Right now, just less than three months from Election Day 2016, a little anarchy might not sound half bad. In fact, it might seem like we’re there already.
To Michael Huemer, professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder, a certain type of anarchy is something we should be striving for. Whether in his occasional TEDx talks; in his three books about (broadly stated) politics, ethics, and philosophy; or in his classes at CU Boulder, Huemer promotes the ideal of anarcho-capitalism. The free-market based and libertarian-inspired school of thought argues that many of our public sector institutions—courts, policing and security, and much of the government itself—would function better and more equitably if they were fully privatized and left to compete on the open market.
Anarcho-capitalism differs from the more “traditional” version of anarchy that emanates from a leftist and socialist worldview. Huemer, who graduated from UC Berkeley and received his Ph.D. from Rutgers University, landed on his current way of thinking thanks largely to his connection with the libertarian economist Bryan Caplan, who’s known primarily for his academic study of voter irrationality.
To the anarcho-capitalist, state functions such as policing and dispute resolution could be privatized (some elements of both have been already via non-governmental security firms and independent arbitrators) and run more efficiently. Consider the many months and thousands of dollars it currently takes to see almost any court case to completion, for example. “There might be a fear that this would unleash some kind of chaos,” Huemer acknowledges, “but if a private court had some crazy notions of what’s fair, not many people would go there to resolve disputes.” Such a system would also eliminate the courts and policing from victimless crimes such as drug use and possession, but Huemer argues, “that’s a good thing.”
Huemer asserts that governments as they’re currently constructed—including and perhaps especially democratic ones—are monopolistic and coercive, shutting down competition in various sectors and forcing citizens to pay for services whether or not they actually use them. “You don’t get to decide what services you get; you have to have them, and you have to pay for them,” he says. “You’re free to not send your kids to public schools, but you still have to pay for them [via taxes]. Coercive monopolies are not the best way to provide goods and services because they lead to low quality, more expensive products, and frequent shortages.”
For those who worry that the less fortunate would fall through the cracks in such a system, Huemer counters that one reason more people don’t donate more actively to private charities is that they think the government is already taking care of it. “That may not actually be true, but a lot of people still think that,” he says.
Anarcho-capitalism also supports open borders, which Huemer knows would be a political non-starter in these fretful times. But he strongly defends unfettered immigration on both economic grounds—most economists who study trade see immigration as a clear net positive for any society—as well as its basic human rights component. Most immigrants are fleeing extreme poverty, if not the overt threat of violence and death in their home countries. “If you were kidnapped and sent to Mexico and the authorities made you live there for the rest of your life, that’s essentially the harm the U.S. government is imposing on these people [via deportations],” Huemer says. “If they were allowed to migrate their lives would be vastly different, and arguments for restricting immigration aren’t enough to justify harming people’s lives so profoundly in any other context. If someone is trying to get to a market for food because they’re in danger of starvation and I forcibly prevent them from getting there so they won’t bid up the price of food, that’s not a good enough argument to impose that level of harm. Even the argument that there’s a one percent chance this person might be a criminal is not good enough from a human rights perspective.”
Huemer has no illusions about anarcho-capitalism overtaking our current system, and he’s not trying to lead a revolution. But that won’t keep him from espousing his beliefs and countering the current prevailing notion that life in the United States is somehow getting worse, or that voters in the information age are paradoxically dumber than ever. “There are a lot of ignorant and irrational people, but I’m not sure it’s getting worse. When people say that, they aren’t really appreciating how bad it used to be,” Huemer says. “Go back to 1900 and see how educated people were then. But there is a problem built into our system in that it’s basically impossible to be a good voter. Democracy asks too much of them. To be informed about even one controversial issue—say, gun control—requires a year of thorough research, and there are dozens of such issues. That’s why so few people participate in elections; it’s a waste of your time, which in itself is an argument for smaller governments.”
In Huemer’s anarcho-capitalist “utopia,” which he admits would probably be easier to execute in a smaller, more homogeneous country, free trade would flourish and bad companies would go under, none of them “too big to fail.” That would be positive because what most people don’t grasp, but most economists do, is that jobs aren’t the scarce resource; labor is. To see a poorly performing company shut down would free up its people to be employed more efficiently and effectively. In this brave new world, politicians and lobbyists would have to find real jobs (something we all would probably agree is a plus); health care and higher education would be cheaper; people could make their own decisions about whether to try, for example, an experimental cancer drug that under the current system might not be available; and addiction rates would go down because there would be less fear about incarceration and more willingness to seek help for a problem.
Maybe it’s all wishful thinking, but that won’t stop Huemer from advocating for it. “I know I’m an extremist,” he says. “But I’m a reasonable extremist.”