Arnold Kling  

Confusion in Political Theory

Digging Out the Fundamental Di... Sociologists' Self-Criticism...

Now Bryan writes,

statements like "To break a warlord equilibrium, you need government" only confuse us.

I agree. I cannot think of any examples of societies that were stuck in a warlord equilibrium and then suddenly said, "Let's sit down and write a Constitution and all submit to the rule of law."

There is a tremendous amount of path dependence in political systems. See also Tyler Cowen's post on culture, where he points to the importance of priors, beliefs, peers, and stories.

It is confusing to talk about "breaking a warlord equilibrium," because that is not how governmental systems emerge. Similarly, I think it is confusing to talk about anarcho-capitalism--or any other political or economic system--as if we could just sit down one day with an institutional blank slate and adopt any system that comes to mind.

Government is not going to disappear in a flash. Trying to talk about what would or would not happen if it were to disappear in a flash is bound to be confusing.

I think that Bryan and I will have to agree to disagree on whether to characterize the U.S. system as one with a strong warlord. I still believe that checks and balances, institutional and otherwise, make a difference. That view informs my take on the latest flap over domestic spying.

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COMMENTS (17 to date)
paul writes:

Arnold writes, "I still believe that checks and balances, institutional and otherwise, make a difference."

I agree. And the ultimate check and balance is the ability decline the services of a institution or provider and to choose another or provide the services yourself. This is the fundamental difference between "limited government" and anarcho-capitalism.

spencer writes:

You say we may need domestic spying at some point, maybe because of the war against drugs.

As an economist I need to look at the costs vs benefits. On 9/11 we lost 3,000 lives. But every year we lose some 4,000 to 5,000 lives to illegal drugs. So on this basis the war against drugs should already be a much bigger issue then the war on terror.

But you are not looking at this in the context of the division of power built into the US system. The government has 3 branches with no one part able to take over the role of the other.

The question at issue here is not domestic spying. No one is saying the govt should not spy. Rather the issue is one of the executive acting contary to the laws established by the legislature that such spying must be approved by the judicial branch. The issue is that the President is claiming the authority to overrule the other branches of govt.

Ian Lewis writes:
I cannot think of any examples of societies that were stuck in a warlord equilibrium and then suddenly said, "Let's sit down and write a Constitution and all submit to the rule of law."

Is there any society or government that is in equilibrium? I am not trying to be difficult. All I mean is that if you read the history of any society or government, even one that lasted hundreds of years like the Roman Empire, they seem to be constantly changing.

In fact, it seems like the most successful societies, like the Roman and British Empires, were constantly adapting.

biopolitical writes:

"Government is not going to disappear in a flash. Trying to talk about what would or would not happen if it were to disappear in a flash is bound to be confusing."

We can reduce government in small steps and stop when the marginal benefit of doing so equals the marginal cost -- which maybe when there is no government at all.

Kerry writes:

I agree with Arnold on this issue. It seems that Bryan and ancap posters take a position similar to that taken by modern US communists. It goes like this:
"Every example you can give of an actual instance of my pie-in-the-sky theory has failed miserably (ie, Stalinist Soviet Union(commies) or Somalia(ancaps)) but this is merely because it was not implemented correctly. If everyone in the world agreed with my philosophy and refrained from sin, then my system would be a thousand times better than the current US governement."

To seriously believe such an argument involves ignoring both historical precedent and common sense.

Bill Stepp writes:

Arnold writes:

Government is not going to disappear in a flash.

Ah, but it is going to disappear in a flash (he said, mixing chemicals on stove).

MEMO TO FBI and other humor-impaired persons: That's a joke. Sort of.

Re: path dependent government, that criticism applies to game theory also. But at least we can do thought experiemts to see what we want--and anarcho capitalism qualifies as the one most in synch with Hayekian spontaneous order.

James writes:


No one has ever claimed that anarchocapitalism has failed because it wasn't carried out thoroughly enough. I've addressed the Somalia issue before here. See

Mark Horn writes:

I'm not an economist, nor do I playone on TV. But the question I have is this: if there were someplace where we could run the anarcho-capitalist experiment, what would be the mechanism by which we kept government from spontaneously forming? Wouldn't that thing be a government in itself?

In other words, doesn't a chunk of land set aside for the ancap experiment require a government simply to allow the experiment to run?

Perhaps this is a dumb question. If so, I'd appreciate some pointers to a remedial education on the topic.

Matt McIntosh writes:

Exactly, Arnold. I think arguments between "anarcho capitalists" and "minarchists" are profoundly dull and confused because they presuppose a bright line of division between markets and states that simply doesn't exist. See also Will Wilkinson's recent post making this point:

Different institutions have different properties. It is crucial to recognize that these properties are not determined some kind of metric of resemblance to an ideal type, but by messy details about the real rules of the game, which are generally a melange of assurances and threats (some paradigmaticlly coercive, some reputational, some internally generated by conscience) impossible to locate in a simplistic taxonomy. ...

Economics textbooks provide a theory of ideal types. MARKETS are filled with strange omniscient creatures who have preferences over every conceivable combination of goods, who can trade instantaneously with zero transactions cost, etc. STATES are, more or less, that which can do anything MARKETS can’t—mainly, fix “suboptimal” patterns of interaction by changing relative prices by taxing, subsidising, regulating, credibly committing to punish defectors from contracts, and otherwise wielding coercive power with amazing laser precision.

Additionally, ADAMANTIUM is the hardest material in the world, which raises the profound question: Can Captain America’s shield shatter Wolverine’s bones?

However, once we step outside the Marvel Universe, the question is ill-formed, for ADAMANTIUM is, in fact, an empty category. Nothing fits the description. Likewise, once we step out of the enchanting Neo-classical Universe, it doesn’t even make sense to posit the STATE as the answer to MARKET failure, for STATE and MARKET, as laid out in the model, are empty categories.

paul writes:

I know I shouldn’t get sucked into this discussion but this blog is the BOMB. Good insights and great references. Keep it up Arnold and Brian.

Anyway, back the boring and futile discussion of anarcho-capitalism. I’m not sure why people get hung up on real world versus hypothetical (or theoretical) examples but the problem is pretty simple.

If you think no has the right to initiate physical force, coercion or fraud, that all voluntary exchanges between adults is permissible then you are an “ancap”

If not, “we” want to know how you justify the coercion.

I also know the devil is in the detail. But conceptually this is the essential difference.

So all you minarchist, how do you justify coercion?

Kerry writes:

A better question is "How do you prevent coercion?" Similarly, "How do you prevent government?" The only practical or realistic answers that come to mind involve using a lot of force, or the threat thereof, to ensure things stay the way you like them.

James writes:


I'm not sure why you belive your question is better than Paul's. But here is another one: Some people believe descriptive statements about the practical viability of a political arrangement can be sufficient to justify a normative position opposing said arrangement. Is this always untrue, always true, or true only when the arrangement in question is anarchocapitalism?

Roger M writes:

I agree with Arnold that the distribution of power and checks upon it would hinder a Stalin from coming to power in the US today. But on further consideration, I remembered the "Trail of Tears" of the Cherokee Nation under Andrew Jackson. White's wanted Cherokee land in Georgia because they thought they had found gold on it. (Later, the same scenario would play out in the Black Hills of South Dakota.)

President Jackson ordered the Cherokee Nation to move to what is now Oklahoma. The Cherokees fought Jackson in court. The US Supreme Court declared Jackson's removal illegal. Jackson responded, "The Supreme Court has made its decision. Now let's see them enforce it." President Jackson then used the US Army to force law-abiding citizens from their homes at gun point and walk to Eastern Oklahoma. Thousands died on the way. He then did the same with the Choctaws (my tribe)in Alabama, the Chickasaws, Seminoles and Creeks. Oklahoma became the dumping ground for most tribes east of the Mississippi. We even have a tribe from Delaware. So I guess I have to concede some points to Bryan. If the people in power refuse to obey the law, we could have a Stalin in power who could commit serious crimes, as Jackson did.

Barkley Rosser writes:

This discussion of whether or not a dictator could arise in the US (whether a "Stalin" or a milder version) reminds me of an odd tale.

During WW II the brilliant, but extremely eccentric, logician, Kurt Godel, applied to become a US citizen. He was accompanied to his formal hearing by Albert Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern (Godel was at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton then).

After an initial interview, the presiding judge began some long-winded speech about how the good about America was how we could never have a dictatorship here. At this point, Godel popped up and said that indeed, based on his careful study of the Constitution, we could. I have never seen what the basis of his argument was because apparently both Einstein and Morgenstern, anticipating something like this out of him, more or less sat on him to make him shut up and get through the ceremony, which he did (presumably Einstein was wearing socks for this for once).

Looking from now, the obvious thing would be a president declaring a state of emergency based on war time powers, more believable if there were an actual declaration of war (which we have not had in the US since WW II), rather than the vague sort of resolutions that have been passed more recently. Unfortunately, to the extent that these recent vague resolutions can be interpreted as putting us in a state of war, and given that terrorism is not likely to be defeated clearly in the foreseeable future, that means that we are now potentially in an Orwellian condition of permanent war/emergency.

George Weinberg writes:

Anyone who hasn't read Hayek's "rules and order" should, it helps a lot in clarifying this kind of discussion.

Randy writes:

I think the difficulty for some here is that they want to define the use of force as "bad". It isn't. The use of force is simply a method. For an individual or group to deny themselves the use of force is to make themselves vulnerable to the use of force by another individual or group. The use of force exists. It cannot be wished out of existance. And defining a social structure in which the use of force does not exist is utopian to the extreme. Government is a controlled use of force. Some governments are better than others. But the alternative to controlled use of force is not the absence of the use of force, it is the uncontrolled use of force.

James writes:

I'm not sure who here has defined the use of force as bad. There are some pure pacifist ancaps, but I haven't seen it in the postings here. My own take on the ancap position is that the initiation of force is bad, regardless of who does it. For example, like most statists, I think it would be bad if kindergarteners, people in a canasta club, members of a bowling league, econlog readers, people runnning a protection racket, an angry mob of rioters, etc, were to initiate force against others. My position differs from the statist in that I don't believe the initiation of force is any less bad when the agent doing it is acting on behalf of a government.

What I find perplexing is that the same people who would readily oppose the initiation of force by any other agent in society, presumably for reasons of one kind or another, suddenly do an about-face and forget all of those reasons to oppose the initiation of force and even applaud and defend the initiation of force when the agent initiating force is acting as a member of a government.

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