Monday, March 26, 2012

Beyond Statism vs. minarchism vs. Anarchy

DRAFT: This is not the final version of this article, but I decided to publish now and regret at leisure.

Throughout his published works, Friedrich Hayek challenged the socialists of his day, accusing them of "constructivist rationalism". I believe that this criticism applies to both sides of the anarchist - minarchist debate. Although this debate never seems to die down, when analysed carefully the differences do not amount to much. Neither side has a slam-dunk program for achieving their goals or an effective program for action starting now.

Libertarians waste a great deal of time on debating minarchism vs. anarchism. Both sides of the debate want social institutions and customs that maximize liberty and protect persons from tyranny. Anarcho-capitalists propose to achieve these ends by using some form of market competition between organizations providing protection services. The minarchists prefer to limit the growth and scope of government to the "night watchman state". Neither can point to actually existing societies as exemplars of their approach, though they will point to various historical phenomena as plausible evidence that their ends may be achieved. Both must explore new intellectual and historical territory to find their Utopia.

What are the real differences between minarchism and anarchism? If examined abstractly, the differences are surprisingly small. Both think that activities and services now monopolized by the government should be decentralized, devolved, privatized, strictly limited, abolished, or whatever is needed to limit the state's ability to violate rights of citizens. Each accuses the other of inadequate protections against the re-emergence of tyranny. Both think that their magic wand will prevent the violation of persons' rights and the ascent of tyrants. But for minarchists, the mechanism is a minimal state, for the anarchists, it's competitive market forces.

These different words carry mostly the same meanings. How so? The current U.S. constitution attempts to separate powers among different branches of the federal government and between the federal government, the states, and the people. Presumably, if a minarchist ever had a chance to amend the constitution, replace it, or start anew in some other place, they would extend this approach, opening up as much government activity to competition as possible, and institutionalizing rivalry where it is not yet seen. The only way I can make sense of minarchism is to suppose that its supporters hope to find mechanisms that enable each part of the minimal state to be restrained by the people or by some other part of the minimal state, in a way that makes collusion difficult. The minarchists will tolerate monopoly production in certain limited areas, but would put safeguards in place, such as high standards of transparency.  Separation of powers and rivalry sound a lot like competition to me. Think of the articles of confederation as anarchy with territorial DROs.

Tactical differences exist between and within the two rival groups, with slightly different attitudes toward voting, the nonaggression principle, taxes, etc. Minarchists seem to want something like the status quo but with lower taxes and smaller government. Anarchists are more likely to want/expect serious change in other institutions and ways of life beyond the mass devolution of government power. They are more likely to fall into the trap of radicals who think of all soldiers as war criminals, all policemen as corrupt brutes.
What do they have in common? They both want reasonable foreign policy, an end to the war on drugs, end the Fed, etc. And neither program can proceed until these goals have become broadly popular. The objective must be viewed as doable, as right, as worth doing. That is the big challenge facing both.

The typical minarchist objection to anarchy questions the stability or instability of a society without government. But how would such a society arise in the first place? This is mostly ignored by both sides. It's quite possible to believe that an anarchist society is possible and could be stable, yet still find no practical path from the status quo to this utopia. But similarly, minarchism might be possible but practically unobtainable. The U.S. constitution attempted to split the powers of government, to have rivalry (competition) within the organization itself, and some at least of the founders intended the states to have nullification power, for the states to protect people from the federal government, and for the federal government and voting by foot to protect people from the states. Yet these restrictions failed to prevent the various branches and levels of government from colluding to achieve the growth of the state.

Do anarchists and minarchists share a utopian vision vulnerable to the criticism of constructivist rationalism? Hayek's critique of constructivist rationalism argued that society is too complex for any individual or group to comprehend well enough to start over "from scratch" and build utopia in one wrenching frenzy. He thought that prices, customs, and legal traditions (especially common law) allowed society to solve problems that no one really undertands. Looking at the Soviet Union through the lens of this idea, the main problem was not the incentives or intensions of the people in the system, but the static nature of the system, the impossibility of knowing whether a new idea was an improvement or not, or whether changes in tastes, needs or other circumstances indicate that production of some good should change. Looking at the anarchist-minarchist debate similarly, we see that both sides employ some hand-waving in regard to the specifics. Some of them have convinced themselves that they know how society ought to be organized, but Hayek would not believe them.

Instead of arguing about abstractions, I am more interested in trying to think of concrete action I can engage in that will move society forward. I am not opposed to the experiments of others, so long as they allow my experiments to proceed, and in fact I expect each to benefit from the experience of the others. From that perspective, the minarchist-anarchist debate just wastes my time.

Marshall Fritz liked to point out, in slightly different words, that if either of these camps thought of a good solid step in the right direction, the other camp would almost certainly go along. We would have to take many steps toward freedom before facing a fork in the road where minarchists and anarchists must part ways. The real problem is finding that first step, we have no need to prepare for a decision we may never face. If we faced the task of building a society from scratch (neither to be expected nor truly to be desired), perhaps the an-min debate could shed some light on our path. Fortunately for us, we face a different challenge.

[need sections here on how to make incremental progress, limits of ordinary win-lose politics, how victory consists of changing popular attitudes about what is tolerable, what is worth experimenting with before dismissing]
This approach has some problems. There are large, politically well protected aspects of the state that can't be ignored yet do not seem vulnerable to an incrementalist approach - foreign policy, income taxes, debt, the fed, the war on drugs.

I think the homework assignment for minarchists is, come up with specific ideas for amending or rebooting the constitution that might actually limit the size of government. Similarly, the A-Cs need to get a proto-DRO happening. Even better would be for all of us to think of some way to run multiple experiments and let the system evolve.

What would Hayek have them do? He advocated incremental changes and mechanisms like common law. In his vision of common law, judges set precedent based on specific cases, which formed the default for following cases. If judges decide badly, those who are actually involved usually have an option to make contracts to get around the bad decision, or a legislature could correct the mistake. Hayek himself could be accused of rational constructivism, in his authorship of his book "The Constitution of Liberty" in which he took a first stab at solving the minarchists' problem, attempting to synthesize a design for a constitution that would preserve rights by examining the failures of previous constitutions. Perhaps the idea to take away is that whatever path we take we will make mistakes, so we need to prepare for failure as well as success, and force our new institutions to compete in some way with the old ones.

My spell checker wants to change all minarchists to monarchists. One little letter!

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