Whenever a natural disaster or violent insurrection causes the downfall of a corrupt government, various commentators cannot resist labeling the result anarchy and then citing the chaotic situation as an apparently obvious refutation of the ideas of Murray Rothbard. Critics of Rothbardian anarchocapitalism often point to mafia-infested Sicily, gangland Chicago, modern-day Colombia, Somalia, and of course now Haiti, as ostensible examples of a free market in police and law.
The week after the earthquake hit, commenter Greg posed this typical question on my blog: How's that anarchy thing working out in Haiti?
Here is my response. When Rothbardians say that they favor anarchy, what we mean is that for any given society, with all else held equal, a government monopoly on legal rulings and police enforcement will make the society worse off. (I am here focusing on the pragmatic claims rather than ethical considerations.)
A Rothbardian wouldn't deny that if, say, a nuclear war or superflu bug killed off 99 percent of the world's population - including all the politicians - that the resulting anarchy would be awful. But by the same token, if a nuclear war or superflu bug killed off 99 percent of the world's population and yet enough politicians survived to maintain working governments, things would still be awful. In fact, if Rothbard is right, things for the survivors would be even worse if they looked around and realized a bunch of politicians had pulled through, as opposed to engineers and farmers.
So although this video about a vacation in Somalia is undeniably clever, it rests on a complete non sequitur. The government of Somalia didn't peacefully wither away because the vast majority of Somalis read my pamphlet on the stateless society and saw the light. No, the Somali government was a corrupt military dictatorship that implemented socialist policies and then was overthrown in a civil war. In essence, the dominant gang lost the ability to enforce its monopoly on violence in the region, and previously subordinate gangs expanded to fill the power vacuum.
When dealing with Somalia, therefore, the relevant question isn't, Would you rather live in the United States or Great Britain, with a stable government, or live in Somalia, with competing warlords?
Instead, a much more relevant question is this: were the Somali people better off with a government or without a government? Several economists (e.g., Pete Leeson) have argued that Somali anarchy - unpleasant as it was - was better than Somali statism. The critics who dismiss the idea of ordered anarchy by pointing to Somalia after its government fell in 1991, don't seem to realize that a Rothbardian could equivalently prove how awful governments are by pointing to Somalia before 1991. (Note that many consider Somalia to have ended its period of anarchy in 2006.)
Anarchy in Haiti?
In the case of Haiti, many economists who are generally sympathetic to the free market, and who even recognize full well the problems with government aid to poor countries, nonetheless immediately called for massive doses of help from the US government in the aftermath of the earthquake. To such analysts, it seems cruel to let the Haitians die on the altar of anarchist ideology when the US government could offer so much help with its enormous military and financial resources.
But wait just a second. In what possible sense can we describe the situation in Haiti, even after the earthquake, as one of political anarchy? There were still remnants of government law enforcement, as this Wall Street Journal story from January 20 describes:
Across the wrecked and crowded street, more than a dozen men and women swarmed over the tumbled two-story façade of a shop where sandals had been sold before last week's earthquake.
They risked their lives diving into crevices with empty rice sacks, emerging with sacks bulging with footwear and other goods.
They also risked the wrath of police, who every now and then scattered them with long batons.
Now in this situation, where people were starving to death while perfectly good food and other merchandise lay buried in rubble, is it really so obvious that the Haitians were helped by police forces maintaining law and order?
The concerned outsiders who feel that somebody needs to go in there and prevent violence! typically commit the classic economic fallacy of focusing on the seen, while ignoring the unseen, effects of government intervention. Yes, I have no doubt that peacekeepers going into Haiti will crack down on certain criminal behaviors and possibly prevent many violent deaths.
Yet that's not the only consideration. It's also true that the influx of foreign military occupiers will disarm private militias and prevent the development of a balance of power among myriad decentralized groups. There will undoubtedly be people who are murdered in the coming years
- by foreign occupying troops who mistakenly overreact in a tense situation,
- by petty private criminals because their victims are disarmed or cannot join a private militia due to the rules imposed by the occupying troops,
- by drug gangs who bribe the foreign occupying troops to solidify their power over the helpless Haitian civilians.
I am not claiming that the above considerations prove that more innocent Haitians will die with peacekeeper forces than without. All I am pointing out is that the people calling for such intervention typically did not even consider the possible unintended consequences of their policies. They are akin to left liberals calling for government funding of schools because a country of illiterates would be just awful.
The Government Hates Competition
There is another important sense in which it was absurd to characterize postearthquake Haiti as existing in political anarchy. After all, if numerous Americans agreed that it would be a good idea for thousands of heavily armed people to fly to Haiti in order to quell violence and set up food distribution and medical treatment, then what was stopping them from volunteering? Or, more realistically, what was stopping the American Red Cross and other organizations from hiring the services of private security firms?
If many Americans thought it was just the right thing to do to send guys with big guns to Haiti in order to make sure everyone played by the rules, then why did the US federal government have to get involved at all? The Americans who thought it was a good idea could have volunteered themselves, or paid for others to go and do this moral work. There was no reason Barack Obama had to chime in with his own thoughts on the matter, except to say that he was strapping on an M16 to cover Michelle as she handed out bottled water to orphans.
Obviously, I am being facetious. The reason the US federal government had to coordinate the rescue efforts in Haiti is that it would violently punish any private group that tried to field a comparable effort with adequate defense for its participants. If foreign arms dealers began trying to sell grenade launchers, tear-gas canisters, riot gear, and other equipment to nongovernmental groups in Haiti, the US Navy would almost certainly interrupt their shipments as wildly destabilizing.
Upon reflection, we see that there never was any hope for the blossoming of Rothbardian defense agencies in Haiti. For an analogy, if the US Air Force bombed any nonapproved Haitian farms while the US Navy intercepted any incoming shipments of food, then statists could prove that a free market in agriculture is a horrible idea that leads to preventable starvation.
I hesitated to write this article because it is horribly tacky to use human tragedies to score political points. Yet in order for people to understand just how destructive monopoly governments are, we need to clear our minds of the clichés that inevitably sprout up whenever such tragedies occur. Among all the other problems they had to contend with in the wake of the earthquake, the Haitian people were also handicapped by the nearby presence of the mighty US federal government, which ensured that any and all relief efforts had to first be approved by Barack Obama.
To make this observation doesn't condemn the particular choices President Obama has made in regards to Haiti. The point of this article is neither to praise nor condemn particular actions taken by the US government regarding Haiti. Rather, I am making the simple observation that even if the US government did nothing according to the man on the street, it still would have been interfering very heavily in the situation in Haiti. The Haitians have been enjoying the help of the US military for years, which is partly why they were so ill equipped to deal with a powerful earthquake.
Robert Murphy, an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute and a faculty member of the Mises University, runs the blog Free Advice and is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism, the Study Guide to Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market, the Human Action Study Guide, and The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal.