The Advantage of Panarchy

Column by Paul Bonneau.

Exclusive to STR

The crucial advantage of Panarchy is that it converts aggressive violence into defense.

Most people on the Internet tend to “stick with their own kind”; for example, liberals read only sites like Daily Kos. However, when they venture out and run into those of different persuasions, you always see a battle of competing arguments, and the participants are quite earnest about it. There is a reason for this.

Persuasion is the preferred tool, but behind every utterance is the implied threat: “If I can’t persuade you of the validity of my preferred worldview, I will impose it on you, or help others impose it on you.” They all grab for the cudgel of political power. Every persuasion hides--but not very well--the threat of plunder and oppression.

Needless to say, everyone perceives this latent threat, at least subliminally. That is why such conversations go nowhere. The participants are not about to seriously entertain the arguments of their opponents when aggressive violence is in the offing.

The above applies even to advocates of Liberty, who have not yet deduced that they must also be proponents of Panarchy. Yes, they will say things like, “Liberty is not an imposition, but the removal of impositions,” trying to make the case that they should not be threatening to others. But I can assure you, visions of Libertopia where everybody must conform to the Non-Agression Principle certainly can be threatening to others. How else to explain the concerns about anarchy, or the unwillingness to let anarchists give it a try?

The advantage of Panarchy, again, is that it converts aggressive violence into defense. That is, anyone who argues from a position of Panarchy cannot be taken as someone trying to grab that cudgel of power. There is no latent threat behind the argument, especially when an advocate of Panarchy states (and should state if he has any sense) that liberals should get what liberals want, conservative should get what they want, and so forth. How can anyone be threatened by the statement, that they should get what they want?

No one else says such things.

Of course, liberals and others may immediately realize that with Panarchy, some may escape the plunder they intend (e.g., “Who will feed the poor if the non-poor can’t be plundered?”). But there are two important things about that: 1) They may also, themselves, escape the plunder and oppression that their opponents intend for them, and 2) That the position of Panarchy is a defensive one, and people naturally take the side of defenders over aggressors--not consistently of course; but it takes a lot of propaganda to swerve them from their natural tendency.

Defense is a much better position to, well, defend. It turns everyone against it, into obvious aggressors. Now, looting and oppression must be justified; and that is difficult to do.

Panarchy is good for everyone, not just for anarchists. It makes you a defender rather than an aggressor, and puts you on the side of the angels--in everyone’s eyes, not just your own.

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Paul Bonneau's picture
Columns on STR: 106


KenK's picture

I googled "panarchy" and the results were confusing. What does the term mean in the context that you've used it in your piece.
I take it to mean people can and should pick their own preferred system of governance or living arrangements. So, if some want to live in Mormon settlements or Manson style "families" or whatever else they want they are free to try it out. And if you don't like it, you can leave and go try something else. Is that what you meant?
I'm not especially scholarly about all this political theory stuff, so excuse me if it is a well known term that I don't know. I did do a cursory look but , as I said, the results were muddled.

Samarami's picture

Think I'll throw in with Ken on this one. Not that I'm "again'" panarchy. The term just seems redundant.

Anarchy is the absence of central political authority. There is nothing in anarchy that can be imposed upon anybody else.

What else?


Paul's picture

You are right Ken, the term is not particularly well defined; there are still some conflicting ideas floating around about it. For example the early proponents assumed that people of different polities would be living mixed together, and if that was not the case it was not really panarchy. I don't buy that because if people can pick different polities then they certainly can pick where they want to live, and a lot of people prefer to live with their own kind. But the central point is almost always demonstrated by bringing up the parallel example religious tolerance, which started happening a couple of hundred years ago. If you understand religious tolerance (including tolerance of atheism) then you understand political tolerance AKA panarchy (including tolerance of anarchists).

Of course the implication is that one polity cannot aggress against another. The liberal polity cannot tax anyone outside their polity. The conservative polity cannot regulate anyone outside their polity. Aggression is only possible within a polity.

Now that I think of it, "political tolerance" may be a better term than "panarchy", or at least more easily understood.

Samarami's picture

When I was new to the web and new to libertarian thinking I read everything I could google. A reality that became clear was that everybody seemed to have his or her own idea as to how an "anarchist society" should be "organized" and/or "conducted". I started a list that has grown to well over 100 entries (with, I'm sure, some overlaps and/or duplications). It's long, but for lack of a great deal of "comments" lately I'll reproduce it here:


Samarami's picture

I'm getting lots of double posts lately. Sorry.

Paul's picture

Anarchy means "no rulers". Panarchy means "lots of rulers, none of them dominant". Statism is "one ruler or groups of rulers (e.g. oligarchy), that is dominant."

You can be a Panarchist and still be a liberal, conservative, communist, etc. (assuming you toss the portion of those beliefs having to do with attempting total dominance). On the other hand, you cannot be an anarchist and a liberal at the same time, because a liberal still believes in the initiation of force against others.

The difference between a liberal who is a Panarchist and a liberal who isn't, is that the latter allows no exceptions to the dominance of left-liberalism, while the former does allow exceptions (I am talking about within a particular jurisdiction).

I think the distinction is useful, since anarchy just sounds like another garden variety "my way or the highway" political philosophy when people advocate for it (even if that is internally inconsistent with anarchy). For example, any time an anarchist starts talking about "libertopia" or "libertarian paradise" he is making a mistake. What do non-anarchists think of when they hear such things? Dominance.

Also, anarchists usually do not sell anarchy by saying liberals should be able to live as liberals. Only Panarchists make that point.

Samarami's picture

I'm not so sure you can tag a "handle" on anarchy so easily.

Hasnas appears to define it succinctly (PDF file):


Paul's picture

Hasnas writes, "I am arguing only that human beings can live together successfully and prosper in the
absence of a centralised coercive authority. To make the case for anarchy, that is all that is required."

If the federal government suddenly vanished, would there be an absence of centralized coercive authority? No. The state governments would take on that role. If a state government vanished, the county governments would take on that role.

He makes it sound so easy. Keep in mind he is talking about getting rid of all national governments in the world, every state/provincial government, every county government, every municipal government, every school district and police district. Yes, a case can be made for that, but good luck actually getting there. I suppose that is what is meant when a person is referred to as an "academic".

The idea of Panarchy is rooted in practicality: how do we get there from here. We don't need to get rid of governments. We just need to provide them a reliable incentive to leave us alone. That is hard enough, but with tools like generally available battle rifles and the Internet, it becomes at least possible.

Taking this back to the religious analogy, imagine 300 years ago, someone making the argument that we don't need a God to live. How successful would that appeal be? Would it accomplish anything? How much more sensible is the notion that people should simply not kill each other over religious ideas? And keep in mind this notion also contains within it the possibility that we don't need God to live. The result today is that atheists do not get burned at the stake.

Religious tolerance worked. Political tolerance can also work.

Samarami's picture

Generally, Paul, you and I are in agreement philosophically -- and, where there seems to be a clash I think it's usually a misunderstanding over word definition or phrase interpretation. Because we both preach tolerance. Neither fan the flames of rebellion (a useless enterprise). Each believes that indifference by enough ordinary folks will (along with the egocentric stupidity of psychopaths grouped into governments) topple them.

And, needless to say, we both urge our colleagues to abstain from beans.

So recently I was posting a comment to an article and was reminded of the slight discomfort I had felt "sparring" with you over this essay. So I'll reprint my comment here:

    Sam Spade says:
    July 24, 2014 at 9:20 pm

    I am a believer in the premise that one can be free wherever (s)he is. Right here, right now.

    Too many “anarchists” focus so heavily upon existing monopolistic systems (commonly referred to as “The State” — a mindless abstraction) to understand that those psychopaths who make up that entity are relatively stupid, chronically egocentric, and incapable of causing major scourges to those who refuse to volunteer, submit, “file”, register, etc etc.

    There are ways to fly under the authoritarian radar if one spends a modicum of mental energy to dedicate himself or herself to that end. If you say you can, you are correct. If you say you can’t, you are also correct.

    Costa Rica is a good place with a pleasant climate. But so is Nicaragua — and Panama. They are full of enjoyable people — possibly even a few anarchists lurking in the cracks and crevices. Standing armies, of course, can present a real danger to anybody. But so can one dangerously armed individual in state costume with a “badge”.

    So can one rattlesnake.

    To live free, I must develop the lifestyle of steering clear of all their bailiwicks. Sam

I suspect you find general agreement with this philosophy.


Paul's picture

Yes, except that I am schizophrenic about it. Sometimes I am right where you are; other times I get caught up on the need to try to convince others not believe in the government religion. You are just catching me in the latter phase. :-)

I do hope the warmongers don't start something over Ukraine though. That could get bad for everyone. I don't see anyone catching war fever though, which is a good thing. Maybe people can learn?

By the way, I don't necessarily think of rebellion as a "useless enterprise". It certainly can be ruinous; it also can be relatively benign (see the Czech "velvet revolution"). But to me, rebellion is just the *consequence* of people going apostate. Yeah there may be better ways, but we have no control over how others react when they discover they have been living and believing a lie.

Anyway, if you are physically attacked, the only choices are to fight or to submit (and occasionally, to evade).

Samarami's picture


    He makes it sound so easy. Keep in mind he is talking about getting rid of all national governments in the world, every state/provincial government, every county government, every municipal government, every school district and police district. Yes, a case can be made for that, but good luck actually getting there. I suppose that is what is meant when a person is referred to as an "academic".

Hasnas is addressing anarchist theory. That's all he's doing. He neither proposes nor predicts how anarchy might come into being at any level of what we know as "government". He shows that central political authority is not necessary. And he shows that anarchy is everywhere -- right here, right now -- if we'll simply look around.

You and I are generally aligned in our philosophy. I agree with your take on "rights". I never use the term. I have and I make choices. If there are indeed rights to which I am entitled, I have no expectations that anybody outside of myself will grant or protect them. And I understand my friend -- our friend, Suveran2's, "just cause" theory.

If it's going to be, it's up to me.


(I had a lengthy, long-winded response all typed up, which took me two or three hours with interruptions. But then I did the unthinkable: clicked "Publish comment" without pasting it to my clipboard. So, I got " are not authorized to comment...." and discovered I had gotten myself logged out while I was composing.

So, to your good fortune, you now have the highly truncated version).

Samarami's picture


    Political tolerance can also work.

Ye Gads!

I am a sovereign state. We (that would be me) tolerate no politics therein.

But you go ahead and have at 'er, if you think you can pull it off.