Private defense agency

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Contract security in Baghdad, Iraq in 2007
It's the
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To punish
and protect

A private defense agency (PDA) is an organization that provides some form of law enforcement or security outside traditional government measures. The term is often used to denote a hypothetical type of firm in an anarcho-capitalist society which provides security services on the free market.[note 1]

Possible benefit[edit]

A possible benefit of a PDA is that due to market competition (in ideal market conditions, anyway), it could not obtain a monopoly.[note 2] However, this ignores the fact that if one PDA did manage to get a monopoly or any sort of dominant market share, even for a brief period it would likely have grown large enough to make itself into a State all over again without any serious opposition. More importantly, this ignores that one doesn't need to be the only faction to have a monopoly or monopoly powers, you just need to be the only local faction; no single state controls the entire world, after all.

David Friedman wrote about the concept of private law enforcement in an anarcho-capitalist society:

In such a society there might be many courts and even many legal systems. Each pair of protection agencies agree in advance on which court they will use in case of conflict. Thus the laws under which a particular case is decided are determined implicitly by advance agreement between the protection agencies whose customers are involved. In principle, there could be a different court and a different set of laws for every pair of protection agencies. In practice, many agencies would probably find it convenient to patronize the same courts, and many courts might find it convenient to adopt identical, or nearly identical, systems of law in order to simplify matters for their customers.[1]

Major drawbacks[edit]

  1. A major drawback of the PDA idea is that if two of them have different ideas of what constitutes "the law," it can lead to costly fights if they cannot agree on a mediator in the manner described above. There is some evidence to suggest that this would not always work, since on the international level, the world is an anarcho-capitalist system, and countries declare war despite the existence of voluntary mediatorsWikipedia of all kinds.Wikipedia
  2. And this leads to the next drawback; when someone is caught in the middle of committing an act that only one PDA considers a crime. If one PDA declares marital rape to be illegal and the other declares refusing a spouse sex to be illegal, and a PDA arrives, should the police really wait until a court date in order to do something? If both PDAs arrive, do they make an arrest or not, or do they arrest both? If each PDA gets a territory, how is this significantly different from a system with a local police force?
  3. A further drawback is that richer people can afford better private defense than poorer people, leading to injustice against the poor and pretty much everybody except the richest sectors of society.

Alternatively, libertarians assume that the new state, established after the anarcho-capitalist period, would be similar to the old state: "suppose anyway that the State manages to reestablish itself. What then? Well, then, all that would have happened is that we would have a State once again. We would be no worse off than we are now, with our current State. And, as libertarian philosopher Murray Rothbard has put it, "at least the world will have had a glorious holiday.' Karl Marx's ringing promise applies far more to a libertarian society than to communism: In trying freedom, in abolishing the State, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain."[2] This assumes that living in a liberal Democracy is somehow just as awful as living in North Korea.

Furthermore, the assumption that we could just go back to the old society is a big assumption; modern society is actually an incredibly complex machine, and there's no guarantee that the society formed from the ashes of the An-Cap pipe-dream would be another liberal democracy and not yet another dictatorship. Liberal democracies depend upon having not just a bunch of warm bodies to do the work, but a healthy and educated workforce, things which are the result of lifetimes of effort. It takes years of training to create the doctors and teachers and traffic engineers and scientists and so forth and much of this education would be unavailable to the masses without public education. Public health campaigns are so routine we don't even pay them any attention yet without them entire swaths of the population would literally be cretins, "cretinism" literally being the condition caused by iodine deficiency (see also the lead-crime hypothesis). The long-term effects of poor government are measured in generations. And even if we could just hit the pause button on society and then unpause later when we finally get fed up with An-Cap policies, if no research and development and art occurs during this time, society is literally held back by that time.

In real life[edit]

Pinkerton guards escorting strikebreakers in 1884

While the lofty rhetoric of anarcho-capitalists such as Friedman may sound great on paper, they ignore the actual history of private defense agencies. Private defense agencies were actually rather common during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They provided a means by which factory owners could break strikes and perform espionage on labor unions. The most infamous of these agencies was the Pinkertons,Wikipedia known especially for their role in breaking the Homestead Strike at Andrew Carnegie's Pittsburgh steel mills. Another agency, Baldwin-Felts,Wikipedia is remembered for employing the "Death Special," an armored car that gunned down workers during the Colorado labor wars.[3] By the 1930s, these practices had become so contentious that investigations were launched under the banner of the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee (1936-1941), named after the progressive Republican Sen. Robert M. "Young Bob" La Follette, Jr., its chairman (who was 41 at the time, he was called that to differentiate himself from his father, Senator Robert M. "Fighting Bob" La Follette). The committee extensively documented abuses of power, especially those connected to private defense agencies. As Josiah Bartlett Lambert writes, "Labor spies, massive stockpiles of private munitions, company police, private armed strikebreaking mercenaries, agents provocateurs, vigilante committees, and employers' associations provided grist for the investigation. … According to the committee's reports, private police forces comprised 'an autocracy within a democracy.'"[4]

While these are not examples of polycentric law per se, as they do not involve competition in law creation, they are certainly private enforcement of a certain rule, and can, at the very least, be used as a criticism of anarcho-capitalism in so far as it can be argued to lead to small local monopoly law enforcers. On the other hand, the anarcho-capitalist can reply that any form of monopoly law enforcement, whether local or country-wide, is contrary to the competitive implication of the word "anarchy" and would better be defined as a small local state — something they, too, would oppose. One reply would be, "Who cares about definitions, how would it be prevented from happening?" — and this would almost certainly be met with a retort that boils down to blind faith that "the market will provide".

See also[edit]


  1. Not unlike Rent-A-Cops, really…
  2. Just like the 19th-century trusts, no?


  1. David D. Friedman. (1973) "Police, Courts, and Laws -- On the Market," ch. 29 in The Machinery of Freedom.
  2. For a New Liberty: A Libertarian Manifesto by Murray Rothbard (1973) Ludwig von Mises Institute. 2nd ed. ISBN 0945466471. pp. 294-295.
  3. Death Special — Edge of the American West
  4. Josiah Bartlett Lambert. (2005) "If The Workers Took a Notion": The Right to Strike and American Political Development. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, p. 88