Is anarcho-capitalism really just feudalism? Will it eventually turn into feudalism? Is Hoppe right, and does feudalism have its good sides?
When people attack anarcho-capitalism, they generally do so in one of two ways. One is to argue that the system would never work, and that it’s utopian. The other is to say that it would be identical to, or turn into some society ostensibly more oppressive than the current social democracies we live under, such as feudalism.
What is feudalism? There is great confusion around that term. Some equate it with serfdom, some with monarchy, some with aristocratic privilege. Yet, feudalism is none of these things.
To explain what feudalism is, how it emerges and how it relates to anarcho-capitalism and the natural order, we need to understand how social order first emerges. In the remote past, when people lived in small, hunter-gatherer communities, they lived in wretched conditions, not much better than animals. Tribes were in constant war with each other, which did not allow for any trade, regional division of labor and specialization. Conditions within the tribe were bad as well. It seems that extreme envy and conformism is in human nature.
Some did, however, find a way out of such misery. All that is needed, for social order to emerge, is that two people join a pact with which they recognize the rights and property of one another, and commit themselves to defend it, if a third party would try and take it away. This is the real social contract. Not a one-off event, not a decision by an assembly or a scheme thought up by some wise men, but a series of actions taken by individuals for their own gain. Those that realized the advantage of forming pacts would strive to be included in one, and would look to broaden it. All ancient legal codes followed the basic principles of these pacts. “thou shalt not steal”, “thou shalt not murder” are an expression of that phenomenon. Salic law, the Burgundian code, Visigothic code, Sharia law, are all based on the same principles.
There is an aspect of this that is unappreciated. In order to enter into a defense pact with someone, one has to trust that person that he will fulfill his obligation. In the crucial moment, when the enemy is at the gate, it is very easy to run away. It is even “rational” to do so, if we were to believe game theory. And stateless societies had no less need to defend against invaders than states do. It was crucial that the members of a community can trust each other not to abandon each other when it is convenient.
The shared trust between members of society is what they used to call honor. Honor is ones record of fulfilling his obligations and respecting the law, the unwritten law of good, honorable conduct. Not all people can trust each other, as trust has to be earned, and is easily lost. However, those that were unable to gather enough social capital to become a part of a pact were not just cast out of society, slaughtered or enslaved. In developed societies, some people recognized that they can offer protection to these marginalized people, for money. Those who were not trusted were expected to pay for their protection (and for the defense of the community) upfront, and were not expected to take up arms.
That meant that society was soon divided into those that were members of the “political class”, the founders, those that were concerned with public affairs, with war and politics, and those that were just the inhabitants of a land, without political rights, that benefited from the protection of the former.
The former were called the nobles or the aristocrats, and the latter the plebeians, the serfs, or the commoners. Aristocracy was present in all earlier forms of society, both in Ancient city-states and the feudal societies of the Middle Ages, as well as in ancient Celtic and Germanic free societies.
Aristocratic status was inherited form ones parents, since it was expected that sons would copy the habits of the fathers. However, in a natural order, aristocratic status went together with certain obligations, chief of which was warfare, or the defense of the community. The status could also be acquired as well as lost.
David Friedman basically proposed almost this exact system in his “Machinery of Freedom”, except he imagines corporations will take the position of the natural aristocracy. That is why many draw a parallel between anarcho-capitalism and feudalism. I have reservations about that idea, but that’s a topic for some other time. I’ll just say that if natural order as proposed by me under the name of ordonaturalism is at danger at devolving into feudalism, Friedman’s system is almost guaranteed to do so. That is because the number of potential independent property protectors under my system is in orders of magnitude higher than in Friedman’s system.
If aristocracy is not a defining feature of feudalism, what is? Between the members of the aristocracy, feudalism functions like natural order does. Nobles act as if they are sovereign, and defend their rights fiercely against both the kings and the commoners. However, there is a fundamental change in the system. Feudalism comes about when the members of the natural aristocracy, the natural elite, come together to form a cartel, to exploit the commoners. In a natural order, the commoners are able to contract for protection with member of the natural aristocracy that is willing to offer it, and to negotiate the price.
Naturally, when a cartel is established, the commoners find themselves in a disadvantage, having to accept the terms that the aristocracy imposes. This was achieved in several ways. First, the access to the nobility needed to be restricted. After that, one could impose a uniform price for protection services. Another way was to assign each noble his own little territorial monopoly, or a title. In the end, serfs weren’t allowed to leave their land, to prevent the nobles to cheat the system and to compete for them. At the time when serfdom collapsed in most of Europe, serfs in Russia became basically slaves, and could be bought and sold by their lords. Like in ancient times, there were serfs that were writers and artists. The system in Russia coincided with a brutal, despotic state.
It is no wonder, in such a system, the common man would rebel. Hans-Hermann Hoppe describes how the kings used the commoners to crush the nobility. However, his analysis is flawed, insofar as he did not understand the resentment of the commoners towards the nobility was not a result of simple human envy, but of oppression the commoners faced from the aristocratic cartel. The nobility, that once served an important function for the benefit of whole of society was now comprised of grotesque characters, decadent, fat, debauched and devoid of any contact with reality. Is it any wonder that their privileges came to an end? To be against this artificial, coincidental aristocracy is not the same thing as to be an egalitarian. Thomas Jefferson, echoed by Hoppe spoke of a natural elite, that is an integral part of any developed republic, or free society.
Is feudalism a state or a stateless system? In any case, it is not a natural order. Feudalism shares the monopolistic aspect with the state, which, although less complete and perfect, does not allow for unrestricted process of social evolution. It is thus destructive towards law and social norms and will lead to a state and, ultimately, to the collapse of society.
It may be true that, in many ways, a feudal or aristocratic society is superior to a monarchy, as a monarchy is superior to a democracy. That does not mean that one must apologize for feudalism. The system itself contains the seeds of its own destruction. For a natural order to persist, the freemen, the nobles, the aristocrats, what ever they call themselves, will have to resist the temptation to exploit the rest of the community, for the sake of their own liberty.