Panarchy, Not Anarchy, Is the Answer

Column by Paul Bonneau.

Exclusive to STR

It’s not unusual to see here on Strike The Root articles defending or promoting anarchy, particularly the anarcho-capitalist variety. Yay, team!

Anarcho-capitalism is a good answer--for anarcho-capitalists. Not so good for, say, communitarians, though; nor for liberals, conservatives, or even anarcho-other-than-capitalists.

It’s an answer, not the answer.

It’s not even a perfect answer for me, since my eyes start rolling whenever an-caps go on about religious notions such as “rights.” I’m not religious. However, I am quite religiously tolerant; so yeah, I could live pretty well in an an-cap community.

Anarchists like to think of themselves as avant-garde, and I suppose in the current political world we are, pretty much. But one old-fashioned notion that is often found among them, is that anarchism is the political philosophy for everyone. To paraphrase Churchill, “Anarchy is the worst form of government (or non-government) except all the others that have been tried.” There’s always that good old value judgment. Yay, team!

Panarchists, on the other hand, tend to refrain from making value judgments. It’s hard to see how they could, since “anything goes” in panarchy.

The Wikipedia definition of Panarchy shows multiple possible interpretations for it, but to me it means two particular things: 1) A panarchist believes in whatever political philosophy it pleases him to believe, and operates politically, only within that polity; 2) A panarchist rejects coercion of those outside his own polity.

A natural corollary of these two characteristics is that a panarchist is naturally reticent to criticize polities different from his own, in the same exact way a modern Catholic would be reticent to publicly, at least, condemn the Lutheran or Baptist religions, and vice-versa. It’s not polite. It also stirs up unnecessary conflict and aggression.

Of course coercion within a polity remains perfectly permissible--depending on the polity.

One other characteristic that is usually included with panarchism is that of extraterritoriality. In other words, people of different polities live all mixed up together, again similar to people of modern religions. I don’t find this entirely prescriptive of panarchy, though, since people can live where they please, and inevitably there will be concentrations of one polity or another. It’s just easier, living with one’s own kind. I described that notion long before I knew about “panarchy”, here. It might be though of as “fine-grained panarchy” (living in polities all mixed up) vs. “coarse-grained panarchy” (polities with some separation). I suspect coarse-grained panarchy will predominate at first, and later that things will become more fine-grained, particularly in the big cities.

Now, I have little doubt that anarcho-capitalism will gain tremendously large numbers of converts once people can see it operating in the open. I have lots of doubt, however, that it will convert everyone, or even just a majority.

If that is assumed to be a given, it seems to me that anyone who becomes an anarchist must simultaneously become a panarchist, since an anarchist rejects coercion. But there are a lot of anarchists apparently resistant to the idea of panarchism. They have turned into evangelists, as happens to many new converts, and can’t abide by the notion their solution doesn’t work for everyone. I suppose that without coercion left as a tool, their brilliant argumentation and passion is supposed to convert the ignorant and suspicious masses. Such notions are hard to take seriously. Isn’t it just easier to stop attacking others’ beliefs, relax, and become a panarchist? Not only easier, but also more productive, I’d argue.

Anyone can be a panarchist, but all anarchists must be--otherwise, they aren’t really anarchists. Perhaps someone can try to refute this statement--that is, explain how one can reject coercion without rejecting coercion. Or the alternative, explain how every person on Earth can be converted to anarcho-capitalism with no coercion.

Now, some like to make the somewhat semantic argument that a person of any polity automatically becomes an anarchist (what kind?) by dropping interpolity coercion from his set of approved tools, with everything else left unchanged. I don’t know if this semantic argument adds much to the discussion; after all, people remain capable of doing that (rejecting only interpolity coercion) no matter what you want to call them. Intrapolity coercion remains, remember. They can coerce each other to their heart’s content. Panarchy does not prescribe total elimination of coercion.

By the way, I have no delusions about interpolity coercion simply vanishing into thin air forever, with the advent of widespread panarchy. There is no panarchist utopia; humans ain’t got it in ‘em. There will always be “backsliding,” and particular polities will have to maintain a credible defensive posture. It’s something to shoot for, though. There is always room for improvement. I’ll bet a lot of conservatives and liberals (for example) are getting tired of bashing each other to no good end. Well, now they can stop.

If I may be permitted, Yay, panarchy!

Just to head off any misinterpretation, I am not suggesting that alternative polities are equally correct, equally fair or decent. I think anarcho-capitalism is superior to all others. It’s just that I’m unwilling to impose it.

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Paul Bonneau's picture
Columns on STR: 106


Jim Davies's picture

It's a good thing you referred readers to Wiki's definition of "panarchy":  "a conceptual term... referring to a specific form of governance that would encompass all others."
So it might include individual self-government, but it would also encompass all other varieties of government, all cohabiting happily together and never, no, never troubling each other - possibly because there would be a supra-government, "encompassing all others." And the lion shall lie down with the lamb, and everyone will live happily ever after. Good night, kiddies.
I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry, nor whether to call this nonsense a dream or a nightmare.

Paul's picture

Jim, your comments are always entertaining, if nothing else. Of course I addressed the very objection you raised; perhaps you skimmed over that. Interesting though, that the only solution to this problem that you can imagine, is a supra-government - exactly the mark of a statist.

As to what panarchy is, like every word out there, there are multiple definitions that can be utilized by those seeking to spread dissention and confusion, rather than seeking understanding and truth. I used the word because at least some conceptions of it apply. I also clearly specified the definition I was using in the text. Perhaps you skimmed over that as well. No surprises there...

Jim Davies's picture

“'When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’" And so say you, Paul, also in rather a scornful tone.

I'm reluctant to use the dictionary to prove a point, it's so pedantic; but here it seems necessary. According to the suffix -arch is 'a combining form meaning “chief, leader, ruler,” used in the formation of compound words: monarch; matriarch; heresiarch.'

By the same source, the prefix an- 'occurring before stems beginning with a vowel or h in loanwords from Greek, where it means “not,” “without,” “lacking” ( anarchy; anecdote  );  used in the formation of compound words: anelectric.' Hence one of my favorite words: anarchy, without a ruler.

Likewise the prefix pan- 'a combining form meaning “all,” occurring originally in loanwords from Greek (panacea; panoply), but now used freely as a general formative (panleukopenia; panorama; pantelegraph; pantheism; pantonality), and especially in terms, formed at will, implying the union of all branches of a group (Pan-Christian; Panhellenic; Pan-Slavism).'

Twist it as you may, "panarchy" therefore means "all rulers." A chaotic melange of all manner of governments.

You chose your title well. It accurately summarizes the content of your article. Anarchy, you said, is not the answer, but panarchy is the answer. You declare that you do not wish there to be no ruler, instead you want all rulers. You seem to imagine that there exists, or can exist, such a thing as a ruler who takes no interest in ruling anyone outside the domain of those who welcome his rule.

Except when one government agrees with other(s) about the border between them (and even those contracts are quite frequently broken) there has never been such a thing. If the government is powerful relative to a person wishing not to be ruled, he is ruthlessly suppressed and there are many well known instances; for example this one here.  Or if the government were to be weak relative to surrounding anarchist societies, this article visualizes what would take place. It is the nature of government to govern everyone it can get within its clutches, and the possibility that any will volunteer to let you alone, when it has the power not to, is ludicrous. Like I said: a fairy tale.
It's now over two weeks since you proposed that we each ask our Editor to choose one of us and evict him from STR, to which I eagerly agreed. This will, I hope, hasten his hand: here we have a "root striker" who openly declares that anarchy is not the answer. You are a dangerous man, Paul Bonneau.


Paul's picture

Your position seems to be that it is impossible for anarchy to exist in a world that has governments - but then you ask the observer to believe an even more impossible thing, that anarchy can be accomplished by converting every person on earth to be anarchists without using a single bit of coercion.

If you think everybody can be converted this way, prove it. Give us a plausible path to it.

I can prove my alternative. A corollary of your position is that no anarchy ever existed in the world since the agricultural revolution. I say there have been plenty; perhaps not perfect anarchy but close enough. I say there are some that fall into that category right now.

This is not even taking into account that tools and technologies are being invented that make anarchy more possible, in a world containing governments, e.g. bitcoin and battle rifles.

Your article about "MinGovia" actually proves my point. Notice that the government of Massachusetts WAS tolerated. That was the best thing to do with it. Its existence did not mean that Vermonters couldn't be anarchic.

Jim Davies's picture

If I had not already often shown a "plausible path" to a free society (which I predict will have a flourishing, efficient justice industry to handle the residual few who still commit aggression) you'd be quite right.
But of course I have done, rather often. You're obviously not paying attention.
Anyone with a genuine interest in seeing even more detail about that path may like to consider my book Transition to Liberty.

Paul's picture

You still proved my point with your MinGovia article.

To correct some of your earlier straw men...

"Anarchy, you said, is not the answer, but panarchy is the answer. "

Panarchy is THE answer, that is, the only universal answer that does not require coercion. Anarchy is AN answer, the answer for anarchists. It is not an answer for anyone who does not voluntarily choose anarchy. Is this so hard to understand?

"You declare that you do not wish there to be no ruler, instead you want all rulers."

I declared no such thing. Being an anarchist, what I wish is that there are no rulers. But "if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride." We have to deal with the world as it is. To avoid aggression, we have no choice but to tolerate the preferences of others, unless they actually aggress against us - just as you wrote in "MinGovia".

"You seem to imagine that there exists, or can exist, such a thing as a ruler who takes no interest in ruling anyone outside the domain of those who welcome his rule."

Nonsense. Nothing I have written suggests that; in fact it's the reverse of what I think. But having an interest is not the same thing as accomplishing it. There are any number of deterrents that can stop such an interest.

Glock27's picture

Sounds like a book I once read "Utopia!"

Can you tell me if an "Executive Order" is Constitutionally legal?

Glock27's picture

PAUL: forgive me but none of this is going to work, it never will, it's all pipe dream until someone or some people takeit upon themselves to actually do the work to set about establishing a new governmental system. Stil that may not be operational because of all the small, collective, filthy rich open society groups go broke trying to create an open society. Although the philosophies are sound dosen't prove anything unless it can be operational.
I amcertain thisis not a disappointment to you, You state "what I wish is that there are no rulers." iplicitely stating you recognize this nation has a system and the best you can do is follow your own principles as anyone else here.
The only reason I keep coming back here is that it is like a class. I am learning a more here than I ever did in college. And the best thing about it is that there's not test unless someone challenges me.

mhstahl's picture


I don't think this statement is quite accurate:

"You seem to imagine that there exists, or can exist, such a thing as a ruler who takes no interest in ruling anyone outside the domain of those who welcome his rule.

Except when one government agrees with other(s) about the border between them (and even those contracts are quite frequently broken) there has never been such a thing."

Such a condition was in fact commonplace in the early middle-ages, the notion of governance being bound by geography rather than culture and oath is a fairly new development that sprang from feudalism(I believe you even have an article about the "State's" less than five-hundred year history). Indeed, divided loyalties is one of the reasons that subinfeudation annoyed the Normans and gave us modern (still feudal in many respects) real estate law through the statute of Quia Emptores.

It was totally possible-potentially even likely- for someone to be subject to more than one temporal government. Likewise, one could generally leave one lord and find another simply by walking away(that lord might try to catch you-but no one else would give a damn, labor had a higher value in the agricultural economy.)

Unlike today, there were large throngs of folks who by choice or by sentence were subject to NO government-they were known as outlaws...a condition that no government will now recognize(though some may live it.)

Monasteries, Convents, and many towns and trade guilds operated as governments to themselves with authority only over their members.

In the pre-feudal quasi-anarchy of the "dark ages" what "government" that existed was a family matter, and families interacted in much the way nations do today; higher lords and kings were generally little more than military leaders with very weak loyalty and little authority outside of local defense.

Personally, I find this radical de-centralization a far superior model than the modern nation-state, and while I don't believe I'd call it panarchy -though I believe some historians do-I am sympathetic with the idea.  I certainly do not think that it is in any way dangerous, or ought to be subject to the censor's stamp.

We really don't have to accept the same mythology to get along, it is too bad that you can't see that.

And, by the way, from another conversation-if only Austrians were dissimilar enough to not be elected by German voters the world might be a better place, and I suspect Henry III would be utterly baffled by the modern "state." :)



Suverans2's picture

"If you acknowledge eye-rolling and argue about it, you’re giving your child power he didn’t earn by being productive. The simple answer? Don’t acknowledge it. I guarantee you that if you ignore eye-rolling it will either go away or become comical to you. I suggest you say what you have to say to your kids, and then don’t wait for the eye-rolling. If you’re in a conversation where eyes are being rolled, just keep focusing on what you want to communicate. Like many annoying behaviors, it’s harmless, and the best way to deal with harmless, annoying behaviors is to ignore them."

Paul's picture

True enough, but children are instructable. Doesn't mean all eye-rollers are. ;-)

Samarami's picture

The idea that one "should become" some type or style of anarchist smells slightly collectivist to me. Some months ago I posted my list of "ists" I had gathered into a word file and eventually alphabetized and somewhat categorized (to the extent I could). I think there are well over 60 entries, but at one point I quit the hobby and have made no further additions. I deemed it a fruitless task.

I am a sovereign state. I need no "isms" to validate or sanctify me. I smile at the poor souls who try so hard to diss my proclamation. I get the feeling they'd like to make chattel of me (although I really no better than that). They always have a bandwagon upon which I must mount, and if I refrain, I am not truly "free". They will argue and fight -- presumably until I submit to their meme that indeed I am not free.

Life's short and I'm at the fer end. I have a large and diverse family (7 kids, 24 grandkids, 5 greats & counting) who have no appetite for "isms" -- at least I've "learned" 'em that much (even sons & daughters-in-law & families). My stock-in-trade is the example I leave.

Some will one day join our small group. All that I'm aware are exposed to the idea of self ownership. Most are prepared (emotionally at least) for the state collapse that surely must come.

And I'm the richest man in my city.


Suverans2's picture

Our, (and perhaps even Paul Bonneau's and my), disagreement on the existence of rights, and in particular, natural rights[1], is more one of semantics[2], i.e. word choices, than one of substance, in my opinion. To prove that, I put forth that all three of us agree with the substance of that video you just linked to, The Philosophy of Liberty. And, just what is The Philosophy of Liberty based on? The natural, universal, and in-ālien-able rights of life, liberty and property. Read the transcript; the word "right" and "rights" is used EIGHT times.

[1] "All men have certain natural, essential, and inherent rights - among which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty; acquiring, possessing, and protecting, property..."

"Natural rights are rights not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and therefore [are] universal and inalienable."

[2] semantics The meaning or the interpretation of a word, sentence, or other language form: We're basically agreed; let's not quibble over semantics. ~ American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

Samarami's picture

One addition to my observation I failed to mention (you knew this was coming):

I believe any discussion of "anarchy" will be enhanced if the participants will take the time to read John Hasnas' essay, "The Obviousness of Anarchy":


Paul's picture

Sam, just as religious toleration eventually came to mean the toleration of atheism as well (as an inescapable consequence), political toleration will certainly also mean toleration of those who have chosen no polity. The point of panarchy is that coercion is valid only WITHIN a polity (depending on the polity).

I agree with your suspiciousness of having to choose a polity; I might well refrain just as you would. But keep in mind the idea is not that unusual if you look at it closely. Clearly you choose a community to live in; how is choosing a polity fundamentally different? In both cases, we will almost never find a perfect match for what we need; but we don't have to. All we need is "close enough".

In fact in my "coarse-grained panarchism" choosing a community and choosing a polity is essentially the same thing. Nope, no need to register as an anarcho-capitalist; but your living in Anarchyville will certainly suggest something about where you stand on things.

Samarami's picture


    '... in my "coarse-grained panarchism" choosing a community and choosing a polity is essentially the same thing...'

I can't say I actually "chose a community". Perhaps I did. I bought an old family place where I've known many of the neighbors for years. It's a friendly and safe neighborhood in that we look out for one another. If a "stranger" lurks around my place you can bet the lady next door will be out checking the situation out, etc. I'd do the same for her. She had knee or hip surgery recently and I cleared her sidewalks of snow, and I know she'd do the same or similar for me.

But I definitely did not "...choose a polity..." My house is situated across the street from a "state representative" -- left of the left-hand side of left. About as diabolically opposite philosophically as two folks can be. Yet we get along well as neighbors ("nodding acquaintance" would describe the relationship). Now if I enjoyed the locution skills of you or Jim Davies or some of the others, possibly I could sway Ako to renounce politics and become an anarchist or, better in your eyes, panarchist.

Not to be, I'm feared. But my neighbors' "polity" isn't going to chase me away. In fact, how could I present a good anarchist example by fleeing from those I'd like to impact??? If I truly want to influence people to become free and sovereign (and to cease encroaching the freedom of others, including me), the last thing in the world I should do is shun them and/or run from them. If I can't stand the heat I'd better find out why, not flee the fire.

Which prompts an important reaction: you two individuals (you know who you are) who presume to be "feuding" over philosophical positions need to simply grow up. If one of you " a dangerous man..." (not likely) then that's the man you want to keep right here on STR -- in your gun sites so to speak. You certainly don't want chase away or "disfellowship" them to influence others across town. I'll guarantee you, nobody here is going to get by with "dangerous" ideas for very long -- plenty of plucky root-strikers will promptly fill their butts with philosophical buckshot. We can name several root-strikers who've resisted taking their bat & ball and leaving because they disagreed with one or more of the others.

I praise the moderator(s) and editor(s) of STR for not getting involved with sacking one or another member as "heretics". Lively discussion is formed with disagreements. Wholesome friendships result. Suverans2 and I have "fought" a number of times over definitions, etc., yet I count Suv as my good and lasting friend. He's the guy who taught me HTML.

Back to topic: I'm not exactly sure how you're defining "polity", Paul. As Hasnas states, there's a substantial difference between "government" (coercive) and "governance" (necessary for continence in both family and community).

As I've repeated several times, I am a sovereign state. I do not need to move to New Hampshire (no offense, certainly, to our esteemed residents in that very pleasant part of the world) or Costa Rica or some floating raft in the Pacific to sustain my personal sovereignty. If I can't be free where I am, I will never be free.

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


Paul's picture

Well, Sam, it looks to me like you DID choose your community. The only other alternative is that someone else chose it for you. Even picking it randomly is a form of choice; the only question is who chose it.

As to your neighbor, I don't see how this argues that you did not pick a polity. In Panarchy, it would be extremely common to have next-door neighbors of different polities (particularly in "fine-grained panarchy"). And engaging with him in political discussions would also be commonplace, similar to a person of one religion trying to convert another (and probably about as successful). No need to flee from anyone.

It appears you did pick a polity of sorts - "I am a sovereign state." Polity, at least in the context of panarchy, appears to mean simply the form of political structure, the "ism". Your polity is the "ism" you prefer (including none if you like). If you look at a dictionary, that is at least one meaning of the word. My polity is a form of anarchism. I don't particularly look at myself as a sovereign state, but I can see how a person could look at anarchism that way. I try not to get too wrapped up in the definitions of words, which tend to change over time anyway.

Oh, and I don't mind being called "dangerous". I consider that a compliment (however unintended), and I have advised everyone to become dangerous: I hope everybody got their AR-15 before the current buying frenzy started...

The proposed "sacking" of one or another has a lot more to do with ending the divisive name-calling than it has to do with differences in doctrine. I have no problem whatever with differences of opinion - Suverans and I also play well together even if each thinks the other is a bit off. I'll bet he doesn't call you a provocateur though, when he finds himself in disagreement with you.

Samarami's picture

You're no doubt correct on both counts: I chose to buy this old family place for lots of reasons (one of which we couldn't get it sold for any reasonable price), but mainly that I knew and trusted the neighborhood -- the majority of whom, it seems, "Obama/Biden" supporters (and local Democrats). I was probably doing a classic libertarian knee-jerk over the term "polity", since I don't want to have association with "politics".

And you're also correct: no need to flee from anyone. The exception might be if they're dangerously armed and wearing a state costume.


Suverans2's picture

You are correct on all three points in your last paragraph, Paul. You and I do "play well together"; I do not call Sam, (or you), a "provocateur"; and, last but not least, I am all but certain that you are a "bit off". lol

Suverans2's picture

Thank you, Sam. We don't have to agree on every point to be friends.

Thunderbolt's picture

Michael Rozeff on LewRockwell dot com has written several essays about panarchy:
Panarchy, in the words of John Zube, is as follows.

"PANARCHY: The realization of as many different and autonomous communities as are wanted by volunteers for themselves, all non-territorially coexisting, side by side and intermingled, as their members are, in the same territory or even world-wide and yet separated from each other by personal laws, administrations and jurisdiction, as different churches are or ought to be."

In Panarchy, in the same way that persons choose friends, a club, a spouse, and a church, they choose a Community and a Government. They are not automatically inducted into a Government and Laws that are not of their choosing, as is the case today.

Tony Pivetta's picture

Interestingly enough, the atheist Ayn Rand upheld the notion of "natural rights," as did the agnostic Murray Rothbard. In *Natural Law: or don't put a rubber on your willy*, the self-professed "model agnostic" Robert Anton Wilson took them both to task. He denied the existence of "in-dwelling essences."
Though I use the concept myself, and otherwise regard Rothbard as a libertarian theorist without peer, I believe Wilson is correct. There is no empirical and little axiomatic-deductive basis to rights. To invoke them is to enter the realm of values, which is to say, metaphysics.
I invoke them nonetheless. I find it well nigh impossible to discuss political philosophy without reference to a handful of transcendent givens. Truth, justice, honor, fair play and ethics all come down to questions of ultimacy or--dare I use the word?--theology. It may be God doesn't exist. It may be the Big Questions have no answers. I prefer to act as if He does and they do. 
Mr. Bonneau himself seems to give a nod to metaphysics even after dissing them: "I am not suggesting that alternative politics are equally correct, equally fair or decent. I think anarcho-capitalism is superior to all the others." Is this statement not a value judgment? (Not that there's anything wrong with that!)
He hastens to add, "It's just that I'm unwilling to impose it." As am I. Indeed, my value system strictly forbids the initiation of violence or threats of violence for any reason--even in the interests of advancing my value system.
That's why panarchy does work. In the absence of government, we are not inclined to impose our value systems on others. 

Suverans2's picture

Please, correct me if I am wrong, but would it be fair to say that if we deny the existence of "in-dwelling essences", the only way to tell the difference between the lion and the lamb would be by their "out-dwelling essences", the way they look? And, if that is true, we'd never be able to discover a "wolf in sheep's clothing". ;)

Samarami's picture

Profound, my friend! Wilson could use Essences 101!


Paul's picture

"Is this statement not a value judgment?"

Yes it is. It's a fine line to tread. Value judgements are perfectly OK as guides to personal behavior - but can be taken too far, being used to hit someone else over the head with (both with "persuasion" and with plain old coercion). See my article,

I too, when it makes sense, use the language of "rights" since it is so widespread. More because of how other people relate to the word, than me. If communication is to be accomplished, compromises must often be made.