Classic comedian Henny Youngman frequently used a joke in which someone would ask him, “How’s your wife?” His reply: “Compared to what?” When people are asked how they like the modern nation/state, you can’t evaluate their answers without knowing “compared to what?”
If you allow someone else to frame a debate, he can control what your answer is going to be. If you allow the state and its supporters to frame the debate as being between the coercive state on the one hand and the lawlessness and casual violence you see depicted anywhere without the state on the other, most rational people are going to opt for the state as the lesser of the two evils. But it’s a false dichotomy.
Some libertarians or anarchists (of various stripes) want to live in a world with no rules and no order. I want them to be able to live that way, but I don’t want my part of the world to look like that. I want voluntary order, but I want it organized by somebody other than the coercive state — and I want a choice of whose system to live under. What’s more, I want the choice to establish my own system to compete with the others if I want to.
A friend of mine sent me a link to a story that NPR’s Planet Money team did a couple of weeks ago about PorcFest, which is a popular annual “freedom festival” in New Hampshire sponsored by the Free State Project. The headline on the NPR story calls it “libertarian summer camp.” Among other things, the reporter talked about how the bacon he bought for breakfast hadn’t been inspected for safety and how financial transactions were difficult using differing systems of gold and silver. The implied criticism is that this is the way things have to be without the coercive state. Is that true?
I like knowing that there’s a pretty decent chance that my food is safe. I’d rather not have to be concerned about negative consequences from eating the food as a guide about how safe a restaurant is. But it doesn’t have to be a choice between a state coercing inspection or else no inspection at all. You might have a system by which some restaurants display a certification from a private company that they’ve been inspected for the sorts of things state health departments do today. Or you might have areas with higher standards — cities operated by a company that requires all of the vendors inside to operate by certain standards. The people who chose to live there would understand the standards the company required (and wouldn’t live there if they didn’t agree with the standards). In yet other areas, there might be no standards at all, places where people would prefer no rules of any sort and would simply trust each other until something went wrong.
The key is that the standards would be different for different places — and people would have their own choice about which system to live under. I think a lot of libertarians would initially say they want to live in the wild openness of no rules, but I suspect they’d soon find that they like rules that achieve reasonable purposes — as long as they have a choice about which system to live under.
We can have a modern, safe and efficient world without the coercive state. In some areas, the control would be even tighter than what it is in a state-controlled city today. Some people will want to live in an ultra-safe and secure environment — sort of like a neighborhood conceived and operated like Disney World — and they’re going to be willing to give certain controls to someone else. I don’t know what all the choices will be like. I just know that the market will evolve to reflect what people want to choose from, just as any functioning market does.
Personally, I think you’d be crazy to live in a lawless area with no rules of any kind. You might think I’m crazy for wanting to live in a safe, controlled environment where the lawns are manicured and everything looks perfect. The point isn’t that we should each convince a majority to agree with our vision of what the world should be and then enforce it on each other. The point is to accept a world where we’re each allowed to create our vision of a city or community — and then let people choose whether they want to join us or not.
The question isn’t one of “the coercive state or lawlessness.” The question is one of “coercion or choice.” What you then build with your choice is up to you and the people who choose to live with you.