Case Studies in Anarcho-Capitalism

After reading Bob Higgs’ latest piece on Self-governance. Stephen Bates (one of my former students) commented:

“Stateless societies are wishful thinking. Although the article says, “The alleged absence of significant [or any] historical examples of large [or any], stateless societies during the past several thousand years …” no examples are provided.
And, the tough part isn’t mentioned .. a plan on how to create an organized society without a state apparatus.

I was much more impressed with Higgs’ piece than Stephen. He mentions a few examples of anarcho-case studies (The Indus Valley and Somalia). And he’s modest and humble that they are but a few. I would argue that are body of case studies is larger than we like to give credit. We’ve gotten so accustomed to saying “yeah yeah ancient Iceland, but that’s about it.” We have failed to update our perceptions about how many case studies of functional statelessness we have discovered and explained.
Higgs does a great job alluding to the fact that the other side of the debate has jack in terms of historical support. Historians of primitive societies and lost civilizations (a very small group of examples) rarely if ever blame a lack of statism for observed chaos, violence, or downfall. The strongest implication they make is that the move to statism is a conscious and preferred choice by people throughout society. They would never claim that order or trade was impossible without the state. Yet Locke, Hobbes, Madison, Olson and a slue of political theorists are all quick to assume that states are preferred and necessary to have any stable wealth.
The front of the debate has shifted to a comparative question. The question is not can anarchy work (the answer is yes)? The question that remains is: work at what? What will the self-governed society look like? Will it function better or worse than it’s state counter-part? Better a twhat? Higgs is right on track pushing us forward in comparative economics.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of case studies in anarcho-capitalism. I do not include case studies of ordinary goods like roads, firemen or lighthouses. This list covers laws, contract enforcement, and the protection of social order. If anyone knows of more publications please send them to me and I’ll try to keep the list up to date:
Leeson, Peter T. (forthcoming) “Trading with Bandits” Journal of Law and Economics. available at:
The American Frontier:
Anderson, Terry and P.J. Hill (1979). “An American Experiment in Anarcho-Capitalism: The Not So Wild, Wild West,” Journal of Libertarian Studies. Vol. 3 No. 1 pp. 9 – 29. Available at:
Anderson, Terry and P.J. Hill (2004). The Not So Wild Wild West. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. For sale on
Benson, Bruce L. (1991). “An Evolutionary Contractarian View of Primitive Law: The Institutions and Incentives Arising under Customary Indian Law,” Review of Austrian Economics. Vol. 5 pp. 65 – 85. Available at
Stringham, Edward (2003). “The Extralegal Development of Securities Trading in Seventeenth Century Amsterdam,” Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance. Vol. 43 No. 2 pp. 321 – 344. Available at:


Friedman, David (2006). “From Imperial China to Cyberspace: Contracting Without the State,” Journal of Law, Economics, and Policy. pp. 349 – 370. Available at:
Benson, Bruce L. (1998a). “Evolution of Commercial Law,” in P. Newman (editor) The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics and the Law. London: Macmillan Press. For sale on
Benson, Bruce L. (1998b). “Law Merchant,” in P. Newman (editor) The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics and the Law. London: Macmillan Press. For sale on
Benson, Bruce L. (1990). The Enterprise of Law, Justice without the State. San Francisco, CA: Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, pp. 224 – 230. For sale on
Benson, Bruce (2002). “Justice without Government: The Merchant Courts of Medieval Europe and Their Modern Counterparts,” printed in Beito, Gordon and Tabarrok (editors) The Voluntary City: Choice, Community and Civil Society. Oakland, CA: The Independent Institute pp. 127 – 150. For sale on
Davies, Stephen (2002). “The Private Provision of Police during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” printed in Beito, Gordon and Tabarrok (editors) The Voluntary City: Choice, Community and Civil Society. Oakland, CA: The Independent Institute pp. 151 – 181. For sale on
Greif, Avner (1989). “Reputation and Coalitions in Medieval Trade: Evidence on the Maghribi Traders,” Journal of Economic History, pp. 857 – 882. Available on JSTOR.
Milgrom, Paul, Douglass North, and Barry Weingast (1990). “The Role of Institutions in the Revival of Trade: The Medieval Law Merchant, Private Judges, and the Champagnes Fairs,” Economics and Politics. pp. 1 – 23. Reprinted in Anarchy and the Law.
Friedman, David (1979). “Private Creation and Enforcement of Law – A Historical Case,” Journal of Legal Studies. pp. 399 – 415. Available at
Long, Roderick T. (1994). “The Decline and Fall of Private Law in Iceland,” Formulations. Available at:
The Indus Valley:
Thompson, Thomas J. (2006). “An Ancient Stateless Civilization: Bronze Age India and the State in History,” The Independent Review. Vol. 10 pp. 365 – 384. Available at
Peden, Joseph R. (1977) ” Property Rights in Celtic Irish Law,” Journal of Libertarian Studies. Vol. 1 No. 2 pp. 81 – 95. Available at


Clay, Karen (1997). “Trade without Law: Private Order Institutions in Mexican California,” Journal of Law, Economics and Organizations. pp. 202 – 231. Available at Ideas.
Leeson, Peter T. (unpublished) “Laws of Lawlessness.” Available at
Coyne, Christopher J. (2006). “Reconstructing Weak and Failed States: Foreign Intervention and the Nirvana Fallacy,” Foreign Policy Analysis. Vol. 2 pp. 343 – 360. Available at
Higgs, Robert (2004). Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society. Oakland, CA: The Independent Institute. pp. 374 – 376. For sale on
Leeson, Peter T. (unpublished) “Better Off Stateless Somalia Before and After Government Collapse,” Available at:
Powell, Benjamin, Ryan Ford and Alex Nowrasteh (unpublished). “Somalia After State Collapse: Chaos of Improvement?” Independent Institute Working Paper Number 64. Available at

9 thoughts on “Case Studies in Anarcho-Capitalism

  1. I can’t find a trace of it online, but I think that Gerard Casey‘s fantastic paper from the last Austrian Scholar’s Conference, “He that has ears to hear…” on Ireland would make a good addition to the list.

  2. In chapter 11 of For a New Liberty Rothbard discusses the anarchy and clan system in Ireland. I don’t know how different it is from Peden, but its a good read for anyone interested. I believe his remarks are repeated in The Ethics of Liberty

  3. Surely some historical evidence would help assessing the feasibility of anarchism, but can history unambigously teach us anything? Till the XVII century we would have had problems founding out a single example of free market, and societies without slavery have been rare for thousands of years. When the market can’t do something, I generally think about price controls, for example… the fact that security, justice and defence have been seldom supplied by the market may be the result of their being offerred for free by governments… who will ever invest in the human and physical capital involved if the market price of the service is zero? When justice and security are insufficiently supplied, private enterprises produce these services even if the price is zero. As far as the state works by externalizing costs on future and present tax payers and money users, tit will be able to get rid of the mere possibility of competition on its core “services”, unless it becomes so inefficient or unjust that citizens begin to want something else despite higher prices.

  4. “the fact that security, justice and defence have been seldom supplied by the market may be the result of their being offerred for free by governments…”
    That’s a myth. Plase stop disseminating it. Governments have almost never delivered any kind of common justice and security until the advent of Big Government in the XIXth century. Justice in medieval times was a mostly private matter, and so was basic security. The warlords and chiefs and kings were only concerned where their monopoly was menaced by an outside threat (invasion, rivalry, contesting of their power structure).

  5. IS it really a myth though? The monopoly that the warlords, chiefs, and kings had was a monopoly of power over the people…. which defines government. To say that there was no common justice or security is a myth. Kings, Chiefs, and Warlords just eliminated free riders. Like killing pesants who wouldn’t/couldn’t pay there taxes or banishing them for the castle walls where there was no protection. The term “going before the court” came from medieval times when there was a legitimate claim that the King and his Court would settle. Same with the Cheifs. If you wanted the protection of the tribe or the wisdom of the Tribal Council, you had to follow in line, obey the rules, pay your tribute. If not you had no protections and were left to make it on your own.
    The only thing big government did was include freeriders. If you don;t pay your taxes, police are still going to help you if you are being violated.(unless you are being violated by the state for not paying your taxes) The Army is still going to protect you from Communist Invaders, and the courts will still try you and listen to your cases. Our Government does this now for people who aren;t even citizens of the US. As long as you are within the borders you pretty much have the beneftis of the governemnt even without paying for them.

  6. Yes it is a myth. Private justice has been around a long time. It is also becoming more and more popular. Except we call it arbitration. It is used in family law, among corporations, for labour disputes. And it is private. You agree on and arbiter and parties must pay to settle the dispute.

  7. One could say that international affairs are predominantly restrained through private means today. Yes countries are states, and states reap their funding through public means, but as they relate to one another independent states are sovereign. There is no overarching governing body that keeps one state from attacking against another, yet more often then not they avoid doing so.
    The response to this claim would naturally be to question the viable ability for a private firm to fend off aggression sponsored by an opposing state. In response, I would bring up the rising trend of many so called American foreign military operations currently handled by private companies. These companies seem better equipped with technology, human capital, and training yet their incentive arrangements to degrade the ethical quality of their services have also drawn recent attention. I don’t think this is an intrinsic nature of their privateness as much a result of lack of competing alternatives in the market for their services.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *