I just finished listening to Elizabeth Anderson’s Dewey Lecture in Law and Philosophy at the University of Chicago, on “Tom Paine and the Ironies of Social Democracy.” It’s a great lecture, and I highly recommend it to BHL readers (along with her recent interview in 3:AM here). The thesis of her talk is that there’s nothing particularly “socialist” about state-financed and state-administered social insurance programs. Such programs have a long history in the liberal tradition, going back to Condorcet and receiving one of the earliest and fullest articulations from the almost-libertarian Thomas Paine in his essay on “Agrarian Justice.”
There’s a lot of great stuff in this lecture, including a discussion of the ways in which Hayek’s Road to Serfdom has been misread (understandably, perhaps) as arguing that any social welfare scheme will lead inevitably to socialism and the gulag. In reality, Hayek actually defended various aspects of the welfare state in RTS, and criticized the “wooden insistence of some liberals on certain rules of thumb, above all the principle of laissez-faire.” We’ve discussed similar misreadings of RTS here recently.
But what especially caught my attention was Anderon’s discussion, in the Q+A I believe, of the Hayekian thesis that rules and order can emerge spontaneously without the state. Anderson references the terrific work of Robert Ellickson on this issue, and praises it highly. But she makes what I think is a trenchant critique – one that ought to be of great interest to the anarchists among us, given their frequent reliance on Ellickson and similar work (see this great anthology for a sample). Hayekian stories, Anderson says, seem to work well when you have small, stable, face-to-face communities consisting of people who are already basically equals. Groups like this, she says, really can do a pretty good job of working out norms on their own, and we have lots of good reasons to leave them alone rather than try to impose rules on them from the outside.
But not all groups meet these conditions. In particular, some groups are not groups of equals. Some groups have severe and stable relationships of domination and subordination. And Ellickson (and Hayek) just don’t seem to have much to say about them. This is troubling, because it seems like we have good reason to expect that the rules that spontaneously emerge in these kinds of groups will serve to reinforce those unequal relationships in ways that strike us as perhaps unjust. And it is especially odd, as Martha Nussbaum notes in the question period, that Hayek of all people didn’t notice this, given his important work on John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor – two individuals whose work is rich in its explorations of the ways in which domination and subordination characterize relations between the sexes.
My guess is that Anderson hasn’t been following the recent work of Charles Johnson and Roderick Long that touches on some of these themes. Which is a shame, because it’s really quite good. And, of course, Anderson doesn’t directly address the crucial comparative question – does the state do a better job at remedying pre-existing inequalities than non-state institutions?
Still, there’s an important kernel of a challenge here – one I’d like to see better developed by the critics themselves, but also one I’d like to see addressed by the anarchists themselves. Can the “just so” stories of the spontaneous emergence of “nice” social rules in small, stable, face-to-face societies of equals tell us much about what’s likely to happen in the larger, more fluid, more impersonal, and more inegalitarian societies of modernity? And if not, where does that leave the case for anarchy?