Use of the \"A\" Word

Randy Barnett just finished giving a talk to the Cato interns . During the question and answer period, I asked the following:

People like David Friedman have no qualms using the "A" word. You do. You couch it in terms like "polycentric legal order," when what you really mean is anarchy. Do you do this so as not to scare the children? What's the point in doing so when anyone who reads your book can easily figure out what you stand for?

Some argue that by making your position explicit, you will turn off much of your potential audience, who reflexively dismiss the anarchist position as absurd. On the other hand, until respected legal thinkers such as yourself carry the anarchist torch proudly, people will continue to associate the word "anarchist" with bomb-throwing wackos.

Barnett's answer was pragmatic: he said he wants to get a bit more done as a professional academic before he risks his reputation. He stressed the importance of being honest - the term "polycentric legal order" does accurately describe his position, though it doesn't describe it in the clearest way possible.

Interestingly, Barnett noted that it is not the case that anyone who reads his book can easily figure out what he stands for. Sandy Levinson recognized his anarchist underpinnings; the rest of the participants had not made the connection. Following this, Barnett made a sort of Straussian argument: by using the term "polycentric legal order" instead of "anarchy, "he can communicate with the radical libertarians who are "in the know" on one level, and with everyone else who still believes he is a fine, upstanding citizen on another.

While I can't fault Barnett for being pragmatic about his career, I don't think I'd be able to live two lives, so to speak. First, I think it's important to challenge the popular misconception that no right-thinking person would ever oppose government in its entirety. And to do that, public intellectuals who happen to be anarchists need to be as open as possible about their beliefs. Second, and perhaps more importantly, actually engaging in the semantic debate is vital if we want to get people thinking about markets and states, exit and voice.

To put it bluntly, the libertarian critics of the word fear that when normal people hear it, they will immediately associate anarchy with chaos. And they should! Because that is what they have been taught. The government is the source of all regulation, and thus, the source of all order. Right?

When anti-market fundamentalists whine about "unfettered capitalism" and the "unregulated market," what are they trying to say? They are telling us that under laissez faire, there will be nothing to stop the powerful from exploiting the weak, the rich oppressing the poor, and so forth. They see only electoral voting as a mechanism of regulation. They see only voice. They do not see exit. They do not see market competition as a mechanism of regulation.

There is no such thing as an unregulated free market. All markets are regulated. The absence of electoral voice - the absence of the state - does not imply chaos. It implies order by exit, by competition - unplanned and spontaneous. A Catallarchy. In order to get people to think about alternative forms of regulation apart from voice, we need to have this debate. And the best way to spark that debate is to wear the anarchist label proudly.

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I think it’s important to

I think it’s important to challenge the popular misconception that no right-thinking person would ever oppose government in its entirety.

Um, you mean "oppose the state", right? I'm an anarchist and I think government is absolutely necessary. That's what I expect protection agencies will be doing.

As for the larger point, I tend to agree with you that the time is ripe to reclaim "anarchy". However I certainly don't think it is any big deal if someone wants "polycentric law" or whatever instead. Some terms just become too polluted in public discourse. I'm happy as long as it is clear what we're talking about. But as the confusion of "state" and "government" above indicates, that's still a pretty tall order.

One thing to point out in this regard is that "anarchy" as a term is remarkably ill-defined, whereas "polycentric legal order" is not. On the other hand "anarchy" has a proud and significant history. The tradeoff being made here is not really clarity vs palatability, but rather, clarity vs history. I think "anarchy" is better than "polycentric law" not because it is clearer, but because it places us in an important intellectual tradition going back to the Enlightenment.

If Professor Barnett prefers

If Professor Barnett prefers not to use the label, isn't it a bit unfriendly to write a blog post calling him an anarchist?