Anarchy and the Law

When I tell people that I’m an anarchist they often (usually) assume I oppose all laws. This is untrue. In fact anarchists tend to have more respect for law and order than statists.

Anarchy translates into “without rulers”. The philosophy opposes coercive hierarchical rule, which is a fancy way of saying no person or persons receives special privileges. This is the opposite of statism, which involves one group of people (those comprising the state) having special privileges over everybody else. The recent healthcare debate demonstrates one of the privileges of state. While those of us outside of the state are required to purchase health insurance, members of Congress are exempt. Another example involves police officers. A police officer is legally allowed to lie to you but you’re not legally allowed to lie to a police officer.

A classic example of law and order in a state of anarchy would be medieval Iceland. While medieval Iceland didn’t have a state it was notable peaceful, especially when compared to its European neighbors. Laws were a byproduct of spontaneous order, not decrees handed down by a ruling class. When left to spontaneous order, laws tend to address instances of actual harm, which was the case in Iceland. Nobody will normally invest the resources necessary to instate a prohibition against smoking a plant but many people will invest the resources necessary to protect their lives and the lives of those they care about. In fact the defining feature, in my opinion, of law and order developed as a side effect of spontaneous order is a focus on efficiency.

Law and order is necessary for a society to function but it is one of those things nobody wants to sink more resources than necessary into. Violence, in general, is very costly. You must either put yourself at risk of death or pay somebody else enough to convince them to put their life at risk to enforce your desires. As I said, Iceland was notably peaceful. All out war was almost unheard of during its stateless period and what violence did break out tended to be ritualized. Instead of relying on expensive violence most disagreements in medieval Iceland were resolved through less expensive arbitration. When two individuals had a disagreement they would find a gothi, a mediator, whom they both trusted. The gothi would hear both sides of the disagreement and make a decision.

Another example of law and order that arose from spontaneous order is the lex mercatoria, or merchant law. Finding state justice systems too slow, merchants during the medieval period created a series of private courts along popular trading routes. These courts were designed to resolve disagreements quickly, since any time invested in dispute resolution was time not spent trading. When trade disputes would arise the involved parties would seek mediation from a nearby court. The court would hear all sides of the disagreement and deliver a ruling.

Why would people abide by either of the above mentioned legal systems? Isn’t the threat of violence necessary to make people abide by laws? As it turns out, no. Violence is an expensive method of enforcing laws. There is a more efficient method known as social ostracism. Our lives are composed of constant human interactions. Everything we do is effectively the result of interactions with others. When entire swaths of society refuse to associate with us our lives become far more difficult. Specifically, the lack of human interaction leads to a de facto status known as outlawry.

Outlawry means “outside of the law”. When an individual refuses to abide by the socially acceptable practices of a community he usually finds himself in a position where nobody will defend him if needed. Imagine if you murdered somebody. Hoping to resolve the situation the family of your victim attempt to arrange mediation between themselves and you. You decide that you have no interest in attending their little powwow and tell them to sod off. Members of the community, seeing your unwillingness to attend mediation, see you as a threat to the community. Now let’s say somebody, possibly a family member of your victim, decides to murder you. Since you’ve burned bridges nobody is going to come to your defense or prosecute your murderer. By refusing to participate in the community’s legal system you no longer received the protection of the law.

Outlawry tended to be the ultimate punishment in societies developed by spontaneous order. If a person wasn’t going to abide by the law then the community decided that individual didn’t deserve the protection of the law either, meaning anybody in the community could steal from, assault, or even kill that individual without legal consequence.

Under a system of social ostracism individuals had to invest their own time and effort into enforcing laws. Crimes involving actual harm such as theft, rape, assault, and murder were enforced while victimless crimes such as smoking cannabis, political speech, and sedition weren’t enforced. In a state of anarchy crimes require a victim, not a mere decree passed down by a privileged class, because few are going to put themselves at risk to enforce a victimless crime. Even if somebody is determined to enforce a victimless crime they will likely run into trouble as other members of the community will likely view that enforcement as criminal and deal with the zealous enforcer.

Anarchy isn’t a state of lawlessness, it’s a state where no class has special privileges to decide what others can and cannot do. Statism, on the other hand, tends to be far more lawless since members of the privileged class are allowed to violate laws at will. When I say that I’m an anarchist I’m not saying I want lawlessness, I’m saying I want a society where nobody has the privilege to violate the law.