More anarchy books


book review score+4

Anarchy Unbound:
Why Self-Governance Works Better Than You Think
Peter T. Leeson
Cambridge, 2014, 256 pages

Reviewed by T Nelson

In the past year, we've gotten a number of great new books by libertarians advocating some form of anarchy. Most have been along the lines of Murray Rothbard's capitalist anarchy, in which instead of purchasing services from the government, we purchase them à la carte, so to speak, from private vendors.

And now for something completely different.

Peter Leeson says that coercion, not force, is what constitutes a government. If you agree to it, it is self-governance, not government. He then uses economic arguments to show that self-governance works fairly well. This is a fairly uncontroversial conclusion, considering that even America was at one time considered to be an example of it. But the USA was never an anarchy. So why, then, does the title contain the word “anarchy”? I guess nobody would buy a snoozer titled Self-Governance Unbound.

What Leeson really means by self-government is the absence of a formal system. He hopes to show that people always find a workable solution. His examples of actual anarchy, such as at the border between Scotland and England in the 14th to 16th century, are not encouraging: this was a time when people freely kidnapped and murdered each other, and the economy collapsed. The situation only abated when a form of common law frontier justice was established. Leeson says this was not really government, implying that government is not necessary to have law and order.

Leeson's other example of the success of anarchy is Somalia, where he says fifteen years with no government has raised the average life expectancy from 46.0 under Barre to 48.47 years. In Mogadishu at night, as P.J. O'Rourke noted, the only illumination was from tracer bullets. So he is arguing that anarchy is slightly better than living under an incompetent Marxist dictator, but with fewer public services.

It seems to me that most of his examples are not really anarchy, but flights from anarchy. If you accept that consent ≠ government and anarchy ≡ self-governance, his argument makes sense. Otherwise, what his examples seem to show is that anarchy is so awful that people form governments to escape it. There must be better examples somewhere.

aug 23, 2014; updated aug 27, 2014