Libertarians and Pragmatists on Democracy Part 4: Why Market Anarchism is more Democratic than Democracy

Note: This is the final part of a series on democracy. It is assumed the reader is familiar with part one, defining democracy, part two, summarizing classical liberal perspectives on democracy, and part three, which analyzes how pragmatists conceive of democracy as a broader philosophy. Here, I will argue that a synthesis of libertarian and pragmatist perspectives on democracy will yield an argument in favor of market anarchy.

The insights of classical liberalism, and particularly modern libertarianism, have shown that democracy is likely to lead to a tyranny of an irrational and ignorant majority and public choice theory has shown how it results in awful policies thanks to a number of collective action issues. However, as pragmatists have argued, democracy’s philosophical aspirations to scientific public deliberation, seeking the consent of the governed, valuing the dignity of every individual, and decentralizing political authority to take advantage of dispersed intelligence are still admirable. However admirable these philosophical aspirations are, real-world democracies completely fail to fulfill them.

The natural question is, if not democracy, what political arrangements can live up to the philosophical goals of Dewey and Hook? I think the answer lies in market anarchism. In what follows, I will show how market anarchism could succeed in realizing the aspirations of philosophical democracy where political democracy has failed.

Before we get started, let’s take into account a few minor housekeeping notes. It is assumed that the reader has at least a cursory knowledge of how market anarchism and polycentric law works. If you are not familiar with these concepts I highly recommend watching this video by David Friedman before continuing. Also, I am in no way arguing that any of the thinkers discussed in this series are “really” anarchists unless they’re obviously so such as Huemer. I will not even claim that any of them “should have been” anarchists (with the exception of Hayek). I am simply arguing that if we take into account the insights of their various perspectives, one could plausibly defend market anarchism.

Market Anarchism, Unlike Democracy, Does Rest on the Voluntary Consent of the Governed

As Michael Huemer convincingly has shown, democracy does not actually “rest upon the freely given consent of the governed” as Sidney Hook claims. The bar tab example illustrates that we would not consider majority rule “consent” in any everyday interaction and there is little reason to think it should be any different in the context of political institutions. By contrast, market anarchism is almost by definition based off of consent. This is the primary reason why many deontological market anarchists, such as Murray Rothbard, are market anarchists in the first place and why they oppose the coercive, non-consensual nature of the state. While democracy’s claim to legitimacy is that the governed vote but they are still forced to follow the (unjustified) authority of a state that has the monopoly on force whether they agree or not to, market anarchism is based off of voluntarily consented to contracts between individuals and defense agencies and contracts between those defense agencies and private, voluntary court systems and arbitrators. Further, the content of the laws is agreed to and law becomes a product one buys in voluntarily agreeing to sign up with a defense company, just as one buys a car, a piece of furniture, or any other good.

It is curious that many pragmatist defenses of democracy sound very similar to what many market anarchists and libertarians write. Not just in Sidney Hook’s definition of a democracy as a government that “rests upon the freely given consent of the governed,” but perhaps most strikingly in John Dewey’s 1939 essay “I Believe.” In this essay, Dewey walked back some of his early Hegelian collectivist lines of his early years:

My contribution to the first series of essays in Living Philosophies put forward the idea of faith in the possibilities of experience at the heart of my own philosophy. In the course of that contribution, I said, “Individuals will always be the center and the consummation of experience, but what the individual actually is in his life-experience depends upon the nature and movement of associated life.” I have not changed my faith in experience nor my belief that individuality is its center and consummation. But there has been a change in emphasis. I should now wish to emphasize more than I formerly did that individuals are the final decisive factors of the nature and movement of associated life.

Indeed, throughout the whole essay he emphasizes “the idea that only the voluntary initiative and voluntary cooperation of individuals can produce social institutions that will protect the liberties necessary for achieving development of genuine individuality.” Throughout the essay, he decries (like many left-anarchists do) “state socialism” just as much as he does “state capitalism.” Dewey’s opposition to capitalism is well-known, but what is less known is his opposition to so-called “public collectivism.” His criticisms here could just as easily have been written by someone like Hayek:

Recent events have shown that state socialism or public collectivism leads to suppression of everything that individuality stands for. It is not too late for us in this country to learn the lesson taught by these two great historic movements [ie., the rise of state capitalism and state socialism]. The way is open for a movement which will provide the fullest opportunity for cooperative voluntary endeavor. In this movement, political activity will have a part, but a subordinate one. It will be confined to providing the conditions, both negative and positive, that favor the voluntary activity of individuals.

It is interesting that, like anarchists who favor direct action, he emphasizes that political activity is subordinate to the political movement he sees as necessary.

Of course, there are still notable differences between Dewey and libertarians, he still defends what he calls “functional socialism” in the socialization of medicine and still berates more than many libertarians would be comfortable with (except, of course, for left-anarchists) inequality caused by state capitalism. His vision of a truly individualist society, even in his later years, was one with localized, experimental democratic institutions and economics controlled by those localized governments in a “functional socialist” fashion (as I mentioned earlier, that economic vision is at odds with Dewey’s epistemological commitments).

However, I would argue that it is more than a mere superficial coincidence that Dewey’s criticisms of state capitalism are almost identical to those of market anarchists who decry “crony capitalism,” that his criticisms of state socialism are very similar to some individualist libertarian criticisms, and his overall rhetoric defending democracy on the grounds of “voluntary cooperation of individuals” sounds remarkably similar to many libertarians. This is because, largely, the philosophical ends Dewey seeks in politics are the same as those sought by libertarians, market anarchists, and classical liberals. However, the institutional means he advocates are very different and fail to meet those ends.

There is, conversely, one potential criticism that Sidney Hook would raise at this point: that market anarchism does not really rest upon the freely-given consent of the governed due to its allowance for economic inequality. Hook argued that income inequality undermines consent in democracy and, as a result, economic organization should be controlled by a democratically elected government. There are two points to be made. First of all, when economic organization is controlled by government in democracies it exacerbates the problem of income inequality. Rent-seeking culture arises in which concentrated interests use, through lobbying power, government force to accumulate and protect their wealth. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier,  there have been empirical studies showing how over-regulation lobbied for by those concentrated benefits have regressive effects. Even fairly anti-free market economists such as Joseph Stiglitz have argued that income inequality is not an inevitable result of market institutions, but a result of bad government policies such as corporate welfare.

Second, it is questionable to what degree income inequality would exist in pure market anarchy. Of course, much of the bad inequality experienced under state capitalism is the result of bad policies, but some if it is also just a result of market’s tendencies to disrupt economic distributions (which, as Mises argued in Liberalism: The Classical Tradition is not a bad thing because it allows for luxury markets which can serve as an experimental market for expensive, new goods that one day become popular consumer goods). Some market anarchists, such as Anna Morgenstern, have argued that the type of mass accumulation of capital under capitalism would be impossible under market anarchism. I am unsure to what extent I agree, and a systemic analysis of the economic roots of inequality is outside of the scope of this post. However, suffice it to say that it is an open, empirical question whether purely free markets would result in problematic levels of inequality, as Hook seems to think, and we have some good reasons to think it would not. At the very least, it is clear that the democratic institutions favored by Hook are not a serious solution to the problem.

Market Anarchism, Unlike Democracy, Relies on a Decentralized Process of Political Decision Making

Dewey argued in “Democracy and Educational Administration” that “it is the democratic faith that [the distribution of knowledge and intelligence] is sufficiently general so that each individual has something to contribute and value of each contribution can be assessed only as it enters into the final pooled intelligence constituted by the contributions of all.” He seems to echo Hayek’s knowledge problem critique of socialism when he argues that the democratic faith is based on the wisdom that “no man or limited set of men is [sic] wise enough or good enough to rule others without their consent[.]” As we have seen, democracies tend towards heavily centralized governments that undermine this faith and fail to take advantage of the dispersed knowledge (in Hayekian terms) among individuals in society.

Market anarchy, on the other hand, by definition takes advantage of this feature of dispersed intelligence. Rather than having law be designed by a centralized legislature, law arises out of voluntary market exchanges between individuals and, like common law, the precedent of judges in private courts. Of course, both Dewey and Hayek embraced democratic institutions (in Hayek’s case, as well as free market economic coordination) to take advantage of decentralized knowledge. However, both Dewey and Hayek, particularly the ladder (Dewey never wrote about market anarchism as it did not exist as a unique perspective until almost a decade after his death), failed to appreciate the extent to which a polycentric legal system does this much better. Peter Stringham and Todd Zywicki have noted this tension in Hayek’s thought in particular, as they put it in an abstract for their excellent paper on the issue:

Should law be provided centrally by the state or by some other means? Even relatively staunch advocates of competition such as Friedrich Hayek believe that the state must provide law centrally. This article asks whether Hayek’s theories about competition and the use of knowledge in society should lead one to support centrally provided law enforcement or competition in law. In writing about economics, Hayek famously described the competitive process of the market as a “discovery process.” In writing about law, Hayek coincidentally referred to the role of the judge under the common law as “discovering” the law in the expectations and conventions of people in a given society. We argue that this consistent usage was more than a mere semantic coincidence — that the two concepts of discovery are remarkably similar in Hayek’s thought and that his idea of economic discovery influenced his later ideas about legal discovery. Moreover, once this conceptual similarity is recognized, certain conclusions logically follow: namely, that just as economic discovery requires the competitive process of the market to provide information and feedback to correct errors, competition in the provision of legal services is essential to the judicial discovery in law. In fact, the English common law, from which Hayek drew his model of legal discovery, was itself a model of polycentric and competing sources of law throughout much of its history. We conclude that for the same reasons that made Hayek a champion of market competition over central planning of the economy, he should have also supported competition in legal services over monopolistic provision by the state — in short, Hayek should have been an anarchist.

There is one possibly fatal objection to this line of reasoning, that is also the most substantial objection to market anarchism as a whole: the possibility that market anarchy, like democracy, will eventually lead to a centralized state that undermines its attempt to take advantage of dispersed knowledge. This argument was initially hinted at by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia in his argument about the “immaculate conception of the state” but was expanded on most convincingly by Tyler Cowen. Ultimately it is an empirical question whether market anarchy would eventually lead to more centralization, and it is outside the scope of this post to analyze that fascinating question in any satisfactory amount of detail. I will say, however, that Bryan Caplan has given more or less convincing reasons why this may not be the case.

Market Anarchism, Unlike Democracy, Values the Dignity of the Individual

One of the features central to the pragmatist “democratic faith” is the belief that “belief that every individual should be regarded as possessing intrinsic worth or dignity[.]” As I argued, the conflation of democratic governments with the “collective will” of the people undermines this faith as political dissenters and individual thinkers become viewed as opponents to “the people.” Indeed, it seems that the type of “public” and “private” collectivisms that Dewey ridiculed in “I Believe” are a result of democratic institutions run amuck.

Market anarchism, meanwhile, suffers from no such issues. Instead, the intrinsic worth of the individual is respected as their free choices and associations is the main driving mechanism for political organization. There is no violation of free speech and free thought by a deliberative government as such a government does not exist in the first place under anarchy, and thus the intrinsic worth and dignity are not found in the “will of the people” as in democracies, but in the sovereign individual’s choice of which defense provider to contract with.

Market Anarchism, Unlike Anarchy, is Scientific and Deliberative

Contrary to Dewey and Hook’s characterization of democracy as a deliberative, intelligent application of the scientific method to social issues, democracy is instead characterized by polarizing populist pandering and rationally ignorant and irrational voters casting meaningless ballots based cultural associations rather than reasoned consideration of policy issues. Market anarchism, meanwhile, does have the deliberative, scientific nature the pragmatists vainly hope democratic institutions could aspire to. While under democracy the cost of casting an informed vote is very high and the benefits very low resulting in massive amounts of rational ignorance, under market anarchism individuals have every incentive to ensure they are informed about the legal rules they are purchasing, so to speak, by contracting with rights defense agencies. Unlike in democracy where the benefits of casting an informed vote are extremely low because your vote has an infinitely small probability of making a difference, under market anarchy the rights defense agency you chose to contract with has immediate and certain impacts upon your life, thus creating a much larger incentive to cast an informed (metaphorical) vote by choosing to purchase the services of a preferred rights defense agency.

Deliberation about legal policy is far more likely to be more reasoned in market anarchy than in democracy. First, because market anarchism is more radically experimental than political democracy. Freedom of speech and of thought in democracy is often likened to a metaphorical “marketplace of ideas,” but in market anarchy it is a literal marketplace in which the ideas are not chosen just by speculation and public deliberation, but actually experimented with and acted upon in practice. Democracy is only “experimental” in a priori public deliberation about policies, but market anarchy is “experimental” in actually applying those policies and assessing their results a posteriori. Under democracy, once a policy is chosen it becomes difficult to assess counterfactually if another potential policy could have yielded better results, thus it is difficult to ascertain which was the superior policy. It is as if scientists in a lab simply talked about the hypothetical results of various hypothetical experiments and chose theories based on their discussions rather than actually testing the theories by actually running the experiments. Because of the polycentric nature of law under market anarchy, multiple policies are taken on at the same time, making it easier to tell which is more desirable in practice rather than simple theoretical deliberation.

Another reason why political deliberation is more likely to be reasoned in market anarchy than democracy is because of the institutional mechanisms for choosing policy. The main way law is “made” in democracy is through legislation voted on by representatives, who are ultimately accountable to the public through general elections. Often, debate on the floor of legislative bodies is anything but reasoned and deliberative, and clearly discussion about elections quickly devolves into mindless partisan bickering, sensationalist “scandals,” and populist rhetorical flair rather than reasoned discussion about policies. In market anarchy, however, law is “discovered” by private arbitrators and judges who are ultimately accountable to the defense firm’s consumers in the marketplace. It is pretty clear that real-world courtrooms tend to have a more elevated level of dialogue than legislative bodies, to say less of public elections, and I fail to see why this would not be the case under market anarchism.

Further, there wouldn’t be a need for partisan bickering and debates that bring down the level of public discourse in market anarchy, for similar reasons why there isn’t nearly as nasty debates about preferences for consumer goods as there are about politics. To use an analogy, in democracy, if we’re voting on what soda to consume, whoever wins the vote gets a monopoly on their preferred soda; so my preference for Coke could possibly eliminate your ability to enjoy Pepsi; but in a market, if I prefer Coke you still can drink Pepsi, meaning we don’t need to bicker about our consumer preferences. It is similar (though clearly not identical because when we’re talking about law it’s quite a bit more consequential) with legal policies: in democracy, if I prefer one set of legal rules to another which you prefer, we must fight over how to vote because the two are mutually exclusive; but in market anarchy, because law is polycentric and not monolithic, they are not mutually exclusive so we don’t need to fight nearly as hard for it. There’s a good reason why debates among consumers for products they prefer (Coke v. Pepsi, Apple v. Windows, Android v. iPhone) rarely get as nasty as debates in democratic politics, because there is room for disagreement at the end of the day in a market that there is not in politics.

Conclusion

Clearly, democracy is far from the ideal method of political organization. As classical liberals throughout history have shown, despite the fact that it may be possible to other political forms such as oligarchy and monarchy, it has a tendency towards the tyranny of the majority and massive collective action problems. However, the philosophical aspirations of the most ardent defenders of democracy are still extremely valuable, even if their preferred institutions fail to deliver. Market anarchism is a reasonable synthesis of these two insights; it has the potential to live up to the aspirations of pragmatist democrats without the major, systemic problems of real working democracies that undermine those aspirations.

John Dewey once said “democratic institutions are no guarantee for the existence no guarantee for the existence of democratic individuals,” what is needed is a better set of institutions that have a higher probability to cultivate Dewey’s idea of “democratic individuals.” Market anarchism appears to be a viable candidate for such a set of institutions.

Around the Web

  1. On the Problematic Political Authority of Property Rights; Kevin Vallier, a philosopher, reviews a recent book on market anarchism (be sure to check out the ‘comments’ thread as well)
  2. Compton as the Bellwether for Urban America; interesting article from a graduate student at UCSD
  3. Rand Paul is no “isolationist,” contrary to the opinion of the ill-informed
  4. Liberty’s lost decade; the Economist decides that enough is enough
  5. Tyler Cowen’s ‘international trade’ reading list