Pessimistic anarchism

I received email recently asking me to respond to an article in the Huffington Post, No Safe Harbor on Gulf Coast; Human Blood Tests Show Dangerous Levels of Toxic Exposure. Questioner’s English wasn’t very good, but the question he was trying to pose was how market anarchists like myself can oppose government action to mitigate disasters like the Deepwater Horizon blowout, and what we have to say about the charge that corporate money is suppressing news of the full toll of the disaster.

What I had to say to him about that follows, slightly edited and expanded. It’s as good an individual case as any to explain why my free-market anarchism is a result not of optimism about the perfectibility of markets but of profound pessimism about the limits of any sort of collective action by human beings.

It does not matter for purposes of answering your question whether or not I think this article is factually accurate, since the situation it describes (environmental disaster followed by insidious long-term health effects that those responsible may be using corrupt means to cover up) represents a possible sort of collective-action problem with which anti-statists have to deal.

Our key insight is a pessimistic one: this is the sort of situation which, though individuals and markets don’t handle it well, isn’t actually handled well by governments either. The fundamental mistake of statist thinking is to juxtapose the tragically, inevitably flawed response of individuals and markets to large collective-action problems like this one against the hypothetical perfection of idealized government action, without coping with the reality that government action is also tragically and inevitably flawed.

The implicit burden of the article, after all, is indignation that the government has been done too little and the wrong things. What the author fails to grasp (because his thinking is warped by the religion of state-worship) is that this sort of dysfunction is not a sporadic accidental failure that could be corrected by sufficiently virtuous thoughts and deeds; it is an essential failure, entirely predictable from the incentives operating on all the actors (including the actors within government).

His sort of fantasy thinking implicitly throws a burden of proof on anarchists to construct a perfect response to something like the Deepwater Horizon disaster in a stateless system, or else have their critique of statism dismissed as heartless and inadequate. But the correct analysis is to notice that we can only do what we can only do, and compare the rationally expectable effectiveness of flawed government action against the rationally expectable effectiveness of flawed individual and market action.

The second level of error, once you get this far, is to require that the market action achieve a better outcome without including all the continuing, institutional costs of state action in the accounting. So, for example, other parts of the continuing costs of accepting state action to solve this individual toxic-exposure problem in the Deep Horizon aftermath is that Americans will be robbed every April 15th of five in twelve parts of their income (on average), and be randomly killed in no-knock drug raids. And it’s no use protesting that these abuses are separable from the “good” parts of government as long as you’re also insisting that the prospect of market failures is not separable from the good behavior of markets!

Irrational anarchists believe that utopia is somehow achievable in a stateless system; they make the exact reciprocal error from statists, believing that all evil proceeds from government. Rational anarchists like myself know that stateless systems will have tragic failures too, but believe after analysis that they would have fewer and smaller ones.

If this seems doubtful to you, do not forget to include all the great genocides of the 20th century in the cost of statism. It was contemplating those that turned me into an anarchist – because that sort of eruption of fire and blood, too, is not accidental but essential given the logic of state collectivism.

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