Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: February 2015

4 - Trading with Bandits*


No sane person would argue that it's possible to trade with bandits. We have all learned that private institutions alone are insufficient to prevent the strong from plundering the weak. Indeed, the threat of violence is perhaps the oldest, most well-accepted justification for government. Even Adam Smith believed this was true. As he put it: “It is only under the shelter of the civil magistrate that the owner of…property…can sleep a single night in security. He is at all times surrounded by unknown enemies, whom, though he never provoked, he can never appease, and from whose injustice he can be protected only by the powerful arm of the civil magistrate continually held up to chastise it” (Smith 1776: 670).

Self-governance, however, might be better at negotiating threats of violence than conventional wisdom suggests. The border reivers provided some evidence for this possibility. But in their case, self-governance had much more than ordinary threats of violence to negotiate. The Anglo-Scottish border population consisted of socially distant persons, many of whom, moreover, were committed to a system of intergroup violence as a way of life. It's difficult to tell in such an environment how much of self-governance's imperfect ability to prevent violence reflects inherent limitations on its ability to do so or rather the fact that many of the persons involved enjoyed violence per se. This essay considers an environment that isolates the potential for violent theft as the problem that individuals under anarchy confront. It examines persons for whom social distance wasn't a pressing issue and for whom violence, as is usually the case, was solely a potential means rather than also an end.