10 Aug 2009

Anarchy and Iraq: Murphy Responds to Gonzalez

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In a recent article on Free Advice, Iraq vet Edward Gonzalez explained how his experience with “anarchy” in Iraq made him doubt the armchair theorizing from people like Murray Rothbard and me. Obviously, I have been running Gonzalez’s articles because he is quite possibly the only human on Earth who:
(a) Saw combat in Iraq,
(b) Is conversant with Austrian and libertarian theory,
(c) Is willing to blog about it.

Below I give my quick response to Gonzalez. –RPM


Anarchy and Iraq: Murphy Responds to Gonzalez
By Robert P. Murphy

When I talk about “market anarchy,” that is shorthand for a society in which most people respect each other’s property rights. There are still robberies, rapes, and homicides, of course, but they are relatively rare. Most Americans would say, “So we’re currently living in market anarchy?” No, we’re not, because the typical FBI crime statistics don’t include taxes as part of how much is stolen every year in America. I am also pretty sure a city’s homicide rate doesn’t include people who were killed by police officers. For example, imagine what Waco’s crime stats would look like, if a private gang had surrounded a building and burned everyone inside alive. I haven’t actually verified this, but I’m betting if you get your hands on the crime statistics for Texas, you won’t see a big spike in 1993.

So anyway, that’s why our society today is actually infested with crime, and the respect for property rights in America (and all other “civilized” countries) is actually paper thin and lukewarm. People tell their kids “Don’t steal,” but to avoid hypocrisy they need to add “…unless you’re at least 18 and you can convince 50% of those who turn out on election day to agree with you that stealing is OK under certain conditions.”

A society existing in market anarchy would be one in which people really meant it when they told their kids, “We live in a civilized society where there are rules. We don’t get to break those rules, even in an emergency. In fact, the rules are there precisely for those emergencies, when we otherwise might lose our heads and do something foolish.”

Now obviously, the academic proponents of market anarchy aren’t predicting that such a hypothetical society will spontaneously come into existence so long as people have brains. If that were our prediction, we would obviously be completely contradicted by almost all of recorded history.

No no, what I tried to do in this pamphlet [.pdf] was show that a society committed to true respect for property rights–if it were big enough–would be sustainable. And in fact, the requirements necessary for such a society to survive, would be much less than the comparable requirements for a group of people who were statists.

So yes, a group of 15 Rothbardians who declare themselves “free men” on a yacht are not going to repel the US Navy. But by the same token, 15 democrats on a yacht who vote in a president and a bicameral legislature, who then levy income taxes on the remaining 2 guys in the yacht’s private sector, will also not be able to repel the US Navy. Surely I have not just proved the impracticality of both market anarchism and democracy.

So what I’m saying is that as you make the contest fairer and fairer, then the free people (of comparable population, wealth, technology, etc.) will be able to repel the US military much earlier than their equivalent statist counterparts.

And as far as domestic affairs go, the same holds: It’s true that no matter the institutional arrangements, a society composed of cannibals, and imbued with a fear of machinery, is not going places. Even a society of Rothbardians would not do well by any objective measure, if those Rothbardians all just so happened to be cannibals and Luddites. But again, a group of Trotskyites who were similar in all other respects, would die off almost overnight.

Now as far as Iraq goes, it’s not clear to me that it has relevance to the claims I’m making above. What follows will be a very simplistic summary, and I hope Gonzalez will correct any misconceptions I have. But here is my understanding of what happened in Iraq:

First, there was a functioning government in the Nation-State sense of the term. The population grew up with government-provided legal and police services. The people would naturally think this was a government function, and obviously no one would have any experience in running a private competitor.

The US military comes in and literally destroys all government institutions. With US soldiers patrolling the streets, any Iraqi male walking around with a weapon could legitimately fear being shot on sight.

Once it was clear that Saddam’s rule was finished, and that the US forces were unstoppable, everyone with any lick of sense in the entire country knew that the Americans would install a friendly regime. That was the whole point of the invasion, after all. Had it even occurred to a single Iraqi in the entire country to try to start up a business selling defense services, he quickly would have scrapped the plan when he realized, “If nothing else, the American tanks would come up to my business office and demolish it.”

So I really don’t see why the lack of Rothbardian entrepreneurs constitutes even a challenge to the intellectual arguments for market anarchy.

People at libertarian events will say stuff like, “If you could press a button and eliminate government, would you do it?” The idea is to see how hardcore the other guy is. Like, only a wuss who drinks Bud Light would say, “Nah, I think we should first put in the Fair Tax and pay off holders of US Treasurys.”

But I think that’s a goofy question, like saying, “I’m not going to tell you what it does, but would you press a green button if I presented it to you–and you knew it was real?”

For example, if the button gets rid of the government by having Martians show up and disintegrate them, then no freaking way would I push it. The people running the political parties–who aren’t actually politicians, so presumably they’d be spared the zapping–would organize emergency elections, that were rigged to install the people they wanted running the country. They’d then use the aliens as an excuse to declare martial law and seize 50% of everyone’s wealth to fund the Giant Laser.

On the other hand, if the button somehow gets everyone to voluntarily agree that Rothbard was right, then heck yes I would press it. Except, I don’t think such a button is possible; I don’t know what it would mean to make someone truly agree with my case if I got the consent via pushing a button.

In closing, let me ask you to imagine “anarchy” breaking out because of a natural disaster. Let’s say for example that during a police parade there is an earthquake, and everyone in the city realizes the next day that 99% of the police got wiped out, and that the rockslides will prevent the National Guard from getting in for days.

Now if this happened in Austin, those people would be fine. If it happened in the Bronx, maybe not. I think people in Northern big cities can’t imagine market anarchy working, because their populations have been conditioned by the distortions from their interventionist governments. In the South, in contrast, people can definitely trust that their neighbors won’t suddenly pull up with shotguns just because the sheriff died.

Robert P. Murphy holds a Ph.D. in economics from New York University. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal (Regnery, 2009), and is the editor of the blog Free Advice.

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