Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Anarcho-Capitalism: So Crazy, It Just Might Work!

Anarcho-Capitalism: So Crazy, It Just Might Work!:
George Mason University economist, and advocate of
anarcho-capitalism, Bryan Caplan explains why details of the
ideological history of human attitudes toward methods and
techniques of government show that ideas that almost everyone
dismisses offhand as nutty and impossible can and in fact have come
to dominate our political culture.
I mean, you think anarcho-capitalism is crazy? Imagine how
people used to react to democracy?

Let
Caplan explain
:
Imagine advocating democracy a thousand years ago.  You
sketch your basic idea: "Every few years we'll have a free
election.  Anyone who wants power can run for office, every
adult gets a vote, and whoever gets the most votes runs the
government until the next election."  How would your
contemporaries react?
They would probably call you "crazy."  Why?  Before
you could even get to the second paragraph in your sales pitch,
they'd interrupt: "Do you seriously mean to tell
us that if the ruling government loses the election, they'll
peacefully hand the reins of power over to their rivals?!
Yeah, right!"
A thousand years later, the planet is covered with
democracies.  In most of them, defeated incumbents
consistently make the "crazy" decision to peacefully walk away from
power.  In long-standing democracies, this pattern is so
familiar we take it for granted.  But we shouldn't.  The
viability of democracy is an amazing fact that begs for an
explanation....
Caplan then points out that in the modern world, a political
leader who told his cronies their response to losing an election
would be to start killin' would not be obeyed, but condemned as
"crazy."
The lesson: "Crazy" is relative to expectations.  A
thousand years ago, everyone was used to despotism.   No
one expected a defeated incumbent to voluntarily
hand over power.  As a result, refusing to hand over power
didn't seem crazy.  Since it didn't seem crazy, incumbents who
refused to hand over power after losing an election probably would
have managed to retain power.  In modern Sweden, in contrast,
everyone is used to democracy.  Everyone expects a defeated
incumbent to voluntarily hand over
power.  Refusing to hand over power seems
crazy.  As a result, refusing to hand over power would end not
democracy, but the incumbent's career.
Now, Caplan says, anarcho-capitalism sounds as nuts as to most
everyone as democracy likely did in those days of yore:
"Do you seriously mean to tell us that
privatized police companies will peacefully settle disputes,
instead of attacking each other until one firm becomes the new
government?!  Yeah, right!"
....Suppose however that a stable anarcho-capitalist system
existed.  Then this logic reverses.  Since everyone is
used to this system, people expectprivate police
firms to amicably resolve disputes.  In such a setting, a CEO
who advocates a war of conquest would seem crazy - and his pleas to
his co-workers would fall on deaf ears.  In a stable
anarcho-capitalist society, a war-mongering CEO doesn't get a
war.  He gets fired.
Since we've never had anarcho-capitalism, this peaceful
equilibrium sounds like wishful thinking.  But it's no more
wishful thinking than stable democracy.  Both systems sound
crazy when first proposed.  Neither can be stable as long as
people expect them to be unstable.  But both can be stable
once people expect them to be stable.
You could object: The expectations necessary to sustain
anarcho-capitalism are highly unlikely to ever arrive.  But
the same was true for democracy a thousand years ago.  Yet
somehow, expectations radically changed and stable democracy
arrived.  How did expectations change so dramatically?
It's complicated.  But can expectations change
dramatically?  Absolutely.
As someone who was first exposed to anarcho-capitalist ideas 25
years or so ago, has written histories of the libertarian movement
since then, and is quite confident (even without survey data) that
the ideas seem far less crazy to far more people than he could have
imagined then, I think Caplan has a point. (On a far narrower level
of precipitous shifts in cultural attitudes toward "crazy," I think
the progress of ideas such as gay marriage and marijuana's use as
medicine or legalization recently are encouraging signs. Things do
change.)
Part of the key to Caplan's "It's complicated" is the tireless
work of ideological and economic education pursued by all the
various thinkers and organizations and journalists and advocates
working under the rough rubric of the "libertarian movement," whose
history was told in my 2007 book
Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern
American Libertarian Movement
, and whose most recent
surprising success was told in my book from last year,
Ron Paul's Revolution: The Man and the Movement He
Inspired
.