The Obviousness of Anarchy

by John Hasnas


[Excerpts from Roderick Long and Tibor Machan (eds.), ANARCHISM/MINARCHISM (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2008); ISBN 0 7564 6066. Found at Permission granted by Lilly Chesterman of Ashgate Publishing in email dated September 12, 2007. For other penetrating articles by John Hasnas see the Short Bibliography below.]



by Carl Watner

Lector, si documentum requiris, circumspice

Sir Christopher Wren, the famous English architect, died in 1723, and was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a building which he had designed. His son, Christopher Jr., memorialized his father by placing on a wall near his father’s tomb, “one of the most famous of all monumental inscriptions:Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice (‘Reader, if you seek a monument, look around’).”

John Hasnas has done the same thing. He writes that “A wise man once told me that the best way to prove something is possible is to show that it exists.” Well? If proof (documentum) is required, LOOK AROUND! There are countless examples of voluntaryism in everyday life and in American history. We know that “a stable, successful society without government can exist” because it “has, and to a large extent, still does” exist. This, in fact, is one of the ongoing purposes of The Voluntaryist and my anthology, I MUST SPEAK OUT: to document the historical instances of non-political cooperation among human beings.

The State cannot be everywhere, nor can it be all things to all people, and as John Hasnas points out there had to be a peaceful community before there was a State. As I have written before, every service provided by the State and paid for by compulsory taxation (with one major exception – world war) has been provided at one time or another in history by people. Private schools, private coins, private libraries, private charitable aid,private roads, private post offices, private arbitration and mediation, private courts, time zones, weight and measure standards, our English language – all these are examples of voluntaryism, not statism.

In an article footnoted in “The Obviousness of Anarchy,” Professor Hasnas writes that “Anglo-Saxon and early Norman England … offers a wonderful test case of how human beings behave in the absence of central political authority.” [pp. 127-128]  The result was the English system of common law, on which most of English and American jurisprudence depends. The evolution of the common law demonstrates human beings need rules and regulations to govern their interactions; but it also proves that centralized government authority is not a prerequisite to their existence. Most of the formal and informal institutional arrangements of human society reached their zenith before the advent of modern nation-State.

This brilliant and magnificent essay directs our attention to what should be an obvious fact. Readers: LOOK AROUND! The evidence to prove that anarchism is a viable, sustainable way of life exists, if we can only recognize it.


The Obviousness of Anarchy

I am presenting an argument for anarchy in the true sense of the term – that is, a society without government, not a society without governance. There is no such thing as a society without governance. A society with no mechanism for bringing order to human existence is oxymoronic; it is not “society” at all.

I am arguing only that human beings can live together successfully and prosper in the absence of a centralized coercive authority.

There are, of course, certain rules that must apply to all people; those that provide the basic conditions that make cooperative behavior possible. Thus, rules prohibiting murder, assault, theft, and other forms of coercion must be equally binding on all members of a society. But we hardly need government to ensure that this is the case. These rules evolve first in any community; you would not even have a community if this were not the case.

Societies do not spring into existence complete with government police forces. Once a group of people has figured out how to reduce the level of interpersonal violence sufficiently to allow them to live together, entities that are recognizable as government often develop and take over the policing function. Even a marauding band that imposes government on others through conquest must have first reduced internal strife sufficiently to allow it to organize itself for effective military operations. Both historically and logically, it is always peaceful coexistence first, government services second. If civil society is impossible without government police, then there are no civil societies.

When government begins providing services formerly provided non-politically, people soon forget that the services were ever provided non-politically and assume that only government can provide them. … Traditionally, police services were not provided by government and, to a large extent, they still are not. Therefore, government is not necessary to provide police services.

If a visitor from Mars were asked to identify the least effective method for securing individuals’ persons and property, he might well respond that it would be to select one group of people, give them guns, require all members of soceity to pay them regardless of the quality of service they render, and invest them with discretion to employ resources and determine law enforcement priorities however they see fit subject only to the whim of their political paymasters. If asked why he thought that, he might simply point to the Los Angeles or New Orleans or any other big city police department. Are government police really necessary for a peaceful, secure society? Look around. Could a non-political, non-monopolistic system of supplying police services really do worse than its government-supplied counterpart?

Do you ever wonder why people believed in the divine right of kings? They believed in it because they were taught to believe in it and because they could imagine it was so, regardless of all evidence to the contrary. We no longer believe in such silly things as the divine right of kings. We believe that government is necessary for an orderly peaceful society and that it can be made to function according to the rule of law. We believe this because we have been taught to believe it from infancy and because we can imagine that it is so, regardless of all contrary evidence.

One should never underestimate the power of abstract concepts to shape how human beings see the world. Once one accepts the idea that government is necessary for peace and order and that it can function objectively, one’s imagination will allow one to see the hand of government wherever there is law, police, and courts and render the non-political provision of these services invisible. But if you lay aside this conceptual framework long enough to ask where these services originated and where, to a large extent, they still come from, the world assumes a different aspect. If you want the strongest argument for anarchy, simply remove your self-imposed blinders and look around.


Short Bibliography

“Toward a Theory of Empirical Natural Rights,” 22 SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY AND POLICY (2005), pp. 111-147.

“The Myth of the Rule of Law,” 1995 WISCONSIN LAW REVIEW (1995), pp. 199-233. Reprinted in THE VOLUNTARYIST, Whole Number 97 (April 1999), and Whole Number 98 (June 1999).

“The Loneliness of the Long-Time Libertarian,” John relates the story of how he became a libertarian at age ten. This article may also be accessed through “Links” at John Hasnas’s Home Page.

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