Pinker Illuminates a Libertarian Debate

While all agreeing that individual freedom is the highest social value, libertarians disagree on a number of issues. A profound divide concerns the question whether government is necessary to protect people’s lives and property, as well as maintain the peace required to actualize the benefits of social co-operation. Classical liberals, or minarchists, insist that government is necessary, though they stress its powers should, as a general matter, be limited to the prevention of murder, assault, theft, fraud, and foreign invasion. Anarcho-capitalists, on the other hand, argue that these functions can be successfully accomplished by private agencies operating in a stateless environment.

Ludwig von Mises is definitely on the classical liberal side of this debate.  There will always be some individuals, he figured, who fail to understand their real, long-term interest in maintaining social co-operation. Others might recognize it, but lack the will-power to resist the illusory short-run gains in violating the basic norms of justice.  The state exists to forcefully remind this minority of their true interests.  This is precisely what the anarchists fail to acknowledge, according to Mises:

The anarchists overlook the undeniable fact that some people are either too narrow-minded or too weak to adjust themselves spontaneously to the conditions of social life. Even if we admit that every sane adult is endowed with the faculty of realizing the good of social cooperation and of acting accordingly, there still remains the problem of the infants, the aged, and the insane. We may agree that he who acts antisocially should be considered mentally sick and in need of care. But as long as not all are cured, and as long as there are infants and the senile, some provision must be taken lest they jeopardize society. An anarchistic society would be exposed to the mercy of every individual. Society cannot exist if the majority is not ready to hinder, by the application or threat of violent action, minorities from destroying the social order. This power is vested in the state or government. (Human Action, Ch. 8, Sec. 2) 

Lending support to Mises’ view is Steven Pinker’s latest book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  Pinker is a leading evolutionary psychologist with wide-ranging interests and a capacious mind to match them. In his book, reviewed in the NYT Book Review yesterday by Peter Singer, Pinker gathers all the evidence on the rates of violent death from pre-state societies (mostly hunter-gatherer) versus state societies (primarily, agricultural and industrial). This is how Singer summarizes what Pinker has found:

Research into contemporary or recent hunter-gatherer societies yields a remarkably similarly average, while another cluster of studies of pre-state societies that include some horticulture has an even higher rate of violent death. In contrast, among state societies, the most violent appears to have been Aztec Mexico, in which 5 percent of people were killed by others. In Europe, even during the bloodiest periods — the 17th century and the first half of the 20th —­ deaths in war were around 3 percent. The data vindicates Hobbes’s basic insight, that without a state, life is likely to be “nasty, brutish and short.” In contrast, a state monopoly on the legitimate use of force reduces violence and makes everyone living under that monopoly better off than they would otherwise have been.

Pinker also echoes another Misesian point — one going back to Locke, Montesquieu and Hume — that commerce tends to reduce violence. Trade not only provides a more peaceful mechanism to acquire goods than war, it exposes us to people outside our traditional social boundaries, rendering us more tolerant and sympathetic.

One must, of course, read this book, and all the research it cites, to more definitively settle the debate about the necessity of an agency wielding a  monopoly over the legitimate use of force. But what Pinker’s book says on this matter does ring true.

14 Responses to “Pinker Illuminates a Libertarian Debate”

  1. Jusitn says:

    This article and pinker are twisting the definition of violence to mean killing. Violence is more than killing it also includes theft at the point of gun or under threat of kidnapping or imprisonment. The modern state uses violence to control its citizens. Anarchist at least in the rothboard since understand the need for third party arbitration but to say that the state does not perpetrate violence by its very nature is a distortion. The only reason we don't see more physical violence within the US or Canada is that people wont risk being imprisoned or being deprived of all their property so they pay taxes. This is a violent act so no states have not decreased violence they only found a way to more efficiently rob people.

  2. Andre_Lalonde says:

    Who here honestly believes that Minarchy won't always lead to Tyranny given enough time?
    Would a stateless, voluntary society be perfect? No. But the inevitability of tyranny isn't built into the idea.

    Here's some fun math formulated by a friend:
    Tyranny = Minarchy + Time
    so
    Minarchy = Tyranny – Time
    but since we can't go back in time, the second equation is not very useful.

  3. mstob says:

    Also, regarding the hockey referee example, similar to what Redmond has already said, how impartial do you think any given hockey referee would stay if he was forcibly making a team hire him as a referee, while deciding his own salary, while potentially getting kickbacks from the opposing team?

  4. Ryan says:

    When we play a game of hockey, we give one group a monopoly of rule-enforcement. We do so because we recognize that if we entrusted the players and coaches to general enforcement of the rules, we'd spend more time arguing than playing. Everyone understands that referrees aren't omniscient, but we accept that as part of the game because we would rather play than argue.

    Governments, like referees are a mechanism for conflict resolution. The competing governments of a so-called anarcho-capitalist society are nothing more than groups who stand behind the individuals who originally had a disagreement. "Conflict resolution" in such circumstances boils down to war. Anarchists never acknowledge this point. As such, they never really address the criticisms of the minarchists.

    Minarchists like Mises understand that government is a monopoly of violence and coercion, and that without it conflicts would either become so numerous or so onerous that smooth social coordination would be impossible. John Locke simply referred to this as "The Rule of Law," as did Hayek.

    • Redmond says:

      When we play a game of hockey, we give one group a monopoly of rule-enforcement. We do so because we recognize that if we entrusted the players and coaches to general enforcement of the rules, we'd spend more time arguing than playing. Everyone understands that referrees aren't omniscient, but we accept that as part of the game because we would rather play than argue.

      Unfortunately this is a fallacious example.

      Playing in a game of Hockey is completely voluntary, as opposed to our actions within the statist framework.

      Arenas are built privately(at least at the local level)
      Owners start teams.
      They offer contracts to players.
      Rules are clear, understandable and available to all.
      Players can leave the game if they wish.

      Compare that to our current situation

      I am born within a particular geographical location
      A group claims authority over me.
      My parents, before I am a considered an adult are forced to place me in state run schools
      I am obliged to register myself with the state before I can exchange my labour for goods or services
      I am obliged to remit 50% of my wages to the state in the form of taxes in order to pay debts that were incurred before I was born.
      If I choose to consume certain substances(raw milk for instance) I can be arrested.
      Now if I don't "Play by the rules" I can be kidnapped, imprisoned and summarily executed.

      Which game is voluntary and which is based on coercion?

      How is a Minarchist state kept under control? Especially when it has a monopoly on the use of force?

      the USA and Canada for that matter were essentially "Night Watchman" states in the 19th Century – and look where we are today?

      Government, if it is to exist must be based on voluntary agreement – I don't think a rothbardian Anarcho-capitalist state would be "Anarchy" it would simply be government based on voluntarism as opposed to coercion.

      I don't need the "war on Drugs" and the "War on Terror" for "smooth social coordination" – in fact the state is one of the biggest obstacles to "smooth social coordination" today.

      • Ryan says:

        That's a fair point, however I would counter that any system of social coordination – once established – becomes compulsory for future generations. A hypothetical present-day stateless society would establish cooperative social patterns that would become entrenched a few years later. Any child born into that stateless society would be at the mercy of the established pattern. There really is no such a thing as a completely voluntary social organization scheme, except for its original inception.

        I'm not saying that the state in its current incarnation is pleasant or even desirable, but the shortcomings of a modern-day state are no argument for anarchy any more than the idea that baking chocolate cakes should be abandoned if I screw up the recipe the first few times…

    • mstob says:

      Ryan: ' "Conflict resolution" in such circumstances boils down to war. Anarchists never acknowledge this point. As such, they never really address the criticisms of the minarchists.'

      I actually linked to a great video of a lecture by David Friedman some time ago where he discusses exactly this point.
      http://vimeo.com/13550780

      Also, there is quite a large amount of literature on this subject on mises.org in general.

      • Ryan says:

        Thanks for the video. I will definitely try to check it out when I have time!

        I have perused the literature on mises.org and have plenty of items on my to-read list, but as yet I haven't come across any pro-anarchy argument that addresses the concerns of a minarchist in a satisfactory way. Hence the ongoing debate! ;)

  5. When reading Mises's critique of "the Anarchists", it's instructive to remember that the Anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were more akin to devout Communists (Stateless Communism) than they were to Rothbardian Anarcho-Capitalists. They were espousing the theories of Proudhon and Bakunin, not Josiah Warren.

    • Ryan says:

      True, Chris, Mises was addressing anarchy as it was conceived at the time.

      Then again, we might ask whether it is even possible to have "different kinds of anarchy," or whether the fact that it is anarchy precludes us from making rules about how anarchy operates.

      Which of Mises' criticisms against anarchy do you feel don't apply to anarcho-capitalism?

  6. Ohhh Henry says:

    On this matter, Mises was wrong. Turn the argument around:

    The STATISTS overlook the undeniable fact that some people are either too narrow-minded or too weak to adjust themselves spontaneously to the conditions of social life … A STATIST society would be exposed to the mercy of every individual (WHO IS ABLE TO CONTROL GOVERNMENT). Society cannot exist if the INDIVIDUALS are not ready to hinder, by the application or threat of violent action, minorities from destroying the social order (USING THE POWER OF THE STATE). This power is vested in the INDIVIDUAL.

    The problem in human society has *never* been that individuals or small, voluntary associations have been unable to deal with lunatics, psychopaths, the infirm and senile. The greatest problems in human history have been caused by lunatics and psychopaths taking control of the government and then using their unlimited power to rob, kill and starve people with utter impunity. There has never in history been an example of a society with no government or with very little government who went on a rampage and murdered millions of their own people, or millions of their neighbors, or who caused mass starvation.

    There is a direct correlation between the size and power of government, and the number of people that are murdered through famine, war, judicial murder and genocide. Countries with the most massive government (China, USSR, Nazi Germany) have killed the most people, and countries with the least government (at least traditionally, such as Switzerland, Iceland and many small states such as Monaco, Andorra) have neither committed mass murder nor do their societies have an incident of private murder which is particularly high. In times and places there have been examples of more or less completely anarchic societies and these have been noted for being far safer and more peaceful places to live than the same places when at different times they were under a government. See mises.org articles "Somalia – Stateless and Loving It", "The Not So Wild, Wild West" and the chapters from Rothbard's "Conceived in Liberty" covering the early, stateless colony of Pennsylvania.

    The reason why Mises and other minarchists are wrong about the state being superior to anarchy is that they forget the fundamental facts of human nature. All humans use the power that they have at their disposal to better their own lives. Someone who possesses a monopoly on violence and de-facto immunity from the rule of laws (which laws the people in government draft, interpret and enforce) will always tend to use that power for their *own* good and *not* for the good of the people to whom they made promises when they were seeking to gain power. The very rare, completely selfless people who do exist are not attracted to the possession and wielding of power, therefore you will never find a "Mother Theresa" type of person serving as President, Prime Minister or Chancellor. In fact you will see the opposite – the most power-hungry and the least trustworthy people will always be the most attracted to power and most difficult to remove once they have power.

    In a stateless society there is no power imbalance. Anyone who tries to abuse, defraud, rob and kill their neighbors will face more or less immediate arrest, imprisonment, exile or execution – as soon as they are detected. They do not have an army to protect them, nor a priesthood or public school system to defend them with elaborate excuses about "doing God's work" or "killing for the greater good of society". Power is balanced in a stateless society because individuals and their voluntary associations can defend themselves, and violence against others will be met with immediate defensive violence. The high probability of robbery and murder being immediately countered with defensive force means that there is a strong disincentive from using violence as a means of gaining wealth, and a strong incentive to get along using peaceful cooperation.

    • Ryan says:

      Do you really believe there is no power imbalance in a stateless society?

      When you say, "Anyone who tries to abuse, defraud, rob and kill their neighbors will face more or less immediate arrest, imprisonment, exile or execution – as soon as they are detected," do you understand that this itself is an argument in favor of mass violence?

      I can't really understand whether the advocates of anarchy are naive to the point that they honestly believe groups would have no conflict between each other in the absence of the state, or whether they resent the "monopoly on violence" so much that they simply favor widespread violence instead.

  7. mstob says:

    "A profound divide concerns the question whether government is necessary to protect people’s lives and property, as well as maintain the peace required to actualize the benefits of social co-operation."

    I question the use of the word "necessary". What would be the opposite of such a statement? "Government is not necessary to protect people's lives and property"? This statement seems to presuppose in the first place that government is even capable of doing the aforementioned thing in the first place. (For something to be necessary to achieve X, it must first be capable of achieving X, no?). Asking if government is necessary to protect freedom seems to imply that the state is an option we have in protecting our freedom, but something we can do without if we really have to. Anarchists, though, would argue that the state can by definition not protect freedom. Thus, a better way of describing the debate, in my mind, is not by asking whether governments are necessary to protect freedom, but whether they even can.

    Like above, I think Mises seems to be defining terms a bit in his favour in that quote, in a way that presupposes certain things.

    "The anarchists overlook the undeniable fact that some people are either too narrow-minded or too weak to adjust themselves spontaneously to the conditions of social life."

    I would argue that minarchists overlook this. This is why anarchists do not want to give anyone a monopoly of violence because surely those narrow minded individuals will be those who seek control over that monopoly, ie, “the worst get on top.”

  8. lemoutongris says:

    Although I hate government, I have to recognize its use for 2 things : public protection (foreign and domestic) and administer justice. Otherwise, it's a nuisance, if not a danger.
    "Anarchy' was tried in Spain, and it was a miserable failure. Of course, the fact that the communists and the fascists hacked it didn't help…

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