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Is Anarcho-Capitalism Incoherent?

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08/04/2022David Gordon

As you might suspect, I don’t think so, but the philosopher Gregory Salmieri is decidedly of a different opinion, and in this week’s article, I’d like to examine some of his arguments on this topic in his thoughtful essay “Objectivism,” published in The Routledge Companion to Libertarianism (pp. 82–101).

Salmieri agrees with anarcho-capitalists that “organizing a society around the principle of individual rights requires ‘the barring of physical force from social relationships’ so that individuals may deal with one another ‘only by means of reason, by discussion, persuasion and voluntary uncoerced agreement’” (p. 93, quoting Ayn Rand).

The use or threat of force not only permits retaliatory force, but in his view demands it. But the use of retaliatory force itself raises a problem:

But even retaliatory uses of force often violate the rights of others. If someone is mistaken about whether a crime was committed against him or about who committed it, his attempts at retaliation may themselves be initiations of force. A retaliator who judges correctly that a certain person initiated force against her may nonetheless violate the rights of the person against whom she’s retaliating if she retaliates in a disproportionate manner (p. 93)

So far, so good, but Salmieri proceeds to a new point that strikes me as bizarre. He thinks that even if you correctly judge that someone has violated your rights and respond proportionately, you still violate everyone’s rights because of your unilateral use of force. He says,

Moreover, when one person unilaterally retaliates against another, it is not only the second person whose rights may be violated, for the retaliator is effectively threatening everyone else in the vicinity with like treatment if he comes to think they have wronged him…. However rational a unilateral retaliator may be in his judgment about the crime and the justice of the punishment, the action remains arbitrary from the perspective of his neighbors unless the case for the use of force has been proven to them (or to someone representing them) and unless they can be confident that the force would not be exercised if the case for it wasn’t proven to their satisfaction. (p. 92, emphasis in original)

To bring out what is odd about Salmieri’s comment, let’s consider this example. I steal Salmieri’s copy of the first edition of Atlas Shrugged, and he responds by retrieving the volume from me, using force to do so. People in the vicinity might reasonably think that if they were to steal from Salmieri, he might respond by using force against them, but in what way does this violate their rights? Is it that Salmieri might mistakenly think theft has taken place and respond with a wrongful use of force? But in that case, wouldn’t the relevant issue be whether he is liable to err in such matters?

Salmieri would, I think, respond that this is to miss his point. Even if he is in fact quite reliable in his judgments, this has not been proven to everyone’s satisfaction. For all people in the vicinity know, he might, to the contrary, be an unreliable person, frequently apt to seize others’ property. Isn’t he a threat to them?

This is an odd jump in reasoning. How does it follow from “I don’t know whether A is reliable” that “I may in that case take it as given that A is unreliable, or at least likely to be so?” This mistaken inference explains Salmieri’s remark that “the action remains arbitrary,” where “arbitrary” has the sense of “without sufficient basis.”

Suppose, though, that we put this point aside and grant that because Salmieri has unilaterally used force, his action should be taken as arbitrary. In what way would he be threatening everyone? It might be that they would conclude that he bears watching, but it is hard to fathom why a mere chance that he may act wrongly constitutes a threat to everyone now. “Look what he did to David! It hasn’t been proven to me that he acted reasonably. Thus, I can take him to be acting unreasonably, and I can reasonably assume that he may act unreasonably toward me as well. He’s therefore a threat to me. There’s logic for you!”

There is yet another problem with Salmieri’s argument. Suppose that in my example, Salmieri set forward his evidence that I had purloined his precious volume, and people in the vicinity found the case convincing. Should those people still regard him as a threat, owing to his failure to make his case in the “objective” fashion Salmieri sets forward—i.e., by presenting it to the government’s impartial arbiters? To say that they should is blatantly to beg the question. Even better, suppose that people saw me abscond with the book, which they had excellent reason to think belonged to Salmieri—perhaps there had been a widely circulated news story that he had purchased the book. Would they even here have good reason to consider Salmieri threatening?

Suppose, though, that one accepts Salmieri’s argument against the private use of retaliatory force and agrees that retaliation must take place according to the terms of an objective law code as interpreted by impartial judges. Would this rule out an anarcho-capitalist society that accepts an objective law code but allows private agencies to compete in offering protection and enforcement services in a territory? Salmieri thinks that it would indeed do so: “Anarcho-capitalists contend that objectivity and rule of law can be achieved in the absence of a single monopoly government by market mechanisms that would ensure that the demand for law and order is fulfilled…. However, the idea of defense agencies competing on a ‘free market’ for retaliatory force is incoherent, for a free market is one from which force has been effectively banned” (p. 95, emphasis in original). A footnote to the passage avers that “the idea of a ‘free market’ for the exercise of retaliatory force commits what is called the fallacy of concept stealing” (p. 98n31).

Salmieri is right that for a free market to function properly, most people in it must respect rights, but it’s going too far to say that force is “effectively banned” in a free market—if this means that almost no violations of rights occur. If that is a requirement for a free market, Salmieri’s claim proves too much, as the free market could not exist even in the limited government Salmieri supports so long as there were a substantial number of people who violate rights. And why would there not be? Does Salmieri think that almost all the criminals would just go away in the system he wants?

It may well be, though, that Salmieri intends something else by “effectively banned”—namely, that an objective law code administered by a monopoly government is in place. If this is what he intends, he has merely reasserted his claim that an objective law code requires a monopoly government and precludes competition, even if all the competing agencies accept the objective law code.

Why does Salmieri think this? His most direct response to the anarcho-capitalists who accept an objective law code is this:

But the sort of competition that occurs under anarchy is not free-market competition but war and realpolitik. If somehow these forces were to give rise to a way of objectively adjudicating disputes over the use of force, part of what it would mean for the way to be objective is that it would place the decision in the hands of an arbiter who is not just neutral between any two disputing parties, but equally answerable to (and representative of) everyone in the society whose rights are potentially infringed by this use of force, and that this arbiter would decide by uniform rules promulgated in advance and applicable to all. But this amounts to saying that the arbiter (or the system in which the arbiter is embedded) has a monopoly on force, which would make it a government (however eclectic in form.) (pp. 95–96)

How the last sentence is supposed to follow from the sentences preceding it I cannot fathom, and I strongly suspect that Salmieri’s conclusion rests on no more than repeated reiteration.

Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

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