Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Conflict resolution in a free society

A friend on Facebook asked me the following question:
Imagine it's 12 am. Your neighbor is playing music loudly. As a libertarian, what do you do?
The context of the question is: what would happen in this situation in a libertarian society?

This is a perfect example of conflict resolution. Today it is done through legislature, courts, and police. How would conflict resolution happen in a free society? The answer is: the same way as hunger resolution (eating) would happen: through private service providers. There are three services that are done by the three mentioned organizations:
  1. legislation (creation of laws that specify when, for example, it is no longer acceptable to disturb your neighbors with music),
  2. arbitration (if I sue you for disturbing my peace with music, we can go to court),
  3. law enforcement (if it has been determined — by either courts or legislative bodies — that you're "in the wrong" for playing music so late and yet you continue doing so, law enforcement agency will come and force you to comply).
Today, the government has a monopoly on these three services (which it enforces by threats of violence). In free society, these services would be provided by free, independent organizations competing with each other (for customers) on the market:

1. Legislation.

Under the theory of natural rights, the function of legislation is not to create order or to express the ruling prince's desire, but to create boundaries between people's rights. Sure, that also creates order, but there is presumably order in a concentration camp, but without human rights being respected.

Different theories of rights can exist "on the market", each espoused by different legal authorities: people that express their opinions about what the boundaries between rights should be. This is similar to how today, different "experts" express their opinions on how words should be spelled, or where a comma should be in a sentence. Note that these people get their ideas from observing the on-going customs (if an expert on spelling would tell us that the correct way to spell dog is doug, most people wouldn't accept his opinion just because he is an expert) and from logic. They may also have some considerations about efficiency and function of grammar. (For instance, I have for years been advocating placing punctuation outside of quotation marks and surrounding em-dashes with spaces. Of course, I am not a renowned expert in grammar, so nobody listens to me.)

If this reminds you of something, it should. This is exactly how Halacha has been paskened for the last two millenia: through independent private authorities. Nowadays, such authorities may even live within the same locale. For example, on a block in New York, you may find a Litvish, a Sephardic, or a Chassidic authority in Halacha — and sometimes all three.

In terms of the question about playing music at 12 am, three approaches may exist:

a) Absolute rights: if your music invades my space, it is the same as your body or your bullets invading my space. You are clearly violating my rights. Therefore, if I ask you to stop playing music (even in the middle of the day), you have to comply.

b) Homesteading rights: what was the situation like when you moved into your house? If the area was quiet at night (and then my music-playing neighbor moved in), then I have homesteaded the quiet environment of my house. I have rights to the quiet. When my neighbor moves in and starts playing music, he violates my rights. On the other hand, if he "was there first", then he is not.

c) Local custom: what is usually the accepted practice by the people of the community? If it is a community of musicians, who play at random times at night, then perhaps my neighbor is not violating my rights. (This is similar to the previous point, but not exactly the same.)

Different experts may adhere to some or all of the these (and maybe some other) rules for legislature. Different arbitration authorities may or may not consider these authorities' opinions. Thus, the markets will select for these authorities' (and their opinions') popularity. (They may get paid for publishing their legislative theories and teaching. They may also get hired as experts to testify during arbitration.)

2. Arbitration.

When my neighbor plays music loudly, first I will ask him to stop. If her refuses, I will call my "protection company" (a company that provides protection service and insurance for me for a fee). They will contact my neighbor's protection company, and the two companies will go to an arbitrator.

Note that the two companies can also resolve the conflict through violence: the way some mafia may do. But on a free market in a society where people favor peace (as in North America, for example), companies that resolve conflicts through violence may quickly lose clients. Thus, it will be in economic interest for the two companies to resolve the conflict peacefully. They may do so between themselves, or they may do so through a private arbitrator. The arbitrators will also be selected by the market for the fairness of their decisions (their cases will be published), and the public — including the protection companies — will be able to pick the arbitrators who are well known for their judgement skills (and for the legislators whom they bring in as experts or whose opinions they follow).

Note that multiple legislative and arbitration strategies may co-exist on the market. Some protection companies may be known for seeking arbitrators who follow strategy X. When signing up for those companies' services, the public will know this and can make a decision (the same way the public decides today whether to buy a computer that has Apple OS or Windows installed on it).

3. Law enforcement.

After the decision has been made by the arbitration company, a number of things to enforce it may happen. First, my neighbor may be informed about the decision. Let's say he refuses to abide. In that case, either I or my protection agency may have power to enforce the decision or hire an enforcement agency: a bunch of guys who can come in and use threat of violence to force the guy to stop playing music (or force him to pay a fee).

This sounds rather violent, but remember what happens today: if I call the police, they will come and at first talk to my neighbor. If he refuses to stop, they will use threat of violence (or actual violence) to restrain him, bring him to some holding facility, where he may end up receiving a fine or even be imprisoned long-term. Except, remember, there is no competition. We have only one kind of police, only one kind of prisons, and only one kind of judges. If the police are exceptionally brutal while arresting my neighbor, I don't have a choice to use another law enforcement agency.

In a free society, there would be competition: agencies that enforce the laws with unnecessary violence will lose customers (and so will the protection agencies that hire them). They may even get sued themselves (something that cannot happen today with the police, or happens with low efficiency, since the government is usually on their side; it's almost impossible today for a police officer to lose a job and to suffer some economic penalty; at worst, he may be suspended for some short time).

This is basically the short answer. There are many nuances to consider, and the picture of all these possible interactions is a little fuzzy, but the nature of all business interactions is somewhat fuzzy. Different entities on the market always compete to provide different way to satisfy the customers' needs for a certain service (or a number of services combined in a package). The above services are no different, though, after millenia of living under the governments' monopolies, it may be difficult for us to conceive of this.

Think about the other example I mentioned: eating. Today it is done through many parallel channels. You can go to a restaurant. You can buy your own food and cook (and there are multiple places to buy ingredients and cooking utensils from). You can pay someone else to come and cook for you. And for each mentioned service, there are many other services sustaining it. For many people in the Soviet Union, as late as 1980s, it was difficult to imagine what would happen if collective farms, where food was grown by the government, were disbanded. Some people really believed that people would starve.

So, this is basically where we are today regarding conflict resolution. We think that without the government doing it, the society would break down into chaos and violence.

Some of the questions immediately arising after reading the above may be addressed in the following sources and examples:


Chaos Theory by Bob Morthpy
Law in Medieval Iceland and Ireland


Market for Security by Bob Murphy
A brief excerpt from the above video explaining the point about the warlords
A recenty interview with David Friedman:

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