Anarchy is not utopia

by Sam Selikoff August 31, 2010


A response I wrote to concerns about potential problems in an anarchist society:

My version of a libertarian society requires no magic genies or perfectly rational actors for the things I’m saying to apply. It is not a utopian vision of some future world, but rather a set of beliefs that results from clear and precise reflection on social interaction between imperfect human beings. I suffer no illusions about the likelihood of all of us living in a state of heavenly bliss on this planet; in fact, any system which claims to be able to achieve such an ideal is at best confused and at worst a tool for malevolence.

Because of this, the only relevant questions we should concern ourselves with are those which aim at reducing injustice, and not expunging it. By this I mean to say that there will always be murder, there will always be rape, and there will always be theft, in any large society. Thus, pointing out a hypothetical example of how someone could possibly murder someone else is not a death knell for any particular system of social arrangement, but rather an unfortunate common characteristic of the world we live in.

Along this same line of thinking, there will always be invasions of property in the area if environmental protection. You’ll notice many times throughout my post that I said it would be possible for a company to dump waste into the ocean. Of course, the important point is that this happens now. The government has an abysmal track record of protecting natural resources. The question is, why?

My argument is that the reason for our government’s constant violations of property rights in general and environmental blunders in particular is because they face no incentives to act in cooperation with the rest of humanity. Government officials get their paychecks from plundering the productive citizens of a society. The means available to them of increasing their wealth consists exclusively of better coercing their fellow citizen. Thus, allowing Walmart to dump its waste in privately owned property in exchange for political clout and campaign donations is the type of behavior we would expect to see. The politician gains, while paying absolutely no price for his flagrant violation of property. Why would he act otherwise?

Contrast this with a profit-seeking capitalist. It’s true that his goal is to maximize profits; but is this not also true for politicians? The key difference lies in how these two individuals acquire their wealth. In the market, profits come from consumers spending their own money voluntarily on the capitalist’s product in an amount greater than his costs. The important point is, of course, that his revenues are given to him voluntarily. So, the only way for him to increase his profits is to convince more people they should spend their money with him i.e. to serve his consumers better.

The point of my article was to explain that in the absence of property rights, profit-maximization will of course lead to criminal activity (some firms paying off government officials for special privileges). But this is a problem with the entity currently responsible for protecting property (the State)! It has nothing to do with capitalism and/or profits per se. In a world of securely enforced property rights – even in lakes, rivers, and the ocean – people seeking to make themselves better off (i.e. maximizing profits) are incentivized towards environmentally conscious behavior.

Would you rather someone face no cost for making a poor decision with respect to property rights in the environment, and merely cross your fingers in hope of them making a good one?

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