The Case Against Anarchism

In this post, I will make the case against anarchism, or to put it another way, the case for the state. To make the case against anarchism, I need to explain what society is, what it is for, and how it works. So, this essay is not just the case against anarchism, it is also the outline of my social theory. Any social theory must be consistent with biology and physics, so I will begin from fundamental principles of life derived from physics and biology, and then build a theory of society on that foundation.

Life is Competitive

Life is a type of emergent order. It must extract (potential) energy from the environment to survive and reproduce. The energy could come from the Sun, other living beings, or chemical energy (such as deep-sea vents). Ultimately, all the energy in the biosphere comes from nuclear fusion in the Sun or from nuclear fission in the Earth’s core.

Every ecosystem has finite resources: a finite stock of matter and a finite flow of energy from the Sun. Life has an infinite capacity for reproduction. Thus, life is a competition for matter and energy. Once all the available resources in an ecosystem are in use, the only way to add a new organism is by displacing (killing) an existing one. Life is a finite-sum game, but with a potentially infinite number of players, and so life is a zero-sum game at the margins. The competition for resources makes life intrinsically violent.

(See Life is Violent.)

Life is Selfish

Life is shaped by evolution. Evolution selects for individual reproductive fitness, and thus for individuals that seek to maximize their surviving offspring. Evolution does not produce altruistic behavior toward the group, race or species. Thus, life forms are reproductively selfish.

Human beings are life forms, and thus we are selfish. All of our behavior is driven by a brain that evolved to make us reproduce, as individuals. We did not evolve to be altruistic.

Cooperation is possible, but it takes place within a larger context of competition. Cooperation is not altruism. Cooperation is selfish from the perspective of its participants. It is an exchange that benefits both sides.

(See Altruism and Selfishness.)

Society is a Work Exchange System

Society is not based on altruism. Society is based on cooperation for mutual benefit. In other words, it is based on work exchange.

What is work? In physics, work is the application of a force over a distance. It implies movement in some direction. Work has the same units as energy, and it takes energy to do work. Work uses up energy.

We can think of work in a more general way as any use of force to change the world. For example, writing this essay is work, because I am exerting force and using energy to change the world in a certain way. I am not moving an object some distance in a specific direction, but I am changing the world by moving around many little things. I am changing the world in the “direction” of my desires.

Work can be positive or negative, depending on its direction. From my perspective, work is positive if it changes the world in a way that I want, and it is negative if it changes the world in a way that I don’t want. In other words, work is positive to me if it aligns with my will, and negative if it opposes my will.

For example, if you threw a brick through my window, you would be doing negative work from my perspective. If I was hungry and you made me a sandwich, you would be doing positive work from my perspective.

Cooperation is work exchange, and society is a work exchange system. Society allows you to use other people as an instrument of your will, while they use you as an instrument of their wills.

Social Interactions as Work Exchange

All social interactions can be understood in terms of work exchange. There are four basic types of social interaction:

  1. Conflict is an exchange of negative work for negative work.
  2. Coercion is an exchange of the absence of negative work for positive work.
  3. Passive cooperation is an exchange of the absence of negative work for the absence of negative work (live and let live).
  4. Active cooperation is an exchange of positive work for positive work.

These four types of interaction create social forces that push people apart or pull them together:

  1. Conflict pushes the participants apart, unless one side can defeat the other.
  2. In coercion, one side wants the association, the other side doesn’t.
  3. Passive cooperation would be neutral if there were no other social forces at work. But in a hostile environment, passive cooperators are pushed together by the environment. Also, passive cooperation enables active cooperation.
  4. Active cooperation pulls the participants together, because both benefit from the association.

The social order is created by these interactions and the forces that they generate.

Society is like a bubble. People have the potential to cooperate or compete with one another. They have a nice side and a nasty side, so to speak. They tend to arrange themselves into bubbles in which the nice sides face inward and the nasty sides face outward. Societies are bubbles of cooperation. They are internally cooperative and outwardly competitive.

Problems of Cooperation

Cooperation is useful, but it isn’t easy to create.

Individuals can often benefit more by defecting than by cooperating, even if cooperation would benefit both sides. Here is an example that illustrates the problem of cooperation.

Suppose that you are on a backpacking trip in a foreign country. Your backpack is heavy, and you would like to leave it while you walk around the city. You see a man sitting on the sidewalk, begging for spare change. You consider paying him to watch your backpack for an hour. The exchange would benefit both of you, but there is a problem. If you pay him up front, he might just take the money and run. If you offer to pay him afterward, he can’t be sure that you will pay him when you get back. The risk of defection prevents cooperation.

This type of problem is called “the prisoner’s dilemma” after a famous thought experiment. The prisoner’s dilemma has to be solved for individuals to cooperate.

There is a similar problem of cooperation between the individual and the collective. The tragedy of the commons and the free rider problem are conflicts of interest between the individual and the collective.

Imagine a crowded room in which many people are talking. Everyone would benefit if everyone spoke quietly, but everyone has an incentive to speak loudly so that they can be heard over the noise of everyone else. The result is a cacophony of voices, which is a bad outcome for everyone.

The tragedy of the commons is a failure of passive cooperation. It involves individuals doing something harmful to the collective. The free rider problem is similar, but it is a failure of active cooperation. It involves individuals not doing something beneficial for the collective.

To exist, societies need to solve problems of cooperation.

(See Game Theory and Society.)

How Small Societies Work

Small societies can solve problems of cooperation without formal laws or a central authority.

The ancestral form of human society is a small group of fewer than 100 individuals. In this small group, everyone knows everyone as an individual. Everyone can get together in the same place and make decisions as a group. In a small group, problems of cooperation are solved by tit-for-tat. Repeated interactions and forced association prevent defection. Everyone wants to be accepted and liked. Everyone watches and polices everyone else.

Our emotions evolved to function in small groups. We remember faces, and we associate them with feelings of friendship or hostility, depending on past interactions. We form friendships. We seek approval and acceptance by groups. Cooperation emerges subconsciously and intuitively between people who interact on a regular basis.

Prior to civilization, people lived in small groups that were scattered across the landscape, separated by buffer zones of wilderness. Those groups were often hostile toward each other. People could not switch groups easily, because cooperation was based on personal relationships. Groups were held together by internal cooperation and by the hostility of the outside world.

How Big Societies Work

Big societies solve problems of cooperation with a central authority that defines and imposes rules on the collective.

Tit-for-tat can’t create cooperation on a large scale. If the collective is larger than about 100 individuals, then it is not possible for everyone to know everyone else. Tit-for-tat can only create cooperation between individuals who interact on a regular basis. Informal policing doesn’t work on a large scale either, and the members of the group cannot simply make group decisions together by meeting in one place and talking. A different form of social organization is necessary to create large-scale cooperation.

Big societies use a central authority and hierarchical power structure to impose passive and active cooperation on the collective. A central authority with a monopoly on violence makes big societies possible. The state solves problems of cooperation by using coercion to impose cooperation on the members of society. It prohibits violence between members of society, such as murder and rape. It establishes property rights. It punishes defection on exchange agreements, such as breaking a contract. It also punishes individuals for destructive behavior toward the collective, such as polluting the town’s water supply. It compels individuals to contribute to group efforts, such as building roads and fighting wars.

The state uses coercion to solve prisoner’s dilemmas, tragedies of the commons, and free rider problems. Coercion is necessary to create large-scale cooperation.

Hierarchy Reduces Complexity

Hierarchy is a necessary part of big societies, although it is also present to some degree in small ones.

Hierarchy reduces the complexity of coordinating action. Instead of everyone trying to coordinate their behavior with everyone else, constraints on behavior are imposed from above, and this reduces the uncertainty of individual interactions. It simplifies them. Instead of having a personal relationship with every member of society, the individual has a relationship with the state, which represents society as a whole.

A big society must have a hierarchical power structure that concentrates power at the top.

Bigger is Usually Better

Society does not eliminate competition between individuals. It just transfers some of that competition to a higher level: competition between societies.

Bigger societies can usually defeat smaller ones in war. Bigger societies tend to destroy smaller ones and annihilate or absorb their populations. Thus, social organization tends to increase in scale (up to a point). Even if you would prefer many small societies for some reason, that would not be stable. Those small societies would tend to merge into a few big ones, with maybe some smaller satellite societies.

War is not the only thing that big societies do better. Economic organization is more efficient on a large scale, because there is a greater potential for the division of labor and the employment of capital. Modern industrial civilization depends on very large-scale cooperation. Of course, there are small societies today that are highly industrialized, such as Singapore, but they depend on global trade. They are part of an emerging global society. We are developing a global society of multinational trade agreements and military alliances: a tit-for-tat network of relationships between countries that is stabilized by a few big countries.

Large size has costs as well as benefits, and so does social complexity. Societies sometimes outgrow their resource base or their method of social organization, and then collapse or fragment as a result. So bigger is not always better. It is only better up to a point.

Over human history, there has been a general trend toward increasing the scale of cooperation: from hunter-gatherer bands of a few dozen individuals to countries with more than a billion citizens. We are now beginning to develop cooperation on a global scale.

State and Civilization

State and civilization emerged together, because they depend on each other. Civilization means living in cities, and thus living in large-scale societies. That is why every civilized society has some form of the state: a central governing authority with an effective monopoly on violence.

Writing and mathematics emerged along with state and civilization, because large-scale societies need explicit methods of communication and accounting. New religions with an emphasis on the law also emerged with civilization, to provide the new social order with a mythical justification.

Modern science, technology and market economies also depend on large-scale social organization.

Civilization cannot exist without the state.

The Market and the State

Markets depend on the state to define and enforce rules of property and exchange.

The market is a “place” where people can go to buy or sell things. What makes markets “free” or “open” is that anyone can exchange with anyone else. A market is a place where strangers can do business. As such, it depends on state power to create trust between strangers. The state solves the problem of cooperation that exists between strangers. It allows them to cooperate passively and actively.

Markets aren’t necessary for trade. Without the market, trade can take place between parties who have relationships of trust, based on tit-for-tat. In the past, most trade was within tit-for-tat networks, not open markets. Markets expanded in importance as societies grew bigger and state power increased.

In a tit-for-tat network, people are locked into exchange relationships with those whom they know and trust, so there is much less economic competition. Markets allow people to choose between different providers of the same service. That creates economic competition, which generates economic progress. By defining and protecting private property, the state also incentivizes the creation of capital. The employment of capital then makes labor more efficient. For those reasons, capitalism expands production and makes societies much more powerful.

Markets exist within the primary social order defined by the law and imposed by coercion. Within that framework, a complex secondary order of cooperation emerges. This secondary order is far more complex and efficient than a tit-for-tat trade network.

The state is necessary for capitalism, and the wealth generated by capitalism makes the state more powerful. The modern bureaucratic state and capitalism emerged together and depend on each other. “Anarcho-capitalism” is an oxymoron. There is no capitalism without the state.

The state is necessary for capitalism but not sufficient. To create capitalism, the state must not interfere too much in the economy. It can skim off some of the production of the economy, but not too much. It must enforce fair exchange and prevent tragedies of the commons, but not arbitrarily intervene in market outcomes. Capitalism requires a powerful state with a limited scope of action.

Anarchist Errors

Anarchism is based on false assumptions and ignorance. Anarchists:

  • Ignore the implications of evolutionary theory for human nature.
  • Have no explanatory theory of society, just moral/political arguments.
  • Assume that scale doesn’t matter: that a million people can be organized in the same way as a dozen.
  • Assume that the cooperative behavior of human beings in state-governed societies has nothing to do with state coercion.
  • Presume that their own moral intuitions are natural or obvious values, rather than values created by incentives in the environment.
  • Assume that the moral principles that apply to individuals must also be applied to the state.
  • Assume that free/open markets can exist without state coercion, often by conflating trade networks with markets.
  • Ignore the evidence of history: that no complex society has ever existed without state power.


  • Life is intrinsically competitive and selfish.
  • Society is a system of work-exchange between selfish individuals.
  • Problems of cooperation must be solved to create society.
  • Small scale cooperation emerges by tit-for-tat, but doesn’t scale up.
  • Large scale cooperation requires centralized power and coercion to solve problems of cooperation.
  • Bigger societies are usually better.
  • Civilization depends on the state.
  • The market depends on the state.
  • Anarchism is naive.


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