Posts Tagged ‘state of nature’

Market Anarchism and the Circularity Problem

July 4, 2012 7 comments

One common objection to market anarchism is the charge of circular reasoning: in attempting to explain how a market anarchist system would work, market anarchists illegitimately assume the enforcement of property rights and contracts, which is precisely what they need to prove. Hence Lee (2008):

Anarchistic libertarianism illegitimately and self-defeatingly presupposes the existence of contract law in its account of how law and its enforcement would come to exist and have an ongoing role in an anarchistic society. (18)

And Morris (1998):

To suppose, for the purpose of demonstration, that there exists a perfectly competitive market for protective services would be, in effect, to suppose that basic security of person and goods—at least that necessary for the existence of a perfectly competitive market for protective services—is already established. The argument would be circular. (65)

(See also Holcombe 2004, p.332.)

These critics seem to take this circularity problem to decisively refute, or at least create substantial doubts about market anarchism. While I don’t think circularity rules out the possibility of market anarchism, I do believe it is an important problem for market anarchist theory, and that solving it will require considerable revisions to the theory, especially with regards to the role of market competition.

Analytically, the market anarchist project involves endogenizing the legal system and deriving the market anarchist system as an equilibrium outcome. In other words, we start from the state of nature, or the “market for protection”: a context with no enforcement of property rights or contracts. From this setting, the task is to show how anarchist legal institutions could emerge and persist. This means that it is invalid to assume that property rights are enforceable, or to assume the existence of institutions or mechanisms (such as market competition) which presuppose enforcement of property rights.

The circularity problem

Market anarchist theory puts a heavy analytical burden on market competition to show that market anarchism would have good consequences. Roderick Long (2008) argues that market competition provides a stronger constitutional constraint on power than any governmental constitution. This is because of the standard benefits of competition: producers must sell a product that consumers are willing to purchase; unsatisfied customers can take their business elsewhere; new competitors can enter the market and attract away customers; and firms that satisfy customers earn profits while firms that do not incur losses. Hence market competition provides a powerful constraint on the ability of protection agencies to use force. In law as in everything else, competition beats monopoly.

Note, however, that this argument runs into the circularity problem: since market competition presupposes enforceable property rights, the argument implicitly assumes a legal structure. But this is exactly what the market anarchist project must show, namely, how an anarchist legal structure could arise. When we analyze normal markets, we assume a legal framework, i.e., enforcement of property rights and contracts. Standard economic theory has worked out in detail what will happen in this institutional setting. In contrast, in the market for protection, we explicitly assume the absence of a legal framework; we want to derive enforcement of property rights as an equilibrium outcome. Hence, since market competition presupposes a framework of law, it doesn’t make sense to talk about competition in the market for protection as if it were the same as competition in normal markets. More formally:

  1. When treating the legal system as endogenous, enforcement of property rights is an equilibrium outcome to be derived, not a starting assumption.
  2. Market competition presupposes a framework of law, and especially enforcement of property rights and contracts.
  3. Hence, from 1 and 2, when treating the legal system as endogenous, market competition cannot be used to explain how enforcement of property rights is an equilibrium outcome.

In other words, without some reasons to think that competition in the market for protection works like it does in normal markets, appeals to market competition are illegitimately circular. (It seems obvious to me that competition in the absence of enforceable property rights and contracts does not work the same as competition in the presence of these things.) Long’s constitutionalist argument would work if it could be shown that competition in the market for protection has the same nice properties as competition in normal markets. But again, to avoid circular reasoning, this task must be accomplished without appealing to market competition.

But what about Long’s claim (141) that “a functioning market and a functioning legal order arise together; it’s not as though one shows up on the scene first and then paves the way for the other”? I disagree. If we take the chicken and egg question, it seems to me that law comes first.  Consider a state of nature: as Friedman (1994) argues, individuals could establish, without a state, at least limited property rights in possessions and land. This de facto law is the basis for market exchange, which then allows the development of more advanced legal institutions, which in turn fosters further market expansion, and so on in a virtuous circle. Hence I would define markets so that they presuppose a legal structure, which implies that law cannot be produced by the market.

(One might object: if some property rights can arise in the state of nature, why can’t competition be based on that? I agree that some beneficial competition could emerge; but this isn’t enough to warrant drawing on the strong results about normal market competition, as Long does. Regardless, this is a crucial question for future research: how does market competition work with imperfect property rights?)

None of this means that it’s impossible for an anarchist legal system to emerge in the market for protection (i.e., the state of nature); it just means that attempts to show this by appealing to market competition are invalid. The fact that a market presupposes a legal system does not rule out the possibility of a polycentric legal system.


Although the circularity problem does not mean market anarchism is impossible, I think it does show that the dominant approach to market anarchism is the wrong way to think about the issue. Up to now, most (all?) theorists have conceptualized market anarchism as privatizing the legal system, privatizing the police and courts, or turning the legal system over to the market. But due to the circularity problem, I think these approaches are incoherent: since the market presupposes a legal framework, it doesn’t make sense to talk about having the legal framework produced by the market. In general, any analysis of the market for protection that simply assumes that competition works like it does in normal markets is invalid.

What about David Friedman’s theoretical approach (e.g., Friedman 1996)? In principle, it is sound: assume an institutional setting, then derive the equilibrium. But it seems he too runs into the circularity problem. He beings his analysis as follows: “Imagine a society with no government. Individuals purchase law enforcement from private firms.” But the very act of “purchasing” requires that contracts are enforced, which in turn requires some pre-existing legal system, which is precisely what he needs to show. Maybe Friedman can show that these contracts would be self-enforcing, or that some other legal institution could enforce them, but until he does, his analysis fails to get off the ground.

So how should we think about market anarchism? I think a better approach to the question of anarchy vs. government is: the organization of violence in society. Here, market anarchism is just a polycentric organization of violence, whereas government is a monocentric organization of violence. Instead of viewing the anarchism debate as government vs. markets or monopoly vs. competition, see it as monocentric vs. polycentric organizations of violence. This approach avoids the circularity problem and allows us to get at the central issue: the properties of competition in the market for protection, or in other words, the properties of competition under imperfect property rights.

This approach is already being developed by the economics of conflict (see Bates et. al., 2002; Hirshleifer, 1995; Humphrey, 2010; and Konrad and Skaperdas, 2010). In this literature, the standard story is that unorganized violence is bad, but organized violence can be socially beneficial. Under unorganized violence, where all individuals use violence to defend property rights, the security of property claims depends on each individual’s ability to use violence to protect their property. Each individual must invest resources away from production and towards protection, which undermines the division of labor. Adding in the effects of the uncertainty of property claims and the possibility of violent conflict, unorganized violence appears to be wholly unsuitable for promoting economic prosperity.

In contrast, organized violence can be efficient if violence is used to protect property rights, and not for predation. Think of Olson’s stationary bandit, who has an incentive to provide security and enforce property rights in order to maximize his tax revenues. By having a specialist in violence, individuals can specialize in production, allowing an extended division of labor and thereby prosperity.

It seems to me that market anarchists can and should engage this literature on the question: which form of organized violence is best? As noted above, market anarchism is equivalent to a polycentric organization of violence. If anarchy is superior to the state, then it must be shown that a polycentric organization of violence is better than a monocentric one.


Bates, Robert, Avner Greif, and Smita Singh. (2002). “Organizing Violence.” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 46(5): 599-628.

Friedman, David D. (1994). “A Positive Account of Property Rights.” Social Philosophy and Policy, 11(2).

Friedman, David D. (1996). “Anarchy and Efficient Law.” In Sanders and Narveson (Eds.), For and Against the State.

Hirshleifer, Jack. (1995). “Anarchy and its Breakdown.” Journal of Political Economy, 103(1): 26-52.

Holcombe, Randall. (2004). “Government: Unnecessary but Inevitable.” Independent Review (3): 325-342.

Humphrey, Shawn. (2010). “Political Economy of Violence.” In Rhona Free (Ed.), 21st Century Economics: A Reference Handbook.

Konrad, Kai and Stergios Skaperdas. (2010). “The Market for Protection and the Origin of the State.” Economic Theory.

Lee, John Roger. (2008). “Libertarianism, Limited Government, and Anarchy.” In Long and Machan (Eds.), Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country?

Long, Roderick. (2008). “Market Anarchism as Constitutionalism.” In Long, Machan (Eds.) Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country?

Morris, Christopher. (1998). An Essay on the Modern State.


The Underpants Gnomes Theory of the State

You might be familiar with the underpants gnomes business plan from South Park:

File:Gnomes plan.png

It occurred to me that the prisoners’ dilemma (PD) justification of the state has a similar logic. The traditional story says that life in the state of nature is a PD, where everyone has the incentive to cheat rather than cooperate. But since everyone would be better off cooperating, they have an incentive to form a government that forces them to cooperate. Or, the underpants gnomes theory of the state:

1. People in the state of nature would benefit from establishing a government.
2. ???
3. Therefore, government.

What this justification skips over is an explanation of how people could establish a government. Government is treated as a deus ex machina, an “external” institution that is simply “given.” The traditional story throws rational choice out the window: instead of resulting from individual actions, government just magically pops into existence when its total social benefits outweigh total social costs.

(The absence of an explanation of the emergence of government from a PD game is quite puzzling when you think about it, since it’s not obvious how players in a PD could cooperatively set up a government when defecting is the dominant strategy.)

Jason Briggeman, in his paper “Governance as a Strategy in State-of-Nature Games,” (ungated) sets out to remedy this situation by providing the beginning of a rational choice model of the establishment of government. He creates a modified PD game, what he calls the “Prisoners’ Dilemma with Coercion,” where players have the option to adopt a coercive strategy and impose a strategy choice on another player.

As he writes: “To model this Hobbesian situation with the tools of game theory, it would seem to be required that society’s governor be an internal player who chooses strategies, not an external model-builder who sets payoffs.” It strikes me as odd that, given the widespread belief in the necessity of the state, something as important as a rational choice explanation for the emergence of government could have been ignored for so long.