Any (Good) Thing the State Can Do, We Can Do Better

The question whether people in a stateless society could respond satisfactorily to a disaster like the BP oil spill is really just a special case of the general question whether people without the state can do the things people attempt to do through the state. It seems to me that the answer is “yes.”

That’s because everything the state purportedly does is actually done by people. Sometimes they act out of fear; sometimes out of the perception that the state is legitimate; sometimes what the state commands turns out to be just what they want to do anyway; and sometimes because they believe that what the state is asking them to do is just what they are morally required to do anyway. But, for whatever reason, they do it.

This fact ought to be sufficient to make us confident that ordinary people, cooperating peacefully, can deal with environmental or other disasters in a stateless society. In what follows, I briefly discuss the purported advantages the state might be thought to possess in dealing with large-scale problems before noting some ways in which people in a stateless society could cooperate to prevent or remedy a disaster like the one currently taking place in the Gulf.

The State’s Supposed Advantages

What might be thought to give the state an advantage over the various non-state institutions of a stateless society? Statists are most likely to point to two kinds of factors: information and force. A third, concerned with a potential difficulty faced by a non-state legal system relying on tort law to deal with environmental harms, might also be highlighted by some statists.

Informational Advantages?

Statists often think the state has information that ordinary people lack. But to the extent that this information concerns optimal production levels and distribution patterns for goods and services, we know as confidently as we know anything about economics that more information is distributed throughout a given economic environment, possessed by various actors as a matter of “local knowledge.” Polycentric processes that mobilize this local knowledge will ultimately prove more effective than top-down, hierarchical ones at aggregating relevant information.

Statists might suggest that the state had an important role to play, not so much because it possessed information relevant to consumption and production, but because it possessed access to expert information. The assumption here seems to be that experts know just what needs to be done about a given problem but, because ordinary people aren’t convinced, the options are either to let nothing be done about a serious problem or to impose the will of the experts. Clearly, there are problems here related both to the ignorance of experts and to the right of people to make mistakes.

But here the question is how information comes to be classified as expert, and how it is used by the state. Political processes clearly affect the selection of experts and the assessment of the information they provide. Further, given both the potential abuse of expertise as a rationalization for authoritarianism, and the inherent value of personal autonomy, it does not seem as if the conclusions of particular experts ought to be imposed on people without their consent. There are, it seems, side constraints on the use of expert authority whatever its potential value. Finally, if expert claims are accurate, why can they not be winnowed by public evaluation—in the course of conversations in which other experts from outside the political process, as well as ordinary people able to employ their common sense, are free to participate?

Advantages Reflective of the State’s Monopoly of Force?

If purported informational advantages provide no reason to think that the state is better equipped to aid us in, for instance, responding to natural disasters, what about its capacity to use force to compel people to cooperate? As I’ve already suggested, the vast majority of instances of cooperation with or under the direction of the state do not reflect any immediate threat or application of force. Instead, they reflect people’s sense of the moral or prudential appropriateness of doing as the state directs.

Sometimes, of course, people may cooperate voluntarily, but only because they believe that others will do so, too, under the background threat of compulsion by the state. But there is no reason no to think that a combination of social norms and advance agreements (cp. David Schmidtz’s discussion of “assurance contracts”) could not in many cases foster the needed cooperation in the absence of threatened force.

I’m inclined to think that there are very few, if any, pure public goods, and it’s not clear to me that any environmental good we could currently affect would count as one. But, if there are any, it seems to me both that (i) as Schmidtz suggests, there are interesting market-based ways of providing at least some of them and (ii) the difficulties associated with alternatives mean that there’s no good reason to prefer coercive solutions to market-based ones. For if worthwhile cooperation is not forthcoming in some cases in which we wish it might be, we must still recall that the state is not, never has been, and never will be directed by angels, that instituting an organization with monopolistic control over the use of force in a given region opens up enormous possibilities for violence, abuse, cronyism, depredation, and dispossession. In short, while there may be failures of cooperation, the costs associated with these failures must be compared to the costs associated with failures on the part of monopolistic states.

Sometimes, of course, people will grudgingly obey the state only because of the its threats of violence. The fact that these threats would not be available in a stateless society does not seem like a particular loss. For it is almost certain that, in cases in which people only obey out of fear, they see little or not independent reason to do whatever it is the state wants them to do, and we have good reason to be glad, therefore, that they will not be forced to do similar things in the state’s absence.

The Advantage of Being Able to Bypass the Need to Delineate Lines of Causal Responsibility in Dealing with Environmental Problems?

One final reason that might be advanced for adopting the view that the state was better positioned to deal with certain kinds of environmental problems than free people engaged in peaceful cooperation is the difficulty of identifying relevant causal connections between particular actions and environmental harms. If something like tort law is to be used to compensate victims of harms (as many anarchists suppose it should be) and if the prospect of compensation is expected to play a key role in deterring violators, but if there is no clear way of identifying the actual cause of a harm, will numerous harms go undeterred and uncompensated?

Suppose, for instance, that anthropogenic global warming is occurring and poses a serious hazard to present and future generations. Suppose, too, that we can be reasonably sure that certain classes of human actions contribute in a general way to AGW. It is hard to see how we might identify particular actors as liable for causing particular AGW-related harms, so it’s unclear how an ordinary tort regime would help here.

There are, I think, at least three non-exclusive possibilities open to us here. First, something like an expanded class action lawsuit could be permitted exclusively in such cases, in which classes of plaintiffs could sue classes of potential perpetrators. It would still be necessary to demonstrate a causal connection between a class of actions and a class of harms, and to demonstrate the extent of the harms. Second, while a full-blown tort regime treating environmental pollution and similar phenomena as common-law nuisances, combined with specific property rights in particular regions and ecosystems now claimed en masse by the state, might not (if the first option just mentioned were ruled out as unjust) provide compensation for past harms, it could perfectly well make possible a thoroughgoing system of restraint on pollutants imposed by newly empowered property owners. Third, a thoroughgoing system of social norms could limit the activity of polluters and secure compensation for victims (especially in cases in which harm was clear but causation impossible clearly to demonstrate, but in which demonstrating causation was required for legal liability. Thus, if there was widespread agreement on the reality and causes of AGW, or any other environmental harm, people freely and peacefully cooperating could identify ways of stopping or slowing the occurrence of the relevant causes and compensating victims.

In short, any good thing the state can do, we can do better. What we do will be done more efficiently, because we can draw on bottom-up knowledge. And we will also spend our resources efficiently because the decision whether to employ them at all will be ours, not that of a group of economic and political elites who can externalize the costs of satisfying their preferences onto ordinary people.

Large-Scale Environmental Disaster in a Stateless Society

How could people in a stateless society deal with challenges like those caused by the BP disaster?

The Importance of Property Rights or Their Equivalent

The first thing to do, clearly, is to assign responsibility—to assign particular places to particular people. This needn’t mean assigning those rights to individuals for commercial exploitation; it just means that something like the Gulf—a place, a region, an ecosystem—needs to be in someone’s hands. Someone might be seeking to develop the region commercially. But someone might just as well be interested in preserving it, planning to limit or entirely prohibit commercial use. Whatever the projected use, an individual, cooperate, partnership, non-profit, or business firm with ownership rights can be expected to care for the owned space.

To be sure, there’s no guarantee that the allocation of rights to, say, the Gulf (on the basis of active homesteading or prior customary possession or something similar—certainly not on the basis of allocation by the state, which has no title to anything and is all too likely to favor its cronies) will result in its being put to the predetermined use preferred by any group, noncommercial or commercial. There is good reason to believe that, as a general rule, if people own things, they will care for those things, but their objectives may vary (though of course there may be a general consensus that can be enforced through ordinary social norm maintenance mechanisms).

Just as groups like the Nature Conservancy buy up currently privately held property in the US, they would likely be willing to homestead unowned property in the Gulf. I’d expect a fair amount of this sort of thing, though it would obviously be important to figure out ways of preventing title from being established just by announcement while also not requiring commercial cultivation if that’s not what someone wants.

And commercial homesteading certainly could and would occur, too. A stateless society would doubtless feature a mixture of both. But, in any case, if there were specific property owners to whom liability would be owed in the case of spills, rather than politicians often indebted precisely to the entities doing the spilling, things would surely be different to some extent, whatever the nature of the property-owners’ interests in the property.

Mechanisms for Protecting the Interests of Nonhuman Sentients

If your goal is protecting, not geographically fixed spaces, but rather mobile organisms, say, within those spaces (sea turtles, for instance), then enabling anyone to take on a case (for, e.g., a sea turtle) and recoup salary and expenses when successful in court (thus functioning as something like what is today called a “private attorney general”) would do the trick. Whether this option would or should be available would depend, obviously, on the existence of a social consensus regarding non-humans. If most people don’t think sea turtles—individually or collectively—ought to be protected, they won’t be. If they are to be protected, though, it’s easy to envision the kinds of mechanisms a stateless society could use to protect them.

Protection of Ecosystems by Property Owners

Whether individual owners were responsible, or whether those—for instance—along the shoreline controlled the Gulf (or any other ecosystem) as common property, or whatever, specific owners not in the pockets of oil companies would have to decide to allow drilling to take place, and they could obviously take whatever preventive measures they wanted, including prohibiting drilling, requiring performance bonds, requiring on-site inspections, etc.

Is the State a Desirable Alternative, Even Absent Optimal Protection by Private Owners?

If particular individuals or groups didn’t control a particular ecosystem, the alternative would seem to be some sort of state-like entity. Any institution capable of forcibly implementing ex ante environmental regulations on unowned property or on the property of others (however property ought to be handled in this and other cases) would seem to be altogether too much like a state, and its creation and maintenance highly dangerous, and likely unjust.

Regulating Ecosystems without the State

If there is a property regime in a given ecosystem, specific owners—individuals, for-profit firms, or non-profits—could preempt or regulate conduct that might be environmentally harmful as they liked (and would be liable if spills moved beyond their property to that of others). And if there is no such regime, one is likely to emerge. The alternative is a state, or something like it; we have no good reason to want that, and a regime of voluntary cooperation in which people use their individual or group property interests to protect ecosystems seems perfectly workable. Environmental challenges can be satisfactorily addressed by a combination of voluntary, peaceful cooperation and robust tort liability. Statist and quasi-statist alternatives are neither necessary nor appealing.


Michael Wiebe said…
we must still recall that the state is not, never has been, and never will be directed by angels, that instituting an organization with monopolistic control over the use of force in a given region opens up enormous possibilities for violence, abuse, cronyism, depredation, and dispossession.

Excellent point. Statists have done shockingly little work on the problem of constraining government. It seems that the state is like Frankenstein's monster: once it is created, it will destroy society.
TokyoTom said…
Um, don't you mean to close with "unnecessary or unappealing"?
Nathan said…
And, do you mean "a combination of voluntary, peaceful cooperation", not "peaceful combination" ?

Also, cracking good work.
Gary Chartier said…
Yes, I do. This is what I get for trying to rush this into “print.” Fixed.
Kevin Carson said…
Re the question of establishing causality for environmental harm: I think there's one other possibility as well. It may well be impossible to internalize the externality costs of CO2 emissions, as such, at all. But simply internalizing *some other*, unrelated externalities might be enough to raise the cost of fuel consumption enough to reduce CO2 externalities *almost as much* as directly internalizing those particular costs would have done. If the tankers had to pay the full cost of sealane security functions currently borne by the Navy, and offshore drillers had to pay premiums on robust insurance against unlimited liability for a disaster on the scale of Deepwater, that might well reduce fuel consumption almost as much as a directly targeted carbon-pricing scheme. In other words, internalizing any one of a large number of externalities, alone, might be sufficient to reduce consumption within acceptable thresholds. Incorporating even more externalities into price, in that case, would just be overkill on the "make the rubble bounce higher" model.

Popular posts from this blog

Libertarians for Redistribution

Socialism revisited

Nicholas Lash (1934-2020)