In trying to explain how things might work in a stateless society, anarchists usually point out that opposition to the state does not mean opposition to cooperation or organization. In trying to explain anarchism to non-anarchists, anarchists describe the ways that people can cooperate voluntarily to defend themselves against aggression and achieve positive common goals.
The non-anarchist’s first response, in most cases, is “But aren’t you just reinventing the wheel? If lots of people organize themselves into a cooperative organization to restrain aggressors and carry out social projects, isn’t that just government by another name?”
Well, no, it really isn’t. The main principle that distinguishes voluntary organization under anarchy from the state is that anarchists regard cooperative groupings, including groupings of a majority of people in a community, as being bound by the same moral principles that govern individuals. An individual has the right to defend himself against aggression, and to use what rightfully belongs to him in service to his goals. Groups of more than one person have the right to associate voluntarily to defend one another against violence, when their neighbors request it, and to associate voluntarily to use their resources to promote common ends. But such group actions are simply extensions of the individual’s right, and claim no rights, powers or moral authority over and above what the individual possesses—even when the group constitutes most members of a community.
Anarchists believe that groups of people can rightfully exercise only those powers that are delegated to them by individuals; and individuals cannot delegate to any group, including the community, powers and rights which they do not themselves possess as individuals.
The state, on the other hand, claims moral authority on behalf of the community, over and above the moral basis on which individuals exercise their rights, and claims powers as representative of the community that are beyond the lawful right of any individual or private grouping of individuals.
The state claims, in particular, a police power to initiate force—to coerce peaceful non-aggressors—when it’s necessary to promote the “general welfare” or “public good.”
Many of the state’s present functions are things that would have to be done in a peaceful, free society, on the basis of voluntary cooperation. When postal carriers deliver the mail, or cops prevent murder and robbery, they’re doing things that would be done in a free society. And when this society is transformed into a free society, there may well be some organizational continuity between the present institutional arrangements for doing such things and the arrangements of the anarchist society.
So what would be necessary to transform government institutions into free ones?? Eliminate their powers to initiate force against non-aggressors. First, eliminate the funding of their operations by compulsory taxation, and second, eliminate their power to compel people to consume their services. With those criteria met, the “organization formerly known as the state” might continue to provide protection and fire service, and to organize voluntary sick and unemployment benefits, old age pensions, and the like. It might even continue to provide services to a majority of the community on a voluntary basis, as a consumer cooperative, and be governed by a “town meeting” of subscribers and a board of selectmen.
That makes sense, in fact, because services like police and fire protection are arguably private monopolies: given the capital outlays required for dissatisfied customers to start a competing service, it might well be cost-effective instead to stage a “hostile takeover” and install new management on the board of selectmen.