I have come to believe that anarcho-capitalism (AC) is a second – rather successful – attempt at usurping the meaning of liberalism; the first usurpation having been accomplished by America’s socialists and social democrats, i.e. the Democratic party, its doctrine and followers.
I see classical liberalism standing between and clearly separated from two extremes: statism - an attitude that uncritically ascribes more benignity and problem solving capability to the state than is warranted; and anarchism, which is statism in reverse, ascribing counterfactually total malignity and dysfunctionality to the state. Both extremes represent a form of escapism, a running away from an uncomfortable area of ambiguity.
The classical liberal, by contrast, bears up against the tension that emanates from the ambivalent mix of good and bad which has evolved along with the state. He faces this messy part of reality, recognising that the state is an evolutionary product that will not go away (in any reasonably foreseeable time) and, in fact, represents a condition of liberty, a requirement for liberty to exist.
The crux of the AC error lies in a tacit assumption on which the entire philosophy is based: liberty must be self-generating. The opposite is true, of course, as is nicely captured in the motto of our RSE blog. While it is certainly desirable for liberty to be self-generating, the desired condition can never come about.
Liberty is always being won from a hodge-podge of things outside of or even antithetical to liberty. The factors outside of or antithetical to liberty are persistent or are renewing themselves so that they need to be incessantly repelled and rolled back. In fact, liberty is conducive to producing anti-liberty material, for instance by allowing people to develop and propagate doctrines that compete against liberalism.
I have recently come across a quote (I can’t remember where) to the effect that philosophical schools often take perfectly reasonable continua and get into trouble by turning them into dichotomies.
That’s the problem with AC, too.
The state is a multi-dimensional continuum which includes grown goods and bads, which are often inextricably intertwined. The state cannot be arbitrarily bad, it must be good as well, to survive.
Ce qu'on voit et ce qu'on voit pas: followers of AC suffer from a bit of a Bastiat-deficit in this respect – they only see what is bad about the state, they do not see what is good about it.
However, much of what is good about the state is naturally hard to see – like peace, freedom or justice which come about when certain things DO NOT OCCUR.
I am being protected and helped in countless ways by the state. To the extent that the state depends on popular acceptance and a sound, preferably even a growing material base, it is rational for government to enforce individual rights etc. For instance, the gradual rise to power of the French central state/royal dynasty of the Carpet and the rise of its partner, the bourgeois commercial classes in France against the emperor, the clergy and the feudal power holders is a well documented example of how the state has rationally sided with individual and property rights and many other conditions conducive to free(er) markets and personal liberty.
Other forms of SMP (Structures of Maximal Power – see more in Classical Liberalism vs. Anarchism (2/3)) such as state leagues and city states failed to prevail in the competition with the central territorial state. In the case of these alternative, ultimately defeated SMP, the structure of coercive capability was simply not stringent enough. Put more bluntly, they were not powerful enough to be effective supporters of budding capitalism and the freedom that comes with it.