Saturday, October 15, 2011

Are the Amish Anarchists?

I have been reading up on the Amish for one chapter of the book on legal systems very different from ours that I'm currently working on. They provide an example of what I think of as an embedded legal system—a group that is under the authority of an external legal system, but also has its own legal system which it succeeds in enforcing on its members. Other examples are modern gypsies and Jewish communities during the diaspora, which were often given the right to impose Jewish law on their members by their gentile rulers.

It occurred to me that one could view the Amish as a working example of a form of anarchy. It is a very strange form, since the rules that the Amish are under are considerably more constraining—including rules on what styles of clothing they can wear, rules against owning automobiles or flying on airplanes, and much else—than the rules the rest of us are under. But those rules are all voluntarily accepted, and the system that generates them may reasonably be viewed as a competitive system of private law.

To expand on that, for readers not familiar with the Amish... . The only level of Amish "government" with any authority is the congregation, typically made up of about thirty to forty households. Its authority is over individuals who, as adults, have chosen to swear to accept its rules. The only punishment it can impose is shunning—the refusal of members of the congregation to associate in various ways with a member who has been excommunicated. Members, including excommunicated members, are free to resign from their congregation and join any other congregation that will accept them, or drop out of the Amish sect entirely.

The rules—the ordnung—vary from one congregation to another and change over time. In some settlements the congregations are, in effect, miniature territorial sovereigns, so if a member of one congregation wants to shift to another, perhaps because its rules are less (or more) strict than the rules of his current congregation, he has to physically move, although often not very far. In other settlements, especially ones where there are congregations with a considerable range of different versions of the Ordnung, congregations overlap, so you can switch congregations while remaining in the same location.

It's true, of course, that the Amish are under the rule of the U.S. (or, for a smaller number, Canadian) government. But they receive very few services from government, since they are unwilling to accept most of the conventional forms of government aid and, as pacifists, are unwilling to report crimes against themselves to the police or sue in the government courts to collect debts. Off hand, the only significant benefit I can think of that they get is protection against foreign invasion. And, on the other hand, governments at various levels imposes sizable costs on them, in the form of taxes that (with the exception of Social Security) they have to pay and regulations.

So I think they provide pretty good evidence of at least one form of (very structured) anarchy that works.


At 11:47 AM, October 15, 2011, Anonymous Miko said...

It's also hard to argue that they benefit from protection from foreign invasion since:
1) they would get rid of this supposed benefit immediately if they were able to do so, since they're pacifists, and
2) it's not certain that the rule of whatever government conquered the U.S. would be more odious to them than the rule of the U.S. is.

At 11:52 AM, October 15, 2011, Blogger Nadaav said...

One of the things that's caused me a lot of frustration and agnosticism lately with regards to anarchism/private law is that the examples of it working are always in very homogeneous and orderly societies (medieval Iceland, mining communities in the old American West, the Jewish diaspora, the Amish...even people interested in Seasteading are overwhelmingly young, white, and educated--probably not a bunch who needs a lot of policing to begin with). If a group already shares a lot of innate traits in common, especially being generally cooperative sorts of people, it's easy to see why they would be more likely to thrive under a system of private law.

Do you think anarchy or private law would work for a group that's very diverse and different from the groups described above?

At 11:53 AM, October 15, 2011, Anonymous Miko said...

Along the same line, I've always found it odd that you list protection from foreign invasion as a problem that would be difficult for an anarchy. In the current system, protection from foreign invasion is intended to protect the government rather than the people, since we'd end up with a government at the end of the day either way. And in an anarchist system, there wouldn't be a centralized coercive mechanism for an invader to capture, which means they'd have to resort either to your nuke scenario (which is ineffective if the society is using local currencies, gift economies, or any of a dozen other alternative forms of recognizing social obligations other than federal reserve notes) or to conquering the people door to door (which sounds like it would be prohibitively expensive, even if 99% of the people gave in immediately).

At 12:01 PM, October 15, 2011, Anonymous Miko said...

Nadaav: even people interested in Seasteading are overwhelmingly young, white, and educated--probably not a bunch who needs a lot of policing to begin with

I would dispute that claim. Those people tend to have the power and so tend to write the laws in such a way that the things they do aren't punished by the law, but the fact that they write the laws to protect themselves doesn't mean that the things they do aren't worthy of being policed.

Do you think anarchy or private law would work for a group that's very diverse and different from the groups described above?

A better question is why such a group would form an anarchy. Free from statist controls I'd expect them to separate into groups of like-minded people and form their own anarchies. Cases where you have diverse interests would arise from those whose like-minded interest was to not really care about the political structure.

But, for an example of private law, you might look into the history of Bologna, which had multiple law codes depending on whether you were a university student, professor, or citizen. The groups did a fairly good job of negotiating around areas where they disagreed, mainly because each group had the unilateral power to walk away from the table, checked only by their desire to stop the other groups from doing the same thing.

At 12:30 PM, October 15, 2011, Blogger Nadaav said...

Miko: To illustrate my point, suppose you accidentally left your iPhone at a Seasteading event. Somebody who found it would probably turn it in to the lost-and-found or make some other kind of earnest attempt to get it back to you, because that's just what the sort of people interested in Seasteading are like.

At 12:30 PM, October 15, 2011, Blogger Albert Ling said...

This is my only doubt that private law would work. If you mix several cultures together that have different values, then I can't see things running smoothly! Religion is mainly to blame, since it makes people interfere in other peoples transactions (prostitution, drugs, abortion, organ donation... even tech in the case of amish)

Put me living side by side a extreme muslim, and I wont get offended by his praying and chanting, but he will be offended by my wanting to walk around naked using drugs and general "indecencies"!

At 1:30 PM, October 15, 2011, Anonymous elsa said...

@Albert Ling: I'd probably be offended by your "wanting to walk around naked using drugs and general "indecencies," too...But you're safe from my attempting to outlaw it! :D LOL


At 3:20 PM, October 15, 2011, Anonymous Joel said...

Even if they're unwilling to report the crimes themselves, the laws of the United States (or Pennsylvania, or wherever) still protect them (to a significant degree, I suspect) from Americans (or Pennsylvanians, or whoever) who'd want to do them harm.

If I murdered and robbed my way through an Amish community, there'd almost certainly be penal consequences from the relevant governments.

At 9:08 PM, October 15, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

Americans who want to do harm can already do harm. Its called attacking a random person at 3 in the morning when no one's around. We overestimate the extent to which conventional law enforcement can prevent psychopathic crime.

But if you did murder a bunch of Amish, would they report you? They're pacifists... and reporting you would be authorizing violence against you.

At 12:26 AM, October 16, 2011, Anonymous ThomasT said...

Dr. Friedman,
the problem, as you note yourself, is that they are still under the authority of another legal entity and are thus not sovereign. The Amish just have a bunch of internal rules that USG doesn't bother interfering with. The same goes for, say, a sports club or historically more common, a family.
For the Amish to become truly sovereign, they would have to be able to defend themselves against USG. The very fact that they still pay taxes suggests that they can't, with the pertinent question being: Should they decide to try, would they be able to keep up the voluntary elements that make them "anarchical" in the first place?

it may just be a minor point, but you might want to read up on military history if you really think the lack of a "centralized coercive mechanism" protects a population from invasion. Just pick any old book and keep an eye out for the catchy word "terror". You'll be surprised how happily people become well behaved and tax paying subjects of Lord Poopypoops when the alternative is getting raped and killed.

At 6:04 AM, October 16, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

I guess you have medieval surveys to back that up?

At 11:04 AM, October 16, 2011, Blogger montestruc said...

Read your blog post about the Amish, thought you might find this book very interesting.

He looks at history from the point of view of the non-state associated peoples of southeast asia, and finds
a lot of their adaptation is to evade governments and taxation. As in make a king or other state have to work
too hard collecting taxes to make it worth the bother.

Some of these people (speaking of tribes/ethnic groups/language groups) were literate, then dropped literacy it
seems as a way to evade taxes. It makes it much harder for the tax man to know what you own if you have no written records.

At 6:14 PM, October 16, 2011, Blogger Bravin Neff said...

It's hard to see how millions of other folks aren't also anarchists given the rules for inclusion in the category.

Assuming these are the rules.

At 6:01 AM, October 17, 2011, Anonymous Paul Birch said...

1) The Amish are embedded in a wider society which provides an escape valve for their malcontents. By constrast, an independent Amish "ancap" society's attempt to maintain its sole coercive enforcement method (that is, shunning - in my view rather nasty and unchristian practise) would lead to extreme violence from the excluded, who would then have nothing to lose from preying on the rest.

2) The Amish (and similar groups) currently do benefit from external law-enforcement - viz. the recent debearding feud.

At 2:16 PM, October 17, 2011, Blogger Jonathan Dingel said...

"The prosecutions are unusual because the Amish do not believe in revenge and prefer to settle disputes internally. Barbara and Martin Miller have refused to testify even though they have received further threats, telling officers that they will “turn the other cheek.”

But others are cooperating with law enforcement.

“We want to see these people behind bars so this cult can be torn apart before it ends up like most of them do,” said Myron Miller, who lives in Mechanicstown. Like many Amish in the region, he and his wife regard Mr. Mullet as a danger to the wider community and above all to the 120 people, including many of Mr. Mullet’s grandchildren, who are growing up under his sway."

At 4:41 PM, October 19, 2011, Blogger Samuel Thomas said...

"Off hand, the only significant benefit I can think of that they get is protection against foreign invasion."

I'd throw in the roads they use, along with environmental protections.

One could also make the case that while they don't directly use law enforcement, they benefit from its mere existence; the fact that police exist deters crime.

At 5:44 PM, October 19, 2011, Blogger Jonathan said...

I question whether membership in an Amish community can be described as "voluntary," in a normatively meaningful sense. Amish families raise their children in an extremely close-knit (and small) social structure where family and the immediate social/religious community are all-important and all-encompassing. The "choice" not to comply with the rules (established and enforced by a male patriarch) is a choice to sever all family and social relationships. Never see your father and mother; sever relationships with your siblings, friends, cousins; etc. Thus we see very low levels of "choosing" to leave Amish groups, which contrasts rather dramatically with very low levels of non-Amish adults choosing (under conditions that are indeed voluntary) to join those groups.

In some ways the "choice" is even more coerced than a citizen's "choice" to remain in the jurisdiction: I could choose to move to Canada and thereby remove myself from U.S. laws, but even then I could phone and visit my family and other folks most important to me!

At 8:29 PM, October 19, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that you don't need to look outside If the Amish truly were independent of US laws, there would be nothing preventing someone from simply killing them and taking their land/goods. So even though the Amish may not make use of laws or law enforcement, outsiders are still bound and ultimately limited by the laws in the actions they take toward these communities.

Second the Amish communities also tend to be fairly small and operate at a relatively low level of technology compared to that enjoyed by the society around them. The size of their community allows for much stronger social cohesion. Their lack of technology use also allows them to be self sufficient, whereas modern technology forces very very large networks of people to rely upon each other.

Consider the computer you typed your post on, your ISP, and blogger, and ask yourself if you, or any of these same parties even operate in the same state, or even country, and realize that in order for you to do your business you rely upon many people whom you have no social contact with at all.

Or to put it another when when social bonds are strong formal rules can be weak, as there is a strong basis for an informal sort of order to form through personal interaction. But when social bonds become very weak, formal rules are necessary since any informal rules cannot possibly be shared or enforced between people who likely have not and will never meet.

At 9:28 PM, October 19, 2011, Blogger David Friedman said...

"The "choice" not to comply with the rules (established and enforced by a male patriarch) is a choice to sever all family and social relationships. Never see your father and mother; sever relationships with your siblings, friends, cousins; etc."

I do not believe that is correct. You are confusing the consequence of not joining the congregation--not swearing to observe the Ordnung and not being baptized--with the consequences of joining and then violating the Ordnung.

As best I can tell from fairly extensive reading of the literature on the Amish, a grown child who chooses not to swear to observe the Ordnung is not banned, is not cut of from his family, any more than a non-Amish individual would be. Banning (Meidung) would only apply to someone who joined the congregation and then failed to follow its rules.

The Amish are Anabaptists--one of their central principles is adult baptism, so that someone is only a member of the congregation bound by its ordnung after he, as an adult, chooses to be.

At 9:30 PM, October 19, 2011, Blogger David Friedman said...

"Their lack of technology use also allows them to be self sufficient,"

I think you are greatly exaggerating how low tech the Amish are. Buggy shells are sometimes made of fiberglass--do you think they produce the fiberglass and resin themselves? The modern agricultural machinery, such as balers, that they use on wagons pulled by horses? The batteries they use? The gas powered refrigerators some of them use? Amish congregations vary a good deal, but the median use of technology is still pretty substantial.

At 9:08 AM, October 20, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, when crimes against them are severe enoght, the Amish are quite quick to call the authorities, as the recent de-bearding incidents indicate, and crimes against the Amish committed by non-Amish are almost always reported to authorities. It's important to note that the Amish believe that State authority should exist, and is ordained by God (as stated by Paul in Romans), they just believe that they should not be a part of it, and that within their own community they should live by their own law. The Amish are not exactly pacifists in the way that most Liberal-Christian pacifists are. It's also interesting to remember that the theological ancestors of the Amish, the Anabaptists, were responsible for near-deranged levels of violence in Reformation-era Europe. An odd people, to say the least.


At 4:35 PM, October 20, 2011, Blogger David Friedman said...

"But others are cooperating with law enforcement."

It's important to realize that there is no authority over the Amish as a group; the highest level of authority is the congregation, typically of 30 to 40 households. The Ordnung, the rules, vary in detail from congregation to congregation, and sometimes by quite a lot.

The refusal to cooperate with law enforcement is a pretty widespread rule, but it isn't all that surprising that there are some Amish who, under extreme provocation, don't follow it.

At 7:43 PM, October 20, 2011, Anonymous James Schwartz said...

Great article!

At 6:40 PM, October 23, 2011, Anonymous Andy Z said...

There's nothing more boring than studying governing structures that work over communities of < 1000 people, because almost everything works.

At 8:06 AM, October 27, 2011, Blogger David Friedman said...

"There's nothing more boring than studying governing structures that work over communities of < 1000 people, because almost everything works."

1. I don't think that is correct. In particular, communes well below that size seem to fail unless there is a strong charismatic leader and/or a shared ideology. Consider, for example, the eventual fate of the Oneida commune.

2. The individual Amish district has fewer than a thousand people, but the "governing structure" is a decentralized collection of districts, with a combined population in the hundreds of thousands. The fact that it works without any central authority is interesting.

At 7:10 AM, November 16, 2011, Anonymous Jonathan M said...

"2. The individual Amish district has fewer than a thousand people, but the "governing structure" is a decentralized collection of districts, with a combined population in the hundreds of thousands. The fact that it works without any central authority is interesting."

This is starting to look like special pleading - you said above that the highest Amish authority is the congregation, and that different congretations largely manage the relationships between them by physical separation. A quick wiki check suggests that the largest town in Amish country is Millersburg OH, population 3326. And Millersburg is not exactly an Amish community - the photo of downtown on wikipedia shows cars, not Amish buggies.

This is Shasta County again. Small rural communities which don't need to organise for protection against foreign invaders/brigands can self-govern informally. Cities need state-like organisation.

At 6:45 AM, November 18, 2011, Blogger David Friedman said...

"you said above that the highest Amish authority is the congregation, "

Correct. Having read more on the Amish since making the post, I should add that in the oldest of the large settlements (Lancaster County), the bishops of the congregations meet together twice a year. That meeting has no formal authority, but the opinion of the older bishops has a good deal of weight, so one might regard the meeting as a step in the direction of adding another layer of government above the congregation.

"and that different congretations largely manage the relationships between them by physical separation."

I don't think I said that. The relation between congregations is managed by affiliation--congregations whose rules are sufficiently similar are "in fellowship with" each other.

At 10:38 AM, January 14, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The states of California and Illinois are bankrupt beyond salvation, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Many municipalities are on the verge of defaulting on their bonds. Several million retirees have invested their life savings in these “super safe” bonds and depend on them for income. The federal government is itself bankrupt and in no condition to bail out all the rest of the sinners. It is not just the retirees who will suffer. Other millions of municipal and state employees will have to have their wages and pensions drastically reduced or be furloughed. Many jobs will never return. Unions will call strikes and marches on capitols, some of which will become violent and require calling out the National Guard of that state. Guards need to be paid too—somehow.
Technology will advance in certain job categories so rapidly as to obsolete all prior technologies of systems in place in large industries, thus causing intractable dislocations across multiple labor categories. For example, after a huge effort to update its infrastructure the entire electrical distribution system might become obsolete. Electricity might be projected over long distances without wires directly to rooftop-receiving antennas (rectennas). Developments may even be superseded before they are fully implemented. If alternative technologies advance as projected, the so-called “Hydrogen Economy” may become 85 percent obsolete before its infrastructure is completed. In the future, even ships and airplanes may run on projected electricity.

You can buy this book now on any of the following websites:

Strategic Book Publishing Rights Agency:

Amazon Books:

Barnes and Noble Books:

At 5:42 PM, December 31, 2013, Blogger Ed Yoder said...

I wonder if you read the New York Times bestseller "Growing up Amish" by Ira Wagler. He speaks a little bit about church rules etc. He also has an excellent blog, in which he often expresses his anarchist views.

At 3:27 PM, February 26, 2016, Blogger Bevin Chu said...

If America were to become free market anarchist tomorrow, and the Department of Defense were to go "Poof!", the Amish would NOT become vulnerable to foreign invaders, such as Islamic fundamentalists intent upon imposing Sharia Law.

The Amish are part of a Christian oriented culture.

Does anyone think Christian militia groups, armed to the teeth, would not come to their defense?

Hell, I'm an atheist, and I would probably rush to their defense as a volunteer, out of sympathy for their pacifism.


Post a Comment

<< Home