Review of A Spontaneous Order: the Capitalist Case for a Stateless Society

spontaneous_order_chase_rachelsIn his book, A Spontaneous Order: The Capitalist Case for a Stateless Society, Chase Rachels does an excellent job conveying insights from both libertarianism and economics. He uses clear explanations of basic concepts and persuasive examples for applications. He relentlessly identifies aggression as the root cause of society’s problems, and the state as the primary source of aggression. Most importantly, the book is permeated by a Rothbardian hatred of the state, which will make it an enjoyable read for any ancap.

Rachels makes frequent use of long passages quoted from other works. Thankfully these are drawn from some of the best sources on libertarianism and economics: Mises, Rothbard, Hoppe, Kinsella, Paterson, etc., so they will be a nice refresher for the well-read and a highlight reel for everyone else.

That said, there were some sections on ethics that seemed to have minor flaws.  In the introduction, Rachels says:

“The Private Property norm first and foremost states that every person is the exclusive owner of his/her own body. This is referred to as the principle of self-ownership. This entails respecting another’s agency by not initiating the uninvited use of physical force against him. The principle of self-ownership allows for any action that respects the autonomy and liberty of others. For example, only Joe has the exclusive right to employ his body as he sees fit, so long as such employment does not involve uninvited physical interference with the bodies or external property of others.”

As a counter-example, suppose Tom Woods is your neighbor. One day he comes home and you hold up a sign that says, “I’m going to kill your family tonight.” You have not initiated any uninvited physical force against him or his property, or interfered with how he uses his body or external property. Is this behavior consistent with libertarianism? Certainly not. So, something is not quite right about this description of libertarianism.

Later in the introduction, Rachels continues:

“The Private Property norm permits one to acquire ownership over external economic goods through original appropriation or voluntary exchange. To acquire property via original appropriation, one simply need be the first to mix his labor with an unowned good. This is commonly referred to as the first-user or homesteading rule. A careful examination of this rule should reveal that it is necessarily conflict-free, as being the first user and claimant implies there can be no valid competing claims over said good at the time of its acquisition.”

The first-user rule is not necessarily conflict-free. As a counter example, suppose you and Stephan Kinsella are walking through an unexplored wilderness. You are both picking wild flowers and as you pick each flower it becomes yours. Now, suppose you both see an especially beautiful flower in the distance. The first one to pick it will become the owner, so you both start running towards it. Stephan gains the lead, but just before he can grab the flower, you give him a gentle push that sends him off balance and skidding past the flower. Then you pick the flower and claim it as your own. Is this a libertarian outcome? Certainly not. The idea of homesteading is often a good approximation to libertarianism, but it is not equivalent.

“An important derivative of the Private Property norm is the non-aggression principle (aka the NAP) which states that no one may rightfully commit aggression against the persons or property of others.”

Unfortunately, defining the non-aggression principle as a derivative of private property norms is quite common in libertarian literature. It is unfortunate because it is backwards. The NAP is an independent ethical rule and property is a derivative system that makes it easy to follow the NAP. The confusion this can cause can be seen later when Rachels tries to define aggression:

“To clarify, aggression in this context and for the remainder of the book will entail the initiation of uninvited physical interference with the persons or property of others, or threats made thereof.”

Here Rachels says that aggression is uninvited physical interference and threats. He does not mention fraud, which is aggression but neither physical interference nor a kind of threat. It is tempting to try to fix this definition by adding fraud to the list, but that would be futile. No matter how many specific crimes you list, your ever-expanding rule would always be vulnerable to exceptions.

So what would a more general definition of aggression be? Aggression is any human action that causes conflict. What is conflict? Conflict is when people engage in mutually exclusive human action.

Simple so far, but what about the non-aggression principle? The non-aggression principle defines all aggression as unethical and all other action as ethical. That’s it. It can be stated simply as a command: cause no conflict.

Human action is praxeologically well-defined, so these definitions should satisfy anyone familiar with Rachel’s work. Using praxeology to define aggression gives a nice theoretical foundation, but for every-day practical purposes we need a property system to implement libertarianism. It is important, however, to remember that property is not fundamental, otherwise one can arrive at logical but incorrect conclusions. For example, Rachels says in chapter 1:

“The Libertarian Ethic (aka the Private Property Ethic) holds that all legitimate rights are derived from property rights. The most fundamental of which concerns one’s relationship to his own physical body i.e., that he and he alone has an exclusive claim to it. This is commonly referred to as ‘the principle of self-ownership.’
“To own something, especially one’s body, means to have final say over the employment or use of whatever is “owned”, provided that such employment does not entail the initiation of uninvited physical interference with another person’s body or their justly-acquired property. Simply put, only the owner(s) of something have the exclusive right to use it; they are likewise justified in resisting demands made on their property by others.”

As a counter-example, suppose you are standing in line. The person in front of you turns around and pushes you hard enough that you lose your balance and start to fall towards the person behind you. The person behind you then pushes you sideways and onto the ground to avoid getting hit. The person behind you behaved in a way that is consistent with libertarianism, but inconsistent with self-ownership as described.

This is not a problem with Rachels’ formulation of self-ownership, but a problem with the concept itself. Self-ownership is a useful approximation to libertarianism, but as an approximation it will occasionally lead to erroneous conclusions.

This kind of problem happens in chapter 3, and shows that there is a real danger to trying to solve ethical problems solely based on the concepts of property and self-ownership, rather than human action and the non-aggression principle. He says:

“…imagine person A (the promisee) lends person B (the promisor) his stereo, on the condition that, in one week’s time, person B transfers title to his yoyo to person A. Suppose person B’s yoyo is destroyed before the week’s end and he comes up empty handed. Would person A be justified in using force or making threats thereof against person B to receive remuneration? No, he would not, because at this point person B would not be causing uninvited physical interference with person A’s property as it no longer exists.”

This is one of the few mistaken conclusions in the book. For if B intentionally destroys the yoyo before the end of the week, he is actually violating the non-aggression principle and A would be justified in seeking remuneration.

Finally, one nitpick. In chapter 6, he says:

“An example of something that is undeniably uninsurable is committing aggression. Any given person is fully in control of whether or not he/she decides to initiate uninvited physical force against another and, as such, no insurance can be taken out for this action. An insurance agency which attempted to insure clients against the risk they will commit aggression will soon go broke as clients will be incentivized to engage in aggression deliberately for the sake of receiving insurance payouts. This should make clear the financial untenability of offering insurance against those risks which are largely within one’s control.”

Then how does one account for liability insurance for automobiles? A company may not be interested in insuring intentional aggression, but unintentional aggression can be insured against.

Regardless, the few small problems in A Spontaneous Order hardly detract from the rest of the book, which is packed with pure anarcho-capitalism. Old-time ancaps and budding libertarians will enjoy the author’s clear perspective and bold, unwavering stance in favor of life, liberty, and property. Hopefully, it will not be too long before Rachels’ prophecy comes true and “the State [is] just another embarrassing blip in human history…”

An approachable, but hard-core summary of modern Austrian economics and libertarianism. Five Murrays.

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