Myth of the “Power Vacuum”

Where genuine free markets create competition for consumers — serving society at large, ensuring quality and mitigating against monopolization — the state creates competition for control of coercive power. In a social and economic environment defined by the vagaries of elite whim, the temptation to seek out and grasp the levers of power will always be present.

It is society’s corrupt and unscrupulous who aspire to use force for their gain rather than approaching their neighbors through the means of the free market — trade and cooperation. The recent death of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, according to NPR News, “leaves a power vacuum in the country’s south,” an opening for a new thug to try to take his place.

Ahmed Wali Karzai has been variously accused of everything from being a CIA agent to a central figure in Afghan narco-trafficking, though Karzai repeatedly cast himself as “a victim of vicious politics.” Debate has ensued for years as to whether Karzai was indeed a fulcrum of corruption in the country or merely a participant in a payola game of “American-style pork barrel politics.”

For those of us who advocate a society based on voluntary agreements and associations, the difference is at least hard to make out and likely completely meaningless. Insofar as politics is a process of employing systematic force to take from the many in order to enrich the few, it is necessarily corrupt even when it’s all legally legitimate.

When the apparently “respectable” talking heads of the mainstream talk about the “gap” left by Karzai, praising him as someone who “brought a degree of stability” to the region, they reveal their hasty assumptions about the state. To members of the class dedicated to what they might call “reasonable discourse,” political power is always at least necessary and is never itself questioned.

Upon the deaths of people like Karzai, then, no matter how venal they were, the mouthpieces of the ruling class line up to ensure that the discussion is about who ought to take their places, to fill the dreaded “power vacuum.” That it is indeed that place — that position of political power — that brings about societal problems in the first instance is not considered.

It is these positions of arbitrary power that market anarchists seek to eliminate, not through violence and not to foment chaos, but to allow society to govern itself through mutual respect between individuals. As philosopher Roderick Long wrote, “if by ‘politics’ is meant the legalized oppression practiced by governments, then certainly libertarians are fighting for the abolition of politics.”

Powerful people like Karzai are not at all essential for smoothing out conflicts or mediating differences between groups. In a society with no state to engross wealth for the well-connected, precluding true competition, conflicts are readily resolvable through any number of peaceful methods.

The political process seems necessary today only because it creates a war within society, one in which various commercial factions and interest groups vie for a larger share of the plunder. If the Karzai family demonstrates anything at all it is not that moral ambiguity is an unavoidable part of making society at large function stably, but rather that the state is inherently and fundamentally a kind of institution that relies on relationships all of us would regard as criminal misconduct in our own lives.

There is no such thing as a “power vacuum” that must be filled by political power. Social power, the kind made up of peaceful interactions and exchanges, is more than sufficient to create social order.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory