Before They Move Us, We Move Them

Twitter was abuzz today reacting to the video of police forcibly escorting man off an overbooked United flight. While many regarded this show of force against a paying customer as excessive, United CEO Oscar Munoz described it a much more pleasant way in his pseudo-apology: “re-accommodation.”

Whenever an incident of clear private coercion like this comes up, I like to check up on r/AnarchoCapitalism for a good laugh. AnCaps prattle on about contract rights and initiating force as if they can be easily applied in the real world. After all, they’re relying on some form of these principles to arbitrate conflicts in their hypothetical society.

It’s fun to see what they say about these clear demonstrations of the coercion inherent in enforcing private property when they come up because as anarchist capitalists they have to use some pretty hilarious logic to justify this kind of private coercion as non-initiated force.

As always, they did not disappoint.

One user provides a succinct justification for United’s behavior from an AnCap perspective:

Ancaps believe in absolute property rights. That means that by not leaving the plane voluntarily the passenger was the one to initiate force.

Initiating force by remaining seated in a chair is a pretty interesting definition of force if you know anything about physics, but these intellectual luminaries can’t be bound by physics. Unfortunately for them, this story gets even wilder. From the Courier-Journal:

a manager came aboard the plane and said a computer would select four people to be taken off the flight. One couple was selected first and left the airplane, she said, before the man in the video was confronted.

It seems that United grew tired of solving things through the market (imagine that!), so they had their HAL 9000 select four people using unknown criteria and decided that this man needed to give up his seat. The police were called and he was dragged off the plane.

Let’s get an instant replay of how this went down from an AnCap perspective. I’ll separate my own editorializing in italics.

1: A man buys a ticket for a seat on a plane. As part of that ticket he agrees to a contract that stipulates he might be bumped from a flight as a result of overbooking, something that basically anybody does when buying a plane ticket these days.

Of course this stipulation is buried fine print that’s designed to be long and arcane so nobody actually reads it, but it’s there nonetheless.

2: He arrives at the airport, subjects himself to onerous security processes and undignified scans at the hands of a cruel state, and arrives at his gate. Then, after not taking the initial offer of a voucher, he is allowed to board the flight using the ticket the airline sold to him with the fine print he didn’t read.

3: Four United employees flying standby arrive at the gate for an overbooked flight, a flight their employer knowingly overbooked in order to minimize losses. That is their right in a capitalist system. After all, the plane is their property to maximize as they see fit.

4: United offers an increase in the voucher amount in the hopes of enticing more people.

For AnCaps this must be pretty thrilling. Of course passengers don’t legally own the seat, but most people who have played this game know to wait out for more in exchange for their seat, since they figure United is in a pinch and they have something United wants. Scarcity is afoot! Let the negotiation begin!

5: Nobody takes United up on their offer. In most cases this would lead them to increase the offer until it becomes just too tempting to pass up. Somebody who isn’t in a hurry will give up their seat to the employees. Passenger and airline engaged in a bidding war. Take it too early and you might have missed out, but wait too long and the vouchers are gone.

Isn’t this market-driven conflict negotiation thrilling?

6: Rather than increase the voucher, United decides to use a computer to select four passengers to give up their seat and enforce the overbooking clause in the contract the passenger agreed to by buying the ticket. For the sake of argument lets assume it’s random.

7: In a stunning show of force, a man ruthlessly breaks his contract with United by continuing to sit and read on a plane. As a party to their initial contract, this aggression against United cannot stand.

8:This violent passenger will not relent. He continues to initiate force by remaining seated. United has no other choice. This violence must be stopped. They call the police. While some might point to state involvement to weasel out of justifying this incident, I would assume that Rothbard Airlines would have their own private security to perform much the same thing in an AnCap world.

Since overbooking has pretty clear financial incentives and AnCaps believe in complete free markets, incidents like this would probably become the norm. If they were committed to not violently enforcing property rights like United did here, they do have options. If someone simply refused to give up the seat that the airline had sold them and broke the contract, they would have to keep bidding up in order to entice people to give up their seat. This could lead to a secondary market in air travel where people deliberately purchase seats in the hopes of being offered money to give them up because they can create a scarcity which could then be exploited. Doesn’t this world sound great?

9: The police arrive and drag him down the aisle of an airplane in a daze. Finally, justice is served. Property rights FTW.

This, like all anarchist capitalism, is patently absurd. I’d wager that if any of these supposed AnCaps were on this flight and found themselves in the situation of this passenger — a doctor trying to get to his patients who was not offered anything other than a firm hand and told to get off the plane — they wouldn’t be deferential to United Airlines’ property rights.

If they are committed to anarchy, voluntarism, and the non-aggression principle, then they would have to defer to the rights of someone to sit peacefully in a seat he has paid for and not allow him to be dragged off a plane because the property owner’s computer says he has to, at least until he becomes violent himself. After all, it’s hard to see how he’s being the aggressor watching the video and what happens to him next doesn’t seem proportional. On the other hand, if they are committed to capitalism and the property rights it requires, they have to accept that this kind of private coercion is necessary and good even though its quite clearly nightmarish in practice.

When you buy an airline ticket, you give an airline money in exchange for the ability to ride in their airplane to a given destination. Like all things in life, this comes with conditions that some read carefully and some don’t. But if a computer can select you at random and then a security force, private or otherwise, can escort you off the plane because of what the computer says, what exactly are you buying? What exactly is the airline selling you in this contractual relationship? Are you simply buying a lottery ticket that gives you a chance to win a flight to your destination provided the airline doesn’t have something it would rather do with your seat?

That doesn’t seem like the kind of contract millions of people would consciously sign if they knew this kind of thing was a possibility, and I have a hard time imagining and AnCap future where this sort of thing wouldn’t be the norm. If Rothbard Airlines oversold a flight to two people at different prices as supply waned, could they remove the person who paid less to seat the person who paid more? This is getting away from the United incident, but it seems all but certain in their AnCap utopia.

I can imagine some objections to this. Yes I’ve heard the word oligopoly before and yes I’m aware that air travel isn’t a free market. Nevertheless, the capital-intensive nature of air travel is all but certain to create a few large private enterprises that everybody has to contract with in order to fly, unless AnCaps would prefer to see a reduction in air travel. Unfortunately air travel is pretty essential for managing the global capitalist system that we have in place now and I’m guessing many of them would at least like to maintain access to these resources even in their stateless society. Do they really think most people would be happy with more incidents like this?

Even if one airline decided to promise its passengers not to overbook, other airlines who don’t want to give up this practice could use the power of the “Law Merchant,” a system of merchant governance developed in the late Middle Ages, to try and force a boycott by airline suppliers. After all, they view the right to remove any person from their plane at any time as an essential property right, and this friendlier airline is violating what they believe to be a central part of airline travel. This would undoubtedly hurt most people’s ability to reliably travel but would apparently still count as a non-aggressive act.

Anarchist capitalism is one of those things that people love to say they believe on the internet because they don’t have to actually live it. They prattle on about what conditions have to be met before they can shoot people on their lawn, but get their ideas out into the real world and things quickly become absurd. Certainly there are problems with socialism or communism or other less property-centric philosophies, but I find it hard to imagine they’ll have much success organizing people to join a society around the promise of a world where people will have the freedom to be constantly entering into voluntary contracts.

I would suggest they be re-accommodated to a more realistic ideology.