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Society without Government

August 16, 2001

Tags Free MarketsThe Police StatePhilosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory

The Market for Liberty by Linda and Morris Tannehill, Foreword by Karl Hess (Fox & Wilkes, 1993. 169 pgs.) 

One of the problems with being a so-called anarcho-capitalist is the battery of questions that people always throw at you: What about product safety? Won’t the Mafia take over? How do we defend ourselves from foreign invasion? And so on.

If I think the person is genuinely curious, I usually recommend Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty. The problem with this, though, is that some people don’t want to read 321 pages, and many find the natural law approach (adopted by Rothbard) to be out of reach.

That’s where The Market for Liberty comes in. Written in 1970, it is a slender volume (only 169 pages) that provides a blueprint for the completely free society. The Tannehills first establish the libertarian prohibition on initiated force, and from this conclude that all forms of government are immoral. In contrast with Rothbard’s approach, our authors adopt an unabashedly Randian foundation for their ethics. This is the only weakness in the book (aside from several typos), for its specifically moral considerations will carry only the strength (or weakness) that the reader ascribes to Objectivism itself.

The worst example of this tendency occurs in the Tannehills’ discussion of a criminal who refuses to work off his debt:

 Since there will be cases of mental imbalance even in the most rational of cultures, it is probably [sic] that there will be an occasional individual who will refuse to work and to rehabilitate himself, regardless of the penalties and incentives built into the system. Such an individual would be acting in a self-destructive manner and could properly be classified as insane. Obviously, neither the rectification company, the defense service that brought him to justice, nor the insurance company or other creditor has any obligation to go to the expense of supporting him….Nor would they wish to turn him loose to cause further destruction. And if they allowed him to die, they would cut off all hope of recouping the financial loss he had caused [through his crimes]. What, then, could they do?

 One solution that suggests itself is to sell his services as a subject of study by medical and psychiatric doctors who are doing research on the causes and cures of insanity. This should provide enough money to pay for his upkeep, while at the same time advancing psychological knowledge and ultimately offering hope of help for this aggressor and his fellow sufferers. (p. 103)

Fortunately, such occasionally hyperrationalist judgments do not constitute the meat of the book. Indeed, for any given statist argument, our authors usually deploy three or more objections; even if one is unappealing, the case for liberty still stands. In the matter of crime, the Tannehills make a very persuasive case for replacing the punitive state—which relies on corrupt judges, ignorant juries, and incompetent police—with a voluntary, contractual system in which insurance companies and competing defense services protect the property and lives of their customers.

Unlike the Marxists, who dismissed all nuts-and-bolts questions of the workings of a socialist utopia as unscientific, the Tannehills go out of their way to address the really tough issues. They devote an entire chapter to "Warring Defense Agencies and Organized Crime" (pp. 109-115), and another to "Foreign Aggression" (pp. 126-135). Even if the reader is not completely convinced by these sections, it is clear that the Tannehills are not asking us to take a "blind leap of faith."

(On this note, I should add that the book caused me some embarrassment. Rereading it now after so many years, I realize that many of "my" arguments for anarchy were in fact already developed by the Tannehills. Imperfect memory and unjustified pride often lead one to forget his intellectual debts.)

One of the most pleasing features of the book is its wonderfully polemical style. ("To advocate government is to advocate slavery. To advocate limited government is to advocate limited slavery." [p. 35] "Price control, like all other political controls and regulations imposed on the market by legislative force, is…people control!" [p. 18, emphasis and ellipsis in original]) Our authors make not merely a reasonable, but also an eloquent, plea for liberty:

Throughout history, the vast majority of people have believed that government was a necessary part of human existence…and so there have always been governments. People have believed they had to have a government because their leaders said so, because they always had one, and most of all because they found the world unexplainable and frightening and felt a need for someone to lead them. Mankind’s fear of freedom has always been a fear of self-reliance—of being thrown on his own to face a frightening world, with no one else to tell him what to do. But we are no longer terrified savages making offerings to a lightning god or cowering Medieval serfs hiding from ghosts and witches. We have learned that man can understand and control his environment and his own life, and we have no need of high priests or kings or presidents to tell us what to do. Government is now known for what it is. It belongs in the dark past with the rest of man’s superstitions. It’s time for men to grow up so that each individual man can walk forward into the sunlight of freedom...in full control of his own life! (pp. 168-169, emphasis and ellipses in original)

Such rhetorical flourishes do not detract from the rigor of the Tannehills’ analysis. Our authors possess a solid command of economics, referring their readers in a footnote to Rothbard’s "most excellent treatise" Man, Economy, and State (p. 20). This appreciation of Austrian economics shows in the concise yet comprehensive chapter, "The Self-Regulating Market" (pp. 16-31), which alone makes the book worthwhile. Ludwig von Mises’ central theme in Bureaucracy—that government agencies must rely on rigid and often senseless rules while private businesses can be guided rationally by profits and losses—is evident in the Tannehills’ discussion of the arbitrariness of government procedures (pp. 38-39).

The Market for Liberty is a powerful book that is even better now than when I first read it as an idealistic undergrad. By tying true morality to enlightened self-interest, the Tannehills make a compelling case that the just society—i.e. the totally free one—is also the efficient society. Although the book will not convince, say, Rush Limbaugh, it is an excellent starting point for the person who asks,  "Under anarchy, who would write the laws?"

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Robert P. Murphy, a Rowley Fellow of the Mises Institute, is an economics graduate student at New York University. See his Mises.org Archive or send him MAIL


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