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On Natural and Artificial Hierarchies

Hierarchies per se are unavoidable, but societal hierarchies that require the coercion and compulsion of others in order to exist are de facto illegitimate and should be recognized as such.

On Natural and Artificial Hierarchies

Hierarchies per se are unavoidable, but societal hierarchies that require the coercion and compulsion of others in order to exist are de facto illegitimate and should be recognized as such.
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Except for the belief that the State ought not to exist, not much agreement can be settled across different factions of Anarchism. Self-proclaimed Anarchists often cannot even concur about what the foundational principles behind Anarchism really are. While “Anarcho-Capitalists” or “free market Anarchists” claim that one only needs to believe the State shouldn’t exist (or that it doesn’t exist in the sense of having any “authority”, i.e. an inherent “right” to do things nobody else can) at all to call oneself an Anarchist, “Anarcho-Communists” or “Socialist Anarchists” insist that one must oppose all hierarchies in order to truly be one. This most notably includes the employer-employee relationship, which the latter faction denounces as exploitative while the former mostly see it as a voluntary and mutually beneficial exchange.

The reasoning behind the Anarcho-Communist insistence that free market Anarchists aren’t “real” Anarchists may be located in the writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, often credited as the founder of modern Anarchism and someone whom Anarcho-Communists frequently cite as an authority figure on the topic. In an essay entitled “The State: Its Nature, Object, and Destiny” published in 1849, Proudhon wrote that

We maintain that, capital and labor once identified, society exists by itself, and has no further need of government. We are, therefore, as we have more than once announced, anarchists. Anarchy is the condition of existence of adult society, as hierarchy is the condition of primitive society. There is a continual progress in human society from hierarchy to anarchy.

This clear distinction between hierarchy and anarchy makes it very clear why Anarcho-Communists would have very different associations of the latter term than free market Anarchists in the tradition of Murray N. Rothbard.

The main objection that may be levied against Proudhon’s distinction may be why people would stop interacting in mutually beneficial exchanges such as employment if the State were dismantled, and why they’d rather adjust to collectivistic modes of production such as cooperatives and communes. Anarcho-Communists, however, see employment and capital in a very different way. Proudhon writes,

After the barbarism of the early ages, after the price of caste and the feudal constitution of primitive society, a last element of slavery still remained,—capital. Capital having lost its way, the laborer—that is, the merchant, the mechanic, the farmer, the savant, the artist—no longer needs protection; his protection is his talent, his knowledge is his industry. After the dethronement of capital, the continuance of the State, far from protecting liberty, can only compromise liberty.

This comparison between capital and slavery appear to refer to the seemingly exploitative nature of employment. As I’ve already disputed this in-depth before, I won’t repeat myself here. Instead, I’ll investigate the nature of capital in a stateless society, as well as how it relates to naturally occurring hierarchies.

Proudhon’s obscure descriptions of capital (unless some of the meaning has been lost in the translation) through metaphors like “Capital having lost its way” and “the dethronement of capital” makes it difficult to dissect his points here, but what he appears to be getting at is how the worker would be freer to utilize his talents and knowledge on whatever he himself desires after this “dethronement of capital”. How this would come about doesn’t seem to be discussed explicitly in this essay, however, as it was meant more as a denunciation of the State Socialism of Louis Blanc and Pierre Leroux than of contemporary free marketeers like Claude Frédéric Bastiat and Gustave de Molinari. 

Apart from bringing about a “dethronement of capital”, free market Anarchists would for the most part still agree with Proudhon that “the continuance of the State, far from protecting liberty, can only compromise liberty,” and that people would be far more capable of utilizing their talents and knowledge for the betterment of their conditions without the restrictions and mandates imposed by the State. However, free marketeers contend that this only possible because of the existence of capital, rather than by its absence. Free market Anarchist Hans-Hermann Hoppe notes that there are three components of increasing net societal wealth:

[Y]ou get richer (a) through capital accumulation, i.e., the construction of intermediate “producer” or “capital” goods that can produce more consumer goods per unit time than can be produced without them or goods that cannot be produced at all with just land and labor (and capital accumulation in turn has something to do with (low) time preference); (b) through participation and integration in the division of labor; and (c) through population control, i.e., by maintaining the optimal population size [1].

The role of the entrepreneur is to purchase capital goods to enact his ideas of how to better satisfy market demand, and to make use of these, he naturally needs labor (i.e. workers). The individual entrepreneurs thereby stand behind both capital accumulation and how workers are integrated into the division of labor. The relationship between the entrepreneur and workers takes, however, the form of a hierarchy, which we have seen that Anarcho-Communists naturally don’t approve of. In their eyes, he is, on the contrary, only exploitative, and workers would be far better off without him.

But if this was the case, why do so many people – young and old, black and white, male and female – make such an effort with trying to acquire such a job through writing resumés and job applications, and to present themselves as favorable as possible in order to do be “exploited” as such? In the current system, the Anarcho-Communists say, the rule is work or die, or what free marketeers like Ludwig von Mises would phrase as “The sway of the principle, to each according to his accomplishments, does not allow of any excuse for personal shortcomings.” They argue, therefore, that workers have no bargaining power in a free market, but that it instead dooms them into a slave-like condition where they only receive a fraction of the value they produce. In an Anarcho-Communist world, however, they contend it would rather be “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Without the State, this would allegedly be done through Syndicalism, a “worker democracy” in which the workers themselves would have control of the allocation and use of capital goods in their respective industries. An important objection that may be raised here does not only concern whether a Syndicalist economy would be efficient in the economic sense of providing a functioning feedback mechanism in transferring information about changing consumer values to the producers, but rather why such “worker democracies” like cooperatives and communes have not already been established en masse by dissatisfied alienated workers who have left their exploitative bosses for good. Does the State currently prevent them from doing so? Murray N. Rothbard, the founder of “Anarcho-Capitalism”, argues that

It should be remembered by radicals that, if they wanted to, all workers could refuse to work for wages and instead form their own producers’ cooperatives and wait for years for their pay until the products are sold to the consumers; the fact that they do not do so, shows the enormous advantage of the capital investment, wage-paying system as a means of allowing workers to earn money far in advance of the sale of their products. Far from being exploitation of the workers, capital investment and the interest-profit system is an enormous boon to them and to all of society [3].

If some hierarchies are natural then, how may we then distinguish between natural and artificial ones? A fellow free market Anarchist blogger, Bradley Thomas, phrased it well when he wrote that “Social hierarchies will emerge in any society. They exist in the animal kingdom. The measure of whether such hierarchies are ‘just’ is whether or not they are voluntary or imposed by the initiation of force.”

When a new child is born, he is subjected to the hierarchy in which the parents and nurses supersede him in terms of decision-making power. When he grows up and has to go to the doctor, he still has to follow the instructions and undergo the processes the doctor deems necessary, though he may decide to drop the arrangement if he suspects that it won’t or is not intended to better his conditions. Throughout the school system, he will have to be subjected to the tasks assigned by the teacher and be sanctioned with lower grades if one doesn’ follow along with this arrangement. Though there may be more ideal ways to structure the teacher-student relationship, the point here is to illustrate how hierarchies will arise naturally due to inherent differences in people’s abilities and choices, as well as their stage of life. Differences in biology and effort will, for instance, inevitably lead to a hierarchy of athletes. Differences in their efficacy of skill acquirement inevitably lead to a hierarchy of employees. Differences in intelligence, discipline, and persistence inevitably lead to a hierarchy of entrepreneurs. The list goes on.

Hierarchies per se are unavoidable, but societal hierarchies that require the coercion and compulsion of others in order to exist are de facto illegitimate and should be recognized as such. The people that constitute “the State”, who for thousands of years have robbed, kidnapped, defrauded, exploited, tortured, and murdered, have no more of an inherent “right” to do these things than any others, and their power would cease immediately to exist once enough people recognized this. Without the State, on the other hand, people would have to contribute to the betterment of others’ conditions in order to benefit themselves or have to rely upon voluntary charities and associations if they did not manage to do so. No longer could they rely upon the “the great fictitious entity by which everyone lives at the expense of everyone else,” as Claude Frédéric Bastiat put it – they’d have to climb the natural hierarchy of meritocracy.

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Stefan Kløvning

Stefan Kløvning

Stefan M. Kløvning is a Norwegian high school student studying economics in his spare time, with aspirations of eventually taking a PhD in economics and afterward contributing to growth in the private sector. He’s a follower of the Austrian School of Economics, drawing inspiration mainly from Bastiat, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard