The Art of Not Being Governed: A Strange Endorsement of Anarchism
I’ve been attempting to read any work vaguely relating to the study of anarcho-capitalism in an effort to have as realistic of a chance as possible to actualize it. In that vein, I ran across The Art of Not Being Governed by James Scott. Scott is an anarchist in the traditional sense in that he seems to be some sort of communitarian/left anarchist rather than strict anarcho-capitalist. However, his book was published by Yale University Press, meaning that it must be of excellent academic rigor. I also presumed that reading a book from a different perspective on the topic may yield new insights. That it did, but not in the manner I expected.
His thesis is a relatively straightforward one: There is a massive swath of land covering upland southeast Asia—that is, Vietnam, Burma, Malaysia, and part of China and India—that was more or less ungoverned and anarchist until the 1950’s. They managed to remain reliably ungoverned for so long by becoming “hill people” and fleeing “the valley states.” Basically, states formed in the valleys between hills in that area (which he collectively refers to as Zomia) because kings/rulers could coercively extract rents and enslave armies from the stationary rice paddy farmers who lived there. This is an empirical example of Mancur Olson’s stationary bandit theory of state formation. In contrast to this, states couldn’t even track, much less enslave or extract rents from, the hill people who utilized slash-and-burn agriculture or harvested rare, valuable commodities for trade so as to remain forever mobile and shifting. He spends most of the book providing ample evidence that they behaved in such a manner as an explicit means of avoiding the states in the valleys; in other words, these hill people lived unconquered and free for millennia in a deliberate manner.
Here’s the catch for market anarchists, though: these people remained relatively backwards and undeveloped for that entire time period. The very fact that they were so incredibly mobile cut both ways: it allowed them to escape the tyranny of the state while simultaneously rendering them unable to form cities and as such never obtain the capital accumulation (both technological and human) that cities enable, meaning they never progress beyond a certain degree of human prosperity and flourishing. Scott doesn’t see a problem with this because he appears to sympathize with primitivism (the belief that modern society is bad and older, less developed cultures had it right). He tries (unconvincingly) to argue that the entire concept of “barbarians” or “primitive culture” only exists because states created it to culturally punish those who fled to the anarchic hilly hinterlands. Regardless, the implications of this for us are bad: he is building a strong case that anarchy begets primitivism while states beget cities and progress (something he views as bad).
I still think the body of evidence from both economics, political philosophy, and law overwhelmingly indicates that anarchocapitalism will actually function best in cities. The point is that this is yet another empirical example detractors can point to in order to buttress the following argument: “yeah, your argument for anarchy works perfectly in theory, but every empirical example of where anarchy has been tried is always in some primitive form. It won’t work for modern society.” Obviously, this is because modern society heralded the creation of the modern bureaucratic state which goes to great lengths to squash any attempts to live without it. The causality in the relationship of temporal human development and bureaucratic state formation is one of progress in spite of, rather than because, such states developed.
This is why my singular life goal is to actualize an free, private city: so we can prove that claim false.
But in that pursuit, we need to be aware that books like this exist, and that the single strongest argument against anarchy is the one I enumerated above. I’m going to keep searching for the ultimate empirical rebuttal to that primitivism argument, as the strongest ones I’ve stumbled upon so far were of the New York Stock Exchange in Ed Stringham’s Private Governance and the closely related (but not quite anarchist) institutions in Singapore, Dubai, and Hong Kong from 1970-2000.
If I can’t find that much needed knockout punch of an empirical example of a prosperous anarchist city, then I’ll just make one myself!