Skip to content

The Conservation of Coercion

REVIEW ESSAY

Technology and the End of Authority:
What Is Government For?
by Jason Kuznicki
Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, 285 pages, $129

It was the anarchists who first told me about the Kapauku Papuans. Among the Kapauku, in West New Guinea, there was no state administration of justice; instead, both civil disputes and grave crimes were adjudicated by a caste of private citizens called tonowi. As tonowi travelled the highlands, collecting evidence, pronouncing judgement, and suggesting sentences, their reputations would spread. The wisest and most impartial tonowi were in high demand, and could command a correspondingly high price from a village for their assistance in settling a dispute. A tonowi who developed a reputation for corruption or partiality, however, would soon need to find a new line of work. Past judgements of great tonowi in difficult cases formed an evolving body of common law that helped inform new cases.

What the anarchists didn’t mention was that, having rendered his verdict, a tonowi would actually pronounce two different sentences and give the defendant a choice between them. One sentence always involved economic restitution to the victim; the other was usually a sanction of a more corporal nature. Maiming was uncommon, but extended beatings or other tortures were an option for minor crimes, and capital punishment for graver ones. Defendants often faced enormous pressure from their families or villages to choose the noneconomic option, since a few hours of flogging only hurt the guilty party while the loss of a cow harmed the entire community. Their supposedly voluntary submission to the verdict also turned out to be rather theoretical: refusal to accept the just pronouncement of a tonowi was considered craven beyond redemption, and others would refuse to trade with such a person lest they be thought sympathetic to them. In the world of the Kapauku Papuans, economic autarky was a glorified death sentence—in fact, the family of a scofflaw would often preemptively murder him to emphasize their disapproval of his actions.

The two faces of the Kapauku Papuans, and the way their anarchist-friendly political order rested on a deeply illiberal social order, neatly express how Technology and the End of Authority, by the Cato Institute scholar Jason Kuznicki, is both an interesting and a maddening book. Kuznicki states that he was inspired to write the book when he wondered why so many classical political philosophers, despite their disagreements over a vast number of topics, nevertheless all believed the nature and proper role of the state was the most important question concerning the proper organization of human affairs. Even libertarian and anarchist political theorists obsess about states, filling books with discussions of when and why we ought to reject them as illegitimate. The nature of their opposition implicitly concedes that the state, its value and purpose, is the central question for us to grapple with.

In contrast, Kuznicki invites us, if not to ignore the state, then at least to banish it from the forefront of our thinking. He asks us to consider states as just one tool among many that human societies have deployed to solve various sorts of problems. The state is neither God nor the Devil, but something pragmatic and unromantic—like a sewage system, or a town dump. Yes, we want it to function smoothly lest the place start to stink, but good taste demands that we not focus obsessively on its operation. Statecraft, like sanitation engineering, is a dirty job that somebody has to do, but unlike sanitation engineering it should also be a mildly embarrassing one. The notion that political means are a locus of the good, or that the state is imbued with the highest purposes of society, is as ridiculous as the notion that a city exists for its sewers rather than vice versa. So, Kuznicki suggests, we should treat anybody attempting to derive the correct or legitimate purposes of the state with the same skepticism with which we would view somebody waxing philosophical about a trash compactor. The real center of society, the topics worth debating and pondering, are all the other institutions—like markets, churches, sports teams, scientific schools, and families—whose existence the correct operation of the state supports.

This neutral-ish position, which Kuznicki cheekily terms agnarchism, has two immediate implications. The first is that we should begin to conceptualize political theory less as a science and more as an engineering discipline. Sciences seek to pronounce general laws that are broadly applicable across a class of phenomena: in the context of political theory the scientific mindset is the stuff out of which utopias, grand theories of legitimacy, and endless debates about the optimal form of government are made. Engineers, on the other hand, seek to build elegant and minimal solutions to the problems at hand. In statecraft, this attitude recognizes that every time, every place, and every people carries a unique history and a unique set of opportunities and challenges that can never be reduced to a formula. It avoids making an idol out of communism, socialism, liberalism, nationalism, or the divine right of kings, seeing these at best as heuristics or design patterns that have perhaps proven useful on occasion, and could possibly prove useful again in dealing with the problems at hand.

But what exactly is the problem? To what end is all this pragmatism oriented? Under agnarchism, the state has no transcendent purpose. Its purpose is to help the individuals living in the society it undergirds achieve their own purposes, whatever they may be, by solving a class of tricky social dilemmas. Consider two virtuous men who operate chemical plants by the lake: both value the lake and the joy it provides local children more than they value short-term economic gain. Neither wants to dump his chemical waste in the lake, despite the fact that doing so would be cheaper than disposing of it properly. Each fears, however, that if he does not, the other may do so, leaving him with both a polluted lake and an unprofitable factory. Each can reason that the other has the same fear, and so a likely yet tragic outcome is that both men dump their waste in the lake despite neither wishing to do so.

The state can help: by compelling both men not to pollute the lake, every party winds up happier than it was before. Note that the men are not being forced to act against their interests. Instead, they are being freed to do what they truly wished. The state acts as a sort of Schelling point that solves a coordination problem. Or consider a town that wants to put on a grand fireworks display. Everyone would like to see the fireworks, and everyone is willing to contribute an equal share to make it happen. Yet everyone also fears that their neighbors will quietly skip purchasing tickets and will instead watch the fireworks from outside of town, leaving them holding the bag. Once again, the state can help prevent a bad equilibrium (no fireworks) by levying a tax so that everyone has no choice but to contribute, which was actually what people wanted to do in the first place.

Game theorists study stylized versions of these problems under names like prisoner’s dilemmas, stag hunts, free-rider problems, and games of chicken. Squint hard enough and these games will appear over and over again under different guises to bedevil human attempts at social and political organization. What makes the real situation much worse than these simple models is that in the real world the dilemma is usually accompanied by an opacity of motives. Each of the factory owners only knows that he himself does not wish to poison the lake—the other man may claim the same, but can he really be trusted? The state is a devil that they both know, and frees them from these guessing games. Clearly some such games are harder than others, and some have higher stakes in terms of innocent bystanders. For the easy ones, a gentleman’s agreement or a contract with appropriate penalties might suffice. For the very worst such games, the state might serve as a flawed but practical tool—a necessary evil that even a libertarian can love.

Government and the Question concerning Technology

The second implication of Kuznicki’s statecraft-as-engineering is that any determination about the proper role and behavior of government must remain unsettled not only by historical and cultural context, but also by the ambient level of technology. Kuznicki explores this at some length. He does not mean to make the common argument that the particular set of technologies deployed within a society can be more or less conducive to particular forms of government—as mass democracy might be encouraged by technologies of communication and travel, or as centralized autocracy might tend to arise in societies relying on large-scale irrigation for intensive agriculture. Rather, if the state is a tool for solving an array of otherwise intractable social problems, Kuznicki surmises, a newly discovered technological solution to such a problem could remove it from the state’s set of concerns—perhaps permanently.

Plausible examples of this dynamic abound, from the prosaic (government support for leper colonies was made obsolete by antibiotic treatments for Hansen’s disease) to the speculative (some of the newer cryptocurrencies make possible self-enforcing contracts which could remove part of the need for civil law). Although this point holds to a degree, I am far less excited by it than many libertarians for the simple reason that the course of technological progress is difficult to predict, and seems just as likely to produce new problems requiring an increase in state control. A world in which the march of progress enabled anyone with a high-school education to concoct a civilization-ending plague in his or her garage would justify a much higher degree of state intrusion, for example. This is the ultimate reason that technological-determinist theories of minarchism, much like the dialectical materialist Marxism of which they are a strange reflection, leave me cold.

But what if we construed “technology” in the broadest possible sense? In the examples just mentioned, the state was called in to remedy either an inability to coordinate or a failure of trust. Yet people constantly manage to navigate such situations without the assistance of the state. You did it the last time you asked your neighbors to pick up your mail when you were out of town! On a broader scale, we tend to focus on the flaws of industry self-regulation while ignoring the remarkable number of instances in which it works quite well and prevents an issue from even coming to the notice of the state. Is it really impossible to imagine that two factory owners could come to an agreement and each trust the other to keep it? Or that the village seeking to put on fireworks could have sufficient esprit de corps and solidarity to pull it off without an enforcement mechanism?

The Necessity of Trust

What are the qualities of a society which make it more or less likely to be able to solve these dilemmas as they come up? Social scientists call societies that support commitment and enforcement mechanisms sufficient to overcome such dilemmas “high trust.” Some sources of social trust are mundane: for instance, it seems to make a big difference for a society to simply have a high enough median wealth that someone isn’t liable to be ruined if he or she takes a gamble on trusting a stranger and ends up getting cheated. Others are fuzzier: shared participation in churches, clubs, and social organizations can also significantly increase the degree of solidarity and trust in a community. Thinkers from Tocqueville to Robert Nisbet have pointed out the ways in which the ascendant state makes war upon and seeks to displace the “little platoons” of civil society. It is not well appreciated today that the reverse is also true: a “thick” culture rooted in shared norms and shared history can make the state less necessary by helping to raise the ambient level of social trust above whatever threshold makes it possible for citizens to organize and discipline themselves without state compulsion.

Another major source of social trust is religion—again, especially when shared. One classic example comes from Barak Richman’s series of studies on Hasidic Jewish merchants in the New York diamond district. Diamonds are small, difficult to trace, and incredibly valuable—all of which massively increases the risks associated with credit sales. Nevertheless, Richman found that up until very recently transactions between Hasidim regularly took place on credit, and involved an astonishingly low risk of theft or flight. Amazingly, when disputes did arise they were nearly always handled with private arbitration. Diamontaires were under enormous pressure to accept the results of these unofficial courts. Refusal to do so could mean the loss not only of nearly all one’s trading partners, but also social standing and relationships with friends or family members.

There’s a distinct similarity between the world of the diamontaires and the utopia of the agorists, a Fabian school of left-wing anarcho-capitalists. According to the agorists, people should systematically create voluntary institutions that can more effectively accomplish the positive goals of state-run programs, the better to produce public agreement that the state has become vestigial and may be permitted to wither away. And yet . . . one cannot help noticing that most examples of communities robust and deep enough to displace the trust-making and consensus-enforcing functions of the state—like the New York Hasidim or the Kapauku Papuans—do not appear to be loose assemblages of liberated Lockean individuals freely contracting amongst themselves. Liberation from state coercion comes only to those enmeshed in a dense nexus of social relations—one an individualist might well find more oppressive even than the modern administrative state.

Why might this be? Any social equilibrium will be unstable unless it contains some way of punishing antisocial behavior, otherwise the most selfish individuals with the shortest time horizons will prosper and prompt a general race to the bottom. A state can enforce its norms with fines, imprisonment, and execution. Civil society, on the other hand, has only “voluntary” tools like shunning and boycotts available. If it is difficult to imagine such measures having the same deterrent effect as prison, that is precisely the problem! With the possible exception of our immediate families, it is rare for us deracinated moderns to be part of a community so all-encompassing and vital to our identity (or simply our socioeconomic lives) that the threat of being severed from it takes on the same cast as the threat of prison. There are advantages to this rootless condition; for instance, it makes us far less susceptible to certain kinds of abuse. But it also means we must rely on the state to police and punish a wide range of behaviors that would once have been dealt with informally.

Homogeneity also helps increase social trust in at least two ways. First, it increases the probability that the person with whom you’re dealing shares your substantive moral commitments, cultural formation, or religion. Consider again the two factory owners: if they know each other to be of the same culture, and reflect on the unique emphasis on the importance of environmental protection that their culture holds, they may be more willing to trust each other than if each was dealing with a relative cypher. Second, put bluntly, people are more trusting of members of their family or tribe, however conceived. Some would call this bigotry: Adam Smith described it as an expanding set of concentric “circles of sympathy.” Whatever valence we wish to put on it, it’s a fact that sensible institutions recognize and work around (as in anti-nepotism laws). Certainly this natural tendency is flexible. Many of the great religions and moral philosophies are dedicated in part to expanding their adherents’ definitions of who is worthy of concern. On the other hand, for us fallible humans it isn’t infinitely flexible.

These aspects raise an uncomfortable possibility for libertarians: is there a sort of law of conservation of coercion in well-functioning societies? A community with a minimal state can only function if it is thick enough and homogeneous enough to enforce sanctions for antisocial behavior that are almost state-like in their severity, and, furthermore, can make them stick. Freeing individuals from their smothering parochialisms will lead to a compensating increase in the scope and reach of the state as people search for a new solution to social dilemmas formerly handled via informal means. Conversely, attempts to suddenly curtail state power may lead to chaos in the intervening period when social institutions have not yet reasserted themselves. Principled libertarians might still have good reasons to prefer the non-state forms of compulsion—among them the arguments from public choice economics and a federalist preference for decisions being made at the lowest feasible level, where actors are most likely to have relevant information. But “increased freedom” may not be one of them.

Cosmopolitanism and “People Like Us”

The story of the diamontaires ends with the whole system, private courts and all, falling apart following an influx of non-Hasidic actors into the New York diamond industry. But lack of trust and solidarity aren’t just problems if we want private courts. Yes, a very high degree of social trust can help to replace or displace state institutions, but any amount of trust tends to make governments more efficient and less corrupt. It isn’t a coincidence that many of the most successful governments on earth, whether efficient and well-run welfare states on the Scandinavian model or free-market havens boasting low taxes and few regulations, have been small, tight-knit, often culturally and linguistically homogeneous. Conversely, history’s most successful multiethnic polities have tended to be empires or confederations with a very high degree of provincial or local autonomy. Government is not a problem that scales gracefully: certainly not with number of citizens, but perhaps also not with number of constituent cultures. Those who love cosmopolitanism (among whom I count myself) talk a great deal about the incidental benefits it brings, and a great deal less about its drawbacks. I and other cosmopolitans love to exalt the dynamism that comes from diversity and the way it can help a society avoid falling into complacency. We are less willing to discuss the tiny invisible tax on everything and everybody that reduced social trust imposes, and the ways in which that will tend to make a nation more sclerotic.

In the absence of trust, every private commercial or social interaction becomes just a little bit more expensive, a little bit less efficient, and a little bit less likely to happen at all. Individuals are more cautious in their dealings with strangers, businesses are less likely to extend credit, everybody is a little more uncertain about the future, and people adjust their investment decisions accordingly. Individuals and businesses spend more money on bike locks, security systems, and real estate they perceive to be “safe,” rather than on the consumption or investment they would otherwise prefer. Critics of capitalism frequently observe that a liberal economic order depends upon, and sometimes cannibalizes, precapitalist sources of loyalty and affection. What if the same is true of political freedom more generally?

Some might object that even to consider such a thing is to give in to the forces of bigotry. But the whole point of taking a flinty-eyed engineer’s approach to state-building is that we don’t have to like the constraints we are working with, we just have to deal with them. The human preference for “people like us”—whether that means coreligionists or people who share our musical tastes, and whether we choose to frame it as bigotry or as game-theoretic rationality—is a stubborn, resilient reality. Perhaps in the future some advanced genetic engineering or psychological conditioning will change that. For now we need to recognize and deal with the fact that if we wish to have cosmopolitanism, we need to justify it on robust philosophical grounds, with full awareness of the costs as well as the benefits that it brings to bear on every member of society.

Kuznicki thinks the engineering mindset in political theory is an antidote to what he sees as a philosophical tradition of abstract theorizing that puts the state on a pedestal and makes it into an almost metaphysical nexus of the human condition. But as I look around, much of the vapid theorizing seems to be in favor of liberalism writ large, while the best current example of a state built on hard-nosed pragmatism is Singapore. Kuznicki himself is a representative of a currently fashionable sort of cosmopolitan libertarianism that has never existed in governmental form, and which I suspect is the least likely form of government ever to exist. What if a practical politics that took account of human frailty implied a world formed from a combination of cosmopolitan but illiberal city-states, unified but homogeneous nation-states, and sprawling empires that vacillate between centrifugal and centripetal tendencies? In fact, this is the world that has existed for most of recorded history. Perhaps the real ideological blinders are those which tell us that we have transcended this condition and can replace it with something else.

While I admire Kuznicki’s attempt at disenchanting political theory, even agnarchy cannot help but return us to a question of values. The engineering mindset is a useful corrective to some tendencies of previous political philosophy: it banishes unworkable utopias and it highlights the degree to which particular details of a society’s geographic, technological, and cultural context bear on the forms of government that are most likely to be successful, helping us to avoid making an idol of any one “ism.” But while it elucidates constraints and tradeoffs that state-builders will face, it cannot tell us how to choose a point in design space. Nor can technology make this choice easier. It only raises the stakes.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume I, Number 3 (Fall 2017): 174–83.

Sorry, PDF downloads are available to subscribers only.
Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log In