Rebutting Austin Petersen’s five reasons he is not an anarchist


Austin Petersen of the Libertarian Republic posted an article entitled “5 Reasons Why I Am Not an Anarchist.” Without wasting any time, he goes right ahead and accuses anarchists of having “an incomplete understanding of the basics of force, fraud, life, liberty, or property.” As you’ll see in a few moments, I think it’s Petersen who does not quite understand these concepts.

Just so that it is clear, since “anarchist” can mean different things to different people, I will be defending anarchy from the anarcho-capitalist/voluntarist perspective.

So let’s get into Petersen’s five reasons he is not an anarchist. And I won’t make you click to go to another page to see each one!

1.  Rights are guarantees

Petersen starts by saying, “A right is something that MUST be provided.” Not only is that a weak definition of a right, but it is also incomplete. I prefer Walter Williams’ definition of a right: “A right is something that exists simultaneously among people. A right does not confer any obligation on another.” People have the right to free speech because they can exercise it without anyone else having to do anything. You can possess property without obligating anyone else to do anything.

Petersen goes onto say, “Any society aimed at protecting natural rights must use some type of force to guarantee those rights.” This is not necessarily true. While it is largely seen as permissible to use self-defense when your rights are being violated, there are also peaceful means that can be used to protect your rights. Examples of peaceful means are ostracization and disassociation. Furthermore, can rights ever been guaranteed? We can all agree that we have the right to life, so murder would be an obvious violation of that right, but can anyone imagine a society where you are guaranteed not to be murdered? Anarchists do not claim that they can create a utopia but instead advocate an environment that gives them to best chance of retaining their rights.

Petersen then brings up the right to a lawyer:

If there is a natural right to a lawyer if you are accused of a crime, then that right means that there must be resources expended to provide citizens with a defense against the government’s accusations. A fully privatized law system would be justice for sale to the highest bidder. Citizens without the means to defend themselves could be railroaded into arbitration that works against their interests and for whoever paid for the judge.

First of all, there is no natural right to a lawyer. I am not sure how he decides that there is, but going back to Walter Williams’ definition of a right, using the services of a lawyer would confer an obligation on (see if you can guess it) a lawyer to provide legal services. And if no lawyers want to represent you but you have some right to a lawyer, then using Petersen’s definition it would be justified to force a lawyer into service. But don’t lawyers have the right to decide if they want to work or not? It seems that Petersen has run himself into a very predictable contradiction.

And it’s amazing that he did walk right into that because his argument is basically the same as the arguments for socialized health care. Some people say that people have the right to health care and that it “MUST” be provided. It gets better because Petersen says, “Competitive policing and private security would be available,” which sounds so much like the promise of “You can keep your doctor if you want!”

He finished that thought with “public security for those who can’t protect themselves is a natural right if the aim of society is to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” How can a society claim to protect natural rights if they are going to violate natural rights to do so?

As far as being railroaded in a private court, I’ve written against the socialization of courts:

Since disputes between people are a common feature of everyday life (watch some late afternoon network television if you don’t believe me), there is no doubt that there is a demand for courts regardless of whether or not government exists. So why should the system be socialized?   Why should judges be elected or appointed by politicians? Why not allow people’s dollars to determine who the best judges are? Let the system work on reputation and how well arbitration rulings are perceived.

A private court system incentivizes the judge to act fairly and impartially in the cases presented to him. Remember, people go to court thinking that they are in the right and have the facts on their side, so of course they would want someone who looks at the facts in an unbiased manner to resolve their dispute. If a person refuses to go to court, there is reason to suspect something suspicious.

Speaking of bias, people often go to court in cases against the government, but the judge is an employee of the government. How exactly do you expect to ensure that you get a fair and impartial case?

2.  An anarchist society is not able to protect its citizens from foreign invasion

Petersen says:

An anarchist state is at the mercy of anyone who wishes to expand into their territory unchecked. The Native Americans can attest to this.

I have recently written about this where I argued against minarchists who claim that the free market is incapable of protecting a free society from a foreign attack. I pointed out the problems with Petersen’s exact argument:

Though minarchy could work as a non-coercive institution if “taxes” were paid voluntarily (although it becomes debatable if that still qualifies as minarchy), many who support it argue that national defense is a service that the free market is incapable of providing. And without this national defense, they argue, natural rights such as life, liberty, and property would be subject to whether or not some outside force decides to invade and take those rights away.

There are a number of problems with this position, such as: rights would then be subject to the whims of the minarchist military and government; the dichotomy of “lacking a military means invasion” does not actually exist; the burden of proof is on the minarchist to show that defense means could not be privately funded (after all, people generally purchase insurance and protective services to make sure their property is not damaged or invaded regardless if the attacker is nature or human). Those are good discussion points, but there is a deeper philosophical issue that should be examined.

This then causes the problems associated with taxation to fund the military (which Petersen advocates):

Again, according to the minarchist, the threat of losing your rights justifies what would otherwise constitute an unjustifiable act of coercive taxation in order to fund the defense organization. I do not hold that there are never situations when coercion against peaceful individuals is justified as there are always a number of lifeboat scenarios that someone can come up with.

The difference, however, between a lifeboat scenario and a state-supplied military is that the former is almost always a temporary situation and usually involves extraordinary circumstances while the latter is a situation that is guaranteed according to the minarchist’s view of social orders. If stateless societies with voluntarily-provided militaries (i.e. free market-based) are unworkable, then if tried they would undoubtedly revert back to or would be swallowed up by some form of state. Even if it were the only function of it, the state would of course then fund its military through taxation.

This means that the taxation is fundamentally unavoidable for any society in any sort of “equilibrium.” If a minarchist holds that he has the right to his body and his property, how can he simultaneously hold that the state has the right to his property to fund a national defense? Something is either exclusive to an individual or it is not. Under the minarchist’s point of view, individuals only have the right to a portion of their property. Failure to pay what you do not have the right to would be a violation of the right of the state, making the consequences of the pursuit of the taxes owed justified.

He then throws in the line about Native Americans, but wasn’t it a fairly minarchist government that did that to them?

Apparently Petersen does not realize that there are countries today that have no military? Somehow they remain sovereign. Furthermore, he ignores the fact that the Founding Fathers were against the idea of a standing army. They recognized that it was unnecessary (and dangerous).

Michael Huemer does an excellent job of explaining how an anarchist society could handle this issue in Chapter 12 of his book The Problem of Political Authority. He argues that the anarchist society would very likely use guerilla tactics to fight the invading military, which has been shown throughout history to be extremely successful against even the strongest of militaries. See the American Revolution, Vietnam War, and the current debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Anarchist societies would also be very likely to avoid conflicts in the first place. Because of this, the anarchist society would be on much friendlier terms with the various nations of the world, likely leading to trade. This trade would make the rewards of conquest less appealing since it would eliminate the wealth created through trade for the attacking nation and would also cause other nations involved in the trading to have an interest in keeping that trade going. They would have very good reason to come to the defense of anarchist society in this case. A final example (he has plenty of compelling arguments) is that with the increase in liberal democracies seen over the past century or so, wars between nations are not as commonplace as they were before. Countries today are less likely to attack each other and the anarchist society would probably be geographically located around these friendlier, more liberal countries. The recipe for war just is not there.

Next Petersen talks about a mutual defense pact between neighbors and constitutions:

The constitution laid out the means through which American society can protect itself. If I band together with my neighbors to form a mutual defense pact, and we call that a constitution, it would necessarily have the same effect as government.

Can I call the agreements to pay money for food with my local grocery store a constitution as well? What about any other agreements I make? I sure have a lot of constitutions out there! So what Petersen is missing when he equates the mutual defense pact with a government is that the defense pact is voluntarily agreed upon while the government certainly is not.

Citizens should absolutely be free to seek the means of self-defense, and should not be prohibited from exercising those means vigorously to defend their own lives, liberty, and property. They should be free to join together for mutual protection, provided they do not infringe on the fundamental natural rights of other citizens in doing so.

He forgot to add “except lawyers” at the end there.

3.  Anarchy means the non-aggression principle is optional

This part is short enough to just quote his entire text:

If you believe in the non-aggression principle… who’s job is it to enforce it? If someone breaks into your home, and you are unable to defend yourself, or pay for private security, who do you call? If you have a dispute with your neighbor, who (you allege) stole your life savings, how will you sue them or have them arrested to get it back, assuming you might be correct?

In an anarchist state, no one is responsible for defending life, liberty, or property unless they are paid to do so. Crimes such as theft, fraud, breach of contract, or murder could be committed against those who do not have the means of self-defense. In Ancapistan… no one can hear you scream. And no one cares.

It is the individual’s job to ensure that their own rights are not violated. Who else would or should have that job? Given the current system of socialized police, do they even do a good job of it? How often are murders solved and how often are stolen goods returned? Is there actually equal access to justice?

If he wants to say that some people would go without protection if the police were privatized, shouldn’t Petersen advocate for other industries to be socialized so that people receive some suitable minimum? Why not socialize the food industry so that no one starves? Does Petersen favor a socialized health care system because some people are without it? No, anyone who claims to support libertarianism should understand that the market does a remarkable job of distributing resources to the point that just about anyone who wants a basic necessity can get it.

Petersen is acting as though people aren’t paying for police services now anyway. Local governments tax their citizens to pay for it. Not too long ago, I was curious to see how much the tax burden for police per person in my own town was. I divided the total costs for police for the year by the number of residents and it came out to about $250 per person. Given that the market does a much better job than the government of allocating resources, it wouldn’t be surprising to see that cost go down if the system were privatized. But $21 per month for police services as it is really isn’t that bad.

Oh, apparently in an anarchist society people lose all sense of good will and community. “No one can hear you scream. And no one cares.” Hmm, those are the same things that the anti-libertarian crowd says about anything libertarians want government out of. Anyway, people generally do not want crime in their neighborhoods even if it is not directly involving them, so there is an extremely good chance that people would contract with their private police forces to patrol their communities and deal with whatever they come across. This of course means that people who might not be under contract could still receive the services.

4.  The Non-Aggression Principle? I didn’t sign sh*t!

Before getting into anything Petersen said, the non-aggression principle is a guideline by which to live your life. It is not an axiom by which anarcho-capitalism hinges upon since it is incomplete (it says nothing about what sort of retaliation is justified) and is insufficient in any number of lifeboat scenarios. A better ideal to go build a philosophy is what Michael Huemer uses: people have the prima facie right to live free from harmful coercion. In other words, if you’re going to violate someone’s rights, you need to have a very good reason to do so and it has to be the last resort.

Petersen decides to redefine what a social contract is by including the non-aggression principle in with it. He doesn’t even acknowledge that most social contract theory—though incorrectly—is based on implied contracts. I’m not even sure he understands what a contract is:

Indeed, it would be dangerously naive to submit to any form of a non-aggression principle, for as soon as one party signs, those who have not could feel free to decline, and everyone who chooses to live life in a pacific state would be easy prey for those who do not live according to that principle.

Who signs a contract with someone and abides by the terms without the other party also signing it and abiding by the terms? Petersen’s above statement is just utter nonsense. The non-aggression principle does not need an explicit contract. It doesn’t need an implied contract. It’s just the way that people naturally interact: if you try to steal from me, I’m going to try to prevent you from doing it and recover my property if you do succeed. For those who do choose to live as pacifists, what makes Petersen think the rest of society would tolerate behavior such as preying on pacifists? That just does not pass the common sense test.

Also, in many cases the non-aggression principle forbids the basic principle of a preemptive attack for the purpose of self-defense. Anarchists argue that there is “no harm, no crime,” however, if that is the case, then someone pointing a gun at you is not a crime. For if someone points a gun at you, it could be considered aggression, but if they do not shoot, then there is no harm. A minarchist society punishes threats and rightly labels such acts as aggression.

This is just silly. Find me an anarchist who doesn’t think that pointing a gun at someone is an act of aggression. Just because some anarchists feel that certain actions that cause no harm should not be considered a crime does not mean that they feel that every action that does not cause physical harm is not something that should be treated as a crime.

In even the most rudimentary of scenarios, the non-aggression principle does not provide for the means of adequate self-defense.

It does not need to. There are other ways to determine it.

5.  Private Property

Wow, Austin Petersen thinks that you need a government to determine what private property is even though the vast majority of people agree that creating something with unused materials or trading with someone else are generally the legitimate ways of claiming ownership over something.

Some may argue that they have a right to food, and thus their neighbor’s surplus should be rightly theirs, seeing as how the creek from their property fed the crops next door. The farmer next door might argue that the creek actually belongs to him, since it flows across his fields. The beggar next door might argue that the fields are his, since he has been sleeping in them for longer than the farmer has sown them.

And there are no ways to settle these disputes without the government? If a man killed his farmer neighbor to get his food, would the surrounding community say, “Oh well, I guess it is his property after all!” In reality, it is much more productive for everyone to use the generally accepted definitions of property than it is to steal and risk injury or death.

Though I’m clearly not a minarchist, this piece by Austin Petersen is unfair to the minarchists out there who actually defend their views much better than this. Petersen’s list was arbitrary, incorrect, and offered nothing to back up anything he said. It should not be taken seriously.

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