Defense as a Public Good

Johnathan Pearce of Samizdata asks an engaging question.

An interesting question for those concerned about creating a more free society is how such a society, be it a model of constitutional, limited, minimal government, or even an anarchist one, would actually defend itself from attack. What sort of practical ways would such societies employ, and would such societies require armies, navies, air forces and the like?

This question is too easily avoided by too many people. The usual answer given is that without an interventional foreign policy, others would have no reason to attack. While that may be true, having no reason to attack does not mean there will be no attacks. The history of humanity, most easily seen in the 20th century, shows that people will find any and all sorts of justifications to kill each other. Everything from "You are of the wrong class" to "Your entire race is a 'problem'" to "You are violating my rights by having more stuff than me" to "You need to break a few eggs to make an omelette," has been used.

In some ways, territorial defense is like other goods such as food, clothing, and shelter: it is scarce, demanded by nearly everyone, and vital to survival. Yet, it is also very different from those goods in that someone who provides a quantity of defense usually ends up benefitting more people than he necessarily chooses to, or even desires to.

If Bob of Ruritania sells an apple to John, John benefits, as does Bob. If Bob fights an invading army, nearly everyone in Ruritania benefits. And in further contrast to apples, one Ruritanian's benefit from Bob's fighting does not exclude the benefit another Ruritanian receives from Bob's fighting. Neo-classical economists call such goods that are nonrivalrous in consumption and nonexcludable in benefit "public goods".

Most cultures have evolved in such a way to recognize the fact that there is likely much less incentive to freely provide territorial defense than it is to sell apples. Those who provide territorial defense are often bestowed with honor and high social status.

Governments have traditionally tried to exploit these cultural mores to engage in wars of aggression, often with success. Yet, it is important to recognize that abuse of these social norms by governments does not diminish the fact that no matter how free a society is, as Johnathan Pearce points out, the public goods problem of territorial defense will need to be overcome by individuals willing to engage in activites that benefit not just themselves, but nearly everyone around them. Even in societies without taxation or conscription, or with private military organizations, or with mutual defense associations, there will need to be individuals willing to leave family and friends behind, to risk their lives, to fight.

Pat Tillman saw the horrors of 9/11 and wanted to prevent another such terrorist attack. Not only was he willing to voluntarily perform a function that he believed would benefit everyone in America, not just himself, but he also gave up millions of dollars to do so. Regardless of what other views of the War one might have, that part of his character is deserving of admiration. In the chaotic ugliness of war, it is important to separate out the praiseworthy from the undeserving.

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I think the best treatment

I think the best treatment I've seen of the public goods problem of national defence, is written by Walter Block, as Chapter 9 (National Defense and the Theory of Externalities, Public Goods, and Clubs: page 301) of the recently published book edited by Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe, of the Von Mises Institute, The Myth of National Defense.

You can read this chapter, along with the rest of the book, online, here:

Historical examples would be

Historical examples would be beneficial at this point.

as matt said, i simply can't

as matt said, i simply can't fathom the idea of an anarchist society being able to defend itself when there are other imperialist nations in existence. if the whole world was in anarchy, that's another story. even david friedman seemed unsure about this issue, and that says a lot.

On a practical note, i do

On a practical note, i do not believe there is a nation capable of containing and ruling a country with well armed individuals like the US. the standing army thing is completely moot especially if you do not engage in foreign 'adventures of morality'. you can see how unbelievably difficult it can be to contain motivated,armed, and 'righteous' vietnam, iraq, russian afganistan, etc etc. theres no way, even at its most powerful the UUSR could have ever controlled anything on the US continent besides some centalized gov't offices. armed individuals don't need orders from a military heirarchy to start killing anyone with a funny uniform. the fact they can arm themselves and control the countryside makes them the most dangerous kind of enemy. this is the fallacy of the giant US military machine, its only useful for foreign adventures, we don't need it to protect us from anyone, just let the average law abiding person keep thier rifles etc and you can ensure nobody will 'come snoopin round'. they can't control armed individuals.

sorry for the poor spellin'.

sorry for the poor spellin'. gettin drunk waitin' fer the leafs game on my porch...hahah just kidding.

as matt said, i simply can?t

as matt said, i simply can?t fathom the idea of an anarchist society being able to defend itself when there are other imperialist nations in existence.

That's another issue for another day. The point of this post was simply to say that even those societies, like any society, will need individuals willing to fight in defense.

Sept 11 is a perfect

Sept 11 is a perfect example. the biggest baddest military machine the world has ever seen could'nt do a thing. waste of money in that circumstance.

On a practical note, i do

On a practical note, i do not believe there is a nation capable of containing and ruling a country with well armed individuals like the US.

No nation? Take a look at Iraq. It was as well armed as civilian America -- in fact, it we better armed, in that they had access to automatic weapons and anti-vehicle/anti-materiale weapons (RPGs) and explosives (including hand grenades.) Civilian Iraq was well armed -- and that wasn't enough to stop us.

The will to fight wasn't there, or things could have been ugly, but I don't think they would have been ugly enough to stop a determined America. Add to this that we had the nuclear option to "appease" the rest of the population by making an example of, say, Basra at the start of the war, and things could have gone in a much different direction.

Phelps is right, tactical

Phelps is right, tactical anti-state gun ownership doesn't make any sense.