International “anarchy”

In academic discussions about anarchy, the condition of having no government, one often hears comparisons drawn to the international situation that currently obtains in the world. Internationally, there is no authority that controls states. True, the United Nations and other organizations do some of these functions, but their enforcement powers are limited and they do not really qualify as governments.

This comparison has always made me uneasy. States do not behave like people. A state’s decision-making process involves many people with conflicting purposes fighting and bargaining for some kind of consensus position that represents what the state “decides”. Not only do states not have information analogous to what an individual decision-maker has when weighing potential choices, but the people responsible for the decisions do not bear the costs of choosing A over B. Taxpayers, businesses, soldiers, invaded populations, etc. bear the costs of state decisions.

I usually get the sense, too, that this is meant as an argument against anarchy. After all, when the United States government decides to invade a non-threatening country, i.e. when individual decision-makers who form part of the United States government decide, there’s really nothing to stop them. This could be a good thing in some situations, but it’s generally thought of as a bad thing (including by me). By analogy, anarchy among individuals would result in the strongest person doing whatever he wants and the weakest just having to deal with it.

But, as I’ve said, this analogy is not very useful. When George W. Bush or Vladimir Putin decide to invade a country, they personally don’t bear any costs. If you’re paying, they’ll have the filet mignon. In the standard denotation of anarchy, individuals reap the benefits and bear the costs of their actions. Comparing the actions of individuals with the actions of groups of people who make decisions for others obfuscates more than it clarifies.


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