Justice Without the State

I’m always happy to see anarchism being discussed honestly in public forums. So I was pleased to see E.D. Kain’s article at Forbes, Criminal Justice in a Stateless Society (21 Aug 2011).

Kain describes his reservations about anarchism and wonders “what would replace our criminal justice system in a stateless society?” As an anarchist — one who believes in maximizing individual liberty and wants no person to rule over another — I’d answer hopefully nothing. The criminal justice system is in fact criminal. The outrages committed by the criminal justice system are consequences of the power relations fostered by the state.

Sure, some states act less destructively than others, and some politicians are less tyrannical than others, but state power is ultimately limited by what those in charge think they can get away with. Politicians, economic elites, bureaucrats, and enforcers come to believe in their authority and believe that other people should respect their authority. For those who don’t, there are innovative and profitable ways to subdue them so they can be taken in chains to a cage.

The criminal enterprises of the state should not be replaced, but instead displaced, by cooperative alternatives. This may seem like nitpicking, but to me it emphasizes the differences between authoritarian and anarchic functions. Authoritarian systems command obedience to those on top through force, threats, denial of alternatives, and encouragement of conformity. This is their primary function, and anarchists do not intend to create anything to replicate this function.

Instead, anarchists tend to believe in the ability of people to establish rules as equals, to work out consensus and compromises, and use violence only as a last resort. This is how social relations work on a basis of mutual benefit rather than power politics.

This is not the place to fully theorize about anarchist justice systems or fully describe precedents, but I’ll scratch the surface. A precedent Gary Chartier mentions in his excellent book The Conscience of an Anarchist is the merchant’s law of Medieval Europe. Courts established voluntarily within the merchant community made decisions based on standards that had evolved over time. Another precedent is found in Terry Anderson and P.J. Hill’s work on how American settlers handled disputes in the Western frontier, which was not nearly as violent as Hollywood would have you believe.

Of course, these are precedents, not examples of anarchy, but the fact that they were able to arise from under situations of government-approved violence might make them more remarkable.

In general, people tend to prefer to not have much violence in their daily lives. I’m not talking about movie violence or even fighting sports, but violence that is an active danger to life or impediment to living. Where is there pervasive violence in today’s world? Usually at the bottom end of power imbalances.

In powerful countries, it’s where the least powerful people live that drug wars are fought most vigorously and police most become an occupying army intent on scoring points for the precinct’s statistics. In countries where most people have few options, they are more likely to risk everything for messiahs of violence or see life as a cheap expenditure. Oppression breeds further crime.

Where people have the opportunity, they agree on rules and expectations pretty frequently and set up mechanisms for dealing with rule breakers. If there is a demand for something, people will find a way to fill it. A reasonable level of safety is broadly desired, and who wants child molesters, serial murderers, and the like around anyway?

A free society would encourage better behavior by opening numerous opportunities for self-improvement and social cooperation. Sure there will always be people who appear irredeemable, but how many would there really be? More importantly, how can they be treated and possibly re-integrated into society while they are kept from harming the rest of us? Anarchy offers numerous options for experimentation, in contrast to the state which offers a politically-entrenched machine which profits from suffering. Anarchy allows different arrangements to compete for popular support without the benefit of entrenched power or the political limiting of options. Government compels acquiescence.

Anarchy, where there are no rulers, is both a laudable goal for personal relations and a workable model for a peaceful, prosperous society. I hope E.D. Kain and interested readers further explore the theory and practice of anarchism. It is not a perfect option, but it is certainly a better option than anything that states will give us.

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