But Who Will Build the Roads?: Market Anarchy Explained

Francois Tremblay has written a much-needed introductory book on anarcho-capitalism, or as he prefers to call it, market anarchism. The purpose of the book is to convince potential converts of the merits of market anarchism. I think he succeeds in explaining the ideas of market anarchism clearly, ably walking the line between over-simplification and pedantry. This is hard to do, as anyone who has tried to discuss anarcho-capitalism with "normal" statist people knows.

The book is probably best suited for, and clearly aimed at, freethinkers, i.e. atheists and agnostics. At first, this bothered me a little. Why not go for the larger market? Why risk repelling theists? But as I read the book, I began seeing the other side of the story. Both psychologically and logically, theism and statism are related. Those who submit authority over their minds to gods and priests tend to also submit their minds to states and rulers. Furthermore, many of the arguments against theism carry over to arguments against statism. It seems quite reasonable to concentrate efforts on people most likely to be convinced, which would be freethinkers--those who recognize no authority over their minds, but use rationality and evidence rather than faith in evaluating ideas.

Thus, I thoroughly enjoyed his market anarchism for freethinkers approach. Historically, this was the way most freethinkers saw things. The vast majority of anarchists were freethinkers (Tolstoy being a notable exception); most were hard-core atheists. Lysander Spooner was a deist, Bakunin wrote the devastating God and the State, and Voltairine de Cleyre elucidated the close connection between anarchism and atheism in her essay The Economic Tendency of Freethought. "May the last king be strangled in the guts of the last priest" is attributed to Diderot. So Tremblay, who has also written about atheism, is simply getting back to the roots, so to speak. That said, Who Will Build is nevertheless a good read for theists--the major points do not logically depend on non-belief. But theist readers will have to tolerate some commentary that could be construed as disparaging of religious faith.

One strong point of the book is how it presents many heavy philosophical ideas in a manner accessible to everyman. Ideas that would require university courses or extensive reading of tomes like Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia or Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty are explained in plain language. The book covers the major ideas and themes of market anarchism (and thus libertarianism in general) with clarity and conciseness.

It starts with a critique of the state--"the state dethroned." Tremblay describes history as "a perennial struggle between two main classes: the working class, the people who produce with their bodies and minds, . . . and the ruling class, those who would establish themselves as parasites upon that production." He defines "state" in the usual Weberian manner as "an organization that monopolizes legitimized coercion on a given territory." He argues persuasively that there is no moral justification for the state--that, among other things, it violates the universality principle, a condition necessary for any rational moral system. Then he discusses "state of nature" arguments, dispatching the Hobbesian view that the state is necessary to keep men from mauling each other. Next he discusses exploitation theories, with emphasis on the popular Marxian version. Other sections discuss and analyze statist propaganda, war, democracy versus liberty, the social contract, and other important topics.

One idea that I found noteworthy is the suggestion, when talking to other people, of pointing out "the gun in the room." Statists, especially statist socialists ("liberals") like to showcase ends, and often seem quite oblivious to means. E.g., they may point to the noble purpose of saving the polar bear and solving the (alleged) coming apocalypse of global warming, but ignore that their solution involves massive government force and the starvation of Third World peoples by preventing economic development. Or they want to help poor children get health services, but ignore the means--a coercive state monopoly over the health insurance industry or medical services. Per Bastiat, we should point out the unintended consequences, but also per Tremblay we should expose the hidden gun--the brute force means these people overlook.

A coinage I learned from the book is the notion of the "social self." This is a simple modification of the concept of "self," but would seem to be quite useful in focusing on only the social aspects and relations of the individual. I think non-libertarians may understand me better if I use this term when appropriate, as it avoids connotations of selfishness or anti-social proclivities.

While the book is mainly about theory, "The Monopoloid Incentives Principle" and following sections discuss such issues such as the "war" on drugs, victim disarmament ("gun control" in slave-speak), regulatory agencies such as the FDA, and the war in Iraq. The author provides a long list of areas where the state claims to help the poor, but actually hinders them. Analyzing current issues is not the primary purpose of this book--it gives a survey only. If you want a book detailing such issues from a libertarian perspective, Mary Ruwart's Healing Our World In an Age of Aggression is recommended.

All the aforementioned is in Chapter One; however, Chapter One is nearly half the book. But Who Will Build is organized differently from most books. Most have sections divided into chapters; Who Will Build has chapters divided into sections. Chapter Two, entitled "Simply Anarchy," builds on the theoretical framework explained in Chapter One. It starts with a Rothbardian "Robinson Crusoe" explanation of society, beginning with one person on an island and adding more and more until something like a modern society is reached. Next, it deals with the "A" word "anarchy," successfully decontaminating and demystifying the term, with pertinent quotes from Benjamin Tucker. This is followed by a section explaining the difference between society and state. But Who Will Build manages to cover a plethora of libertarian ideas, ranging from Mises' calculation problem of socialism to Hoppe's argumentation ethic. It provides a good catalog of market anarchist themes, and even has an appendix listing every known argument for anarcho-capitalism. There is a glossary of libertarian terminology.

Who Will Build is filled with quotable aphorisms. Some examples:

"The State co-opts what it can no longer suppress."

"In most Western countries, democracy has replaced Christianity as the dominant religion, the new fanatics are political activists, the flag has replaced the cross as an object of worship, voting is now our most hallowed ritual, and the new holy war is American Imperialism. It would hardly seem inappropriate any more to recite the "Lord's Prayer" by replacing "God" with one's own "country," and in fact altogether fitting--one imaginary entity deserves another."

"The actual opponent of the State in all wars is the freedom of its own population."

"Democracy is a shelf on the slippery slope of anti-intellectualism. From this kind of bean-counting that results from the establishment of aggregates, not individuals, as the most important social force, it is only one small slide to the fascist ideal of the "body politic"--that aggregates themselves are part of, and must serve, the greater body of the nation-state."

"It does not matter one whit for the power of the ruling class whether one person is elected for four years, or another is self-appointed for life, as long as the end result is the same: the maintenance of the unequal power relations and their legitimacy in the minds of the population."

"Either we own ourselves, or the ruling class owns us."

Some principles of statism from the book:

The Parasite Principle: In all State actions, there are winners; the ruling class and the exploitative class, and losers: the working class and the welfare class.

Expansion Principle: Expansion, not contraction, is the natural progress of a State.

These are not original observations, of course--the first might be attributed to John Calhoun, and the second has been posited by classical liberals such as Tom Paine and Jefferson--but this is a good example of how the author aptly encapsulates important libertarian ideas for the novice.

Chapter Two also explains how natural rights are protected better by competing PDAs (Private Defense Agencies) than by monopoloid states, due in large part to competition, and how winner-take-all statism perverts or prevents human values from being reflected and implemented in society. Tremblay writes:

Market Anarchy gives the individual the power to decide how he will manage his own resources. The fact that a certain possible measure carries with it a high cost is a fact of reality. To claim that we should use force to distribute that cost or legitimize it represents a desire to wilfully ignore reality. Rather, it is statism that invites us to see other human beings as resource holders, and to see everything as Somebody Else's Problem.

Another section answers the title question: But who will build the roads? The author gives various historical examples of private roads, notes the flaws in centrally managed roads immune from market considerations, and concludes that "The profit motive provides incentives for private owners to do these things well, efficiently, and without coercion." Next he covers private police and courts, again giving examples from the past, e.g. Anglo-Saxon law before 1066 (the bohr system). He cites some modern examples of private law, such as the experience of Oro Valley, Arizona, "Judge Judy" type shows, and business arbitration groups like the National Advertising Board. He explains how polycentric law and private arbitration might work for interpersonal conflicts and disputes.

The book continues with a survey of anarchist or quasi-anarchist societies. Experienced libertarians already know about the Thing system of Classical Iceland, Celtic Ireland, Somalia 1991 to 2006, and the not-so-wild American West, but newbies will no doubt find these examples illuminating. The final sections are about "How We Will Win"--tactics and strategy for social change, and "Some Objections"--a list of miscellaneous possible concerns not already covered.

Even the appendices are quite interesting, especially the extensive list of anarcho-capitalist arguments. Even long-time market anarchists would do well reviewing this, especially before debating the subject, to remind themselves of the various perspectives and angles of argumentation available. The glossary of terms will no doubt be useful for the main target audience of potential converts.

I heartily recommend this book as an excellent introduction to market anarchism. It is similar to Rothbard's For a New Liberty, except that it specializes in anarcho-capitalism, whereas Rothbard's book is about a broader libertarianism. If someone wants to know what anarcho-capitalism is, in greater detail than the online Anarcho-Capitalist FAQ, then this is the source. It will be especially convincing to freethinkers, but open-minded theists will also benefit. For hard-core religious fanatics, For a New Liberty would probably be a better choice. I know of no other book which covers market anarchism, in all its aspects, as well. Billy Bob sez check it out.

If you would like to purchase a copy it can be found at amazon.com and xlibris.com. The website of the author, Francois Tremblay, is www.marketanarchy.com.

They say that if you want three opinions, ask two libertarians. Although I highly recommend the book, there are some points I would take issue with. Other libertarians will no doubt also find things they disagree with in the book. I decided to separate the main review from my criticisms to avoid overpowering my endorsement with my often semantic and pedantic criticisms. Let me make it clear: The book is a wonderful introduction to market anarchism, and accomplishes its mission--to explain anarcho-capitalism to the uninitiated. And even we, the intellectuals of the "remnant," can benefit from reading it.

Generally, the errors can be chalked up to temporary over-simplification of ideas that are further explained later in the book. For example, early in the book Tremblay writes, "Morally, the only difference between the State and a mafia is that the State has by far the most guns, and the most power to control production." This is false, since some mafias are more powerful than some states, e.g. there exist cocaine mafias more powerful than the government of Anguilla, and maybe even Costa Rica, which has no standing army. But this is forgivable, since the real difference between mafia and state (the mystique of legitimacy) is explained in detail later in the book when discussing statist propaganda. Such simplification seems an acceptable teaching device. The finer nuances are explained in due time. No harm, no foul.

In Tremblay's list of statist "vectors of propaganda," he omits two extremely important ones, which I hope he'll add to a later edition: 1) buying off the intellectual elite (PhDs, scientists, etc. who propagate ideas to the masses and justify their masters), and 2) research funding (AKA neo-Lysenkoism). Since Tremblay is obviously quite familiar with Rothbard, it is rather surprising that he missed the first, which is emphasized in e.g. The Anatomy of the State. The modern equivalent to the unholy alliance of church and state is something a freethinker would not be expected to overlook.

Many libertarians will find the discussion of the NAP (Non-Aggression Principle) deficient. The author comes out against the NAP; yet when his terminology is given due consideration, his opposition is merely semantic. Part of the problem is Tremblay's choice of using L. Neil Smith's formulation of the NAP rather than Rothbard's or Rand's version. L. Neil Smith's puts it this way: "No one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being, nor to delegate its initiation." Tremblay correctly points out the weakness--total disregard of context. Rand made clear the social context of the NAP, discussing e.g. emergency "lifeboat" situations as non-applicable. Rothbard explicitly puts the NAP strictly in the context of legal considerations, as opposed to general moral considerations. I like to think of the NAP as pertaining to a certain moral environment--that of civilized society, the context that George O'Brien calls "the life of man qua civilized man." In the context of physical survival (the life of man qua animal), the NAP goes out the window. If one wakes up in the middle of a pitched battle, or snowed in on Donner Pass, all bets are off.

Surprisingly, Tremblay doesn't mention lifeboat situations (at least, in his discussion of the NAP). His attempted counter-example (via David Friedman) is a light beam that shines near imperceptibly onto someone else's property, thus allegedly aggressing. This objection has always seemed weak to me on two counts. First, it seems to confuse force in the physics sense with force in the interpersonal sense. (This equivocation is so common that I've begun using the clearer term "violence" rather than the Randian term "force" when speaking of e.g. initiation of violence.) Thus, the matter of whether photons touch someone else's property is irrelevant to whether aggression has occurred. Property is not an intrinsic property of matter (land in this case). Property, as the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto discusses in The Mystery of Capital, is a relationship between people and goods. Those stray photons are unlikely to have any effect on the owner's use or utility of his land.

The other point is that property is a social construct--an agreement with others about relationships with matter. If the neighbors ("society") agree that lighting a match on your land does not violate your neighbor's property rights, or alternately if the PDA you joined does not hold it as a violation, then no aggression has occurred. The NAP is a high-level abstraction--one that applies to any property system, whether sticky (neo-Lockean), geoist, socialist, mutualist, or periodic random redistribution by lottery. To make an analogy: We may talk of an NCP--a Non-Cheating Principle which applies to all games. All game players may agree that cheating is bad, whether they play chess, tennis, futball (soccer), football (American), or tiddlywinks. However, before we can decide whether any particular conduct is cheating, we need to know which game we are playing. Carrying the ball with your hands in football may be okay, but carrying it in futball is cheating. Similarly, with the NAP we need to know the applicable property rules before we can judge whether aggression has occurred. An absentee "owner" of land who attempts forcibly to reclaim it from a "squatter" is aggressing by mutualist property rules, but it is the squatter who is aggressing by sticky property rules. To evaluate conduct, one must consider the NAP with respect to property system X. Striking a match is not aggression unless it violates some previously agreed upon set of property rules. Minor photon bombardment is irrelevant in all known human property arrangements. Even for sticky property systems, night lighting, except in extreme cases, could be considered an easement. (A third objection, one Nozick considers in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, has to do with thresholds, i.e. impositions may have to pass a certain threshold of significance before being deemed aggression.)

Tremblay recommends the CAP (Chosen Aggression Principle) to replace the NAP: "Everyone has the right to choose the degree of aggression or force (or lack thereof) that he will tolerate against his social self." This makes no sense if you take "aggression" as most libertarians understand the term--non-consensual initiation of violence. A typical statement of this from The Libertarian Learning Center is: "For physical force to be coercive, it must be the case that the person upon whom it is used did not consent to the use of the force." Thus, Tremblay's claim that boxing or mixed martial arts contests "involve constant aggression" would be disputed by most libertarians. If it's consensual, then it's not aggression. Thus, when the normal definition of aggression is applied, his CAP reduces to the Rothbard/Randian NAP. When the semantics are resolved, Tremblay seems to agree with the NAP, despite his contention to the contrary.

Another instance of loose terminology is a confusion of freedom with leisure. Tremblay writes, "We usually take a job as a trade-off: less freedom most of the time, so we can have far more freedom at other times." But freedom in the political context means not being subject to aggression by others; quite a different concept from leisure time. Most libertarians would say that one is enjoying freedom even while doing (voluntary) work.

Don't get the wrong idea--generally the author is exacting in his terminology. The examples above are the exception, all the more glaring in their deviation from precise statements elsewhere. One bit of terminology I enjoyed immensely was Tremblay's conscientious use of the term "state capitalism" rather than simply "capitalism" where appropriate. Reading things like Wikipedia and "left libertarian" writings, I've become quite sensitive to this. I wish more writers would make that important distinction.

Early in the book, Tremblay gives the definition of state attributed to Max Weber, defining it as an organization with an effective monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in a particular geographic area. But when listing reasons why violence may not be good tactics for promoting social change, suddenly the state is "the process of legitimized coercion." Of course, this is wrong since PDAs also may use legitimate coercion, e.g. to return stolen property or to apprehend criminals. He even goes so far as to say that using self-defense against aggressors with badges is "in the same category as the State." This is ridiculous; self-defense against government goons, and even "good Samaritan" defense of other people, is permissible according to the NAP (and CAP). This erroneous condemnation of retaliatory violence against those who aggress was quite unnecessary--the section was about effective activism, not morality. The bottom line is: something may be morally permissible but poor tactics for social change. Shooting brownshirts kicking in the door of your Jewish neighbor in 1930s Germany, or shooting drug nazis kicking in the door of your drug-possessing neighbor today, is morally permissible--but at this point rather bad tactics for social activism. As Claire Wolfe said, it's too early to shoot the bastards. Tremblay's other reasons for not using violence as a means for social change hold up just fine.

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Hogeye Bill's picture
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Hogeye Bill is a chess master, songwriter, and freelance anarchist. He is author of the popular Anarcho-capitalist FAQ and an online history of anarchist thought entitled Against Authority. He currently resides in Ozarkia (northern Arkansas in statist-speak) unless he is on the lam again.