Debate: Can the Free Market Provide National Defense?

This is a great discussion between Todd Lewis and Bob Murphy about the viability of non-state/private “national defense” services. I have an old essay about this topic here.

Economist Bob Murphy (Ph.D., NYU) and podcaster Todd Lewis square off in the central debate of anarcho-capitalism: is government truly necessary for national defense, or could the free market provide this service?

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  1. I generally think Todd performed much better than Bob in this debate. Todd’s arguments were very multi-dimensional, dealing with range of topics like the problems of organization, funding, strategy, incentives, and relevant historical precedents. Bob is certainly well versed in An-Cap Theory 600, but the problem is that his arguments seem rooted in pure theory, and not a lot of actual historical experience and practical examples. The exception, and the main point Bob had in his favor, is the obvious one, i.e. the dismal historical record of states (how could anarchy be any worse??!!).

    One of the main weakness of an-cap theory on this question is the perpetual reliance by so man an-caps on the model of private armies operated by insurance companies (“insurance feudalism”?). That seems to be a fairly bizarre idea for the reasons (and others) that Todd pointed out. A more reasonable way of framing the question would be as follows: Would an anarchist/an-cap nation, society, community, etc. be able to organize a Swiss-like military system minus the definitive attributes of a statist military, i.e. without a coercive territorial monopoly, without taxes, without conscription, without subsidies to armaments manufacturers, but with the ability to effectively ward off invaders while avoiding internal civil war. If PDAs or non-state armies can’t effectively answer all of these questions, then the game is over.

    The most serious example of a functional non-state army in the world today is probably Hezbollah, which has eclipsed the Lebanese state itself as the national defense force. Hezbollah was able to expel the IDF from south Lebanon twice, which is an impressive accomplishment. However, Hezbollah is also allied with and receives support from states such as Iran and Syria, so it is not an entity that is entirely free of any kind of state support.

    It might be possible to have a large territorial entity such as North America or Europe whose defense forces consisted of multiple Hezbollahs, organized at the local and regional level, and funded by a range of sources, from individual donors, corporations, and unions to “defense charities” to the range of intermediary institutions, with recruiting and training taking place through localized civic institutions (e.g. Murray Bookchin’s “civic guard,” the Spanish anarchists’ “anti-fascist” militia confederation, the PKK/YPG/YPJ militia configuration in the Kurdish territory, etc). These many Hezbollahs could then be organized into a federation of defense organizations similar to business federations (National Association of Manufacturers), labor federations (AFL-CIO), church federations (World Council of Churches), etc. But the big question would be how do you prevent these structures from simply taking over and becoming a state, with all the features of a state like coerced taxation? And what would be the incentive of individuals, communities, businesses, foundations, religions, unions, etc. to donate their wealth, time, resources, etc to such efforts minus both compulsory funding (taxes) and compulsory participation (conscription)? There is also the question of funding modern military technology without the state, and the degree to which this would be cost prohibitive.

    It seems much of this would have to be a matter of culture. There would need to be a cultural consensus that was shared by most people that donating time, wealth, labor, or resources to such “national defense” efforts is a matter of civic or moral duty in the same sense as not littering or refraining from engaging in violent crime, and people who refused to contribute in any way (other than for matters of conscience like religious pacifists) would have to be viewed as slackers and deadbeats. There would also need to be a strong cultural consensus in favor of anarchism and non-state defense services in the same way there is presently in the USA a strong cultural consensus in favor of civilian government, which even most military personnel and officers accept, and which is what largely prevents military coups from taking place.

    • I am working on a longer piece on this, but a couple points:
      – I don’t get the reliance on the insurance company example. I mean, yes that might be imaginable but so might other things. You could have community rules requiring arms or even military defense, you could have companies that provide their own security in-house, you could have militias and armed security and specialist funds that can contract to a variety of customers on short notice.

      I don’t actually think mercenary defection would be that big of a problem. A lot of it depends on how large this libertarianish society is. If we’re talking a broad crazy quilt like the HRE where they cooperate with each other at will and sometimes get into fights – well, they repelled outsiders pretty well most of the time despite their infighting. The same goes for the Greeks. Mercenaries might conceivably switch sides at times, but it’s also true that factions within governments will betray each other to foreign occupiers or rebel groups. I mean I don’t think that the fractitiousness of human loyalty in extreme situations is somehow unique to mercenaries, and I don’t see how it would even be addressed by the introduction of military slavery.

      • Your arguments are fairly similar to mine: I wrote that piece about 15 years ago for the old Anti-state.Com site. Todd brings to the table some of the best criticisms of the an-cap PDA idea I have seen to date, in part because not many other serious thinkers have considered these ideas on a substantive level. Hopefully, Todd’s debate with Murphy will motivate libertarians to develop more serious ideas on this question.

        Insurance companies might have more incentive to engage in more proactive measures against military invasion, crime, fires, floods, etc if they couldn’t rely on the state to take care of all this and shifting the cost onto the taxpayers. But there are the obvious questions involving scale, cost prohibitive expenditures, general incentives, and efficiency.

        • One can also compare it to the alternative, i.e. state defence agencies suck horribly at defence, start fights and antagonize foreigners, and end up enslaving and murdering the native population for ‘defense’. Maybe just getting fucking conquered would be better, y’know? Why should millions die to defend your shitty kleptocracy that can’t even fight competently? Todd’s argument seems to take as a given that native tyrants are preferable to foreign ones, and as far as I can tell there’s no particular reason for that to be true – certainly many people conquered by the Goths apparently preferred their new masters to the Roman Empire, a defunct and inept bureaucracy eating at its own intestines. Thus the downside to ‘losing’ a war has to be compared to the downside of allowing a territorial predatory agency to ‘win’ a war.

        • Also, and related, is the apparent assumption of social conservatism – that keeping existing patterns of society and demographics is desirable in itself – when in fact the people may be better off having their old institutions destroyed and their feeble, incestuous masters decapitated. Yeah, some people get raped by barbarians – well, some people get raped by the government. So what? I don’t know that ‘preserving’ existing societies, institutions, moralities, religions or races has any intrinsic value. Maybe societies that can’t defend themselves without resorting to slavery deserve to be tossed into the shit can with all the other waste.

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