All Commentary
Monday, April 1, 1974

The Necessity of Government

Mr. Kelley is a graduate student in philosophy at Princeton University.

Anarchism is, on the face of it, a political philosophy; it is, therefore, a theory about the proper relation between the individual and the government. The theory is very simple: it is that there is no proper relation between the individual and the government — because there ought to be no government. For this reason, anarchism is held by many to be a simple-minded theory. By many on the right, however, it is held to be merely a simplification of their basic principles, with all the appeal of such simplicity. For libertarians believe that government has fewer proper functions than it currently assumes, in this country and others; and when the so-called free market anarchists say that government has no proper function, it is often thought that they are merely taking the principle of liberty, with great rigor if little wisdom, to a logical extreme. And this image of the anarchist as a logical purist, as a friend of rigor though the skies fall, is also cultivated very assiduously by the anarchists themselves. But the image, I suggest, is an illusion. Logic, like virtue, is something of which one cannot have an excess; but anarchism is distinguished by its lack of that quality. Its antipathy to law apparently extends even to the laws of thought.

The first and most basic failure of the anarchist logic is its failure to notice a crucial distinction. An anarchist is one who wishes to place coercion, the use of force and the ability to use it, on the market. The use of force to prevent the initiation of force against its citizens is the basic function of government, and the essence of “free market” anarchism is to hold that this service should be on the market, like any other. In holding this view, anarchists overlook a crucial difference between this coercive service, and all other economic goods and services.

The distinctive feature of coercion derives from the position of values in the market place. Values are, in the first instance, the subject of moral philosophy, whose task it is to discover their nature, and to formulate the proper standards for evaluating goods and actions, means and ends. This task is one of discovery, because values are objective. It is a fact that some things are values whereas others are not; it is a fact that some things are more valuable than others. In a free market and a free society, however, individuals may pursue whatever ends they choose, regardless of whether they really are valuable; and they may apportion their time and money to things in ways that may or may not reflect the relative importance of these values. People can and of course should take moral considerations into account, but nothing compels them to do so.

Despite the protestations of statists from Plato onward, there is no contradiction here. For in a free society, the actions of one person do not restrict the proper liberty of another, including his liberty to act morally. One has no right, therefore, to restrict the actions of someone just because they are immoral. In a free market, the production and trade of economic goods are determined by individual value preferences; and whether these are moral or immoral, rational or irrational, the exchanges of economic goods to which they give rise do not violate anyone’s rightful freedom — that is to say, his rights. Your enjoyment of your rights is not endangered by my misuse of mine. If this were not the case, then to the extent that it were not, the market would have to be regulated by some institution outside the market: for the market is unjustifiable if it allows the violation of individual rights. Fortunately, the market as we know it does not allow this, and requires no outside regulation — with the exception of a single economic good: coercion.

Coercion Is Different

The use of coercion against criminals and foreign aggressors is a service, one provided by the government to its citizens. As such it may be considered an economic good. But it differs from all other economic goods in just the respect mentioned. When its use is morally improper, it does violate individual rights. Coercion, in this world, must sometimes be exercised. Given the existence of criminals, and the constant possibility that some men will prefer criminal to honest means and ends, the existence of a power to prevent and punish this by force has a certain value. Its value is restricted, however, by the moral principle forbidding its use against persons who have not themselves used force against others. If this power is exercised improperly, if it is not used in accordance with the objective principles that define and delimit its value, then it violates rights — the rights of innocent people, or at least the right of the guilty to have their guilt objectively demonstrated before suffering punishment. This is true by the very nature of coercion, and it is true only of coercion.

Coercion, therefore, and coercion alone, falls under the proviso mentioned earlier: since it has the potential for violating rights if used improperly, its use cannot be determined by the value preferences people happen to hold, whether right or wrong; and so cannot be determined by market forces. Coercion has a place in social life, but it must be kept in place; and the market is not the institution to do this. Power to coerce, then, must be reposed in another institution altogether, one outside the market and the sway of subjective value preferences. This institution must have strict control — a monopoly, in effect —over the use of force, since its function is to take force off the market. Its use of coercion must be determined solely by rules derived from the appropriate moral principles; and it must operate in accordance with such rules without taking into consideration any individual or collective desires to the contrary. This institution all men call government.

The Nature of the Market

Here, then, is the first failure of the anarchist logic: it fails to discern that feature of coercion which distinguishes it from the economic goods offered on the market. A second failure concerns the nature of the market itself. It consists in the assumption that the market would exist without the government. Anarchists wish to see the services presently offered by the government offered instead by private “protection agencies” competing on the free market. We have seen why this is not appropriate, given the nature of this particular good. We must now question the assumption that in the absence of governmental institutions outside and protecting the market, a free market would even exist for protection agencies to offer their services in. The free market is one in which all exchanges are voluntary. A person can trade his time, effort, money or goods for those of another only if the latter is willing. The economic laws of a free market are true only when or to the extent that this condition obtains.

Consider, for example, the law of supply and demand. What would happen to prices if one did not have to pay for a good at a price acceptable to the seller, but could take the good by force, giving nothing in exchange? There is no way of telling. The law of supply and demand does not apply to thieves. The economic analysis of the market assumes that the use of force does not occur, that all exchanges are mutually acceptable to the parties involved. It assumes, in effect, that the cost of using force is infinite.

This assumption is legitimate, for in free market theory there exists an institution outside the market which protects the rights of individuals, and therefore ensures that the principle of voluntary exchange will be observed. This institution may work well or badly, but its working well or badly is not a subject of economic law; it is the concern, rather, of political and legal theory. The government codifies and enforces the rules of the market; it establishes a framework of rights and liberties that men must respect in action. Economic theory then tells us what happens as individuals act within that framework to acquire the things they value. Economic laws are to political laws as principles of strategy are to the rules of a game.

A Dilemma

For anarchism, however, all this is changed. Anarchists hold that in their scheme also, force would not be used; coercion would not be a feasible alternative to voluntary exchange. But they cannot assume this in describing the market as they would have it. They cannot assign the problem to another field, as we do, and say that whatever is necessary to prevent the use of force we shall bring about by consciously designing our institutions to that end. The anarchists would place governmental services on the market, to be offered by entrepreneurs on the basis of their own value preferences and their expectations about the preferences of others. But if so, then they can only try to predict what is likely to come about from the interplay of human interests. If we ask how our rights are to be secured to us in the anarchist system, the anarchist can only answer que sera sera. At best he can try to predict what would happen.

The anarchists, then, have their work cut out for them. They must show how, by the mechanism of the market, things work out in such a way that force is not used. But of course they cannot do this without assuming the existence of a free market, an assumption to which they are not entitled. They cannot make their case — substantiate their prediction that force will not be used — without relying on economic laws; but economic laws, as we have seen, are true only on the assumption that all exchange is voluntary, which is the very point at issue. It should, no doubt, be easy to prove that the cost of using force is prohibitive, if one assumes from the outset that the cost of using force is infinite. But the proof would be invalid; it would be circular. A principle of strategy, which tells one what to do given that the rules must be followed, is hardly the vehicle by which to prove that the rules must be followed in the first place.

The Problem of Monopolies

Consider, for example, the problem of monopolies in an anarchistic society. What is to prevent protection agencies from banding together to destroy the competition and form a monopoly over protective services? Is it because monopolies do not occur in a free society? But the reason monopolies do not occur is that anyone is free to compete with large firms and, by underselling them, cut into their market; it is because the only determinant of success in a free market is the ability of the entrepreneur to persuade consumers of the value of his goods, to give them the best choice. What would happen if force as well as persuasion could be used against consumers and competitors? Why would the large protection agencies restrain themselves from driving out the competition by force? That is, after all, what happens in the nearest model we have to the anarchist system of protection agencies — the criminal underworld. Clearly the anarchists are assuming what they have to prove: that the market would be free, that competition would exist unhindered, that coercion is not a means by which men would deal with each other.

Coercion is not, of course, the only means by which men do deal with each other; in most societies, gang warfare is an exception. The anarchist may wish to argue, on the basis of this fact, that from a state of nature protection agencies would arise in peaceful competition, and the anarchist vision would be fulfilled. But this argument too is denied him. For wherever men, finding themselves without government, have not descended to the level of gang warfare, they have done something else equally damaging to the anarchist hypothesis: they have formed new governments. Or, in the anarchist terminology, they have formed monopolistic “protection agencies.” But this is precisely what the anarchist says would not happen in an anarchistic situation. Anarchism lives on its opposition to government, but every government that exists is a refutation of anarchism; for it belies the anarchists’ prediction that if only we can send government away it will not come back.

Again, anarchists complain that governments are immoral because they initiate, or would initiate, the use of force against anyone forming a rival “protection agency.” Now it is false that this would be immoral; a government is justified in preventing any private power designed to exercise coercion, because such a power is a threat to the rights of its citizens, even if the power is never actualized. But the fact that governments would use force in this way is another refutation of anarchism; for such a use of force by one “protection agency” against another to keep its monopoly is precisely what the anarchist predicts would not occur.

That such things happen, or would happen, is embarrassing to the anarchist because he allows no means for preventing them from happening. The anarchist is caught in a dilemma. Like his namesake of the nihilistic left, he rejects the social institution through which men attempt, by positive action, to insure themselves of certain conditions necessary for social existence; yet unlike the nihilist he believes that there are such conditions, and that a form of society in which they do not obtain is unacceptable. Caught in this dilemma, he can only try to argue that these conditions will come about by natural law, so that we need do nothing ourselves. But this argument, we have seen, is riddled with logical errors. It ignores the difference between coercion and economic goods on the market, a difference that undercuts the argument from the outset. It relies, for its argument that coercion would not in fact occur, on principles that assume coercion cannot occur, which makes the argument circular. And since it rests on a prediction about what men would do, it is vulnerable to the historical facts about what men have done. In the end, the anarchist cannot escape his dilemma; his dilemma is a contradiction. He is advocating a certain end, a society free of violence among men, while rejecting the only means of achieving that end. Thus anarchism is hardly even a political philosophy. It is, much rather, an attempt to escape the responsibility of providing one. It would, as its critics contend, be a disaster in practice; but that is because it is fantastic and incoherent in theory.  

  • David Kelley is founder of The Atlas Society and the author of many books.