19 April 2010

Anarchism, Minarchism - or Lessarchism

Over at Counting Cats, Ian B posted a piece contrasting anarcho-capitalism and minarchism, coming down in favour of the latter. This prompted responses from, amongst other, Jock Coats and DK. I thought I'd chip in by explaining my own position, which to some extent is inclusive of both and which I tend to describe as lessarchism.

To properly understand anarchy and minarchy, you first have to understand archy. It means rule generally by the state. So what in essence is the state? The most accurate description I think you can make is that it is a protection racket; it is an organisation which forcibly takes money on the pretence of offering protection, when in reality, the primary protection on offer is from the racket itself. At root, the state is a coercive organisation which operates on the basis of violence and the threat of it.

Given the nature of the beast, the obvious question is, why would anybody want to tolerate any archy whatsoever. I think there are two primary answers to that, which can be observed in the changing nature of the state over time.
  1. The state incorporates more people into the racket, by offering privileges to those who could potentially threaten it. It's a complex area, but it's one that can be observed through, for example, the gradual inclusion of merchants in what was previously an aristocratic state. When the effect is spread widely enough, it gives rise to the effect Bastiat is alluding to when he describes the state as "the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else."
  2. The state maintains the appearance of being better than any alternative. This is the driver of changes such as expanding the franchise and instituting constitutional restrictions. These are concessions which are generally granted by an existing state in order to defend itself. If revolution is in the air, it can be mutually beneficially for the existing state to agree to constrain itself in that way. The top brass of the existing state (be they aristocrats or politicians) get to maintain their power, all be it diminished, rather than being completely deposed. The people living under the state get improved circumstances without the risk of a new state arising which is significantly worse than the previous.
Looking at the two reasons, I don't view the first as being any kind of moral justification for tolerating a given state. Moving from the outside to the inside of a protection racket might make things look more pleasant from your own perspective, but it doesn't make it any less oppressive or abusive. The second reason, on the other hand has something to recommend it. Just as you might tolerate a protection racket if you believed the alternative was a far more violent neighbouring protection racket coming into the area, it might make sense to tolerate a relatively benevolent state if the alternative is a military dictatorship or an oppressive invader.

This is where I tend to depart from many (although, by no means all) who describe themselves as either minarchist or anarchist. Both, to me, appear to be terms which focus on an end position. One asserts that the optimum amount of archy is that which has a small state limited to certain purposes, the other that the optimum amount of archy is no state at all. When I look at the minarchist position, I ask myself if it is really possible to have a limited state which won't gradually expand to become a over-bearing and the answer I come up with is, I don't know. When I look at the anarchist position, I ask myself if it is really possible to have a stateless society without either a state, or something operating like a state, taking over and the answer I come up with is, I don't know.

That is why I would describe myself as a lessarchist. To me, it implies a focus on a process, rather than a focus on an end position. I don't know what the optimum arrangement is, but I do know that in any given situation, I want less archy. I want less oppression, I want less aggressive violence, I want less coercion and compulsion and more voluntary and consensual action. It may be that at a very low level of archy it might be infeasible to significantly reduce any further that which is left within the state without opening the door to an aggressor who will bring more archy than was their before. Or, it might not. It might be that once there is so little archy that the last bit can't survive, given the prevailing mindset of the population. I don't know, but at this stage, I don't think it's that important, mostly because I don't think there will ever be a definite end position; arrangements will always be in flux, eternal vigilance will always be the price of liberty. I'm less concerned about where we can be tomorrow than what we can chip away at today.

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