Against Monopoly

defending the right to innovate

Monopoly corrupts. Absolute monopoly corrupts absolutely.

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Sobran's Classic "The Reluctant Anarchist"

I was recently reminded of "The Reluctant Anarchist," a wonderful piece by the great columnist Joseph Sobran about his intellectual journey from conservatism to strict constitutionalism to anarchist--thanks to Rothbard and Hoppe. Highly recommended.

Note: I post this on this blog because the proprietor assured me once that this blog is not only about IP but all forms of monopoly. And it is the state that is the biggest and most dangerous monopolist of all--in fact, the only true monopoly. It is the source of the monopoly known as intellectual property; without the state, IP could not exist. Those who oppose IP but favor the state remind me of members of skeptics groups--those who scoff at ESP, astrology, and divining rods--but who are still religious. Those who oppose IP but favor the state should engage in some reflection.

[Mises; SK]


Here is Albert Jay Nock on the State:

It can not even be said that the State has ever shown any disposition to suppress crime, but only to safeguard its own monopoly of crime.

I googled this; I'm pretty sure it's from his book _Our Enemy, the State_, which I read when in training to become an anarchist. I haven't looked at it since.

The State is indeed a great and mighty monopolist, in addition to being a robber, property destroyer, and mass murderer. The most evil state monopoly is the money monopoly and the central bank it arrogantly claims is necessary to stabilize the "macroeconomy," and to achieve price stability and a tolerably low level of unemployment. Just think of the State as a gigantic out-of-control bully running a protection racket, laying unscrupulous hands on whatever it pleases to fund its criminal enterprise, and silencing, jailing, and killing anyone who gets in its way. Intellectual monopoly--patents and copyrights for starters--are part and parcel of this protection racket and theft machine.

Has anyone ever run an experiment to see if things are actually any better if you have pure capitalism with no state, no monopoly on the use of force in some perhaps-small geographical area?

Oh, yeah ... Somalia.

Need I say more?


I wrote a paper on Somalia a few years ago, before 9/11. It was actually not a bad set up; there was a working government in the Northeast (Puntland) that wasn't bad as governments go. The rest of the country had tribal-based local laws that actually worked tolerably well, and enforced property rights. The warlords didn't have the repuatation they got after 9/11, when they began to enforce Sharia law (but only in certain regions), which wasn't a factor before then. (Alas, my paper died when my hard drive crashed, although I'm pretty sure I saved a copy in a box somewhere. Finding it isn't going to happen until I move.)

Recall that bin Laden said after 9/11 that the purpose of those attacks was to "drive the U.S. out of Muslim lands." My take then, and now, is that if the U.S. hadn't intervened in the Middle East for years, and hadn't stationed the 6th fleet in the Mediterranean (to prop up and subsidize the de facto 51st state of Israel), that there would have been no attacks. Of course, the U.S. was subsidizing Egypt in a big way too during that time, as it still does.

Also, the fact that anarchy might not work so well in Somalia (or somewhere else) is not a mark against it per se; the State doesn't work well there either, and is probably worse than anarchy. Anarchy, whatever its faults, cannot be blamed for specific crimes, which are always caused by identifiable actors, whether individual criminals, warlords, parliaments, or America's only native criminal class, Congress, as our man Mark Twain pointed out.

I read it all, and remain unconvinced. I find the "time to put away childish things" quote at the end rather funny, because anarchism is something I thought a great deal about in High School, and it all has been easily abandoned as childish since then.

The claim that the state is the only entity that can form a monopoly on force is obviously false, given the history of all uses of force, including guerrilla war and terrorism. The claim that democratic government constitutes any monopoly is made false by simple provisions -- balance of powers, term limits, and egalitarian voting rules. Libertarians and Anarchists have yet to make their case on either of these points, nor have they provided a form of organization preferable to tribalism or mob rule. Basic Democracy has them beat on all counts.


I know of no guerrilla force that claimed a monopoly of force over an artibtrarily circumscribed area and which gained its resources by taxation (that's the defn. of the State), but if it did, then ipso facto it was a state. Guerrilla warfare is justified to the extent that it is defensive and engages in no unjust actions (which for me is the defn. of a just war). If you can find an example, please let me know. Even the guerrilla forces in the American revolution sometimes resorted to antilibertarian acts against innocent people. I realize that stuff happens in war, but still....

Ditto for terrorist organizations, which presumably have even less claim to acting defensively and in accordance with just war principles.

As for democracy and its institutional forms (term limits, checks and balances, etc.), it's riddled with contradictions, as Rothbard pointed out in _Power and Market: Government and the Economy_, chap. 5, sect. 5 (webbed at the Mises Institute). Without summarizing his argument, I'll just say that democratic governments depend on taxation (which is theft), and so are automatically in opposition to liberty. All governments, including democracies, divide society into net taxpayers (people working in the private sector, who actually pay taxes) and net tax consumers (people "working" for the government, who consume taxes--when they have taxes withheld and pay whatever they have to pay on April 15, they are not paying taxes at all, but rather just stealing less on net from actual tax payers (like me). The balance of power, term limits, etc. are exceeding weak reeds, and are crushed by Rothbard. No anarchist ever stole billions of dollars, or dragged the world into massive wars, or even minor ones. That's all I'm going to say on this subject. Stephan can step up to the plate and take a couple of pitches.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of anarchy, however, is simply that it is inherently unstable. Nature abhors a vacuum, and human beings, political animals that they are, abhor a power vacuum. Take any true anarchy that somehow manages to come into being and ten minutes later someone who is bigger or stronger or has more money or something than many of the people around him will be throwing his weight around and declaring himself the boss. Power imbalances will grow, if only based on the inevitable division into haves and have-nots, and sooner or later there will be a few large power concentrations, which will be the defacto governments of defacto states.

If we're doomed to have government, the question then becomes, what's the least worst of all the various miserable options? Constitutional democracy has so far emerged as the front-runner in that particular race.

Nobody: anarchy is not a positive thing we have to argue for. It's the other way around. Anarchy is just what's left over after you reject the state's legitimacy. We libertarians say aggression is unjustified, is crime; we recognize that the state necessarily commits aggression, is criminal, and that the state is therefore obvious illegitimate. That is all. Your musing that "anarchy might be unstable" is totally irrelevant and does not gainsay our argument.

You might as well say "a world with no-rape might be unstable" or "you have not proven to my satisfation a no-rape world is desirable."

For more on this see my What It Means To Be an Anarcho-Capitalist.

The question is, how does one keep the undesirable thing (e.g. government, or rape) to a minimum? Something akin to a police force is required to combat it. In the case of rape, that's ordinary cops (which are typically apparatus of the city government). In the case of government, that's a judiciary charged with enforcing a constitution, striking down unjust law, and enforcing the rule of law. Hence dividing government into branches (separation of powers) and charging these with watchdogging one another, as well as providing some means for the general populace to watchdog them all.

I still contend that if you removed all government, you'd have chaos for a short while (and probably quite a lot of rape due to the lack of police), and then you'd have government again, and it would be of a much worse character than a constitutional democracy -- probably a right-wing dictatorship or an explicit monarchy.

The idea that a state gives you stability is an illusion. The illusion is helped by this silly compulsion to relabel every crime the state commits as something legitimate. It's not mass murder, it's defence. It's not slavery, it's conscription. It's not theft, it's taxation. It's not coercion, it's regulation.

Governments are constantly stacking crime upon crime. Surely, an anarchist society would not be without crime at all, not until humans fundamentally become more civilized. With decentralization of power, however, crime would be smaller in scale, and less damaging to society as a whole. We should constantly struggle for decentralization of power instead of actively monopolizing it.

Making governments smaller and less powerful is generally a good thing, a good thing all the way up to small competing "governments" that operate like firms in the machinery of market anarchism.

Firms in the market require payment to provide services. Your idea of small competing "governments" has been seen in the wild already; it's called gang warfare. They fight over territory, require people to pay protection (i.e. they effectively collect taxes), and the poor can expect no services or benefits from them since they have no money.

I think I'll take the IRS coming around once a year and professional cops keeping the streets relatively safe in preference to having my choice of which gang to pay protection to, while dodging stray bullets and worrying that if I lose my livelihood, I will still be expected to pay despite being unable, and will probably wind up in an alley with my throat cut.

You are talking about territorial warfare. The less clearly borders are established between two military powers, the more risk there is that they will quibble over territory. You require an established tradition of ownership, understood by all parties involved, before two military powers will respect each other's territory. War is costly, and even gang warfare will come to an end eventually, borders between the powers' territories having naturally formed. After such a peace has been reached, it is relatively stable, since no party wants to restart the war and bring heavy casualties amongst themselves.

Territorial warfare is common to all criminal gangs alike, be they small or large. Surely you'll realize that governments have caused far more casualties to warfare than smaller gangs have. I can just as easily say that your idea of a single criminal gang with a monopoly on all violence also has been tried, with far more disastrous results than any criminal gang could ever have caused.

You misunderstood what I meant by competing. I didn't mean to compete for territory. I meant organizations that compete for customers, by providing better services than their competitors. Like firms. For that to happen, there must be a tradition of a free people that defend their property rights, without any ruler or government. Under those conditions a military power would respect property rights for fear of repercussions from other military powers, and they would try to gain power through peaceful means like offering better services.

If there is a tradition of government, or ruling, a new military power will simply try to become the biggest government. Government or any criminal gangs that operate by coercion should be rejected and resisted in all its forms. Indeed it should be fought and struck down wherever it arises, so that we may become a free people.

Kid writes:

"You are talking about territorial warfare. The less clearly borders are established between two military powers, the more risk there is that they will quibble over territory."

Indeed, and, quite clearly, if there is not a monopoly of military force on a particular chunk of geography, then there will by definition be two or more military powers on it with no clearly established borders separating them.

"Surely you'll realize that governments have caused far more casualties to warfare than smaller gangs have."

Perhaps, but while governing larger populations, too. I'm not convinced that a big government causes more per capita within its governed population than does a small one. Sure, the wars its involved in are larger, but they also cover larger areas, involve larger populations, and appear to occur less frequently. Consider this, too: someone living in a gang-free town in Nebraska has not seen organized violence, their dad hasn't seen organized violence, and their granddad saw it only during the Civil War. Since then, the family may have seen people go off to distant wars maybe four times, in the world wars, 'Nam, and now Iraq; probably they didn't during the first gulf war or during the Korean war. Someone living in a gang-ridden inner-city environment probably sees organized violence erupt nearby at least every few years.

The bigger the gang, the slower the tempo of its conflicts, it seems. Big gangs bring more stability than little gangs.

"You misunderstood what I meant by competing."

I don't think so.

"I didn't mean to compete for territory. I meant organizations that compete for customers, by providing better services than their competitors."

This can work in three ways, both problematic.

1: The customers stay put and the organizations have overlapping territory so that there will be competition. Then reference your own remark about what happens when (quasi)military powers lack clear borders between them.

2: To change providers, the customers must move from one territory to another. But the costs involved in moving, in time, money, and inconvenience, then means that the cost of switching providers will be prohibitive, and the providers will have defacto monopoly power within their territories, and we're back to traditional governments again, albeit ones with no strong immigration controls. The interior of the EU probably resembles this scenario today.

3: The customers stay put but borders are defined; when a customer changes providers, the borders are redrawn. Each provider's territory consists precisely of its own business-owned land plus the land owned by its customers at any given moment in time; if a customer moves or changes providers the borders therefore change. Besides the complexity introduced by constantly shifting borders, this runs into a fatal flaw in the most densely populated environments: people live in apartment buildings and other structures where many coexist on a small plot of land. This scenario then devolves into something resembling 1 or 2, depending. If apartment dwellers can choose providers, then the apartment buildings become areas of unclear or overlapping jurisdiction, and we're back to case 1. If they cannot, e.g. because the landlord chooses one to govern and protect the building and its land, then we're back to case 2, as a large part of the population cannot change providers without the high cost of switching entailed by moving house, and the providers that have apartment landlords for customers have significant monopoly power via large numbers of "captive customers" in the form of tenants of those same apartments.

In the last case, you might argue that apartment tenants can e.g. petition the landlord to change providers, or etc., but consider that the landlord exercises the same monopoly power since changing landlord carries the same cost of switching already discussed. The tenants will have little to no influence over either landlord or "government-services" provider.

Worse, there will be jurisdiction shopping by landlords. They'll be customers of whichever quasi-governments have landlord-friendly Landlord-Tenant Acts or equivalents (or none at all), which means tenants seeking to rent will have worse options than in the present, where landlords in an area have no choice as to whether tenant rights are strong or not, ironically because of their weak influence over the big monopoly of government.

More generally, scenarios 2 and 3 above, and to a lesser extent 1, present a problem of jurisdiction shopping. Polluting businesses will be customers of, or even create their own, "provider" that doesn't regulate pollution, and then pollute away, for instance. In peacetime everyone will prefer providers that don't charge extra to provide standby protection against the whole area being invaded. And so forth. Classical public goods like clean air and defense will be undersupplied, just as one might expect based on Econ 101.

(Scenario 1 mitigates this perhaps in that, e.g., a polluting business will have to locate itself in an area that already allows pollution; it won't be able to just buy some land in the middle of a residential area, pick an industry-friendly "provider", put up a smokestack, and pollute away. So scenario 1 at least allows for some amount of "zoning".)

If multiple people are sharing the same finite pool of resources, there must be some system to decide who gets to use what when. If there is no such system you have constant chaos and fighting amongst the people. This is what most opponents of anarchy are afraid of.

One solution to this problem is superior military power. Once all resistance has been crushed, you can claim monopoly on the use of violence, and subsequently divide up the use of the resources as you please.

Another solution is private property. All resources are assigned a single owner, and whoever owns it, uses it. If you want to use something you don't own, you have to convince the owner to let you use it. If this system is accepted by the community, the fighting will calm down, and violence will be targeted only to transgressors, the people that break the rules.

The first solution requires that there be a monopoly on the use of violence. Obviously there can be only one such monopoly in any given territory. Hence territorial wars. I'm not advocating the first solution. I'm advocating the second, where protection providers can peacefully coexist in the same piece of territory.

Kid writes:

"Another solution is private property. All resources are assigned a single owner, and whoever owns it, uses it."

The problem is with certain nebulous kinds of "resources" like policing, clean air, and the like. Assigning them a single owner means giving an entity monopoly power over those resources within some geographic scope. And then we're back to having the state again.

"I'm advocating the second, where protection providers can peacefully coexist in the same piece of territory."

If you think two well-armed "protection providers" will be able to share the same space without sooner or later getting into some kind of dispute, you're dreaming. If you think "protection providers" will never use their strength of arms to settle a dispute or as a negotiating ploy, you're dreaming.

We will always have some well-armed organizations around, and such will always try to use their strength of arms in such manners; all we get to maybe influence is the exact nature of those organizations. In an anarchic world, they'll basically do as they please up to a point. Smaller, less well-funded ones will maybe be beholden to paying customers until they get big or powerful enough, whereupon they will have the capability to seize valuables to fund themselves, removing the "customers will shop elsewhere" control on their behavior. Then who will stop them? Other "protection providers"? That means two or more of those going to war, which is what you seem to think magically won't happen. Also, in an anarchic world, only the wealthy will have much influence over any of this. At least in our present world, the poor have a vote.

All comments by the anarchists here so far have failed to define how property rights can be enforced without violence. Since threat of death is the ultimate form of any law enforcement, against life of all forms, how is having any form of local mob or individual enforcement preferable to an organized form, with oversight and structures of egalitarian representation? And how do you fairly fund any such form of organization without a concept like representative taxation? Taxation is not automatically theft -- it's only theft when you are denied any form of influence on taxation structures, when you have no representation in the system. Those most willing to kill their fellow humans form natural monopolies on violence. Representative, Egalitarian, and Democratic government allow the peaceful to defend themselves against such natural monopolies, without forcing themselves to be equally violent. Democratic government uses a system of vote counting instead of another less egalitarian form of value representation like money, and using a different number system doesn't mean its another form of monopoly. 1 vote/person/issue is the number system that denies politicians or political groups of monopoly status, and resists second-hand capitalist monopoly via Oligarchy.

Saying "everybody should be nice and respect each other's privacy and property" is certainly a good thing to believe and share. It's also ultimately an unrealistic utopian view, and any theory about achieving this as a real aim needs to deal with real humans. Human society and history shows us to be on the whole ignorant, violent, and prone to cling to ignorance for far longer than necessary, via establishments like religion and dogmatic hierarchy. Any system or theory that fails to deal with these basic human issues has itself failed. Organization theories like tribalism fail because they concentrate on allowing natural societal formations to remain dominant, without any larger humanistic goals. Anarchism fails more completely, in that it denies even these natural forms of human social relations exist, as revealed by history and geography.

Fred: "All comments by the anarchists here so far have failed to define how property rights can be enforced without violence. "

Anarchists don't oppose using violence to enforce property rights. What are you talking about?

"Anarchists don't oppose using violence to enforce property rights."

That is precisely what makes the anarchist viewpoint idiotic. It sets no proper system to resolve property disputes other than violence, especially when more than one party can make some form of claim on the same thing (i.e. a slice of border territory). Yet then you claim governments have a monopoly on violence. That is plainly idiotic, especially when the state provides for equal access to weapons of defense, as in the right to bear arms.

In any system where one person is simply allowed to kill another, because the killer thought they were the "right" party in a dispute (without a real requirement for verifiable proof to a 3rd party, as in a judiciary or peer trial), the killer then obtains a natural local monopoly on violence. The Bible is full of historical examples of such violent territorial monopolies on the tribal level. The mention of gangs in comments above are similar attempts at tribal violence monopolies by region, even operating within areas that are more peacefully governed, yet under-resourced for domestic defense and policing. The dead cannot defend themselves. Anarchists seek to end state violence, even by representative governments acting purely in defense of their peaceful citizenry, yet then argue that "might makes right" in individual property disputes. That is wholly hypocritical.

Fred: you wrote: "All comments by the anarchists here so far have failed to define how property rights can be enforced without violence. "

I then noted: "Anarchists don't oppose using violence to enforce property rights. What are you talking about?"

You reply: "That is precisely what makes the anarchist viewpoint idiotic."

? Hunh? You say we don't believe in violence, then you criticize us for it? do you even know what you are talking about?

"? Hunh? You say we don't believe in violence, then you criticize us for it?"

Where did I say that anarchists don't believe in violence? Neither of the small quotes you clipped say any such thing, even assuming potential confusion arising from lack of context. Your reading comprehension isn't very high lately -- it's obvious that you are the one here who doesn't know of what he speaks.

The aspect of violence was brought up in prior comments, but none of them say anything about anarchists being against violence -- you were the first to bring up what sort of violence they are for or against. I just followed up on the implications of YOUR statement about anarchism, on the (admittedly bad) assumption that your statement was generally true. If you read more carefully, in both comments I was talking about the lack of solutions to the problems violence creates (i.e. non-meritocratic "might makes right" property dispute interactions), especially as compared to Democracy. You are the only writer here to introduce any over-simplistic "for it" or "against it" status.

If I left anything unsaid in prior comments in this thread, it was that my comments were based on prior statements by anarchists and knee-jerk anti-statist libertarians, both here and on the Mises Blog, about government having the only true monopoly. The nature of human violence and mortality leads to an obvious form of natural monopoly of violence, wherein the only real property right is "to the victor go the spoils", that your philosophy has failed to address. Do you care to respond to that particular theory of natural monopoly? Or would you rather continue your simplistic straw-men arguments based on weak context, willful misreading, and false assumptions?

While I have your attention, read this before you start another obnoxious mind fart about radio frequency property rights: http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2003/03/12/spectrum/

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