Would anarchy work?

In the scale free government post, one of the completely unresolved issues was what to do about the federalism axis. There are two scale free extremes to choose from: completely uniform democracy and pure libertarianism (i.e., anarchy). This post will ramble about the anarchy option without getting anywhere very useful.

Anarchy would only work if the universe is such that the middle ground can be efficiently simulated by ad-hoc coordinated groups. Recall that the goal isn’t actual anarchy, which is absurd, but a system with as few foundational rules as possible.

Here’s a This American Life episode describing a typical sham treaty between the U.S. and Dakota Indians in Minnesota which later turned into a war. I haven’t listened the whole thing yet since one part already struck me as illustrative: the initial treaty was negotiated by mistranslated a key portion from English to Dakota, so that the Dakota didn’t realize what they were going to sign. Then, during the actual signing, the Dakota were asked to sign an extra document (they thought it was another copy of the same treaty) giving away most of the settlement money for “debt” purposes.

Thus, the first prerequisite for anarchy to work is for all sides to have a fairly similar level of legal/game theoretic/political knowledge. At the moment, this isn’t remotely true at the level of individuals; the easiest example are the software license agreements we all scroll idly by. It’s also not true in mass: if it were, political advertising would have only informational effects. However, at least at the level of information, it’s possible to imagine technological or cultural improvements that could improve the situation. Cryptography is a good case (as mentioned here); a cryptographic defender can be exponentially weaker than an attacker and still remain secure.

Back to the Dakota: after the treaty, they were giving a 20 mile strip of land around a river. This was sufficient for farming but not for their traditional hunting lifestyle. Imagine they had kept enough land for hunting. This (cough, arguably) would go against the societal interest of the surrounding (new) majority population, since hunting is not an efficient use of land in terms of population density. However, Dakota on sufficient land for hunting were presumably quite self sufficient. As it happened they didn’t play the game well enough, fell into debt, and were tricked into the treaty. If they were smarter and kept clear of the surrounding economy, the only external pressure available would have been military. Let’s set that aside for a minute.

Thus, the next prerequisite for anarchy to work is some effective form of externally available pressure. There’s not much point if the external pressure has to be military (this basically reduces to normal government). The next best thing is probably boycotts or their variants (sanctions, tariffs, etc.), which large groups of people would have to jointly agree to. Setting aside the difficulties in setting up such an agreement, boycotts would not have been effective in the case of the Dakota; they would simply have laughed them off and gone back to hunting. The modern economy isn’t even close to self sufficiency for two reasons: (1) the massive amount of capital required for such high technology projects such as semiconductors and (2) comparative advantage. It would be nice if (1) would go away for fragility’s sake, but it’s also possible that (2) could soften, especially if transportation costs increase, energy and food become more local, the internet remains free, etc. These are great, but would also reduce the amount of external pressure available to combat carbon and other pollutants (imagine if the self sufficient Dakota were spewing tons of CO$_2$ into the sky).

And then, of course, the Dakota were crushed by industrial military power. The main game theoretic problems that military power would pose to an anarchist structure are (1) economies of scale and centralization and (2) the imbalance between defense and attack. The effectiveness of guerrilla warfare on home turf suggests that (1) may not be a problem. If a widely dispersed and self organizing military works, it would fit right in. I don’t have anything useful to say about (2). If (1) favors guerrillas and (2) isn’t too biased towards attack, the same techniques used to structure other forms of pressure seem like they should work fine for the military.

Back to the radio…

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