Arnold Kling  

Works in Practice, Just Not in Theory?

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On the topic of anarchy, Peter T. Leeson writes,


Pirates created one of the earliest forms of written constitutions they called their “articles, which codified many of the rules that governed their ships, as well as punishments for rule breakers. These included rules specifying the division of booty, “laws” against theft, and even workman’s compensation insurance to support crew members injured in battle.

To apply punishments and resolve disputes between crew members, pirates created an office called the “quartermaster.” Crew members controlled quartermasters both through their articles, which prescribed the “laws” quartermasters could apply, and by democratically electing crew members to this office.


I am not sure what to make of this pirate example. Does it illustrate the feasibility of anarchy? Or does it illustrate the natural emergence of government?

Whenever we pre-commit to resolving disputes peacefully, we are creating an institution that operates like government. Typically, this pre-commitment involves giving the government formal monopoly over the legitimate use of force, what I call the Arbiter with the Golden Scepter.

I would tend to define anarchy as the absence of any pre-commitment to resolve disputes peacefully. I think that is a common-sense definition, but it does not seem to be what Leeson has in mind. Instead, his article tends to emphasize the emergence of peaceful dispute-resolution systems.

Perhaps Leeson would define anarchy as a pre-commitment to resolve disputes peacefully, but without conceding a monopoly on the use of force to any particular body. Perhaps some forms of international trade fit this model. But the pirate example does not, which leaves me confused.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Gabriel writes:

Being free to accept the rules means being free to reject them. With a state, you don't get that. Warm and fuzzy stories about wise, rational men, in illo tempore, pretty much make no sense and carry no weight.

"Consent of the governed". Actual, not figuratively speaking.

Also, the choice of an arbiter, for a limited period of time, for practical reasons, is in many ways similar to accepting anesthetic and going under the knife. It's not like you're saying that the doctor is entitled to rule you.

Scott Scheule writes:
I would tend to define anarchy as the absence of any pre-commitment to resolve disputes peacefully.

That does not mesh with what I think of as anarchy. I rather think of it as market, not governmental, provision of all goods and services.

Imagine, for instance, David Friedman's vision of competitive enforcement and arbitrative agencies. Here we have nothing resembling the classical state, and yet people do pre-commit to settle disputes peacefully, by signing up with agencies that will take their disputes to arbitrators.

Les writes:

The Leeson article relies upon 2 anecdotal cases: pirates and Somalia.

That is much too flimsy a base to support any generalizations. Consider the counter-examples of lawless and violent Gaza and Zimbabwe.

Nathan Benedict writes:

Les--I can't tell whether you're being sarcastic or not! I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you don't actually think that Zimbabwe's problems are caused by a lack of government.

Unit writes:

When you take a job you must submit to the rule-book of the company that hires you. I don't see anything wrong with this, because you're allowed to resign if you get tired of it. Were Pirates who got tired allowed to just step off the boat and go their merry way? I don't know. If yes, then Leeson is just describing a colorful example of private enterprise.

Eric Crampton writes:

Les: you're not seriously saying that Zimbabwe is any kind of example of a stateless society, are you? Lawless, perhaps, in the sense of law as natural justice, but certainly not in any kind of de facto sense. Mugabe remains in charge, issuing diktats, enforcing hyperinflation...

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