This thought was elaborated in a long article by David M. Hart, "Gustave de Molinari and the Antistatist Liberal Tradition," published in three parts in The Journal of Libertarian Studies (Summer 1981, Fall 1981, and Winter 1982, vols. 5-6), which is available online.
My response to this is to argue that the evolutionary history of social order shows that while a stateless society is possible, society has always required government. Human beings are by nature political animals, because they naturally live in social systems that require (at least occasionally) governmental coordination by rulers. In primitive human communities, such as hunter-gatherer bands, this governmental coordination of society by rulers is informal and episodic. In civilized human communities, such as bureaucratic states, this governmental coordination by rulers is formal and enduring, and in a Hobbesian/Weberian state, the state claims a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of coercive violence. The choice is not between government or no government. The choice is between a statist government or a stateless government.
Molinari agreed with this. While arguing for a free market of governments, he denied that this was anarchism, which would require the abolition of government. Unlike the anarchists, Molinari did not expect a utopian transformation in human nature that would allow human beings to cooperate without any need for government to deter and punish criminal aggression. But he did think it was possible for the governmental enforcement of order to emerge in a largely self-regulating society without a centralized state claiming a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of coercive violence. Like Auberon Herbert, the English liberal who adopted a very similar position, Molinari was not an anarchist but a governmentalist. David Hart misses this point when he insists: "In spite of his protestations to the contrary, Molinari should be considered an anarchist thinker" (JLS, V, Fall 1981, 416).
The first and best statement of Molinari's free market governmentalism was in 1849 in an article--"De la production de la securite," in Journal des Economistes 21 (February 1849): 277-90. Both the original French text and the English translation can be found online. He elaborated his reasoning in a book published the same year: Les Soirees de la rue Saint-Lazare (Paris: Gauillaumin, 1849). My references will be to the English translation of "The Production of Security," with a Preface by Rothbard.
The crucial issue for Molinari is whether one considers human society natural or artificial. If human beings are not naturally social, then social order arises as an artificial creation of legislators using government to coerce individuals to cooperate with one another. But if "society is a purely natural fact" founded in the "natural instinct" for social life, as Molinari believes, then society is largely self-regulating, and government is necessary only for the limited purpose of securing life and property by deterring and punishing those individuals who would use force or fraud in attacking the persons or property of others (15-21, 41-43, 51, 53-54, 61).
By a natural instinct, human beings know "that their persons, the land they occupy and cultivate, the fruits of their labor, are their property, and that no one, except themselves, has the right to dispose of or touch this property" (53). Thus, property originates as self-ownership, as a natural instinct for taking possession of oneself and then extending oneself into resources that one appropriates for satisfying one's natural needs. As a social animal who needs the cooperation of others, one benefits from exchanging the fruits of one's labor with others, which supports a division of labor in which individuals specialize in different lines of production. But "man being an imperfect creature," some individuals will not be sufficiently aware of their need to respect the persons and goods of others, and some individuals will initiate aggressive attacks on others. This creates a need for security from such attacks, and thus every society will have to provide such security.
But if it is best for consumers to have the producers of goods and services competing for their business, so that no producer has a monopoly, then, Molinari asks, why shouldn't this be true for the governmental production of security? From what we know about political economy, why shouldn't we conclude that "no government should have the right to prevent another government from going into competition with it, or to require consumers of security to come exclusively to it for this commodity" (23)?
Applying the principle of free competition to government, Molinari concludes that the most efficient and least costly way to produce security is to have freely competing governments acting as producers of security, so that consumers are free to buy security from any producer who satisfies the consumers. The producers would provide law enforcement for a fee charged to their customers.
Roderick Long, the founder and director of the Molinari Institute, has elaborated Molinari's proposal as a market of freely competing protection companies in which there would be no state with a monopoly power over legal services. Long calls this "libertarian anarchism." But if anarchism means the abolition of government, then Molinari was clearly not an anarchist because he defended the need for "free government," as a stateless government without the monopoly power of statist governments.
Long has pointed to the history of the Icelandic Commonwealth (930-1262) as showing how libertarian anarchism can really work. But as I have argued in a previous post, it is true that medieval Iceland was "stateless"--in the sense that it did not have a centralized bureaucratic state apparatus--but it still had political rule. It was a chiefdom, but with multiple competing chieftains. So what we see here is not the absence of government, but rather the freedom from tyranny that can come from a system of decentralised, limited government. The natural desire for political rule was not eliminated. But it was channelled through a system of competing elites and countervailing power that secured freedom and minimized exploitative domination.
Like Molinari, Auberon Herbert (1838-1906) argued for an enforcement of legal order in society through voluntary associations exercising governmental power. And like Molinari, Herbert insisted that this was not anarchy, if anarchy meant no government, because he thought it was utopian to believe that human beings could cooperate without any need for government to punish those who would become aggressive threats to society. Rather than being an anarchist, Herbert identified himself as a "governmentalist" (The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State, and Other Essays, Liberty Fund, 1978, p. 375).
Herbert thought that most anarchists were confused:
"Anarchy, in the form in which it is often expounded, seems to us not to understand itself. It is not in reality anarchy or 'no government.' When it destroys the central and regularly constituted government, and proposes to leave every group to make its own arrangements for the repression of ordinary crime, it merely decentralizes government to the furthest point, splintering it up into minute fragments of all sizes and shapes. As long as there is ordinary crime, as long as there are aggressions by one man upon the life and property of another man, and as long as the mass of men are resolved to defend life and property, there cannot be anarchy or no government. By the necessity of things, we are obliged to choose between regularly constituted government, generally accepted by all citizens for the protection of the individual, and irregularly constituted government, irregularly accepted, and taking its shape just according to the pattern of each group" (383).What Herbert calls here "irregularly constituted government, irregularly accepted" is the kind of government seen in hunting-gathering societies, in which customary laws are enforced by social tradition through the actions of prominent individuals exercising informal authority through the mediation of disputes and the punishment of offenders.
Like Molinari, Herbert's liberal argument for a largely self-regulating society with a government limited to protecting individual liberty is rooted in the natural instinct for self-ownership (45-46, 125, 130, 282, 303, 307, 337, 340, 369-75, 387). Herbert thought that Darwinian science supported this "system of perfect liberty" (107-109). Recent advances in evolutionary theory and neuroscience confirm this thought by showing how our bodies and minds are naturally adapted for self-ownership and for a mammalian sociality by which we extend our care for ourselves to others. (This last thought is elaborated in an previous post.)
Much of this debate over anarchism seems to turn on a mere matter of definition. If "anarchy" is defined as "no rule" or "no governance," then anarchy has never existed. But if "anarchy" is defined as "self-rule" or "self-governance" without a centralized State, then anarchy has existed.
This is, I think, Peter Marshall's point in his history of anarchist thinkers and movements--Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (2010). Anarchists begin by distinguishing between society and the State, he indicates, and then they argue that a society can be a self-regulating order of governance without a State. He writes: "Pure anarchy in the sense of a society with no concentration of force and no social controls has probably never existed. Stateless societies and peasant societies employ sanctions of approval and disapproval, the offer of reciprocity and the threat of its withdrawal, as instruments of social control. But modern anthropology confirms that in organic or 'primitive' societies, there is a limited concentration of force. If authority exists, it is delegated and rarely imposed, and in many societies no relation of command and obedience is in force" (12).
If one defines "anarchy" as "self-governance" in a stateless society, then Molinari and Herbert were anarchists.