The Problem of Private Armies

Since I started reading Atlas Shrugged, I’ve become interested in libertarian theories of how the state should operate. Like many libertarian writers, Rand is full of outrage against the intrusive laws of Big Government, but the book ends when that society collapses. She says very little about the new society that’s going to take its place.

I’m going to tackle a different answer to that question, given in “The Problem of Authority” by Michael Huemer, an anarchist libertarian. He makes a proposal that I’ve seen elsewhere: that the functions that are performed by the police and the courts should be contracted to private parties. Let’s have a look:

In this society, the services now provided by governmental police would instead be provided by competing protection agencies, hired either by individuals or by associations of property owners. Protection agencies, knowing that violence is the most expensive way of resolving disputes, would require their customers to seek peaceful resolutions of any disputes with other individuals. Agencies would decline to protect those who either willfully initiated conflicts with others or refused to seek peaceful resolutions; any agencies that acted otherwise would find themselves unable to compete in the marketplace due to the soaring costs created by their troublesome clients. The services presently provided by government courts would instead be provided by private arbitrators, hired by individuals who had disputes with one another.

I have a couple of questions about this. So, if I were robbed, I could hire a protection agency that’d track down the person who did it and force them to give me my stuff back. I can see how that would work, sort of. But what would happen if if I were mugged or assaulted – or murdered? Would my protection agency track down the guilty party and exact eye-for-an-eye justice? Or is he proposing that private security companies should also run jails and have the power to imprison people under a judicial process of their own devising?

Also, if he proposes arbitration to resolve disputes, what will make that process binding? If my neighbor has a dispute with me and I see no reason to give in to his demands, can’t I just ignore his demands that we enter into arbitration? What would compel me to do that against my will? Or could I enter into the process and then withdraw if I don’t think I’m going to get a decision I like? If not, what would stop me?

But leave all that aside. Here’s a much bigger question that I don’t think Michael Huemer has really thought about: Who’s going to run these “protection agencies”?

It seems he shares with Ayn Rand the belief that all True Capitalists are morally incorruptible and can always be trusted to follow principles of honesty and fair dealing. That’s why he’s not concerned about the idea of a few wealthy corporate CEOs commanding what would be, in effect, powerful private armies. Trusting soul that he is, it doesn’t even seem to occur to him that they’d ever be tempted to use that authority for their own selfish benefit, or for the sake of their spouses, children, or close friends.

Democracy has the advantage that everyone is ultimately accountable for their behavior. Rich and poor alike can be arrested and tried if they commit crimes. If the police brutalize me, I can sue them in a court whose judgments they’re forced to obey. If the court takes bribes, its judges can be impeached. If politicians abuse their power, the voters can boot them out of office. There’s no one who doesn’t have to listen to or obey anyone else.

But that’s not true of Huemer’s libertarian anarchy. Whether or not he’s thought it through this far, he’s proposing a world where power comes ultimately from a gun, and where rich people will be above the law because they’ll be able to hire private armies, accountable only to them, that will shield them from any consequences of their behavior. And just as some people would be above the law, others would be below it: if you become so poor that you’re unable to afford to contract with a protection agency, then anyone could enslave you, beat you up or kill you on a whim, and you’d have no protection and no recourse.

In the governmental system, individuals are simply forced to buy the state’s services… in the anarcho-capitalist system, protectors must compete with alternative providers of the same service.

I’m pretty sure the last thing we want is private entities “competing” to provide the service of protection from force. We have a name for that already: it’s called a gangland war. And that is what would happen: anyone who thinks that a private army, equipped and accustomed to use violence in the name of carrying out its mission, is going to just sit back and watch as a competitor pushes into their territory, is laughably naive about human nature.

But see where we end up! Huemer started out with the idea that the law should be enforced not through democratic, political means, but through paying protection agencies. Where this swiftly and inevitably leads is a world of unaccountable private armies, controlled by a tiny handful of super-wealthy individuals, that control swathes of territory, administer rough justice to the people who live under their sway, and quarrel violently with each other when diplomacy fails. What I’ve just described is medieval feudalism, only with CEOs taking the place of kings and corporations acting as countries. Needless to say, that was a world that was far more violent and coercive and far less free than our own.

Atlas Shrugged: Ayn Rand on Mike Wallace
Atlas Shrugged: Hume's Meadow
Marital Rape in the Bible
SF/F Saturday: The Half-Made World
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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