  In other words, property rights derive from natural use of the property (the use of its resources), or from contractional use.  Neither of these were created by the state, simply legitimized and enforced according to the will of the participants.

Property rights are a deep and confusing issue spanning multiple disciplines: economics, law, political sciences, history.  The writings in this post will not, indeed should not, be accepted by everybody.  This is merely my explanation on why I am not an anarchist.

*When I say “agreed upon by all,” I am using the phrase in the Rousseau/Buchanan sense: members of a group are presumed to agree to the conditions under which they live so long as they 1) have freedom of movement and 2) dwell within its borders.

12 thoughts on “Why I Am Not An Anarchist

  1. Jon

    Great post on a great subject. Let me throw out some of my own thoughts on the subject, and some things for you to consider. I assume you are concerned primarily in property rights in land, so I will limit my discussion to that issue.

    I am a firm believer in inalienable natural rights which are negative, and absolute self ownership of one’s own body, and one’s own labor, thus the fruits of one’s own labor. Pretty straight forward Lockean stuff. The old homesteading, ‘mixing with labor’ principle.

    I’m not sure how a truly absolute “legitimate” claim to land can ever be established even today, as most land has at one time or another, been taken from others by force. In the US, even with chains of title and transfers thoroughly established and recorded, there is some point in the past where ownership becomes uncertain. We know that at one time much of the land we now claim to own in the US was taken from Native Americans. Of course groups of Native Americans over the millennia have also pushed other groups around, so there’s no clear title chain from original acquisition until today.

    I think the best we can do is to call title legitimate these days is through possession, a title of some sort, and the absence of a superior claim by another party.

    That said, I think you would find, in the absence of the various levels of monopoly government that exist now, systems in place very similar to what we see now. Keep in mind that most title systems and dispute resolution systems we use today originated with the grassroots cooperation of groups of people with a need for such methods of establishing and enforcing property rights, not from the state. There is no reason to believe the state is necessary to enforce property rights.

    Jon, I disagree with your Rousseau/Buchanan notion of “agreed by all. Imagine I and my street gang claim to control some area that includes your house, and we demand protection money. Would you say that you agreed to such an arrangement because you lived within the borders we had established, and you were free to move about?

    In a recent discussion about money with Greg G. at CD – that I can’t find right now – this very question arose as a side issue. The Yap people who lived on an island used an unusual money system of large stones. This island was at that time a German colony, which meant German officials of some unknown capacity could and did push these people around and essentially confiscated their money to coerce them to take various actions. Someone calling themselves the German government had recently purchased this island (and its people, I guess) from some other people calling themselves the Spanish Government.

    Would you say this arrangement was “agreed by all” of the Yap people because they lived within the border and had freedom of movement? I don’t think so.

    I will address your ” I build my home on a plot of land, you build your home on a neighboring plot …” problem later.


    • Allow me to address just a few of your points:

      1) Land was just an example. I am concerned about all property.

      2) The full quote from Rosseau is:

      “There is but one law which, from its nature, needs unanimous consent. This is the social compact; for civil association is the most voluntary of all acts. Every man being born free and his own master, no one, under any pretext whatsoever, can make any man subject without his consent…

      Footnote:This should of course be understood as applying to a free State; for elsewhere family, goods, lack of a refuge, necessity, or violence may detain a man in a country against his will; and then his dwelling there no longer by itself implies his consent to the contract or to its violation.” (Du C.S., Book IV, Chapter 2)

      In your example, there is no unanimous consent. Therefore, it cannot be said to be legitimate law, QED.


      • Thanks Jon

        1) Good. I don’t consider land something entirely different with respect to property rights.

        2) I have seen this before but I apparently didn’t consider it carefully enough. I agree 100% with what you’ve quoted, as taken literally, but unlike Rousseau, I don’t believe consent can be implied if a person is capable of giving consent voluntarily through some positive action like signing a contract. (it may be assumed that an unconscious injured person consents to treatment, absent any indication to the contrary.)

        The footnote explains some of the reasons why consent can not be implied.

        In your example, there is no unanimous consent. Therefore, it cannot be said to be legitimate law, QED.

        Exactly. That example is very clear, but I believe the same principle would apply if some group of YAP people had asserted control by calling themselves “The Government” without unanimous positive consent.

        At no time in US (perhaps world) history has there been unanimous consent to any government we know of.

        In your original example, you’re right hat there is no correct answer based in the information we have, but If I may provide some hypothetical background for your hypothetical, I will suggest a timeline of events that might have prevented the problem:

        If I understand it correctly property owner #3 had been on the land since ancestral times, and would have/should have granted you and me permission to claim our titles to land before we could legitimately do so, if owner #3 could be found, that is. It is incumbent on us to determine to the best of our ability that property is not in use by others before staking a homestead claim. We would look for signs of human use and search the area for other people why might have a prior claim.

        Finding someone who claimed the land as a hunting ground, we would ask permission to buy or otherwise acquire the land, just as someone has more recently done with owner # 3, which has create the conflicting claim.

        Having acquired the land legitimately from owner # 3, or finding no owner #3 after due diligence, we have legitimate claims, and the new buyer from #3 does not. Hopefully we have a record of the transfer of title, acknowledged at the time by #3. as proof against later claims. Absent our legitimate claims, owner #3 maintains ownership and may dispose of it as he sees fit.

        What do you think? I know it’s your story, so you can place whatever conditions on it you wish, but what I’ve described sounds close to what I think might actually occur in reality. We are, of course, ignoring the far more common practice of taking by force. The qualifier ‘legitimate’ applies here, which disallows the use of force.

        If you have a few minutes to spare you might find <a href="Michael Huemer's "The Problem Of Political Authority" interesting. Chapter 2 deals with the issue of consent.


  2. I am not an anarchist either. The main problems are that people are contentious, and the written word tends to be ambiguous. That is why so many agreements are litigated as to the meaning of the written contract and any side understandings that the parties may have had. In general it comes down to what is written within the four corners of the documents, except where when ambiguous language is used. Raffles v Wichelhaus [1864] EWHC Exch J19 is a leading case on mutual mistake in English contract law. One could argue that these disagreements can be resolved through mediation and/or arbitration. However, mediators do not make final decisions so if the parties continue to disagree, then the issue does not get resolved. And, if many cases, binding decisions by arbitrators are rejected by one or both parties, which means it is necessary for government to get involved.


  3. Maybe I scanned your essay too quickly but your arguments seem to focus on the need to defend property rights. Not who shall do so.
    Why does that service have to be a monopoly on the legal use of threat of coercion? Why can’t competing agencies also be legal users of force? I’m not suggesting that a free market can do it better. I’m sure socialized space race and military is more efficient too, but it is possible to do those thing without supreme force. Why that is important has to do with trusting the very same institution to limit its own power.


  4. From Merriam Webster:

    Simple Definition of Anarchy: a situation of confusion and wild behavior in which the people in a country, group, organization, etc., are not controlled by rules or laws

    Full Definition of anarchy
    1a : absence of government
    b : a state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority
    c : a utopian society of individuals who enjoy complete freedom without government
    2a : absence or denial of any authority or established order
    b : absence of order : disorder

    Jon, I assume you mean “a utopian society of individuals who enjoy complete freedom without government” as your definition for anarchy. If so, then all the “rules” must be created by individuals acting voluntarily through various agreements. What happens if someone disputes a contract provision in a previously-made agreement? Do you have a kritarchy or some type of court system? If you do, then haven’t you established government?


  5. Jon,

    Whether or not you have government or anarchy, not everyone will voluntarily chose to respect your understanding of property rights. So you are correct in pointing out that anyone who believes in property rights cannot rule out the legitimacy of coercion in some cases.

    Protecting property rights is undoubtedly the most widely agreed on justification for government coercion. But of course once you have admitted that your judgment tells you that purpose is legitimate to justify government coercion, you have opened the door for the argument that other purposes might be legitimate as well.

    As Ron points out, legitimate chain of custody can often be problematic with some types of property so we tend to accept current ownership as legitimate for reasons that are more pragmatic than philosophically pristine.

    As Greg Webb points out, even among people who believe quite fervently in the legitimacy of private property, disputes are commonplace and settling them means someone enforcing a result that coerces someone else.

    Jon, I am especially interested in how you defend your belief that government should provide a minimum basic income. I personally have no problem with government levying taxes to provide a social safety net but I don’t see how you reconcile this with your libertarian principles.


    • “. . . you have opened the door for the argument that other purposes might be legitimate as well.”

      No. That is the false dichotomy of all or nothing. Both would be wrong. All institutions are limited to certain legitimate functions. Should a church engage in law enforcement just because its member authorize the collection of tithes, the purchase of buildings, the hiring of employees, etc.? No. The same with government. It has certain legitimate functions and should be limited accordingly.


    • Greg G.

      Whether or not you have government or anarchy …

      It might be useful to differentiate between government that is forced on people from the top down against their will, and voluntary government which is an association of like-minded individuals who join together for a common purpose and mutual benefit. They are very different things. I don’t see that anarchy in any way limit voluntary associations of people who consent through some positive action, perhaps by signing a contract.

      This is the ‘bowling league’ type of government that I frequently refer to, that you don’t seem to care for very much.

      … not everyone will voluntarily chose to respect your understanding of property rights.

      That’s absolutely correct. Various groups of people including states and every other imaginable form of government have frequently and regularly invaded each other’s property rights throughout history. That’s why people band together to form compacts for mutual defense.

      So you are correct in pointing out that anyone who believes in property rights cannot rule out the legitimacy of coercion in some cases.

      Correct. Violence is always permitted in defense of one’s self and one’s property including violence by groups of individuals in common defense.

      The monopoly state isn’t required for mutual defense, and is no guarantee that a monolithic defense will be successful.

      Recall that during WW2 the German army marched straight to Paris within about a month, attacking and occupying that city. By controlling Paris, the the German army essentially controlled politically the entire country of France. A more decentralized form of government, such as the one in Switzerland which was never attacked by Germans, would have proved a much more daunting task. Well, that and the universally armed Swiss citizenry and the difficult terrain.


    • Greg G.

      I’m also looking forward to Jon’s explanation of a Universal Minimum Basic Income.

      I personally don’t believe a UBI would succeed in reducing poverty overall and improving the well being of truly needy people.. Incentives matter, and based on my experience of human nature, a minimum income of any useful amount would reduce incentives to work, although a single, simple system like UBI would certainly be cheaper and easier to administer.

      If other programs are eliminated because everyone has a basic income, one has to wonder what to tell a crack addicted teenage single mother with two small children when she is broke by the middle of the month and has no means of supporting herself or her children before her next payday on the 1st of the next month.

      The reasons WHY some people are desperately poor and unable to support themselves don’t go away when they have money. There is no amount of basic income that will make those problems go away.

      And as always I reject any form of forced redistribution for any reason.


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