A Voluntarist Account of Police and Court Systems

How do libertarians (and here I specifically mean the anarcho-capitalist variety) believe policing and court systems might work without a state?

I had a chance to talk to Logan Chipkin about this and I’d like to summarize his view and open it up for discussion. For this post, I will not be offering any criticism of the view. My purpose is to merely try to accurately capture the view. (Though you should feel free to offer your own criticisms for discussion in the comments if you so choose.) As always, I reserve the right to criticize this view in future posts.

I feel this is a particularly important subject when assessing and discussing libertarianism vs its alternatives as it’s likely the main objection people have to the libertarian political view. I think it makes sense to really understand where they are coming from and how they view things differently.

Sam Harris recently echoed the prevailing theory of governments when he said “giving a monopoly on violence to the state is just about the best thing we’ve ever done as a species.” Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, documents the prevailing view on how our species evolved the necessary knowledge to reduce violence and created the present low violence environments (when compared to our past, that is!) He argues that one of the main innovations was the rise of powerful states and their monopoly on violence.

Libertarians (or at least of the Austrian school Logan subscribes to – I’m still not entirely clear on all the variants) challenge this theory and take the viewpoint that the rise of states, with their monopoly on violence, was a not a form of progress and that states are a net negative, particularly for economic wealth. They largely believe that violence dropped over the last few centuries (or even millennia) despite states, not because of them. 

I think most people struggle to really understand the libertarian viewpoint here and, frankly, I don’t think they’ve done a good job of explaining it. Most people have a hard time even imagining what a free market “voluntarist” version of policing and court systems would even look like. How would laws be made and enforced? How would you catch and deal with criminals? What’s to stop those criminals from simply hiring alternative security forces that match their own views and refusing to submit to the law? I know these are the questions that jump to my mind and perhaps they do for you too. So I was glad to have the chance to talk to Logan and ask him some questions and really dig into libertarian thinking on this.

The libertarian view is built on a foundation of the concept of the “non-aggression principle” which is sometimes summarized as being against “initial use of force.” Logan suggests this is more specifically any violation of property rights. It’s the idea that the only legitimate use of force is as a defense against illegitimate force.

Try to imagine a society with no state. Typically people imagine this as a sort of anarchy where might makes right, which isn’t a very desirable circumstance. Libertarians believe we should only expect anarchy (or any form of government) to succeed given a preponderance of certain values and beliefs held by the population. So instead of imagining historical anarchy, imagine one where the free market system (instead of the state) solves problems that we’d expect the government to today.

For example, picture yourself living in such a society. How would you protect yourself and keep people from stealing your goods or property? Likely you’d want to hire security forces to do this. But that might be a prohibitively expensive thing for you to purchase on your own. So to solve that problem the market produces a security service you can ‘subscribe’ to where the costs are shared by multiple people. This makes hiring a security force affordable.

Now part of the deal of hiring this security force is that you’re contractually agreeing to also accept the judgments of their associated court system — which is also part of the service. Likewise, you are agreeing to submit to certain demands of the security force, such as allowing a search of your property should the court system give them a warrant to do so. This is an example of how you will naturally – using only voluntarist and the free market – choose on your own to pay for and subject yourself to a police and court system.

But let’s say you decide to not pay for such a security force. What happens then? Well, for one, the security force would not be obligated to protect you. Think about how bad that would be for you.

Okay, but what if you decide you don’t like the judgment of the courts attached to this security force? Can’t you then just hire a different one until you find one that is willing to agree with you? Libertarians would argue that the free market would solve this problem by the threat of a security force going out of business.  This is because whomever you hire has an incentive to only defend you if they think you are innocent, otherwise people won’t want to hire them in the future because the company will acquire a reputation for working with the villains of society. So voluntarism and the free market will naturally lead to security forces agreeing on who is guilty or innocent depending on the actual facts rather than subjective opinion.

A choice to simply ignore your previous agreement with the security force you previously hired would reflect negatively on your own reputation. If you decide to ignore what the court/security agency decides, then no such agency will want to work with you again. This would be very bad for you because then you’d be unable to hire those services in the future. And because, as I mentioned above, security forces will tend to agree to each other’s judgments (because they have a market incentive to base judgments solely on the facts) likely you’ll be unable to hire any security force at all if you acquire this reputation. So you’ll naturally submit yourself to their judgments and not want to simply go look for an alternative force.

Logan made two other points to me that seem worth mentioning. The first was that if you choose not to show up in court (or not subscribe in the first place), and the court finds you guilty, then it’s not a violation of the non-aggression principle to now send the security agency to simply take your property by force. All the more reason to show up to court to show you are innocent.

The second was that it could be that if you live in a particular residential area that part of the package that you buy into is that you have to use a particular court system and that if you don’t abide by the court’s rules you’ll be kicked off the property.

Therefore voluntarism and the free market will naturally, in his view, give rise to an effective police force and court system just based on the demands of actual people and their natural choices.

Moreover, Logan says that he’d expect these “volunteer” security associations to be far more effective than governments with their monopoly on violence. A government doesn’t have to worry about “going out of business” or free-market competition. In his view, that is why they tend towards more corruption and escalation of violence compared to, say, private security forces today. He asks, have we seen Black Lives Matter protesting private security forces today? Libertarians believe this is because private security forces are subject to market forces. The fact that you can always opt-out of their services forces them to improve or they will fail to satisfy their consumers.

Logan then asked me: Which would you prefer? A company of your choice and you can always choose to opt-out, and that company can go out of business if they fail to satisfy their consumers? Or do you prefer a company (like the government) where you have no choice no matter how badly they prefer their services?

What do you think of this Libertarian account of how Voluntarism and the Free Market would produce police and court systems superior to the ones we have today?

Image by Wynn Pointaux from Pixabay

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