Reading Leeson, Part I

A while back, I mentioned that it wasn't clear to me why people were representing Pete Leeson's book The Invisible Hook as a story about "the economics of anarchy." Well, I'm reading it now, and I'm more puzzled than ever: it seems to me the correct description of the history Pete relates is that "even pirates, desperate scoundrels though they were, saw the need for government and were able to cooperate to establish such."

For instance, Pete quotes a political speech advocating the election of a particular pirate as captain, where the speaker recommends electing a leader who can "ward us from the Dangers and Tempests of an instable Element, and the fatal consequences of Anarchy" (p. 23). You see, the speaker wanted this guy elected to avoid "the fatal consequences of Anarchy"... and he thought avoiding that would be a selling point to his listeners.

A few pages later, Pete tells us that "each pirate ship required a leader" (p. 27). Of course, the basic meaning of 'anarchy' comes from the Greek αναρχια -- without a leader. So, if they 'required a leader', they were avoiding, not embracing, anarchy! The pirates themselves discussed "how shatter'd and weak a Condition their Government must be without a Head" (p. 27).

More on the dichotomy Pete posits between 'coercive' government and 'purely voluntary' governance, in 'Reading Leeson, Part II,' coming soon to a blog near you.

In the meantime, let me say this is a lively, well-written book, and well worth reading even if you wind up disagreeing with some of its conclusions.


  1. But the dichotomy between a governance-structure and a government still exists, right? Even if you don't buy the coercive/voluntary dichotomy, aren't there other (relevant) points, like scale, exit options, the areas of life the governmental structure covers, etc.

    That the pirates organized themselves in an organization to coordinate their efforts hardly entails the modern concept of a government/state.

    The anarchy Leesson suggets that is possible is a ordered anarchy where laws and governance are still possible. Only not through a 'state' but through more voluntary organizations. Or wouldn't you agree that these kind of organizations tend to have a bigger voluntary character (internal, of course: not external).

  2. "But the dichotomy between a governance-structure and a government still exists, right?"

    Hmm, I would say the problem Leeson has is precisely that he looks at it as a dichotomy, rather than a continuum, from anarchy to totalitarianism.

    "That the pirates organized themselves in an organization to coordinate their efforts hardly entails the modern concept of a government/state."

    Well, a form of organization does not entail any concept! But how does Leeson define government: a monopoly on coercive power. Did the constitution the pirates formed create a monopoly on coercive power? It certainly did! QED, it was a government, per Leeson's own definition.

  3. Well, the idea of a continuum doesn't rule out the idea of a dichotomy. The difference between night and day is a very clear dichotomy, but there is still a continuum between the 'day' and the 'night'.

    Well; did they have the monopoly on the use of force? They had the monopoly on the use of force to enforce certain rules, deliberately chosen by all involved, on an acquired property. (Well, 'legitimately acquired seems a bit odd in this circumstance.)
    Isn't there a (significant) difference between having the monopoly on the use of force to act upon pre-chosen rules and the difference between a monopoly on force in the absence of any relevant or explicit agreement?

    Even if you look at it as a continuum: there is a difference between the use of force used by the American government and the pirates governmental structures.

    As a general rule; libertarians don't rule out governmental structure as long as they are voluntary chosen. Now, obviously, 'voluntary' and 'involuntary' can, in fact, be represented by a continuum. But I think you have to stress the commonly accepted idea of 'voluntary' to say that any modern state is a voluntary conception of pre-agreed upon rules that govern us.

    Oh, and is your book available in PDF? If not; when will it be available for purchase.

    Leeson book isn't necessarily to proof anarchy as defined in the absence of structures that can govern things. It's more of a defense of the idea of a decentralized order, against the idea that structures of governance living side by side necessarily entail discoordination. Within those orders; governance can exist, but the level that is chosen, should preserve a presumption of liberty. The continuum doesn't rule out the possibility to judge wether or not something is relatively more or less voluntary chosen.

    Or am I seeing this wrong?

  4. "Well, the idea of a continuum doesn't rule out the idea of a dichotomy."

    From Wikipedia:
    "A dichotomy is any splitting of a whole into exactly two non-overlapping parts, meaning it is a procedure in which a whole is divided into two parts, or in half. It is a partition of a whole (or a set) into two parts (subsets) that are:
    jointly exhaustive: everything must belong to one part or the other, and
    mutually exclusive: nothing can belong simultaneously to both parts."

    So yeah, it does.

    But I absolutely agree we can judge things more or less voluntary, and that a condo association is more voluntary than the US government. But Leeson doesn't do that: he calls the condo association PURELY voluntary and the US government flat-out coercive -- a dichotomy, not a continuum.

    Which book are you asking about?

  5. I am sure he means your dissertation.

  6. scineram, just so long as he knows there is more than one!

  7. Well, I didn't know there is more than one! I was referring to your most recent dissertation on Oakeshoot, law, the Romans. (I'm a bit citing from memory here, because it looked really interesting.)

    And, oke. I'm using the English word 'dichotomy' wrong.

    Maybe we can resolve it like this: the idea of 'coercion' and 'voluntary' are ideal types and are a strict dichotomy. In the real world, however, the application of these ideal types to interpret the world around us don't really (always) cut it. We need a continuum between them to analyze certain circumstances. Something like this.

  8. I wonder if the follow up goes the way of Confessions of a Recovering Ideologue, Part II.

  9. Ha, scineram, them's fightin' words! Part II, up, in your face!

  10. Adriaan, the Oakeshott book will probably never be available in PDF. (Sigh.)

    But this one is: EFRP

  11. If it weren't for EFRP, I wouldn't be the person I was today. So yeah; I've read it. (I even got it autographed by the author! :p)


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