The Road to Anarchy is Paved with Good Manners

Michael Giberson

Sarah’s essay on reading and sympathy, explicated a bit in her post here at KP on manners, and Matt Zwolinski’s near contemporaneous remarks on the same topic, recalled to me one of my favorite ideas: the road to anarchy is paved with good manners.

I mean “anarchy” in a good way, of course: “anarchy” as an absence of an overbearing political authority with monopoly access to the means and legitimate use of coercion in society. We only get to that happy political utopia, at least in my way of thinking, after we learn to live together peaceably. We get the withering away of the state when people begin to wonder why we’re spending so much to protect us against problems that no longer occur, or at least when people wonder why we’re spending on government provision when private, cooperative, decentralized methods seem to be so much more effective.

Manners, and even those stylized practices called etiquette, are properly seen as a kind of extension of the moral rules that help us to live together properly (check out Zwolinski’s post for more on this idea, and I second Zwolinski’s recommendation of the interview with Karen Stohl, author of the philosophical treatise On Manners).  Seen in this fashion – manners as a means of social cooperation – it becomes clear that manners can help us live in anarchy. Manners are obviously a proper subject of study by the political economist.

The study of the political economy of manners and etiquette, then, seem a part of and a nice complement to the research in anarchy that has been emerging from the George Mason University economics department, much of it connected to Peter Boettke. GMU has produced a steady stream of work over the last decade or so looking at areas where economic order has emerged outside of or in spite of state-enforced laws. Included in this grouping would be Peter Leeson’s work on piracyDavid Skarbek’s work on prison gangs, Nicholas Snow’s work on rum runners, and perhaps Chris Coyne’s work on post-war reconstruction. Boettke has written on anarchy in a variety of places, including “Anarchism as a Progressive Research Program in Political Economy” and “Anarchism and Austrian Economics.”

As Boettke’s argues in “Anarchism as a Progressive Research Program…”, there has been much research on constitutions and other efforts to impose from above the ideal institutional tool for constraining government, but less study of the emergence of social rules from below. In his words (p. 211):

Instead of designing ideal institutional settings that we can exogenously impose on the system and thus provide the ‘correct’ institutional environment within which commerce and manufacturing can flourish, we have to examine the endogenous creation of the rules by social participants themselves. The science and art of association is one of self-governance and not necessarily one of constitutional craftsmanship. And herein lies the contribution that the contemporary research on anarchism can make to modern political economy.

In the effort to understanding self-governance, Boettke would also point to the work of the late Vincent Ostrom on citizenship and democracy and Richard Wagner’s work on political economy and fiscal sociology. As Boettke’s post notes, Richard Ebeling’s appreciation of Vincent Ostrom’s work also highlights these issues. (I’ve just picked up Ostrom’s The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies on Ebeling’s recommendation.)

In studying manners as a tool for promoting anarchy, we will surely see that some kinds of rules likely aid decentralized social orders (respect for other people’s opinions) and other manners likely interfere (unquestioned respect for authority).  Some kinds of manners are better for anarchists than others. Which ones are which, which manners promote social progress? Until the study of the political economy of manners gets underway in earnest, it is hard to know.

Graduate students of the world, a mostly uncharted territory awaits your exploration. My bet is that you’ll find the trail to El Dorado, the path to utopia, the road to Shangri-La, the way to anarchy paved with good manners.

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