Arguing Ancap Stability

I was searching through my personal blog archives for my "Castles in the Sea" parody of "Castles in the Sky", and came across a post which y'all may find interesting:

An article in the March issue of Reason included a brief debate about the proper scope of government, with comments by Richard Epstein and David Friedman, among others. Epstein wrote the following about anarcho-capitalism:

"A large society with no central authority offers an open invitation to some sleazy individual to consolidate power in his own name"

I responded in an email to the Letters from Readers department, CCd to Epstein, and to my pleasure received a prompt response.

My email:

In the article "Coercion vs. Consent", in this months Reason Magazine, Richard Epstein says the following about anarcho-capitalism: "A large society with no central authority offers an open invitation to some sleazy individual to consolidate power in his own name."

A large society with a democratic central authority, on the other hand, offers a literally open invitation every election for sleazy, power-hungry individuals to take the reins of an already-consolidated power base. Ostensibly in our names, practically in their own. The flaw he suggests in ancap is simply it reverting to what we already have. While consolidation of power by sleazy individuals is definitely a problem, government, far from being a solution, is the quintessential manifestation of this phenomenon.

The net worth of the richest individual in the US, Bill Gates, is $33 billion. The US federal government is spending about 2 trillion dollars a year these days. I'd be much happier in a world with power distributed in Bill Gates-sized boulders of instead US FedGov-sized mountains.

He responded:

Sorry, this won't work as a response. There is nothing in my position that defends the status quo, which of course tolerates far too much by way of regulation and taxation. And it seems clear that strong constitutional safeguards, of the sort that have worked with speech are sorely lacking with property. But the problem with the anarcho solution is that it avoids the risk of confiscation through legislation and opens us open to simple dictatorship by putsch which is far worse. It is not Bill Gates I worry about. It is some Saddam or Stalin like figure who will take advantage of all those who play by the rules to make sure that only his rules count. We have to be aware of naive optimism which assumes that if we could abolish the government we don't like that we could arrange it so that we ended up with a government, or no government, that we do like. It can't happen. The huge challenge is to domesticate the state. Efforts to abolish it do not take even one useful step in the right direction.

Richard Epstein

To which I said:

Thanks for the response, I appreciate hearing your thoughts (which I will now proceed to disagree with :) ).

Sorry, this won't work as a response. There is nothing in my position that defends the status quo, which of course tolerates far too much by way of regulation and taxation. And it seems clear that strong constitutional safeguards, of the sort that have worked with speech are sorely lacking with property. But the problem with the anarcho solution is that it avoids the risk of confiscation through legislation and opens us open to simple dictatorship by putsch which is far worse. It is not Bill Gates I worry about. It is some Saddam or Stalin like figure who will take advantage of all those who play by the rules to make sure that only his rules count.

The problem with these examples (and many others, like Hitler) is that they generally took power using the apparatus of the state. Hence they are not evidence for your contention that anarcho-capitalism is particularly vulnerable to such individuals. Rather, they are evidence that conventional states also have this vulnerability.

I am not claiming that lack of evidence for anarchist instability is evidence for anarchist stability - anarchy is simply rare and thus there is little evidence. What evidence I have seen points to instability, but with the mechanism being a slow devolution to traditional statism, not quick seizure by a tyrant. (Iceland, England...)

It is important to remember that ancap does not seek to abolish the state and leave the power vacuum so abhorred by human nature, instead it seeks a decentralized alternative which will still have some resistance to tyranny.

We both agree that the risk of tyranny exists. The question is whether it is greater when there is a large state apparatus that can protect us, but can also be leveraged against us, vs. a system where there are many small agencies that provide less protection but no single point of failure or takeover. It may be that the former pair of tradeoffs is a net win, but I don't believe you have provided good reasons to believe so.

We have to be aware of naive optimism which assumes that if we could abolish the government we don't like that we could arrange it so that we ended up with a government, or no government, that we do like. It can't happen. The huge challenge is to domesticate the state. Efforts to abolish it do not take even one useful step in the right direction.

I agree with your wariness of naive optimism. But ancap theorists do not all simply assume their alternative will be better. Rather, they have reasoning which suggests that it may be. I fully acknowledge that the stability problem is a serious worry, but I do not feel the case is conclusively proven. Nor does there seem to be much evidence that anarchic instability results in any more tyranny than statist instability. It may result in less, since building up the apparatus of tyranny takes time - and a centralized state is already partway there. ie creating an army takes time, but control an existing one and genocide can start immediately.

He replied briefly:

Patri:

A chip off the old block, I should say.
Richard

And that was that.

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Stefan, I think you're right

Stefan,

I think you're right to worry about Lockean arguments for property going awry. First, a minor point. Brandon is right that mixing my labor with something is just one way of acquiring property. It explains how it is that an individual can intially acquire something that had been given by God in common to all humans. Once I have property, I can trade it for other things, and they are mine, too.

Locke's theory of labor, by itself, does actually prevent large absentee landowners, for Locke modifies his theory of property with the proviso that one can claim only as much as one can use without spoilage. That means that I can't really legitimately claim to own thousands of acres of land unless I'm capable of consuming all the produce of those thousands of acres.

But Locke doesn't leave his theory of labor unmodified. In chapter 5 of the _Second Treatise_ he introduces the concept of money. Money won't spoil, so there isn't any problem with my collecting as much of it as I want. It's the introduction of money that also allows me to start collecting a lot more property than I would have been able to without it. Now I can acquire huge plantations, raise far more than I can consume, and then trade the excess to others for money (as well as for other things that I can consume).

Once we introduce money, though, it's not at all clear how a Lockean can rule out large absentee owners. If I'm allowed to collect all the money I like, and if I'm allowed to use that money as I see fit, then why, exactly, can't I use it to acquire land and hire people to work on that land?

It's not clear to me that Locke had any real objection to the absentee landowner. He made quite a lot of money himself investing in the new world (largely by investing in the slave trade, actually, which is why he has that odd chapter rationalizing slavery).

mixing labor with the

mixing labor with the land” thing is just to explain how someone can initially claim ownership of natural resources. After that, people can and should trade them among themselves as they please.

That may be. I can't download the complete text of his Second Treatist on Civil Government at the moment, so if someone else could provide a good cite that would be great.

Even if you are right, my examples concerning Kaibaland and the two conflicting ranchers illustrate Lockean scenarios of people initially claiming natural resources in what seems like a problematic way. In the first one, a large army of private laborers "mixes labor" with the land for what Joe called a proto-feudal lord, and in the second the Lockean claimjumper respects only the land you've directly labored on, and not the small fenceposts you've erected around the house (one could imagine the standard case in libertarian fantasy land where A builds in such a way as to completely surround B and prevent B from leaving his/her house as another Lockean-gone-awry scenario). All I am asking for is some kind of reasonable clarification of the Lockean view for why these are bad scenarios or, if they are not, why not.

This begs the

This begs the question–what is a valid claim? For example, according to strict Lockean standards, I’m not really sure I can be said to “own” my air conditioning ducts, my car’s hubcaps, or my roof tiles because I haven’t yet “mixed my labor” with them...

I don't know much about the history of philosophy in general or Locke in particular, but I strongly suspect that you're misinterpreting him. You may not have "mixed your labor" with those things, but someone else did, and you traded the products of your labor for the products of his. I'm pretty sure that the whole "mixing labor with the land" thing is just to explain how someone can initially claim ownership of natural resources. After that, people can and should trade them among themselves as they please.

E.G. Wakefield pointed out

E.G. Wakefield pointed out the problem almost two centuries ago–when laborers have independent access to cheap land and capital, it’s pretty hard to hire them for a wage that allows for significant profit.

So you're saying...what? That capital would be so abundant as to push interest rates to zero? Where would all this capital come from?

"All of the systems of

"All of the systems of property rights rules have large elements of local convention/consensus and arbitrariness involved in working out the practical details."

Sounds a lot like the function of common law. I sure hope protection agencies have a reasonable substitute for it.

Patri- That last message by Epstein was a cop-out. If I were a Randian, I would say that his position was beaten but he would rather "blank out" than accept the anarchist truth.

So I figure the details

So I figure the details would reflect the common sense understanding of the community, so long as they avoided the primary evil of large-scale absentee landlordism.

By "mutual defense associations" are you referring to protection agencies? It sounds like your saying the exact interpretation of the labor theory of appropriation will just be worked out by local communities? If the distinctions are arbitrary, that may be the only option, true--one possible conclusion of what I'm arguing is that there just isn't a rigid distinction between "large-scale" absentee landlordism and Chomsky leaving his house in the morning, and the most we could hope for is a tendency for people to shun claims that are "large-scale" enough...

All of the systems of

All of the systems of property rights rules have large elements of local convention/consensus and arbitrariness involved in working out the practical details.

Lockeans, Geoists and mutualists all believe in some version of the labor theory of appropriation, but it's hardly clear just how much labor has to be mixed with how much land to constitute appropriation.

On the Tuckerite end of the thing, the practical details would likely be worked out by free juries of mutual defense associations (something like Rothbard's libertarian law code, I suppose) in areas where a majority accepted the basic principles of occupancy-and-use. It stands to reason that people living in an area will work out the rules to avoid inconvenience as much as possible. Nobody wants to have to worry about having his homestead squatted when he hops over to the Piggly Wiggly, or decides to visit Aunt Edna for a couple of months. And nobody wants to worry about the local jury deciding not to enforce his claim to land he's letting lie fallow for a year. So I figure the details would reflect the common sense understanding of the community, so long as they avoided the primary evil of large-scale absentee landlordism.

Stefan, you’re just a

Stefan,

you’re just a cheap thief and you know it!.. you think substituting an f for the ph would have fooled me?? :wink: :razz:

I would also like to point

I would also like to point out that, an ancap society possibly being armed to the teeth through and through, dictatorship by either boulders or mountains would be very difficut, costly, and bloody (for them) to establish. Attack a state and you have only the army and police who are armed. However, if you attack an anarchocapitalist region you would presumably have what amounts to a vast series oif diverse parties, most of which are armed, to fight off one by one. An example of something similiar to this can be seen in the fact that no one has yet invaded the whole world.

I'd like a citation by

I'd like a citation by Wakefield if it's ok--one of the things I've been puzzling over is how property claims might be worked out in an ancap order. For example, what would prevent one individual from gradually expanding his land holdings and hiring mercenaries to protect it until his "private property" included, say, all of Texas? There would seem to be no limit to the size of personal wealth in that scenario.

I'd add that there would

I'd add that there would probably be precious few Bill Gates-sized boulders in a genuine free market. Without the state to externalize costs and enable the "magic of compound interest" through monopoly returns on land and capital, individual fortunes would probably reach their saturation points at a much lower level. E.G. Wakefield pointed out the problem almost two centuries ago--when laborers have independent access to cheap land and capital, it's pretty hard to hire them for a wage that allows for significant profit.

It's also certainly possible to get rich on a small scale from entrepreneurial profit, but the period of quasi-rents is fairly short. The price trajectory of any innovative product or process will quickly tend toward cost, unless the "innovator" is able to use the state to obstruct market entry by others using the same process.

My intuitive guess (FWIW) is that personal fortunes in a free market society would max out in the low tens of millions of $$. At the other end, the lower threshold of subsistence with squatted land and self-built housing would result in a much smaller underclass, as well.

In the recent past, I’ve

In the recent past, I’ve advocated minarchy, but you certainly raise some good points; ones that are well worth considering.

you’re just a cheap thief

you’re just a cheap thief and you know it!

Well I homesteaded the 'f' spelling, so there. :razz:

he is essentially collecting a property tax from the first homesteaders to establish rightful ownership.

Well the scenario I'm envisioning here is Lockean, I think--let's say that this guy is dedicated to building a huge amusement park (or domed city, whatever) that encompasses the current area of Texas, and employs hordes of laborers to construct it all on unclaimed land, then hires some people to administer it (let's call it Kaiba's amusement park). Then by Lockean standards he has "mixed his labor" with the park, right, by hiring other people to build it? Or are you suggesting that the workers should rise up and take control of the amusement park, or that Kaiba has in effect declared himself the "ruler" of his own state? In that case, why can't the contractor I hire to build my house just take over my house and evict me from it, on the grounds it has more of his labor than mine?

In general terms I guess I'm asking how valid are the claims of Lockean property rights, and how far do they extend? I got started thinking about the legitimacy of the Lockean approach after hearing a problematic example from Robert LeFevre--say you have big dreams to build a house and raise a family, so you build a house in unclaimed wilderness and put up a couple posts around a large perimeter in accordance with your future plans of raising a huge family, building a ranch, whatever, but some guy who already has a large family comes along and, being a strict Lockean, decides not to impinge on the small house you've already built, but does ignore your fenceposts and proceeds to build his farm/ranch on all the land surrounding your house. LeFevre says there is a name for this kind of person--a claimjumper. The moral, he says, is that not only property claimed by labor but property claims themselves are what we should respect.

This begs the question--what is a valid claim? For example, according to strict Lockean standards, I'm not really sure I can be said to "own" my air conditioning ducts, my car's hubcaps, or my roof tiles because I haven't yet "mixed my labor" with them, so LeFevre's argument says I can own those; but then what stops me from claiming more and more land (as in the above example), or even the moon, or Jupiter? "Well, it's actual use" you might reply to me--so that's where the above scenario of anarcho-land grabbism comes in; it's intended to be a Lockean/actual use version of a guy who makes an absurd claim to own something like Jupiter, or Texas.

simply define ownership by direct occupancy and use.

This, I think, is similar to Chomsky and the traditional anarchist position, and I think it suffers from the same problems. For example, why can't I just take over Noam Chomsky's house when he leaves for work in the morning to go to work; after all, Chomsky is not actually using his house after he "abandons" it. Same problem with burglary--if I leave on vacation, then the doctrine of actual use seems to imply burglary is moral. This is like a "finder's, keeper's morality".

To sum it up, we have a series of stronger and stronger requirements for owning property:

The Rancher - You own it if you claim it.
Kaibaland - You own it if you claim it and hire others to mix their labor with it.
Pure Lockean - You own it by having mixed your own labor with it.
Actual Use - You own it if you are continually mixing your labor with it on a regular basis.
The Body - You own your own body, which you've continuously mixed your labor with since you were born.

So in other words, actual use is too strong a requirement, and we might think that Pure Lockean is a weak enough requirement, but this doesn't seem to respect claims correctly, at least the sort of claims we would like (e.g. the claim to own your air-conditioning ducts), and weakining it too much seems to allow absurd claims (e.g. owning Texas, or Jupiter).

Professor Epstein's a bit

Professor Epstein's a bit dismissive, but I admire him a great deal. I'm reading Takings now, and it is simply fantastic. I'd recommend it highly.

Kevin, _But regardless of

Kevin,

_But regardless of the majority’s theoretical beliefs on land tenure rights, even if purely Lockean, the kind of gigantic land claims you picture would be impracticable without a centralized state to enforce them at taxpayer expense. The costs of enforcement against squatters, if the “owner” did it on his own dime, would outweigh the potential return._

I'm a bit puzzled by this. If your claims here are correct, then I'm wondering how it is that _any_ state ever got started? As some point, someone must have decided that extorting money from one's neighbors paid well enough to make it worthwhile. Small-scale activities provide capital to increase one's operations and before you know it, you have a centralized state.

This whole point is a bit odd. Landowners of the sort Stefan imagines would, in effect, be funding their operations at taxpayer expense, using funds from those easily bullied to coerce those less-easily bullied and so forth. Stefan's landlords are nothing more than proto-feudal-lords. We have pretty good evidence that feudalism paid well enough to be attractive for a long time, and what are feudal lords if not large landowners who used their own funds (collected from people who worked land that the lords claimed) to continue to pay for the continued collection of funds.

Feudal lords may have had a centralized state, but in many cases, that central state was toothless. Besides, the central state usually came _after_ the rise of feudalism in the first place, with the most powerful lord simply assuming rulership of the rest. If your economic story is true, then surely it would demonstrate that feudalism just won't arise.

Stefan, A View to the Art of

Stefan,

A View to the Art of Colonization, and England and America, are both good. The latter has a lot more eloquent passages, but the former also has all the basic arguments. Wakefield argued that it was almost impossible for the propertied classes to get rich in settler societies like Australia and America, because the possibility of self-employment on cheap land drove wages up.

On the land question, I think Hodgskin's distinction between "law-made property" and "labor-made property" is central. What you're describing sounds a lot like what Jerome Tuccille called "anarcho-land grabbism" in an early issue of Libertarian Forum. The landlord functions exactly like a state in claiming "sovereignty" over land he never appropriated with his own labor, in the Lockean sense; he is essentially collecting a property tax from the first homesteaders to establish rightful ownership. Rothbard argued that both preemption of vacant land on behalf of land speculators, and feudal appropriation of land already occupied by others, were equally illegitimate violations of real property rights.

I'd take it one further, as an individualist anarchist: simply define ownership by direct occupancy and use.

But regardless of the majority's theoretical beliefs on land tenure rights, even if purely Lockean, the kind of gigantic land claims you picture would be impracticable without a centralized state to enforce them at taxpayer expense. The costs of enforcement against squatters, if the "owner" did it on his own dime, would outweigh the potential return.

Patri, I would be interested

Patri,

I would be interested in hearing about your answer to a debate I was in on Liberty Forum. A fellow there basically asserted that, in an ancap society, the rich would buy up sufficiently powerful protection agencies to form a monopoly, which could use its power to shut out competitors, and thus become a state, and also to oppress people for its customers. He asserted that there would be nothing to stop this, and the attraction of having a massively powerful new state at their disposal would offset the costs of trying to get one.

Needless to say, I gave a number of answers, as you can see from the nine pages of thread! The culmination was a new post of mine, including lengthy quotes from Bryan Caplan, myself, Rod Long, and your dear old Paw, as to why it might be hard, in an established ancap society, for the rich to take over. This post was ignored by my opponent.

Money won’t spoil, so

Money won’t spoil, so there isn’t any problem with my collecting as much of it as I want. It’s the introduction of money that also allows me to start collecting a lot more property than I would have been able to without it. Now I can acquire huge plantations, raise far more than I can consume, and then trade the excess to others for money (as well as for other things that I can consume).

This sounds a little fishy to me--nails, leather, and hammers don't spoil either, so I'm not sure I see how the situation would be substantially any different under barter than under a money system.