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Anarchy in the UK

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Anarchism [an·ar·chism] n. 
1. “a political theory holding all forms of governmental authority to be unnecessary and undesirable and advocating a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups”
Merriam Webster

The venerable British magazine The Economist has us worried in their May 11 issue titled “The New Economic Order.” Contemplating what seems to be the collapse of the global, liberal order—Francis Fukuyama’s End of History story, more or less—the leader article argues that “a worrying number of triggers could set off a descent into anarchy, where might is right and war is once again the resort of great powers.”

Later in the piece we’re told that once the precious conditions of the last three decades break, “it is unlikely to be replaced by new rules. Instead, world affairs will descend into their natural state of anarchy that favors banditry and violence.”

Adding to the unhelpful pile is Oxford English Dictionary, giving us a wholly misleading entry for anarchy: “political or social disorder resulting from the absence or disregard of government or the rule of law.”

Granted, this is how most people think about anarchy. Upon mentioning this frightful word, most react in horror. Yes, communist types from the tweed-wearing intellectual to the stone-hurling Antifa member embrace the term for themselves in their literal banditry and violence.

But anarchy only means “disorder” to the mind that can’t fathom anything but top-down dirigisme. Altogether foreign is a universe of emergent order, of “the products of human action but not human design” in the famous phrase that harks back to Adam Ferguson (Adam Smith’s contemporary during the Scottish Enlightenment). Instead, it’s a state of affairs of rules, not rulers. The etymological origin is αναρχία, where an means “without” and αρχία “rulers.” Anarchy isn’t disaster, destruction, or war but rules without rulers.

We’re sometimes told that nation-states are acting with respect to one another in a state of anarchy, since nothing—no world government or court—binds them, and a plethora of ever-passing democratically rulers merely play an infinitely lived game of mutual interaction. The equivalence is false, since nation-states aren’t natural entities, but contrived aggregations of mafiosos that extract maximum value from their (tax) hostages via the use of violence.

It was roughly a decade ago that the social purpose of “property rights” clicked for me, and it was directly in connection with a world of an-archy—rules without rulers.

I hadn’t thought much about the concept or its role in economic affairs, but picturing the frontier setting in Terry Anderson’s and P.J. Hill’s The Not So Wild Wild West made it obvious. We humans establish property rights, not in some pen-wielding constitutional setting or faraway legal process involving bribing (sorry, “lobbying”) and political horse-trading, but by literally fencing land when the (transaction) cost of the process makes sense given the scarcity of land. And land only becomes scarce when humans have conflicting uses for the exact same plot of land.

Until then, a hyperabundant resource (well, “resource…”) like land—more than you can fence or cultivate or put livestock on even if you wanted to—becomes like a non-resource like oxygen: All possible and practical demands for it won’t make more than a negligible dent in its availability.

In the excellent book The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life, economics professor Paul Seabright gets to the same point using property rights over water: “Property rights are, above all, rules that determine how water may be used, and water use is a social institution whose rules we collectively invent.” But, he adds crucially, “Rules are worth making only if we can afford the expense of enforcing them,” which explains the classic difference in riparian vs prior appropriation rights between eastern and western United States.

In his slam-dunk Bitcoin: Everything Divided by 21 Million, Swedish author Knut Svanholm hits on exactly that very Austrian point: “Economics only applies to scarce goods. Things in abundance are free because their supply greatly exceeds the demand. The air you breathe is an example of such goods.”

Similarly, the core thesis of Anderson and Hill’s work is positively blasphemous to most statists and the average man on the street alike, misunderstanding the state of anarchy in which the rules themselves evolve:

The West during this time is often perceived as a place of great chaos, with little respect for property or life. Our research indicates that this was not the case; property rights were protected, and civil order prevailed. Private agencies provided the necessary basis for an orderly society in which property was protected and conflicts were resolved.

Hobbes was off; there is no need for an overbearing Leviathan threating all of us with violence. Rousseau’s general will is nonsense. Left to their own devices, humans—aided by social institutions—are pretty nice.

Plenty of our everyday interactions are anarchical, too, merely mundane instances of repeat games in the pursuit of common wellbeing. Svanholm clearly realizes that Bitcoin is anarchism; it’s rules without rulers, and your option is to obey them or exit. Nobody “runs it,” and there’s no management to replace or CEO to jail. Still, it functions.

For freedom to prevail, we instead choose to submit ourselves to good rules, not dismantling every last hard and difficult obstacle standing in our way to an imagined utopia. In a forthcoming book about the Christian faith and Bitcoin, Jordan Bush, executive director at educational foundation Thank God for Bitcoin, gives an allegory about a fish in pursuit of ultimate freedom:

“I’m going to free myself from the confines of the water and live on land.” He swims as fast as he can, leaps out of the water, and comes to rest on the riverbank only to find that he fundamentally misunderstood the nature of freedom. Freedom isn’t found in the pursuit of the absolute absence of restrictions. It’s found by submitting oneself completely to the right restrictions—the ones that correspond to one’s nature.

Broadly speaking, faith groups are pretty anarchical: They join together in commune or various religious institutions, but your faith is with God—not the leaders of those man-made organizations; you leave, or re-create them, when they break apart. Most friendships, too, are anarchic: You cooperate and do together what both parties voluntarily agree to. Contrary to Bitcoin, the rules of which are crystal clear, friendships are hazy and often undefined. They can be negotiated, expanded, or reduced; nobody but the parties to the interaction governs it (no Friendship Tsar at the Office for Friendly Relations)—and you leave, i.e., dissolve the friendship, when it no longer functions.

In none of these anarchic domains do we find “might is right” or the destruction of property that the word traditionally invokes. Anarchy doesn’t mean anything goes, the purview of the postmodern left—or might is right, the ever-lasting claim of the extreme right.

It may well be the case that the on-going regime shifts in the global world order will take place through destruction and conflict—but it won’t be because of anarchy.

Anarchy is rules without rulers. The Economist overlooked that first, crucial part.

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