The USS Quad Damage

In defense of Libertarianism

I take a look at the benefits of Libertarianism, or as it's otherwise known, Anarchy!

A hierarchy, especially with all of its structures, requires big shifts in both the pyramid of command and control structures, as well as culture.

First, a disclaimer: I’m an engineer, not a politician. Using “isms” with me doesn’t make sense. I’m a “solutionist” if you want to force the topic. I want shit to work. Other than that, I don’t really care about (and can barely understand) left vs right “wings”, and hold no dogma for or against capitalism, communisim, socialism, or whatever else you think the stars align against.

OK, let’s take a look at Libertarianism. I think it gets a bad rap. In part, this is due to “something something Ayn Rand”, which I guess means people who say they are libertarian not actually being libertarian, in part this is due to people who do not ascribe to “Libertarian Dogma” not actually understanding Libertarianism, and partially because “Libertarianism” is really just a weasel word for “Anarchy”. I’m just going to go ahead and use the “A” word here because we’re all adults.

So let me talk a bit about Anarchy, and answering the big question: “What problem does it solve”, or rather “what problems is it uniquely suited to solving”.

A main component of Anarchy comes from the observation that people aren’t robots. They don’t follow rules so much as social conventions. If a king demands his subjects don’t touch the good china, his subjects might not care or notice. If the king is generally well considered and there’s enough social impetus, over time a social contract might form that no one should touch the good china. Alternatively, there could be enforcement, and with enough of it, a social contract might form that no one should touch the good china.

Note that this might be because people know that touching the good china will result in enforcement, or that touching the good china is generally a bad idea (or a combination of both) but this isn’t some “rule following thing” that’s happened. It’s a social thing.

The second “Anarchist” observation is that as power is concentrated, and as people make decisions that are further away from the things they care about or are affected by, they will increasingly make bad decisions. An example of this is where the US congress enacted a “government shutdown”, which meant that many public servants went on forced leave without pay, but the pay of the congress was not affected. However, when congress was inconvenienced in an even minor way, they implemented a fix nearly instantly.

This happens even if everyone is well meaning. Note that I haven’t even mentioned things like corruption here. In the general case, however, there can be an extreme perversion of the intents of a system from the actual outcomes. People often talk about this even in advanced democratic nations.

The solution — Anarchy — is that we remove all aspects of the government and replace them with social norms, social contracts, and ad-hoc participatory structures which are completely flat. One of the important things to note here is that Anarchy is one of the most collectivists ideologies around, perhaps more so than socialism. When people hear that there are no institutions, then they assume that an Anarchist’s intent is total chaos. However, that’s not the case.

The idea is that you and your friends form a sort of “mini-government” and you just do your thing! There’s no social security, not because Anarchists think it’s a bad idea, but because if someone needs money, you just help them out by giving them food or just generally being nice. There’s no equivalent of Medicare. If someone needs medical help and they can’t afford it then the hospital just gives them free treatment at a loss. If the hospital starts to struggle everyone just pools together money and helps the hospital.

There’s no “taxes” to fix “services”. If you want to have streetlights, you and your friends pay for them. You want garbage trucks? You and your friends pay a fee to hire a garbage company. There’s no formalised structures. You and your friends and neighbours just get together and decide how you’re going to solve your problems (collectively) and then go off and solve them. It’s a very deliberative system.

However, there are some “rules” which are quite important in an Anarchist system. These are really just “social norms” which are super important or else Anarchy becomes unstable and devolves into another system.

One of these is the veto. The idea here is that when you and your friends and neighbours are deciding how to solve a problem and a single person doesn’t like it, they can veto the idea. There’s no majority rules, no tie-breakers, no nothing. Everyone always gets veto powers, which means everyone decides together what it is they’re doing. There are specific ways to set up meetings and plan stuff so that veto powers rarely get used.

A related idea is “Anarchy” itself. That is, the enforced lack of a hierarchy. This kind of goes with the “veto” idea — since anyone can veto any decision, no one has any special decision making power. I’m mentioning it specifically here to note that it prevents people from doing things to limit their own power (or involvement), like delegating their responsibilities.

Another idea is one I’m going to call “initial conditions”. Unlike most systems, culture (for obvious reasons) is extremely important in Anarchy. If you don’t know the social norms, you simply cannot operate. If you don’t know the bare minimum of the rules for Anarchy to work, then Anarchy cannot work. If you don’t have an attitude of getting involved and helping people, then Anarchy cannot work. A huge part of making Anarchy stable and viable involves having a society where people take responsibility for everything that happens in society.

This sort of system has some unique advantages and some serious drawbacks. First, let’s get to the advantages:

First off, It’s crazy robust. Because everything is spontaneously organised and driven from the bottom, no matter what the situation, people can continue living in a society. You could set off a nuke and people might not even realise. The decentralisation of an economy shows just how powerful this idea is when trade doesn’t have to travel “up and down a hierarchy”. Importantly, people are used to taking responsibility, so a shift in responsibility, a death, or even a decimated population can just carry on as strong as ever.

Secondly, it’s vastly more efficient at the low end. If you look at many monopolies today they can only exist because of command and control structures imposed by the state. Often these structures are beneficial (and I’ll address this later), but their very existence — a central bank, road, electricity, and telecommunications networks, welfare and health, all create barriers to innovation, trade, and (micro) business. This allows a few fat cats to collect rent and grow to a size where they cannot be challenged. It also entrenches inefficient structures. If you look at centralised electricity grids, for example, most of the energy that’s generated is simply thrown away. Less than half is put to use.

Thirdly, it can turn on a dime. A hierarchy, especially with all of its structures, requires big shifts in both the pyramid of command and control structures, as well as culture. This can take years and may not ever succeed. We can see this in top-down companies like Microsoft, who are having a hard time dealing with new technologies that Apple is putting out. Contrast with a relatively Anarchic company like Valve, who aren’t just going from strength to strength, they’re changing their entire business model constantly, from making games to being a digital publisher to digital medium to hardware and controller manufacture and free-to-play. It can be hard to remember that they’re actually a video games company!

There are other reasons to like with Anarchy, too, but let’s look at the other side of the coin: where Anarchy tends to be weak.

The first is standardisation. In fact, Anarchy is quite good at “good enough” standardisation, but it tends to move slowly and very deliberately. If you want everyone to switch to the metric system overnight, use a top-down system like representative democracy or (somewhat ironically) a monarchy.

Secondly, Anarchy is fairly weak at “signalling”. Let’s say that drink driving is becoming a huge problem. Worse, some of the people drink driving really don’t care. What you want is for someone in charge to simultaneously state that drink driving is unacceptable, and create penalties for drink drivers. No slow consensus building, someone has the power to state it. This has two effects: First, drink drivers who don’t care are punished by the state. Second, those that do not want to drink drive have complete buy-in with their peers. A leader has sent out a “signal”, and everyone has culturally shifted, all at once, to a new position. Anarchy often has the “you can't get there from here” problem.

Thirdly, in some ways, Anarchy can actually cause massive concentrations of power. Because signalling is so hard, Anarchists tend to signal by arbitrarily choosing someone as the signalling “conduit” of sorts. This means they become a sort of “benevolent dictator for life”. Really, this means they hold a lot of sway or soft power, because even if people don’t want to do exactly what the conduit wants, if it’s “close enough” to the consensus, then everyone will follow the conduit since it’s a strong signal for consensus.

One of the most important weaknesses of Anarchy is that it simply hasn’t been tested at scale. It relies very heavily on the specifics, and while small groups and systems have used Anarchy successfully, Anarchist solutions tend to break down and fail as size goes up. Even if a solution exists, it doesn’t matter, because what’s important is not the solution, but the culture of implementing the solution. It may well be an intractable problem.

In any case, the important thing is to realise that any (political) system, when approached as dogma, is silly. Anarchy / Libertarianism is no different, but then the same is true of capitalism, socialism, democracy, or anything else you can think of. The important thing is in realising that what you want isn’t some pure political system, but one that’s actually effective. For this, we should use whatever works best in the given situation.