Everyone has his own particular idea of what a perfect “anarcho-capitalist” society would look like. I will not talk about specific projects or utopias, but rather of what Hans-Hermann Hoppe calls “the Natural Order”, or a stateless society. These can be more or less sophisticated, more or less orderly, and more or less prosperous, depending on local conditions and the people that make these societies.
Most political scientists define the state as a territorial monopolist on legitimate use of force. Hans-Hermann Hoppe defines the state as “a compulsory territorial monopolist of protection and jurisdiction equipped with the power to tax without unanimous consent.” This definition causes some confusion.
Does a chieftain in a hunter-gatherer tribe have a monopoly on coercion? If not a chieftain, maybe the council of elders? If not the council of elders, doesn’t public opinion of a tribe have a monopoly on what is considered legitimate coercion? Some people are even prepared to say that a stateless society has not and could not ever exist.
These are claims made by statists and anarcho-capitalists alike. The motivation of the statists are clear. They are prepared to say that the state is both the best system that has ever existed, a system which has brought about civilization as well as the only system that ever existed. Those two statements are in obvious logical contradiction, but are made in order to instill fear of abandoning the state and convince people of the inevitability of the state, and that there is no use in trying to find alternatives to it.
Yet why are many anarcho-capitalists invested in the idea that primitive hunter-gatherer tribes are states? For those that are, statelessness is, apparently, not just a state of affairs where there is no state. For them, statelessness, anarchy or anarcho-capitalism is a Utopia-like state better in all respects that the current system. For them, the state is a sort of a mythical demon, as old as time, a state of mind which prevents us from achieving everlasting peace. There could be no faults with the system, and it would be more peaceful, more productive, more prosperous in every respect that the current system.
They do not understand that abolishing the state is not the only condition required to create a peaceful and a civilized society. That is why they look at the primitive, obviously stateless societies of the past and are puzzled. How can it be that these people have been living in “anarchy” for so long, and yet they have not yet developed space travel? Obviously, they think, the state must be hidden somewhere out there. We just can’t see it. This causes problems, and muddles the definition of the state.
Some people equate he state with hierarchy. They see commands issued, titles claimed, people that call themselves kings and nobles, and they call that a state. Others equate the state with conflict or coercion. According to them, there can be no coercion in a stateless system. Where coercion is sanctioned by law, that must be a state. These ideas are a result of confusion, and they are more appropriately placed within the leftist anarchist tradition. Being a monopolist is the essence of the state. Where no organization has a monopoly on violence, there is no state.
Likewise, public opinion is not a state. Just because certain norms are accepted by a large majority of the public does not mean that there is a monopoly hidden somewhere in the system. Particular laws and social norms are a type of good that become more useful for all as more people adopt them, just like money, or language. Just because a common money or a common language exist does not mean that there needs to, or ever needed to be someone who standardized it, set up the rules etc. Language and social norms are shaped by those who follow and use them. Their rules are enforced by individual users. Public opinion and social norms can be conducive to state power or it can be an obstacle to it. But public opinion and society at large are nothing like an organization, yet alone a monopolistic one.
What is then the relevant definition of a state?
There are many companies that have large market shares, which means that their products form a large majority of a particular class of good offered on the market. Does that mean that these companies are in a monopolistic position? That depends on whether or not they can charge monopolistic prices without competitors emerging to compete with them. Likewise, the same goes for an organization that specializes in the production of law and order. Remember, the state is a territorial monopolist on the legitimate (law) use of force (order). Such an organization is the more “state-like” the more it is in a position to attain advantages from its position. The more powerful it is relative to other such organizations, the less competition it has, and the more powerful it is relative to the public at large, the more of a state it is.
So far, so good. This is something that most libertarians would agree with. Yet we have not defined a cutaway point. At what point does an organization truly become the state? Is a tribal chieftain a state? Has there ever been a system in which powerful men were kept in check by the public?
To help us establish a cutaway point I’ll look for the claims that are made about the nature of the state. Hans-Hermann Hoppe has claimed that the state is destructive towards law and that that fact ultimately leads to a decivilizing process, and towards an ultimate collapse of society, such as in the case of the Roman Empire. He believes that today that same process is reaching a critical point. That insight is the primary motivation behind me starting ordonaturalism. I will thus say that a state is that organization which is in a position to monopolize law and order, and to exercise such power over it so as to prevent its natural evolution.
There are many people that have, in the past, been able to exert their power so as to escape the natural consequences of their actions. Powerful men have the ability to coerce others, and only a sophisticated social order can prevent this abuse of power. In times (or ages) of uncertainty and chaos, people are more than happy to fall under the protection of even those that exploit them.
However, the existence of those that violate the natural order does not mean that the natural order does not exist, and that the forces of social evolution are not at play. In the long run, social evolution will bring about a sophisticated system that will benefit all members of society. As with the evolution of money, the evolution of law and social order is a gradual process that needs to be advantageous to those that adopt it, every step of the way.
Whether in a state or in a stateless order, there will always be conflict, theft and exploitation. To denounce an imperfect world as “not real anarchy” is besides the point. There are ways in which to increase order, certainty and thus the rights of the average individual in both a state and a stateless society. What is not enough is simply to abolish the state, and hope that the “new stateless man” will behave exactly as we want him to behave. There are steps we must take, if we wish to prevent the chaos of the inevitable collapse of the state.
Not every thug or cult leader is a state. These sort of characters usually do not pose that great of a problem for a sophisticated and sufficiently developed natural order. Likewise, a stateless society is not a Utopia. It is, however, a framework which allows for law and social order to naturally evolve, and thus enables lasting progress in society.