Posted by: Steven Shaw | May 21, 2009

Re: Tony Soprano and Robert Nozick

Dani Rodrik recently posted an article entitled Tony Soprano and Robert Nozick. It’s critical of what libertarians sometimes refer to as a stateless society.

The message from the people behind the Sopranos show seems clear: In a “stateless” Robert Nozick type of society, where everything should be arranged by individual, freely entered contracts, markets will deteriorate into organized crime.

I’m intrigued by the idea of a free society based on voluntary actions espoused by some libertarians. I like the idea.

Firstly, it must be pointed out that this organised crime isn’t happening in a stateless society – it’s happening in one with the “protection” of the state acting as “third-party enforcer”.

Secondly, in a stateless society, Tony may find himself in competition with legitimate companies since drugs would not be illegal.

Of course, the Tony Sopranos of the world will exist despite what kind of political system you have in place. Libertarians would argue though, that if you put ultimate enforcer power into a single institution (the state), then many of the Tony Sopranos will find themselves attracted to that line of work :). No society should tolerate mafia-style violence whether that violence is perpetrated by depraved individuals in a mafia-style gang or – indeed – by the state itself. Murray Rothbard wrote:

the State is nothing more nor less than a bandit gang writ large

The main distinction about a “stateless” society, sometimes overlooked or at least not singled out, is not the absence of a state, government or politics. Instead, it’s the absence of a coercive state: legitimised violence and force (i.e. threat of violence). The reason this happens is because the state (or government) is always considered coercive by most writers. The idea is that society should organise not around coercion but around cooperation – voluntary exchanges and actions.

For instance if some subset of society wanted to bail out GM, then they could do so via their voluntary contributions to such a cause.

I do still have a concern that a free and voluntary society could see the rise of a plutocracy. I’m consoled by the fact that that’s pretty much what we have at the moment via corporatism or crony capitalism! In a free society, at least you can choose not to deal with the individuals and companies that you feel are part of the plutocracy (sometimes called “voting with your” feet or wallet). In our coercive representative democratic society you have no option, no “out” – except perhaps if you have a majority – or a friend in parliament ;). I should write more about the problems of representative democracy another time – particularly the usual two party, left-right political system that is so common.


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