Human Rights and Anarchism

At first sight, anarchism is an attractive theory for proponents of human rights. It’s often the state that violates human rights and getting rid of the state would therefore automatically and drastically reduce the number of rights violations. However, state action isn’t the only cause of rights violations; our fellow citizens can also take away our rights or fail to act in ways that protect our rights. When that happens, we often go to the state for protection. We regularly ask judges and police officers to protect our rights to physical security, property and life, and we depend on the government to provide education, poverty relief, transportation infrastructure etc.

Anarchists claim that we don’t necessarily have to go to the state for those forms of protection or provision. For example, the monopolization of violence by the state isn’t the only possible means to achieve physical security and protection of property. One can imagine private companies offering their protection services. That would also be more fair to those who need those services less (for example because they have less property or because they live somewhere isolated). In a government protection scheme, these people pay as much as anyone else (at least proportionally, given a more or less progressive tax system) whereas in a system of private protection services they could pay less or even nothing at all if they so wish.

One problem with a system of private protection services is that it can’t regulate violence or theft among the different service providers (a form of insecurity that can affect individuals as well). Anarchists could reply that a natural monopoly would arise as a result of that risk, but a monopoly would then drive up the price of security, which would be detrimental to the buyers and would, in the end, make government provided security look like a better deal. And government is definitely a better deal for those who can’t afford to buy private security.

And then there are of course the other, non-security related human rights. A free market solution to education, healthcare etc. is possible, but again would likely be insufficient for those who don’t have the means to buy those services. Rights are important first and foremost for vulnerable members of a community. If these people can’t count on rights, rights aren’t of much use. We all have rights and the protection of those rights shouldn’t be dependent on our individual ability to pay for them.

Of course, it’s true that rights cost money, and somehow this cost has to be covered in whichever way we think is best. But it seems better and more fair to cover this cost by way of taxation than by way of voluntary purchase, because then at least people’s rights don’t depend on their ability to pay, even though they depend on an overall social ability to cover the cost.

Moreover, free market solutions can cause free rider problems, especially in the case of public goods – and many human rights are public goods. If people have to pay for services, then some may be able to enjoy the services without paying. In private garbage collection systems, for instance, people who don’t pay for the collection may just put their garbage next door, together with the garbage of the paying neighbor. That is obviously not a human rights issue, but the same effect can occur when people have to pay for rights protection or provision. Let’s reiterate the example of security: if a certain number of people in an area pay a private security agency, then this agency will provide security in the area, even – to some extent – for those who don’t pay. This, of course, will convince many that they don’t have to pay. State protection or provision can also suffer from free rider problems, but at least the state can force people to pay (by way of taxation). However, government monopolies create the same problems as private monopolies (see above), so perhaps a mixed system of government and private rights protection and provision would be optimal.

Obviously, when we argue in favor of the relative advantages of state vis-à-vis private protection and provision of rights, we also have to acknowledge the practical reality that states often fail to protect and provide. They fail in two ways: many of them don’t sufficiently protect or provide, and much of what they do is completely unrelated to rights and often even detrimental to rights. We also have to admit that whatever the theoretical merits of either state or private protection and provision, the empirical reality is difficult to ascertain. Whereas we have many cases of state action – some good, some very bad – we have very few cases of attempted anarchy. That doesn’t help the case of anarchism. Maybe some theoretical shortcomings of anarchism don’t turn out so bad in practice, compared to the practice of government. And there’s of course the status quo bias which doesn’t help anarchism either: we know what we have, and trying something new is always risky.

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