No Archons

by Don Boudreaux on April 18, 2011

in Complexity & Emergence, Law

Re Wall Street Journal letter-writer Michael Stoken’s discussion of modern Greek anarchists: while in today’s English the word “anarchy” means “lawless,” etymologically it means “leaderless.”  The two meanings are different.

Literally, “anarchy” means “without an archon.”  Archons were leaders of ancient Greek city-states.  But being without a leader – without an archon – is not necessarily to be without law.  The vast bulk of law emerges not from the commands of sovereign rulers but, rather, from the everyday interactions of countless ordinary people as they exchange, intermingle, cooperate, and come into conflict with each other.  Only the most naïve social creationist equates the dictates of strongmen (or of groups of strongmen, such as assemble in legislatures) with “law.”

Reasonable people can and should debate the extent to which centralized sovereign power is necessary to enforce laws.  It’s a grave error, however, to suppose that all commands issued by “archons” are law and that a society is lawful only insofar as its denizens follow the commands of “archons.”  Indeed, among history’s most destructively lawless characters are “archons” themselves – for example, Stalin and Mao.

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